After spending nearly 24 hours sitting with myself I can confirm that my old therapist was right—I am exhausting.
It took three weeks after my last fast to carve out this time. After the whole experiment was concluded, I looked up the science. What I found was pertinent to addiction. “The turbulence of dopamine swings related to addiction effectively drowns out signals from all other realms of life,” writes Walter Piper, Neuroscience Researcher at NYU.
Yet, as I continue studying the thoughts on the dopamine detox from people a bit more educated than the 16-year-olds in Minnesota on Reddit, I find that it’s only one part of a strategy to improve focus, motivation, and time management.
It is neither snake oil nor panacea.
Just like we use a cornucopia of strategies to get and stay sober, so must we to connect with ourselves and disconnect from other forms of pleasure-seeking that deplete us.
Spiritual teachers since the beginning of time have advocated the value of sitting with yourself. As addicts, it’s what we run from most.
While clearing our minds will allow us to enjoy pleasures more, it’s about more than dopamine. What matters most is what you do with what you learn. In the week between my first two fasts, I didn’t turn my phone on until I accomplished several tasks that are important to me. And then I backslid, just as it was starting to feel really good.
The third fast was draconian, but it got me back on my bullshit. Like Mark Twain once said, “I’m glad I did it, partly because it was well worth it, but mostly because I shall never ever have to do it again.”
In level three, dubbed the “Time Theorist” by Youtuber Andrew Kirby, there is no reading, writing, exercise, caffeine, music, or food.
I found myself busier than expected in level one and two, mostly out of fear. But at the third level, I had no choice but to surrender to the void.
I woke up as I always do, at seven am, to the terrible opera of my pets announcing their morning needs. This time I went back to sleep after tending them. Waking finally at nine, I sat on the couch for a while and thought and stared at the wall. I’m grateful I went back on Keto three weeks ago in a bid to lose the quarantine fifteen. The diminished hunger as a result of being in ketosis would help me later.
All morning, minutes passed as slowly as high school detention.
The first hunger came on in the afternoon. It arrived and departed like waves breaking on the shore of my consciousness. I drank more water.
Tara Brach, meditation expert, author, and one of my favorite spiritual teachers, distinguishes below the line (of consciousness) from above the line activities. It is only above the line things, such as quiet contemplation or meditation. that truly rest us. Below the line activities, such as true crime programs or Candy Crush, are simply an escape that doesn’t benefit us in any real way.
Typically, on a day when I say I am doing nothing, my brain doesn’t know I’m doing nothing. Looking at a screen is looking at a screen, whether it be for work or a game. So I return to life afterward feeling unexcited to tackle my tasks, but duty-bound to make up for the time I wasted.
By midafternoon, memories I thought I lost come flooding back. I walk through scenes of the past, struggling to hold onto the memory of a dream from the night before. I can’t write the dream down until night falls. It is almost my birthday, and I sort through what life was like seven, six, fifteen years ago. Five years ago on this day I moved to NYC and began my life as a big city dweller. With nothing else to do, I am able to go deeper into the scenes and construct a narrative. I have come further than I have given myself credit for. It’s been less than two years since I got sober. I had dedicated the entire first year just to achieving lasting sobriety, and was ready to really jump into life when COVID hit. And that, it seems now, was just another thing that was meant to be. This collective pause. As I look back and back, I see that nothing that happened was without its rewards, although often it didn’t feel like it. Meaning reveals itself when it is ready to, and never before.
I do an entire hour of meditation at my altar on my cushion, timing myself with the kitchen timer and burning an entire candle down as I stare into the flame. I stick another candle in the melted wax left behind.
With less than four hours left till my fast is concluded, the hunger comes back and does not abate. I am done, I decide. I get it. I got it. I’m good.
I eat and go to the store, avoiding talking to people by using self-checkout. I realize I don’t have to fully break the fast. I don’t have to turn my phone on.
I take a sip of Coke Zero, and the caffeine hits my brain exactly the way it did in rehab when they gave us real coffee Christmas morning, a month in.
After my cauliflower crust pizza, I lament that I’ve never practiced fasting. As a Jew, we have a fast day—Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. I’ve only fasted on Yom Kippur once, by accident, because I was on cocaine.
I crack open Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” with two hours left to go. It’s a book, ironically, about not giving up.
I do make it a full 24 hours without screens or masturbation. These are a few of my favorite things.
Afterward, I feel more centered, more excited to do the big picture things that further my goals, creative and otherwise. The biggest shift in all these fasts is returning me from an “I have to” mindset back to “I get to.” I do not have to write this piece. I get to write this piece.
I stay up until four am reading “Wild.” I decide that any detox I incorporate going forward will be strictly of the digital variety. It’s just not a reset day without books.