start where you are
Nor was I hungry; so I found That hunger was a way Of persons outside windows, The entering takes away.
----EMILY DICKINSON, "I HAD BEEN HUNGRY"
the secret society of women
Women have many secrets. But our secret relationship with food and our body can come to overshadow all other aspects of life,filling us with obsession, shame, and fear. This relationship is intense and intimate, and the compulsion to maintain the secret can become the driving force behind everything we do and think. On the surface we may appear sane, but inside we're engaged in a never-ending tug-of-war.
We're writing this book because we personally know the debilitating cost, both physical and emotional, of keeping your relationship to food and your body a secret. We know how it is to always feel the struggle with food lurking just below the surface. We've put in more time than we care to remember on berating our looks and trying to be anyone other than who we are.
When your relationship with food and your body feels this out of control, getting through the day can be like scurrying through a minefield. You feel that no matter which way you turn, something is going to blow up in your face. You cheat on your diet, you're horrified by your reflection in the mirror, a button pops on your pants. At the end of the day, you're filled with regret and self-hatred once again. This inner turmoil takes its toll. It saps our vital energies and keeps us from what we really want to do with our lives.
But our personal experience has also shown us that this struggle with food and body can become a catalyst for change. It can force us to connect to life on the deepest level.
When we're ready to make a deep and pervasive change, our struggle with food and body can serve as a wake-up call. The painwe feel can motivate us to learn how to nourish our deepest self. This book starts from that deep place of motivation. It's intended to serve as your guide through resolving your inner battle.
the food and body conflict
For many women, a sense that life is good, that we're valuable and accomplished, is often directly tied into how we look. So many of us spend countless years dreaming about the good old days when we could eat anything, or holding out for that mirage of a slender body glimmering just ahead on the horizon.
Why we believe that life is worthwhile only if we look good can be traced to a variety of factors. Cultural standards and pressures, messages from the media, the warped feminine psyche that emerges in a patriarchal society, a striving for perfection, and competitiveness with other women are among the many components that contribute.
Whatever the reasons, the message is clear: women in our society must be thin to be valued. We put unrelenting pressure on ourselves to "effortlessly" maintain a contrived look. We're not rewarded for nurturing an individual appearance. Instead, we try to shape our appearance to fit the fashion template of the day. Wedon't win by being who we are now. The result is that we find ourselves embroiled in a ceaseless food and body conflict.
The food and body conflict is a relationship with food and body that dominates our thoughts and actions to the point of debilitating our lives. We feel pain and shame, and we don't know how to break free of the conflict. It affects every aspect of our lives, coloring our decisions, relationships, and ability to function in a healthy way.
Millions of American women spend huge amounts of energy, time, and money on a pilgrimage to an illusion of beauty. On any given day, 40 percent of all American women are actively dieting.2 Another five to ten million women apparently suffer from the eating disorders of anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating, the extreme forms of food and body conflicts.3 But equally depleting are the more subtle forms of the conflict. Not so easily categorized are the demoralizing ups and downs of yo-yo dieting, ongoing low-grade starvation, or a rigid exercise regime.
Whatever the conflict looks like on the outside, most women experience remarkably similar feelings on the inside. First and foremost is suffering. We suffer over what seem to be unresolvable behaviorsand thinking traps. We feel stuck in a battle between what we long for our bodies to look like and what we see in the mirror. We struggle over what to eat, when to eat, how to exercise, and what diet to follow this time. We suffer when the diet doesn't work, when willpower fails, when destructive patterns of thought and behavior prevail, and when attaining our ideal appearance slips impossibly out of reach--again.
Accompanying this underlying sense of suffering is a feeling of emptiness. We feel something missing. Inside of us is a void, a longing deep within for some elusive satisfaction. This empty feeling is often experienced physically as gnawing hunger, as if we have a bottomless hole inside. If we're to fill this void, we must start by asking: what is the source of this feeling of emptiness? For so many women, it's a longing for spiritual fulfillment that leaves us always hungry and dissatisfied.
