Covid is not a piece of cake
That morning I was lying in bed and, as I gradually woke up, I felt that something was off. Ah, of course, then I remembered that things were slightly different now. So while I tried to go about my day as normally as possible, I was constantly aware, in the pit of my stomach, of a background level of nagging anxiety and discomfort. There was a sense that, somehow, things were not the way they should be, something was missing. My routine didn’t feel the same. My interactions with other people were slightly strained. I constantly felt like gorging on crappy food. I looked at the clock more often than ever and it seemed that time was passing veeery slowly.
You know what was going on, right?
What did you say, the Pandemic? Oh no, not at all. I can see why you’d think it would be that, but this day happened around 10 years ago.
I was describing the first time I fasted.
The pandemic, with its constant reminder that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger (see the previous post), plus the convenience of skipping meals when your kitchen table is also your office desk, has been a perfect time to revisit fasting.
That first time I did it was basically as a personal challenge. Back then I may have heard that it was good to reset the metabolism, but I hadn’t yet delved into the topic and mainly wanted to know if I was capable of doing it. It wasn’t planned at all, it came as a spur-of-the-moment thing on a lazy weekend morning and so I didn’t eat breakfast and kept going until the next day. I suppose it must have been less than 36 hours in total, from Friday dinner to Sunday breakfast.
Now I know that fasting, whether for long periods or intermittently, is very good for your day to day health and overall longevity, but that is a VERY broad topic and completely out of the scope of this post, maybe we’ll get into that some other time. Instead of that, today we’re going to learn about a host of unexpected benefits that can be obtained from fasting and that underscore the broader topic which we talked about in the last post and is so relevant in our current Covid world: the growth we undergo by overcoming challenges.
So even if you have no interest whatsoever in fasting, you may find something worth your while that you can apply in a different domain. And with that said, let’s tuck in:
Connect body and mind
Fasting highlights the deep connection between body and mind and how we are neither one nor the other, but rather a Yin and Yang in various grey tones.
I had always viewed myself as more rational and mind-oriented. I even believed that the brain should be able to prevail over the organism and its dumb, primal instincts. If you are also like this, fasting will prove to you, very quickly and undeniably, that our brain exists within a suit of meat and that, despite all its capacity for abstraction and imagination, it is still made of tangible matter that needs to be cared for. Once you have fasted for a while you see very clearly how hunger makes you slow, tired, cold and grumpy. In fact, the brain is the organ that consumes the most energy, so it’s a greedy bastard.
On the other hand, if you are more impetuous, instinctive and body-oriented, fasting can teach you that we don’t necessarily have to be ruled by every feeling, craving or emotion. Our brain and willpower are perfectly capable of overriding our animal responses for a while. Yes, of course, physical discomfort feels unpleasant, especially when we are not used to it, but it certainly will not kill us to sit with that discomfort for a while instead of giving in straight away. Impulse control is a fantastic skill to have, and to those who are not used to practising self-discipline it may even seem like a superpower beyond their ability, but it can (and should) be learned, practised and improved, just like any other skill.
The lesson here is that we shouldn’t let the brain be ruled by the body nor the body by the brain. Instead, they should be viewed as equal parts of a whole and exist in harmony. Whether we like it or not, whether it’s a point of pride or shame for us, we are neither cyborgs nor chimpanzees.
Know (and manage) limitations
If we don’t know where the borders of a country are, then we will have a completely distorted (and incomplete) conception of that country. Millions of people have given their lives in wars over limits and borders because even tiny details can make a massive difference.
- In drawing the American States, a border was changed specifically to give Pennsylvania access to the waterway system of the Great Lakes.
- Russia will not hesitate to deploy its army to protect the exclave of Kaliningrad and thus maintain a strategic position in Europe and access to the Baltic Sea.
- The EU’s initiatives to unify national airspaces so as to cut flights costs and reduce emissions for all of Europe were paralysed for more than two decades because Spain and the UK wouldn’t agree on who owned 500 metres of the isthmus of Gibraltar.
Clearly, if we don’t know where something starts and ends, then we are lacking the most fundamental knowledge about that entire entity’s existence. If we don’t clearly know where something’s limits are, we can’t expect to have any realistic perspective of its reality.
