Numbers as Toxins: living qualitatively not quantitatively

A line in the last of the Five Mindfulness Trainings says, “I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations.” I discuss these every month with Stephanie, whose thoughts on the process you can read on her blog, and we quite often end up discussing this line. What counts as a toxin?

Previously, we have identified certain kinds of always-negative talk about people as a problem (the thing where you complain about a colleague or a child you volunteer with and never have anything good to say about them, for example), and some kinds of celebrity talk and advertising (film posters which only tell you which actors appear and not anything about the plot, or even the genre, of the movie, for example), and talk about weight and diet which adds moralising to actually-neutral choices (‘Cake?’ ‘Oh, I shouldn’t…’ ‘I’ll be naughty…’/ ‘You’re vegan and teetotal? Do you have any vices left?’ and so forth).

More broadly, I am considering the possibility that living life by numbers is a toxin. I don’t mean that numbers are themselves toxic, they’re a useful tool for measuring things if often arbitrary; but rather that, in quantifying everything, we can get trapped in living by the numbers – in particular, trying to reach a certain number of something – rather than appreciating the quality. I am therefore experimenting with ignoring any numbers and making judgements on other grounds.

An obvious example is my body. I don’t know what I weigh, and I don’t much care; I’m not worried about how much body I have, but rather I want to be comfortable in it. I don’t count calories or weight-watchers points or anything else. I have cake if I want it and not if I don’t. I try not to clock-watch for meals; I eat when I’m hungry and not when I’m not. (Actually, I happen to live in a body which is quite predictable in this regard, and I can tell friends when I’m likely to want to eat and plan to meet them for a meal then, which is handy. I know that not everyone can do this.) I let doctors take my blood pressure but I make no attempt to know what it is – when it’s too low I get dizzy and that tells me what I need to know without worrying about a number.

Similarly, I have abandoned alarm clocks for all but the most important occasions or really unusually early starts. I have the good fortune to live a life in which this is easy, and a very predictable body which wakes at much the same time every day – and a fairly socially acceptable one, to boot. (Socially acceptable among workers and the middle-aged, that is, I stuck out like a sore thumb in a university hall of residence with my bed-at-9pm up-at-7am thing.) I know that I need more sleep than much of my peer group, but I am trying to give up counting it in hours. Who cares? I need what I need, and I’ll wake up when I’ve slept enough.

I do get sucked into job hunting by the numbers, sometimes. If there are x applicants for every job, I should get an interview every y applications, and they interview z people, so I need this many interviews to get a job… Only b in c people with such-and-such a qualification get this-or-that kind of work, so my chances are… This is completely foolish, of course, job hunting and interviewing don’t really work this way anyway. I am looking for the right job for me, and employers are looking for the right candidate for them, and the number of previous applications I have done affects this not at all. It’s tempting, though, because when I’m job hunting the whole exercise seems terrifying and humiliating and it is mostly if not completely outside my control. Trying to predict the outcome is a way of trying to assert a tiny amount of control and to assure myself that the process is not an endless torture but will, eventually, have an outcome.

Another area in which I can sometimes be trapped by the numbers is money. Money is a useful number, and I can’t see a way to give it up entirely. (Likewise, I think I will always need to start with numbers when buying shoes, for example, and baking cakes – although I reject the idea that you need to use numbers for bread dough, which can be done by feel.) However, I think it’s possible to get trapped into tiny numbers, worrying about pennies when spending hundreds of pounds. I try to make sure things are within a reasonable price range – this should be less than £5, that should be less than £50 – but to let myself shop for ethics and convenience within that range. This approach might not work for everyone. The advantage for me is that I can let many choices be made for quality instead – I can buy organic vegetables, I can take a bus when I need to and not worry about it – and because I have reasonably cheap vices, and a reasonable income, I don’t need to get bogged down in justifying every choice to my mean-angry-thrifty internal voice who objects to spending anything ever.

Other areas of life I have identified as ruled by numbers include time management, word counts for writing, and everything which involves making a list on a computer (to-do lists, wish lists, X Things You’ve Never Believe/Remember/Care About lists). I am still debating the extent to which these numbers are useful tools and to what extent they create a tyranny of targets.


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