Who has loved with the ultimate depth, and actively given the object of your love back to the universe? Who has experienced that, through this gift, you transcend a broken heart? Who has found this path to having an unguarded heart? That you can fly without wings, fall without landing, hurt without closing, love without losing? To you, your love is my love. Our love is great love.
Over the past fifteen years I have completed perhaps ten fasts, during which I drank only water. They varied in duration from five days to twelve days. This post summarizes what I’ve learned.
I find water fasting to be far superior to modified fasts, such as the so-called “Master Cleanse.” Most of my fasts have been good experiences, with only periodic discomfort. Below I share my tips for making it a more rewarding experience.
Please note, I am not a doctor. Do not mistake anything I write for qualified medical advice.
Find a physician to help supervise your fast. Ayurvedic doctors, naturopathic doctors, doctors of oriental medicine, and other alternative health care practitioners commonly have experience in this area. Conventional health care providers are, as far as I can tell, almost universally ignorant on the topic.
Water fasts vs. modified fasts
Today I do only pure fasts, where I drink solely water. Many people recommend modified fasts instead. These may involve various combinations of juice, tea, syrups, etc. Their reasoning is that, by drinking easily-digestible sources of calories, you still get sustenance. Some people feel this is easier on their body.
My experience is exactly the opposite. Nothing has ever made me feel as miserable as a modified fast. When I tried a juice fast, my blood sugar levels were all over the place, I got headaches, and I had to abandon the fast by the second day.
On a water fast, by contrast, you ingest no calories. After 2-3 days your body switches to a protein-sparing ketone metabolism. You are no longer hungry and your body burns fat to get the glucose your brain needs. Done right, it’s much easier than I would have expected. But it helps if you know how to approach it.
The benefits of fasting
The main benefits I experience from a water fast are that I feel clear headed, I feel more in touch with my body, I have more time, it changes my relationship to food, and I seem to have — and take — more opportunities for spiritual reflection. It often feels like a sacred practice, full of meaning and insight.
It is incredible how much energy we normally spend buying, preparing, and eating food, and then cleaning up afterwards. Remove the need for those activities, and suddenly you have a lot of extra time on your hands.
A similar process takes place inside your body. Digestion, as a chemical process, requires enormous energy. Freed of that burden, your body devotes far more energy to healing and self-repair. I understand, from Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s writings, that fasting can be particularly good for the treatment of arthritis and inflammation. It is perhaps humanity’s oldest medical treatment.
For those of us with food sensitivities, a water fast provides a strong and unmistakable “reset” for our digestive tract. Once you resume eating, you experience food in a completely new light. The flavors and textures are exquisite. It feels natural to be selective about what you put in your body, favoring high-quality foods.
I typically lose about two pounds of fat per day. As man who is naturally slender, this isn’t always a benefit, for me. But if I’ve been eating unhealthily and do gain weight, this often feels like a natural time to fast. Once you break the fast, several pounds come back quickly simply because you once again have food in your digestive tract.
Beginning your fast
I begin by choosing a target length for my fast, while acknowledging that I may go shorter or longer, depending on how my body is responding. Then I block out my schedule, so I don’t have deadlines or significant work commitments, allowing me to work only as I feel ready.
Commonly today I fast for five days, perhaps once or twice a year. During my first fast, I fasted for twelve days. During the final week of that fast, I was often surprised by how clear headed I felt and how much energy I had. On other fasts, I’ve abandoned on the third or fourth day because I felt unusually achy or disoriented.
When it comes to choosing a length of your fast and sticking to it, don’t try to be “strong.” Listen closely to your body, take good care of yourself, and don’t require it to do things that feel unhealthy.
Before you start your fast, make sure you have these items on hand:
- Spring water. Buy a couple gallons of spring water for each day you plan to fast. It’s worth buying good spring water since you’ll be drinking so much of it. The taste of inferior water will get old fast, and most tap water has industrial chemicals in it.
If you don’t have a water filter at home, also buy some filtered water for your enemas. You’ll need a couple gallons per day there, as well. This could be reverse-osmosis water, which is typically cheaper than spring water.
