Beauty / Health

The midnight candle

Indulge, guilt, atone, repeat. We like to think we know what’s good for us. But are there benefits to being bad?

“His lips drink water but his heart drinks wine” – E.E Cummings

It’s Friday, 6pm. Work was long. Your brain is fried. You feel utterly drained. The fridge is bare save for a bunch of spinach and an avocado that will go off if you don’t eat them today. There’s (yet another) new documentary out on Netflix headlining the definitive necessity of being vegan. You resolve to stay in, eat healthy, watch something alarming yet educational, and get an early night. You want to get to the farmers market first thing in the morning, don’t you? And then, as if the devil himself appeared in plain sight, the phone lights up with an invitation:

“Drinks tonight?”

Cue the wearied cycle: throw on a pair of shoes expensive enough to be uncomfortable, head out, drink too much, eat pizza on the wrong side of midnight, wake up with a hangover, miss the market, check social media – friends were up hours ago posting pictures of sunrise yoga – stare bleakly in the mirror at a defeated set of bloodshot panda eyes (there’s also salami in your hair) and vow to spend the rest of the weekend juice-fasting and reading up on sustainable agriculture.

Indulge – guilt – atone – rinse, repeat. The sinner / saint dichotomy is so deeply rooted in our culture we’re barely aware of how caught up we are in its centrifuge.

As humans we’re geared towards homeostasis and naturally crave equilibrium. We look for antidotes to our poison and poison to our antidotes. The particulars present differently for everyone (some of us haven’t gone out in uncomfortable shoes since our misspent youth) but when it comes to matters of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, there is a collective tug-of-war between revelry and righteousness in an endless quest for balance. So alive is the conflict between these opposing forces, we’ve designed whole industries around atoning for bad behavior and whipping ourselves into glowing green goddesses in the aftermath of something as reprehensible as a good time. Thus we have arrived in the epoch of ‘wellness’, a multi-billion-dollar movement that has us drowning in green juice, accosted by kale, and knee-deep in namastes. We know life on Earth is increasingly toxic – we’re constantly being pelted with dire warnings that all things, even the air we breathe, are killing us. But exactly how well is all this wellness serving us in our efforts to achieve optimal health? Surely with a yoga mat tucked under a toned arm and a gluten free acai bowl on order, we can say with the taut smugness of a vegan Pilates instructor that this is indeed the wellest time in human history and there is nothing standing in the way of a pristine body and an enlightened mind. But according to practically every recent study on the matter, sadly this is not so.

Apparently, despite an increase in wellness literacy, we’re still a bunch of disease-ridden, anxious, depressed, pill-popping, stress heads who can’t seem to find that elusive ‘balance’ no matter how many Paleo blogs we cycle through and meditation courses we sign up for.

So what’s really going on here? In the pursuit of mind-body tonicity it is all too easy to slip into the same A-type mentality applied to every other lofty ambition in our pressurised modern lives.Is this craze yet another reason for our perfectionistic culture to self-flagellate and obsess to the point of neurosis? In our eagerness to purge of anything that might pollute our internal waterways and make temples of ourselves for the sake of good conscience, are we denying an aspect of the human experience that – though it may muddy the mind and contaminate the body – is as essential to achieving a state of wellbeing as all of this virtuousness? That is, the unbridled joy of the moment.

Fixating on the health of the body and mind can be a constructive endeavour, but are those benefits diminished if it comes at the cost of all the sensory stuff of living that feeds our soul.

Stolen kisses with strangers, blurry eyes and wine-stained lips, late nights barely remembered, dancing ’til dawn in a dizzying haze of music and lights, the electric rush of swimming naked at midnight? What if some days our heart’s delight means eating cake under a doona with a lover, lifting a finger only to refill a wine glass every so often. Or something as simple as skipping work on a rainy day to jump in puddles with our kids? If we spend most of the time trying to be ‘good’ – eat green, kick those career goals, get a few consecutive early nights – might it actually do us some good to shed that cumbersome cloak of virtue and let ourselves be swept up in all the wrongness and glorious muck of indulgent living without spiralling into self-loathing. Not as an act of rebellion against a healthy lifestyle, but rather a smaller but significant component of one. Because sometimes the soul’s exhilaration does not ride on the back of a kale salad – and that’s as vital to a life well lived as maintaining an immaculate diet and a core of steel.

