Paleo Nirvana?

So far, we have some stiff dogma in the Paleo world, the specter of nutritionism, and a choking, sputtering immune system.

Today I’ll share my thoughts from an Eastern perspective. And tomorrow, I’ll do my best to tie it all together, though I suspect I’m really just writing my insane asylum admission form.

Some Background

There was a time when I wasn’t such a nice person. When adolescence hit, I became a raging, selfish, arrogant, reckless little shit. (That sound you hear is my parents’ laughter.) I was not a good friend and I was an even worse romantic entanglement. I was crazy, irrational, and irresponsible. In due time, when drinking a lot and dropping out of classes at my local junior college stopped amusing me, I realized that, in order to get my life’s momentum moving forward rather than circling around some moldy, rusted drain, I had to change some fundamental things about myself. I was probably saved by the fact that I don’t have an addictive personality or physiology, otherwise, my life may have turned out very differently.

My solution was to dive into myself to root out my maladaptive tendencies. I don’t remember how or why I looked into Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, but by the time I had recommitted myself to an undergraduate program, I was taking as many classes as possible without majoring in it. In my spare time, I read more and dallied with meditation and yoga. The efforts seemed to pay off and I was able to untangle my thoughts and actions, thus adjusting my behavior, my outlook, and my worldview. I began to understand how radical true personal responsibility can be.

I felt, for the first time in my life, freed from the feeling that I was a victim of circumstance. I knew, deeply, that change was possible, though not easy. It was hard work that required constant vigilance and support to continue. Today, these studies inform everything I see and do. Rather than join a community or renounce everything to become a monk (oh…I thought about it), I’ve just gone about my life and filtered everything within and in front of me through this philosophical screen.

I’m guessing you probably have something that functions in this way for you too. For example, my sister is really into astrology, and she relates everything through it and it makes sense to her. This is, after all, the function of things like religion, philosophy, and perspectives.

The Basics

This is nutshell stuff here, so please forgive me. Also, there’s this annoying tendency for words to miserably fail to capture the essence of these concepts. And so it goes.

The Four Noble Truths form the foundation:

  1. All is suffering. A simple acknowledgement that human suffering, dukkha in Pali, is universal and we experience it every day, sometimes in minor ways and sometimes in major ways. Even “good” things are suffering or produce suffering because we never want them to end or we miss them once they’re gone, hence, more suffering. Freedom from suffering drives the human race.
  2. Desire and ignorance fuel the suffering. So what’s at the root of the suffering? Desire and craving convince us that we cannot be happy without something. A simple example is wealth, a less simple example is how attached we are to ourselves. Ignorance in this sense has nothing to do with education or experience, rather it is a failing to see things as they truly are. We humans are great at overlaying everything with meaning, opinions, and beliefs—all ways that strengthen attachment and increase craving and ignorance.
  3. There is an end to the suffering. Commonly referred to as enlightenment or nirvana, which literally means “extinction” or “extinguishment.” Scary words, eh? One must transcend ordinary human consciousness in order to understand the absolute truth to which we all have access if only we could realize it.
  4. One must travel the Middle Path. All things in moderation, right? Not so fast. This is actually a prescribed journey of discipline, one without excess and without asceticism. It is a strong code of ethics involving the way you think, eat, sleep, interact with others, speak, and work. I spent the better part of a year focusing on one of the Steps of the Eightfold Path—Right Speech—and it was daunting. Eventually, it came to seem that silence was the only Right Speech, because everything spoken has the potential to harm in some way. After feeling like I had no personality left (Hmm? Was that my ego retaliating?), I eased back into regular gossipy, talky-talky life. I still don’t lie, I don’t share things shared in confidence, and I try to do more listening than talking, but I sure could use a refresher course. If my blog suddenly ends one day, you can be sure I’ve picked up my studies again.

Yeah, something like that.

You promised this would have something to do with all this other Paleo stuff.

Before I went Paleo, I was quite the tolerant citizen. Vegans and vegetarians didn’t bother me, I thought beans were perfectly healthy options, and folks voluntarily feeding their babies formula were merely misguided, not criminal. Ahh…to be as laid back again…

But now my mind has jabbed hooks into all sorts of ideas and opinions. “Attachment” is too kind a word to describe what Paleo has done to my worldview. And when you add in the evolutionary clincher, there’s not much wiggle room for “right” and “wrong”, meaning you either get it or you don’t.

I certainly understand how many Paleos don’t feel the need to get evangelical about it and keep to themselves. I wish I could feel the same way, but when we’re looking at as sick of a society as we have and the fact that the most vulnerable (the poor, kids, etc.) suffer the worst, I just can’t seem to keep quiet. Add to that government interventions like the raw milk crusades and the horribly un-American activities going down in Michigan with pig farming and if we don’t speak up, the way we eat could very well be under fire.

Which is all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t lend itself well to a calm mind.

Awwwww, pobrecita!

Don’t feel sorry for me.

Things have gotten a bit better on this front as time has gone by. I’m guessing that most folks have about a year of heightened awareness of Paleo and Paleo-adjacent topics before they gradually return to a more integrated way of living with Paleo. Perfectly natural. When you find yourself chafing at all the newbie questions, then you’ll know you’ve arrived.

But something about Kurt Harris’s immune system bit relaxed some of those mental hooks I have. It made me realize—laugh at me if you will—that diet isn’t everything. Of course I knew this on some level, but there’s a difference between knowing and KNOWING, you know?

No.

I'm addicted to taking Magical Pills!

Once I’d fixed so much just by changing my diet, it became this sort of addiction: What can I fix next? And when other problems began to pop up, surely it had a dietary cure, right? And judging by all the chatter in the Paleoverse, I’m far from alone in this. Dukkha.

It’s slippery slope territory for sure. On the one hand, diet does fix many, many maladies. But we don’t yet understand the limitations, and Harris’s worms are an example of how we don’t know the boundaries of what we’re dealing with here.

As I mentioned last week, it’s easy to get sucked into Magical Pill Syndrome (MPS). I’ll reiterate something I said then: At what point does the seeking become the suffering? And, if Harris is correct, how do we know when to stop and accept that we may just always have a little discomfort? Or even a lot? Dukkha, dukkha, dukkha! At the very least, it’s clear that if we hold so tightly to our Paleo dogma as being “right,” we’re going to miss other possibilities. In our flight away from that which scares or hurts us toward what we prefer as comfortable or good, we miss what is.

Something else keeps gnawing at me. If we look at hunter-gatherers or try to imagine what our ancient Paleolithic ancestors ate, I feel reasonably certain that they did not meet their RDAs of all vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. And yet, the romanticization of this ideal sends all of us toward the leafy greens and the supplement aisle. Dukkha! I think we can only reasonably assert that they didn’t suffer from the particular brand of suffering that we see around us, but they had plenty of other ones.

So can we transcend the silly human attachments involved in Paleo and yet still follow it?

Next, I try to make sense of all of this.

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