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?