Hunger and spiritual exercise

Hunger can come over one with such force that one feels gripped by the claim that one must eat now. This is urgent, serious business, and one must do something about it forthwith. Not always or not often is hunger signaled so discernibly by a growling, turning, or twangy-sounding tummy. Mostly, it is indicated by a loss of control or of sense-making.

For instance, hunger may show up in sudden impatience with a lover, in a floppy tongue which unlooses silly thoughts or complaints, in a sense of basic disorientation to one’s surroundings, in motor confusion, and, not the least, in a greater sensitivity to being startled. It is not lethargy that undoes one so much as the vices that come forth in subtle or harmful perturbations.

Hunger is a kind of forgetting of what matters most. Upon reflection, one may conclude that hitherto hunger has been accompanied by (or has been identified with) a must. I am hungry, and I must stop what I’m doing, I must stop paying attention to everything and everyone else, and I must eat soon. The world thereby is transformed into Impediments and Pursuits, and the person into a Forceful Agent: long food preparation being but one impediment, a quick delivery of, or access to, substance being the most urgent, vital pursuit. (In this respect, one may liken hunger to the consumption of caffeine.)

Hunger needn’t be an implicit must or ought; it needn’t be motivating in this way. Over time, one can observe all the ways that hunger has affected one, has transfixed one, and through spiritual exercises (ascesis) one can relish becoming the kind of reasonable person who can be motivated by higher sources. One stands back, holds back, has a light sense of humor about things and oneself. Being patient, focusing one’s attention concertedly, being humbled by the competency required in order to make food for oneself and others, delighting in the prospect of speaking less when one is hungry, returning to the basic movements of living: this knife, this vegetable, this cut, this moment living softly and then sliding away. Coming by attention to savor everyday hunger.

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