The Master Cleanse. Trusted and endorsed by Beyonce, so it’s gotta be good.
Most of us in the west are privileged to live in a time in which we don’t experience anything near true hunger. In fact, our next meal is so assured that we can be ultimately choosy with what sensation we want to chase. Much of what we ingest is well beyond what we actually need to sustain ourselves – and the rush of sweetness, comfort of fullness and jolliness of inebriation can become slippery slopes of addiction. Paul Graham, has written extensively on the ‘acceleration of addiction‘ in the modern world, and concluded that ‘we’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to.’ This is very inline with the teachings from the Vipassana meditation courses that I’ve attended, which teach you how to become a master of your mind, and more aware of your blind reactions. Meditators have found that the ability to control your reactions to cravings and aversions has great effect on their level of happiness and fulfillment.
From an early age, food was my ultimate object of comfort; I could always turn to cookies and pie to take me away from uncomfortable or unhappy times. This crutch has been ingrained in me since childhood and is a very hard cycle to break. Even when I’m on a good path, old habit patterns easily take hold, aided and abetted by the trickery of my own subjectivity: “Oh you’re doing fine, it’s just a slice of cake before bed.. I’ll go to the gym tomorrow!”. Left unchecked, my decadent character can take hold and I have certainly been wary of a somewhat addictive personality. I live a very social life and I find myself around alcohol almost every night; it takes strength of character to say ‘no thanks’.
So once in a while (and typically after the December holiday month) I find it very helpful to challenge myself with a serious test of will. And the Master Cleanse is a serious test of will! So, what is the master cleanse? Some people conjure up an image of a muscular dominatrix, smiling and holding an enema kit. But it’s not that malevolent. You can read more about it here but in short: for 10 days you do not eat any solids – the only thing you consume is around 3 liters a day of a mixture of water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and grade B maple syrup (apparently this grade is more nutrient rich). Add to this, daily ‘salt water flushes’ (made up of a liter of lukewarm sea salt dissolved in water’) that zips through your body and out the other side within 30 minutes, carrying with it any final intestinal junk. You get the idea – it’s not very pleasant.
The master cleanse mixture itself is not too disgusting – it’s like a spicy lemonade, and actually quite effective at staving off hunger. You always keep your juice bottle nearby and whenever you feel that familiar pang of hunger – just take a big swig. The first couple of days are tough, and then it gets easier (around Day 5 I feel super energetic) until you close in on the finish line and then time seems to slow down. This is my 4th time in about two years; the shortest has been 6 days and the longest time I’ve done is 14 days. The first time, the 14 day stint, was instrumental in resetting my intestinal flora, which subsequently enabled me to digest lactose. My scientist friends love to debate with me about how it’s a hoax and actually has no physiological benefit – and in fact it could well be quite detrimental to the body. And they may be right! On a level of bodily processes, the master cleanse might not be the best thing for you. And perhaps any fast would have reset my intestinal flora with the same result. But for me, the effect goes beyond the physiological – it’s a test of will, patience and perseverance, and no more so than when you’re friends all decide that it’s a great Sunday for a chili cook off. I had started on Monday, it was only Thursday when it was announced, and I wasn’t due to end the cleanse until Wednesday; it was going to be a truly terrible experience.
By Day 5 my dreams were becoming guilt ridden, anxiety-mares, tearing through bakeries with mouthfuls of cake and cookies, cursing myself for ruining the master cleanse. I’d wake up clutching a ball of blankets, almost still tasting the warm chocolate and sugar, being thankful that it was only a dream. But working at home during the week made it pretty easy to avoid temptation. On Friday we had a party and it was actually manageable. I clutched a club soda ‘on the rocks’, and blended in with the drinkers enough for it not to be a regular topic of discussion. But I knew the Great Chili Cook Off would be the real test.
Sunday morning came and I was already pretty miserable. It was Day 7 of the cleanse and I was beginning to get pretty bored of spicy lemonade. I felt that I deserved a break – but I know this feeling of ‘deserving’ is the very thing that takes hold of me at the edge of every addictive precipice. I’ve seen those ‘deserved’ treats often become more of daily norm: “Thanksgiving pie for breakfast anyone?” Now it’s been said that it only takes a few days of hunger for groups of people to start acting with primal instinct, looting and stealing – even cannibalism in sever situations, I grimly thought to myself. I was beginning to get a little edgy. I decided to go for a walk in the botanical gardens near my house to take my mind off things. It didn’t really help but I was determined to come back and have fun – or at least vicariously enjoy the chili cook through the enjoyment of my friends. This was the plan.
When I returned there was four different varieties of chili were simmering on the stove, a couple of chunky beef versions, a chicken and white bean chili and even a vegetarian option – all filling the house with a rich aroma. Guests had already arrived and brought a slew toppings for the chill, as well as a table of homemade cakes, pies, cookies. I smiled and reached for my juice bottle. Perhaps if I take a big swig, and then smell the chili – it might convince my brain that I was full on chili! It was a mediocre success.
As I moved through the house, chili bowl-less and somewhat forlorn, I tried to stay positive, but of course everyone knew I was on the master cleanse and either had a question or comment to add. Of course I didn’t mind, this was to be expected, but it kept reminding me how nice it would be to have a bowl of chili with sour cream and cheese. Or just a slice of home mad carrot cake, dammit! As the evening went on, people got more full on beer and chili so eventually I busied myself making a fire, rather than watch people return for more pie. The master cleanse was tough enough, maybe I should have made myself scarce for this party, I thought to myself.
Today, Day 8, I feel a great sense of accomplishment. The truth is there will always be more chili – and more carrot cake. The ability to control craving has profound effects on how you negotiate the numerous temptations of life. Of course my ideal situation would be to find a sustained balance, but when you feel you’ve slipped off the boat, sometimes there’s nothing more effective than a sharp habitual hack. Come Thursday, I’ll have to ease back into regular food with a course of probiotics, soups, juices and raw food but after that, I’m pretty sure than the two bowls of chili I secretly froze will still taste good.
But until then, I’ll just keep reaching for the bottle.