Finding a Way Back: Giving Voice to the Quiet Story of Depression & Suicide

Run for Lisa King

Philip King's route on his Run for Lisa King.
Philip King’s route on his Run for Lisa King.

A friend asked me to “Like” a FaceBook page recently (Run for Lisa King), and when I arrived at the page, I found a story that I wanted to tell, a story about depression and suicide, a quiet story that affects so many so deeply and in such unquiet ways.

It is part of my story and the story of my family, and it is part of the story behind the page I liked and hope you will like. I admire Philip’s effort and am inspired by it. Please support his campaign. I will follow his story in this post with my own.

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Philip King’s Story

Run for Lisa King
A personal campaign sponsored by Philip King
March 28, 2016 — October 5, 2016

On January 8th, 2014 I lost my mother, Lisa King, to suicide. A few months later I lost a great friend In a similar situation. Dealing with those losses has been difficult, and as usual, I turned to running to help get through the hard times.

A couple months ago, I decided that I wanted to find a way where running all those miles could help somebody other than myself.

Next year I plan to run across the country on the northern portion of the American Discovery Trail from Delaware to California to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention. The trail covers 4,803 miles, and my goal is to average about 180 miles a week. I will leave on March 28th, 2016 and hope to finish by October 5th.

Help us complete this journey by visiting my donor page. You can read more about us on FaceBook, www.facebook.com/runforlisaking.

Philip King running with his brother, Jeff King.
Philip King running with his brother, Jeff King.

My Story

Many years after the life experience I will share below, I thought that part of the difficulty was that I had no idea what was happening with me or what I could do about it and thought the way I felt might just be the way it would be for the rest of my life.

I wondered if I might have found help more quickly if depression and suicide hadn’t been such a “quiet” story. Yet 45 years later, it remains quiet. The media and public consciousness are filled with news about the things that can kill us and undermine our health. Not so much about depression and suicide.

I believe it’s important for people to share their stories. Despite my belief, I have shared my story with very few and would like to do that now.

In 1967, as a freshman in college, I struggled with my first depression, an event that occurred each year for the next five years until the birth of my first son in 1972. These experiences usually lasted at least four or five terrifying months, beginning just after Christmas and extending until summer. As anyone knows who has experienced an episode of severe depression, it can be very difficult to explain to others who haven’t “been there.”

I’m not short of possibilities for what the roots of these depressions may have been: S.A.D., hormones, genetic predisposition, extreme family instability, a beloved grandmother to whom I always looked for refuge and anchoring and who was in a long battle with cancer that she lost in 1969, the instability of changing relationships that are usually a normal part of the dating years, leaving home for a college far away (not the right thing for everyone), lack of a community network, lack of a faith community or community of any sort with common values and a sense of mission, poor diet, lack of appropriate and regular exercise, depressing music, pot, alcohol . . . and it was the sixties. It seemed as though the world was disintegrating.

The decisive moment of my depression came in 1970. I was out in a field on a night I had been in a car accident. I’m pretty sure the sky was filled with stars, but that’s not how I experienced it. I was overwhelmed with a physical sense of the blackness and emptiness of the universe and felt totally alone in it, although I wasn’t alone, even at that moment. I was absolutely certain I was going to die if I moved or left that place, although nothing in my physical condition suggested that was a possibility. That’s why I say it’s difficult to communicate to another person what you’re experiencing because it’s so out of synch with their reality.

That night I understood something. I understood that the ultimate question and answer are very simple. The ultimate question is “Do you choose life?” And the answer is either “yes,” or “no.” They got that many, many centuries ago: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live . . . “ (Deut. 30:19)

I realized that I was on a self-destructive course, sliding toward suicide, and I decided that I needed to make my decision: I had to decide if my answer was yes or no, and if no, end it — and if yes, change course.

Perhaps it didn’t need to be that stark, an either-or equation. Perhaps a professional advising me would have said it’s good to recognize the question but postpone action because perceptions change. The professional wasn’t there, and that’s not what I felt to be true.

