About a week or so ago, I inadvertently gave up on my regular cup of morning coffee. I had run out of caffeinated beans with only a bag of decaf remaining. I rather lazily put off ordering a replacement and thought I would just drink the decaf for a while.
This choice had interesting results and, in part, provided inspiration for the subject of this post.
Until this recent event of ditching regular coffee, I have maintained, in my head, the idea that I was not addicted to coffee. I did not believe that it really affected me, physically or otherwise. I loved the ritual in the morning of waking up, walking over to the coffee/tea station with its own corner on the kitchen counter. Each step in the process, from freshly grinding the beans to the final moment of pouring the fresh brew into a favorite mug, was a part of the ritual. There was a certain mindfulness to it all, or so I thought.
The impact of giving up caffeinated coffee by happenstance was subtle at first. For the first day or two, I was really hungry! Caffeine is a natural appetite suppressant, which, although I knew, I had stopped really noticing on a daily basis. Maybe being really hungry was not so subtle, but the dawning awareness of what my body was about to go through had yet to achieve a fully awakened “aha” in conscious thought.
Once the extra hungry sensations had dissipated, I started waking up with a very mild but unpleasant headache. Over the years, I’ve had headaches ranging from tension and stress related to full-on migraines. This headache was different, and it sort of caught me by surprise. At first, I thought it was related to the heat, as this summer has been uncomfortably hot just about every day. I adjusted my hydration and drank more water, but the headache didn’t really budge. That’s when it dawned on me - I hadn’t had coffee that morning! Slowly, I was becoming aware of the detox that my body was undergoing, and I’d certainly not prepared myself for this, mentally or otherwise.
The headache persisted for a few more days, on and off. The next set of symptoms was a kind of muscle ache in my legs, almost like I’d exercised intensely, and lactic acid had accumulated to the point of excess. This was probably the most uncomfortable physical sensation as sleeping was difficult, interrupted by needing to adjust my body position many times during the night. Magnesium tissue salts and magnesium cream helped a lot, but it still took almost five days for the cramps to completely dissipate. What a relief! I am now, thankfully, on the other side of the physical detox!
Looking back, I can’t really pinpoint when drinking coffee became such a steadfast habit. As a mild stimulant, there was a time in my life when having the extra boost of energy from a daily cuppa motivated me to move through the day. Despite no longer needing that extra energy boost from outside myself, I had not realized the extent to which I had succumbed to the habit.
Don’t get me wrong - I still love coffee! I love the smell, the taste, the ritual of it. However, upon reflection, I had lost sight of a certain amount of moderation and balance. This is where habit and routine shift from becoming satisfying and choice-filled to running on the hamster wheel.
There is nothing wrong with rituals or routines. They can and do serve a purpose. At issue, however, is where we lose sight of truly listening to our needs. And instead, become bound to the habit of doing the same thing repeatedly without stopping periodically to examine their continued usefulness.
This week, I realized that I had stopped listening to what my body or even my soul needed. And to a point, I was sometimes ignoring an inner signal to change the habit.
How is this a spiritual obstacle?
From this perspective, an impediment to hearing and living in alignment with the soul is akin to a lack of inner freedom. By listening inwardly, hearing the soul, hearing the needs of each level of our being, and responding according to those needs, we open the doorway to freedom. When we are in touch with inner freedom, there is a feeling of joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
Needs can become difficult to hear and, at points, completely walled out when we’re operating from the choicelessness that arises as a result of strong likes and dislikes. Attraction and aversion, antipathy and desire, are other ways of describing likes and dislikes. As extremes, they ultimately create, to varying degrees, experiences of suffering, discomfort, unpleasantness, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. Attachment is a form of choicelessness; the more we are attached to our likes and dislikes, the more entrenched they become.
Likes and dislikes and really insidious. They operate in ways that are hard to detect, especially if you are not used to the practice of watching your mind stream. How insidious, you ask? Let’s start with something simple, like the mug I mentioned, from which I liked drinking coffee. At first, choosing this mug out of the sea of options — we have a weirdly surprising plethora of mugs, was fun. At some point, however, I stopped making a choice, and the mug became the default. It was the default to the degree that it had claimed ownership in my mind as “my mug,” and “my coffee mug.” It meant that if someone else had picked it up before I had, I would be disappointed that I couldn’t use it for my coffee. I liked this mug. I disliked most of the other mugs. I didn’t want to use another mug. This was my favorite.
My strong liking of the particular mug meant that I had become attached and was now operating blindly in some cases. In others, I was ruminating over the loss of not having been able to use it.
I know — this sounds completely ridiculous. It’s just a mug! But this kind of thinking happens all the time, in small ways and big, and often unnoticed. In the case of the caffeine, I kept pumping it in without regard for whether it was needed, which clearly my body was telling me it didn’t. In examining my relationship to this habit as it clears itself out of my physical and energetic system, it’s possible to once again listen to my true needs.
We can have the best of intentions with our mindfulness practice, but we all have blind spots. Likes and dislikes are just one form. In some ways, I think it could be useful to expand on the definition of mindfulness to include something along these lines:
True mindfulness is being able to be present in the moment, present and aware of arising thoughts and feelings, aware of true needs as they arise in the present moment, and with non-judgmental awareness, the ability to respond to those needs.
In other words, responding to needs, not from a like or dislike, which is a judgment, but from a place that, when satisfied, leaves one with a feeling of fulfillment. By keeping track of our thoughts, noticing what we’re thinking, and paying attention to our mind stream, we can more easily detect and observe the likes and dislikes we are trying to hide from our attention and awareness. Over time, we can slowly work through the trove of mental hindrances, dissolving likes and dislikes that have become embedded in our thinking. Shedding oneself of likes and dislikes is not something that happens overnight, nor should it be a goal. We are enculturated to operate from likes and dislikes, thinking that it will lead to some sort of everlasting happiness. All we’re really doing, though, is subverting our true needs. Breaking free of the conditioning of social norms, not to mention our self-imposed expectations, takes time.
Ingrained habits of being and habits of thinking require a steady patience. Any attachment simply works to further entrench the habit. As we said before, attachment is a form of choicelessness, and the more we are attached to our likes and dislikes, the more entrenched they become. Non-attachment is where inner freedom resides. Attachment, or likes and dislikes, settle in when we’re unaware that the habits have exhausted their usefulness. They run on autopilot until, at some point, we stop to check in, switch off the autopilot, and examine if a shift or adaptation is needed.
Establishing good habits and routines is not inherently bad. Just as we have things we’re attached to doing because we like them, there are many things we may not like. We all know that brushing your teeth every day is essential to preventing tooth decay or teeth from falling out. It’s a routine you may not like daily, but it is an essential component of self-care.
Where to from here? I find myself newly discovering what my morning routine could look like. In a way, it feels exciting. Possibilities are opening up, and there’s a little more mental space that wasn’t there before to contemplate making adjustments and changes. I feel more spacious inwardly and outwardly too. And I think this is where we can discover for ourselves what might exist in that space between likes and dislikes.
A space, open wide, full of possibility.
My forthcoming book, Yoga and the Five Elements: Spiritual Wisdom For Everyday Living, delves into this subject from the perspective of the element of Air. If you’re not already signed up for my mailing list, pop over now and download an early pre-publication excerpt!