This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.
This week, I cut coffee off my diet and, while struggling to stay focused, reflected on drugs and freedom.
Since the age of 16, I have not spent more than two days without coffee. It may be the substance I most depend on. For years, the first thing I did when I woke up was put on the coffee machine. This year, I decided to change my morning routine: I only have coffee outside, and take that time to read and think. On Sunday mornings, I generally go to the wonderful Neapoli Café to plan the week ahead. I anticipate the cup of long black, I inhale the fumes when it comes, and quickly take a first sip, eager for my morning jolt. The first cup never lasts long, and I often have a second. This week, my pot of ‘strong English breakfast with milk’ sat untouched for a while. The pleasures of city life wane with fasting. Later that day, I had more thinking and writing to do. Only nature appealed. I lay down on a bench in the Treasury Gardens, closing my eyes – then headed to the pond and, while watching the ducks waddle – precious insights came.
It was clear from the second day that coffee would be the hardest fast. Meat and porn I would happily give up. Snacks are a simple matter of convenience and planning. Alcohol is pure pleasure, an evening social drug, stimulating the tastebuds, that I enjoy in moderation, and could easily replace with cake. Coffee differs: it is the core of my personal morning ritual, and omnipresent. I plan my days in cafes, Melbourne prides itself on coffee, people meet for coffee. When travelling abroad, it is the only thing that will genuinely get me out of my way. I have paid ridiculous amounts in China for a cup of coffee. I have it black, short or long, with no milk or sugar. Coffee is an encounter with a force outside myself that drives me forward. As long as I can have coffee, I don’t have to carry myself forward entirely: the substance helps.
From the third day onward, I started feeling an eerie sense of calm. There are things I can’t do now, oh well – I won’t do them then! I found myself lying in the grass of the Carlton Gardens on Tuesday, before a meeting. Rather than plan and prepare, I watched the sun play in the leaves, laughing to myself, in a sort of daze. How much is physiological, how much is in my head, I don’t know, but I sense change. I operate on lower energy, and adapt. If needed, I learned that I can change regime.
With this coffee fast adding to the others, some core anxiety diminished. As my available energy diminished, I have to prioritise. I can sacrifice certain pleasures, and instead, read, relax, and work more efficiently. With less energy comes a greater sense of freedom, and a certain joy: not the exhilaration of excess, but the peaceful calm of contentment. And I relish it.
Fasting forces creativity. Desires don’t die, but limitations force experimentation. At 11am, I had a crumbed mushroom burger and chips with Sichuan pepper. While waiting for a meeting in the afternoon, I had a Nutella hot chocolate with complimentary Ferrero Rocher (if a snack is presented on a wooden stick as part of a drink, I can have it: you have to draw the line somewhere). And in the evening, after an experimental concert, I reconnected with the taste of meat through the broth of a pig trotter soup that my partner had ordered.
The resolute pursuit of temperance is having an effect. With calm and weakness comes a deep sense of joy and a deep sense of inner strength, in spite of the yawns and headaches. This is probably the longest time I have gone without meat, alcohol, porn, snacks or coffee in over twenty years. I won’t call it easy, but I’m not dying, I’m productive, and I’m still happy. I might enjoy these things – but I know that I don’t need them. Is it what ritual purification feels like? I have submitted myself to discipline, and by doing so, tapped into my own sense of power. Thus temperance nurtures fortitude, and opens the possibility for justice and prudence.