At that moment in my universe, I saw nothing that required either choice from me, that supported me or provided me with a reason that I could perceive or hold onto, to choose life. I’m not sure why I did. Perhaps I had a faith that I wasn’t able to recognize at that moment. Perhaps it was just an innate desire to live, whether or not I could see any reason for it. But the choice I made that evening was yes, and for the next three years, I struggled to find the kind of equilibrium that would allow me to live a constructive life, to overcome the yearly terror that this time, I might not make it.

Whatever the reason for my choice, I was fortunate. Others come to that moment and are not so fortunate. When you are unable, for whatever reason, to grasp and hold onto a reason for a “yes” decision, it is a profoundly dangerous moment. Not everyone makes it past that moment.

I admit, many of my decisions for years were driven by the fear of returning to that place. Eventually I did have help and support, but many of the most important steps I took away from depression and suicidal urges were steps I discovered and took on my own. That is the story I want to share here, what I learned on my own about finding emotional stability and living a constructive life. I think you will see why I find Philip King’s story so meaningful.

What I learned about depression

What I learned . . . is just what I learned, no more and no less. It’s how I came to understand the experience with depression I had so many years ago. What I want to say may correlate to some medical information only accidentally, and it’s not meant to be a guide for anyone else. In sharing experiences with each other, though, we may find commonality, and there may be some part of what I know for myself that is useful to others.

A couple of years ago, another family member experienced a depressive episode, ultimately diagnosed as a “panic attack.” The knowledge of what it feels like to be in that space never leaves you. That doesn’t mean, though, that what worked for you will work for another. Each person’s path is their own, and as painful and even frightening as it may be to see a loved one suffering, all you can do is be there. Perhaps you will have an opportunity to offer suggestions from your own experience that are useful, but in the moment of choice, the decision is theirs. If their answer is “yes,” the path back that they find is also uniquely theirs.

I didn’t even realize I was doing most of these things during the years they counted, now 45 years ago. It was later reflection that helped me understand how I had somehow managed to help myself.

12 things I did to banish depression

Today you would never imagine that I am the person I just described of forty years ago. I am happy, even joyful in my life. It is possible to get there, I can promise that.

