During my years studying as a cultural anthropologist I was taught how to observe even the most minute details about a human being and the culture s/he lives in. I learned that the things what we don’t spend time thinking about and the things we take for granted are often the very things that define us and our culture.
One of the most revealing articles I read during my studies was called, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” by Horace Miller (Read the full article HERE). In the following excerpt the Mr. Miller talks about their rituals of health:
The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.
The charm is not disposed of after it has served its purpose, but is placed in the charmbox of the household shrine. As these magical materials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladies of the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on this point, we can only assume that the idea in retaining all the old magical materials is that their presence in the charm-box, before which the body rituals are conducted, will in some way protect the worshiper.
Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution. The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.
(Spoiler Alert: if you plan on reading the full report do it now HERE before you go on to read the “spoiler”)
After one reads the entire article they realize that all the “strange” habits of the Nacirema are actually our own habits (and that Nacirema is American spelled backwards) but looked upon as if a person from another culture was observing us.
It is this kind of observation that can be the most valuable in our pursuit of well-being and balance. Although we often seek health insight from half-hour appointments with “strangers”, we need to remember that only a person that lives in the culture, at least for a while, can make these observations. A trained professional can draw scientific conclusions from data and observation. However, only you (or a frequent visitor) can make insightful observations into your own culture.
So how does one step out of their own culture to make these observations? Here are some ways you can make better observations about yourself that can help you solve mysteries about your well-being and reveal secrets you may not have known about yourself. While the following tips may seem simple they are very effective. It can often be the simple things we don’t think of that offer us solutions.
1. Take scientific data on yourself: I am often surprised when I ask clients “How do you sleep?” or “What is a typical meal for you?” that they say, “I don’t know” or they have partial answers based on memories and estimates. Very rarely do I find someone who has actually written down how many hours of sleep they got for the past week or what exactly they ate for the past few days. However, it is only with scientific and exact data that a person can make accurate conclusions. It is very helpful to your health-care practitioner if you can do your part by keeping accurate records of yourself at home. Your medical records should not be a few pages from half hour visits a few times a year to the clinic. Your medical records should be those and tens of pages of notes you keep at home.
2. You are your own culture: What works for a friend may not work for you. Learn about your own body and be careful about thinking things like, “She can eat fast food every day and she is very energetic and healthy. So I should be able to as well” or “that article I just read in the news about the benefits of Ginger makes me want to try it myself”.
3. Consider definitions: What do you define as sleep? This is one trick we learned as anthropologists – asking people for simple definitions of words often reveals more. For example, if you define sleep as “the time I go to sleep until the time my alarm goes off” you may not be aware that in tossing an turning a few times a night, waking up before your alarm, or taking an hour to go to sleep is actually eating away at your sleep time. Using modern technology to scientifically measure your sleep (Fitbit or smart phone apps like Sleep Cycle) you can take accurate sleep measurements.
4. What cultural definitions are blocking your insight? One example of a cultural block would be our definition of illness. In Medieval Europe a person monitored their well-being on a daily basis and would modify their diet or activities to keep balance in their body. In modern society we are taught to ignore the signs of imbalance and consider ourselves sick only when we are “flat out in bed with a fever”. People are encouraged to “work through the pain”. You could be experiencing much more imbalance than you realize if you have become accustomed to ignoring it.
5. What has become second-nature in your personal culture? The article you just read on the Nacirema showed us that in most cultures we take for granted the daily activities that we do and don’t even consider that they may be strange, unusual or interesting to others. What occurrences in your daily culture do you take for granted? I have a client who was so used to clearing phlegm from his throat that he didn’t even notice it after twenty years. When asked if he had any issues with phlegm he answered, “no”. I met another client who was so used to sitting in a certain way to avoid back pain that when asked if they experienced back pain they also replied, “no”. What would you say “no” to that might be a “yes”?
6. Learn the language of your culture. You might assume you know the language of your “culture” but most people do not. Did you know that your feet can tell you about the state of your body just by learning the language of Reflexology? Did you know that your eyes are recording scientific data on the well-being of your body every day and that you can easily read this data by learning Iridology? Your ears, tongue, skin and hands all have languages of their own as well. The more of these “languages” you learn the better observations you will be able to make about the “culture” of your body.
What are some observational methods you use to keep yourself balanced? Share them with everyone in the comment section below.