On hunger and equanimity

Note: this post is inspired by a current experiment I’m running: only eating food from my own property for the entire month of August, while also trying to reach my goal of climbing 5.12. Needless to say, I’ve been hungry a lot. I’m charting the entire thing on a separate Substack, recommended especially for the climbers out there.

In college I had a friend who decided to go on a fast. Call him Alex.

Alex and I were attending a Christian Science school called Principia, situated on a bluff above the Mississippi River, with St. Louis visible in the far distance, at least on clear days. Alex was the best Christian Scientist I knew, or rather the best Christian Scientist who also happened to be a friend of mine.

What I mean is, we got along, despite my deep skepticism of the faith in which I was raised, and his, well, faith in it. He didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t plan on having premarital sex with the long-time girlfriend from the Christian Science high school they’d both come from. Most importantly, he practiced, or tried to practice, the method of spiritual healing as laid out in the Christian Science textbook, which promised that one could overcome the corporeal body we were all stuck in. We could, through study and prayer, realize that we are all perfect spiritual beings of God, and if perfect, than free from sickness, disease and death.

I didn’t know how this worked precisely, but Alex seemed to be further along than I was. And so we often had an exchange of views on matters spiritual, moral, and yes, premarital.

When Alex mentioned he was planning to fast, I confess I thought the idea rather silly. It was either a 48 hour, or maybe a 72, both of which were long enough that I dismissed the idea out of hand for myself.

He had decided to join a protest of sorts, organized by some do-gooder student organization or another, in which students would fast in order to show their support for the starving children of Africa. Or to show support for someone, somewhere. I can’t recall the precise cause.

I felt the whole thing curious and also perhaps totally disingenuous, since us Christian Scientists clearly had a superior leg up in the fasting game, given that we all studied a method of what was essentially mind over matter. If we truly wanted to suffer on behalf of the starving children of Africa, shouldn’t we pick something that couldn’t be overcome through Christian Science?

So I asked Alex, in my poorly thought through undergraduate mind kind of way: How are you planning to overcome the hunger? I mean, how does that work, you know, with Christian Science and everything?

He replied: I don’t know. I guess I’m expecting to feel pretty hungry for two days.

Later in life, in those young halcyon days after College, Alex and I became quite close friends. He had given up Christian Science by then — something about feeling terrible having to refuse convivial vodka shots for months on end during an abroad to Russia — but he remained extremely thoughtful. An even better version of the man I’d known in College, if I do say so.

I should have told him back then how much that one comment about his fasting had impacted me. A decade and a half later, I now recognize Alex’s power in that moment was equanimity, the skill of simply being ok with whatever comes, or whatever is.

It took me years, or decades, depending on how one counts, to appreciate that equanimity is something to be learned, practiced, and cherished. Almost a superpower. It’s not about giving up on one’s goals, or being passive, but rather a certain steadiness in the face of chaos, a cultivated ability to maintain composure even when things fall to shit. If fasting, it’s an ability to simply observe that you feel hungry, and to be ok with that.

From the oracle of Wikipedia:

Equanimity is a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind. The virtue and value of equanimity is extolled and advocated by a number of major religions and ancient philosophies.

It also took me a while to realize that Alex’s faith was had likely given him a head start on equanimity. For me, it took meditation. After learning meditation, I also learned to fast — for me, the former was a prerequisite for the latter.

Yet in retrospect, the ingredients for equanimity were also in Christian Science, if only I’d looked at them differently, maybe mixed them around and turned them over with a little more care. The religion may teach that matter is unreal, an illusion, an “error” in thought — but, perhaps unwittingly, the religion also carries within it the tools to figure out equanimity apart from the faith aspect, which is maybe what Alex had done from the beginning.

Perhaps all religions hint at equanimity in some way, although often, in the final analysis, taking a view of the world nearly incompatible with its modern practice. To take one example, I always thought “Let go, and let God” was a ridiculous, reductive piece of faith-based rubbish that one says to absolve one’s own responsibility for events. But, looked at differently, turned over, it’s also a kind of exhortation to practice being ok with whatever the fates have in mind for you. And whether it’s really fate, chance, chaos, a malevolent force, or God, is really beside the point.

Fasting itself is completely in my control — I could quit this little experiment I’m on any time I choose — although, who knows, perhaps one day I will truly need to rely on this skill involuntarily. But while it is in my control, it is a continual reminder to practice that kind of equanimity.

Thinking of you, Alex.