***Disclaimer: Intermittent fasting should NOT be attempted without extensive research and preparation! Please suffer safely. 😀
If you didn’t know, stoics are pretty big on suffering.
Planned suffering, that is.
“What’s that, Cori?” I’m glad you asked!
Essentially, it is one method that stoics have used for thousands of years in order to practice self-control and equanimity.
- Seneca made it a point from time to time only to consume food devoid of any real flavor or nutritional value (like “the grimiest slice of bread” he could find).
- Tim Ferriss walks around in public wearing flamboyant pants.
- I talk to girls.
Okay, the suffering part isn’t actually planned when it comes to that last one, but I think you get the idea!
I am fascinated by this idea, especially as it applies to temperance (one of the four pillars of virtue by which stoics try to live).
Temperance more or less means “just enough.” It’s how stoics exercise moderation and self-control in all aspects of life.
While I think I am much better at practicing temperance now than I was a few years ago, I know that there is still room for improvement here.
That’s why I’m forcing myself to suffer like Seneca — with intermittent fasting.
“I don’t like food. I LOVE it.”
When it comes to food, I — much like the food critic in Ratatouille — don’t mess around.
See, I don’t just like food. I love it (especially sweets…chocolate is my weakness).
I’ve been trying to change my relationship with food for many months now.
Aside from the obvious reasons (health, longevity, sexiness…) I’ve become really obsessed with calisthenics over the last year.
Namely, the kind of stuff they do on American Ninja Warrior. I mean, until science get’s it’s sh*t together, these guys are pretty much the closest thing we’ll ever have real to super heroes.
Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever tried to lose 5+ lbs probably knows, health is much more about nutrition than it is about pumping iron.
You can go to the gym every day of your life and endure the most effective strength-training circuits known to man but if you continue to eat crap, you’ll still be weak and unhealthy.
No ninja skills for you.
That can be a real problem for someone with my aspirations.
My Goal in Life is to Be a Monkey
I’m happy to say that I’ve reached a point where going to the gym every day and eating healthy food is not a problem anymore. I’ve made it a habit to not only cook for myself every day but to cook whole foods and veggies.
And I love it (“buddha bowls” are the shit)!
The problem for me lies in saying no to the “bad” food. And not only saying no to the bad food but also limiting the healthier food (like fruits) which can be over-consumed.
Why? I’m sure part of it is a sugar addiction, but I also know that I have a habit of reaching for food when I am stressed out, anxious, tired, etc.
But above all, food is just fun.
And while I do believe we should enjoy the food that we eat, it is only fuel at the end of the day. With how many problems the irresponsible consumption of food causes, it just makes sense that we should change our attitude about it if we want to lead happy, contented, and virtuous lives.
That’s why I think Seneca’s approach is particularly useful.
Putting Strength to the Test
In one of Seneca’s letters, he had this to say to his friend Lucilius:
“…perhaps this (December) is the very season when we should be keeping the soul under strict control, making it unique in abstaining from pleasure just when the crowd are all on pleasure bent…Remaining dry and sober takes a good deal more strength of will when everyone about one is puking drunk; it takes a more developed sense of fitness, on the other hand, not to make of oneself a person apart, to be neither distinguishable from those about one nor conspicuous by one’s difference, to do the same things but not quite in the same manner. For a holiday can be celebrated without extravagant festivity.“
For Seneca, the holidays are the perfect time to test one’s strength of will, namely because everyone else is going to be doing the exact opposite — getting “puking drunk” and essentially losing themselves in celebration.
Of course, this didn’t mean totally abstaining from the fun.
Suffering Can be Fun
Seneca didn’t believe in being a party pooper. In fact, he wanted to help people change their ways to become more virtuous. He believed that the best way to make this happen was to not diverge too much from the crowd.
Otherwise, he believed we risk scaring people away and causing them to be turned off by anything we might have to say (and there is actually research to suggest that we should probably be wary of this).
He goes on later to say…
“We shall be easier in our minds when rich if we have come to realize how far from burdensome it is to be poor…I am not, mind you, against your possessing [riches], but I want to ensure that you possess them without tremors; and this you will achieve in one way, by convincing yourself that you can live a happy life even without them, and by always regarding them as being on the point of vanishing.”
Stoics firmly believed that we can be truly happy in any situation no matter how difficult as long as we don’t put our happiness in any of the external things we possess. That’s because everything we own will eventually be taken away from us, even if it is only in death.
Easier said than done. Seneca definitely recognized this.
That’s why he encouraged the practice of suffering;
“Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it…and ask yourself, “Is this what one used to dread?”
“Barley porridge, or a crust of barley bread, and water do not make a very cheerful diet, but nothing gives one keener pleasure than the ability to derive pleasure even from that — and the feeling of having arrived at something which one cannot be deprived of by any unjust stroke of fortune. Prison rations are more generous: the man in the condemned cell is not so scantily fed as that by the executioner; to reduce oneself, then, of one’s own free choice to a diet that no man has any real call to be apprehensive about even if he is sentenced to death, that is an act of real spiritual greatness. To do this is truly to forestall the blows of fortune.”
It is an incredible essay and I was excited to try incorporating its ideas into my own life.
Just How Much Did I Suffer?
My ultimate goal was to be able to practice intermittent fasting (fasting for 16 hours of the day and eating only in an 8-hour window, e.g. from noon until 9 PM) which a number of studies suggest can actually be very good for our health if done correctly.
I decided to start small.
This meant taking just one day to eliminate all sugar from my diet including fruit.
I didn’t start eating until I really got hungry (around 11) and even then, I had only a buddha bowl with no seasoning. After that I allowed myself to eat only cold rice.
I’m not going to lie — it was incredibly difficult. By the end of the day, I had a massive headache and was feeling very ill which suggests to me that I probably have a sugar addiction and was going through withdrawals.
Initially, I wanted to make it a full 24 hours. I ended up deciding that midnight was technically the end of the day. I proceeded to eat all the fruit in my mini fridge (thankfully I don’t keep junk food around), then I fell asleep.
Whether you want to call it a technical success or a technical failure, I learned a lot about myself in the process. I made it longer than I expected to, and it really wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be.
One thing that really helped was repeating Seneca’s question to myself throughout the experiment — “Is this what I used to dread?”
Don’t get me wrong, cutting sugar was very difficult especially when my headache set in at the end of the day. However, by engaging in a present state of awareness I was able to stave off giving in for as long as possible. I think this helped a lot when I tried intermittent fasting later on (more on this later).
After all, pushing my meals back a few hours is easy compared to eating cold rice all day.
Basically, I am having a lot of fun with Seneca’s teachings and I can’t wait to try other experiments like this.
More coming soon!