Monica Ward, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist, works with patients whose obsession with gaining control over their state of being has ironically lead to out-of-control psychological conditions. “Self-restraint is necessary for survival and success, even happiness, but where that urge to control is coming from is important to recognise,” she says. “I have seen people who are masters of restraint, but they have become so in an attempt to manage overwhelming or painful emotions, rather than as a result of conscious choice based on true desire for a particular way of life.”

“What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle,” wrote Rumi – the same guy who more simply stated, “Either give me more wine or leave me alone.” In demonising what we perceive as ‘wrong’ and ‘bad’ – keeping it hidden in the dusty drawers of foreboding and regret – we offer it the power of an unrelenting tormenter. Revering what we perceive as ‘pure’ and ‘good’ can render it restrictive – we feel bound by its tyranny – and that sense of enclosure will eventually lead to claustrophobia and neurosis. This-way-or-that-way is an oversimplified manner of thinking that causes our actions to become reactive, leaping abruptly between extremes.

The condition of orthorexia is a perfect example of an ordinarily productive endeavour actually causing more harm than good when seen at its most radical. A sufferer will fret about healthy eating to the point of an all-consuming obsession leading to anxiety, depression, impaired relationships and an abnormally restrictive diet. The orthorexic’s dysfunction can be easily missed though, masquerading as an appropriate concern for good health that we all strive for. Ultimately, like any other eating disorder or obsessive-compulsive behaviour, it’s about a desperate plight for control and keeping to an unrealistically high self-imposed standard.

“Setting up all or nothing expectations for our behaviour leads to a frustrating cycle of self-restraint followed by self-indulgence,” says Ward. “It’s hard to meet our goals in the long run if we are constantly berating ourselves for breaking some unrealistic expectation for perfect living. Guilt and shame can add another level of paralysis and self-destruction in this context. Black and white rules for living are ill-advised, mostly because they are unattainable without great cost.”

Whether or not a thing is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, is influenced by myriad  variables and is far more complex than we think. Dose, for example, is of critical importance when looking at the benefits versus pitfalls of a classified ‘bad’ substance or behaviour. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is an age-old adage, which from a scientific perspective contains a literal truth: the theory of hormesis describes the process whereby organisms exposed to low levels of stress (i.e. late nights) or toxins (i.e. top-shelf tequila) become more resistant to tougher challenges. “The terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are meaningless without looking at the issue of dosing,” says Dr Jeffrey Moss, a leading practitioner of functional medicine.

We know that medicine can turn to poison in high doses. Conversely, can poison turn to medicine in small doses? We are creatures of the light and of the dark – our constitutions and characters need a dose of grit, dirt, darkness and depth of experience to grow, to become stronger and more resilient. Like infants who aren’t allowed to play in the dirt, we’re discovering that the sterility of our modern society – our pristine living conditions and obsession with an antibacterial lifestyle – is fostering weakened immune systems. Small amounts of toxins educate the cellular body about its environment – it in turn becomes a sophisticated processing plant, capable of tackling greater challenges than if it were kept completely sanitary. Science is telling us, there is such a thing as being too clean.

What will act as medicine or poison is more a choice than we think – the effect of either largely determined by our relationship to the experience in question: how we perceive it, what’s motivating our actions, and how much or how little we engage. If you’ve read on mindbodygreen that turmeric will prevent cancer and so you include it in every meal despite the fact that it’s downright drudgery and you hate the taste of every mouthful, is it really doing you any good? If nothing makes you happier and warmer inside than that first glass of good red wine on a Friday night, is it really doing you any harm? Or more to the point of hormesis, is the little bit of harm it’s doing you ultimately of greater benefit?   

