Live the questions now

Here’s some advice that my Godmother, Lynne Caldwell, gave me a few years ago. I found it again the other day and it struck me that at least I understand its wisdom now. She really did get my problem. It feels like he’s speaking directly to me.

It’s from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Veganism and restrictive eating

I’m reading the book Intuitive Eating, which I highly recommend. I was looking for something like it that could get me back to trusting my biological hunger without worrying that I need to control myself or my weight. It’s raised my consciousness to the ways I had a “diet mentality” even though I’ve only rarely restricted my food for the purposes of weight loss. I picked them up mainly because of being vegan, especially as a teenager when I had less control over my food in general.

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Intuitive Eating co-author Evelyn Tribole asks when describing the diet mentality, What has dieting cost you? Consider your social life, relationships, eating behavior, mood, time, food preoccupation, & money? ⁣

The biggest cost was an “eat while you can” cycle of fasting and bingeing. Traveling as a young vegan, I would easily go a few days eating barely anything. I would pack food, but vegan travel foods in those days were so calorie-light that it never seemed to be enough. Often, I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I wasn’t eating what everyone else was eating, so I would wait until things drew down for the night to eat. Sometimes you don’t realize you’ll be out all day– other junk food vegans surely remember a getting-a-can-of-Pringles-and-peanut-butter-crackers-at-the-gas-station-and-making-them-last-all-day day. I developed an almost effortless ability to suppress my hunger when there was nothing around that my brain read as food. Despite what were, in effect, externally-imposed semi-regular fasts, I only felt hungry or put-out a small portion of the time. But as soon as I got home, I binged for days. I was genuinely very hungry, but I ate far beyond the point of satiety. I was packing it away for the lean times because my body did not trust the food would always be there.

What sucks about this is that I unintentionally trained myself to ignore or suppress my hunger signals and to treat food as a scarce resource. I mean, in high school, this was true. Even in college, it was still kind of true. (Vanderbilt Dining Services tried but they could easily omit to have a vegan option at all on some nights in the main cafeteria… which you had to use a meal swipe to discover… half-black bean salad it is!) But it’s definitely not true for me now, with my own kitchen in Boston. Even on the highways of the South I have a choice between my old standby, Subway, and Burger King now. Sometimes there’s even a Chipotle. There’s abundance out there but in my mind each vegan food item is still the oasis in the desert.

I developed a habit of stocking up on food reserves whenever I had the chance, whether I was really hungry or not. Even now, it can be hard for me to recognize when I feel full. I frequently overeat and get indigestion and bloating. I lard up my cooking with extra oil even though it gives me gas and make myself huge portions that I struggle to finish, yet somehow that negative feedback does not affect my sense of what to make next time. Intutitive Eating begins by observing your biological hunger signals, like stomach growling, salivation, and fatigue, and pausing as you eat to observe how full and satisfied you feel. It’s amazing how much more satisfying eating is when I tune in to feeling satisfied, lol.

Veganism also reinforces the tendency to judge ourselves by our choices of “moral” vs “immoral” foods. Make no mistake, I think it’s immoral to contribute to the torture of animals. And I simply do not want to eat the flesh and products of enslaved and miserable animals because of moral disgust. I don’t even know if I would eat cell culture animal meat at this point just like I wouldn’t want to eat cell culture human meat. It feels wrong and I think that’s alright. However, as a byproduct of following my genuine motivations, I get a constant, intoxicating stream of reassurance that I’m a moral person because of my “correct” eating, which creates an association between restrictive eating and morality, self-discipline, and self-control. And if I start to feel insecure about my body, that sense of moral superiority that I’ve indulged when it comes to correct ethical vegan eating can turn into a sense of shame at eating too much or not restricting myself to the purest foods.

Has dieting ever served as a coping technique when you feel out of control? Where dieting gives you a focus and distraction from stress?⁣

Veganism has certainly done this for me. I did not become a vegetarian to gain a sense of control, but having a restrictive eating project could certainly provide that sense when I was stressed out. When I stepped it up to veganism, even though I had long ago come to the conclusion that that was better for the animals, I think part of me chose that time because I was seeking a domain to control more obsessively. I don’t get a big ego payoff from controlling my food anymore because it’s very second nature, but even in recent years I would still fret about the tiniest traces of animal byproducts in cosmetics and clothes. It was that stuff that made me realize I sought purity obsessions as an anxiety sink (and now I don’t worry about the trace animal fat derivatives in, say, nail polish). This need to purify and control is something I will always have to manage. If I don’t manage the underlying anxiety then every purity domain I snuff out is simply reborn in another form. Eventually my obsessive thoughts turn to weight loss, even though I don’t experience that as a strong desire. I’d think, Oh, you’re already small so it would be so easy to get a little thinner and more defined! Get rid of that gut! Then you’d be perfect… Vegans develop skills at restrictive eating and veganism can provide excellent cover for an eating disorder, so I think it’s particularly dangerous for us to let a need for control manifest itself in a diet mentality.

