July 17, 2013

TYE: A Yangist Breakfast

Hazelnut-chocolate spread on raisin bread, or bananas and peanut butter?  These two breakfasts reflect something very irritating for me.  Every day I am forced to compromise on one of my two deepest human desires -- the robustness and longevity of my body, and my indulgence in sensual pleasures.  In openly treasuring both, regardless of its perceived "shallowness" by "deeper" thinkers, I feel I identify well with the Yangist conception of treasuring the body.

It's obvious why Yang Zhu advised treasuring the body in both of these sometimes opposing senses.  Healthy bodies imply longevity, and longevity implies more time in which to savor and indulge myself in this only life I have.  But, in the words of Bill Maher, "Fun costs you."  The great many pleasant things on Earth, ingested, imbibed, or immersed, may eventually kill me, if some freak event doesn't kill me first.

Hence I have my breakfasts of contradictions.  Sure, fruit and bread have plenty of vitamins, fiber, carbohydrates and protein, and they psychologically help me feel that I'm actively choosing to eat healthfully; but a thin dallop of peanut butter spread on every bite of three bananas, or thin divots of hazelnut-chocolate spread spackled on all ten slices of bread, eaten in one sitting, undresses that pretense where it matters -- in my guts, in my blood.  I live to serve my taste buds, the pleasure centers in my brain to which they connect.  I need all of the mechanisms which serve them to run for a long time.  I have to make a tradeoff.  If living for a century means eating kale every day, I'd rather be dead.

This regular compromise of pleasure for survival, and vice versa, is not a unique dilemma.  What's unique for me, as a Yangist, is that I see it to be the only dilemma in life that deserves my concern.  I have a brain structures that crave certain stimuli, and I can use other regions of that very brain to feed those cravings and preserve the means that are necessary to do so.  I know my self to be my body and the actions of that body which compose the narrative of my life.  As those parts of me change, so do I, so to try to escape the workings of my brain is not any more sensible than trying to flee from my own heartbeat.  Any such effort would at best fetishize some self-external abstraction or ideal.  There's no workaround for human nature.

In the ideal situation, one which is rare, but occasionally achieved, technological innovations or knowledge eliminate my need to compromise my desires.  Maybe someone in the future will make delicious, healthful, and cheap peanut butter, allowing for my truly "guilt-free" breakfast.  Maybe a scientific discovery will uncover that I've unknowingly eaten my way to immortality one sweet, salty jar at a time.  Until then, though, I'm stuck with the painful truth -- Nutrition Facts.

In most situations, I've found that the following meditation has worked in helping me evaluate the directions that I've taken in my life.  Whenever I have a moment to reflect on my present situation, I imagine my life being taken away from me very suddenly.  I imagine a sniper shooting a bullet through my skull, plunging to my death as the building where I sleep topples in the sudden jolt of an earthquake, being stabbed to death in my bed, having a sudden heart attack or aneurysm, having my skull crushed in various freak accidents and psychopathic homicides...you name it!  While I imagine suddenly dying in these often gruesome ways, I invariably ask myself these questions, often assuming that I'm dead already:
  1. Is this really how you wanted to spend the last instant of your life?
    • In almost all instances, the answer is, "No."  I want to spend my last moments of my life laying with the person I love most, my eyes lazily gazing on her, her looking back understandingly at me, understanding that I'm at peace with her there, sharing perfect silence.
  2. What feasible thing would you rather have been doing before dying right now?
    •  Very often, the answers that I give to this question really provide a sense of direction and ambition to my life as a whole.  For me, it clarifies what my truest motivations and interests in my life are.
  3. Can you reasonably pursue that alternative now or very soon, conceding that you haven't died just yet?
    • If I can, then I'll go about doing just that, assuming that I don't get distracted.  I also happen to meditate in this manner frequently enough that I often can find the time to pursue the things that matter to me at those times.
I could die happily enough with some delicious food in my mouth.  And the perhaps nominal effort to prolong my life with the healthier palettes for my savory spreads gives that extra psychological comfort that I crave.  Either way, an imagined bullet through my brain hasn't changed my mind, and I don't bet that a real one will.

Unfortunately, that's the best that I can offer myself.  Beyond that, I just try to satisfy my impulses within the constraints of my budget.  At least my favorite breakfasts are cheap!


  1. Along with the enjoyment of pleasure of the senses you have to work hard: exercising your body,cleanse it. That way you can stop worrying about death and disease. Remember that stress is a critical factor of health decline. Take it easy with your torment.
    Discipline your mind so that you can transcend your desires anytime. Without a focus mind, how can you expect to bring some of your wisdom to others?
    I want some peanut butter with banana now. damn~! last time it gave me a horrible indigestion, better be careful! lol

  2. Hello,

    I was really looking forward for the posts of your experiments – I wanted to see if they would resemble my own epicurean experiments. The general tone and the direction of the discussion seems that they will do. But do post more! :)
    I wonder if you will turn away from Yangism, like I turned away from Epicureanism, after really trying to live it for some time.

    Best of luck either way!


    1. Thanks for the comment. It helps to know that I have an audience.

      Yangism is pretty ingrained in me at this point, and I think that I'm happier guiding my decisions with Yangist principles than I would be if I used other ones. I'm not likely to turn away from it, but will acknowledge that it, like any ethos that I've encountered, issues tradeoffs or dilemmas like the one above.

      However, now that I've given one difficulty with Yangism, I've psychologically afforded myself a chance to praise one Yangist liberation that does make my life happier, or provides a solace that I think appeals to many people.

  3. I've had problems with eating in the past, but then I realized that tasty food never really made me happy. You don't have to 'want' it. You can know it's tasty, and not desire it. If you stop, you will stop desiring it. Desire only comes when you psychologically think you are missing out. When you realize you are not missing out on anything, that spiking your dopamine like that never makes you happy, you decouple the wanting with the pleasure. There are many pleasures in life, and if you stop eating hyper-palatable food, you will start to enjoy basic food much more. When you eat hyper tasty food again, it is a massive let down, it was only ever drawing you in with the dopamine spikes.

  4. Hi Joshua. I was a long time blogger on TheRamblingTaoist and have now started my own: http://www.engagingwithzhuangzi.com and would like to link to yours--with your permission.

    I have only now looked at your site and have subscribed. I think I'm going to enjoy it. I'm too busy to explore it at the moment, but I'll be back. Scott