Looking back at my Lenten disciplines for 2009, I find it was a surprising exercise. While I can't say I was perfect in keeping them, two worked so well I intend to continue the practices.
Discipline 1 was downright pleasant, except on days when my evenings were taken up by other things, like choir practice; then I felt entitled to at least a few minutes of computer time after getting home. But even then the rule kept that time short. I enjoyed having the excuse to stop work, and it dovetailed nicely with Discipline 3:
The computer goes off at 9:00 every night. When I stick to a 10 p.m. bedtime, my life goes much better, but that's not always easy, especially when I'm in the middle of a project and "just one more thing" can lead to midnight or beyond. Not only are most of my projects computer-oriented, but for some reason computing is one of those areas where I blink and two hours have passed. If I get nothing else from this discipline, at least I'll be better rested.
I'll spend between a half hour and an hour reading each day. Preferably the longer time, though I haven't managed it yet. I know; that's hardly a sacrifice. But I've noticed that over the last several years my reading has become even more fractured and fragmented than it was when I had small children at home, if that were possible. I read blogs, articles, and news stories online; I listen to audio books in the car as I run errands, I skim magazines. I read books in five-minute gulps as I can throughout the day—on visits to the "reading room," while eating, while falling asleep at night. What I'm missing is concentrated time on a single, book-length topic, and I have a very large stack of quality books—many recently purchased and one overdue at the library—on which the derivative of my progress is negative. I'm hoping that a short, but consistent, dedicated time will reverse the trend.
Finding concentrated reading time during the day was more difficult than I had hoped, but turning off the computer an hour before bedtime led naturally to reading afterwards. It was especially enjoyable because Porter often joined me. I finished G. K. Chesterton's Eugenics and Other Evils (oops, not reviewed yet) and made good headway on Thomas Dubay's Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel on Prayer. I'm almost halfway through that one, and without the Discipline I quite likely would have set it aside, as it is more difficult and less inspiring than I had hoped.
It was Discipline 2 that was most revealing.
I'm giving up reading and/or working puzzles while I eat. Most of you will find this odd, but it is a real sacrifice for me. I agree wholeheartedly with C. S. Lewis, who said, "Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably." There's no reason not to combine them; I'm doing this because it's a great pleasure I can dispense with for 40 days as an exercise in self-denial, without troubling anyone else or falling terribly behind in my work. Exception: Porter and I sometimes do puzzles together during meals; for obvious reasons I'm not abstaining from them.
This was unbelievably hard, and the strength with which I resisited it tells me I've hit an area in my life that needs work. Whenever I had food or drink in front of me, I cried out, body and soul, for a book or a puzzle—as an addict must cry out for drugs. It's amazing how many ways I devised to cheat: working on the computer I justified if I didn't let myself read articles, blogs, or e-mails; going through my Penzeys catalogue needed to be done so I could place an order, even though it involved reading the spice descriptions; we watched movies during dinner; I would clean the refrigerator while eating, organize the cupboards while eating...anything but sit-down-and-eat-and-nothing-else. Such a waste of time to do nothing else! Once I even caught myself adding words to my crossword puzzle between bites, because, after all, I wasn't actually eating when I put pencil to paper. It was easier when I had someone else to eat with; alone, I was miserable, until I finally discovered I could diminish the craving by taking my meal onto the back porch and enjoying the lovely spring weather. Even then I couldn't stop Li'l Writer Guy from working—that's going to require an intense course in meditation techniques, I suspect. I lived for Sundays: On the Sabbaths I released myself from this Discipline—though I usually continued the others.
I could probably lose 30 pounds by forcing myself to do nothing but eat when I am eating. I'm thinking of marketing the Full Attention Diet. ("Fad diets are not the answer to your weight problems—FAD is!") The rules are simple.
- Eat whatever you want, whenever you want.
- While you are eating, do nothing else. No reading, no watching TV, no working, no walking around—just eating. The only exception is for mealtime conversation, with which nothing should be allowed to interfere. You may eat while listening attentively to what other people have to say. (It goes without saying that you don't eat when you are the one talking.)
- Don't eat mechanically; take time to enjoy the flavors and textures of your food. This should be easy, since you'll have nothing else to do.
- Give yourself time between meals to enjoy the other pleasures that you normally associate with eating, so you won't be tempted to view mealtime as the only time you have for them...and to keep eating so you can keep reading....
- Brush your teeth after every time you eat. The reason for this last rule is to minimize the read-between-bites syndrome. Trust me; if there's a loophole, I'll make use of it.