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In summary, veganism is a form of restrictive eating, by definition, even if it’s not motivated by body image or weight loss concerns. There’s the potentital that veganism could harm your relationship to food. I’ve been fine this entire time, but I anticipate feeling happier, healthier, and more secure as I let go of the food scarcity mindset I developed as a teenager and deal straightforwardly with anxiety rather than letting it play out in food purity psychodramas.

The biggest dynamic intuitive eating seeks to end is feeling deprived, which makes forbidden foods the object of obsession and can lead to bingeing on them when you slip up (“last supper” eating, because you’ll neeeever have it again). That’s not exactly the dynamic with veganism, because, much as I once loved the taste of animal products, I do not want to eat them. But I can let myself feel deprived when I say something like “I can’t eat this” rather than “I choose not to eat this.” I can sometimes feel put-out when I’m eating a plain baked potato for dinner at Cracker Barrel with relatives, but the truth is that I choose to do that, and I’m happy that I have the freedom not to eat animals. It’s important to remember why we choose to eat this way, and that, although it restricts the range of foods we eat compared to those around us, we’re actually taking advantage of an incredible freedom to follow our consciences.

A foolish consistency

“The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? […]

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. […] Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

I used to hate that quote because it’s misquoted (the “foolish” part is frequently ommitted) and used to justify self-contradictory or nonsensical beliefs. But I can no longer deny the power of Emerson’s observation that the need to be consistent is a prison, because we change, we are wrong, the world changes, and we don’t always understand how it all fits together.

A foolish consistency doesn’t help us connect with out true beliefs, but what it does do is make us look reliable, or at least predictable, to other people. This is why Emerson says consistency is “adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” people who need to project an image to their followers and call others out on violations of their self-images. This is often perfectly rational. For example, voters want to know who they are voting for now to lead them later, so they need to be able to assess later behavior based on behavior now. But unfortunately this logic extends to all situations in which potential partners assess each others’ likely future behavior, which is a lot of human interaction. In fact, trying to entice or manipulate other people into allying with us might have fundmentally shaped our social minds. So it’s understandable that most of us elect to project an image of consistency at all times and in all circumstances, even to ourselves, and be outraged by hypocrisy. Generally we believe our own bluff. Some call it ego.

I read a lot about Buddhism and listen to a lot of dharma talks, and it seems to me that ego itself could be boiled down to “a foolish consistency.” They say enlightenment is submitting to death each moment (not “dragging around the corpse of your memory,” so to speak), so that each new moment is fully experienced on its own terms. You can’t do that if you’re bound to the way you’ve experienced things in the past, and especially not if you’re bound to certain ideas about who you are.

I’ve experienced how confining the need to be consistent is in a few ways. I lost my faith (raised Episcopalian) as a teenager and talked a pretty big game about atheism. Part of me had always felt left out and angry about not “getting” a lot of biblical and spiritual teachings at church, and when I realized that most of the adults didn’t literally believe in a lot of it, I was incensed. When I did start experiencing some of the things they were talking about, like church having spiritually/psychologically meaningful stories completely apart from whether their surface, literal content was true, I was horrified and did not want to admit it. I hadn’t had those experiences when I was younger, so I couldn’t have known before– I didn’t even do anything wrong!– but I couldn’t bear to be inconsistent with the way I acted before. I felt like I had a contract with everyone else that I would always have the same views, and the only way to acknowledge I was wrong was to suffer from private feelings of worthlessness. For years, it felt like there was no way to admit to myself that I knew more now and change my mind short of utter humiliation and defeat.

Similarly, for years after I got ill, I punished myself by trying to stick to the beliefs I had about the illness before it happened to me. I knew better after actually experiencing it, but I didn’t think I could just change my mind out of convenience like that, and I didn’t want to make past me wrong. I was stubborn enough that this lasted years– years of suffering from denying what I so clearly felt– and all the while I was proud of myself for my stubborness and resistance, because it made me consistent with a memory that no longer existed. (“[B]ecause the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.”)

In these cases and so many others, it seemed that to be consistent was to be a valid and legitimate person, so giving the old self-image up by admitting inconsistency felt like dying. But to keep up a false self-image, you must deny the reality of your experience, which is a kind of death by failure to live. Something’s gotta give, and I’m glad that for me it was a foolish consistency.

Maybe it’s not me– it’s grad school

Just a low effort post. I would love a mutually supportive comment discussion about it (because I’m not on facebook). Twitter replies would be nice, too. 

I appreciated this post from Ben Kuhn, Grad school is worse for public health than STDs. In it he calculates that the disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) caused by grad school (mostly through depression and anxiety) exceed those caused by STDs.

