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)