  1. Get past that moment – somehow. If you don’t make it past that moment or moments, the rest of what follows isn’t worth much. It is possible to get to a different place, a place where you can experience joy and meaning. Take the word of others when you can’t provide it for yourself.
  2. Love isn’t always enough – have a backup. I knew my parents and others loved me. Everyone has their own life, though, and for me, there was a particular set of conditions that demanded the attention of people I loved and left me feeling as though the enormous emotions that were overwhelming me just didn’t matter. Even if people who love you do hear you and are able to let you know you matter, no other person can be present at every moment of your life, moments that may include that awesome moment of decision. I needed backup support but wasn’t sure what or where to get it.
  3. Do some simple homework on foods that contribute to mental and spiritual health, and be careful about what you eat and drink. We learn more about nutrition every day. Eating the right foods and drinking the right beverages can make a difference. I didn’t have that information in those early years. At a later time when I wanted to get off antidepressants that I took for two years, I pumped up my nutritional awareness and exercised caution and was able to discontinue the meds with no difficulty.
  4. Exercise every day, preferably outdoors. Now we know that exercise increases the production of serotonin, associated with well-being. Then I just knew I felt better when I took a walk or went running or biking along the lake.
  5. When you’re outdoors each day, no matter for how short a time, look up. I heard Deepak Chopra say this once. It works. It works especially well for me to lie on my back in the grass and watch clouds drift by overhead.
  6. Be engaged in your own survival and the natural cycle of death and rebirth. Most of us have little involvement in our own survival and are far away from natural processes. We don’t grow or prepare our own food or drinks, and most of us are so disconnected from their sources that kids can’t recognize common raw food items and know where they come from. We are sheltered and alienated from the process of life and death, including our own. I don’t mean to suggest that you go on a wild boar hunt. I found it meaningful to have an organic garden or forage for food, dig in the dirt, have a compost heap, and to make my own yogurt and cheese and bread and pickles. Cooking real food with the products of the earth satisfies me deeply, and probably one of the reasons I love it so much is that it is a way I can be involved in my own and my family’s survival.
  7. Use structure as a tool. It can substitute temporarily for meaning and helps build it. I stumbled on the value of structure. The year I was in the accident and found myself in that field, I had dropped out of school. I was always a top-level student, but in my sophomore year of college, I was simply unable to concentrate, and my grades started dropping precipitously. Although I may have done the right thing for my grades and for financial practicality, I did exactly the wrong thing for my emotional stability in dropping out of school and leaving town. I had no structure in my life. When I returned to town, I joined the YMCA and started swimming a couple of miles early each morning. The exercise provided benefit, but more than the exercise, going out to the pool structured my day and provided more benefit. As I came to understand that, I added more structure to my day. Later, in the course of my academic career, as I studied religious literature, I saw that the structure of a text contributed as much as the actual content to meaning. Initially I didn’t perceive meaning, but the elements of structure in my life helped calm my soul. Eventually those same structures allowed me to see and experience meaning again.
  8. Be part of a meaningful community, even several communities: family, work, faith, groups whose values you share. Community. Others have said it. It’s not new information. I had never gotten very involved in school or community activities. Since we moved a lot when I was growing up, I never integrated deeply into any community and hadn’t developed the skills to maneuver through communities, to enter them and exit them. Although I was involved in sports, it was an individual endeavor for me. I wasn’t part of a team and didn’t make friends through that avenue. I simply didn’t have a community network that could sustain me or give me a sense of balance and belonging when family failed.
  9. Maintain a spiritual practice. Choose a practice that points in a positive direction. Mine is Judaism. I like it because it provides a structured guide to living, a guide based on the deeply hopeful and optimistic premise that we can make the world better. In practicing according to that guide, I came to see things differently. Sitting around waiting for it to happen just didn’t work for me.
  10. Reach out to help others in some way. “Tzedakah saves from death.” (Prov. 10:2 and quoted in the Talmud). Tzedakah means righteousness, giving to others. I have always understood this verse to mean that when we reach out to help others, when we connect with them in their need, we affirm life and our common humanity. We participate in something greater than ourselves. I don’t know what the psychological or body chemistry explanation might be for why this works to elevate mood and generate a sense of well-being, but it worked for me. I wonder if this is why biblical law requires each person, no matter how poor, to contribute. I believe it expresses an intuitive understanding that reaching out to others is life-saving for all of us, no matter how much or how little we have.
  11. Find meaningful work. As I got involved in work that felt meaningful to me, my equilibrium improved. Now, at an age when many of my friends are beginning to retire, I can’t imagine not working. I don’t need to make more money than what’s required to pay basic bills, and if I didn’t need to pay basic bills, the money wouldn’t be the relevant part of work. It’s just a matter of using what I have to offer in constructive, world-building ways, even if it’s a drop of water in a vast ocean. It all counts. Like giving, work is life-saving for all of us, no matter how much or how little we are able to do.
  12. Set goals you can work toward. It’s probably also a good idea to set goals you can hope to achieve, and when you do achieve them, set more goals. The point is to keep a forward-looking worldview and feel that you are a necessary part of tomorrow. You are.

Why I like Philip King’s Run for Lisa King

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As you read what helped me work my way out of depression, I think you can understand why I admire Phil King’s effort so much.

Phil’s lengthy run is a goal he set for himself, and it has a positive, world-building purpose that is greater than himself. He created a structure for his life and his project that will carry him through the better part of a year. In first creating, then living with that structure, he will have an opportunity to rebuild his own worldview after devastating loss. His run will work in some ways like a spiritual practice.

