An Empty Vessel

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We are afraid of hunger, even though few of us have any experience of it whatsoever.
“The stomach contractions we experience at midday or in the evenings, often quite painful ones, which signal mealtimes and which we call ’hunger’, are strictly speaking nothing of the kind’ writes Margaret Visser, in her book, “The Rituals of Dinner”.
Well Margaret, if my tummy is rumbling and I haven’t eaten anything for several hours, and that isn’t hunger, then what is that rumbling and what are those pangs?
“They are the result of habits and bodily rhythms only, and they result from a culturally induced custom of eating regular meals”, says Mrs Visser.
Well, that isn’t very reassuring, but it is almost certainly right: who hasn’t been on holiday in Spain and wished that dinner would be served – now – rather than having to wait until 10pm or 11pm, the time when the locals finally deign to start enjoying some food.
But if Margaret Visser reckons that this sort of hunger isn’t real, what I would like to propose is that we start to look for ways in which to make ourselves truly hungry.
And do you know what? It isn’t easy to do.
Let’s say, for instance, that to take your mind off those faux hunger pangs, you decide to do a little shopping. So, you head for the Dundrum Shopping Centre. And what will you find there?
No fewer than 32 different places to eat are trading in this temple of consumerism, designed to exploit your footfall, and to make you feel that having something sublime – Indian food at Ananda, let’s say, or the First Floor at Harvey Nick’s – or something fast – McDonald’s or KFC – is what you really need right now. Modern living often seems to be a challenging, if not impossible, navigation through and around places that want to sell us food. Urban living is a waltz around calorie consumption.
But why would you want to let yourself get hungry. Who needs it? And what possible good does it do?
I would suggest there are two main reasons why letting yourself get hungry – truly hungry, properly hungry – is actually very good for you.
The first is that hunger triggers the appetite, and the better your appetite, the better you enjoy what you will eat and drink. Appetite is a beautiful, mysterious thing, but we all know exactly what it is, and we all know how pleasurable it is to satisfy a true appetite. “Hunger is the best sauce” is one of the oldest clichés in the book, and one of the truest. Food eaten when our appetite is at a peak is food we can remember with vivid clarity, and is not just another trip to the trough.
Practitioners of tai chi and chi-gung offer some of the best reasons for letting yourself get hungry. Daniel Reid, in “The Complete Guide to Chi-Gung” writes that “leaving the stomach completely empty, as in the period of abstinence practiced by chi-gung adepts, is by far the best way to detoxify the system, purify the blood and alkalize the tissues and bodily fluids. Eat only when you feel hungry, but do not eat only to fill an empty stomach. From the viewpoint of chi-gung practice, an empty stomach is far more useful for energy work than a full one”.
What an interesting idea, that an empty stomach is more useful than a full one. It’s an idea, of course, that runs counter to what we are today told is normal, or even healthy.
But it isn’t so long ago that we actually took a different view, and that we venerated creating true hunger in ourselves. Today, however, fasting has been shoe-horned into the more esoteric Catholic practices – pilgrimages involving self-denial at places like Lough Derg, for instance – and into an essential rite of passage for idealistic students who want to raise funds for worthy causes.
Both of these things – mortifying the flesh, and supporting good causes – are worthy, but the other worthy thing for participants is actually the healthfulness of letting yourself get really, truly, properly hungry, of building a true, natural appetite, and then satisfying it carefully and deliberately.
So, don’t be afraid of hunger. The cultural memory of the famine may have conditioned us to want to be surrounded by plenty, to have full cupboards and deep-freezes, to have reserves and sufficient unto more than the day. But just as our health depends on eating well, it can also depend on not eating, it can be helped by abstaining from grazing, from feeling that we should be consuming something, no matter what time of day it is or where we are.
It may come as a surprise to many younger people, but there was a time when it was considered extremely bad manners to eat something whilst walking on the street. And there was a time when shopping was about purchasing things you needed, not just interspersing gazing and snacking with visiting different shops. “We turn clay to make a vessel/But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends”, says the I Ching. Let yourself be an empty vessel.