How much excess is enough?

A couple of days ago I went to the Albert Cuyp street market in Amsterdam. They have a great selection of fresh produce, including all kinds of tropical fruits that have no business being in northern Europe. But there they were, so I got a bunch of mangoes and pineapples for less than a song.

I peeled and chopped up both fruits and took my time to thoroughly appreciate their fresh, juicy, sticky goodness. The pile of pineapple was on top, so I had some of that first.  Mmmhmmmm. As I slowly bit into each piece, the little stacks of wet, sugar-impregnated pineapple fibers yielded to the pressure of my teeth, releasing their inner nectar. Ripe, flavorful, luscious. How could the universe improve upon that perfection?

After a few chunks of pineapple, it was time for the mango. This ripe mango was a deep shade of yellow, and had a texture like lightly-sauteed foie gras – so barely-solid as to be almost liquid, waiting for the tiniest provocation to release itself into an ooze of richness. As each piece touched my tongue, it was an electrical storm of flavor moving through my mouth, down my spine, grounding itself in the earth and coming right back up – these mangoes were alive, I tell you. The floral aroma, the intensity of the flavor and sweetness were so dizzying that I barely noticed the drops of mango juice dribbling from the corner of my lips, down my chin and onto the floor.

After regaining my bearings, I had another piece of the pineapple. That’s when something strange happened: I couldn’t taste the pineapple. At all. Yes, the texture was still pleasant, but it tasted basically like waterlogged cardboard. And just a few minutes ago, it was Platonic pineapple perfection, the epitome of flavor.

What happened?

No, I didn’t have a stroke. In fact, this all happened because my brain was working perfectly well. I tasted the pineapple first, on a clean palate. Sensations were registered – let’s say at level 7. Then, I had the mango, which was even sweeter than the pineapple. New sensations registered, at a higher level of intensity – say, level 11 – to which the tasting machinery had to adjust. At this new level of adjustment, the pineapple was too weak a signal to register. Hence, cardboard.

This is an essential feature of your nervous system, and it’s called sensory adaptation (which is a close cousin of desensitization and habituation). The deal is this: your sensory apparatus needs to be sensitive to change. Why? Because change is the leopard rustling the tall savanna grass, the sound of the snake slithering towards you, the sudden drop in temperature, the car whipping around the corner into your visual field. Our survival depends on it. And to be sensitive to change, you must filter out the background so you mostly notice the change.

And so what our neurology does is incredibly clever: once you register an intense sensation – bright light, intense flavor, loud noises – it adjusts to that new level of intensity so that now becomes the new baseline. So you can be sensitive to new change, and once again notice cars slithering through the savanna.

This phenomenon occurs in every sensory modality: vision, hearing, feeling/touch (which I will call kinesthesia), smell, taste. You walk out of a room into the bright of daylight, and you’re temporarily blind. Quickly, your eyes adjust, and you can see. Now you walk back indoors, and you’re blind again. It takes a much longer time to adjust to the lower light levels.

Using your pupils and photoreceptors, your eyes adjust to light levels over a 1,000,000,000x range – nine orders of magnitude. Famously, your eyes are sensitive enough to detect a single photon. And if you shine a really bright light into your eyes, you bleach your photoreceptors and won’t be able to see much at all. In fact, if the light source is bright enough to damage your eyes, something funny happens: you sneeze. This curious feature of the human brain is called the photic sneeze reflex.

If music gets too loud, your hearing apparatus adjusts by contracting two miniscule muscles: the tensor tympani and the stapedius. By tightening the eardrum, less force is transmitted to delicate parts of your ear, which include the smallest bones in your body. That way you can still hear without going deaf. The amazingly intricate engineering of the ear allows you to hear over a 1,000,000,000,000x range. That’s 12 orders of magnitude, or a range of sounds where the loudest sounds can be a trillion times louder than the softest ones — from the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in a soundproofed room, to the roar in the front row of a concert by The Who.

But if you expose yourself to loud noises for too long, the tensor tympani and stapedius tire, like any overworked muscle. And you damage your ear – permanently. The damage is cumulative and irreversible. All surviving members of The Who are essentially deaf; the other two guys got killed by the loudness.

This brings me to a passage from the Tao Te Ching that had me puzzled for a while. Chapter 12 reads:

Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
But trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky.