I believe Phil has found a creative, meaningful, life-affirming way to respond to the tragedy of suicide and to share his story with many others, who may also find meaning in the path he has found.

I hope you will support Phil King’s Run for Lisa King project and help him give a face and a voice to the quiet devastation of depression and suicide.

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For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Lentil Soup with Spinach

A simple and delicious basic lentil soup. Real comfort food!

This Brown Lentil Soup is the first lentil soup I ever made, and the first time I made it was over forty years ago. Lentils were made for Middle Eastern seasonings, lemon, garlic and cumin. I always like a little heat in my food, too, and I almost always use hot paprika for that. I keep this brown lentil soup somewhat milder, though, and just use enough paprika to make the soup interesting, though still comforting. Spinach is a traditional Middle Eastern addition to the basic soup, and it makes the soup a nice meal in a bowl.

BROWN LENTIL SOUP WITH SPINACH

Ingredients

  • Brown lentils, dried, 1 lb. (about 3 scant cups)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup
  • Spanish onion, 1
  • Carrots, 3 or 4
  • Celery, 3 or 4 stalks
  • Garlic, 1-2 TB, minced (6-8 large cloves)
  • Cumin, 1 TB
  • Salt, 1 TB (then to taste)
  • Hot paprika, 1 tsp.
  • Water, 6-9 cups (note: always start with less water – it’s easy to add during cooking to get the consistency you want)
  • Lemon, juice of 1.5-2 lemons
  • Cilantro, 1/2 bunch, minced
  • Spinach, 1/2 lb. – 1 lb., rough chopped
  • Other veggies, opt. (see note below)

Directions 

  1. Mince the garlic, and petite dice the carrots and celery.
  2. Add extra virgin olive oil to cover the bottom of your soup pot. Add prepared veggies and garlic and saute until softened.
  3. Add the lentils and four cups of water or veggie broth per cup of lentils (about 12 cups of water).
  4. Add optional veggies, petite diced. I don’t usually do this, but if I happen to have something appropriate that I want to use up, this soup is a good place. For this batch, I had the cores of a lot of zucchini and summer squash that I had used for zucchini “pasta,” so I petite diced it and tossed it in.
  5. Add the remaining seasonings: salt, cumin, hot paprika and lemon juice.
  6. Cook covered, stirring occasionally, until the lentils soften and begin to blend. I prefer to see actual lentils in my soup, so I don’t want to over-cook.
  7. With a potato ricer, mash the lentils a little to thicken the soup — again, not completely. It’s good to see those lentils!
  8. Add the finely chopped cilantro and rough-chopped spinach. Sometimes I cut the spinach in ribbons.
  9. Remove from heat. Serve with a little extra lemon and olive oil.

Lentils are a great food for vegetarians and vegans, and they can be used in so many ways. This Lentil Soup is just a good, basic recipe, and it’s quick and easy to make.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Celebrating Life: A Vegan Shabbat Dinner

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Getting ready for our guests to arrive . . . four sets of each of seven salads. The challot are not yet on the table.

Last week, we shared a monthly Shabbat dinner in my shul. We call these evenings “Third Fridays” because that’s when we come together to enjoy one of the high points of the Sabbath, an extended communal dinner with learning and songs.

I like to prepare these meals. It’s a meaningful way for me to structure my week. I used to make elaborate meals every week and have guests in my West Rogers Park home. My week was oriented toward finishing the house cleaning, shopping and cooking by sundown on Friday, the beginning of Shabbat.

Then for 26 hours, I “rested,” that is, I visited with friends and family at dinners and midday meals during this weekly holiday, went to synagogue, read, walked and occasionally napped. At the end of the day, well after sunset, I lit the havdalah candle and recited the prayers that end the Sabbath. Then there was that sudden frenzy of activity with the Sabbath over when it was time to run out to a movie or some other Saturday evening activity.