- Sea salt. You’ll add this to your water, to make it saline. Do not use table salt, with iodine, if only because of the flavor.
- An enema kit. Available cheaply on Amazon, if not at a local drug store. More about this below.
- A good probiotic. Many people have good luck with Prescript-Assist. You’ll take this after the fast, to help replenish your gut flora.
On the night before you begin your fast, eat a light, healthy supper and get a very good night’s rest.
When you wake on the first morning of your fast, drink plenty of water. Continue this practice throughout the fast.
When you are hungry, take a little swig of water. When you feel light headed, take another swig of water. If you are thirsty, take two swigs of water. When you feel bored or restless or achy, take another little swig of water.
The water is important because your body is metabolizing a couple pounds of fat per day. Fat cells commonly store toxins. As they’re being metabolized, you have a larger quantity of toxins getting released into the bloodstream. Water helps flush them out.
Add sea salt to all your water. Keep it saline. Otherwise the water can begin to feel harsh, perhaps causing an electrolyte imbalance. Add just enough salt to make it taste a little salty, almost like tears, perhaps around a half-teaspoon per liter, assuming you’re using a medium-sized rock salt.
Store your water at room temperature, rather than keeping it in the fridge. You can also heat it up and drink it from a tea cup. This can be particularly nice if you begin to feel chilled, from the lack of usual calories in your diet.
Do not skip putting sea salt in your water. It makes a significant difference.
Enemas are a crucial important component of a water fast. When you stop eating, your digestion stops as well. This means feces stay in your intestines. Your intestines are porous, which means your bloodstream is absorbing these byproducts from your intestines. Without enemas, the toxins will give you strong headaches and nausea.
Add sea salt to your enemas, just like to the water you’re drinking. Use filtered water, rather than tap water. Warm up the water to body temperature, so it feels more comfortable. Avoid putting your enema reservoir (bucket or bag) too high, or the water will enter with too much force.
Lay down on a towel on the bathroom floor. Apply generous lubricant before inserting the enema tip into your rectum. Start by laying on your back, then turn to your left side, to allow the water to rise up your colon. Then onto your back again and eventually your right side, if you can. Hold the water inside for a few minutes, if possible, and then void on the toilet.
Plan on a couple enema sessions each day during your fast, especially in response to any headaches or nausea. Each session may require two or three enemas. Ideally you keep doing them until the fluid that comes back out is relatively clear.
What to expect
On the first day, I often feel surprisingly clear headed, with occasional bouts of wooziness. Toward the end of the first day is a good time to do your first enemas.
The second day is typically the most challenging. You may not sleep as well on the first night of the fast, and your body hasn’t yet switched fully to ketone metabolism. So the second day often produces the most fatigue. Mild headaches may come and go.
By the third day I’m often beginning to feel better, still weak but more clear headed and feeling like I’m over the hump. Ketosis usually has kicked in by the third day, and any physical craving for hunger subsides.
You’ll get light headed, especially when you stand up, and especially in the early days. This is normal. Stand up gradually and take care not to lose your balance.
You’ll notice how much you use food as entertainment. Long after the hunger passes, you’ll see you still think of food, as a habit, often as a way to self-stimulate, when you are bored. This softens with time, typically after about the third day.
You’ll get cold. Since you’re no longer burning calories, you are generating less body heat. Wear warmer clothes, drink warm water, and take plenty of breaks to lay in bed under the covers.
If it’s winter time and you normally keep your temperature relatively low, take extra precautions to keep warm. Staying warm is important, to avoid stressing your body.
You may sleep less. For some reason, while you’re fasting, you often need less actual sleep. Perhaps it’s because the body is working less to digest food.
Without needing to focus on food, you’ll have lots of extra time. Enjoy it. It can be a good time to take up a writing project, read a few books, or catch up on family phone calls. Just be careful, if you set any goals, not to push yourself. Your first priority is to rest as much as your body needs.
Absolutely, positively avoid thinking about food or spending time around food. Once, midway through a fast, I spent an afternoon crafting meal plans for after my fast. Visualizing food that much derailed my fast, however, and I had to end it early.
