An Exercise in Abstinence

For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones, to be exact – from my small hometown located in south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. CQ is one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions to “simplify, simplify” from my 18th Floor Homestead.

I am working on a new book, The Expat Life, and this article introduces another aspect of life as an expat. Everyone, everywhere is surrounded by constant opportunities for reflection and reinvention but expats are especially blessed. Here is one example.

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An Exercise in Abstinence

“I am on a diet.” Thus announced James Beard, the famous “Dean of American Cooking”, in one of his weekly articles. He went on to say, “To someone who has spent more than seventy years eating as he pleased and where he pleased, Prohibition has come as a shock.” No longer would he load his foods with the cream, butter, cheeses, sauces, fats, and oils he loved and which gave him so much pleasure. Now, greatly overweight and suffering from serious health problems, his doctors gave him strict orders for what he could and could not eat. But James Beard had the right attitude. Instead of lamenting about his restrictions, he began exploring a number of low-fat, low-salt alternatives, substituting herb- and spice-based seasonings for his usual embellishments. (There was a happy ending. By changing his eating habits and establishing new, healthier patterns, he continued to enjoy and write about foods for many more years.)

One of the greatest benefits of becoming an expat is the inherent self-examination. Properly utilized, an objective, comprehensive review of our routines and expectations can result in some major, positive changes in our life. From my own experience, let me offer an example of the consequences of altering our self-image by altering even the smallest parts of our daily routines.

As an expat, I once did something that was comparable to Beard’s diet shift in its impact. Specifically, I gave up coffee for thirty days. Granted, this may sound like a very unimportant change but it was definitely not minor for me. Beginning each day with several cups of coffee has been a daily pleasure all of my adult life. I cannot even remember when it began. In a typical year, there may have been only two or three days when, due to unusual circumstances, I did not begin my day with coffee.

Starting each morning with several cups of hot coffee has been one of the few constants in a life which has seen considerable changes over the decades. Indeed, I devoted lengthy passages in my memoir China Bound to discussing this change in my daily routine after I arrived as a foreign teacher. For a period of a few weeks, I had no morning coffee to transition me into wakefulness with a caffeine jolt. I even described the elation I felt when, two months after I arrived, a package arrived from America with whole coffee beans, coffee filters, and other implements for making drip coffee.

Looking back, I can see that beginning the day with coffee has been a morning ritual for many years. Perhaps the keyword is “ritual”; I went through the same motions in the same order to get the same results each time. I had a smooth, unvarying early-morning routine. After I awoke, the next step was to immediately make coffee. I wanted real coffee, drip coffee, freshly made according to my preferences. After making the coffee, another important element of my morning ritual was to sit quietly, sipping the coffee and relishing the beginning of a new day. Sometimes, I would read and think; sometimes, I would enjoy the coffee while I was writing or planning my day; sometimes, I merely looked out my window and watched the world wake up.

In the distant past, when I was single, I would often take my coffee and go outside to sit on the balcony, weather permitting. An early-morning balcony is a suitable time and place to reflect on your life or on the current objectives you want to pursue – or, if you are so inclined, to catch up on your regrets. Currently, with two roommates (wife and young son) who jealously cherish every last moment of sleep, discretion calls for me to stay in my den office with the door closed and to remain as soundless as possible while they sleep those precious extra minutes. They enjoy their sleep while I enjoy my coffee as a solitary pleasure.

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Early each morning, as I quietly perform my daily ritual of boiling water, preparing the filter, measuring the coffee grounds, and watchi ng the hot water dripping through the grounds to make that marvelous, life-restoring elixir, I am doing more than merely starting a new day. I am adding to a long, long string of days – some good, some not-so-good – that began similarly. The common thread was the morning coffee, that initial burst of caffeine’s chemical sunshine. Thus, as all of those days cumulatively formed the person I have become, coffee was a foundation of the lifestyle I have today. Over the years, the balconies and the cities they looked over changed but those daily cups of early-morning coffee were a constant, comforting ritual.

Similarly, my favorite coffee cup, another artifact of my old life, was also filled with good memories and associations. That coffee cup was important enough to warrant careful packing in my already overstuffed suitcases for that long overseas flight. It still makes me smile every time I remember the people and places linked to that cup. That marvelous coffee aroma in my favorite cup, so soothing yet tantalizing, connected me to other days and other cups of coffee – and to the homes, friends, jobs, relationships, cars, pets, and hobbies from the times and places when I was enjoying those former cups of coffee.

