‘Almost all neuroses begins as an alternative to legitimate suffering‘ – Carl Jung

Hunger. We have a complicated relationship with it.

This week a couple of my colleagues and I are taking part in the Ration Challenge. I’m two days into a week of eating plain rice gruel, a few beans, no coffee. Later in the week I get a tin of sardines. I’m still practising my karate, so being quite active my body is aching all of the time, I have a headache and I am always hungry. My whole body is hungry. But what is hunger? Well it might seem obvious but for clarity, to my mind it is a craving. An intense desire for food specifically. But we can have hunger for lots of things I expect. A hunger for company, sugar, recognition, alcohol, exercise, sex, drugs, knowledge or our loved ones. Feeling a lack of something, and the abiding belief that its presence will relieve that hunger.

Sounds reasonable enough.

Curiously, most religions and cultures have rituals and traditions that call on their adherents to get acquainted with hunger. Catholics have Lent, where meat or some other ‘luxury’ item is given up for a period of forty days – the same period for which their prophet, Jesus Christ, is said to have fasted and prayed alone in the desert. Zen Buddhists ‘celebrate’ Rohatsu. In Zen monasteries time spent sitting in meditation is dramatically increased, and time spent sleeping is reduced to a couple of hours a night. This is done in order to celebrate the period around which Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have achieved ‘enlightenment’; around December 8. Islam observes Ramadan, where one may not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset (it’s harder than it sounds, I’m informed by Muslim friends). This exercise is designed as a period of reflection, but also as a means of developing empathy for those who do not fast by choice, or enjoy the luxury of eating their fill after sunset. Jewish traditions observe ‘Yom Kippur’, a day of atonement characterised by fasting. Even in Karate and other martial traditions, there are numerous versions of austere training. Kangeiko (cold early morning training in winter), Gasshuku (‘lodging together’), and other periods of ‘Shugyo’ (any period of training that is of greater duration, intensity or both, than usual). In some karate traditions there is the ’50’ man kumite, where the practitioner volunteers to fight 50 rounds with fresh opponents at each round. There are other martial ‘austerities’, but you get the drift…

Even in the post-modern world, people who are otherwise pretty well off in terms of food, shelter and certain of life’s sensual luxuries often evidence a desire to engage in periods of relative austerity. Be it for a cause like the Ration Challenge, or the 40 Hour Famine, or Sleep Out or just for the experience – such as a very long hike or running a marathon. So what’s so great about hunger? Why do those who never have to experience it often seem to crave the experience to the extent that it has become an indispensable part of our spiritual, religious, and community traditions?

What’s stranger, it seems the loss of those traditions in the developed world has been accompanied by deteriorating well being, social connectedness and poorer psychological outcomes. Maybe one has something to do with the other, maybe they’re both caused by a third variable. If the latter, I wonder what that third variable might be.

I wonder if it is at all possible we’ve been relieved of a few too many hungers and discomforts, so that they’re no longer natural, and as a result are now poorly understood and frightening to us. Years ago, I was a trekking guide in Kakadu. I spent my holidays leading treks in the back country, where we would walk for up to three weeks, and at times be several days walk from the nearest road or trail. On one of these trips, I was leading a group of university students from the USA. They were all very nice people, but diverse, and some had been blessed with very comfortable lives so far. We were walking off trail of course, through long grass and scrub. Scratches were common, most went largely unnoticed. Until we reached camp. I was collecting firewood while the my group took a dip in a lovely clear waterhole we had set up camp next to, when I heard a blood curdling screech. Running to the the source of the noise I was expecting to find one of my people half way down the gullet of a saltwater crocodile or impaled on the tusks of a wild boar; neither of which would, for a wilderness guide, be especially fetching on a resume…

I’m happy to report there were no large animals chowing-down on my teenage clients. It turns out that the young person in question was in a panic because their legs were ‘burning’, ‘on fire’ and ‘painful’. That light scratching over the skin experienced during the day was new for this young person, having been raised comfortably in an inner city. Not knowing that cool water would produce a stinging sensation after a day’s walking, my younger companion experienced this as an emergency, something dangerous that had to be remedied immediately. As a seasoned walker, I relished the experience. After another five nights (and five hard walking days in the heat), so did my young friend. I wonder whether the problem was a lack of experiencing discomfort, to the extent that it had become indistinguishable from an emergency.

Back in our homes, we enjoy climate controlled rooms, soft fabrics, plenty of food, clean water, and email, facebook and texting (so we never EVER have to have an uncomfortable conversation while in the same room with someone). We never have to be dirty or sandy for very long, rarely cold, hot or sweaty. Sounds like paradise right? No suffering at all, am I right?

