I’ve been off caffeine since the last few days of 2019. At the end of this month, I’ll be travelling to the desert to participate in a 12 day initiation, also known as a Wilderness Fast (Vision Fast). During this time, I will be fasting for 4 full days (no food, only water).
I have some strong reasons for doing this, and I’ll get into it in post before I leave. But I figured it would be nice to go through the caffeine withdrawals before I get there, rather than when I’m alone and starving, since I won’t have any caffeine with me while I’m there. Thus me weaning and quitting, going on about 2 weeks now. I wanted to talk about this process, and the benefits I’ve received.
There’s a set of cultural blinders around certain drugs we all use. These blinders are seemingly arbitrary, as they are, medically speaking, amongst the most dangerous. It is ironic that those drugs whose general toxicity is lower than alcohol, caffeine or tobacco are the most feared and misunderstood in our culture — those known as “psychedelics.” Meanwhile, it doesn’t take much digging under the hood to realize why our end-capitalist culture has attached itself to the “legal” ones.
With caffeine, Terrence McKenna said it best — there’s no better drug to prescribe than one which keeps the user in a state of frenzied, manic productivity, combined with a brief but significant dump of dopamine — insinuating joyful willingness to work. You can see how this would be useful to cultural engineers, whose motives are to encourage the overall speed of life, enhance corporate bottom lines, and get us into debt. Especially when it can be readily and cheaply obtained, made into a social experience, and branded with the especially creepy texture that millennials do best (see the modern hipster cafe) — caffeine just makes sense. And, it comes in delicious flavours. Personally, I find coffee delicious.
But the time has come for me and caffeine to break up. Why? It’s the side effects. When I first started drinking coffee and tea, I enjoyed the buzz — isn’t that one of the main reasons we all take the stuff? It’s fun, it’s a ritual, it’s exciting to try new kinds of caffeine, to wake up to the smell of it. It’s exciting. And it’s certainly ingrained in our culture — you feel you’ve grown up because you drink coffee or tea. You develop a taste, preferences. You build an identity around the kind of caffeine you drink.
That all happened to me. But eventually, not long after, I noticed that my nervous system started to fray at the edges. I didn’t like the crash, the feeling of being strung out at 2 PM, being irritable, unfocused, or physically anxious. Often what I would do then would be to take more caffeine. If I’d started the day with coffee, then I’d make a tea. This often had a negative effect on my sleep. It was harder to get to sleep, and I’d also wake up more frequently in the night.
The next morning, often groggy, I’d make more coffee. The cycle repeated, and gradually worsened. I actually told myself numerous times I would quit, but each time justified to myself that I needed it, or wanted it more than quitting. When I noticed I was doing that, I knew this was an addiction like any other. I was burning out, and in denial about the cause.
People joke about being addicted to coffee like it’s no big deal. It is. I started The Nadir because what I really care about, deeply, is that we all slow the fuck down, and pay a different quality of attention to life. Ultimately, our big problems are consciousness problems, and we need to shift our consciousness drastically away from the rut we’ve been in since Descartes, when all this insanity began.
I’d love to see less talk about productivity, goals, hustling, etc — and more about connection, appreciation, generosity, and actually enjoying life. In this age, we are trained to “move fast and break things” (you can tell an adolescent male coined that phrase), but actually, that usually only leads to broken shit. Especially the nervous system, which is the worst victim of our culture of speed.
At the heart of that culture, we all move this fast because we’re running from something. I believe that something is a lack of self-love and trust in ourselves and in life. Yes, to me, our addiction to stimulation — and stimulants like caffeine — is an effect of this deeper chasm many of us harbour, and which exists because of past traumas and wounds we suffered. We don’t trust in life, and so we think we need to be ON and make it all happen ourselves. Caffeine provides a quick fix to make us be ON, and so we become addicted to it. We think we need it to function, and hide that need under a thin veil of preference (I just like the taste of coffee, damnit).
Of course, I can’t overgeneralize and alienate the zen monks out there who happily down a coffee every day and are the nicest, calmest people in the universe. Maybe you sip your coffee with the attention and focus of a surgeon — every cupping note ringing like a bell. Good for you! There are genuinely some people whose comportments are unaffected by caffeine, and for whom this self-love argument is hollow. If you’re one of these people, lucky! But I’m not. And self-awareness is the key here.
I would reach for caffeine when I felt I needed to keep being productive, to continue checking things off of my list, or to be “on” during a social situation or other important event. I would use caffeine in situations where some part of me wanted to fight against an internal desire to actually slow down, to relax, to breathe more deeply, to let my nervous system refresh and to enjoy my life.
Our addiction to caffeine is actually a spiritual issue. Caffeine is just scratching the surface of all we do to avoid surrendering and trusting in life, or in a source of fundamental power in ourselves. Does this sound like bullshit? Try quitting caffeine then. Do you feel you need it to be “you”? Who are “you”,” then? Or is it that classic addict line, “I could quit anytime?” If it’s so easy, why don’t you do it and see what comes up? As an experiment? Humour me?
Besides this awareness of a deep existential fear — which my use of caffeine was covering over and actually increasing over time — I have also had some more tangible benefits from quitting caffeine. The actual quitting was a bit challenging, but not too bad, because I weaned — a few headaches over consecutive mornings. But after that, many things improved.
My sleep is better. I feel more myself, less agitated. People close to me have said I am easier to be around. Time has stretched out a bit, and I feel actually more confident and in integrity with myself, because I no longer am using caffeine as a crutch to live my day. I am no longer filtering my day through the lens of caffeine, which means I am actually more generous with my attention — I feel less scattered, and more present. I’m paying less attention to checking little things off my list, and instead getting into deeper zones with what really matters. Meditation is easier. Communication has become more harmonious. I am less quick to frustrate. I feel more even and grounded. I feel better.
I decided fairly quickly that I’m going to go the whole year without caffeine. It’s funny, because at Christmas I was given some delicious Mushroom Coffee — but I’ve dutifully packed that away for 2021, because it’ll last. I honestly think what will happen then is this: it’s New Years Day 2021, I have one of those coffees with breakfast, and then experience all those crazy effects all over again. Then I give the rest of it to the food bank.
My relationship with caffeine will never be the same again. I can imagine in some future year, enjoying a green tea infrequently, or some decaf coffee (which still has caffeine). But overall, why would I compromise my nervous system? Why would I purposely throw a wrench into my day, where I know 4–6 hours later I will feel strung out again?
What this all comes down to is values. At the start of this year, I didn’t set out with a series of goals, or even intentions. I just haven’t seen the evidence that it’s the best approach. Rather, I’m coming to this year with a clearer awareness of my values — the qualities of experience, mind, consciousness which I most desire to embody in my life, and as a service for others. For me, that’s stuff like feeling generous, feeling calm and grounded, being in a creative flow, reciprocity, and being confident and trusting in myself and life. At this point, caffeine no longer belongs in my life.
The moral of the story? It pays to be ruthless. We’re all holding onto baggage; habits, people, ideas, beliefs, actual physical possessions — bits and pieces carried over from our past which have long passed their sell-by date. We all pick up these crutches and clutch to them like our life depends on it. Realizing that is actually toxic, it then takes some courage to throw them all away, but that’s only because it’s unfamiliar to be without our comfort blanket. Very quickly we adapt to the new reality without it, and new possibilities and territory previously unknown open up to us. There’s new space available. It’s fresh. I had forgotten that I could actually function better without caffeine — a truth I knew instinctively before I got into the stuff around my 18th birthday. But I remember now. It’s good to be back.