It’s normal to have light bouts of dizziness, headaches, or nausea. If they get particularly strong, however, here are the most common causes:
- Not doing enemas. You should do a couple enemas, once or twice a day, especially during the first several days of your fast. If you slack off on your enemas, you’ll know it. You’ll feel awful.
- Not drinking enough water. Drinking water is crucial, not only to stay hydrated, but to flush out the toxins released as your body burns fat at an accelerated pace.
- Not adding sea salt to your water. It’s surprising how much more calming the saline water is, to the body, during a fast. Without it, I suspect our electrolytes get out of balance. It feels uncomfortable.
- Not resting enough. Fasting should be a period of rest. If aren’t getting enough rest, your body will become stressed, and the fast will become agonizingly difficult in your weakened state.
You should only work when it feels nearly effortless to do so. Those periods will come and go, and are more common after the first few days. At other times, you should relax and keep your productivity goals to a bare minimum. With frequent cat naps, however, you may be surprised how much (non-physically intensive) work you can do. This is particularly true after the first few days.
If you are doing things right and you still feel quite bad, then it’s best to break your fast and try again another time. Sometimes my body is more receptive to fasting than others. Don’t pressure yourself to stay on a fast that feels wrong.
Breaking your fast
When it’s time to break your fast, choose soft foods that are easy to digest and unlikely to irritate your digestive tract. Cooked food is often better than raw. Avoid anything spicy (such as black pepper) or acidic (such as oranges). Start with small portions, since your stomach will have shrunk.
Great foods for a first meal include steamed squash or easily-digested raw fruits, like watermelon or avocado. Some experts recommend not eating animal protein the first day. I’ve often eaten scrambled eggs on the first day, however, without problems.
Consider taking a probiotic, to help replenish any intestinal flora that may have receded during your fast. I sometimes have a bad reaction to probiotics, however, and have skipped them without noticing problems.
Reintroduce foods into your diet very consciously, paying close attention to how you feel afterwards. Does acne come back when you reintroduce milk? Do you get intestinal bloating again when you eat wheat and corn? You’ve just been on the mother of all elimination diets. Be sensitive to your body’s signals.
And if you want to adopt a truly healthy diet afterwards, and maintain the many benefits of your fast, consider trying the Whole30.
Finally, enjoy yourself. After several days away from eating, food will have an entirely new meaning. Smells and flavors will seem exquisite.
If you find a recorded public appearance by Ed Snowden not listed here, please e-mail the link to me at joshuazader at GMail. Please also notify me if any links below have expired.
Below is a list of all publicly available appearances by Ed Snowden since the original disclosure of his identity as the whistleblower behind Glenn Greenwald’s reporting, in early July 2013. For additional information about Snowden, his motivations, and the story behind his decision to become a whistleblower, I highly recommend Greenwald’s new book No Place to Hide.
2013-07-09 – The Guardian: Interview Part I and Part II (12 and 7 min, respectively) – Snowden’s original reveal as the NSA whistleblower. The interview was conducted in Hong Kong by Glenn Greenwald and filmed & edited by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.
2014-01-27 – German TV channel NDR: Interview with Ed Snowden (30 min) – Snowden discusses the relevance of the NSA’s activities to other countries around the world.
2014-03-10 – SXSW (South by Southwest) appearance (61 minutes) – In a remote appearance from Russia, Snowden spoke on the importance of encryption, and answered questions from the public for the first time, in a talk that was praised strongly by Esquire.
2014-03-19 – TED talk: “Here’s how we take back the internet” (35 min) – Snowden appears from an undisclosed location in Moscow “via a telepresence robot, which he was able to control remotely.”
2014-05-28 – NBC News with Brian Williams: “Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden” (45 min) – Conducted in Moscow, this was Snowden’s first interview with an American TV network since the original revelations. See also the excerpt about the legacy of 9/11 (3 min), not aired in the original broadcast.
2014-06-01 – Globo Brazil TV interview: “Edward Snowden has applied for asylum in Brazil” (33 min) – Filmed in Moscow. The reporting is in Portugese, but the interview itself was conducted and aired in English. (Globo also published the original broadcast on their own site.)
