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Eat when you’re hungry; sleep when you’re tired

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In his journals from the 60s (we’ve got a copy in our mini-library), Thich Nhat Hanh envisions enlightenment within a simple phrase: “I eat when I’m hungry; I sleep when I’m tired.” Even within the monastic Buddhist community, Thich was known for the depth of his mindfulness. Here, he asks: What is being present, if not being aware of how you feel?

My mind zings and pings around in its natural state. I don’t think that makes me different from anyone else. Yet, it’s the frequency of those ricochets that stands out. Can you imagine asking a young Robin Williams to read the daily news? You would have gotten one or two lines—at most—before he began riffing. This is what made him a remarkable improviser. It’s also what would have made him a terrible 1950s newscaster. One of the big lessons I have learned in life is to look for places where you don’t have suppress your natural state but—instead—can foster it into a unique ability. A mismatch between talent and environment is catastrophic—like a fish climbing a tree. And neuro-diverse folks tend to be more sensitive to these things, like canaries in the mental coal mines. 

Tragedy struck today!

On that note, I would like to present you with an image of an oxygen cylinder made for coal mine canaries. Why does this exist? Because those big, tough coal miners didn’t want their birdies to die. So, the second, they saw the canary start to wobble from the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, they would slam the door shut and crank on the oxygen.

Image from https://blog.scienceandindustrymuseum.org.uk/canary-resuscitator/

Interoception describes your ability to notice signals coming from your body—including a lack of oxygen. What are the first physical sensations you notice right now? The pressure of your body pressed up against a seat or your feet on the floor? Warmth or coolness? A sense of hunger or thirst? Naturally, we can’t attend to all of these sensations all of the time. They fall into the background when you focus on a more salient task.

Like any parent, I have had to argue with my kid on whether he needs to go to the bathroom or if he’s hungry or tired. He may not notice these signals because his little brain is still developing and his interoceptive acuity remains a work in progress. Yet adults are not exempt from this. If you have ever stood up from a long period of being seated only to notice a stiff back, you have experienced this too. The signals to change your position were there but were lost in the shuffle. Then again, you might have even noticed and then suppressed it. Some kind of puritanical cultural legacy has taught us to suppress movement in places like meeting rooms and waiting area.

Diminished interoceptive awareness brings some baggage. For example, a feeling of fatigue is often blunted, particularly when you’re engaged in an interesting task. As a double-hit, fatigue also makes you less likely to notice fatigue in the first place. For my ADHD homies, it’s a triple hit because folks we are often more sensitive to disruptions in sleeping. This can, in turn, bleed into blunted awareness of fatigue, hunger, and satiety—among other things.

Fortunately, the practice of attending to your body’s signals is not only accessible, but it’s also engaging for a highly active mind. The process does not require you to mess with the natural functioning of your mind. Instead, you build the habit of checking in with your body frequently—perhaps beginning with noticing your breath. For example, are you inhaling or exhaling right now? If you’re not sure, it’s worth your time to observe a few breaths. You’ll gain far more in focus than you lose in time. In fact, your experience of time may dilate.

You can practice this type of check-in whenever you notice your mind wandering. Or perhaps when you notice it wandering into places that do not serve your mental wellbeing. I have learned not to try suppress any of those thoughts—but instead to welcome them to join me as I return my focus to my breath. In and out. Repeated as many times as needed. Once you have reached a brief moment of stillness and presence, you can check in with your body. And if you’re hungry, eat; if you’re tired, sleep.

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