The Practice of Giving Something Up

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the opening day of Lent, a period of atonement and abstention in the Christian, particularly Catholic, tradition.  Although I no longer attend Catholic masses or actively practice many of the traditions, Lent still seems to me to be a powerful time to practice mindfulness, to notice what excesses I might be lazily indulging, and give myself a chance to bring life back into balance.

As I have an indulgent sort of personality, it turns out there are lots of things I could give up—sweets and sugar, wine, all meat, chocolate—and I haven’t decided yet what it will be.   The first time I consciously gave anything up, I was a young mother and in a difficult stretch for our family.  I gave up all meat for the duration, and it was a bit of a pinch, but mostly, I forgot about it.   One afternoon, nearly at Easter, we were moving, and I stopped at McDonalds to buy the boys some lunch. Exhausted, starving, stressed, I thoughtlessly ordered a hamburger for myself, too.

And it was the most delicious hamburger I had ever eaten.   Ever.  I kept thinking, why is this such a great burger? It didn’t hit me until I was putting the boys to bed that it tasted so good because I hadn’t eaten meat in 30 days or so.

Gretchen Rubin, in THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, a wonderful lighthearted book I recommend highly, says that giving something up has the effect of making us happier. It’s mastery and virtue rolled up into a little happiness bubble.   A year or so ago, I decided to give up spending money on Starbucks except once a week.  I could use that $4 at any time during the week, but only once.  (I make an exception for days I desperately need to work and go to Starbucks to jolt my creativity.)  It’s a small thing.  It’s not like I can afford the coffee, but it’s just such a silly, extravagant expense—and it really does make me feel virtuous every time I drive by and don’t spend the money.   It reinforces my idea of myself as a mindful spender.

The other reason I want to give something up is to begin preparation for a pilgrimage walk I’ll be doing this summer.  A group of us will be walking a portion of the Camino de Santiago, a famous medieval pilgrim road in Northern Spain, and I would like to prepare spiritually for the journey.  To open up to prompts and whispers and take a new step on my spiritual journey. It’s very appealing to imagine walking on a road that has been trod by seekers for a thousand years, to taste the air they breathed, listen for the whispers of their hungers and sorrows and quests.

Meat would be easiest to give up. Sugar a misery. Wine a pinch.  Which should I choose?

Have you ever given anything up for Lent or some other spiritual tradition? Will you give something up this year?

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17 thoughts on “The Practice of Giving Something Up

  1. Barb

    Barbara,

    Have you read the book, “I’m Off Then” by Hape Kerkeling? He’s a German comedian who walked the Camino de Santiago and this book chronicles his journey. It’s funny, but touching and spiritual. If you haven’t read it, you might like to do so before you go.

    I’ve been a vegetarian for over a year and on January 1st of this year became a vegan. I’m Episcopalian and usually give up something for Lent, but I figure this year giving up dairy and eggs will be my “thing” for Lent as well.

    I vote that you should give up meat. It will have the added benefit of being healthier for you too. Of course, my vote is slightly biased…

  2. HB

    I love the shout out to Happiness Project. I’ve been reading her blog nearly since inception and I really identified with her in law school. Her personality is much like mine and I greatly admire that she walked away from a promising legal career to follow her dreams (write). Anyway, glad you’re spreading the love for her because her ideas are so simple and profound for happiness.

    I loved this post too and laughed hard at the delicious hamburger bite.

  3. Tony

    We consider only giving up things? How about mental habits, or chronic ways of being? What attitude do you routinely manifest that you would like to try experiencing the world without?

  4. Ruthie

    What to give up….Hmmm…..Can’t be any kind of food as I’ve given up ALOT for the sake of my health. So it has to be something else. Something virtually impossible for me to do. And that is to NOT COMPLAIN! ARGH! Wish me luck!

  5. Jill Q.

    Mine’s similar to Ruthie’s. I’m giving up complaining about my mother! I’ve done coffee and chocolate, this will be the hardest one yet. She’s a good person and I complain about her out of selfishness and laziness.

  6. I’m a relatively-new Catholic Convert and I find Lent to be the most powerful time of year where something amazing happens – only after much thrashing around, struggling with something important. One year I gave up negative thinking – and caught myself so many times thinking in negative terms. It was a great way to turn my thinking around. But no matter what I give up, my focus is to be closer to God and that’s when the miracles happen.

