Faith, Ritual and Fidget Toys

Here’s the latest from Practicing Mental Illness:

"Live without limits" may be the worst self-help advice anyone has ever given.  Maybe we need to look back toward the rules that formed us and bound us together as a caring society.

The lack of restraint exhibited by individuals is a main reason why cultural, artistic and political ideas have ceased to be new, and have ceased to inspire.  Left without some sense of authority and respect, society has begun to exhibit signs of bipolar disorder on a mass scale.  We're trapped in a cycle of exuberance and poor impulse control and plunged into despair and distrust. A near total suspicion of traditional institutions like the church, the press and the impact of tradition have led us to forget community and communal responsibility and overemphasize individual rights that we insist someone grant us despite our behavior or our contribution, or lack thereof, to the group.

We have closed our minds to opposing points of view and have no faith in each other.  Hence we have no faith in ourselves.  We may want things to change, but we're unsure of what to change things into.

When so many people insist on change, it's worth looking at old ideas in an attempt to filter out what we should keep and what we must discard and grow beyond.  A good place to begin is the very notion of faith.

Those of us with mental illness often suffer from extreme alienation.  The word alienation, in its etymology, means to be separated from one's god.  Such lack of faith, such isolation and absence of solitude and ritual, can explain the increasing descent of so many into mental illness.

Why?  I believe we have an impulse to believe in something greater than ourselves, and when faith fails, we go looking for it somewhere else.  Faith, as practiced in time-honored religious traditions, requires great limits.  Perhaps our falling away from faith has led us to abandon the limits of behavior that are required for us to support each other.  Instead of the faith-based emphasis on charity and love, we look to people other than ourselves, other structures, to support those who are difficult to support; to do the work we should be doing ourselves.

These people who are difficult to support, like those of us with mental illness, are left as constituents without a structure to prop us up and help us heal.  Faith did this once.  Today's non-faith-based institutions are failing us. In order to take care of the disadvantaged through individual effort and charity aligned with organizations dedicated to service alone, we must be proactive and attendant, rather than leave true aid to someone else’s ideas of development or redistribution.

We must provide charity and hospitality without demands or retribution. If we want to positively influence the world we must do that through example and discourse, not coercion or force. Faith can us guide toward this goal, and old institutions may stand as tremendous examples of how to arrange and organize care.

In chapter 27 of Stephen Batchelor's The Art of Solitude, Batchelor presents the arguments for faith without innovation made by the reformation era thinker Montaigne.  Montaigne resisted the new push away from the central authority of the church toward an individual's direct relationship with god.  He predicted a failing in society as people threw off the binding, unquestioning rule of the church for life rules based in reason.

Now I'm a devotee of reason, and think we can only look back on Montaigne and his Essays with nostalgia, but it is an opportune time to investigate what an adherence to ancient ideas and rituals can offer us.  When reason snaps, as it does in mental illness, as it has in our society today, perhaps faith and its rituals can help us recapture a sense of stability and lose the alienation that causes us to suffer alone.

Many people come to this space through the practice of mindfulness.  I think, paradoxically, the secular emphasis on personal, interior experience presented by people who teach mindfulness in an effort to alleviate suffering only increases alienation, and, with it, suffering.  Without ritual, without community, hell, without some religion, these formerly religious practices seem empty and lead to doubts and questions that require limits to properly answer.

Batchelor makes the point that, "creativity and freedom operate optimally under conditions of restraint."  As we look around us at the news, our social media feeds and growing, violent intolerance it’s clear we could use a little restraint. Maybe the restraint of ritual, the stuff so many of us learned in church, can help us excel.  The limits we must adhere to in order to be productive, responsible members of society can be found in religious ideas, especially when the dilemmas we face are formed in practices that were once deemed religious.

I'm not advocating a return to the unquestioning faith of Montaigne.  Even the church later banned his Essays because of the books' distrust of reason.  But we should consider his assertion that, "There is a plague on man - the opinion that he knows something."  If we could find a practice to help guide us, something greater than ourselves and our doubt, as I believe we can in ritual and faith, we might find a place of less suffering and less alienation.

To search for something to believe in, to be open to belief, and to share that belief with others can help us heal.  But to do that we must face the insecurity of admitting we know very little, and much of what we're sure of may be wrong.  Begin this search by imposing some limits on yourself.  The limits of ritual from a faith tradition can help.  I'll bet that leads to more new ideas than a lifetime of disbelief and negative cynicism.

In those new ideas, the ones forged within constraint, the ones respectful of tradition, one may feel less alienated and more connected to the best in themselves, and in others.

Fidget Toys are the New Prayer Beads

Holding focus for more than a few moments is a challenge for most people. This is especially so for kids across the world forced to go to school on Zoom. One of the advantages of youth is the ability to take in massive amounts of information from constantly surveying the environment, and quickly and creatively acting on that information. What we adults find impulsive may simply be a kid’s way of exploring and adapting to information and emotions. But even this talent at monitoring the environment with wonder requires a point of focus. It’s apparent to many of us after months of working from home and the despair of beginning to see our kids flounder at school that this point of focus cannot be thumbnails of faces all having their own battle with wandering attention on gallery view on Zoom.

Plopping our children in front of computers in their bedrooms all day and expecting them to pay attention, let alone learn something, is one of the great failures of the shutdown in this pandemic. But kids are creative and kids are resilient. And if we haven’t taught useful ways to help them focus their wandering attentions, they have figured it out. Fidget Toys.

For centuries religions have been aware of the necessary power of bringing focus and manual labor together in prayer beads. All traditions have them, and the ritual of bringing the mind to the manipulation of an object with repetition has calmed people and developed their ability to focus and heal for as long as people have sat and contemplated their world.

Right in front of us, proving to us in a fundamental human trait that this work of focus is necessary, our kids manipulate fidget toys.

There are all kinds of them, small objects you can quietly spin, twist, pop or push while you sit. They come in variety bags, and my daughter and her friends even make their own. They use tinfoil and string, beads and orbies, scrap other old broken stuff, They transform these materials into wonderful moving objects of focus. They post videos to share their methods and creation with each other. We’ve given them a world of distraction and forced them to be observers, rather than actors, of their learning, and they have countered our inhuman methods by making what are essentially prayer beads. As we dull their minds they fire thought again by working with their hands.

Of course slick, smooth fidget toys are now being marketed to adults. But I’ll take the ones my daughter has made for me. Little rosaries sparking little prayers – holy.


I emphasize work in my writing on meditation, as do ancient masters like St Benedict. To bring the mind to a task is as valid a form of meditation as bringing the mind to the breath, especially when we work with our hands. This all comes together in prayer beads. Rosaries, malas, tasbih all bring the mind and the work of the hands together in powerful spiritual focus. Why not make your own? Crafting helps us craft ourselves as we find ourselves in what we do rather than in often erroneous thoughts and judgments about ourselves. Here’s an instructional video for making a mala. Excuse all the yoga and “om” stuff if you’re not into that. It’s a really good tutorial. Focus, work and learn: