The Bliss of Self-Deprivation

The first time my friend Shane mentioned he wanted me to fast for two days with him, I hoped he would forget about the idea if I never brought it up again. But he persisted, and with a groan I caved in.

Fasting sounded like the least fun thing I could do for the weekend. No food? No snacks? No drinks apart from water and the occasional tea? Obviously I wouldn’t have the energy to go to parties or do any reliable amount of homework. I resigned myself to a weekend of misery.

Here’s the best way I can describe the hunger pangs: It’s like when the electricity is out and you keep walking around the house trying to flip the light switches on. And when you’re bored you think, “Well, because the power is out, I can’t do too much. I could go get online! Oh, wait, I can’t.” When fasting, you go about your day thinking, “Man, when I’m done doing this I can eat some spaghetti. … Oh, nope. Can’t do that.”

For a while, my head just buzzed with, “I want chocolate. I want pizza.” I became irritable at the thought of how much longer I would have to subsist without the satisfaction of getting a meal in my stomach. After a while, though, my growling stomach became a profound and lucid teacher. After I accepted my hunger, it eventually faded into the background, becoming just another bodily function, like a heartbeat. A pure, crystallized peace covered my heart and mind. I had moments of complete clarity where thoughts stopped their typical disconnected meanderings and were completely synced to what I was doing in every moment. Meditation became effortless when fasting, like water running smoothly over rocks. As I detached from food, I more easily detached from the many other trivial worries occupying my mind every day. I felt a peace and stillness rising within me that kept me coming back for more.

Food is such a primal need. We know we must eat three times a day to sustain ourselves, but sometimes we eat to fill voids. Lonely? Munch on brownies. Bored? Bag of chips. Procrastinating? Make a sandwich. Denying yourself food snatches away this safety blanket from beneath your feet, exposing you to everything you’ve been hiding from by constantly eating – possibly the reason Gandhi said, “What eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner.” As I repeatedly denied myself food throughout the day, my reasons for compulsively eating became strikingly apparent. Often, I eat when I’m not even hungry. I take bites to distract myself from homework or to assuage boredom.

Many religious traditions know the power of conscious self-restraint. Yogis have practiced fasting and silence for ages, and Christians commonly practice giving something up for Lent. Pythagoras wouldn’t let his pupils learn his highest teachings unless they underwent a 40-day fast (though I wouldn’t recommend it).

Restraint is a powerful way to expose your weaknesses and cultivate an inner strength of stillness. We all have somewhat unnecessary pleasures we think we could never let go of – snacks, shopping, Facebook, alcohol, sex, television. I find that if one of these habits starts to compulsively control me, then I need to stop for a while. A few weeks ago, I gave up processed sugar for almost a week. After the first two days I stopped craving it, and then I felt liberated. I no longer had to buy sugary snacks to fulfill my cravings. I didn’t have to struggle with whether to indulge. I ate only healthy food, with deep satisfaction. Although I eventually caved in when Easter came around and I ate my entire chocolate bunny in one day, I was still empowered, now knowing the heightened power of my will and self-control.

An occasional day of silence is supposedly another very powerful tool, especially if you talk incessantly or use words venomously. One woman who suffered from a desire to compulsively lie wrote in Stephen Cope’s “The Wisdom of Yoga,” “It’s like a whole new inner world has opened up. As I quiet down the external chatter of my mind, the internal world of chatter comes into focus.” I promise you, there are a thousand reasons why you do the things you know you shouldn’t, and consciously fasting from them brings those lurking demons to light and exposes them for the falsehoods they really are.

If you try this, expect a hard but worthwhile journey. But try not to hate every moment of your hardship. Instead, accept your suffering. Watch it. Watch the thoughts that sprout around it. See where it takes you. Try not to find alternative compulsions to fill the void – like distracting yourself with friends or movies so you don’t have to face your own darkness. Getting a group to fast together provides much needed moral support and inspiration.

