Chapter Eleven

This next chapter excerpt approaches dealing with controlling eating and addictions from a different angle: ritual and its instinctual nature in humans.

If you can’t fix yourself, fool yourself

As I mentioned before, the main reason I was finally able to quit smoking is that I started out by having no choice for the days I was in the hospital and a good friend who, on my request, relieved my place of all tobacco before I returned. I was also very fortunate in that I did not have to resort to any sort of nicotine replacement method, like gum or the patch.

I detailed all of this in Chapter Six, including mention of a friend unsuccessfully trying to quit, although I really think that “trying to quit” is a misnomer. Not to go all Yoda on you here, but you either quit or you don’t. But if you do fail this time, don’t take it as a sign of being a failure. When you finally get it to stick, you’ll know it. After all, I tried and failed to quit many times before. This is the one that took.

Now, while my health insurance provided me with counseling by phone over quitting, I was so successful at it that I kind of felt sorry for my counselor, because every call would basically go as follows:

Counsellor: “So how is quitting going?”

Me: “Really well. I haven’t had any desire to smoke.”

Counsellor: “Great. So when should I schedule your next call?”

Previously, I wrote about the cycle of cue, routine, and reward. In this chapter, I’ll be approaching breaking that same cycle, but in a different context: Ritual.

Humans, like all animals are ritualistic, but the essential difference is that human rituals are largely symbolic, while animal rituals are instinctual. For example, if you’ve ever trained a dog to do a trick in exchange for a treat, you’ve created a ritual for that canine — a behavior they must perform in order to receive a reward.

My dog, Sheeba, actually learned how to shake not from me directly but from watching my late, great dog Shadow do it — and Sheeba even imitated Shadow’s habit of only shaking with her left paw, which Shadow picked up because when I taught her, she mirrored me instead of mimicked me. So, in Sheeba’s mind, “lift paw” equals “get treat.” It’s become such a ritual for her, in fact, that she’ll start slapping her paw in the air the second the treat is even visible, and she can get quite miffed if it’s not immediately forthcoming. It’s almost like she’s saying, “Hey, I did the thing, you pay up now.”

There are plenty of animal rituals, too. Dogs walking in circles before they lie down to go to sleep, cats grooming themselves, squirrels pretending to bury food when they know another squirrel is watching, alpha wolves getting first shot at eating the kill, and elephants mourning their dead, to name just a few. And, of course, animal mating rituals can be quite elaborate, whether it’s a bird showing off in song, a bullfrog inflating himself to ridiculous size, or two males (of many species, including humans) battling to win the right to all the local females.

Human culture, of course, is loaded with rituals. The obvious ones are religious: baptism, brises, bowing toward Mecca to pray, meditating, chanting, sweat lodges. And then there are the big two that are universal to probably every religion: weddings and funerals.

There’s a reason that ritual, especially religious or ceremonial ones are so important to humans. They are built into us, and the culprit is the solar system itself, primarily the quasi-eternal dance of earth, moon, and sun.

Think about Western Culture in the Northern Hemisphere and, specifically, how it basically shuts down around mid-December — although sometimes it seems like the whole holiday season keeps getting longer and longer the more modern and industrialized we get.

In fact, it would probably seem weird, except for people in certain professions, to not shut down for at least the week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day and even if you do have to work the holidays, so many other people are off or out of town that it can seem like nothing important is happening. But the whole thing isn’t just cultural. It’s instinctual, because it’s been built into our DNA from our very beginnings.

You can thank the earth being a little bit tilted for all of this. If you think of the planet as a spinning top, it’s easy to imagine it with the poles pointing straight up and down as we revolve around, but that’s not quite the case. The whole planet leans over a little bit as it goes around the sun, with an average tilt of 23.5º, although the planet wobbles a bit so the range is from 22.1 to 24.5º. Don’t worry, though. It takes about 44,000 years to cycle from one to the other, so you’ll never notice a thing.

The upshot of all of this is that the part that’s leaning toward the sun gets a lot more light and daytime while the other side doesn’t.

Incidentally, the earth happens to be the farthest from the sun when it’s summer in the Northern hemisphere, around July 9, and closest in winter, around January 9. This might explain why summers in Australia are usually hotter and winters are colder than on the other side of the planet.

In the north, that maximum tilt away comes right before Christmas, usually around December 21. This is the day with the least amount of sunlight and the longest night north of the equator.

So what does that have to do with the holidays? Well, keep in mind that from the time humans discovered fire, it was our only source of artificial illumination until the very beginning of the 19th century, which was only two hundred years ago. Before that, we had to burn something if we wanted to see at night, whether oil, gas, coal, pitch, or wood. It was in 1809, at the same time that gas lamps began popping up in cities everywhere, that Humphry Davy demonstrated the first arc lamp, precursor to the modern electrical light bulb.