I wonder how much time I waste agonizing over how to fix my problems, trying to control my angst and confusion through willpower and daily habits and acceptance, when maybe a large chunk of my problems will disappear on their own after I defend. Being a grad student really is like being the frog in boiling water. I don’t know what’s normal anymore with work. I went straight from college to grad school, and 6.5 years later grad school has been my whole adult working life. The already long feedback loops get longer and the isolation steadily increases over the years as exernal structure disintegrates. And I’ve had major extra difficulties in grad school: having two advisers leave in the first two years, falling through the cracks with advising because of trying to salvage my early work with my now out-of-state first adviser while working with a new adviser at Harvard, 5th year basically lost to illness…

I have a bias against blaming external circumstances. I feel like it’s jinxing myself to say “just finish grad school– then it will all get better.” I feel like the problem has to be me. But it’s really not irrational to think that things will massively improve after I defend, since that is what most of the people who’ve been through it say, and considering how routinely negative being in grad school seems to be for the mental health of thousands of other grad students.

Since I have a month until I have to turn my dissertation in, and I will find this belief motivating whether it turns out to be true or not, I’m going to allow myself to believe that most of my current bad feelings are due to grad school. I’m still in the tunnel. I need to focus on getting out of the tunnel. Pretty much every other plan or self-reflection can and should wait until then. Fingers crossed that everything makes sense when I’m back in the light.

No need to explain

I haven’t been posting much lately for several reasons, but mainly I just haven’t felt the desire to post. My posts usually come from trying to figure something out through reflection, or to explain myself to myself. I haven’t felt the need to explain myself much recently. This has also been a time of high wellbeing and dissertation productivity. The common denominator may be self-confidence, or perhaps lower anxiety.

I really like living this way, without constant performance anxiety and self-justification. I don’t want to turn this into advice, because it’s not what everyone needs and I’m not sure how to properly caveat it. But if you spend a lot of your time explaining yourself (especially explaining yourself to yourself), consider that by explaining yourself you may in some sense be trying to justify your existence. And then consider how you would feel if there was no need to explain.

My fantasy grunge band has the best name

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Ever since I first heard that Wonderland was the outbound end of the Blue Line (of the Boston T), I thought “Blue Line to Wonderland” was the perfect blend of whimsy, mundanity, locality, and a perverse children’s story allusion to IV drug use with which to entitle a grunge band. Even with so many musicians furiously writing songs about it, have you ever heard a more poetic description of shooting heroin into a vein? The use of subway signage hints at the low budget and urban alienation that surely made the singer turn to drugs, but also shows city-loyalty, which is very grunge. And then you’ve got your Alice in Wonderland and your anatomical, visceral-yet-distant-and-clinical artistic vibe all in one piece of found art. I will never have a grunge band (or, to be clear, use recreational IV drugs), and I’m tired of sitting on this amazing name.

Instead of “I’m anxious,” try “I feel threatened”

cw: teaching to learn

I have a long history with anxiety, and I’m pretty good at noticing when it’s happening. The problem is that I’m always anxious. Noticing anxiety doesn’t snap me out of anxiety– in fact, it often produces meta-anxiety, anxiety about feeling anxious. So I’ve tried a simple reframe lately, and I’m liking the results. Instead of noting “I’m anxious,” I say to myself “I feel threatened” or “I feel threatened by x” if I know what set me off.

Anxiety is just chronically being in a state of fight or flight, and fight or flight has a stimulus. I like Sapolsky’s thesis, which is roughly that for most animals, the stimulus is always something external, a threat to safety or status. For anxious humans, the threatening stimuli are internalized, and fight or flight is either triggered or sustained by thoughts. Anxiety is the condition of feeling threatened.

And yet, noticing that I feel threatened is much more specific than noticing that I’m anxious, whether I can identify the threat or not. It makes what I’m feeling less about me (I’m just anxious; my perception is inaccurate; oh, why don’t I just stop???) and more about the pattern of behavior (I’m reacting this way because I perceive that thing to be a threat; is it really a threat?; if it is, is it something I can handle?).

In the short time I’ve been practicing this, I’ve identified many things I had not realized I considered threats, although, of course, on the feeling level I had always known. I’m surprised by how mundane most of the threats are. Many of them are just “I feel threatened because that noise startled me.” But others are kind of embarrassing or incongruent with my self-concept. For example, I’m threatened by other people being better than me. I would find myself stiff and clearly in fight or flight when singing in a group, for instance, and I used to just nurse that anxiety for the entire practice thinking, “Fuck, I’m anxious, I can’t breathe, my singing is therefore terrible, and I must be blushing…” But with this technique, I notice the anxious symptoms and see if I can identify the “threat” that tripped them. To my shock, it was usually as simple as another person singing really well, or me not knowing how to sight read when others could. Such everyday, simple provocations! At this point, I don’t have much pride left to be embarrassed with, but it’s still humbling to see my mountains of anxiety for the molehills of petty jealousy and insecurity they could have stayed.

I don’t blame myself for getting carried away. Anxiety is the master of false narratives. An injection of anxiety causes my thoughts to speed up and start going down rabbitholes of what to do, all premised on unseen assumptions I’m making about the nature and severity of the threat. There’s no time or brainpower to examine every hasty conclusion when you’re swept up in that wave. Reigning in anxiety is necessarily a process. It can be embarrassing to realize just how simple the “threat” that led to hours (or days, or months, or years…) of anxiety was, but it’s also such a relief! Admitting I’m jealous or petty or flawed is a small price to pay to reclaim some peace.