  7. Tony

    Have you read Sharan Newman’s “Strong as Death”, a 12th Century Mystery/Romance (a Catherine le Vendeur novel) about that pilgimage? “Parisian Catherine LeVendeur and Scottish husband Edgar make pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to pray for a child in the company of ex-crusaders, monks, repentant prostitutes, Jewish merchants, and sorrowing widows.” Highly recommend it if you haven’t read it (the whole series is terrific and historically accurate.)

  8. Barbara Samuel

    Thanks for the book suggestions. I already have I’m Off Then, but I love the idea of reading a medieval one! Ordering it right now.

    Good one, Tony, that we can focus on giving up ideas or behaviors or ways of being. Very powerful stuff.

    Ruthie and Jill, that’s so powerful. I complain, too, kvetch about stuff that doesn’t even matter. Maybe I should give up complaining for Lent.

    Am leaning strongly toward meat, Barb. Must decide by 5 pm, when I fix dinner. :)

    HB, I’m so glad you like to read Rubin, too! I thought of you, too. She’s very like you in many ways. And that book is so clear and kind and accessible. I hope it sells millions and millions.

  9. Sharyn

    I’m doing the walk with Barb in June and am so excited! But for Lent I’m giving up liver and caring about anyone else’s opinions.

  10. I would gladly give up my arthritis–if someone would just show me how. :)

    I guess a good thing for me to give up for Lent is stressing out. It doesn’t do me any good anyway.

    Great topic.

  11. Barbara Samuel

    Liver, Sharyn? LOL. As if I would EVER eat liver.

    Maria, giving up stressing out is a good idea.

  12. For Lent I shall give up SLOTH and walk the treadmill every day.

  13. I’m working on giving up sugar and it is a misery but I know it will be good for my body and mind. Good luck with whatever you decide.

  14. sandyl

    Instead of giving something up, I am working on The Artist’s Way for the seaon on Lent. I find that I am more mindful when I have a pen (a physical one) and three pages to fill. Also, by forcing myself to write three pages a day, I am slowing down and making time for myself. Giving up something never works for me. I also considered doing one drawing a day.

  15. Bridget Morton

    Until several years ago, I always practiced some discipline during Lent. But during a seriously difficult time, as I tried to achieve mental and physical balance, it occurred to me that I had a knee jerk response to desire: if I wanted something, I immediately began a mental argument about whether it was necessary or valuable to my life. That year, for Lent, I gave up self denial. If I passed the Del-freeze and wanted a coffee shake, instead of going without I turned around and got one. When I wanted to walk on the beach instead of preparing dinner on time, I drove to the beach after work and fed the family later. That became the hardest Lent of my life, and possibly the most spiritually charged (and I didn’t gain a pound!) Do you have any idea how often you deny yourself simple pleasures? I gave that up, and found a happier, if slightly more ragged, life.

  16. Barbara Samuel

    Bridget, I absolutely love that suggestion! One year for Lent, I am going to try it. Or maybe I will do it in the summer time for 40 days. I can really see that it could be very spiritually charged and powerful. Thanks.

    Enjoy the Artists Way, Sandy. A drawing a day! That sounds so pleasurable.

  17. Hi Barbara and everyone. Loved this conversation. I’m joining in a little late, lent is nearly two weeks old. I’ve given up any number of things for the duration of lent…mostly sweets–the joy of my former life. Still, really that was more like a diet than a spiritual practice. Besides once I was diagnosed with systemic chronic Candida I gave up ALL sugars and flours and processed carbs (and most fruits and starchy veggies) pretty much permanently.

    I know the original thought of giving up something for lent, was to indicate a willingness to sacrifice…but I’ve come to a point where ADDING something means more to me than taking something away.

    This is the third year I’ve promised myself to attend daily mass during lent (some mornings that’s a sacrifice :-)). I have a cousin who adds affirmations for herself and others during lent…I like both of those ideas, as well as The Artists Way.

    One year I worked on collages that revealed oh, so much about me, to me as were suggested by Simple Abundance author Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Excavating your Authentic Self. Another year I worked on exercises from The Woman’s Comfort Book by Jennifer Louden and another I practiced the mindfullness of all religions as presented in Pocketful of Miracles by Joan Borysenko.

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