Since cooking isn’t permitted on the Sabbath in a traditional community (cooking is defined as boiling liquid), all the cooking needs to happen before candle-lighting, or sunset, Friday evening. This means there’s something of a frenzy before the Sabbath begins as well.

One of the ways I like to think about that rush before Shabbat is that I am creating the experience for myself (and others) of being nurtured. With everything made before Shabbat begins, I am able to sit at the table with everyone else to enjoy the food and friendship and songs. I feel nurtured. I have bread without work in that moment.

Two challot, plated and tucked under their cover and ready for Shabbat dinner.
Two Vegan Spelt Challot, plated and tucked under their cover and ready for Shabbat dinner.

It’s hard to describe this weekly experience to someone who has never enjoyed it, the special feelings associated with each hour of the day as the angle of the sun changes and the prayers and songs move successively through the themes of creation, revelation and redemption. There is a feeling of nostalgia and longing associated with those last rays of light slanting into a room at the close of the day toward havdalah and the end of this special time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the Sabbath, “a palace in time.”

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Sometimes I miss living in a neighborhood that supports this way of living, a community where everything is walking distance, including people with whom I can share the occasion. I’ve really been happy to be able to prepare a Friday evening meal for my synagogue and share it with friends there.

A few months back, I decided to make these Shabbat dinners vegan. My Sabbath experience is deeper and richer and more full of joy when my meals are plant-based, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to try out new dishes with my friends.

Organizing my salads before moving them to the table, four dishes for each of seven salads.
Organizing my salads before moving them to the table, four dishes for each of seven salads.

Here is the menu we enjoyed:

Vegan Spelt Challah & Wine for Kiddush
Salads: Muhammara, Tomatoes & Cucumbers, Navy Beans with Dill, Hummus, Red Cabbage Slaw, Babaganoush, Sweet Red Pepper Salad, Kalamata Olives
Soups: Choice of Red Lentil Soup or Ricey Spinach Soup
Entree: Black Bean and Zucchini Pasta with Ratatouille Topping (I also made sauces, Harif, Z’hug and a mild Salsa Verde)
Dessert: Vegan Chocolate Mousse, Strawberries, Toasted Almonds

Two of these salads were new to my Shabbat repertoire: Navy Beans with Dill and the Babaganoush. Well, the Babaganoush isn’t really new — it’s just that I used to use Labne, a thick Middle Eastern yogurt, to make mine. This version was vegan.

Navy Bean Salad with Dill - a wonderful salad, especially in the summer, cold, dilly and lemony.
Navy Bean Salad with Dill – a wonderful salad, especially in the summer, cold, dilly and lemony.
Babaganoush - a vegan version. Instead of adding Labne, I made a batch of Tahina sauce to mix in. I'll post the recipe soon.
Babaganoush – a vegan version. Instead of adding Labne, I made a batch of Tahina sauce to mix in. I’ll post the recipe soon.

I shopped on Wednesday, made all the salads and the mousse on Thursday and made the soups and entrée on Friday. I make challah twice a week and freeze at least one loaf a week for these dinners, which at the present time require four challot. At 3 PM, we left for the synagogue so we could set the tables and plate the salads before Shabbat.

I always prepare a two-minute thought to share with our group, and this time, I asked everyone to think about the difference between habit and ritual. This is a question I worked with recently in preparation for a class I plan to teach next spring. So far I have five ideas about how they are different, but I shared just one: that ritual requires thought and intention while habits are, and are meant to be, thoughtless.

I was very happy to have Rabbi Maralee Gordon with us this week. That meant I could turn the evening over to her to lead Kiddush at the beginning of the evening and Birkat ha-Mazon and singing at the other end of the evening. Everybody helped with serving and cleanup, and I enjoyed a beautiful Shabbat evening with my friends!

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Ways to Think About Food: Conscious Choices

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Next spring, 2016, I will teach a class in the Retired Adult Program (RAP) at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Illinois. I’m working out a course outline and would like to share it with you, my followers, and invite your comments.