Before you fast for the first time you will probably believe one of two things; that it will be very easy or very hard. Most people are surprised by how right AND wrong they were. Very often, both the easy moments are far easier AND the hard moments are harder than we anticipated. This is normal because until we have actually tested our limits we are unlikely to have a good grasp on them.
The lesson here is that knowing our limitations is not just essential to knowing ourselves better, it is knowing ourselves better.
Fasting teaches us to control our hunger, or rather our response to hunger, so we won’t be controlled by it. The thing to remember is that we’re not talking about never eating again, simply being able to, very deliberately, decide when we are going to do it, so we can postpone that moment if it suits us, rather than just doing it “because it’s mealtime, so I have to eat.” That small difference can be an enormous advantage in life, as it prevents us from being a slave to hunger in countless scenarios:
- Time management. First, we gain a lot of time by not having to concern ourselves with procuring meals plus not having to stop to actually eat them; interruptions are productivity killers. Second, a wonderful synergy takes place when we are immersed in important work because, ideally, to make fasting easier we should prepare a list of things to do to keep our minds busy. But even with something as simple as being on a tight schedule and needing to skip a meal. When one is rushing to get things done (work, travelling, chores, whatever), being able to skip an upcoming meal to gain time feels like a superpower.
- Avoiding bad food choices. When we find ourselves in a situation where there are only unhealthy and/or expensive foods.
- Gaining an advantage (or cancelling another person’s). Like anything else we learn to do, being comfortable fasting will give us an edge over those who haven’t acquired that skill, when we need to perform, be it a negotiation, sporting competition, interview, karaoke or whatever. I wish I had kept a list of all the important people about whom I’ve read that they always scheduled business meetings before lunch and then extended them so the other party would be starving and gladly sign whatever was put in front of them.
Reset the hedonic treadmill (and thus increase pleasure)
Humans are extraordinarily good at homeostasis, which means maintaining a stable equilibrium. Our bodies regulate our physiological processes to adapt to any variations and return us to our usual baseline. For example, when we drink coffee for the first time we become extremely stimulated, but if we continue doing it day after day, our organism gradually adapts and very soon that initial cup which gave us a huge jolt of energy only provides a gentle nudge, so then we need two cups to get the same effect.
This homeostasis also includes our mental state, so the same is true of pleasure. Anything that feels good or satisfying, if repeated very often, will gradually lose its effect so we will need a stronger dose to obtain the same initial result.
The good news is that the mechanism works in both directions. If we remove a stimulus that we have grown used to, the body will adapt to that new condition and our tolerance level will be reset. And once we reset the pleasure baseline, small things that were previously inconsequential become highly enjoyable.
You can probably see where we’re going with this.
We often hear people (mostly French!) say that every single meal should always be a feast, as shorthand for “elaborate, abundant and varied.” Don’t swallow that rubbish. Only a spoiled person could think that way. Precisely the kind of person who would most benefit from fasting, to be brought back down to Earth and reminded that the main role of food is to keep us alive. Plus, as we just saw, once we do a solid fast we learn that we don’t need elaborate dishes to enjoy the experience of eating. When one is REALLY hungry, a plain apple is worth 9 Michelin stars.
But beyond needing a lesson in humility, people who say that every meal should be a feast are spreading an obvious logical fallacy. Let’s break it down:
Of course, a meal can be a source of pleasure, but then again, so can everything else, so it’s royally stupid to say that EVERY single meal SHOULD be a feast. That’s tantamount to saying that every single day we should have a spa session instead of a quick shower, that every single day we should read a life-changing book instead of watching an episode of a series or that every single day we should wear our finest clothes instead of the most comfortable or appropriate for the occasion.
In fact, if we actually did try to make every meal a feast, we would get the opposite effect, because we would lose the value of feasting! If we really had three (or more) feasts a day, would we really enjoy every one of those 1000+ feasts per year? If that is even possible, which I doubt, I can guarantee that someone who did that would find it increasingly difficult to make a meal special.
Instead, if our goal is to maximise the pleasure obtained from food, then it is much more logical to take the complete opposite approach; that most meals should NOT be a feast, but rather plain and even boring. Once we have trained ourselves to not need a feast or, even better, to enjoy dull foods for most meals, then even a very small indulgence will seem like a banquet AND whenever we do decide to indulge, we will value the experience much more, making it a truly special occasion.