Shane and I felt that fasting was so powerful that we now get groups together about once a semester to share the experience through meditations and community. Last weekend, we were on our fourth group fast.

I leave you with the words of Gandhi: “A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind and soul. It crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free.”

On the seductive illusion of consumerism and happiness

We all know the classic tale of how humanity, with its insatiable greed, destroys Mother Earth. With our lack of foresight and lust for convenience and new gadgets, we have pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that melting ice sheets could raise sea levels by as much as six feet during this century.

Deforestation, disappearing species and our convoluted food system of factory farming and pesticides are all symptoms of our skewed priorities and profit-driven mindset.

You have heard the story a million times by now and I’ll spare you the spiel, because instead of dwelling on the evils of humanity, I’d rather focus on how our less eco-friendly lifestyles affect our psyches. What has our abandonment of an earth-based lifestyle done to us on an emotional and psychological level? When we left the farms for factories and traded in our plows for office computers, did we gain or lose in the end?

I don’t want to use this column to ignorantly romanticize the authenticity of “living off the land.” I realize there were many troubles associated with that lifestyle, including disease, overwork, pests and famine. In many ways technology has improved our standard of living. However, my intuition keeps telling me the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction toward consumerism, modernization and convenience. The weakening state of our earth proves we’re doing something wrong.

I lodge my major complaint against consumerism – the notion that purchasing manufactured goods makes the world go around. For many years I never quite understood why groups like Adbusters treated advertising and product consumption as evils. Then I gradually realized I had grown up learning a lie: that buying more new clothes – ones I usually didn’t really need – would fill a tiny void in my soul. But as soon as a new shirt filled one pocket-sized void, another one would appear. I would need more music, another poster, a new skirt, a cup of coffee, a burrito. The cycles of consumerism kept me coming back for more because eventually those clothes became “outdated,” and I would need to go shopping again.

Soon, I realized that, although I could throw my money and energy at this endless cycle forever, my purchased happiness only provided me with a fickle, temporary contentment that required constant maintenance. My mind was always snooping around for its next fix. Thus, my happiness largely depended on what I owned or how much fun I could purchase. After I uncovered these flaws in the system, I found a deeper and more consistent happiness in simplicity – contentment with less, not more – in appreciating whatever life threw my way, in each moment.

Last semester I visited the Possibility Alliance, a homesteading educational center in La Plata, and this cemented my views. I always had a sense of completeness when hiking through nature that I could never quite grasp when doing homework on my laptop in the library. The homesteaders at the Possibility Alliance use no electricity or other modern conveniences. They bike wherever they have to go and make everything – down to the beeswax candles they use at night. However, founder Ethan Hughes told me, “We don’t go to restaurants or movies, and we certainly don’t go to Aruba for vacation, but we feel like we live like kings and queens. We have a daughter, and we spend time together doing what we care about, and what else is there? If our goal is happiness, then we’re way happier now.”

This comes from a family that lives on $3,000 every year. When I visited there, I could see why. No white noise muddles the air, only the natural sounds of wind and livestock. The air feels warm and peaceful. It’s difficult to explain, but I have a sense when I’m in this place – or any place in nature – that I don’t want or need anything else.

I feel duped by consumerism. It taught me to depend on coffee instead of self-discipline to get schoolwork done, to watch movies when I hung out with my friends instead of interacting with them, to depend on packaged food instead of making homecooked meals and to believe that nature was a novelty to enjoy in my spare time instead of throughout my day-to-day existence. We’ve lost bodies of knowledge about the earth because hardly anyone lives a sustainable, earth-based lifestyle anymore. Considering how little time we spend within an actual ecosystem, it’s no wonder we don’t think twice about harming them.

