Mindfulness or Ritual? Which One Works Best?

Imagine that you want to lose weight, but have a tendency to eat a little too much at your meals, and like to top your dinner off with a delicious calorie-laden bowl of ice-cream. Not surprisingly, you are finding the weight hard to take off. Desperate, you go to your local meditation center and ask the resident guru what you should do. After he adjusts his white robe, lights the incense and clangs a little bell, he pauses dramatically and peers deeply into your soul.

“You must be more present at your meals,” he announces, bowing his head slightly. “The art of eating is sacred. You must be mindful of each mouthful, and let the food fill your spirit, not merely your belly!”

You bow three times as you exit the room walking backwards, expressing your great thanks. A deep feeling relief fills your soul. But as you stroll mindfully to your car you notice a street sign on the opposite side of the road, indicating the presence of a dietician’s clinic. So, just to hedge your bets, you cross the road and enter the dietician’s office. You sit with her and share your problem. You mumble the bit about the heavy meals and the weight problem. She looks at you as if you are a little dull, but nods her head.

“When you sit for each meal, follow these three simple steps,” she says. “You must adhere to this ritual at every meal, and do exactly as I say. All meals. Every day. No exceptions!”

You listen, skeptical but excited. “Please do share. What are the three steps!?”

The dietician nods quizzically, a sparkle in her eye.

“First, you must cut the food.”

You nod slowly. “Uh huh. And…”

“Then, you must arrange the pieces symmetrically on your plate. In the shape of a triangle”

You scratch your head. “I see…”

“Finally, you must tap your plate three times with your fork. Only then may you begin to eat.”

“That’s it?”

“Yep. That’ll be forty-nine bucks, thanks. My standard consultation fee for ten-minute sessions.”

After flipping your wallet open, you walk out feeling a little foolish.

So, whose advice should you take? The spiritual guru’s, or the dietician’s?

The possible answer may surprise you. Harvard professor Francesco Gino and colleagues conducted a recent experiment, taking a group of people trying to lose weight and dividing them into two groups. The first group was told to be mindful during meals, and the second was told to follow a ritual similar to the dietician’s one, in the fictional story above. Surprisingly, the ritual proved to be more effective in reducing consumption of calories, fat and sugar.[i] As Nir Eyal notes in his book Indistractible, rituals can be powerful. They can help break bad habits and build an empowering identity.

Mindfulness is often most potent when combined with other practices. We shouldn’t employ mindfulness in our lives, naively assuming it is the most powerful problem-solving tool ever invented, while excluding other practical and useful methods and behaviors. Rituals, as indicated here, are very compatible with presence practices. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also be combined with mindfulness, helping you manage thoughts and feelings more rationally, without undue hyperbole, catastrophism and generally neurotic thinking. And throughout this book I am suggesting the importance of emotional release as a means to help mindful states of awareness, and to heal trauma. I suggest you experiment with mindfulness, and seeing how it can operate together with your current knowledge base, beliefs and practices.

[i] Allen Ding Tian et al., ‘Enacting Rituals to Improve Self-Control’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 114, no. 6 (2018): 851–76, https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000113.

This post is an extract from my latest book, Power and Presence: Reclaiming Your Authentic Self in a Digitized World.

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