I’m off caffeine right now and noticing an interesting and subtle improvement in my life that has highlighted a problem with caffeine. A few days ago, at work, I felt this low-energy sensation that caused me to think, “I need some caffeine.” That low-energy sensation was not low caffeine levels, though I had come to think of it that way. It was, of course, tiredness. Without recourse to caffeine I realized that I was just tired, there was nothing to do but take a rest or keep working tired. In that moment I was free of something that had caught me during the last year. I was a human being, tired, and this was what it felt like to be me right now. I could relax into that fact.

With caffeine in your life, there comes an element of constantly chasing the flame of perfect alertness, probably in the service of productivity, without having to use self-care or build distress tolerance.

Without caffeine its much easier to notice how much sleep is really enough, and that you, like all primates, get tired in the afternoon and should probably have a siesta–as is traditional among primates who have not inherited nothern-European culture. (No, it has nothing to do with lunch. How many times have you said, “Wow, breakfast really knocked me out”?) There is also the more esoteric but real opportunity for mindfulness and building equanimity towards the discomforts of life.

This kind of problem is a theme. I also happen to be off sugar right now, for example, and have noticed that my cravings for sugar happen when I am stressed. This was much harder to notice when I could just eat something sugary without thinking about it. I don’t think that sugar counteracts the stress, like caffeine does the tiredness, but I do think I’m unconsciously (and ineffectively) trying to manage stress when I eat sugar most of the time. The result is often bellyache. Off sugar, the question becomes, “Am I hungry?” or “Am I thirsty?” or just, “Am I restless and need a break or a few deep breaths?”

A third example is air conditioning. I live in the desert, and it’s hot during the day. I know from decades of experience that I can adapt to the heat by wearing appropriate clothes, using water, choosing activities based on the time of day, and just plain physiological adaptation. Now I work in air-conditioned offices 9-5, five days a week. For me that means wearing long-sleeve shirts over undershirts to stay warm enough, and never adapting to summer. So whenever I step outside it feels like a furnace and I’m dressed for a cool spring day. I have to use enough AC in my car that I don’t show up to clients’ houses drenched in sweat. It’s like pretending I don’t live in a desert.

Don’t get me wrong–caffeine, sugar, and AC are wonderful in their own ways and I don’t foresee giving any of them up permanently. I just recognize the way they get me trapped chasing a small, constantly moving space of theoretical comfort all day, often to my detriment.

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