We define spirituality as a belief in that which goes beyond our material, corporeal existence, giving us faith that there's more to life than the everyday experience. Spirituality is a faith in God, Nature, a higher consciousness, or any other power greater than our singular mortal existence.
When we've lost a spiritual connection in our lives, we may eat and eat in an attempt to fill our inner void. But satisfaction comes only when we're able to rediscover our connection to whatever holds deepest meaning for us.
west meets east
For women living in the Western world, finding and maintaining a spiritual connection can be difficult. In the West, religion and spirituality typically get relegated to Sundays, holidays, and crises. According to a 1997 Gallup poll on spiritual beliefs, the number of Americans who believe that religion has lost its influence on American life has increased from 3 percent in the 1950s to a staggering 60 percent in 1997. Yet 82 percent of Americans say they're conscious of the presence of God; 57 percent report having had an important religious experience; and 36 percent say they've had a mystical experience. We're a society hungry for spirituality, but we aren't finding it within our daily lives. Without it, our search for fulfillment focuses purely on the material realm. This leaves many Western women looking for deeper meaning.
The ideas and solutions presented in this book are inspired by Eastern healing and spiritual practices. What differentiates the Eastern approach is a long, unbroken tradition of seeking fulfillment through the practice of internal contemplation. According to Eastern philosophy, the internal world is our entry into a spiritual existence where we find meaning beyond our corporeal lives. Meditation, concentrated prayer, and other deep states of consciousness are examples of actively connecting to our internal spiritual realm.
The Eastern approach takes into account both internal and external existence. It embraces the individual as a whole being. From this perspective, when a person has a problem that manifests on the outside (a symptom), there is a corresponding cause on the inside.
According to the Eastern approach, you must treat the internal root cause to heal an external symptom. If you simply eliminate the symptom, the fundamental issues that caused the problem remain. Sooner or later they'll resurface.
Traditional Western diets fail to resolve the food and body conflict because they don't deal with the root cause. They try to cure the external symptom of being overweight with a low-calorie diet. They counter bulimia with Prozac. They curtail overeating with an appetite suppressant. External solutions like these can provide quick relief and may succeed for a short time. But eventually they fail because they haven't treated the root cause.
Rudyard Kipling said long ago, "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." But time-tested Eastern healing practices are just the solution to our modern Western-style food and body conflict. By blending the wisdom of both cultures, we can learn to heal. We can be women in Western society who find life worthwhile not because we're thin but because it's filled with meaning.
what are you doing right now?
When we don't find meaning in our present circumstances, we're haunted by ghosts of the past and fantasies of the future. We're punished by thoughts of our past, such as "Why did I eat all of that cake last night?" or "Why can't I look as thin as I did last summer?" Turning from the past, we focus on the future. We try to comfort ourselves with plans like "Tomorrow I'll follow my diet strictly" or "Two months from now, I'll be down to my ideal weight."
But this book starts you off in the present moment. Whatever your own personal history with dieting, it's in the past. Whatever your hopes for the future, they'll forever remain just that--aspirations, fervent prayers. By coming to know yourself in the present, you can start to find peace with food and your body right now.
To help you start healing, this book offers practices that teach you how to focus on the here and now. Many of these practices are designed for you to return to again and again. You'll need a notebook or journal where you can keep your notes for the practices.
how to get the most out of the practices: These practices will help you understand and resolve the complex workings of your own food and body conflict. As you read through the book, you may find it helpful to stop and do the practices along the way. Oryou may find it more useful to first read all the way through the book without stopping. If you take this approach, you can envision the practices in your mind as you read along. Once you've gotten the bigger picture of the book, then you can go back and complete the practices.
A note of caution: One of the greatest blocks to resolving food and body issues can be a stifling perfectionism that keeps us stuck. Don't let the feeling that you must do the practices perfectly keep you from finishing the book and understanding the complete path to resolving your food and body conflict.
