I had let myself go a bit so this weekend I planned to get back on track.
Zero sugar: no more pastries, cakes and dark chocolate. Zero alcohol: no going to the Pub - or else for a Perrier. Two real meditation sessions a day: it's true that in Paris, between my son and appointments, I often do this too quickly - we're getting back to it.
Since we're there: no more cell phone. I'm not on Facebook and company anymore but I spend hours on Reddit and Youtube. We're uninstalling! (Even if it means reinstalling later...)
And why stop there? I pushed the vice to the point of doing the following experiment:
For forty-eight hours, when I felt like doing something that wasn't necessary... Well NO! I wasn't doing it. The goal was not to deprive myself or suffer unnecessarily but to study my response to frustration, to see how my brain reacts under pressure, to observe the thoughts and emotions elicited by breaking my habits.
I called it my Stoic experiment.
Recently, I had been wondering about the role of effort, discomfort and discipline. In particular, listening to Chris Williamson's podcast with David Goggins on overcoming one's limits, rereading Marc Aurelius and his Stoic pals, thinking back to some of the Buddha's teachings on the nature of experience, listening again to the presentation by Joseph Goldstein on the end of passions, but also, simply, by taking cues from personalities I admire who seem to handle effort differently.
Also: through the counter-example of loved ones I see sinking under the weight of their addictions.
The theory is this: since no one escapes suffering and discomfort, we must learn to live with it. Better yet: make them allies. We cannot control external circumstances, it is true, but we can control our relationship to them. Therein lies room for progress and a field for experimentation.
First observation of the weekend: it's hard. But brief.
The moment when you deny yourself the cake, the youtube session on the couch or the little beer at the end of the day, this moment is extremely difficult to go through. Everything inside you screams: "But why? We have always done like that!" The weight of habit weighs down and the body rebels: the feeling of hunger becomes more acute, or the fatigue, or the desire to drink. It takes an effort that seems disproportionate to the actual size of the obstacle.
And a minute later... nothing.
The discomfort and difficulty disappeared as quickly as they had come. No trace, no aftereffect. One feels neither better nor worse, as if the obstacle had never existed.
Then, as we let each new urge pass, it becomes easier and easier - all categories combined. You end up wanting less, being less attached to satisfying your desire. Without a goal to reach in the future, we become more available for the present: we receive what is rather than constantly comparing with what should be.
Consequence: we realize that, the rest of the time, we act on the basis of very ephemeral impulses that have no consequence on long-term happiness. Worse: satisfying an urge reinforces the "I want / I get" mechanism which makes it more difficult to resist the next assault. Letting go is worked like a muscle.
Second observation: we find ourselves in novel situations.
When I forbid myself to collapse on the couch for another youtube session, for a moment I find myself a bit lost. What do I do instead? If I don't lie down, do I stand? Do I sit down? But... where? At my desk? On that chair in the corner that is never used? But... WHAT FOR?
A habit is the permission we give ourselves to abandon ourselves body and soul to a familiar activity that asks no questions. As soon as we break the routine, nothing is self-evident and the questions return. Everything becomes new and mysterious. What if I played the xylophone? What if I cleaned the windows? Remind me: what did we do for entertainment before cell phones?
Because let's be honest: a youtube session is twenty minutes minimum - and there are several in a day. Beer is often two beers, and that involves a drive, buddies and talk. As for sugar, it's like food in general: it's a whole ritual that requires shopping, cooking, eating, washing dishes, etc. Often with the radio or TV on.
So it's mathematical: when you stop all that, you have extra time.
That's why this weekend, without really realizing it, I started drawing again, made music on my Pocket Operator, visited a nursing home and a cemetery, read a lot more than I usually do, and filled my journal with musings about the meaning of life and the nature of existence.