Eventually I hope to prepare videos to accompany sessions and perhaps combine theory with a little cooking practice. I envision the six sessions working together but would also like each session to stand more or less on its own:

WAYS TO THINK ABOUT FOOD: CONSCIOUS CHOICES

This six-session class will view food choices through different prisms. In the course of these six sessions, we will:

  • discover how conscious and unconscious choices about food express worldview and values,
  • learn to make conscious choices about foods we eat (and don’t eat),
  • learn to create a stronger connection between what we eat and what we value,
  • find out how to derive more satisfaction from the food we eat,
  • see how this process can influence every aspect of how we live our lives, and
  • learn how this process can contribute to greater health and fulfillment.

Sessions:

  1. Eat to Live (Survival)
  2. Meals in the Bible
  3. Food Rituals (Kashrut, Tea Ceremonies, Begging Bowls, Sacrifice)
  4. Ethics of Eating Pt. I (Vegetarian and Vegan)
  5. Ethics of Eating Pt. II (Sustainability and Fair Food)
  6. Food That Does Not Satisfy (Special and Fad Diets)

I’d like to hear from you! Please share your thoughts and ideas or any resources you think would contribute to this series.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Moroccan Beet Salad

Moroccan Beet Salad
Moroccan Beet Salad

Love ’em or hate ’em, that’s beets! It’s one of those veggies that inspires extreme reactions. Even people who came into the cafe and said they hated beets loved this Moroccan Beet Salad, though. With its deep color, it’s a beautiful and appetizing addition to any meal, and the natural sweetness of the beets combined with classical Middle Eastern seasonings makes this root vegetable into something very special.

Boiled and peeled beets cut in a julienne.
Boiled and peeled beets cut in a julienne.

MOROCCAN BEET SALAD
Ingredients

  • Beets, 6 large
  • Red onion, 1/4 large (3 oz.)
  • Lemon, 2 lemons, juiced (about 4 TB)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 6 TB (if you must refrigerate before eating, use canola oil so it doesn’t solidify)
  • Salt, 2 tsp. (to taste)
  • Cumin, 2 tsp.
  • Szeged Hot Paprika, 1-2 tsp. (to taste)
  • Cilantro, 1/4-1/2 cup chopped

Directions

  1. Place whole, unpeeled beets in water to cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and cook until done. Don’t over-cook, but you should be able to pierce the beets easily with a fork.
  2. Cool the beets in the cooking juices and rub off the skins.
  3. Julienne the beets.
  4. Add olive oil, lemon juice, spices.
  5. Slice onions thinly into the bowl with the beets, 1″-2″ long slices.
  6. Add chopped cilantro to the bowl.
  7. Stir all together gently, adding lemon, salt and hot paprika to taste.
Julienned beets with added red onion and cilantro.
Julienned beets with added red onion and cilantro.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Muhammara: Spicy Walnut & Pomegranate “Salad”

Muhammara is a spicy walnut and pomegranate "salad," about the consistency of Hummus.
Muhammara is a spicy walnut and pomegranate “salad,” about the consistency of Hummus.

Muhammara (Arabic for “reddened”) wasn’t one of my original group of salads. I have a customer to thank for this delicious suggestion. Although it’s a classic Middle Eastern combination of ingredients, I hadn’t heard of it until someone asked for it when we catered their wedding. I tried a few different versions and finally settled on this one. Muhammara became a great favorite in my Cafe!

Muhammara is originally from Syria but is enjoyed throughout the Middle East and Turkey.

MUHAMMARA (makes about 2 cups)
Ingredients

  • Walnuts, 2 cups
  • Pomegranate molasses, 4 TB
  • Red Bell Peppers, 4 large, roasted
  • Garlic, 2 cloves
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup
  • Pita crumbs, dried/toasted, 1/2 cup
  • Cumin, 2 tsp.
  • Crushed red pepper, 2 tsp.
  • Tomato paste, 2 TB
  • Salt, 1 tsp.

