Diets are based on the unspoken fear that you are a madwoman, a food terrorist, a lunatic. The promise of a diet is not only that you will have a different body; it is that in having a different body, you will have a different life. If you hate yourself enough, you will love yourself. If you torture yourself enough, you will become a peaceful, relaxed human being.
Although the very notion that hatred leads to love and that torture leads to relaxation is absolutely insane, we hypnotize ourselves into believing that the end justifies the means. We treat ourselves and the rest of the world as if deprivation, punishment, and shame lead to change. We treat our bodies as if they are the enemy and the only acceptable outcome is annihilation. Our deeply ingrained belief is that hatred and torture work. And although I've never met anyone—not one person—for whom warring with their bodies led to long-lasting change, we continue to believe that with a little more self-disgust, we'll prevail.
But the truth is that kindness, not hatred, is the answer. The shape of your body obeys the shape of your beliefs about love, value, and possibility. To change your body, you must first understand that which is shaping it. Not fight it. Not force it. Not deprive it. Not shame it. Not do anything but accept and—yes, Virginia—understand it. Because if you force and deprive and shame yourself into being thin, you end up a deprived, shamed, fearful person who will also be thin for ten minutes. When you abuse yourself (by taunting or threatening yourself), you become a bruised human being no matter how much you weigh. When you demonize yourself, when you pit one part of you against another—your ironclad will against your bottomless hunger—you end up feeling split and crazed and afraid that the part you locked away will, when you are least prepared, take over and ruin your life. Losing weight on any program in which you tell yourself that left to your real impulses you would devour the universe is like building a skyscraper on sand: Without a foundation, the new structure collapses.
Change, if it is to be long-lasting, must occur on the unseen levels first. With understanding, inquiry, openness. With the realization that you eat the way you do for lifesaving reasons. I tell my retreat students that there are always exquisitely good reasons why they turn to food.
Can you imagine how your life would have been different if each time you were feeling sad or angry as a kid, an adult said to you, "Come here, sweetheart, tell me all about it"? If when you were overcome with grief at your best friend's rejection, someone said to you, "Oh, darling, tell me more. Tell me where you feel those feelings. Tell me how your belly feels, your chest. I want to know every little thing. I'm here to listen to you, hold you, be with you."
All any feeling wants is to be welcomed with tenderness. It wants room to unfold. It wants to relax and tell its story. It wants to dissolve like a thousand writhing snakes that with a flick of kindness become harmless strands of rope.
The path from obsession to feelings to presence is not about healing our "wounded children" or feeling every bit of rage or grief we never felt so that we can be successful, thin, and happy. We are not trying to put ourselves together. We are taking who we think we are apart. We feel the feelings not so that we can blame our parents for not saying, "Oh, darling," not so that we can express our anger to everyone we've never confronted, but because unmet feelings obscure our ability to know ourselves. As long as we take ourselves to be the child who was hurt by an unconscious parent, we will never grow up. We will never know who we actually are. We will keep looking for the parent who never showed up and forget to see that the one who is looking is no longer a child.
I tell my retreat students that they need to remember two things: to eat what they want when they're hungry and to feel what they feel when they're not. Inquiry—the feel-what-you-feel part—allows you to relate to your feelings instead of retreat from them.
"Notice whatever arises, even if it surprises you"
So, be precise. "I feel a gray heap of ashes in my chest" rather than "I feel something odd and heavy." Don't try to direct the process by having preferences or agendas. Let the inquiry move in its own direction. Notice whatever arises, even if it surprises you. "Oh, I thought I was sad, but now I see that this is loneliness. It feels like a ball of rubber bands in my stomach." Welcome the rubber bands. Give them room. Watch what happens. Keep coming back to the direct sensations in your body. Pay attention to things you've never told anyone, secrets you've kept to yourself. Do not censor anything. Do not get discouraged. It takes a while to trust the immediacy of inquiry since we are so used to directing everything with our minds. It is helpful, though not necessary, to do inquiry with a guide or a partner so that you can have a witness and a living reminder to come back to the sensation and the location.
Most of all, remember that inquiry is not about discovering answers to puzzling problems but a direct and experiential revelation process. It's fueled by love. It's like taking a dive into the secret of existence itself; it is full of surprises, twists, side trips. You engage in it because you want to penetrate the unknown, comprehend the incomprehensible. Because when you evoke curiosity and openness with a lack of judgment, you align yourself with beauty and delight and love—for their own sake. You become the benevolence of God in action.