2014-06-05 – Personal Democracy Forum comments on the “Save the internet” theme (2 min excerpt) – Snowden discusses Google’s new end-to-end encryption plugin as part of the “reset the net” campaign, and the responsibility for citizens to take responsibility for their own freedom: “We don’t have to ask for our privacy. We can take it back.”
Here are my thoughts on the forced resignation of new Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. I ultimately believe the differences of opinion on this topic come down to the question of civility.
The uncivil perspective: Use ostracism when someone is wrong about something important, and we think we can get away with it.
Problem is, people commonly disagree about what is wrong and what is important. If we use it on them today, they have more justification for using it on us tomorrow.
It creates an inquisition-like atmosphere of fear and conformity on all sides of all issues, because the stakes are higher, there is less room for independent judgment, and honest thoughtfulness and rationality are less likely to prevail inside each person’s mind.
The civil perspective: Avoid ostracism in all but the most extreme cases, such as when human rights are at stake and (not or) a clear majority has been firmly established.
Most of my friends agree gay marriage should be legal, as a matter of human rights. What we may disagree about is whether ostracism should be employed in our present situation, where public opinion has been fairly evenly divided, we are already beginning to win the public debate, it is only a matter of time before we prevail, and the debate has been largely civil and productive so far.
The steel-man version of Andrew Sullivan’s argument is that, by employing ostracism too early — before a majority opinion has had time to settle — and retroactively, at that, we are making honest rational decision making less likely and ultimately lowering our standards of civility.
We also create a society where people of mixed opinions no longer mingle safely. How does it ultimately help us for the CEO of Mozilla to take a job with, for example, a Christian organization? Is it not better that he live and work among people more likely to change his mind? (For the record, I don’t know whether Eich is a Christian or ever has been. I don’t think it much matters, here.)
It is very much like the attempted use of ostracism in the global warming debate. It is employed to prematurely shut down discussion and dissent. Civility requires leaving the discussion open, allowing rational opinions to change due to persuasion rather than ostracism.
I’m trying to express the steel-man version of Sullivan’s argument. And I believe this is the side I ultimately come down on, as a matter of principle. At the same time, I don’t actually know if I could enjoyably work under Eich as Mozilla’s CEO. I experience considerable revulsion against his position.
It really is a question of whether we’re willing to tolerate others, or we just want them to tolerate us.
And I’m on the line about this particular guy. But when I see people pretending that the line is 200 yards that way, I begin to think they only use words like “tolerance” when it is convenient. They want Christians to tolerate gays, but they don’t want gay rights advocates to tolerate Christians.
And that is terribly, unjustly ironic.
I am in the process of creating a new site for zader.com. It will be an online magazine devoted to the theme of living with integrity. I’ll publish new essays periodically, eventually folding those essays into books on key topics — such as integrity, emotions, love, and meditation.
In my lead essay I explore the meaning of integrity. One challenge with the essay has been formulating a good definition.
For my purposes, the best definition (a) is concise, (b) acknowledges the full role of integrity in our lives, and (c) provides a decidedly helpful heuristic for practicing integrity.
Below is a sketch of my thought process so far. I welcome feedback and suggestions for further improvement.
1. Conventional definition
Integrity is the moral virtue of adhering to one’s values.
Pros: It’s the familiar definition, with which virtually everyone is at least somewhat acquainted.
Cons: Fails to acknowledge the importance of intellectual integrity, of updating one’s views in response to new experience. By this definition, a committed member of the Third Reich would have integrity if only he followed orders well enough.
2. Spiritual definition
Integrity is living the truth.
Pros: Concise. Captures something vital about the essence of integrity — namely, consonance with what is real, what is true.
Cons: Vague. Offers little insight about the elements of integrity or where to focus one’s efforts. It relies upon a metaphorical notion of truth, that “the truth” is something which can be lived directly.
3. Experiential triad
Integrity is consistency among what we see, believe, and do.
Pros: Acknowledges the role of intellectual integrity. Calls attention to three key realms of experience which can fall out of alignment. While longer than the other two definitions, it is still relatively concise.
