Foucault pendulum hanging in Milan’s National Museum of Science and Technology. Photo courtesy of Ben Ostrowsky.
I find myself talking about pendulums pretty frequently. Why pendulums? That Foucault could use one to demonstrate the earth’s rotation is pretty cool, but I usually reference them because they serve as the perfect metaphor for so much of what I talk about with my clients. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Newton was talking about the physical laws of motion, but I find it interesting to view our mental, behavioral, and even physical shifts through this same lens.
The universe is always seeking balance, often in ways beyond our control and outside our periphery.
When you pull a pendulum really far in one direction and let go, what happens? You can bet that it will swing really far back in the other direction. A big shift begets another big shift. And we can find this rule of balance playing out in our day to day (or month-to-month, as it were)…
A Tale of Two Months
February was an extremely stressful, obligation-filled month for me, jam-packed with intense emotional growth and periods of distressing uncertainty.
In 28 short days, I turned 30, celebrated my partner’s birthday, celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary, juggled multiple jobs alongside 20 hours a week of yoga teacher training, hosted my parents during their visit from California, became a certified yoga teacher, braved the New York City rental market to find us a dream apartment (after our first one fell through), packed up our lives in boxes, moved to a whole new borough, and then unpacked those very same boxes, all amid freezing weather and one winter storm after another.
Needless to say, by the time March rolled around, I felt tired. In fact, I found myself struggling to stay motivated. Midway through the month, I even started to get a little down on myself. What was happening to me? Why did I feel so lazy? Then it hit me:
Of course I feel like I’m swimming upstream against a current of relentless lethargy. Of course it’s all I can do to go through the motions and cover the essentials. Of course all I want to do is eat and drink and enjoy the casual company of good friends. Of course my immune system is compromised. Of course I watched all three seasons of The Borgias in two weeks.
This is my body’s way of creating balance, of carving out a period of rest and recovery. This is my body’s response to February. This is the pendulum effect in action.
Macrobiotics* and the Yin-Yang of Food
Have you ever had too many salty foods in a short period of time and found yourself wrestling with intense cravings for sugar not long thereafter? This is your body seeking balance through appetite, and it’s a pretty obvious example of that pendulum swing.
Turns out, there’s an entire dietary approach that concerns itself with balancing the energies of food. The Macrobiotic diet pulls from ancient Chinese philosophy, asserting that every food item falls somewhere on a spectrum of energy, from yin to yang.
Different foods may be more yin (as in sugar) or yang (as in salt). Some foods exist near the extremities of this spectrum, containing high amounts of one kind of energy (red meat, for example, is strongly yang), while other foods fall towards the center and have a more balanced composition (leafy greens, for example, are faintly yin, and root veggies contain just a hint of yang).
Someone who follows a Macrobiotic diet seeks to balance out the yin and yang energies on their plate. The best way to do it? Not to swing the pendulum too far in either direction; in other words, to eschew the foods with extreme yin or yang energies, choosing instead those items which are relatively balanced: fruit, sea vegetables, leafy greens, round veggies, root veggies, beans, legumes, grains, and white-meat fish.
I don’t follow a strictly Macrobiotic Diet, but I do dig the idea of seeking harmony on my plate, and I definitely know what it’s like to experience a balance-seeking backlash in my relationship with food.
The Inevitable Backlash of Deprivation
According to researchers at UCLA, the average person who diets for six months will lose five to ten percent of their starting weight. Great! Except that’s not the whole story. Within five years, one-third to two-thirds of those who lost weight on a diet will regain more weight than they lost. There’s that pesky pendulum effect again.
Your body is a finely tuned, highly functioning machine, but it’s not always in cahoots with your intellect. For instance, when you decide to try that fashionable juice cleanse, your brain consciously acknowledges that you’ll be dramatically reducing your caloric intake for a short time. You’re fully aware that you’ll probably get a little hangry or euphoric, but that it’ll all be over in a matter of days. Everything will be fine! It’ll be more than fine – you’ll be glowing by the time you’re through!
