Thursday, January 21, 2016

On Cashews and Cached Equanimity

F. was patient with my busy social life over the holiday season and my going off on retreat soon after getting back from Michigan, so when it came time for a Saturday afternoon movie, I readily acceded to his choice: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. I have never seen a Tarantino film because of their reputation for violence. This one was three hours long and it certainly was violent, particularly toward the end, but it never seemed to drag, and the gore was so disgustingly exaggerated, it was less disturbing than, say, one very realistic stabbing.

We originally were going to go to the new theater on Mission St., the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, but our movie was sold out there—all 30 seats. That must be one tiny screen. We were much better off watching the blood splatter on a huge screen at the AMC theater on Van Ness.

I was speaking with a dharma friend who, per the natural rhythms of his practice, has been meditating less lately. Consequently, he said, he was noticing more reactivity, and what he said he would have to call the hindrance of doubt—not of himself, but of the dharma, which I thought was funny. He was wondering why, after 20 or so years of practice, there isn’t more residual or cached equanimity to carry one through such stretches.

This made me think about my lingering idea that regular meditation will raise my default level of kindness. I’m always a little surprised when I find myself being unkind: how can this be happening after 25 years of meditation? I think the answer is that meditation does not directly increase kindness or equanimity. It makes it easier to detect how it feels to be unkind or reactive, and it gives us practice in being awake, which may lead to more frequently making beneficial choices, and if we choose kindness over and over, it may become habitual, but I think it takes a huge number of choices before that happens, especially if one has a lot of practice in being angry or petulant or anxious.

Thinking about having to choose repeatedly then made me think about food and eating. I’m continuing to eat mindfully and am increasingly aware of how uncomfortable it feels when my body gets more food than it needs and how good it feels to eat in response to physical hunger. I want to have that experience as often as possible, which means sometimes choosing not to have an enormous meal that will delay the next experience of hunger for many hours or even into the next day.

I also am pondering what need a particular mouthful of food is satisfying. If I am actually hungry, the answer is clear. Or perhaps it is satisfying what I think is a legitimate or at least understandably human desire for a little pleasure now and then, but that is only true of the first few bites of food. One mouthful of garlic-parmesan potato chips is fantastic, ditto the second and third. But after that, the pleasure only wanes and continuing to eat just reinforces the habit of eating when there isn’t any physical reason for it.

In trying to re-create the pleasure of the first few bites of food, one frequently employed technique is to try some other kind of food: Hmm, roasted, salted cashews not doing the trick. Maybe some macadamia nuts. Maybe macadamia nuts with raisins. Maybe an English muffin with ghee. Maybe an English muffin with ghee and cashew butter. Um … maybe a third English muffin?

Not reading while eating is bringing a lot more clarity. I can say to myself, “I have had three handfuls of roasted, salted cashews and they were absolutely splendid. But what need will this next handful of cashews satisfy? None. There is no currently existing need that can be satisfied by continuing to eat cashews. I am free to do so. I am free to eat cashews until I physically can’t contain any more of them, and then I will feel terrible. So perhaps I will stop now.” And so, lately, sometimes I stop and sometimes it feels great, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it feels empty and blank, like, now what?

But when not much time has passed and I’m hungry once more, then I’m glad I stopped when I did. Also, being more aligned with reality rather than basing my behavior on fantasy (e.g., more cashews equals more joy) is a satisfying feeling.

In the past, I just wanted to be on a certain diet and not have to choose. When I felt stuffed and ill from egregious overeating, I would think, “I’ll sure never do that again.” I believed that having a sufficiently horrible experience would mean I would do anything to avoid that experience in the future. But how many times did that prove not to work? Quite a large number of times. Eating is just like speaking and acting: constructive choices have to be made over and over again, and the only time this can be done is right now.
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