A few years ago, I received a letter from someone who'd included a Weight Watchers ribbon on which was embossed "I lost ten pounds." Underneath the gold writing, the letter writer added "And I still feel like crap."
We think we're miserable because of what we weigh. And to the extent that our joints hurt and our knees ache and we can't walk three blocks without losing our breath, we probably are physically miserable because of extra weight. But if we've spent the last five, 20, 50 years obsessing about the same ten or 20 pounds, something else is going on. Something that has nothing to do with weight.
Most people are so glad to read about, hear about, and then begin any approach that doesn't focus on weight loss as its main agenda that they take it to be license to eat without restraint. "Aha!" they say. "Someone finally understands that it's not about the weight." It's never been about the weight. It's not even about food.
"Great," they say, "let's eat. A lot. Let's not stop."
And the truth is that it's not about the weight. Either you want to wake up or you want to go to sleep. You either want to anesthetize yourself or you do not. You either want to live or you want to die.
But it's also not not about the weight.
No one can argue that being a hundred pounds overweight is not physically challenging; the reality of sheer poundage and its physical consequences cannot be denied.
Some people at my retreats can't sit in a chair comfortably. They can't walk up a slight incline without feeling pain. Their doctors tell them their lives are in danger unless they lose weight. They need knee replacements, hip replacements, LAP-BAND surgeries. The pressure on their hearts, their kidneys, their joints is too much for their body to tolerate and still function well. So it is about the weight to the extent that weight gets in the way of basic function: of feelings, of doing, of moving, of being fully alive.
The bottom line: Addiction isn't love, it's suffering
For a variety of reasons we don't fully understand (genetics, temperament, environment), those of us who are compulsive eaters choose food. Not because of its taste. Not because of its texture or its color. We want quantity, volume, bulk. We need it—a lot of it—to go unconscious. To wipe out what's going on. The unconsciousness is what's important, not the food.
Sometimes people will say, "But I just like the taste of food. In fact, I love the taste! Why can't it be that simple? I overeat because I like food."
When you like something, you pay attention to it. When you like something—love something—you take time with it. You want to be present for every second of the rapture. But overeating does not lead to rapture: It leads to burping and farting and being so sick that you can't think of anything but how full you are. That's not love; that's suffering.
I'm not exactly proud to say that I have been miserable anywhere, with anything, with anyone. I've been miserable standing in a field of a thousand sunflowers in southern France in mid-June. I've been miserable weighing 80 pounds and wearing a size 0. And I've been happy wearing a size 18, been happy sitting with my dying father, been happy being a switchboard operator. But like many people, I've had the "When I Get Thin (Change Jobs, Move, Find a Relationship, Leave This Relationship, Have Money) Blues." It's called the "If Only" refrain. It's called postponing your life and your ability to be happy to a future date when then, oh then, you will finally get what you want and life will be good. You will stop turning to food when you start understanding in your body, not just your mind, that there is something better than turning to food. And this time, when you lose weight, you will keep it off. Truth, not force, does the work of ending compulsive eating.
The poet Galway Kinnell wrote that "sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness." Everything we do, I tell my students, is to reteach ourselves our loveliness.
Diets are the result of your belief that you have to atone for being yourself to be worthy of existing. Until the belief is understood and questioned, no amount of weight loss will touch the part of you that is convinced it is damaged. It will make sense to you that hatred leads to love and that torture leads to peace because you will be operating on the conviction that you must starve or deprive or punish the badness out of you. You won't keep extra weight off, because being at your natural weight does not match your convictions about the way life unfolds. But once the belief and the subsequent decisions are questioned, diets and being uncomfortable in your body lose their seductive allure. Only kindness makes sense. Anything else is excruciating. You are not a mistake. You are not a problem to be solved.
The Sufi poet Rumi, writing about birds learning to fly, wrote: "How do they learn it? They fall, and falling, they're given wings."
If you wait until you have Toni Oliver's eyes and Amy Breyer's hair, if you wait to respect yourself until you are at the weight you imagine you need to be to respect yourself, you will never respect yourself. To be given wings, you've got to be willing to believe that you were put on this Earth for more than your endless attempts to lose the same 30 pounds 300 times for 80 years. And that goodness and loveliness are possible, even in something as mundane as what you put in your mouth for breakfast.
From Women, Food and God, by Geneen Roth. Copyright © 2010 by Geneen Roth & Associates, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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