Fieldwork II.27.2009, writing the essay below [ click photo for next . . . ]
On the road in the American Northwest.
FASTING AS PRINCIPLE
The simplest and most powerful
of all possible tests is the test of doing without.
My theme here is perhaps not what you might expect.
Anyone nowadays encountering the word "fasting"
naturally thinks of doing without food for a while,
deliberately, so as to loose weight, or perhaps as part
of some kind of spiritual discipline. My concern here,
however, is very much more general. I would like in this
context to look at fasting in as broad a view as possible,
as a kind of general principle of doing without. Doing
without anything. Sex. Coffee. Computers. French-fries.
Fasting or doing without really is, as the saying above has
it, "the simplest of all possible tests." After all, we do not
have to learn, or buy anything new for the test to take place.
Instead, we simply stop doing something we are used to
as a kind of open question. What will happen if I stop
doing x? What will happen if I stop drinking soda? What
will happen if I stop watching TV, or writing at my computer?
Because we have generalized the principle of fasting in
this way, once it is grasped, there is no limit to its
application. That is the meaning of the phrase in the
epigram above, "the most powerful." For it might be not
just a question about me, or you, or other separate
individuals. It might be a question about a very much
larger context. For example, a rancher might ask what
might happen if he stopped grazing a particular pasture.
Or a farmer might wonder what would happen if she
stopped using anhydrous ammonia as an energy input
in her corn operation. Or a group of teachers might ask
what would happen if they stopped segregating classes
by age, or if they stopped all testing.
From here, we can easily see the circle of possibilities
widening to include whole cities, states, nations, or even
groups of nations. For example, what would happen if
there were a universal highway speed limit of 100 k
(60 mph.)? How would that effect CO2 emissions world-
wide? Or, more in keeping with doing without, what would
happen if cities, or states, or countries would experiment
again, as was done back in the 1974 oil crisis, with
What if? That is the spirit of this surprisingly simple
yet powerful question. Just what if . . . ?
Now that we have a rough outline of fasting as a general
principle, let me continue by briefly illustrating the how
and why of its use.
Why try doing without something anyway? For example,
doing without soda. "What's the problem?" you ask.
"I like pop." Well, that's just it. In most cases, we are
confronted by, or trying to solve, a difficulty or problem.
The word problem itself is interesting. Its root meaning is,
"something thrown at you," suggesting a thing we must
deal with whether we want to or not. And, indeed, it is
clear that life does seem to be constantly throwing these
difficulties at us, of all shapes and sizes, both individually
and collectively. Things that are in need of some kind of
resolution, that have to be worked out ideally here and
now. Say you are chronically overtired, or you are over-
weight, or that you have a small child that has difficulty
focusing on learning tasks, both at home and at school.
Or that you have, for the sake of our example, all of the
above, which is frequently the case. Then you read
something about high fructose corn syrup allergy and
suddenly realize that both you and your child drink two or
three cans of soda a day. As a test, you decide to stop
drinking soft-drinks altogether just to see what happens.
Note that I'm not saying one should or should not do this; i
t's the principle I wish to make clear. And what is clear is
this, I think:—the elegance of the approach. See for
yourself. What would rather do? Take your high blood-
pressure medications with Coke, or just stop drinking the
Coke—the cause of your problem—and get off the
Now, what exactly are we stopping? Clearly, it's a kind of
habit, is it not? Habits, in the view being explored here,
are of key importance. They come in all sizes, large an
small, and varying degrees of subtlety. And they by no
means merely concern food. It might be something else,
like watching TV for hours on end without a break, now
nearly universal in Western culture. Or it might be the habit
of always driving wherever you go, near or far, even if it's
the grocery or library down the street. Collectives of people
like nations also have habits, but sometimes with ramifications
amplified a thousand fold. For instance, the US has the habit
of behaving like the rich brat in the international neighborhood,
always having to get its own way. The point of habit is that
it is a pattern of doing things that is at once largely
unconscious and, at the same time, frequently the cause
of our own undoing. Habit is really a unique species or
pattern of movement, a pattern of movement of energy
that has tied itself up in knots. At best, it is a waste of time
and resources; at worst, it may be tragically self-destructive.
By now, you may ask, "If habits can so easily be dealt with,
and at the same time potentially cause so much harm, why
don't we act?" The answer will in an experiential way become
self-evident if you personally try a little doing without yourself.
Not necessarily with food. That might require the professional
help of a nurse or doctor. Start small. Try turning off your
TV, or computer, or cellphone for a week. Then remember:
our little epigram above says, "the simplest of all possible
tests," not the easiest!
What will very quickly become painfully obvious is that it
is not just not easy, it is in fact incredibly hard. At least at
first. And that's the answer to our question. Every adult
knows the classics symptoms of the pain of withdrawal
when we suddenly stop ingesting or taking some
substance we are habituated to like coffee, or tobacco,
or worse. Addiction is from this point of view simply an
extreme form of habit. Nothing more. And the Western
bias of sanctioning some addictions like coffee, or
chocolate, or alcohol, and prohibiting others is just that:
a bias of a specific cultural and arbitrary kind. Generally,
the more subtle or a part of the intellectual realm the
addictive habit is, the less it is considered as such, and
the less it is considered in Western culture as something
of concern. That too, is completely an arbitrary bias.
My contention is that, though the object of habit can
evidently vary without limit, habit itself as a pattern is
always the same. And, what is more, that the reversal
of habit—untying the knot as it were—is also as a pattern
more or less always the same.
In a future essay, I hope to sketch out what I have come
to think of as the "Five Stages of Freeing Oneself from
Habit": (1) pain; (2) doubt; (3) reversal; (4) hope;
In closing, just let me note that the implications of what
we have seen about habit so far are considerable,
especially in terms of the young. One of the strongest
indictments of current economic systems I can think of is
the ruthless attempt to colonize the tastes, wants and
desires of the young child through the propaganda of
advertising, most of which takes place sitting hour after
hour, day after day, year after year, in front of televisions.
This is what I meant when I stated that, the more subtle
the habit, the less serious the attention Western culture
gives to it. Whereas the body is deemed worthy of a whole
host of protections, the mind, or spirit, or psyche of the
young child is for all intents and purposes completely up
for grabs. Appalling, indeed.
This is clearly where mother nature and wilderness
may come to our rescue. As it has so frequently
in the past ever since humanity came to live so far
away from the land in large urban centers, getting out
is a way of finding our roots, our grounding. Without
going to extremes, if you can carry enough food on your
back for just a day, I do not for a moment doubt that you
will get a sense of all five stages of doing without, perhaps
even a taste of freedom. It's like crossing a pass. It really
is. At first you think you'll just never make it. But if you
can somehow persevere and keep going, step by step,
you may just make it to the other side. It's all downhill
Eagle Cap Wilderness