A big part of growing up, and likely a large chunk of life itself, consists of impulse control. As babies, our needs are validated and met by others. As we grow, we are increasingly able to monitor and attend to these needs on our own. Through adolesence we are introduced to the ideas of delayed gratification, prioritization, and responsibility. As responsible adults, then, we are hopefully somewhat adept at managing our wants, needs, and obligations in an efficient and effective manner.
As it is, however, I run into difficulty in this area somewhat regularly. Early on, when my spinal issues were more intrusive, my physical comfort was top priority and had to be considered in any plans. In addition, cognitive and psychological issues were such that I had little tolerance for any level of mental dissonance and stress. Decisions were made based on what would alleviate the cognitive or physical distress most quickly, everything else was secondary. The result of this rapid-fire appeasement was that I became soft – I got in the habit of tending to these impulses, regardless of their legitimacy. Accommodating my deficiencies is vital to my overall success, but compulsively validating and appeasing old “needs” does me no favours. When this drags on, it begins to feel like my brain is overstepping its bounds, and there is a very effective trick I use to put my brain back in its place:
I just don’t eat.
Like Gandhi, but not as legendary or noble.
In some circles, fasting has a very spiritual significance, and if personal betterment is a spiritual exercise, than I suppose it is. Either way, the reason I choose not to eat for a day is because it shocks my system back into order in numerous ways.
First, fasting helps me get in tune with myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m just operating on autopilot, instinctively appeasing every whim with minimal consideration given to the consequnces. The importance of tending to my own comfort, a once legitimate and real issue, becomes blown out of proportion at the cost of personal growth and the expansion of my comfort zone. When I decide to fast for the day, the urge to eat naturally approaches. Instead of acquiescing to this need, I develop strategies that allow me to stick to my guns – strategies and skills that are transferrable to other areas in life, a most beneficial side-effect indeed. Furthermore, I make a mental note (ironically enough) of how my brain tries to bargain with me to make little concessions, hijack me with faulty lines of reason, and overwhelm me by suddenly noticing every smell and hint of food. Nice try, back-stabbing brain.
Second, allowing hunger to persist is a great exercise in willpower. Exerting my will over my body’s urge to eat puts me back in control. Living with brain damage, I have come to see a distinct difference between my mind and my brain. Willpower is a function of the mind, while eating is the instinctive, somewhat primal, response to signals from the brain. Strengthening my willpower through fasting ensures that my mind remains superior to my brain. Maintaining this hierarchy, I believe, is the key to a proper and fulfilling life. Know your roles, lobes and cortices.
I’ve been ragging on my brain a bit here, but it’s not the only one at fault. The intriguing and baffling thing is that all behaviour, while rooted in the brain (in conjunction with the mind), contributes to shaping and changing the neural makeup of the brain. Patterns of behaviour construct neural pathways dedicated to that behaviour, connections that grow stronger and fire quicker with repetition and positive reinforcement. In other words, practice really does make perfect so be careful what you practice.
Sometimes, due to my own shortsightedness, my mistaken oversight, or my behavioural blind spots, things fall out of line. Fortunately for me, opting not to eat for a day gets things back in order – fast.