Practical Asceticism: Lose the Whip

Following up on this post, I want to start off with this first, fundamental precept: stop beating yourself up. Self-flagellation is really no fun! But more important: it does not work. Think about it: when you screw up, which you inevitably do because you are human, does self-recrimination actually keep you from screwing up the next time? Not only doesn't it help, by breaking down your self-confidence it actually makes it harder to change. 

You may ask, isn't beating yourself up a venerable old monastic tradition? Well, no, actually, it's not. It might be a medieval monastic tradition, but if you go farther back, to St. Benedict and back before him to the old Egyptian desert monasteries, it really is not the way. St. Benedict says that during Lent, each monk may freely offer some extra penitential sacrifice, of his own free will -- but only with the approval of the Abbot, because "anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward." The desert fathers and mothers would have said the same thing. 

In my personal experience, what St. Benedict says is absolutely true: self-imposed penitence is more likely a sign of pride than humility. Why? Because getting all worked up over doing something wrong kind of implies that I expected myself to do everything right! Other people may be miserably imperfect, but if I slip up it's worthy of all kinds of drama and wailing and wringing of hands. Not! I'm human, and I share a whole set of very common weaknesses with all the rest of the human race. I'm also as unique as every human being, and therefore I am more likely than average to slip in some ways, less in others. I'm not a monster, and neither am I such a paragon of virtue that any little screw-up deserves sackcloth and ashes. 

On the other hand, I'm not suggesting brushing off my bad behavior as if it didn't matter. Examination of conscience, confession, and making amends are very fundamental to the good life. But "contrition" is not "conversion." Acknowledging that we've done wrong is a necessary step in changing, but it's only the very first step, and getting stuck in it doesn't help. If what we want is to change a bad habit, then we have to do something more than just be sorry about it.

What does help is to approach self-examination with a spirit of curiosity instead of blame. You ate the whole carton of ice cream, bummer. Why? Yeah, I know, because "yum," but that's not good enough. The devil made you do it? Hah. Yeah, you wanted it, but you also wanted not to eat the whole thing, or you wouldn't be beating yourself up over it. So why did you do it?

So the first thing is to get really clear about your standard of behavior. That means, think about ice cream, and the role you want it to have in your diet. How much, how often, what time of day, what days? Would you like to have some ice cream every evening for dessert? Or is it just for birthdays, or would once a week be just about right? Define the portion size. Be specific. Make a rule for yourself

This rule is not a lifetime commitment. It's a hypothesis, not a conclusion. Hypothesis is what scientific experiments are based on, and that's what this is for: exploration. So make a very clear, very specific ice cream rule for yourself to try out: "I may eat 1/2 cup of ice cream for dessert on Sundays and holidays (list them); I will eat it in the evening after dinner. I may also have up to 1/2 cup of ice cream, if it is offered with birthday cake. I will not eat ice cream otherwise." Note that the rule codifies indulgence, not just abstinence. Then, when you are in the grip of the ice cream temptation on a Wednesday afternoon, you can tell yourself "yes! I will have ice cream on Sunday!" and it makes "not now" easier to take.

Try it for a month. Pay attention to how it goes. When temptation hits, instead of reacting with either indulgence or resistance, react with curiosity.  What was going on when you felt the urge? How were you feeling right before it hit? Where do you feel the temptation in your body? Are you actually hungry? Do you feel tense? Bored? Anxious? Upset about something else? Are you tired? Has someone hurt your feelings? Have you been concentrating on your work for too long without a break? And remember, since this is an experiment, failure is a possibility. If you slip, examine that in the same way. Ask those same questions. Don't judge, don't wallow, just pick yourself up and pay attention.

Also, think about how you can make it easier to act the way you want to act. Do you have fresh fruit handy, to snack on when the sweet tooth strikes? Can you buy ice cream pre-packaged in little single-serving portions? Could you negotiate with your spouse who's not willing to give up ice cream, so that he maybe agrees to store it in the freezer down in the basement, where you won't have to see it every time you go looking for ice cubes for your healthy unsweetened iced tea? Etc. Be creative.

Making a rule separates the decision from the impulse. Temptation and denial are best friends forever. It's amazing how our minds can justify really stupid behavior when in the grip of a strong temptation, how easy it is to blank out the good intentions. So, the rules you make for yourself can be negotiated, but -- here's another rule -- not impulsively. You can make exceptions to your rule, but only planned ones, and well-defined ones. Not "I can eat anything I want just this once," and not "I can eat anything I want on my month-long vacation," but maybe "I can eat anything I want for dinner on my birthday."

And maybe your first hypothesis doesn't work out, and you need to try something else. Maybe you find that you're verging on diabetic, and your system really can't process sugary desserts at all. Maybe you would do better on a low-carb diet, or a vegetarian diet, or intermittent fasting. And maybe your ice cream temptation has nothing to do with ice cream or diet at all. You might be depressed, you might be worried about money, you might be unhappy in your relationship and subconsciously trying to make yourself fat and unattractive to your partner. Looking the real problem in the eye, with self-compassion, maybe with counseling, often takes the zing out of self-sabotage.

One more thing: focus. Don't try to tackle all your bad habits at once. It's not so much because changing a lot of variables at one time blows your scientific experiment. It's that it takes energy to change, and energy is limited. When we resist a temptation that we are used to indulging, we literally re-wire our brain. Well, OK, they're not literal wires. But we do actually alter the default pathways in our brains when we push back against impulsive behavior. I mentioned "dopamine addiction" in the last post, and it's a real thing. We have to wean ourselves off of instant gratification, and that takes energy. Think about starting with diet, sleep, and/or exercise, the ones that directly affect how much energy we have for everything else.

There are many, many possible reasons why you ate that whole carton of ice cream, or why we do any of the many things we wish we didn't do. But I'll tell you some reasons that are not true. You are not a loser, you are not worthless, you are not hopeless, you are not bad. You are not weaker than everybody else. You don't lack character, and you don't have a willpower problem. You're just human, and humans are wired to go for instant gratification. It's normal! 

So lose the whip, burn the hair shirt, pull on your lab coat and start figuring yourself out. It's totally worth it!