Life Fitness

Friday 29 August 2014

The Detox of the Western World

Published 01/04/2013 | 13:06

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Library Image. Photo: Getty Images

FOR MANY, THE EASTER EGGS EATEN THIS WEEKEND WILL OFFER A RARE BREAK FROM AN OTHERWISE VIRTUOUS DIET -- A MOMENTARY LAPSE FROM THE ONGOING SUGAR/DAIRY DETOX. SUZANNE HARRINGTON ASKS WHY THE WESTERN WORLD IS SHIFTING TOWARDS A LEANER, CLEANER WAY OF BEING -- INTERNALLY, EXTERNALLY, PHYSICALLY AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY

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When does detox become evolution? Could such an overused and unscientific term -- largely associated with unpleasant herbal infusions -- actually mean something far bigger and more meaningful for humanity?

We are all about the physical cleanse. We give up alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, meat, sugar, wheat, dairy -- whatever is currently trendy to give up (right now, it's 'beef').

We pay strangers to stick hosepipes where the sun doesn't shine to colonically irrigate us; we buy juicers and blenders to make bitter-green smoothies from wheat grass and parsley; we try the raw food diet, the vegan diet, the fasting diet, the candida diet...

We start off with the 'biggies' -- fags and booze -- and, by a process of elimination, work our way through the list of unwholesomes until we have gotten rid of all the gunk -- the processed foods, the caffeinated sugary drinks, the lot.

That's the theory, anyway. The reality is that unless you are a saint, a fanatic or a yoga teacher, you will probably slip and slide between carrot juice and carrot cake, between fresh grapes and fermented. But the intention is there.

The knowledge is there. We all know that wholefoods and vegetarianism is better for the body and better for the planet; we are no longer as attached to the idea that meat is an essential part of the human diet, that eating meat equals success. We are detoxing off the stuff that is making both ourselves and the planet unwell, helped along by the recent horse lasagne debacle.

George Orwell, writing in the 1930s, dismissed vegetarians entirely, calling them "that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking to the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat".

These days, vegetarians have figureheads such as Stella McCartney, Brad Pitt, Russell Brand. Even Bill Clinton, famous for his love of fatty, meaty junk food, is now vegan.

This detox from meat is not just for our colons and arteries, however. And it's not just the bald fact that the carbon footprint of meat-eaters is far bigger than that of vegetarians and vegans. No, our waking up to vegetarianism could be something bigger than all of that.

It could be about our ethical evolution or, as Gandhi put it, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Never mind the fear of accidentally eating horse burgers -- it's something more subtle and intangible. It's to do with being awake.

Detoxing is part of our quest for consciousness. That might sound really pretentious, but bear with me. We no longer think smoking is cool, the same as we no longer think slavery or child labour is cool -- with every generation, so many norms of the previous generation are discarded as toxic.

Physically, ethically, morally -- we are constantly clearing out, throwing away, detoxing. Homophobia, until recently enshrined in law, is now considered very old school indeed, and not something we wish to drag with us into the next generation; ditto racism and gender inequality.

Of course, we are not completely rid of these attitudes, but at least they are no longer officially sanctioned. With every generation there is liberation.

In order to have clarity, the detox begins within. No, not prune juice. Cleaning out our emotional closets leads to clearer thinking and psyches that are not bent out of shape from the strain of not dealing with stuff.

Today, we deal with our stuff. We talk about it. We air and share. We get it all out. We process, we reflect, we work it through. We are all in therapy now. Why? Because we want to declutter our minds, drop the emotional baggage and become lighter in spirit.

Feel bad about yourself? Experienced bad things? So has everyone else -- it's what you do with it that matters.

The old way was to push bad feelings and memories down, perhaps pour booze or pills on top of them, maybe wedge them down with doughnuts or sex or shopping or some other distraction, so that the old stuff becomes lodged deep inside and we continue to unconsciously act out, then wonder why we are still miserable, despite having loads of new shoes.

This is changing. These days, we do psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, aromatherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, psychoanalysis, counselling, reiki, massage, shiatsu, rebirthing, rebalancing, workshops with shamans and natural practitioners and spiritual healers... and anyone else who might make us feel better in our shiny, new, open- minded secularism.

