The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), classifies Pica as a “Feeding and Eating Disorder,” and describes its central diagnostic criteria as the “Persistent eating of nonnutritive, nonfood substances over a period of at least 1 month.” Pica is the Latin word for magpie and it became a genus classification of these birds in the 1700s. Magpie lore told that these birds gather and eat almost anything, food and nonfood, and that they are especially attracted to shiny objects. In Rossini’s opera, The Thieving Magpie, the magpies steal silver forks, spoons and coins, creating the conflict and tension in the melodrama. Early in my professional career I worked with a young man afflicted with several severe mental health conditions including Pica, as he would regularly steal, gather and eat batteries, AA and AAA batteries. Other nonfood substances noted in the Pica literature include dirt and sand, paper, rocks, soap, cloth, hair, buttons, cigarettes, chalk, paint chips, metal, and feces. Many of these substances and objects can be dangerous to consume, can damage and create deficiencies in the body and its organs.
Tumbling into the present, into years of a mindfulness practice, into this past year of the pandemic, I found myself thinking about mindfulness of the spirit in relation to our contemporary attention economy. About all the things we consume that are nonnutritive to our spirit, the shiny objects of social media, the internet, streaming television, celebrity and sports culture, as well as advertising, consumerism and digital capitalism, especially, Amazon.com. And how much of these are the nonnutritive substances and objects that we consume as a kind of Spiritual Pica, a feeding and eating disorder of the spirit.
From my college years, I recalled Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the book published in 1988, well before the ubiquity of the internet, smartphones and social media. The book and 1992 documentary film with the same title incisively critiqued mass media and entertainment as largely implicated in the propaganda of a society shaped by class, power and domination, in the manufacture of consent by distracting the majority of the citizenry and undermining democracy’s best ideals of engaged participation, activism and citizenship. With some new variations and iterations, this critique is robust and relevant the past couple years.
At the spiritual level, I found myself thinking about how our daily worship of screens and the consumption of their contents are implicated in the Buddhist hindrances to mindfulness and awakening. The five hindrances are conceptualized as inevitable and very human defilements of the present moment and one’s luminous Buddha Nature: 1. Desire and Attachment, wanting things to be other than they are; 2. Aversion and Avoidance, negativity, cynicism and hatred; 3. Sloth and Torpor, a lazy, dull and unmotivated mind, stupor; 4. Restlessness and Worry, an agitated body and mind; 5. Doubt and Disheartenment of self, others, and the world. Reflect on these accords in yourself and the ways they are fed in your everyday life.
I would also suggest that this Spiritual Pica can also transform us into Hungry Ghosts. In Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhism, Hungry Ghosts suffer and are tormented with insatiable desire, hunger or thirst. “Hungry ghosts are unable to take in or assimilate what they desperately need. The problem lies in their constricted throats which cannot open for nourishment, they wander aimlessly in search of relief that is not forthcoming.” Hungry Ghosts suffer from spiritual emptiness and are often used as a metaphor for addictions. “Defined by a fusion of rage and desire, tormented by unfulfilled cravings and insatiably demanding impossible satisfactions, hungry ghosts are condemned to inhabit shadow and dismal places in the realms of the living.”
Certainly, the internet and social media can provide something of value to our spirit, creativity and engaged citizenship, but in my own experience, much of it does not, and directly feeds the above noted hindrances and the suffering of the Hungry Ghost. I see that my own consumption of these forms is often implicated in stress management, in coping with contemporary life, (and this past year, processing and living in the pandemic as well as the social, cultural and political conditions and circumstances), and is often consumed like a drug to generate short-term bursts of dopamine and create states of distraction and avoidance, numbing and trance. All this raises robust questions about how to take care of ourselves, how to relax, decompress, recover and restore ourselves. It is perhaps also about how we reward ourselves in times of stress. In my clinical work, I also specialize in treating men with presenting concerns related to pornography use. Based on years of that work and my own experience, I would suggest that pornography consumption is largely a form of Spiritual Pica.
Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, published in 2019, before the pandemic, has a certain lineage with Chomsky’s book, as it interrogates the corporate platforms that animate the attention economy and their deliberately addictive features, the contemporary cult of individuality and personal branding, and our problematic mythologies of productivity, of how we think about what it means to be productive. Odell, an artist, writer and professor at Stanford University, advocates for the poetics of an intentional and mindful practice of doing nothing as an act of resistance to the attention economy, to more fully and deeply connect with our selves in the stillness and sometimes boredom of self-reflection, to inhabit and cultivate our in-person relationships and interconnectedness as well as our relationship to our geography, our physical and public spaces, nature, animals and animal ecologies, all outside the matrix of the digital. “I’m suggesting that we protect our spaces and our time for non-instrumental, noncommercial activity and thought, for maintenance, for care, for conviviality. And I’m suggesting that we fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.”
In these times, it seems useful to bring a certain mindfulness to what we are consuming and feeding our spirit, our spiritual diet and nutrition. To perhaps use this idea of Spiritual Pica to be more in touch with and articulate about our own spiritual needs and hunger, and to cultivate a discerning wisdom about what genuinely nourishes, enlivens and awakens our spirit, our relationships, our life, our world, (including prayer and the diaspora of our religious traditions). And, in the words of Stevie Wonder, bring more awareness to what prevents us from reaching our Highest Ground. The music of Stevie Wonder nourishes my spirit, it is the manifestation of joy in all our flawed humanity.
Remember Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple began with a Stevie Wonder quote and her 1983 essay, “Beauty When the Other Dancer is the Self,” concluded with this passage, a beautiful moment of awakening: “That night I dream I am dancing to Stevie Wonder’s song ‘Always’ (the name of the song is really ‘As,’ but I hear it as ‘Always’). As I dance, whirling and joyous, happier than I’ve ever been in my life, another bright-faced dancer joins me. We dance and kiss each other and hold each other through the night. The other dancer has obviously come through all right, as I have done. She is beautiful, whole, and free. And she is also me.”