Monday, April 19, 2010

Shedding our identity

"You don't have to be who you think you are."--Jeff Bridges

"Our diseases are our attachments."--Henry Miller

We have always liked to eat meat. Not a little, or every once in a while, but everywhere and all the time. We used to go to all-you-can-eat buffets and fill our plate with bacon, and once went an entire week eating nothing but bacon cheeseburgers. Our local sandwich shop actually has a sandwich named after us because we are the only one who orders it, and it is the biggest and most calorie-laden thing they sell.

Thus, when we saw an interview with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey in which he explained his new diet of eating only plant-based foods (basically veganism, in which you eat no animal products, including eggs, milk, etc.), our initial reaction was revulsion, perhaps mixed with a bit of pity. After all, who would choose to live that way? Why deny yourself the pleasure of eating meat?


Obviously this presented us with a bit of a conundrum (yet again!). If nothing matters, then how can eating different foods...matter? Further, if John Mackey can be happy eating this way (and he claims to be), why can't we? (Not to mention the billions of people, now and in the past, who have eaten mostly plants.) The answer, obviously, is that being a "meat lover" has become part of "who" we are. It is part of our identity--something we cling to--an attachment that grounds us as an individual.

In other words, it is bullshit.

And so, we have undertaken what we have termed a "small-scale identity-shedding project." We began a couple of months ago, when we went for a week without eating meat. It seemed difficult, and we endured more than enjoyed it. Now, however, we have committed ourselves to a vegan diet for some indeterminate period.

To be clear, this is not about health, or some moral statement about eating meat, it is about truly embracing the ethos put forth in this blog--that nothing matters, and circumstances are irrelevant. Thus, we are emphatically not claiming a vegan diet is "better" than one composed entirely of meat (for example), only that we should be indifferent between the two. (And moreover, that our belief that we really like meat--that this "defines" us in some way--is exactly the sort of illusion so antithetical to true contentment.)

The line between preference and "meaning" is a thin one, and we are always at risk of slipping from one to the other. If we "care" about eating meat (and we cannot deny that we do), then it matters to us, and we are one step further away from being content.

(There is another side to this as well. Given that there seems to be a general human preference for meat--meat consumption rises along with income--we also look at this as a "Stoic-like" denial of pleasure that will cause us to appreciate eating meat all the more in the future.)

It is so, so, so hard to keep one's focus on the meaninglessness of life. We constantly need to fight against our human tendencies to label this, that, and the other thing as meaningful, and our ephemeral selves as real.

This is water. This is water. This is water.


  1. Somewhere you have crossed over into the insane notion that what people do has no impact on their happiness, or "shouldn't" have.


  2. Arthur-

    Not exactly. What we are saying is that the truly absurd man (as Inigo so eloquently put it in his last post) doesn't give a flip about circumstances. For example, we recently read Pico Iyer's book "The Open Road" about the current Dalai Lama, and there is a scene when the DL is talking with some monks who have recently escaped Chinese torture camps. One of the monks tells the DL he was very worried when he was in the camp...that he would lose compassion for his captors!

    The point is, the absurd man should be content regardless of what he does, eats, etc. It is this ideal to which we aspire.


  3. Rick,

    I find your recent change of diet, and the reasons for making that change remarkable. I hope you enjoy the experiment!


  4. I'm not sure it's such a good idea to test yourself just for the sake of testing yourself. Just like I don't think a monk should look to get captured and tortured to see if he can keep his compassion in those circumstances. You just need to take it easy, and if you find yourself in adverse situations then you can see how you handle it

  5. Nice response Rick.

    But I guess the philosophy I fell in love with was that nothing matters or means anything, so we are free to do what we want, what we like - free to do what makes us happy. I think this philosophy actually helps to release compassion acts more naturally.

    Maybe its worth making a distinction between what we do and our circumstances.

    Despite the fact that there is a ton of happiness research saying that certain aspects of our circumstances (not the ones we think!) do indeed affect our happiness, I can still buy into the aspiration that this fact can be transcended.

    But I don't agree that what we ourselves do can somehow be transcended and made to not affect our happiness. Except, as I guess you are saying, small irrelevant choices.

    Even the monk realized that his own uncompassionate actions would affect his happinesss, and that his current circumstances were relevant because they reduced his probability of compassionate actions.


  6. The difficult part is to know that nothing matters and that it's perfectly fine to choose one over the next nonetheless - at the same time. You did go vegan after all - why? Not because nothing matters.

    I too was a meat lover. And I too just went through changing my diet to mostly plant-based foods. But I can say that there are concrete reasons for this, especially health, that motivated me to undertake this challenge.

    And at the same time, I dont really give a flip. I do plenty that does not lead to good health ;)

    Meaning is personal and fleeting, so just relax and enjoy life.

  7. "Even the monk realized that his own uncompassionate actions would affect his happiness, and that his current circumstances were relevant because they reduced his probability of compassionate actions."

  8. Maybe some people can achieve a transcendental serenity in which the external world has absolutely no influence on their internal feelings, but that requires years and years of discipline and dedication. Most of us are going to be unhappy in a torture camp, no matter how much we pretend it won't matter. We have certain biological needs that will boil over in certain circumstances, and unless you have spent many years learning to overcome them, you'll crack. I know I will. I sometimes I'll crack at little things, like when my little brother got a haircut that made him look like a whiney, creepy emo kid, and even though I can recognize that it's just a haircut and his hair will grow and he'll die and I'll die and the universe won't even notice, I still feel it. It's my own fault, but I have not yet learned how to ignore things like that, and you can't expect someone to know something they haven't learned.

  9. Wow Enzo, what a sincere, simple, but profound comment. The whole thing. But this sentence in particular: "Even though I can recognize that it's just a haircut and his hair will grow and he'll die and I'll die and the universe won't even notice, I still feel it."

    This is kinda what I have been trying to say on here. I love this blog, but Rick sometimes pretends that the freedom of knowing that nothing matters should imply freedom from anything affecting our happiness. Its even freeing to know that our happiness doesn't matter, that one way or another we will live until we die - but we still care about it, about our happiness.

    Life is sometimes hard. Many things (our attitude near the top of the list) affect our happiness. Thank goodness we don't have to ALSO worry about what they Mean. And thank this blog too. But its plain old denial to pretend you could ever be just as happy getting a back rub as watching your children die.


  10. Well, if nothing "mattered" blog author would have no concern with completely ending this blog...This blog obviously matters- if not -why do it? Why reach out and offer anything to anyone in whatever moments? Does this serve a purpose? Does this purpose have/convey meaning?..It takes energy, concern & effort to execute a task such as; creating & maintaining a blog. Imo- there *is* care involved- even if one is latent in realizing this. My take:- this blog thread seems to even matter enough,for now, -even if it does not matter at all...Purposeful?