By Gina Bria
New York, USA
Thank you Harvard neuroscience researchers, for discovering that the human brain processes, on average, 60,000 thoughts a day. I know my own brain assails me with an onslaught of streaming ideas every waking moment. Ironically, the Harvard discovery comes just after I discovered the truth that I am not my thoughts—though I often feel caged by them. Thoughts, in reality, are so infected with reaction, language, and culture that they are not the best guide to my vast inner cosmos otherwise known as my identity.
As an anthropologist, I have long been aware that as human cultures go ours is a particularly inhuman and inhumane one. The no-mercy measure of education, achievement, fame, and lust banish any thought of success on a community level. Our culture conditions us for competition so much that identity-formation generally comes at someone else’s expense. Our reality is that we succeed because someone else didn’t catch a break. Since everybody has to be on top to be “somebody,” there’s no communal foundation to hold us up. Hence, the precipitous and constant buzz of anxiety in our daily lives as we wait for the crash.
Amidst all this noise, what I really miss are the old rituals that helped other cultures find identity for their members. Ritual, in anthropological logic, helps you find yourself, your vision, your place.
Since today we don’t get the kind of communal support for identity assistance that ritual has so long supplied throughout cultural history, it falls upon us to make it up ourselves. In a way, we are already doing it by creating new rituals to fulfill our longing to be someone of value, someone needed by those around us. The rituals of Facebook posting (see me, I’m real!); the self-surveillance of reality TV; everybody’s fifteen minutes of fame (I WAS somebody); are to anthropologists and other social observers clearly identity-formation aids. Sociologist Erving Goffman, an observer extraordinaire, used to call this stuff identity equipment. I love that phrase. If a cell phone isn’t identity-equipment, I’ll repay my student loans.
All well and good, but I’d like to give the body a chance to step in, too. To say that we are our bodies immediately brings to mind the necessity for slim-fit jeans. Please. Our bodies are the generators, conduits, and carriers of our emotions—e-motions , motion that propels us. They are our deepest well-source of energy. Our thoughts don’t get us out of bed—if anything they keep us there! We are not our thoughts. Rather, it’s how we feel about the day that puts our feet on the floor. We all know the push/pull effect of emotions, and we have all experienced their hidden dynamics. Think of low-grade procrastination as opposed to the endless energy of first-time love. We even use thoughts to veil emotions that might overwhelm us. But why can’t we shape our energy, our e-motions, in the same way we shape our thoughts through education, practice, and self-ritual?
Let me use an analogy, a word-picture in classic rhetoric fashion, to try to tie all this together. If we think of emotions as interior sound or vibration or energy or electricity and our bodies as an instrument, say a cello or drums, then ritual is the bow or drum stick that allows us to shape or play our emotions. Ritual acts upon the body, and the body enacts the ritual.
I started thinking about this when I observed a friend texting one-handed. Where had I seen fingers working like that before? Yes—it was the same motion as the use of worry beads or saying the rosary. Certain finger motions are calming. Fingers hold sensitive electrical medians in our neurosystem. Texting activates some of these calming emotions. Hence, our addiction to our palm devices. Some people even sleep with them under their pillows, as monks did with sacred texts long ago.
That flicking feeling of working an iPhone isn’t just fun, it’s a modern version of an ancient practice of energy release. Am I saying texting on iPhones (or Blackberrys or any portable keyboard for that matter) are anti-anxiety mechanisms steeped in history? Ritualistic objects that put us in touch with our inner symphonies? Yes!
Well, let me leave you with two ancient practices that focus on fingers as a pathway to our inner selves:
In the classic prayer posture in Eastern Orthodoxy, monks grasp their hands by resting at least one thumb into the center of the opposite palm. Another version of positioning the hands is found in countless religious paintings in which the subjects have their palms pressed in prayer. Ritually and scientifically, this connection activates our neuro-circuitry, which can produce composure, equanimity, even serenity in the body and the mind.
In Japan, JinShin Jyutsu, another ancient tradition, teaches us to grasp tenderly different fingers for support when encountering difficult emotions: clasp the thumb for anxiousness; the index finger for fear; middle finger for anger (of course—flipping the bird flings anger at an opponent); ring finger for grief; and, pinky for all matters of the heart.
When I am overwhelmed by the din of modern cultural forces, I pick up my iPhone and text someone, knowing that I’m reenacting an ancient ritual. Not only can I call you, I can call me.
Gina Bria is a nationally-recognized cultural anthropologist with a special interest in ritual, kinship, and their modern usage.