Consequently, the pattern of human life tended to follow the natural cycle of nature: wake at dawn, work by day, go home at sunset and sleep by night. And, obviously, this cycle would change as the length of the days did, with humans being most active in summer and least active in winter. The seasons themselves also dictated overall activity — plant in the spring, harvest in the fall, and hope you’d stored up enough to survive the winter.

And this is where the tradition of everything stopping for the holidays was born: Once the harvest had been brought in and stored, there was no more work to do in the fields. Generally, this meant there would be a celebration of the harvest in the late fall (Thanksgiving, anyone?), and then time for people to spend with each other, often during the long, cold nights.

Of course, superstition fed into it, with many cultures creating rituals to be performed in order to make sure that the sun came back — something they always saw it start to do after that shortest day, called the Winter Solstice — which is why right around that date became the central celebration focus for so many different Western religions.

So the reason that we’re seeing Christmas start to pop up around Labor Day now isn’t necessarily commercial greed. This entire time of year is programmed deeply into our genes and our behavior. And, if you’ll notice, our human holidays still tend to cluster around those points when the seasons change, with fertility rites in the spring, just as we’re planting our crops, and thanksgiving ceremonies in the fall as we harvest them.

Well, when we used to. We modern, urban-dwelling humans probably don’t plant our harvest anything beyond a backyard vegetable garden or a few window box herbs, but that doesn’t really matter. Although we may have lost our direct connection to living by sunrise and sunset and change of season, those rhythms still live in us, which is why following some kind of ritual is so important.

That includes self-created rituals, whether helpful or destructive. The trick is to replace the destructive ones with helpful ones.

Did I mention that not all rituals are religious? In fact, in secularized western nations, many of them are not, but they’re still rituals. And we definitely have non-religious weddings and funerals.

But… if you’ve ever participated in a trial in any capacity — plaintiff, defendant, lawyer, judge, or jury — then you’ve taken part in one of humanity’s most formalized secular rituals.

And this may come as a surprise to you, but have you ever seen a movie, play, or TV show, or read a work of fiction? Guess what: Those are rituals, too, because they follow a familiar form of beginning, middle, and end, with certain things established in a certain order and particular conventions. There’s an entire cottage industry of books explaining this to screenwriters in the context of “structure,” but the whole concept was originally written down by Aristotle in his Poetics nearly 2,400 years ago.

(Side note: Umberto Eco’s brilliant The Name of the Rose postulates an Aristotelean treatise on comedy alleged to be so funny that people who read it die laughing, and does it in the context of a 14th century riff on Sherlock Holmes, among many other things. I highly recommend reading it and seeing the movie adaptation.)

Then there are the everyday rituals we all do. Think for a moment about your routine in the morning. It’s probably pretty consistent and although the particulars and the order may vary from person to person, in general they most likely involve going to the bathroom, random acts of hygiene, putting on clothes, and breakfast of some sort — and there are probably many days when you feel like you do it on autopilot.

In human terms, when rituals go off the rails and take over our lives, they manifest as things like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or the need to perform certain rituals before being able to move forward. The expressions of OCD are many and varied, but include things like someone having to turn the lights on and off a certain number of times before they leave a room; hand-washing, or counting objects, particularly if they’re in an array — one that gets me from time to time, although I am far from being a full-blown sufferer of OCD.

(Another side note: Never say that someone “is OCD.” Or ADHD or HIV or fill-in-the-blank. That’s about as stupid as saying someone “is flu.” OCD is a condition, so you can’t be it, you can only have it. Thanks for letting me get that gigantic pet peeve out of the way.)

What you might not know, though, is that there’s a “silent” form of OCD, in which the rituals all occur inside the sufferer’s head. This includes the counting of objects, as well as repeating certain words, phrases, or even prayers in response to external conditions. In all cases, the cause of the obsessions and compulsions is the sincere belief that they will stop a bad thing from happening. That’s why I would never claim to have OCD, because my occasional counting of arrayed objects is more a matter of curiosity combined with a penchant for math, but I am fully aware that nothing bad is going to happen if I don’t Count All the Things!

OCD, in a lot of ways, shows the animal origins of our ritualistic behavior. Although its causes likely involve physical differences in the brain and are genetic, there’s no rhyme or reason to how it exhibits itself — although an individual’s belief that if they don’t perform an action or think a particular thought, then something horrendous is going to befall either them or a loved one is really no different than an animal that has been negatively conditioned — in other words, trained to perform or suppress a certain behavior in order to avoid punishment.

.And, in many ways, this is the source of addiction: the belief, whether conscious or not, that something bad is going to happen if you stop doing that thing you do, whether it’s smoking, drinking, or taking certain drugs. Now in some cases that’s true, as I’ve mentioned. There are certain addictions that are physically dangerous to stop cold turkey. But smoking is not one of them.

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(Image By Tauʻolunga (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Read an excerpt from Chapter Ten or Chapter Twelve, start with the Prologue.