Procedure

  1. Roast the peppers under a broiler until the skin is dark brown/blackish all the way around. Set aside to cool.
  2. Bread crumbs will work for this. I prefer to use my whole wheat Lebanese pita croutons (that I make for Fatoush). Sometimes I just put a whole piece of Lebanese pita into a low oven until it is thoroughly dry, then break off what I need for the Muhammara and save the rest for when I make Fatoush.
  3. Add all ingredients except the peppers to a food processor.
  4. When the peppers are sufficiently cooled, peel and remove the stems. The skins should slip off easily if they are well-roasted.
  5. Grind until smooth, or at least just slightly grainy from the walnuts.
  6. Garnish with additional pomegranate molasses/syrup and walnuts.

Enjoy as a dip with Pita or veggies. This unusual (although classic in the Middle East) blend of flavors will delight you, your family and your friends.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Bring more meaning to your life with ritual

One version of Sunday breakfast at our house. All versions include Israeli or Jerusalem Salad.

Rituals and Habits: 5 Ways They’re Different

Recently I had a reason to contemplate the difference between ritual and habit. Actually, I suspect the assignment intended that I would understand the words synonymously, because that’s how many of us view them. I believe these practices are very different, though, and one of them is life-enhancing while the other diminishes our lives.

  • Rituals define a system. Habits are isolated practices and may even be out of synch with a system.
  • Rituals are purposeful and are performed with intention. Habits have no purpose other than to make certain an action happens without thought. They may have been intentional on the first performance, but the goal of a habit is that it become thoughtless, intentionless and well, just a habit.
  • Rituals communicate. Habits communicate nothing since they are thoughtless and intention-less beyond the intention that they happen without thought.
  • Rituals are an aid to focus. Habits are an indication of lack of focus or are at least not focused on the habitual action.
  • Rituals create meaning. Habits have no meaning.

Food Rituals and Habits

Since I like to write about food, I thought I might explain these differences between ritual and habit through the prism of food.

1) Rituals define a system, and habits are isolated practices. More than the words of liturgies, which are debated and interpreted, rituals define the boundaries of a religious system, the relative value of the parts within those  boundaries and how people are required to behave within that world.  Often those definitions include what one can and cannot eat.

Something that a person habitually eats may or may not express a worldview. Initially perhaps a choice was made about an entire diet, and that diet expressed a worldview, for example that good health is important. If that initial choice becomes a habit, though, it no longer expresses anything. Not only is that habit carried out without thought, it is carried out in isolation and not as part of a systematic worldview. If information changes about what constitutes good health, a habit will continue even if it contradicts the new information.

2) Rituals are purposeful and are performed with intention. Habits have no purpose other than to make certain an action happens without thought.

I can always tell when one of my own actions is a ritual and when it is a thought. I require meaning in my life, and it is hard for me to motivate myself to do all the things involved in living a life if I have no sense of meaning. When I experience a sense of meaning, I feel joyful and energetic. When I don’t experience that sense, I feel tired and unmotivated.

Of course we all need a habit here and there, especially in a world that requires multi-tasking. We can’t give all our energy to every little thing and need to do some things on automatic. It’s all about balance, though, and when my life becomes too automatic, too filled with habit, I am likely to become depressed. Conversely, when I make a conscious choice to do something familiar that has a particular meaning in my universe, I feel purposeful, satisfied and even joyful.

I put together a breakfast bowl for myself each morning. I looked up each item in my bowl to make certain it fulfills a particular purpose for my health and my ethical consciousness. Then I evolved a series of steps which remain the same each day so that I can put my bowl together fairly quickly and easily. It may look like a habit, but it isn’t. It is definitely a ritual. I am aware of the purpose of each item in my bowl, and each ritual step I take to fill my bowl generates a sense of happiness, comfort, meaning and satisfaction — a satisfaction that is every bit as important as the mere physical satisfaction of eating what’s in the bowl.