Cons: Fails to acknowledge one of the most significant realms of experience, which is what we feel. Our inner experience provides critically important hints about right and wrong, what we should prioritize in life, and even who or what we are.
Technically, the word “see” is too narrow, excluding the other senses. More accurate words might be “experience,” “perceive,” or “know.” Each carries some baggage, however, such as making the definition feel more like an academic or philosophic exercise rather than a practical rule of thumb.
Analogous to the word “see,” the word “believe” captures colloquially the ways we codify truth, value, and rightness.
I wish I could remember where I first encountered this definition. I admire its incisiveness. I considered using a variation of it, with the addendum: “Feeling is seeing — turned inward.” But this relegates feeling to the status of an afterthought.
It is the working definition I used throughout most of my writing process. But something kept bothering me. When we look closely at how to cultivate integrity on a day-to-day basis, what we feel — the entire realm of inner, felt experience — plays a truly pivotal role. For practical purposes, it should be integral to the definition.
4. Experiential quad
Integrity is the practice of pursuing harmony among what we feel, see, believe, and do.
Pros: Includes a genus (“practice”) which suggests integrity is more than merely a moral virtue. Acknowledges the role of what we feel. Advocates “harmony,” which suggests alignment and mutual reinforcement, rather than “consistency,” which can imply an overly-simplistic ideal. Generally suggests integrity is an active process, rather than a binary state you either have or don’t have.
Cons: No longer as concise. Begins to seem like a list.
* * *
Tell me what you think.
A question I am pondering: Does what we “feel, see, believe, and do” capture our experience in sufficient resolution for a definition — or are there other types of experience that seem equally important?
I can tolerate listing four types of experience within the definition. If there are more, however, then I might want to find ways to consolidate.
The topic of Ayn Rand’s personal life, how it could have affected her philosophy, and whether her overall philosophy is truly valid, has come up regularly lately on my Facebook timeline.
And for good reason. Many who go through a phase of identifying closely with Ayn Rand’s philosophy later come to disavow the term “Objectivist.” Often one factor in their decision is simply that they can’t stand the moralistic-antagonistic antics of those in the orthodox branch of the Objectivist movement, even though they still agree with the basics of Rand’s philosophy.
Others stop calling themselves “Objectivist” for more substantive reasons. Some of my closest Rand-influenced friends have, through their explorations of personal and spiritual growth, come to advocate something like subjectivism. They no longer appreciate Rand’s perspective on the role and value of reason.
In that vein, I would like to offer a very brief summary of where I stand, including what I value most in Rand’s philosophy, where I see room for improvement, and why I do still consider myself an Objectivist, broadly defined.
In a nutshell, I tremendously value and appreciate Rand’s application of the intrinsic/objective/subjective trichotomy to the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.
While I would enjoy seeing even better solutions to the is-ought problem, for example, I think she was essentially right about both the existence and nature of an objective approach to reality, to knowledge, and to ethics.
I would love to see someone offer even better formulations in these areas, and I believe there is room to do so, especially in the analysis of virtue and its practice, if only because of the complexity of human nature and society. But to me, both subjective and intrinsic views are a dead end. So I appreciate her work to present objective theories in each of these areas.
To me, improving upon her philosophy would consist of formulating more objective understandings — including ones reflecting a more subtle and comprehensive understanding of human nature, especially in the areas of emotion, intuition, empathy, love, and community — rather than jettisoning objectivity, per se.
On an even more personal note, though, I am deeply curious about the tremendous psychological value of acceptance, and what implications that has for a philosophy of reason. I would love to explore this more in a future posting.
I love sipping chocolate tea in the winter. I’ve been fiddling with this particular recipe for a couple weeks. Yesterday’s batch was a winner.
I’ll no doubt refine it further, but this version is worth sharing and inviting input.
The recipe is optimized for the consumption of extremely healthy fats. It is paleo friendly, with no milk products other than grassfed butter.
This is in no way a low-calorie beverage. I sip it throughout the day for energy (calories) and warmth, as well as the deliciously creamy and rich flavor.