You'll notice no mention of religion amongst this selection of psychic detoxifiers, for the simple reason that its dogma is so often the cause of -- rather than the solution to -- so much emotional blockage and negative feelings such as guilt, shame and repression. Although you might disagree. Whatever works.

To maintain our spiritual detox, more and more of us are turning to daily practices of yoga and meditation as a way of keeping grounded, connected with our bodies and to make some space away from the white noise and grinding minutiae of everyday life.

We are increasingly mindful of mindfulness; sitting silently listening to ourselves breathe is the equivalent of running a Dyson around the clogged-up corners of your mind. And, unlike shopping, it's free.

It stands to reason that if you are focused on looking after your mind and body, this will eventually preclude traditional recreational activities, like getting plastered. You no longer have to be alcoholic to move towards a detox from booze.

Being drunk was never cool, but it's only now we are catching up with the idea -- long prevalent in Mediterranean countries -- that sobriety might actually be a good thing. Not in a puritanical way, but in a joyous, clear-headed way.

There's something really fun about waking up (a) not feeling like death (b) not screaming in horror because there's a stranger snoring next to you and (c) not spending an unspecified amount of time cringing about what you may have done or said.

This move away from blackout into the light is reflected in the growing popularity of alcohol-free events. All over the UK and Ireland, nights are springing up for those who want to dress up, dance, chat, socialise, but want to remember it all the next day, or have things to do the next day beyond lying queasily on the sofa.

In Dublin, the alcohol-free Funky Seomra club night has been going for more than three years, and social meet-up Sober Slice has a current membership of more than 1,800, reflecting a desire to have fun while remaining present and not making an arse of yourself.

So while detoxing the mind and body is where we all start, why stop there? We live in a world of unimaginable clutter, but the next generation will not.

While some of us still have shelves physically groaning with books, vinyls, CDs and DVDs, many have already shifted to storing music and film in a digital cloud, to relocating our personal libraries to a Kindle.

And it's not just reading, listening and watching that is being decluttered, but wearing too. For years, the glorious British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has been urging people to stop buying so many clothes. "I'd like people to stop buying and buying and buying," she told the 'Telegraph' in 2007.

Last month, she suggested that the Duchess of Cambridge should stop buying new dresses and recycle the ones she already has. Her philosophy is quality over quantity. It's about reusing, reinventing, upcycling.

It's about streamlining, rather than clogging your personal space with cheap disposable clothes made using dodgy chemicals in dodgy factories employing dodgy labour practices.

We are even trimming the digital fat. Put 'Facebook detox' into Google and you get 30.4 million results, which suggests that many of us are keen to digitally cleanse.

It sounds straightforward -- just step away from the devices, unplug from the gadgets -- but such is our addiction to constant digital availability that we get FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) if we are offline for more than half an hour at a go.

Even if we don't do Facebook this does not preclude us from getting twitchy if our phone is out of range or our iPad won't connect. It's okay. Just breathe. Nothing bad will happen. Honest. Kidding aside, it is interesting to see how the Western world is shifting towards a leaner, cleaner way of being --internally, externally, physically, psychologically.

We are discarding toxic habits, toxic lifestyles, toxic relationships and toxic attitudes as we work our way into the light of clarity and forward motion -- at least, let's hope so anyway.

So what's our motivation? Is it because of the recession that we have realised the futility of handbags that cost more than cars, and want to work towards something a bit more meaningful?

Have we finally twigged that money does not equal inner bliss? Has the decline in organised religion led to a greater freedom in which to explore spirituality? Or is it all part of our inevitable evolutionary march?

After all, it's an unending process. We refer to The Enlightenment -- the one that kicked off around 1650 -- as though it is a finished period in history. It's not. The Enlightenment never stops.

Humanity may epitomise the rhythm of two steps forward, one step back, but at least we are moving; this desire to detox -- from the popularity of yoga in the West to the election of a black president in post-slavery America to the normalisation of therapy over religion -- means that we continue to change for the better.

Ongoing detox is our only hope of survival. No pressure.

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