The rabbi’s wristwatch

Using symbols and rituals to consciously sculpt the grooves in our minds

I think that everyone, whether they call themselves “religious” or not, subscribes to certain religions. It’s just that some religions are more conscious than others.

For example, today I saw a rabbi sitting in his car at a rest stop. His long beard and kippah were symbols of Judaism, a spiritual religion.

He was also wearing a wristwatch, a symbol which reveals that he subscribes to “clock time,” a secular religion (see Sapiens for some great discussion on how we humans invent shared systems of belief, and how this has helped us become wildly successful).

I recently read this article, which inspired me to play with consciously choosing symbols to include in my life.

This picture has four symbols I had with me today:

The first, a wristwatch, primes me to be both mindful and anxious of the time. This symbol is included in my life largely due to necessity/social conditioning rather than conscious choice.

The other three symbols, however, I consciously chose to include in my life in order to prime certain thoughts:

  • The circle necklace primes me to think about cycles, impermanence, inclusion, and listening.
  • The marble reminds me that I’m a little speck of dust on a floating space orb. It reminds me to connect with gratitude for the miracle of existing as a conscious being in a largely lifeless universe.
  • The conch shell primes me to remember the strangeness of my human form, no more or less strange than a mollusk in a shell. I also think of death when I look at this shell, because of an experience I had when travelling:

I was picking up a beautiful big cone shell and carrying it for a while. Then, a giant mollusk emerged, stinging proboscis swinging wildly. I avoided the dagger, and put the shell down. The mollusk was cute as hell, with two protruding black eyes on stalks.

With the help of google, I confirmed my suspicion: cone shells are extremely poisonous. They use their dagger to kill fish, and have killed many people. If the snail had jabbed me, I’d be very sick at the least. Cone shells are known as “cigarette snails” — gallows humor that if you get stabbed, you have enough time to smoke a cigarette before death (an exaggeration but fun nonetheless).

Our minds get better at thinking about whatever they think about repetitively. Thoughts are like ski trails in our minds, becoming more ingrained with every repetition:

Credit to my friend Steve for this analogy

The power of symbols comes from priming this repetitive thinking. So let this be both a warning and an encouragement:

If we don’t consciously choose our symbols and rituals, then they will be chosen for us by the dominant culture and advertising. In secular Western culture, this often means worshipping social media likes, phones, clocks, money, governments, and corporate logos.

One tool we can use to free ourselves from these defaults is to consciously choose our symbols and rituals.

P.S. A related post about the Jewish ritual of tefillin. We non-believers need our symbols and rituals, too!

P.P.S. A poem on this topic:


The brain
Is a great forgetter
That’s why
We need mantras
We need songs
We need holidays
Every month
Week and year
We need rituals
We need songs, again
We need to
Play them
Again and again
We need poems
And we need to
Learn them by heart
And say them
To others
And to ourselves
When we wake up
And drive home
And go to bed

We need this
To remind us
To keep us out
Of the gutters
Of our minds
We need help
All this help
To remember

4 thoughts on “The rabbi’s wristwatch

  1. I dig your symbols Dan! Especially love the marble representing our Pale Blue Dot.

    The ski trails analogy really drives home the value of choosing our symbols. Reminds me a lot of a Thoreau quote:

    “A single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

    Cheers you wise sage!

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