Stimulus causes habituation of the senses: colors blind the eye; sounds deafen the ear; flavors numb the taste.

When you oversaturate the senses, you start to feel less and less. Then to regain sensation of pleasure, you have to increase intensity – richer food, crazier sex, heavier drugs, bigger house, fancier title, faster car. This is called hedonic adaptation.

Very quickly you can see that there is no upper limit to this spiral. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, and it is the beginning of misery.

There is an end, however. I call it River Phoenix syndrome. It’s when the world gives you everything that you want, and you end up face-down in a ditch, dead from overdose.

That happens to the lucky ones. The rest stay on the treadmill.

And that’s the point of this piece. When you overwhelm your senses with too much stimulus, you make it impossible to enjoy life. Your sensation-saturated eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin can no longer appreciate pleasure, let alone the simple miracles that happen every second that can be sources of joy.

Super-rich foods – buttery French cuisine, deep-fried Southern dishes, fast food, desserts – blunt your palate so natural whole foods taste bland.  After just a spoonful of cheesecake, almost nothing else is going to have any flavor. Not even a ripe mango.

Too much porn makes normal women unappealing to men. Too much use of a vibrator desensitizes women’s genitalia, making sexual intercourse with another human less pleasurable. Overuse of recreational psychoactive drugs resets your brain’s pleasure meter in a way that no natural stimulus can match.

I propose a three-step solution:

1) Step off.

Realize that you are on the treadmill. Striving for better, bigger and more is a game you cannot win. As Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching says:

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Especially if you live in a large city with a culture of conspicuous consumption – New York, Los Angeles, London – opt out of the better-bigger-more game. Instead of seeking happiness in things you don’t have yet, take satisfaction in what you do have. Otherwise once you attain those things you think you want, they won’t make you happy anyway.

2) Be sparing in your indulgence.

Indulging every once in a while is fine, as long as it’s the spice, not the main dish. As Prince Hal said in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, “If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work.

A good guideline for indulgence is that it should occur with a frequency of 1-5%. That means that if you have 21 meals in a week, you should aim for having a rich dessert for at most one of those meals. Or just have one spoonful, and leave the rest.

3) Savor.

The most flavorful meal I’ve ever had was a simple bowl of vegetable chili. When the first spoonful of chili hit my palate, it was as if a fusillade of firecrackers had exploded in my brain. It tasted so good my eyes teared.

I suspect there wasn’t anything extraordinary about the chili. What was different was that I was at a weeklong meditation retreat, and my attention was so sharpened that I was able to fully savor the experience – perhaps for the first time in my life.

At any moment of existence, millions of your neurons are firing. When you are sparing in your indulgence and cleanse the palate of your senses, you become sensitive to the even the slightest amount of pleasure the world offers you. Tantric philosophy calls this feeling the divine tremor, or spanda. This provides an alternative to chasing down the highs, with their attendant crushing lows. You can just reside in a state of partial ecstasy all day long. And austerity transforms into indulgence.

How? Stop, be sparing in your excesses, and savor the moment. And let the miraculous ensue.

3 Comments on “How much excess is enough?”

  1. Lauri Lumby

    Or the short answer….too much porn is when it negatively impacts your ability to perform in the bedroom, to enjoy normal sexual interaction, to attain and maintain arousal and/or when climax becomes difficult or impossible. And when you expect your partner to look or act like Jenna Jameson, you might want to choose another viewing medium.

  2. Caleb Connolly

    I think this is a really good article, about a really important life balance lesson that applies to so many aspects of life. This issue is at the hart of some of the major failings of human society. This country culturally seems to embrace, encourage and perpetuate a lot of mostly unattainable all-American dreams in which we can all be filthy rich super models/stars. That of course is the most extreme case but it goes deeper and becomes more subtle.

  3. Jazzz

    Thank you for this great article to remind us of the importance of de-sensualizing our senses, and by doing so opens the ability to enjoy more for less. One trap I get caught up in, is always doing, doing, doing, and forgetting to step back and do “nothing”. Through your article, I realized that I am putting a strain on all my senses, making me feel I’m on a treadmill. I think it’s time for a mental vacation. Off to meditate for a while!
    Thank you for all your great articles!