In addition, the lifestyles we have replaced this one with are not always psychologically healthy. With depression hitting 9.5 percent of Americans according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is it really working for us? Even now, we all spend our weeks chained to our desks. Then by the time Friday comes we have such a strong need to cut loose and communicate with other people instead of our computer screens that we spend all our money at parties and bars. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for the body of knowledge I have acquired at Truman, because it has truly shaped me as a person. But I do feel like my lifestyle is missing something organic and authentic, which is why I hope to someday live “off the grid,” similar to the people at the Possibility Alliance. In the meantime, I can’t mope around about it. I still have a lot of control over my lifestyle, so I am taking little steps toward simplicity whenever I can. I try not to buy anything I don’t need, and I try buying secondhand if I do. I mend my torn clothes instead of tossing them. I save my food scraps for compost and try to buy food from local sources to break down the concrete wall that separates me from where my food comes from. And most importantly, I try to spend a few minutes outside whenever I can.

To build a better world, the environmental movement should consider advocating the benefits of living simply instead of overloading us with tales of our cruelty and greed. Most of us were raised to live a consumerist lifestyle from birth and are taught to buy things to assuage our desires. We need to see that simple living will make us happier, not just ethical.

I leave you with the words of Ethan Hughes: “In the end, we all want to be happy. That’s the simplest summary of the world. We all play really bad means to get it. We’re still going after it, but we think, ‘Oh if I only had another hundred-thousand in the bank I would be happy. If I could only go to two more dance clubs tonight.’ It’s always something in the future.”

For more on the Possibility Alliance, visit:
“Radical Simplicity”
Testimonial from a former resident
My Index article
Ethan Hughes audio interview
The Superheroes (The Alliances serves as headquarters for a volunteer group of bikeriders who ride around the country to do free service)

Art of Meditation course

For all you at Truman with me (or for all of you with an Art of Living program near you–find one here), you should take a look at the Art of Meditation course coming up, taught by our own Dr. Lloyd Pflueger.

From the website: “The Art of Meditation course enables effortless transcendence. Participants learn to let go of all tensions and stress, providing the mind with a much needed deep rest. It allows the conscious mind to settle deeply into itself. It is only in the present moment that we find true happiness. As the mind settles down, it centers itself more and more in the present moment and experiences a natural state of joy.

Course Details: In just three sessions of two hours, we learn to tap the depths of our nature. After the course we can use this simple meditation practice to overcome the effects of inevitable stressful situations and make a positive impact on the quality of our lives.”

Class times:
Saturday by appointment (session lasts an hour or two)
Sunday 7-10 p.m.
Monday 7-10 p.m.

Fees and DISCOUNTS will be discussed at the Intro meeting, which takes place in MC 208 THIS Thursday, March 18, at 8 p.m. You can decide whether or not you can take the course when you attend the meeting.

Fore more information visit http://us.artofliving.org/content-art-meditation?center=usa

I took this last semester and the twice-a-day meditation program helped me to concentrate a lot more easily and to calm myself down whenever life dragged on me.

The release of self-forgiveness

Followers of the Jain religion believe the universe is shaped like a human body. Likewise, Taoists think society at large functions the same as a single person. Thus, when you understand yourself, you can supposedly understand the workings of the entire universe.

Similarly, I’ve noticed I reflect my inner state of mind onto the outside world. If I love and accept who I am, other people tend to pick up on my positive, carefree vibes and treat me more benevolently than if I despise myself. Like most others, I go through periods where I am less than happy with who I am. But I’ve realized this isn’t healthy for me or for anyone I come into contact with. Thus, personal growth is no selfish act. When you shine with joy, you contagiously spread beams of radiance while negativity simply dissipates into the air.

Once I worked with someone who made my blood boil a little. Although he was just a server in an average restaurant, he sauntered around the place reeking of arrogance. He wouldn’t do anybody a favor unless it made him look good. I hardly could have a conversation with him without consciously restraining myself because his stories of womanizing offended my feminist sensibilities.

On the flip side, I know my attitude toward him was just as immature as his cockiness. Seething about the guy only made me look down on him, just like he probably looked down on me.