The idea that a categorised toxin can act medicinally in small doses builds a strong case for loosening the reins on a bit of a good time without, of course, promoting all-out substance abuse. This is not a campaign for a lazy, alcoholic, junk-food addicted lifestyle but rather a reframing of our good-evil paradigm to allow for a fuller, more complex and integrated picture. Admittedly at times I’ve appeared to be the poster girl for every wellness cliché you can think of – I’ve practiced yoga for more than 15 years, meditation for more than 10, and most of the time I avoid gluten and sugar. I own activewear and am even active while wearing it. And while these things have undoubtedly helped me maintain good health and equilibrium over the years, so too has the occasional doomed love affair, night out that ended in daylight, and Sunday afternoon Nachos binge because, well, cheese and chips at the same time.

If “darkness is your candle” then I’ve certainly lived fully in the fierce light of my shadiest moments.

In my early 20s I went to see a nutritional biochemist to help me solve a host of escalating health issues. At the time I was stuck in a job I didn’t enjoy, working 12-hour days, and despite my best efforts to eat right and battle through exercise I was constantly stressed, fatigued, bloated and nauseous after every meal. He immediately took me off wheat, yeast, dairy, sugar and alcohol – basically all the fun stuff – for at least three months with no exceptions. But before I could reluctantly accept the dullest of times ahead, I needed something clarified. “I spent a couple of months in Italy last year where my diet consisted solely of pizza, pasta, gelato and red wine every night,” I told him. “I ate dinner at 10pm and was rarely in bed before 3am – how come I didn’t feel this unhealthy then? In fact, during those few months I’d never felt better?” He laughed as if the question were obviously ludicrous. “You were in Italy!” he replied, “I take it you were having the time of your life? The body can handle almost anything when you’re that relaxed and the wine’s that good.” More importantly I wasn’t focused on the purity of my diet or fitting in yoga and Pilates between work deadlines. There was no waking up with the sinking heaviness of guilt and self-loathing the morning after those heady summer nights in Sorrento. I was falling in love (which always helps), eating whatever I liked, and fully immersed in the act of living. In that instance, the joy of the moment was everything.

“Engaging with the things that make us feel alive and inspired can actually provide direction for our efforts to achieve our life’s greatest works, whether they be in the realm of relationship, industry, or creative pursuits,” says Ward.

“How can we be attuned to what makes us feel joyful and inspired if we are constantly suppressing joy and inspiration? This is not an invitation to a self-destructive free-for-all, but rather a call to leave space in your life and your psyche for all of your parts.”

Your own version of the present moment’s delight may not necessarily involve imbibing toxins or embarking on reckless affairs. You might be a terrible dancer and gag at the thought of chips and cheese on the same plate (although I think we can all agree I’m talking to no one here). The point is more about cutting loose the overwhelming expectations we hold for ourselves when it comes to maintaining perfect health and balance. The action of ‘letting go’ cannot be underestimated – it has transformative potential unmatched by vigilance. If chronic stress is the malady of modern man, then the quality of liberation implicit in letting go is certainly the antidote. 

Take comfort in the knowledge that small amounts of ‘bad’ things, given the right conditions, can be unexpectedly beneficial for the wealth of the soul, mind, and even the body.

Sometimes we have to feel the burn of the midnight candle because a little bit of fire on the skin, even if it leaves a mark, can help us to engage with all aspects of our experience here, to know our limits but also to keep us in touch with the adventure of being alive. As Ward puts it: “Non-judgemental, compassionate awareness of who we are right now, and what we really need in this moment, allows us to meet our human needs, stay in balance, and stay truly healthy … As children we often know how to be silly, adventurous, creative, free-spirited. Even as responsible adults, life can’t always be about perfection and denial.”