The conclusion is that, ironically, NOT feasting teaches us to truly appreciate special meals and also makes it far more likely that we will have those special meals because the threshold for specialness will be much lower.
And of course, we can even combine fasting and feasting to synergise the experience; if we fast the day before, we will enjoy a feast a lot more. (I like how that sounds, I should make it into a T-shirt).
Break with conventions
Another important thing we learn by fasting is that, very often, we don’t even eat because we are hungry, but because it’s “mealtime.” But that convention of eating three times a day is actually quite recent. Like so many elements of our current society that we now take for granted unquestioningly but are actually not particularly good for us, this came about during the Industrial Revolution. Back then, instead of taking the time to eat whenever they felt hungry, people started to follow set meal times to coincide with factories’ work shifts.
Unlike eye colour, height or allergy to rap, there is nothing in our DNA that says we should eat a fixed number of meals per day, let alone at specific times. But because throughout our entire lives we have trained our organism to receive food at set intervals, the difficult moments of a fast are those habitual meal times, while the rest of the day one doesn’t feel hungry.
This is another extremely valuable lesson. Once we have broken that artificial social convention we will then start questioning everything else; what other cultural rules set by and for a very different society than the one we live in are we still following blindly nowadays? The answer is: LOTS. And that takes us to the last and most important point.
We’ve purposefully left the most valuable lesson for dessert.
Nourishment is at the base of Maslow’s Pyramid because, just like smartphones and Wi-Fi, it’s absolutely essential for life.
When we are very hungry, nothing else matters. Hunger reminds us of the real, objective importance of things, instead of the subjective one we usually ascribe to them.
If we were starving to death and Margot Robbie/Bradley Cooper offered us “whatever we wanted” for our Lamborghini, we’d happily trade it for their kebab leftovers.
By definition, value is based on scarcity, so the experience of being hungry, of not being able to have something that we absolutely need, recalibrates our priorities and allows us to value things accurately.
This is one of the most important lessons we can learn in life. It’s one of those Matrix Red Pill moments; once we wake up by questioning something as essential as eating, we start to see everything differently. We realise just how many aspects we’ve been taking for granted as completely immutable truths, as if they were physical laws of nature like gravity, when in reality they are nothing more than mental constructs or habits or groupthink or tradition or, worst of all, marketing. The problem is that we often let these notions guide our everyday lives and they end up determining what we believe we are allowed, or prohibited, to do. But we cannot break out of that prison until we realise it exists.
Earlier we talked about those poor bastards who believe that each meal should be a special feast. People who don’t question that belief will suffer when they are forced to eat a meal of plain bread, carrots and water. They will be distressed so they will spend considerable money and/or time to avoid such a plain meal. See the big difference here? They won’t suffer because of their objective hunger, but because of their (misguided) subjective notion of life. By comparison, not having to ensure that our next meal will be a feast frees us to enjoy whatever other pleasures are available when food is not one of them.
The lesson is that freedom from a fixed mentality is THE true pleasure because pleasure can only be had in freedom. Otherwise, it’s not pleasure but necessity, and satisfying a necessity is not really pleasure, only the removal of suffering.
To recap, the beauty of fasting is that it teaches us a vital principle that we can then see and apply in every other aspect of life: that enjoying or even needing something doesn’t mean we should make it the focus of our lives. We are each responsible for deciding what is truly important to us and the best way to do that is by knowing ourselves better, thinking independently and testing our assumptions.
As mentioned, we are leaving health issues completely aside, but there is extensive evidence that fasting is really good for you. This knowledge is not new, by the way, that’s why most religions and cultures in the world contemplate some form of fasting. Unfortunately, our indulgent modern world cannot conceive putting oneself through any form of discomfort, but we would do well to regain some of those old habits. That said, only YOU are responsible for your health, so please inform yourself before you do anything silly. Here are some resources to start you on your fasting journey:
If you are interested in this topic, let me know, perhaps I’ll do a longer post on it and go into further details, like the different types of fast you can try, what I do, tips, etc.
Originally published at http://pandemicponderings.wordpress.com on April 1, 2021.