In my practice, the number of people I see on a weekly basis who are at the mercy of disorderly eating grows at an alarming rate. I hear their pain. I come from a culture where food is at the heart of who we are and how we relate to others. To put it simply, we love to eat. Saying yes or no to a meal has social weight, pun intended. I understand the complexity of the matter since I have had my share of being consumed by the anxiety that eating too much or too little causes in me. The good news is that since food is an almost unavoidable element in most social gatherings, the opportunity to confront these feelings comes around quite often. Paying attention to our reactions is important. To bear witness to the mental formations that precede our reactions and behaviors of eating too much, too little, or simply abstaining, is the beginning of solving our problematic relationship with food.
Over- or under-eating are in most cases both related to an emotional response to something we feel is out of our control. We have largely been trained to eat for comfort and to restrict or diet when food and perhaps a too sedentary lifestyle have caused us to gain weight and to feel dissatisfied with our appearance. At times we might go as far as practicing self-aggression in the form of castigating the body with a punishing exercise regime in order to counteract the problem of excess weight or to allay the fear of gaining it. This is not a campaign against exercising; I believe in living an active life. Self-punishment results in many forms of suffering—emotional, physical and psychological. We all know how little we like suffering and how we avoid it as the plague and even think of it as an abnormality. The truth though is that suffering is simply an unavoidable part of life.
Because we don’t want to stay with the discomfort of suffering, we embark on a desperate pursuit of happiness at all cost. We are not to be blamed for such fixation. Perhaps, in part our socialization is to be blamed. Since we were little, or even in the womb, we had been pacified with food or nutrients whenever we felt discomfort. Most people who fall prey to overeating describe living moments of anguish whenever they attempt to restrict or are, by chance, deprived of food. To them, restricting, not eating to feel better, feels counterintuitive. Those who have been on a diet have had a sense of what I am talking about. They are in a constant struggle and eventually give in. For instance, one day the person is restricting food intake and suffering as a consequence, and on another she is attacking the refrigerator in search of comfort and happiness. Most people involved in this struggle feel unhappier when they discover that the control mechanism of their choice is not bringing forth the results they want. Control doesn’t work for many reasons, but especially because the things we attempt to control are not controllable, such as how we are perceived or liked by other people, or, the kind of build we were born with—height, bone frame, skin color, hair texture, etc. Despite all the magic treats offered by the beauty industry, the truth is that we are better off loving ourselves as the person we are already; it is cheaper, for sure. How much self-compassion and kindness toward the self we are willing and able to muster can keep us from compromising what is important and meaningful to us for the sake of what makes us look good to others.
To make matters worse, the cycling between hope and despair described above, tends to impair the way we connect to our own bodies. For instance, the ability to notice thirst, hunger, craving or satiety seems to get clouded by constantly eating or numbing ourselves with other distractions. Once the ability to be aware of these physical needs declines, we are likely to eat mindlessly, either too much or too little. Paradoxically, restricting what we put in our mouths, or don’t, gives a false sense of control and a promise of happiness, which cannot be fulfilled and thus generates more unhappiness. Mindful eating, which is the approach I offer my clients, and to which I commit as well, is all about embracing a life style where nourishing and self-compassion are at the core. Mindful eating is not related to dieting but it can be a means of reducing stress, by learning to relate to food in a different and more affirming way. It is quite possible that once this practice is put in place, the person could experience weight stability as a result of living a more balanced life. Mindful eating is a life-long commitment to sustained awareness of our relationship with food and nourishment. It is an approach to living that can make dieting totally unnecessary.
My approach has been shaped by different trainings, including an immersion in the practice of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a sustained Mindfulness practice and the specific training on Mindful Eating received through the work of Jan Chozen Bays, a trainer and Zen practitioner, who has pioneered Mindful Eating in this country and has taken it to other countries as well. She calls our attention to the importance of hunger in our life. She has identified seven different types of hunger experienced by humans and which need to be recognized in order to practice Mindful Eating. They are: eye hunger, nose hunger, mouth hunger, stomach hunger, cellular hunger, mind hunger, and heart hunger. Each one of these hungers calls for a special way of satisfying it.
In treatment, I often help my clients identify what kind of hunger they are experiencing. I invite them to remember the feeling of being hungry and to experiment with it. I often encourage them to write about the feelings before they proceed to satisfying the hunger, in order to capture the nuances of the sensations. The conversation about hunger invariably brings up some interesting moments in sessions. Some people realize they have forgotten what hunger feels like. Usually that kind of session is followed by my suggestion to let hunger settle in their awareness. That’s the point when they look at me incredulously. For most people this invitation represents an almost insurmountable obstacle. It takes usually several trials and failures before the person can actually come back with some writing about their experience. The issue at hand is what Russ Harris identifies as the number one myth, in his book the Happiness Trap, which is the belief that “happiness is the natural state for all human beings.” As he points out, statistics show a tremendous number of individuals enduring depression, anxiety and other mental conditions, telling us that “happiness” is not normalcy. Nonetheless, most of us tend to think that if we are unhappy there must be something radically wrong with us. Most people who seriously struggle with eating and body image feel unhappy and therefore begin to sense that something is wrong with them which, in turn, causes anxiety, and most often leads to a need to control mood through eating too much or too little, thus setting in motion a cycle that seems endless.
So dear reader, I leave you with the assignment to invite hunger in, to let it sit in the main chair of your awareness. Get to know the kind of hunger you are experiencing. Become a researcher of your own bodily sensations. Use curiosity and self-compassion, kindness toward the self as the main tools for sustaining a meaningful connection with it. The good thing about doing this exercise is that in the end, you can always close it by telling how it felt when you finally attended compassionately to the hunger. Next time you feel hungry, if your health condition allows it, postpone the impulse of satiating it. Let hunger linger, ask questions of it, use your noticing mind, the one that doesn’t pass harsh judgments, to calibrate the intensity or the nature of the hunger. Bring yourself closer to the edge, live for a few precarious moments with an empty stomach. Once you identify the kind of hunger, hang in there, grab paper and pen, or sit in front of your computer and write about the experience. After you’ve done that, set your clock or an alarm to 20 minutes and engage in the expedition of eating, but with the mindset of a scientist who notices everything. Engage all your senses in exploring the food. Before eating, look at it, smell it, touch it, then put it in your mouth and let your taste buds delight in it fully. Then, and only then, chew slowly and with attention. Let the saliva do the job of mixing flavors and let your teeth break down the food for a proper digestion. Eat with gusto. Buen apetito!
Marianela Medrano is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Stamford, CT. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and four books of poetry.