When do you “need” to eat?

I ate very little yesterday and this morning only had a coffee. By 10AM I was feeling lightheaded and dizzy – a common side-effect of fasting.

When I first developed my diet, lightheadedness was a sign that I needed to eat something to keep going.

But since then my circumstances have changed quite a bit, and I’ve changed too. So when I started to feel dizzy I didn’t immediately eat something.

Tiredness and fatigue are not purely physical. My mood has improved a lot in the past year, and I no longer feel as fatigued as I used to. Plus my life is far more active and busy than it was back then

What I’m getting at is that my circumstances, and my subjective sense of needing to eat something to keep going have both changed. I need to recalibrate.

This morning I decided to eat something because I was worried about driving while feeling dizzy.

It worked. The dizziness went away and I kept going, taking a trip to the beach with my daughter.

It will take more time for me to fine-tune this sense of when I need to eat.

In the meantime I decided to eat a small serving of dinner tonight with my family. My reasoning is that – as I mention in my book – eating serves a communal, social purpose. Also, it was never my intention to eat as little as possible or to fast to the point of dizziness.

Besides, when I first worked out this approach to diet I was much more overweight, on the verge of obese. This time around I’m only slightly overweight, and the difference between what I need to eat and how much I’ve been overeating is less stark.

The factors may be innumerable, but that’s why I love the approach of working things out myself, with both generalisable principles and personal circumstances in mind.

Hungry, tired, or just lacking stimulation?

It’s 1:54pm and so far today I’ve had two cups of coffee with milk and three cherry tomatoes.

I’ve taken one child to school (walking) and driven with another child to a few shops for some research.

In about an hour I’ll drive to do some grocery shopping, do the school pick up, come home and start preparing dinner.

I’m feeling tired, but I don’t actually feel hungry.

I’m in a really good place for observing how I feel. Can I keep going without eating right now? Easily.

I need to drink more water, but apart from that, I’m noticing that the tiredness is not actually about hunger but interest.

It’s a mindset issue that would have previously been buried under the distraction of eating more. The pleasure of eating provides a time-out and relief from other concerns.

I could instead have a black coffee for stimulation and enjoyment, or take the opportunity to wonder what other sources of pleasure and enjoyment are available to me right now.

I don’t actually need to eat. But I’m also not rigidly trying to meet an arbitrary diet goal. I’m free to do what I want, but with enough self-awareness and experience to know that food isn’t going to provide what I want right now.

Fasting mindfully

Following my diet may inadvertently lead to fasting.

But to my mind there’s a big difference between fasting as a means to an end, and fasting as a by-product of following your body’s natural guidance.

It’s the difference between forcing yourself to fast because you believe there are health and weight-loss benefits, and finding that you need very little food to keep going at your current levels of activity and BMI.

If you wake up in the morning and find you don’t need breakfast to keep going, then you haven’t “broken fast” and therefore you are fasting.

I find with my current lifestyle I can keep going without eating till early evening. I just don’t need that much energy. So with the exception of a coffee or two, I’m technically fasting until dinner.

We could say this is mindful fasting because the fasting is a result of being mindful of your body’s actual energy needs rather than psychological cravings or arbitrary eating habits.

And with a mindful approach we can enjoy the clarity of really knowing why we are eating or not eating, rather than blindly putting our trust in fads and studies.

Pigs and Fishes – Dealing with Intractable People

According to Rev. Conrad Hock, the melancholic temperament:

reveals his inmost thoughts reluctantly and only to those whom he trusts. He does not easily find the right word to express and describe his sentiments.

Presenting one’s thoughts clearly can feel like an almost impossible task. On the one hand, having spent days, weeks, or months considering a problem, the melancholic often finds his thoughts and ideas have progressed too far to be easily communicated. On the other hand, it seems like there is a more systematic barrier to successful communication, as if there is some elusive secret to conveying the true meaning of his thoughts. As Pascal wrote:

We think we are playing on ordinary organs when playing upon man. Men are organs, it is true, but, odd, changeable, variable with pipes not arranged in proper order. Those who only know how to play on ordinary organs will not produce harmonies on these. We must know where the keys are.

Perhaps the problem is inherent to communication generally; perhaps melancholics are unique only in that they put so much stock in their precious ideas from the outset, and hence are left wondering always whether others *really* understand. There surely is a general problem of communication and influence, enough so that the Confucians and Daoists each had their perspective on how the sage, or the aspiring sage, could be sure of the effect his words, deeds, and bearing might have.

