Are you a nutritional renunciate or householder?


Key Points:

1. The archetypes of the “Renunciate” and the “Householder” have their roots in Eastern spirituality, but apply quite nicely to Western nutritional struggles.

2. Which of these sounds harder? Making progress by entirely giving up foods you enjoy, or making progress despite not doing so?

3. Each path has its positives and negatives, but the hardest one of all is trying to repeatedly switch back and forth between them. That’s what most people do

In my article about the 200-hour darkness retreat I took in May, I mentioned recently developing an interest in eastern philosophy and spirituality. There is a concept common within multiple Indian traditions that examines two archetypes: the “householder” and the “renunciate.” We’re going to discuss this today for two reasons. First, I think it’s interesting and it’s my blog. Second, and much more importantly, this concept has many parallels to nutritional challenges that so many of us face.

Let’s dive in with some loose definitions, shall we?

The Renunciate and the Householder

“Renunciates” are your classic “monk/hermit” types, who abandon all worldly possessions and relationships to live a monastic life in the mountains. They do this in the pursuit of the ultimate spiritual truth, unencumbered by distractions, temptations, and responsibilities of the outside world. Their days are filled with meditation and selfless work towards maintaining the monastery.

By contrast, the householder lives in what most of the West would consider “the real world,” and I don’t mean the reality show, even if modern life can seem more and more absurd with each passing day. While the householder may or may not be interested in or actively pursuing a life of spiritual truth, they coexist with their family, work, and societal relationships.

Which one is actually harder?

This is a somewhat rhetorical question, because I don’t think the answer really matters, but it’s still worth examining. In my opinion, the renunciate has inarguably the hardest single step. Giving up all one’s worldly possessions, responsibilities, and especially relationships sounds terrifyingly difficult. This is a choice not to be made lightly, either, because there’s no guarantee it’s a decision that can be “unmade.” However, once this decision has been finalized, I imagine there’s a strong sense of peace and acceptance that follows.

No longer do you have to meet any pointless deadlines at work, engage in petty disagreements with neighbors about your HoA’s stupid rules, or spend a moment worrying about what others think of your likes, dislikes, and hobbies. Essentially, you’ve permanently rid yourself of all the bull**** that comes with living in modern society. Once you can take that step, the hardest part is likely done.

On the other hand, the householder faces smaller but far more frequent challenges. Living a life of peace, gratitude, generosity, and equanimity is undoubtedly possible despite all the challenges that accompany modern living, but nobody said it was easy. I chuckled at a tongue-in-cheek quote from noted spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, “If you want to see how enlightened you are, go back and live with your parents for two weeks.” The point is, egoically triggering situations arise all the time in modern life, and it takes a different type of strength to navigate them than to avoid them.

Who actually enjoys life more?

Again, this is another pointless question. Perhaps the renunciate does more easily find true “causeless joy,” and “the peace that passeth all understanding,” and has no need for worldly pleasures. And yet, those worldly pleasures are also pretty incredible. One of my primary realizations during the darkness retreat was that I’m in no hurry to walk the path of the renunciate. This worldly existence is pretty darn cool, and it’s a gift to have the opportunity to experience it. That said, it’s not my place to judge someone’s choices, and I think both paths have value.

What does any of this have to do with nutrition?

Put simply, it’s my experience that most people try to be “part-time renunciates” when it comes to food. They decide to give up sugar, alcohol, or whatever else they think may be holding them back. But, here’s the kicker. They decide only to give up these “unhealthy” foods for a predetermined and relatively short period of time, like 30 to 60 days.

I’ve referenced the detriments of the “all or nothing mindset” many times in this blog, but there’s an extra layer of nuance here. One who wishes to walk the path of the householder while living a spiritual life must learn to coexist with situations that trigger their egoic self-centeredness. They must also develop an ability to actively choose how much or how little to engage with such scenarios. This way, they haven’t ignored the existence of traits or tendencies they may consider negative; they’ve integrated them.

The renunciate, on the other hand, gives up all of these things forever. They’re no longer exposed to such situations. In theory, at least.

With nutrition, however, we often decide to temporarily give up foods we enjoy despite having every intention of eating them again. This is usually done in pursuit of some aesthetic rather than performance-based goal, but I’ll talk about that in another post. The point is, if you enjoy carbs, alcohol, desserts, restaurant meals, meat, or any of the other common “bad” foods, great!

If this is the case, then you probably need to learn to coexist with them. Figure out how to integrate them into your nutritional plans while still enjoying them and meeting your goals. I won’t lie to you and say this is easy, especially at first. But it is possible. Check out the “Should you count calories?” series if you’d like some strategies, tactics, and tools for doing exactly that.

If you wouldn’t give it up for life, don’t give it up for 30 days.

Imagine telling your romantic partner, children, boss, friends, and coworkers that for the next 30 to 60 days, they’d be unable to contact you. You’ve decided that you have too many commitments, too much stress, and too many responsibilities, so you’re just going to give them up for a while. But don’t worry, this is just temporary, and only so you can feel and look a little better. Now imagine that you attempted to do this a couple times per year, every year.

Do you think you’d be able to hold down a consistent job or maintain a serious relationship? Probably not, right? I’m not saying it’s impossible, just unrealistically difficult.

On the other hand, if you do feel comfortable giving something up that doesn’t serve you, embrace that as well! For example, due to my fast food experiment, I rarely eat french fries anymore. If I’m going to McDonald’s, (which yes, I still do sometimes) I’m going to get two Big Macs instead of one with fries. This is because the fries don’t keep me full for what I perceive as long enough relative to how many calories they have. Two burgers on the other hand, does do this.

To use a more extreme example, Dr. Paul Saladino, author of The Carnivore Diet, eats no vegetables and no artificially sweetened desserts whatsoever. He eats mostly meat and fruit. Now, I’m not saying for a second one should emulate him if they have no desire to do so. When it comes to some of the things he says, like, “I don’t use food as entertainment,” I thoroughly disagree. Using food as entertainment, especially in the company of friends and loved ones, is something I find incredibly joyful. However, I do respect that Dr. Saladino has made a commitment to himself to avoid the foods he feels do not serve him.

Coexisting is Key

But here’s the thing. For you, alcohol, sweets, and restaurant meals may serve you incredibly well! Or, they may not. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with deciding that you want to modulate your consumption of them. That’s admirable self-awareness and moderation. It also takes a more nuanced approach than simply saying, “That’s it! I’m done with these things forever.” It recognizes that moderation is necessary in all areas of life, and makes an attempt to develop a healthy relationship with what you enjoy.

And that last part is what I think is the biggest key here. We so rarely make the decision to give up foods we enjoy forever, so what do we really want? Do we want to be alternating back and forth between eating too much of them and never touching them for 30 days at a time, feeling guilty when we do? Or, do we want to figure out how to integrate them into our lives, peacefully and joyfully coexisting?

That may sound tough, but it’s worth it. And nobody said the path of the householder was easy!

In the meantime, before you go, I’d love to hear from you! Which archetype explains your nutritional habits the best? Do you get stuck trying to do both? Reply to this email and let me know!


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