3) Rituals communicate. Habits communicate nothing since they are thoughtless and intention-less beyond the intention that they happen without thought.

The best way I know to say, “I love you” to someone I care about is to prepare and serve them a delicious and beautiful meal that I know represents good health as we know it today. If it also represents a set of ethical values that I know I share with that person, it deepens our relationship.  Although I’m a long-time vegetarian, becoming vegan, those values don’t necessarily have to be vegetarianism or veganism. It can be values like kindness to all creatures or sharing our resources,  talents and abilities.

Similarly, religious rituals communicate a worldview.  There are reasons that certain foods are prized and others are taboo or forbidden. Food laws and rituals are a theology and an anthropology, stated without words.

4) Rituals are an aid to focus. Habits are an indication of lack of focus or are at least not focused on the habitual action.

Again, it’s easy to tell the difference between a ritual or a habitual action. As I’ve mentioned before, my knife skills are unfortunate, odd as that may be for a former restaurant owner and cook to say. I have sliced my fingers on many occasions. It’s easy to predict when I will cut my fingers.

I make a salad every day called an Israeli or Jerusalem salad. It involves quite a bit of cutting since each vegetable is petitely diced. I’m told that’s called brunoise. If I follow a little ritual I created before I start to cut, my fingers remain intact. The ritual is to (calmly and with attention) clean my counter, put down a clean cutting board, get out my knife, sharpen it, and work my way through each of the veggies, tomatoes first, then cucumbers, then red bell peppers, then red onion, then cilantro. I add each to my large bowl as I finish it. When I’m finished, I mix the salad and clean up.

If I just grab my knife and cutting board and start cutting away at my veggies in a rush with 10 other things happening around me that also require attention, I will cut my fingers.

5) Rituals create meaning. Habits have no meaning.

One of the most spiritually awesome moments I ever had was about twenty years ago when I went camping over a Sabbath. In traditional Judaism, no cooking is allowed on the Sabbath. When I went camping every weekend along the Mississippi, I left early enough on Friday that I could set up camp, make my fire and prepare my Sabbath meals before sunset.

Of course there are Jewish rituals involved in the meal, but I had rituals of my own that I added, most of them involved in the food preparation. By the time I sat down to my vegetarian Sabbath feast on a Friday evening out in the woods, I felt like I was in harmony with the natural world around me and that I could fully enjoy a beautiful meal that harmed no creature. The results of my ritual preparations spoke to me of a meaningful, loving universe, even if it was just my reality, one I created, for a space in time.

I would have missed those oportunities for awesome moments if I had been in an automatic, mindless mode, performing habitual tasks.

Another version of Sunday breakfast, also including Israeli or Jerusalem Salad.
Another version of Sunday breakfast, also including Israeli or Jerusalem Salad.

How can I make my life more meaning-filled?

Can habits be elevated to rituals? Can rituals become routinized into habit? Yes, both can happen!

Take a look at the things you repeat in your daily life. If a habit no longer fills it purpose, to allow  you to do something that is important for you to do without investing a great deal of thoughtful energy in remembering and completing the task, get rid of the habit.

Or you could convert the task to a ritual, a series of steps that involve thought and intention and that express something meaningful.

Kids thrive on meaningful rituals. My own sons used to love to get out special holiday dishes for a meal with family and friends each year. When my grandson was born, I said, “We need a ritual” and suggested Sunday breakfast.  It was a statement that would have sounded odd to anyone who didn’t know me, but my grandson’s parents accommodated me, and 11 years later, we still get together every single Sunday for a meal that we all share in cooking. The meal has evolved over the years but remains essentially the same as when we started. It is meaningful to each of us in different ways at different times — but it is meaningful to each of us including my grandson.

Fill your life with meaningful rituals.

Yummm...good to the last drop and a ritual meal we all love!
Yummm…good to the last drop and a ritual meal we all love!

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.