A Numbing Diet

A few months ago I decided to go on a diet. It was not a change in my eating habits but a change in my mental consumption.

I had caught myself over the course of the pandemic reading more and more news articles, scrolling through endless youtube videos, and occasionally losing myself in social media–often when it was time instead to get out of bed or connect with a loved one.

I don’t have negative judgments of these activities specifically. A funny youtube video or a well written article can be enriching in their own ways. However, I noticed I was no longer reading these articles for enrichment; I was reading them to avoid being with my feelings. This is how I knew I needed to make a change.

I’ve begun to question the rewards of escape.

There are lots of positive activities we do in our lives that we might call escapes: diving into a knitting project, getting out into the woods, or doing some sword fighting (one of my favourites). Yet there are also escape activities that have the dull quality I was beginning to recognize in my own pandemic behaviour; like losing myself in Facebook, binge watching a Netflix series, or searching out the next passable article on Google News—sometimes for hours.

The contrast between these different types of escapes was that one brought me into myself and the other out.

This escaping “out” is where I found myself a month ago: sitting on the toilet, both legs having fallen asleep, reading my way down yet another page of news headlines for 20 minutes too long.

Beyond the literal numbing of my legs, I was aware of a numbing of my heart and spirit. Without realizing it, numbing had become my unconscious goal. Falling into my phone and seeking the little dopamine hit of even a passable article or video had become preferable to being present with myself.

Frustration, I’ve come to realize, is the consequence of impotent anger; the unrealized desire to make a change or address an injustice. It is an impulse for action that has been suppressed by a feeling of powerlessness, that there’s just nothing you can do. And with it often comes its kindred, depression; the heavy weight of unexpressed grief.

How easy it is to keep burying our sadnesses and our upsets, to tell ourselves that others have it the same or worse so we shouldn’t be fretting so much. Or to believe that there are really only two choices, fight or flight, and both lead to our destruction. So we press the feelings down, and as the lid on this trash bin gets harder to close, we numb.

Numbing is the act of turning away from pain and discomfort, turning a blind eye to those places in us where we feel powerless. What’s the use in having all those feelings if nothing can be done about it anyway? Numbing is an attempt to make everything in our lives uniform and ok and peaceful and tolerable.

Yet in the wise words of Pema Chodron, numbing is a type of death: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together.”

This is where my spiritual diet came in. It’s perhaps the bravest thing I have done in a long while.

I decided to take a one week diet from numbing.

I put away the news apps, hid my Facebook icon, made a rule against reading or watching things while eating, and even put boundaries around my workday (a sneaky form of numbing I’m particularly adept at). I was going to sit in my shit and feel how it felt.

I felt like a junkie coming off a bender.

I would catch myself with the youtube URL half typed in my address bar, or twitching in front of my lunch with the urge to pull out my phone and read something. What was I going to do while I ate my soup? Just stare out the window?

Why yes.

That was exactly what I was going to do.

The first week was hard. There were moments when I would catch myself bargaining—I’ll just read an article about COVID; it’s for my business!—Or rationalizing—If my partner is watching something on Youtube and I watch it over her shoulder, that’s not numbing, right? The reality is that the more uncomfortable the process of not numbing made me, the more I realized how vital it was. I should be able to eat a f***ing meal without needing to look at my phone!

In place of numbing, I decided instead to meditate. To intentionally sit. To be present with what came up. These meditations weren’t intended to fix, think through, or solve whatever came up in those moments. Instead, I held the intention to simply be with myself; to sit with the discomfort and pain that inevitably came up, and to offer myself a true gentleness.

For me, I have found that numbing is often an attempt to turn off my need to fix and respond to everything. It’s a strategy I employ to give myself a reprieve from my own demons of “not good enough” and “only I can deal with that”. Yet the more I push those demons away, the stronger they become and the more I feel I “need” to numb.

I sat. I cried. I felt deeply into my anger and fear. I gave myself space to be with whatever was there, and I didn’t try to resolve everything. I began to practice the art of simply being present with where I am now, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

Through this practice I’ve been discovering a deeper and more vibrant kind of resilience; one that acknowledges how hard things can feel, without qualification, and offers compassion by not demanding change.

I’m not doing this alone. I have a coach, a great partner, and loving friends in my life whom I know I can reach out to when I need their support. I journal, share what comes up, and let myself be fully who I am right now—warts and all.

After my first week it started to feel a bit easier. I decided to take it to 15 days, and then a month.

I’ve started to allow myself some small forays into the online world of escape. I watched an SNL skit the other day and read the New York Times newsletter on a few mornings this past week. I’m staying present to how I am feeling, noticing when something is a pleasure and an enrichment, versus when it feels like an avoidance, an act designed to take me away from my feelings. In those moments I pause, take a breath, and turn, ever so gently, toward myself.

I don’t know if this is still a diet, or if I’ve begun a true shift in how I approach who I am when life squeezes me. That remains to be seen. I do know that I’ve begun to experience my pain and sorrow in a new way, a way that is sharper and more vibrant, and also more gentle. Perhaps most importantly, being with the fullness of my feelings is a choice to experience myself as a whole person and to let go of the striving to be a perfect one.

“Even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior.”

Pema Chodron