I consider myself a “yes” person. Yes, I want to climb that mountain, yes, I want to dance around sweaty at the show, yes, I want to sit quietly and talk about the moon. Yes, I want to eat fried chicken with my fingers. Yes, I want to make elderberry syrup and take it daily to stay healthy through the winter. Yes, chocolate cake is one of my favorite foods. Yes, I feel better when I avoid sugar and eat mostly cooked vegetables and protein.
Moderation is a “yes” person’s best and most challenging friend. It asks us to say, “no,” “maybe” or “just a little” more often than we’d like. But it allows for a settledness. An opportunity for quiet. With internal reflection, the true answer can reveal itself. And it doesn’t ask us to deny ourselves the things that bring us joy. It just asks for balance.
We don’t live in a moderate world. We live in an environment of extremes, that makes us feel guilty for our indulgences and also prone to binging. But what if we can have it all? Just not all of the time.
Moderation is an interesting concept, seemingly almost contrary to our human nature. As I sit with patients I sense an extremism in how many approach life. And I find it in myself. That, “To hell with it!'“ attitude if I am going to indulge. The impulse to stay out all night, eat the whole cake, push oneself beyond the obvious limitations. We do this for many reasons: our highly capitalist, production-based society, our own needs, goals and desires in our busy lives, our lack of modeling on how to live moderately.
Diets of extremity are prevalent. Folks want to lose weight, have more energy, feel better and avoid the foods that upset their digestion and mental health. These are all understandable motivations to adjust one’s lifestyle. But so commonly it is the extreme adjustments people are drawn to. The “Change your life in 30 days!” model. The truth is that these habits are much less likely to last, and to benefit us in the long run. Maybe we just need to eat less and chew more. Cut back on the things we know don’t sit right with us.
Sure, the occasional fast or very restricted diet can be helpful, especially when one is ill or uncomfortable. Yes, when a person has food allergies and intolerances it is recommended to avoid those foods. At least for a while. And addiction may require substances to be strictly avoided. For very sick people diet can make a huge impact on recovery. But does our extremism end up biting us in the backside more often than it helps us? Does it set us up for failure and disappointment in ourselves?
Moderation offers many lessons, but I hope that one of them is an ease and gentleness with the self. Moderation allows us to not be perfect. It sets achievable goals, a reasonable pace. It accepts our flaws and also encourages us to aim higher.
I often look to Buddhist principles for inspiration and I am seldom disappointed. In the Buddhist tradition that I follow, we use a meal practice called Oryoki, which feels to me like a perfect lesson in moderation. The word Oryoki is often translated to mean “just the right amount” and it is the practice of serving, eating and tidying up after a meal with efficiency.
An Oryoki set consists of three bowls that nest together, a spoon, chopsticks, a napkin, a wiping rag and a small rubber or wooden spatula or setsu. These are all stacked precisely and wrapped tidily in a larger cloth. When food is served, the bowls are laid out in order, with the main dish in the largest bowl and often pickles or a small side dish in the smallest.
The meal is served, eaten and the bowls are cleaned in silence or with prayer. Once the food is gone, water or tea is poured between the bowls and the spatula and rag are used to clean those and the utensils. By the end of the meal the bowls are cleaned, stacked and wrapped in the knotted cloth, ready for the next meal. This is conducted simply, with few steps to allow for deep meditation while eating. For intention with every movement.
John Kain writes that “Each movement of oryoki is compact, subtle, and designed to unfold in harmony, demanding meticulous awareness to what is happening in the moment.”
There is no place for wasted or uneaten food, so when serving oneself, the amount of food taken must be consumed. It must be just the right amount. When eating with others, the food is to be consumed in a mindful way but efficiently, so as to not make others wait. Because of this, it is important to gauge the level of hunger, the right amount of food. One must check in with the body, tune in to hunger, acceptance of nourishment and the resulting fullness.
Oryoki can reveal the internal state by showing us our tendencies to take too much or to little, to be controlling or disorganized. Of course mistakes happen and the goal is not perfection, but instead we get to observe our behavior for what it is, outside the lens of judgement.
The beautiful efficiency of Oryoki inspires me to be efficient and moderate in the ways I eat and live, beyond the sangha and the meditation cushion. It reminds me to choose my food deliberately and chew it well, to have gratitude for the things I have and to accept my limitations.
You can be a runner without completing a marathon. You can eat well and conscientiously without being on a diet.
Writer, acupuncturist and functional medicine practitioner Chris Kresser says in his book, The Paleo Cure, to find the healthiest food practice for your body and do it 80% of the time. Set your habits well for a healthy life and then allow some wiggle room. Let yourself be spontaneous and free if it brings you joy.
The earth element, which resonates with the late summer season, is represented in the body by the upper digestive system, the stomach and spleen/pancreas. Our ability to nourish ourselves and others with appropriate boundaries. The earth element is of a cyclical nature, with the intellect as the spleen’s intangible manifestation. Cyclical thinking is associated with the energy of the earth element when it is out of balance and our overthinking is often what leads to our inability to be moderate.
If I could cure overthinking I’d be the most successful acupuncturist in the world! Unfortunately I can’t. But I can support a settled, body-oriented existence with encouragement to follow practices that include moderation.
Set yourself up for success with achievable goals that are longer lasting than an extreme you can’t stick to. Run two miles a day instead of five or nothing. Drink alcohol a couple nights a week but not every night. Reduce your sugar intake but don’t feel you have to read the ingredients of everything you put into your mouth for the rest of your life. Once these practices begin, you might find yourself running longer than you planned to or just not craving sugar anymore.
I have a challenge for you. When you do indulge, can you do so without feeling bad about it? Can you make the choice to eat a piece of cake, take a day off from exercise or watch an hour of TV without feeling guilty? It’s often the guilt that leads to disappointment that leads to giving up and binging on sugar, sloth and television. But if we can feel okay about our decisions, even when they are not the healthiest, and really find joy in the thing we have chosen, then we can also move back into our healthier habits without much effort.
Moderation is an exercise in self-reflection. It asks the question, “What do I need and what can I live without?” It reduces the amount of stress we put on ourselves so we can enjoy the indulgences we take and also move forward with our goals.
For more on Oryoki: https://tricycle.org/magazine/eating-just-right-amount/