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.

The eager volunteer

Think back to a time early in your schooling. Recall the moment (maybe it was in third grade or sixth) when your teacher asked for a volunteer. One boy’s hand shoots up into the air–that boy, you think–and the teacher, looking at him, quips, ‘But I haven’t even told you yet what you’re volunteering for?’ ‘I don’t care,’ he replies, his hand still kept up. ‘I’ll do it.’

This is the boy, the one who volunteers for something he’s never done before before knowing what it is or whether he can do it, that you want to be friends with. Or become yourself.

The overly eager boy is primed to become properly courageous later on in life. He can learn temperance and deliberateness with time and through formative experience. Whereas the young boy who begins in timidity will grow into a frightened, embittered man, clawing and clutching for what lies near.

A non-solopsistic account of grieving

In order to understand one’s reasons for grieving, let us return to this scene:

We are speaking of our deaths.

‘Were I to die first, would you grieve for me?’ Aleksandra is speaking.

‘Yes,’ I reply.

For a while, I say nothing. Then I go on: ‘I would have to figure out why I was still living.’

To imply that that Aleksandra gives me a reason for living may mean that, were she to be gone, I would be worse off or that my life would be impoverished. In what sense worse off? How impoverished?

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that the virtuous human being is self-sufficient but yet he also wants to surround himself with friends. While the excellent human being may be self-sufficient in important respects, he requires (says Aristotle) friends of virtue (and let us add: a lover who is also a friend of virtue) in order to exercise the virtues of generosity, courage, temperance, and the like.

In the context of grief, I take it that, were Aleksandra to pass away before I did, I would no longer be able to be grateful to this person who elicits my gratitude; I would no longer be able to exercises certain virtues that she, as a matter of fact, brings out in me; and I would no longer be able to demonstrate my love for this person who is worthy of my demonstration of love. I am partial to her and with reason. It is not simply that this person provides me with occasions for, say, being grateful, virtuous, and loving. It is more emphatically that she (and not some other) draws gratitude, a suite of salient virtues, and love out of me.

All of which is to say, I think, that we want to be involved in the most excellent activities in human life, that this person is a constituent of these activities, and that this person helps to make our best dialogical self actual.

Preparation for having a philosophical conversation

The following post is addressed to new conversation partners as well as to philosophical friends. This worksheet (if that is what it is) is the result of a few years of conversing with conversation partners and philosophical friends over Skype. It should be considered a work in progress. That is, it is open to adjustments, reconsiderations, and revisions from time to time.

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The Two Aims

There are two aims to preparing yourself for having a philosophical conversation with me. The first is to ‘bracket’ excitatory sights, sounds, smells, and touches. It is through perception that one may begin to remember past events, wonder about insignificant things, imagine certain other things, or anticipate certain desirable or undesirable future states of affairs. ‘Bracketing’ loud noises, bright colors, strong scents should therefore make it less likely that your attention will be drawn away from the inquiry at hand.

The second aim of this form of preparation is to put yourself into a frame of mind in which you are alert yet composed, ready without being overly eager, attentive without being stirred up. You should feel as if you are prepared for something significant to occur without knowing what that is, how it will happen, or when it will take place.

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Each of the following sections is meant to direct you to some aspect of your preparation.

The Contemplative Space

Consider the room in which you’ll dwell. Flashy colors aren’t especially good nor are big and bold works of art. The room should be spare, bare, minimal, not filled with too many items. A plant or two could be nice, plus a window looking out onto tranquil nature.

Being dimly lit is good. No harsh lights. Near darkness or soft, beautiful natural light is good.

How far is this room from anyone else? Is it quiet? There may be a couple of windows, which would be fine, but avoid a space that resembles a glass cube. We do not wish to be the “lovers of sights and sounds,” as Plato calls pleasure-seekers in The Republic.

Sitting on the floor is desirable (though not necessary) not just because it puts you into a state of humility (low to the ground rather than high above the world) but also because you are not indulging into slouching, curling, or slumping (e.g., on a plush couch or a comfy chair). You may find it helpful to sit on a meditation cushion as I do, or you may find a chair or stiff cushion that enables you to remain in an energetic, upright position. Some find that, provided that they can stay alert, that lying on their backs works. Feel free to experiment.

Now consider the temperature of the room. Not too hot (because heat can make you drowsy) and not too cold (because you’ll notice too often the feel of your skin and breath). I’ve found that a touch on the cool side is best. You want to be put yourself into a mode of alertness, sensing that you are alive just now.

Meditation

You’re welcome to meditate with me for 30 minutes in silence before our conversation. I believe it is good not to offer instructions apart from the invitation for you to close your eyes, be silent, and breathe. If you’re not yet ready to meditate, you needn’t feel so obliged.

You may try sitting in lotus or half-lotus pose; you can also try kneeling with a cushion underneath you or you can find a sturdy, wooden chair.

Electronic Devices

Turn all of these off beforehand. Make sure that they’re out of sight and, if possible, in another room.

Using Skype 

Here we need to be perceptive. We want to pare down Skype to its bare minimum. We want only the voice-to-voice, as if one voice were speaking directly into the ear of the other.

Here is how you change your settings. Do so at least a day before our conversation. Open Skype. Go into Preferences > Notifications. Change all notifications so that there are no sounds (except for an incoming call), no visual or auditory notifications, no sounds made during any messages sent or received. We’re looking for Skype to be a hands-free phone and effectively to “forget itself” as a piece of technology.

It would be good to use a headphones so that the noises outside are muffled and so that our voices come through clearly. We want to enter this subtle, otherwise soundless space together.

While we’re meditating, set your availability to Away or Do Not Disturb. I usually go with Away.

Moments before we speak, set your availability to Online so that I know that you are here. I will write you some brief messages (a ritual of a kind) before I call. I’ll tell you that I’m calling so that you’re not startled.

While we’re speaking,

  • Turn off the video feature on Skype.
  • If possible, set your computer off to the side (i.e., on the periphery, outside the center of your gaze).
  • Turn the brightness of the computer screen down to zero so that the screen is dark.
  • Throughout the conversation, you may wish to close your eyes.
  •  Avoid the temptation to have lots of things around you. You probably won’t need a notebook as I’ll be keeping notes in long calligraphic brushstrokes, and I’ll be sending you my notes afterward.
  • A small glass of water or a small mug of tea would be fine but no caffeine. (On the problem of attention in relation to caffeine, see here.)
  • After we begin, do not pay any attention to the clock. Make sure that there isn’t a clock around you except, perhaps, for a small watch or alarm you used in order to ensure that you concluded your meditation before we were set to begin.

The Unfolding of the Conversation

We begin each conversation at the exact starting time. This shows mutual respect as well as mutual reliability. However, we do not know how long the conversation will last or when it will end. The latter require humility, patience, and courage. 

Throughout the conversation, we listen for wherever the inquiry is leading us. Doing so demonstrates openness.