To begin, combine the following in a 40-oz thermos and steep for at least 10 minutes:
After it finishes steeping, pour the contents of the thermos into a blender, remove the tea bags, and add the following:
Blend to emulsify the healthy fats. Then taste the final result, to see if it needs more sweetener. I like mine to have a dark chocolate taste, almost unsweetened.
The tea will cool considerably while in the blender. If I want it to stay hot all day, I pour it into a bowl, or a pair of very large glasses, and microwave it for a few minutes before pouring it back into the thermos with a funnel.
Once you return the tea to the thermos, tighten the lid and enjoy sipping it throughout the day.
If you give the recipe a try, I welcome your comments below.
My Brother HL-2270DW printer refuses to continue printing, once the toner gets sufficiently low, even though the toner cartridge still contains enough toner to print many more pages.
The toner light comes on and the only way to override the printer’s stubbornness is by following this sequence of steps, which I found in the bowels of a discussion forum, after several other recommended solutions didn’t work.
These instructions worked for me. I’m posting them here so others can find them more easily. They may work for other models of Brother printers, as well.
– Open the front cover and leave open while completing the following steps.
– Turn the printer off.
– Hold the ‘go’ button (or “start’ button) while turning the printer on. All panel lights should be on.
– Release the ‘go’ button (or “start’ button).
– Press the ‘go’ button (or “start’ button) 2 times.
– Pause. All panel lights should be on.
– Press the ‘go’ button (or “start’ button) 5 times.
The toner light should be off. (error may be flashing)
The paper light should be on or flashing.
– Close cover. The ready light should be the only light on.
I also had to turn the printer on and off again, at the end, before my computer recognized the printer was connected and printed the job I was waiting for.
UPDATE: Back-dating this post by a year, since it’s a thematic anomaly, so it doesn’t show up at the top of my blog.
After my “Pointing to the reality” post, my intelligent Rand-loving friend was rubbed the wrong way by my suggestion that cherry blossoms are on the same level with skyscrapers: Skyscrapers give us an appreciation for things as they could be, for the ways man changes the world. How can cherry blossoms compare? Here is my reply.
I like your summary of the worldview Ayn Rand articulates, about man’s life as the standard of value, and how much meaning there is at that level, of shaping the world around us to fit our needs and to support our life and happiness. I not only agree with this worldview, I wish more people knew about it and embraced it. It’s a worldview I’m happy to promote and defend publicly, as you saw in my Reason TV interview.
Looking at the big picture, though, I believe we’re back to the Indian fable of the elephant and the blind men. What else might we feel, if we move beyond the particular portion of the beast that Rand is so in touch with? I believe it’s that, as human beings, we have access to two very significant levels of meaning. The first is the level of the intellect — of mind, concepts, and thought. The second is the level of being — of body, perception, and experience.
Rand doesn’t devote much time to the second, other than to occasionally derogate it as the “animal” mode of consciousness. What she’s missing, though, is that this level of consciousness is truly foundational to so many aspects of one’s health, happiness, and experience of meaning. It’s also foundational to a healthy spirituality.
When I say it’s foundational to our health, I don’t merely mean we need a healthy body so that our minds can operate; I mean much more. Man’s mind did not just give us the skyscraper and intercontinental aircraft and cell phones. It also gave us socialist gulags, concentration camps, and religion. In fact, the more mind-oriented (rather than being-oriented) a religion becomes, the more malignant and dangerous it is. Instead of Buddhists sitting around meditating, we get jihadists lining up for seventy-two virgins.
Of course Rand would counter that these socialists and religionists are totally irrational and anti-mind. Very well. Let’s look at something closer to home. Let’s look at followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. For decades, ardent followers of her philosophy have earned a reputation as moralistic, emotionally repressed misfits with few social skills. Many are far more likely to sit around and rant about government programs and the irrationality of religion than to actually do that much to make the world a better place. Too often they use her ideas as a way of justifying their own narcissistic and socially inept tendencies.
Or, just to really drive the point home, let’s look at Rand herself, who dragged her husband through her decade-long affair with a younger man and died bitter and alone, alienated from so many of her close friends. She is not a healthy role model to follow, at least in certain important respects. She had a piece of the elephant, which she could articulate beautifully, but it was also a very incomplete piece. She suffered for it, and those around her suffered for it.
