The Edge of Hunger

I wake in the night far from home.

For a while I lie there, feeling the unfamiliar hotel room around me, hearing the soft hum of the ventilation system and listening to my partner’s rhythmic breathing, asleep. Somewhat groggily, I wander back through the story and images from which I have just awakened, considering them, replaying them, sifting through the general impression and affect of the dream in my semi-conscious mind, considering the relevance for my waking life. What is my soul expressing? Is there a message that I need to receive?

In the dark stuffiness of the room, my feet jutted out from beneath the comforter, I set the dream aside and my mind sets off on a rambling wander, reflecting on this and that. I seem unable to return to the soft pillows of sleep, and as sometime happens if I’m awake too long in the middle of the night, I feel a faint rumbling of hunger in my stomach.

Having long struggled with blood sugar issues, even despite a low-glycemic diet, I need to eat first thing upon rising in the morning—ideally some complex carbohydrates or protein. If I consumed a substantial dinner the night previous and then sleep through until morning, I generally wake feeling good but still need to eat straight away upon rising. If, however, I find myself awake in the night for a period of time, I generally have to get up and eat something or else find myself extremely wobbly, having been too long since I last ate. At home, if I’m awake for a while in the wee hours, even if not really hungry I’ll wander into the kitchen and munch a handful of raw almonds, which stabilizes me until breakfast some hours away.

On a biochemistry and blood sugar level, if my day starts ‘on the wrong foot’ and out of balance, the remaining daylight hours are decidedly affected and I feel poorly, ranging anywhere from mildly to intensely out of sorts.

prioritiesWhen I travel, I carry a stash of low-glycemic snacks (nuts & seeds, hard boiled egg, etc.) to keep myself stable in case I’m delayed from eating on my normal schedule. As I lie awake beside my sleeping mate in the hotel room, noting the edge of my hunger, I realize that I have nothing on hand to eat. A very unusual twist, this. For the briefest moment, I feel a faint sense of alarm—a slight activation of my nervous system, a constriction in musculature and breath, the stimulation of adrenals—as my mind predicts the sure, downward spiral of my blood sugar and how shaky and fragile I will feel by morning when I can get some proper breakfast.

Awake in the hotel bed, recognizing my mild activation at the fact that I have no food (unless I order room service, which seems silly and would wake my mate), concerned for how I will feel in the morning, I make a subtle shift into ‘witness’ mode: observing my own reaction, considering the accompanying physical signals in my body, maintaining a stance just slightly apart and not getting swept up. What is it like to feel this mild hunger and simply experience it, knowing there is little I can do about the situation other than simply be with its sensations until I eventually drift back to sleep. It’s not that I’m really all that hungry; my activation is entirely centered on simply wanting to prevent feeling poorly in the coming morning and rest of the day.

In our overfed but undernourished society, for most of us, how seldom it is that we know true hunger. At the slightest rumble of the stomach, we eat; indeed so accustomed are we to feeding ourselves out of habit, many of us snack all through the day, even when not really hungry at all.

For someone like me who eats regularly to keep my blood sugar stable, there are generally only two occurrences where I feel something beyond just a mere rumbling for the next meal. One of the instances when I know hunger more intimately is when I travel abroad on long haul flights, sometimes not eating for 24 hours.

(When I resided in the UK, an osteopath told me of a study involving professional athletes and long distance travel. One test group ate normally before and during their flight, and they suffered the typical jet lag and predictable dip in performance during their game the next day. The other group fasted ten hours prior to their flight and didn’t eat while in the sky; upon landing in the new time zone, they ate at the first normal mealtime (breakfast, lunch, etc.), suffered little or no jet lag, and performed optimally. Intrigued, I experimented with this myself and found it to be true, even flying halfway around the globe from Europe to Hawaii. Now, I never eat on airplanes. Though I’m often tired when I arrive at my destination, or feeling a slump in my blood sugar and its accompanying symptoms, by the next day I am fully on the new time schedule, acclimated, and feeling good for the duration of my visit.)

The other instance when I truly know hunger is when I fast for several days, either on a detoxifying cleanse or undertaking a self-styled ‘vision quest’—voluntarily abstaining from food while immersed in the living, pulsing web of wild or semi-wild nature in order to gain clarity and draw nearer to the realms of soul, spirit, and Nature for insight and guidance. The first day is one of pronounced hunger, feeling poorly as blood sugar plummets and my empty stomach grumbles loudly. The second day tends to be worse, often accompanied by a headache. By the third day, however, symptoms of hunger abate; senses are heightened and I feel light, bright, and clear in body and mind. When the time comes to break the fast, perhaps with a bit of fruit, or an avocado and some miso soup—formerly dulled senses now restored to full acuity—food never tasted so astoundingly good.

We are a society given to avoid discomfort at all costs, hunger or otherwise. At the slightest twinge in our stomach, we eat. If we remove our shoes and the ground is rough under tender feet, we flinch and immediately reclad our soles. If we are restless or uncomfortable on an emotional level, rather than sitting with the energy in our bodymind in a mindful way, we turn immediately towards a distraction.

Similarly, ours is a culture that rushes to sate longing instantly, believing it a thing to be assuaged or fixed rather than listened to more deeply. ‘If you want it, buy it now,’ is the thinking, even if that means charging it on a credit card and racking up debt. Yet beyond solvency, we lose something essential in this rush to fill or satisfy. On an archetypal level, a portal to the myth-world—the realm of possibility—swings closed. When we have longed for something, experienced the edges of our yearning, worked for it, waited or sacrificed for it, then a thing holds a different sort of value. The longing itself has shaped us in a subtle (or sometimes profound) way.

What would it be like, rather than to grasping out immediately to sate our desire, to instead draw near to our longing—or hunger, or grief—tracing the outlines of its undisclosed shape with outstretched palms, feeling its roughness, tasting its sweet sorrow. In such a gesture of restraint we begin to glimpse the deeper meaning of our yearning, perhaps recognizing it as the aperture for the larger life that awaits and beckons.

Without our longing, the Mystery cannot meet us.

What is your deep longing? And what are you willing to give up—or experience fully—in order to draw near to it and let it guide and transform you?

As I lay in the dark of our hotel room, feeling my quiet rumblings, fully knowing that I would feel unsteady and poorly in the morning, I simply surrendered to the experience. “I am intimate with all things,” said the Buddha. Hunger. Feeling poorly. Longing. Desire. Anger. How does that feel, simply embracing what is, without the need to push it away or do something about it…? My beloved still sleeping soundly beside me, I focused on my own breath, allowing the gurglings of hunger to fade, and finally drifted back into the arms of sleep.

This moment is all that I have.

Soul Artists know that any experience can be a teacher when considered closely. If we are able to step into a ‘witness’ mode even briefly, we gain the opportunity to respond to something rather than simply react in our habitual ways. Whether hunger or desire, pain or grief, to sit, walk and live with it awhile shapes us in a small but meaningful way. It deepens us, revealing something of our inner nature.

With our society’s low tolerance for discomfort, I wonder, gentle reader, what are the things you reflexively push away from experiencing? Hunger? Cold? Loneliness? Anger? Work and effort? I wonder too, what might you gain if you leaned into that particular experience rather than away from it…? No one but you can say. The journey to self-discovery and embodied authenticity is an ongoing one, my friend, and here’s hoping that you can welcome whatever arrives as a cleverly disguised teacher.