You’d think so, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way.

It seems to me that these days we never get the opportunity to make friends with cold, heat, hunger, grit, sand, mud, fear or desire. Being able to sate these things as soon as they arrive, our ability to tolerate them, get to know them for what they are, and study them perishes, like a rubber band that is never stretched. In my experience that produces a couple of fairly unhelpful effects from a psychological perspective.

First of all, an unmet desire or a craving – like hunger, cold, arousal or anxiety – begin to be experienced as emergencies when they are not. Missing two meals when you’re pretty sure you’ll get to eat tomorrow, being slightly terrified before a big speech or examination, forgetting to bring a jacket on a cold night out, being thirsty for a few hours. The sense of urgency, even panic that seems to accompany things like doing the Ration Challenge (which amounts to a strict diet for one week), or not getting what we want seems to have seriously eroded our resilience, physically and psychologically. Our efforts to avoid legitimate and necessary discomfort causes more pain and suffering than giving a bad speech, not getting a job, or missing a few meals ever will.

In our comfortable worlds we seem to be missing out on the chance to get to know these states; we tend to assume they are emergencies, sensations that are disasters in themselves, and only their immediate satiation will do. So we become afraid of them. Perhaps rituals like ‘shugyo’, ‘rohatsu’, ‘lent’ or ‘Yom Kippur’ are designed, among other things, to reacquaint us with hunger, tiredness, desire and indeed self-restraint in the face of discomfort for good reasons – beside the ‘costly virtue signalling‘ that denotes to others our commitment to our group.

More than this, I think there’s a golden opportunity in the occasional austerity. First of all, we get to see desire, hunger and craving for what they really are. Not emergencies in and of themselves – any more than ‘pain’ is. They’re just signals. Treating a craving (see examples above) as if they were emergencies is rather like confusing a smoke alarm for a house fire. Ask yourself, what do you do if the smoke alarm sounds? No, you do not run to the fire exit. You check to see if there is really a fire or someone has burned the scrambled eggs. Similarly if we stop running from anxiety, we get a chance to check whether there is any real danger. Hunger is really only a problem if we don’t know when we’re going to eat again, cold is only a problem if hypothermia is a real possibility. Pain – well, it is very often just discomfort, only becomes an issue when it is a signal of present or impending bodily damage. Seeing cravings for what they are, signals that we are free to make decisions about, puts us in a much more resilient position, where we can – rather paradoxically – experience freedom. The freedom to respond rather than react to every sensation as if we were lizards that don’t have a choice in the matter.

Curious, that in experiencing simplicity, and unsated hungers, we might experience our human freedom more poignantly.

What is more, we might discover there’s a lot to appreciate about hunger, cold, tiredness. After all, to quote Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote, ‘Hunger is the best sauce‘. An older Christian friend of mine would often quote the Bible (Ecclesiastes 5:12) ‘The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.‘ Or put another way, a good night’s sleep is the reward for a hard days work, and the price you might pay for your physical ease may be poorer sleep.

Caution, Zen Story ahead….

Somewhere along the line – life for most of us got a lot easier!

Hyakujo, the Chinese Zen master, used to labor with his pupils even at the age of eighty, trimming the gardens, cleaning the grounds, and pruning the trees. The pupils felt sorry to see the old teacher working so hard, but they knew he would not listen to their advice to stop, so they hid away his tools. That day the master did not eat. The next day he did not eat, nor the next. “He may be angry because we have hidden his tools,” the pupils surmised. “We had better put them back.” The day they did, the teacher worked and ate the same as before. In the evening he instructed them: “I don’t work, I don’t eat.”

You know I used to think this was a demonstration of excessive stoicism by a stubborn old man, but I think differently these days. Perhaps Hyakujo knew something we’ve forgotten. That his dinner (and futon!) wouldn’t taste very good, or be very comforting without first thoroughly enjoying a sound hunger and tiredness first.

I’m not saying I want to be tired, or hungry, or anxious all the time. But I am saying we need not treat these states as emergencies, or be afraid of them. We can occupy that space for a while, and explore it, without judgement, to our profit. After all, no matter how soft our bed, no matter how gourmet the food we are blessed with, without our hunger or tiredness, we would simply become unable to enjoy them. Our appetites are an indispensable part of our joy, and can safely be savoured a little as well.

Savour your cravings, see them for what they are.

Happy hungries.

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