PRACTICE: WAKING UP
Right now, in this present moment, maybe your back is aching, you're hungry, your mind is wandering, you're thinking of the errands you have to run. Dig a little deeper and you might realize that you're feeling sad and regretful about a conversation you had with your spouse this morning. Or perhaps you're anxious about unfinished work at the office. Or you may be excitedly anticipating your dinner with friends this evening. Whatever the content of your thoughts, your feelings, your physical sensations, that's what's real for you right now.
1. Begin this practice by finding a comfortable place where you can sit uninterrupted for five minutes. Have a clock or watch,your journal, and a pen nearby. Sit with your back straight and your head held evenly.
2. Note in your journal what time it is as you begin.
3. Now close your eyes. Simply observe everything that wanders through your mind. You may have a series of thoughts, or you may become aware of sounds or sensations. Whatever presents itself is your experience of the present moment.
4. The first time you feel compelled to check the time, make note of how long you've been sitting: thirty seconds, one minute, or five minutes. There's no right or wrong amount of time.
5. Write down how long you sat before you checked the time. Also note whatever went through your mind while sitting.
6. Now try a different variation of the sitting practice. This time, before you begin, focus your mind for a moment on food and your body.
7. Again close your eyes and observe everything you experience as you sit. Make special note of anything that comes into your mind that relates to food and how you feel about your body.
8. Make note if you're able to sit longer without checking the time.
Reflection: Every moment of every day of your life, you have a stream of thoughts and sensations that flows through yourawareness. This seemingly mundane stream is what makes up your reality.
What you've just recorded in your journal is a snapshot of your day-to-day experience of the present moment. As you repeat this practice, you may notice that you can spend more time observing your current reality. It's from this space of the present moment that you'll gradually begin to heal your food and body conflict.
PRACTICE: WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM?
What motivated you to pick up this book? What's bothering you about food and your body? What changes would you like to make in your life?
It's now time to identify what you personally perceive as your problem and what you want to do about it. This desire for change is your intention.
1. Set aside five to ten minutes for this practice. Sit comfortably, and clear your mind: breathe slowly and rhythmically and start tuning into the sound of your breath. As thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations arise, take a deep breath in. As you breathe out, release the thought, feeling, or physical sensation with the outgoing breath.
2. Now contemplate your personal experience of the food and body conflict. Observe the thoughts that arise about food and body: your behaviors, eating patterns, and feelings about your body.
3. When you open your eyes, think about all that's traveled in and out of your awareness in the past few minutes. Out of everything that's occurred to you, what seems to be the greatest problem? What's the most important thing you want to change about your relationship to food and your body?
4. Now write down what you see as your food and body problem and what you want to change--your intention. Try to state each in a single sentence. For instance, you might say, "My problem is that I'm thirty pounds overweight. My intention is that I want to lose thirty pounds." Or you could be experiencing a more elusive problem: "My problem is that I'm totally confused about how to eat in a relaxed and healthy way. My intention is that I want to learn how to relate to food normally."
5. In your journal, record the results from this practice as your starting point--your beginning problem and intention. In future practices, you'll be asked to refer back to your problem and intention.
Reflection: As you begin to heal your food and body conflict, you may discover that your original problem and intention don't match your current circumstances. If so, return to this practice to check in with how you're currently experiencing your problem and intention. Then restate them to match your current circumstances.
the practice of healing
Growing up in Western society, we're programmed to believe that every problem has a quick and easy solution. Have a headache? Take an aspirin. Coughing? Take a cough suppressant. Feel overweight? Go on a diet. Problem solved!
As you begin the process of healing your food and body conflict, you may find yourself wanting a quick resolution. Most of us who have dieted before are looking for that quick fix, like the Slim-Fast slogan: "Give us a week, and we'll take off the weight."
But we can cure the problem for a week only to have it return the next. If you were to tune back in the week after you "took off the weight," you'd probably find that you gained it all back--plus a few extra pounds as a bonus. The quick fix that we're promised for instant salvation never seems to last. To find change that endures, you have to heal your food and body conflict at its roots.
Copyright © 2002 by Lynn Ginsburg and Mary Taylor. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.