Fasting Tea Theory

Intermittent Fasting and The Book of Tea

or the value of a vacuum in the face of cheap abundance

Today is the 30th day in a row of my intermittent fasting lifestyle change. Most days I fast 18-22 hours with a 3-6 hour eating window. It’s up to how I feel that day. On weekends it’s a little harder to do with a kitchen full of food at my beck and call, so I fast around 15 or so hours. I’ve lost around 12 pounds in the past month. I’ve noticed increased energy, focus, brainpower, and a greater appreciation for the food on my plate. And every day, I burn a few calories more and inch a little closer to my ideal body weight!

I could still clean up my diet by eating some healthier stuff more consistently during my eating window. While I won’t touch a drive thru, I haven’t been restricting myself at home, and have had snacks of chips and carb heavy dinners fairly frequently, which are less than ideal foods for my body. Oh well, I am perfectly imperfect. I am totally willing to admit that my life is a work in progress.

I’m happy that I’m progressing and that I made it this far. It takes 30 days to make a habit, so it’s day 30 and I’m keeping it up! 

I wanted to mark this habit anniversary by reflecting on a philosophical aspect of intermittent fasting. I recently read Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, and it struck me that there is a Taoist quality to this practice.

In The Book of Tea, Okakura discusses Laotse’s favourite metaphor, the vacuum. The vacuum, or emptiness of space, has a great deal of utility in this context. 

In Laotse’s imagination,

“The reality of a room…was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and the walls themselves. The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made. Vacuum is all potent because all containing. In vacuum alone motion becomes possible.”

(III – Daoism and Zennism, Book of Tea, Okakura).

Wow. Perhaps this allows us to better understand the origins of Marie Kondo’s art of tidying up. For what use is a room if it’s filled up? If it can’t really be used, what good is it?

To me, the image of the water pitcher spoke strongly to the realities of intermittent fasting. A stomach or a digestive system is not too unlike that water pitcher. The stomach needs space to take in and process nutrients. This is not only about avoiding overstuffing oneself to leave the body space to do its work, but also the reality of the stomach needing some space and time to reset itself between digestion. In an overstuffed world, it craves the vacuum where it can work to its true potential. The empty space, Laotse’s vacuum, gives the stomach its much needed rest.

In my case, experiencing the vacuum of intermittent fasting has allowed me to enjoy some of the things that I couldn’t previously. The occasional wheat laden treat. Emphasis on occasional. If it’s too often, my stomach has no rest and my whole body gets angry at me.

How often do we leave empty space in our bodies, in our lives? I know I wasn’t brought up this way. Lack is bad. Others have nothing. Being grateful means eating it all. Finish everything on your plate. All you can eat is the best value for money. 

But I wonder how much of this empty/full rhetoric had more to do with feeling empty inside, and less to do with the body truly lacking what it needed?

Keep the body full of fuel, so you don’t have to experience fear of the vacuum. Lack and starvation, not having enough, has been one of my biggest fears. Based on watching how others behave, I suspect it’s a subconscious underlying fear of many. From a food perspective, I suppose it speaks to a deeper spiritual starvation that paradoxically comes from being overstuffed. Stuffed with abundance.

Abundance is somewhat different in the Western ideation. We think of it somewhat as having it all, but to the Japanese imagination, one masterpiece is greater than a room full of trinkets.

“A collector … forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period… We classify too much and enjoy too little.”

(V – Art Appreciation, The Book of Tea)

This is incredibly apt when it comes to food. I have personally been guilty of being enslaved to the collector mindset. My kitchen and my belly both overstuffed with a strange assortment of foods, with no space left for a single culinary masterpiece. I think this is the essence of what fine dining is about, and why many of us don’t appreciate it. The fear of the vacuum, of the empty, of lack. “There’s not enough food on the plate!” might be the complaint about a nutritionally balanced meal that is exactly the amount merited for human consumption. We are so accustomed to overstuffing ourselves with abundance, we would rather have large portions, and cheaply made food, but what value is there when we trade our health for a cheap facsimile of true abundance?

Tea is like this. 

I believe that there are only three types of teas. Great teas, good teas, and bad teas. Yet, I will not give any of these categories a specific characteristic, and leave them up to the individual’s taste. 

We know when we try something that’s truly great. The feelings that conveys need no explanation. 

I say good because if there is enjoyment, it’s good. If there isn’t then it’s bad. 

I think there are few things in tea that anyone is really neutral towards. Generally neutrality is a moniker for politeness. “It’s alright…” really means, “it’s tolerable, but I would have preferred something different.” So from that individual’s preference, it’s bad. This is what I mean by there is only the existence of bad, good, and great.

A great tea may also cost a great deal, or it may not. Let’s say it does. Let’s say you drink tea every day, but you only drink cheap teas that are “just alright”. This way your cup overflows with an abundance of tea bags, daily. You tolerate them, but obscure their aroma with cream, their bitterness with sugar. Every day you have an average or sub-par tea experience. Fine. But you are paying for that experience financially and in health. Your subpar tea may not have the benefits of a good cup, particularly if it’s laced with white death (sugar).

If money prevented you from buying enjoyable tea, what if you saved aside that money and stopped purchasing bad experiences? What if, less frequently, you purchased a good tea, or even a great tea instead?

You would taste a masterpiece, and experience what tea truly can be.

I use tea as an example because, well, this is Tea Crazed, and because this whole diatribe was sparked by The Book of Tea. But really, this applies to all aspects of life. 

Quality over quantity.

Intermittent fasting has taught me the wisdom of this maxim in a world where we’re taught to consume unceasingly.

It applies to everything.

But let’s keep it to food for the moment.

What if you could have the best potato chips, an amazing crunch, explosion of flavour, just perfection, but they were more expensive, so you couldn’t pick up chips every grocery trip. What would be the result?

Probably a boon to your health from consuming less. Probably a boon to the environment from creating less disposable waste.

I’ve come to realize that our Western culture has this curious ingrained notion that our bodies should be treated like garbage dumps where we unload cheap abundance. We consume too much, physically and materially.

When your body’s systems are not overflowing with excess, but can enjoy a sensation of emptiness, they can self-sustain and self-regulate. With the presence of a vacuum you can learn to truly enjoy the masterpieces of the culinary world. 

There’s also something in Laotse’s ideals about growth. “In vacuum alone, motion becomes possible.” To me, this speaks to the value of meditation and stepping back in order to move forward, but also to physical improvement of the body. Through vacuum, whether as a regular practice or occasional reset, we allow the body to repair itself to move forward.

I mean this all, rather tongue in cheek, as food for thought.

We’ll finish with a beautiful sentiment which has less to do with fasting and more to do with life: 

“One who can make himself a vacuum into which others can freely enter would become master of all situations.”

Truly, that is a role of the tea master.