Sitting with friends at a late dinner, after Chorus practice, in the midst of a conversation about how we engage with life’s difficulties, I was unexpectedly given a koan about snack cakes.
One of my friends was explaining that she’d come to understand a craving for snack cakes, for her, wasn’t about snack cakes but something else, and that if she paused to query herself about the underlying issue, she could uncover what that something else was. You’ve probably read about such, and so have I, but the way she told it was personal enough that it struck me as new, not just in her own experience but in mine. In my immediate response, I recognized my own habit differently– as a habit, and less firmly as being accurate.
Here is the koan: “what are snack cakes about?” You might insert your own craved food. Mine has morphed all week, because snack cakes are not my craving. For me it is “what are these corn chips about?” and “what is this bowl of beans and rice about?”
I said something like “how interesting– I’ve always assumed the craving was about the food”, which is nowhere near the extent of the thought flash my friend stimulated, and she answered that probably I had not suffered from bulimia, which is true. I’m generally far less articulate verbally than in print. I worried for a few days that my response had been actually fairly rude. I wanted to find a way to say I didn’t intend to dismiss her story but to say how she had suddenly expanded mine. This morning, I read an essay of Jonathan Franzen, about so much more than the title. And hence, this essay and blog site, after a several month hiatus of public writing, and after having given up social media other than emails.
My habit encountering cravings is much more literal than my friend’s. I’ve read those articles about emotional eating and it hasn’t seemed accurate for my own experience. Although not bulimic, I do routinely eat when I don’t feel hungry, and sometimes overeat– a bag of chips is my beloved nemesis. But instead of assigning non-hungry eating to “eating my feelings”, I’ve gone with more sensory or physical explanations.
I love a crunch. I love serial crunching. So much so that I can crunch off bits of a single roasted peanut, as many as 10 per half nut. You might think that would limit my total amount of peanut or chip intake, but factor in time… I can empty a container meant for days or weeks at a steady rate, in an hour. I especially love salty crunches, and I have favorite flavors, but I’ve figured the salt and the crunch might be the core factors. I especially love a series of crunches while reading. If I believed in a heaven, we would spent a large portion of time reclining, crunching, and reading. I have a touch of synesthesia, and the crunching makes the book taste good.
I love a crunch so much that I add a handful of crunchy somethings to almost any bowl of a creamy food. Peanuts are fantastic sprinkled in grits. And in beans too.
So I’ve figured my body has a specific daily requirement for the sensation of crunching, along with the salt, which does not necessarily correlate with its requirement for calories.
I’ve also read some interesting possible facts about how our bodies track nutrients– that one of the problems with manufactured flavor is that our bodies have come to expect specific nutrients to arrive with specific tastes, and when the nutrients don’t come, we stay hungry for more of the food in an attempt to get those expected nutrients. In this way, I’ve explained a chocolate craving as my body wanting more magnesium, not to be sated with artificial chocolate, and who would dare question the body’s wisdom over exactly how many bars– divided, of course, into tiny episodes of teeth meeting the smooth edge of a story by Italo Calvino– are necessary to remedy the deficiency?
This has all seemed benign, although over recent years it does seem to keep pushing my clothing size up, very slowly. Part of the pleasure of life, a natural thing, not a diversion from sorrow.
And that might be true. It might be true for me, as my friend’s story about food is true for her– or it might be a piece of the story, a story among stories. Franzen, in his essay, talked about story-making as a necessity when faced with the incomprehensible experience of bare sensory encounter. In the zen sitting group I sporadically attend, the bare experience can be impeded by stories, as much of a distraction from reality and being awake as a snack cake could be from a deeper life problem. In bare experience, not only the snack cake but the deeper life problem, the crunch, even the magnesium and salt are superficial, transitory, interdependent, not to be clung to. Even this realization can become another story about eating snack cakes, if you want it to. See how tricky snack cakes can be!
Can we really say a story is less awake than any other way of living? Do we have to see these aspects as polarities, as delusions vs the real? Is it possible to have both in the same bite– the bare bite, where illusions about where my mouth begins and the snack cake ends vanish, simultaneously with a story or multiple stories about the bite, like a chord with many notes? Try it and see for yourself. It may take many snack cakes. I’m still experimenting.
In science, we talk about association and causation– the difference between two findings happening to be both present in “stories”– physical events–together on a regular basis, vs one finding causing the other. Not to mention findings not even really associated with each other on any regular basis, just happening to be together in a particular story but not more likely than chance to meet again in another one. Humans are prone to pattern recognition, which often serves us well and sometimes doesn’t, when we see patterns not there. Experiments help us figure out which is which. So we could do experiments to try and suss out what’s really behind the eating of snack cakes.
To do that, we have to define what we mean by eating. How do we get the whole of the experience in there, of both the craving and the satisfying of craving? Even distilling a thought into words leaves something out– the best we can hope for is to evoke something in the reader similar to what we felt when writing. As I went around with this snack cake koan, as if it were a friend, I began to see how such experiments would be impossibly complex. Just as I can’t truly describe the meaning of a poem other than by reading the entire thing, it wouldn’t be possible to include every nuance. One snack cake craving is not the same as another. One tiny crunch of peanut is not the same as the next– for one thing, I’m reading an entirely different paragraph. What causes what, in this context, may not always be as relevant as what is happening– a focus on what causes what or is associated with what is a choice of the story that matters to us. Let me make sure I explain this well. I’m not saying we can pretend skirt length causes weather and call it science. I’m saying it that whether we consider causation to be the most relevant aspect of reality, vs other aspects, is a preference.
Reality, intertwined, full of butterfly wings continents away, full of snack cakes, full of insights and difficulties, full of crunches and poems, moves from one moment to the next as a whole. Teasing out ways to predict what will happen next, including what events will likely lead to the eating of snack cakes, is important as a function of science– choosing the parts of the story that resonate most is important as art. Neither will ever encompass the full catastrophe.
And that is what I meant to tell my friend– that her story had blown open my habit of thought about food cravings in an instant, and no snack cake or crunch will ever be quite the same.