The previous post described the power of sincerity, which, in a Confucian context, is a quality with almost supernatural efficacy and reach.

In a Daoist context, the analogous concept is ’emptiness’, according to which the sage empties himself of desires or cravings, contrived thoughts and plans, and personal interests in order to embody the emptiness of the Dao itself. Section 4 of the Zhuangzi is instructive in this regard. In it Zhuangzi depicts Confucius discussing with his favoured pupil Yan Hui how to go about influencing the tyrant lord of Wei:

Yan Hui went to see Confucius and asked for permission to travel.
Confucius asked him, “Where are you going?”
“To the state of Wey.”
“What will you do there?”
“I have heard that the lord of Wey is in the prime of youth and his behavior is impetuous. He is quick to send his armies off to war and fails to see his faults. He regards it as a light matter that his people should die; corpses fill the marshlands like dried reeds and there is nothing his people can do. I have heard it from you, Master: ‘Depart the well ordered state and go to the state in disarray. The gate of the doctor is filled with the ill.’ I wish to put into practice the teachings I have learned, and so, perhaps effect some healing in Wey?”

“Ach!” said Confucius. “You’re just going to get yourself executed. What you don’t want in a Dao is some assortment of teachings. An assortment is just a profusion of notions, and if you follow a profusion of notions you’ll lose control of them. When you lose control you’ll be governed by anxiety, and once that happens you’re be beyond help. In the old days the Perfect Person cultivated the way within himself before he tried to cultivate it in others. When you haven’t yet settled what’s within you yourself, what leisure have you to concern yourself with the conduct of a tyrant?

The whole exchange is worth reading, but ends with Confucius sharing with his disciple the method for having a true and lasting influence on the tyrant:

Confucius said, “You must fast! Let me tell you. Can any action be accomplished with ease if pursued by means of the mind’s intentions? If you think it is, bright Heaven will not befriend you.”
Yan Hui said, “My family is poor, and I have not drunk wine or eaten meat for several months. Doesn’t that constitute fasting?”
“That is the fasting one does before performing rites of sacrifice. It is not the fasting of the mind.”
“May I ask, what is the fasting of the mind?”
Confucius said, “Unify your will. Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind – don’t listen with your mind, listen with your qi. The ears are limited to listening; the mind is limited to sorting. But the qi, all empty it awaits things. The Dao gathers in emptiness – emptiness: that is the fasting of the mind.”
“Before hearing this,” said Yan Hui, “and grasping it in full, I was solidly I myself. But now that I have grasped it – why, there has never been any I at all! Is this the emptiness you mean?”
“You’ve got it!” said Confucius. “I tell you, now you may go to roam inside his coop, and you’ll never be moved by fame. If he listens, then sing; if not, be still. Have no gate, have no doorway – make oneness your home and lodge in the unavoidable. That’s as close to it as can be!”

People are often disturbed by talk of ’emptiness’ and the Zhuangzi contains some of the more idiosyncratic of such statements. James Legge provides an alternative translation of the key phrase:

Hui said, ‘Before it was possible for me to employ (this method), there I was, the Hui that I am; now, that I can employ it, the Hui that I was has passed away. Can I be said to have obtained this freedom from pre-occupation?’

The Chinese is not easy:


A clumsy, literal translation might be: ‘Hui not yet begin to use, real self Hui; using it, not yet begin to have Hui. Can this be said to be empty?’

The significant difference is in whether Hui, upon using the method of ‘fasting of the mind’ finds à la Legge that “the Hui that I was has passed away” or à la Eno “there has never been any I at all!”, or instead, finds that Hui has not yet begun to exist. Why is this significant? Because the idea of self-destruction is much more severe than self-preemption, but also because Daoist metaphysics encourages a view of emptiness as prior to ‘being’. The point is not to destroy the self or watch it fade away, but to find the point prior to the emergence or actualisation of one’s most developed thoughts, feelings, and desires.

In pragmatic terms, if you are full of yourself you have nowhere to go and no way to develop. To approach the tyrant full of plans, ideas, and schemes is to have already played one’s hand, to have actualised one’s potential too soon. Emptiness is the ‘root’ while phenomena are the ‘branches’. As the Zhuangzi concludes:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit. Let your ears and eyes communicate with what is inside and put mind and knowledge on the outside. Then even the spirits will come to dwell with you, not to speak of men. Such is change in the world of things – the pivot of Emperors Yu and Shun, the constant practice of the sages Fu Xi and Ji Qu. How much more should it be a rule for others!