I’m a believer in ritual.
We talk a lot about habits in our culture. For the purpose of this piece, I’ll say ritual is something akin to habit. It’s a rhythm. It’s a way of doing something.
But where habits can be conscious or unconscious, ritual is always intentional. A ritual is an intentionally created rhythm with a purpose. A ritual is also endowed with something I’ll call sacredness. It has a spiritual energy to it.
We don’t make room for sacredness, as a collective, in America. Sacredness is a spiritual word, and we have too many different ways of approaching and exploring spirituality. People find sacredness in different things. It’s something we have to seek out for ourselves, maybe to find in nature, or in smaller communities. That in some ways feels sad to me, but I guess it makes us creative in the ways we express our need to connect with the world and each other.
One way I think we are challenged in this dynamic is that our collective conversations are filtered to be consumable en masse. This means that oftentimes, the spiritual aspect of things gets left out. We do this when we talk about habits. We obsess over the physical details of our habits – what foods are healthiest for me to eat? What exercise works for my body? What do I do for work? When do I sleep? What materials do I fill my life with?
These questions can all be answered materially, and we can argue endlessly about the answers. Health is the example I’ll use. We try to boil health down to an equation involving food, exercise, sleep, environment, relationships, etc – and in a shallow way, this equation is at least approximately correct. But when you try to teach someone who is used to eating fast food all the time how to eat healthier, there can be misunderstandings. At least for myself, the foods I eat are only part of my relationship with food. And it’s the relationship that I need to be healthy, not just the foods. If I only focus on the foods, I can become obsessed. In fact, I’ve done it many times and in many different ways. The most severe consequence of that was an eating disorder in high school, for which I needed to go into inpatient treatment to break out of, and from which I’ve been healing ever since.
One thing that makes our collective relationship with food unhealthy is the speed at which we consume it. Many of us think of eating in a negative way. It’s something we need to do, and it takes up time. We have an extreme array of options when it comes to when, what, how, and why we eat, which can be confusing and overwhelming. Add to that that the quickest and easiest of our options are foods that aren’t good for us, and in fact barely resemble the foods people have been eating throughout human history. I don’t know what started the fast food movement, but I think at the time it probably seemed like it solved the problem of eating. And if you think of needing to eat as being a problem, something that gets in the way of your life, then I can see the logic.
Obviously we can look back now and see what effect these foods have had on us. But again, we talk about this in a way that I’ve come to think is too shallow. We talk about the poor quality of the foods that we create. We talk about the sugar and trans fats and hidden calories. And those things are all part of the picture. But they aren’t the whole picture.
What I’m wondering lately, is what happened to the ritual of eating?
Or more importantly, what ritual can we create for our relationship with food that will be more supportive to us collectively?
What can we add to our lives by creating a ritual around the ways we eat?
These are open questions. But I think they are worth giving some serious thought to.
And I’ll share what I’m working on right now. Because I say all these things about our culture, but what I really mean is that I’m a perpetrator of that collective habit as much as a victim of it. I get anxious about taking time away from my other productive activities. I worry. I eat fast, so I can get to the next thing.
But I also struggle with feeling out of sync from my body’s natural signals. I get confused about my body’s hunger cues. Sometimes I eat standing up in the kitchen, and I never really feel satisfied after doing that. So then maybe I’ll spend my time thinking about food, wondering if I ate enough, absentmindedly trying to snack my way to satiety. It can make me feel very lost.
Sometimes I try to sit down for a meal and eat as much as I want of good, nutritious food. But I’ll eat it so fast that 20 minutes later when the fullness kicks in, I’m uncomfortable.
All this confusion. It can make me feel ashamed and wonder what’s wrong with me, especially as someone who’s spent a LOT of time on my relationship with food, who’s done my research on nutrition, tried out a lot of different things, and had a lot of really fantastic experiences with food – cooking, gardening, raising animals, sharing meals with people, trying new things. Food has been a wonderful part of my life! So it is frustrating that my relationship with food, which I know should be natural, joyful, and life-affirming, gets out-of-balance.
And this is where the ritual part comes in. It isn’t just about what I eat that matters. It also matters what experience I create, what thoughts I affirm in myself, when I eat. What exactly is going on in my mind and body while I eat? Where is my focus? How do I feel? Am I even aware of what’s going on inside me while I eat? All of that is just as much as a habit as the eating itself, so doesn’t it seem important? Doesn’t it seem like the way we feel about food, and the way we feel after eating, could be influenced by our state of being when we eat?
These are things that people talk about when they talk about mindfulness.
[End of part 1. Tune back in tomorrow for a follow-up.]