Someone once told me that hate only hurts yourself. So true. When hatred – or any negative emotion – invades, it swiftly immerses me in a little bubble of red-hot fury. I become irrational. My nemesis appears subhuman in my eyes, and I stop treating him with dignity and respect. Anger never solves a thing. Hating him never made him a more compassionate person – it only transformed me into an immature little kid filled with an exaggerated sense of pride and entitlement. This uncontrollable anger always gripped me when I talked to him. A critical, judgmental coldness overtook any natural sense of goodwill.

Intuitively, my conscience says I should stop looking down on him. Countless religious and spiritual seekers have proven that happiness isn’t becoming superior to everyone – it’s letting go of your big, cumbersome ego and embracing a sense of humility.

Truly strong people don’t spend all their time sabotaging others or thinking about how much other people suck because they don’t need such petty compensation for their insecurities. Strength is kindness in the face of cruelty, not domination and superiority. The Dalai Lama said, “If the love within your mind is lost, and you see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education or material comfort you have, only suffering and confusion will ensue.” Any guru or priest probably will tell you the emotional and spiritual benefits of humility and love hugely outweigh the small and selfish satisfactions of hatred. I’ve noticed that when I am filled with love, I physically feel expanded. I am more connected and receptive to other people, and people sense and reflect my positive energy. Suddenly, the little things don’t seem so irritating. I am a lot happier when that screaming little ego isn’t getting in my way.

I’d love to claim that I am one of those untouchably positive souls who emits beams of radiance and loves everyone. But alas, I have a lot of work to do. And I can’t just tell myself, “Start unconditionally loving humanity, dang it!” You can’t just force yourself to love, like you make yourself get out of bed to get to class in the morning. Your efforts at compassion will seem just as groggy and reluctant as your weary face. Love is a strenuous and nearly impossible task when you feel about as compassionate as a block of concrete – when you’re locked in the haze of frustration, fear or defense. We’ve spent our entire lives programmed to look out for No. 1 and that won’t change overnight. The only thing that works for me is simply watching myself without judgment. When I’m angry and critical I watch my responses. Amazingly enough, when I simply observe my actions without constant critique, my flaws don’t seem to bother me as much. Then, these flaws are no longer despicable parts of myself – they are something separate from me that I detachedly observe from a distance, like watching a lion in a zoo cage.

You see, my co-worker embodies such an enormous threat to me only because I deeply fear becoming like him: arrogant, selfish and uninteresting. This guy probably makes me mad because he represents something I dread and repress within myself. Otherwise, he wouldn’t challenge me so much. Sometimes I feel selfish, which makes me so ashamed that I have spent my entire life running in the polar opposite direction, dabbling in spirituality, activism and volunteer work the entire way. Meanwhile, he shamelessly flaunts the very things I’ve spent my life running from. No wonder I can’t stand him. But here’s the irony: When I see him as a selfish bundle of pettiness, don’t I begin to engage in that very same pettiness?

Thus, when I unconditionally accept myself, flaws and all, I suddenly can tolerate my co-worker. Once I am in touch with my darker motives, they instantly loosen their iron grip on my actions. So what if he’s arrogant and rude? It doesn’t have to make my life any worse. And after all, he has good points I overlook when I’m seething mad. He makes conversation with me when I’m bored. He can be funny. He apologizes when he knows he has offended me.

So don’t waste your good intentions by suppressing your darker side. Accept yourself simply and fully because you can’t magically become someone you’re not. Only when we stop giving so much power to our darkest nature can it truly disappear.

Surrender your agenda and breathe peace

Sometimes, the only way to get what you want is by giving up. Every major spiritual strain I know of insists we can only discover true happiness by letting go of our own agendas and handing our lives to forces unknown.

Christians might recognize the concept as surrendering to God. Taoists call it “wu-wei” or non-action. Hindus call it Saranagati, surrendering to the underlying force behind the universe. The word “Islam” means surrender, among other definitions. Look at Jews, Buddhists, Jains. Pick any religious strain, and you probably will discover this universal thread embedded in the system.