So… after I have just explained why my morning coffee was such a cherished ritual, why did I decide to give it up for thirty days? The reason was simple enough. Although I had no health issues that coffee might affect and I was not drinking excessive amounts of coffee each day, I decided that it has become too much of a habit – and that was precisely the point. My comfortable ritual had become an intractable habit.

Periodically, we need to review our lifestyle choices and, in doing so, to consider what other options and activities we might be missing because of our current routines. Specifically, I wanted to consider if my time spent sipping coffee might be better spent on other things. What unknown consequences came from my daily coffee ritual? Economists call it the opportunity cost. But this review isn’t just a mental exercise; it requires a physical action to make it meaningful.

It also requires time. We can easily make a change for one day, or even two or three. But that is like taking a long weekend away from a full-time job we hate. The awareness that we will be returning to the job shortly colors all our sensations of the moment. It takes a longer time to dislodge a firmly established routine like my early-morning coffee, time to become aware that the messages from my body have changed. That was exactly the objective of my 30-day exercise in abstinence. This was not about self-discipline or sacrifice. It was to become conscious of how much an outside, artificial factor was affecting me.

I didn’t want to give up morning coffee forever; I just wanted to know how it felt to live without it. In a very subtle way, it was to revert to a simpler life, like one of our primitive ancestors, including starting his day without coffee. This was how our remote hunter/gatherer forefathers lived before they developed civilizations that brought them morning coffee and many other soothing rituals.

Additionally, there was the satisfaction of proving that I still retained sufficient control of my life that I could voluntarily give up an established habit – even one that was a cherished relic from my pre-expat life. In this exercise in abstinence, I wanted to prove to myself that coffee was still a choice and a pleasure, not a rigid habit. In doing so, I wanted to confirm that I could still choose new directions, large and small, for my life. I wanted to show that I still control my life. Morning coffee is not important; controlling my life is. If you should become an expat, you will frequently become aware that some old routines that may not transfer well to your new life. Some will be glaringly obvious. Others, like my morning coffee, require time to rise to our conscious attention. These opportunities for self-examination are everywhere and are an immensely valuable benefit of becoming an expat.

When I resumed my morning coffee after thirty days of being coffee-free, I began to really, truly enjoy it again. Boy, did that coffee taste good on those crisp, cool mornings! This sensual pleasure was again enhanced by the recollection of other crisp, cool mornings in other people, places, and times. I relished the coffee flavor and caffeine jolt even more because of their absence for one month and because it was, once again, a choice.

This may seem a rather trivial subject; it is not. Giving up our morning coffee for thirty days is not a big deal. What is a very big deal, however, is the ability to control our habits, even the tiny little habits like a daily ritual of morning coffee. But – and this is the critical part – this self-determination must be proven with action, not merely words.

There is a moral to this story. By extension, if we can do this with our morning coffee, we can do it with other habits as well – more important habits and routines. In those 30-day tests, while examining the habits we temporarily suspend, we can also consider what other things we might do with that time – the opportunity costs. What entrenched habit would you choose to give up for thirty days to prove that you are still in control of your habits – and your life?

To get metaphysical about it, you can even begin to review some of your habitual ways of thinking, not just your actions. Peeling that onion is wonderfully revealing but can be quite uncomfortable. As Harold Blaisdell wrote, “… to look upon oneself is to come face to face with an appalling array of contradictions. What one seems to be is refuted by that which lies just beneath the surface, and outward manifestations of character represent little more than an uneasy truce between opposing forces of nearly equal strength.”

One thought on “An Exercise in Abstinence

  1. I am not so sure i would give up something beneficial and yet pleasurable. Of course at Ramadan the muslim world do just that for thirty days. I came to cq 5 years ago and many things were forcibly given up for a time like cheese, english bread, bacon, christmas pudding etc. Its a long list but the replacements have made it so worth while in this beautiful friendly city so that doesn’t really count. Amazing fruit, vegetables, pork like no other – Its also a long list. Today I have the best of both worlds with all the imported stuff coming to cq. So am i in control and do I need to be? Probably not in control but it feels good. So should i give up my beloved coffee? I think if i were to do that I might even go the whole hog and do a Buddhist stint. A friend of mine did this and he tells me its a wonderful life . The only thing that would deter me would be the chanting. So monotone for a music lover! if i was asked what gives me the greatest pleasure in life I would probably not be able to say , truthfully ‘abstinence ‘. I think i would have to say ‘helping others in whatever small ways I can ‘ and this means I don’t need to give up my coffee either!
    (Response From Randy)
    Love your response about the greatest pleasure in life. Yes, giving up coffee is trivial, almost egotistical when we speak of it. What is important is the sense of self-control we feel when we can choose how to live.

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