If I sound harsh with this criticism, it’s because I am more interested in the reality to which her words point, than in the words themselves (or in who spoke them). And the reality is that when people become too obsessed with the intellectual level of experience, and disconnected from the being level of experience, they get out of balance in some disturbing ways.
There seem to be some good reasons for this, psychologically and epistemically. Rand spoke eloquently about how important it was to learn and practice logic, and she’s got a point. But we should remember that most ten-year-olds have a perfectly good grasp of basic logic; it’s hard to trick them. What they lack, and so many never develop adequately, is an understanding of their body, of their emotions, of their capacity to simply relax and be deeply present with their experience. These are all crucially important to a healthily functioning mind.
When you are weak in your relationship to life at the experiential, emotional, and perceptual levels, you are handicapped at the conceptual level too. When you don’t have a close and compassionate relationship to your own emotions, all the logic texts in the world won’t save you; you will be ruled by emotions and instinct in the very moments when you need logic most.
Researchers in medicine and psychology have been onto this for decades and have developed treatment programs to help people learn to be more present in their body, more accepting of their emotions, more willing to get intimate with their experience. It turns out to be a fantastic treatment not only for anxiety and depression, but everything from psoriasis to chronic pain to eating disorders.
The first of these programs was called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. (This is the same mindfulness that I refer to in the subtitle of my blog: Mindfulness and Individualism.) It’s a secular program for learning meditation and basic yoga. The man who developed it, Jon Kabat-Zinn, is a longtime practitioner of yogic and Buddhist meditation techniques, and had firsthand experience with the benefits of being more grounded in the body, in experience, and in being.
You might’ve noticed that I keep bringing up the word “being,” rather than just the body or the perceptual level of consciousness. And that’s because a central tenet of these practices is not just being more relaxed, or more attentive to the body, or more aware of our emotions. It’s about accepting what is. It’s about being in a nonadversarial relationship to reality. It’s about being intimately in touch with the very ground of being, itself — in ourself, in others, and in the world around us.
And this is not an act of the intellect; it is an act of emotion and perception and will, of having the will to perceive the world without filters, including all its pain and blemishes and heartache, and to move toward those experiences rather than away from them. To stay psychologically open to pain (while also taking steps to reduce it, where available) is in many ways the essence of the spiritual path. When you do, you suddenly find the cherry blossom is not just a flower; it is the universe whispering in our ear that life is beautiful, that we are beautiful, and all we have to do is be present for it.
Often the biggest barrier to being fully present is the intellect — our tendency to encounter everything conceptually and verbally, rather than turning off our mind and allowing ourselves sink deeply into experience as such. Often we’re afraid to turn off the mind, and this is one of the ways we become a slave to our emotions: Emotions normally tell us reality is scary, and to keep working on a way out, a way to avoid feeling what has taken place and will take place.
I’m describing these things in intellectual terms, but this is not an intellectual experience. It is a perceptual and emotional experience, and we only get there fully when we’re willing to do the most counterintuitive thing in the world: To turn toward pain, rather than away from it. To deeply accept reality as it is, rather than as we wish it to be, even as we work to improve it. To let go of our emotional resistance to the way things are. When we do these things, the cherry blossoms take on new significance.
The metaphors of the skyscraper and the cherry blossom each, of course, stand for much more. The skyscraper is a metaphor for our capacities for intelligence, productivity, and wealth. The cherry blossom is a metaphor for the natural world, of the world as we find it, and of our appreciation for being as such.
It bothered you that I elevated cherry blossoms to the same level with skyscrapers. And I understand why, if our primary yardstick is the value of the intellect. If we grasp the crucial role of being, however, and the meaning that deep awareness of being can add to our lives, it’s hard to overestimate the power of the cherry blossom. As a metaphor, it stands for a tremendous capacity we have inside, to heal ourselves, to enjoy ourselves, to remain in a healthy and harmonious relationship to reality.