Surrender features so prominently within every religious system, and they can’t all be wrong. But why is it so popular – do a few power-hungry leaders use surrender as a religious tool to subordinate the masses? Or does surrender actually help us to grow spiritually?

I believe it’s a seed for growth. Ironically, giving up fills the practitioner with a greater power than one person alone could manage. When you willingly become weak in the face of the Almighty, a divine force supposedly will encompass you. Once you have let go of your own agenda, you become a divine vessel. Your actions and your will no longer belong to you.

Although I recognized the concept of surrender from my Christian upbringing, my Taoism class this semester reintroduced the idea to me as “wu-wei.” The Taoists believe in an underlying force, Tao, within the entire universe that encompasses anyone who lets it guide them. When you surrender, you let the course of nature take you where it will.

The Tao Te Ching states in verse 22, “Surrender brings perfection / The crooked become straight / The empty become full / The worn become new.”

This sounded like a logical idea to me, and I decided to try it. I found going with the flow makes life less stressful, mostly because forcing my own will on what I do never completely works. Let’s say I’m driving during rush hour in the middle of a city. I have a few choices. I could make a fuss about getting home quickly or I could stay in traffic, quietly getting home whenever I arrive. Choosing the former means I watch every moment for a free spot in the next lane. I move over, forcing myself between two cars – blocking both lanes of traffic in the meantime – until I have enough room to move into the lane. I do this repeatedly. I honk my horn. I am spending most of my time stressing out about what to do next, my mind spinning with frustration and plotting my next move while the car continues to stand still.

Meanwhile, I could just keep my place in traffic. Sure, it will be slower, but what do you really have to do that absolutely cannot wait for 20 minutes? You at least will get home relaxed and stress-free. And besides, why worry about something you can’t control?

Whenever someone offends or aggravates me, I find snapping back in a spiteful and defensive manner doesn’t cool the boiling water quite like a humble and empathetic attitude does. I’m sure you can relate. On Sunday morning I was meditating – early, because I had to catch the 7:45 a.m. train back to La Plata – when my dad interrupted me twice to make sure I wasn’t still sleeping. The second time, I barked that I was awake and had plenty of time – in an ironically hostile tone for a meditator, I admit. I felt slightly guilty afterward, and my dad told me later that he was offended by my reaction. If I had quietly told him I was on time and would be out in just a few moments, I wouldn’t have been the cause of all those injured feelings from acting hastily and attempting to bend the situation to my will.

The Taoists would say strong winds will uproot a giant tree rather than the pliant, supple grass, which can withstand just about anything. That’s how surrender brings you power. A Taoist warrior trains for flexibility, because an effective warrior must stay attentive to changes and surprises – inevitable in the battlefield – and react to whatever comes their way. The alternative – planning a stoic strategy and training soldiers rigidly – will fail.

The Tao naturally directs the willing and guides them toward a natural perfection. The Tao Te Ching compares this to water: “Nothing in this world is as soft and yielding as water / Yet for attacking the hard and strong none can triumph so easily / It is weak, yet none can equal it / It is soft, yet none can damage it / It is yielding, yet none can wear it away.”

Christianity, moreover, asserts that when surrendering to Christ you become infused with him. I have heard many Christians talk about its most enthusiastic and loving followers as “shining with Jesus’ light.” The Bible itself states, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple,” Luke 14:33. Although different paths conceptualize different reasons to explain the potentially divine force that replaces the surrendered human will, I see very little difference between them all. I have seen followers of many different faiths who seem to shine from an inner light of joy, which is almost contagious to witness. Their eyes beam with abundant generosity, solid devotion and an eagerness to share their joy with everyone. If such wealth can spring from surrender, then I’ll definitely allow the forces that be to guide my actions rather than go it alone.