But the thing is, your body doesn’t necessarily get the memo. As far as your body is concerned, you were going along fine, enjoying your abundant 21st century menu, when – all of a sudden – your caloric intake was cut in half, there’s no fiber coming in, what happened to the healthy fats, and ohmygod, this can only mean one thing: FAMINE!
Do you know how the human body responds to famine? To semi-starvation? It shuts down any nonessential activity to conserve energy. Immune function? Forget it. Reproductive capacity? As if – we can’t make a baby when there’s hardly enough fuel for one! Moreover, when your body is faced with semi-starvation your metabolic rate drops. It slows. And when you begin eating regularly again, it doesn’t necessarily speed back up. The pendulum has already swung to the other side.
Keep in mind that this juice cleanse example is a bit of an exaggeration. The effects of caloric deprivation take a few days at least to register in the body as an emergency situation. In fact, some research suggests that intermittent fasting may benefit overall health. But for chronic dieters or those suffering from eating disorders, this is no exaggeration.
I suffered from anorexia nervosa for a period of time around the age of 12, then began binging and purging a handful of years later. I had pulled the pendulum of deprivation to such an extreme, that by the time I was in college I felt helpless in the face of my compulsive urge to consume everything around me.
My particular brand of deprivation, so indicative of the “fat phobic 1990s”, was that I denied myself any form of the macro-nutrient fat. Many years later, a nutritional counselor asked me what type of food I binged on the most during my struggle with bulimia. “I don’t think there was one type,” I answered, “I feel like I binged on everything: ice cream, cheese, creamy pasta, doughnuts, pesto crepes, and peanut butter.” She stopped me. “Don’t you see? Those foods do have something in common: fat.” She was right. They were all foods high in fat. How’s that for a pendulum swing?
Not Quite Equilibrium
So how do we mitigate the destructive arc of the pendulum effect? How do we find balance in the areas of appetite, energy, and mood?
Well, let’s look to the metaphor for answers: a pendulum is never completely still. Even at rest, it is always moving, ever shifting, oscillating back and forth, but imperceptibly so. Just like the pendulum, we never seek to make our lives static, to be happy all the time, or relaxed all the time, or militantly controlling of our diets so they never stray from “perfect” equilibrium. We welcome these shifts, because they a part of being alive in a human body.
And yet, we wish to minimize the extreme swinging back and forth. Which is why we turn to mindfulness. The more in-tune we can become with the subtleties of our moods, patterns, and habits, the more likely we’ll be to notice a swing before it gets too extreme. And we can take a further cue from the Macrobiotic camp: if we aim to steer clear of extremes altogether, we automatically limit the extent to which those appetite, energy, and mood swings can get out of hand.
So let’s take another look at the way my February and March went down: what’s clear is that I have a tendency to push myself too hard until I reach a breaking point, at which time I go through a period of lethargic withdrawal. If I can integrate more mindfulness moving forward, perhaps by scheduling a 10 minute meditation break in the middle of every single work day (no matter how much there is to do), I’m less likely to burn out by the end of the week. And if I can limit my overall obligations and be more realistic about what I can get done in, say, a 28-day period, I’ll be even less likely to crash.
Basically, it’s about being kinder to myself and becoming more successful in the process. After all, two months of working at approximately 78% productivity is better than one month at 98% and the next at 2%. I’m not looking to eliminate my natural ebb and flow, I just want to keep the massive swings to a minimum.
In what ways do you experience the pendulum effect in your own life? Have you noticed it in others? How often do you stop to notice your dominant tendencies, and what would it mean to consciously cultivate a little bit of the opposite? Let’s take a cue from the universe and strive in the general direction of balance, whatever that means for us. After all, the other shoe is going to drop eventually.
*Mine is a crude representation of the rich and wonderful world of Macrobiotics. For more information, check out The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics by Jessica Porter.