Yesterday I read an article about the coming season of Lent. It’s not something I’ve ever observed or celebrated before, but certain aspects of the ritual appeal to me. That got me thinking. Regardless of where a practice comes from, who says we have to be religious to learn and benefit from them? And even if we consider ourselves completely non-religious, we all routinely practice habits and other traditions, every single day. So why not mix the two ideas together into a powerful way to experience greater wellbeing and happiness? With the Lenten Season beginning next Wednesday, let’s consider whether a variation on the tradition can help us to be more mindful and eliminate a couple of bad habits at the same time. Interested?
What is the history behind Lent and why is it celebrated in the first place? Sources say that Lent is a 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday. It begins on what is considered to be Ash Wednesday and continues approximately six weeks. Traditionally the 40-day period is symbolic of the time when Jesus went out into the desert following his baptism, and fasted and prayed before he began his public ministry. The primary religions that celebrate Lent are Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans.
So what does any of that have to do with those of us who follow a different drummer? I think the big word is “symbolism.” Every human on the planet uses symbolism to represent all sorts of things we claim to understand or aspire to, and religion and spirituality are full of them. But so do all the rest of us in all sorts of ways we address life. In fact, according to the Smithsonian Institute, humans first used words and symbols to create language. Dartmouth University goes on to say that the use of symbols is what makes us uniquely human. Don’t think you use symbols? What about red representing love or romance? How about a dove symbolizing peace? What do you think of when you think of a smile? Happiness? Daily life is filled with symbols and we have the ability to make meaning out of any symbol we choose. Sometimes we let others do it for us; sometimes we do it for ourselves.
To certain religions, Lent is a symbolic time seen as a period of prayer, penance, repentance and self-denial. For the rest of us, Lent can be seen as a symbolic time for introspection, mindfulness, a deeper connection to our spiritual nature and letting go of things that do not serve us. In other words, just like with many aspects of our modern life, we have the freedom to invoke meaning into any thing we choose. Once we start symbolizing something, we can then make it a ritual—or not.
With all that in mind I came up with six things that I believe would be beneficial to let go of for a period of at least 40 days (if not a lifetime!) Many of those who practice Lent religiously choose something like giving up chocolate, becoming vegetarian or vegan, or staying off Facebook. What I decided was to select habits of thought that I believe keep me from living a peaceful and happy life. Here are the six I’m considering giving up for Lent.
1) Judgment. I must credit Thom for this one because ever since the beginning of the year he decided to make an effort to give up judging. One way he plans to do it is to put a twine bracelet around his wrist to help him remember. While Thom agrees it is impossible not to observe people, things and circumstances going on around him, he admits that judgment is usually a negative evaluation that serves no one—including himself.
2) Complaining. Ever heard of the movement for a “Complaint Free World?” I’ve written a blog post about it and have attempted it several times before. I even have the purple rubber band to put on my wrist to help me remember. The idea is that if you put it on your right wrist and catch yourself complaining about anything, you must move it to your other wrist and start over. The goal is to go 30 days without letting any complaint cross your lips.
3) Gossip. We all know that gossip is idle talk or rumor about the personal or private life of others, and that’s likely what sometimes makes it so fun. The problem of course is when the reverse is done to you. And while participating in it might make us feel bonded with others, that type of bonding is often just a cover for a more passive-aggressive approach to control or superiority. At its core, gossip is a distraction from our focus on our own lives and experiences.
4) Guilt. I have a dear friend named Greg who gave up guilt a long time ago—but most of us aren’t so lucky. Instead we carry around this unspoken idea of what we should be doing or should have done and let it upset our lives. But as my friend Greg says, “guilt is a wasted emotion” that never helps any situation. Think about it—if we are doing something we know we should not do—then simply don’t do it. And, if you insist on doing it anyway, then why feel guilty? Guilt only causes problems when we are untrue to ourselves or care deeply about other people’s judgments of us. Looking at the core meaning behind the emotion we feel, and figuring out who is triggering it, might be a key.
5) Worry. Last month I wrote about both fear and worry, and ways to overcome them. One of my suggestions was to put a time-line perspective on the focus of the worry and then set it aside. Because I believe that worry is often just a habit of thought, putting worry aside for all reasons during the coming 40 days might be a perfect way to eliminate it all together. Remember, as the Dalia Lama says, “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
6) Regret. Ever wish you’d done something differently? I think we all have at least a bit. The challenge is to learn from it and let it go. People with chronic issues of regret are stuck in the past and unable and/or unwilling to move on. Let us all start to realize that we did the best we could at the time with the consciousness we had. And remember, as long as we learned something from the experience, those experiences are never mistakes.
So what do you think? Can you see where letting go of any one of these might be beneficial to your happiness? I’m not suggesting any one of us give up all six at the same time. Frankly, I will be overjoyed to eliminate just one of them for once and all. What I do believe important is to take the time to consider each of them and whether or not they’ve held too big a place in my life up until now—and then do something about it.
Throughout human history people have taken blocks of time to break out of their routines and consider the quality of their life. Like a sabbatical, Lent can be a time of rest or a break from something that is holding us back from living the life we crave. Regardless of whether we do it for religious reasons, or the shear benefit of improving our lives, it is always SMART to practice ideas that can increase our peace and happiness.