So, to summarize: The mind is a beautiful thing, but it is also a dangerous thing. On a personal level, the best way to hold it in check is not with more mind, but with more being — more staying in touch with our bodies, our emotions, our capacity for felt experience of reality. Often this involves opening to pain, to our own contraction, to our own fear of emotionally allowing life to be what it is, as it is now.
On its own, the cherry blossom offers little to compete with the skyscraper. But as a symbol of nature, of our capacity to exist in a state of harmony with reality, it’s a powerful metaphor for the need to ground our thinking in a deep and abiding appreciation for being as such.
In some places, your letter is haunted by a question: Which is more important, the skyscraper or the cherry blossom? It’s true that without the skyscraper, we live as animals. Yet it’s also true that, without the cherry blossom, we become madmen. How does one choose between those? How could we? Fortunately, we don’t have to.
That’s why skyscrapers are amazing, but cherry blossoms are amazing too.
I wrote this in answer to a friend, a relative newcomer to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, who inquired about my interest in spirituality and why I would say something like “The divine is all around us.” Why use the same words that religions use?
I just got back from a 20-minute nap in the sunshine in the grass, in the park down the street. On my way to my favorite patch of grass on the embankment, I was approached by a young black missionary named Marcelle who was carrying a bible and was eager to talk. Sweet kid, seemed lonely, and was happy to have someone to talk to, but happier when I started doing the talking.
Which reminds me of your questions about using spiritual language. I have a few thoughts.
In any spiritual or philosophical tradition, there are those who take things very literally, in a very concrete fashion. Marcelle was doing this. And there are others who are willing to look past the words, past the hardened dogma, to the truth at which it points. These people are more loyal to reality than to scripture or revealed wisdom. You can find these people in any significant spiritual tradition.
When you bring the best of these people together, you notice something interesting. You might have a Catholic, a Sufi, a Buddhist, a Methodist, a Baptist — but, nonetheless, they start agreeing with one another. Most of the folks they go to church with may see mostly differences among their traditions, but these guys, they see similarities: They see that the real miracle is what is around us. That the true spiritual path consists of connecting with this reality in deeper and more meaningful ways, by letting go of our resistance to the way things are. That being present with life is our best teacher. That truly connecting with others is perhaps our highest calling. That expressing ourselves through meaningful life-work, rather than just busywork, allows us to give our fullest gifts to the world.
In this way, no matter the philosophical tradition, they become students of openness, inquiry, connection, presence, and the meaning that flows from these things. I’m not the first to notice this, at all. Many who come to take spirituality seriously begin to notice these commonalities, that the different traditions seem to converge on some common wisdom about life and the spiritual path. They’re all pointing to the reality.
So, as far as why I am comfortable using spiritual words in a different way than Marcelle does… Partly it’s that I understand what he’s groping for, when he does all that talk about God and Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The word “God” does bother me a little, inside. But when I talked with him, I used that word and it settled him right down, to hear someone who understood his longings, and could inquire about his ability to find the peace he’s really longing for inside, rather than telling him he’s a freak and to go away. He seemed deep in thought, by the time I left.
Also, when I talk about the divine all around us, I feel like I’m referring to the way things really are. I certainly try to create goodness in me and the people and circumstances around me, but I also recognize that often things can be good, perfect, without any effort on my part. I’m increasingly at peace with the way I find reality, before I ever touch it. And it brings me a peace I had never felt so fully, when I was trying to make things conform to my wishes.
It isn’t something Rand was always in touch with, but there’s so much beauty in the way things are. Skyscrapers are amazing, but cherry blossoms are amazing too. And often it feels to me like the more we pay attention, the more we realize that the real beauty of the skyscraper is that it tries, in its own effortful way, to conform to the same laws of reality that gave rise to that cherry blossom without an ounce of stress or strain.
Another amazing thing about the skyscraper, of course, as a cultural symbol, is that we’ve been able to improve our standard of living in so many ways, to be more productive — to have more time left over in life for meaning and connection and presence and the simple joys of life — rather than having to worry about where our next meal will come from or whether we’ll be killed by a neighboring clan. This is nearer to Rand’s love of a skyscraper, and it resonates with me as well.
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