Getting Through a Meal With Strength and Serenity
- Category: Coping Strategies
Often people write or call me to say, "Yes, I keep my journal. I see my therapist. I go to 12 step meetings. I'm learning to be kind and compassionate with myself. But what can I do about the food? Please help me."
What people specifically mean by this plea varies with each individual. But they clearly express their bewilderment and anguish as they attempt to find and develop new attitudes and behaviors toward daily eating.
A long time ago the Buddhists developed a contemplative practice for eating which may be just what these callers are looking for.
Here is my edited version of the five contemplations for eating. I suggest that people with and without eating disorders print them out and read them before eating anything at any time.
Being fully present for ourselves, being fully aware of what we consume and being fully aware of our intention in the moment can help us develop the attitudes and behaviors we need for our well being.
These ancient contemplations may be very helpful in eating disorder recovery. What's more, they may open our awareness to other aspects of our lives that also need healing.
These contemplations were originally written for all of us.
Five Contemplations When Taking A Meal
1. I consider the work required in producing this food. I am grateful for its source.
2. I evaluate my virtues and examine any spiritual defects. The ratio between my virtues and defects determine how much I shall deserve this offering.
3. I guard my heart cautiously from faults, particularly greed.
4. To strengthen and cure my weakening body, I consume this food as medicine.
5. As I continue on the spiritual path I accept this offering with appreciation and gratitude.
Note: Periodically I receive questions about contemplation two and less often about contemplation three. As always, questions and comments inspire me to think, research and write more. Here is my latest thinking on the contemplations. Please feel free to write me with your perspective.
I found these contemplations written on the dining room wall in a Chinese Buddhist temple, Hsi Lai , in Hacienda Heights, California. So some of the phrasing and word choices may relate to translation from Chinese to English challenges and different meanings given to words based on cultural values.
However, here is a way of thinking that may help you understand what the contemplations are getting at.
First, they are contemplations, not rules. They are not meant to be followed like laws. They are meant to be contemplated, at best over a lifetime and at least, over the course of a meal. Different levels of meaning will occur to us over time if we continue to contemplate the words and what thoughts and feelings come up within us over time.
Second, evaluating one's one virtues and spiritual defects is a mighty challenge. When 12-steppers get to the stage of writing their personal inventory they understand how challenging this is. Often when we begin the process of exploring our own defects we can't think of a single one! And just as often, when we try to look deeply into the truth of who we are, we can't think of a single virtue either!
But at least we are looking. We are beginning to examine ourselves.
Later, perhaps in a week or year or more, when we inventory ourselves again, we discover defects and virtues that were invisible to us before.
In this way we become open to the possibility of learning something about ourselves. That openness is what allows us to see what we couldn't see, understand what we couldn't understand, forgive what we didn't know, care about who we are and appreciate the consequences of our actions and attitudes over a lifetime. This contemplation process allows us to open our hearts and minds to the people around us and who were around us in the past and who will come into our lives in the future. We have an opportunity to become free as imperfect beings in an imperfect world where we are surrounded by imperfect others and nonetheless can recognize, give and receive love and respect.
If we think about this deeply, isn't the act of eating a behavior that embodies the giving and receiving of love and respect from one life form to another in order to maintain life force on this planet? This question, if contemplated, may lead us to issues of deep spirituality about which we have been oblivious and yet which concern us every moment of our lives.
So how do we begin to look at our defects and virtues if we don't know how and probably wouldn't recognize them if we did see them?
Because I was a visiting professional guest at the Sierra Tucson Treatment Center in Arizona, I started receiving their Alumni Newsletter, "Afterwords." In their 2002-2003 Reunion issue I came across an article by David Anderson, Ph.D. In his article, "The Eight Deadly Defects of Character," Dr. Anderson addresses the issues you and I are exploring together in this article.
Dr. Anderson made a list combining the seven or eight deadly sins with ten personality disorders and came up with what he calls the Eight Deadly Defects of Character:
1. Dishonesty/lack of authenticity/wearing a "mask".
2. Pride/vanity/need for things to be "my way/need to always be "in control"
3. Pessimism/gloomy disposition/being stuck in a "victim role" (this is closely associated with anger, bitterness and resentment).
4. Social, emotional and spiritual isolation
5. Sloth/laziness/passivity/living the unexamined life
6. Gluttony/unwillingness to self-discipline/need for the "quick fix"
7. Self-debasement/excessive self-denial and self-sacrifice
We can use his list as a starting place to think about what may apply to us (in different degrees at different times, of course). Contemplation two invites us to think about what virtues and defects are in ascendance in the moment. Any "defects" on the list above will influence how we plan to eat, what we eat, where we eat, how we relate to ourselves and others while we eat, how we feel, think and communicate before, during and after we eat.
One way of eating involves receiving with grace, humility, respect and gratitude an offering of life from life forms on the planet that nourish our body and soul.
We may eat well, thoughtfully and with care because we are preparing for a physically or emotionally stressful time and need extra resources in our body.
We may eat well with particular care and consume particular various nutrients even if we don't feel like eating them because we are nursing a child and want to give our baby the most nourishing milk our bodies can produce.
We may eat thoughtfully and with care because we want to keep ourselves well and healthy for our own pleasure and delight and for the pleasure and delight of the people who love us and count on us to be a stable and reliable presence in the world.
Another way of eating involves using food, thinking of it as a device to manipulate feelings (ours or someone else's), to act out feelings or control feelings or change feelings and completely disregard all the value and meaning of the food we are using: e.g. the life that is being offered up, the people and animals who worked to bring the food to us, earth and sky and rain and sun that helped the food come into being, etc.
Another way of eating involves mindless bingeing that could relate to many of the character defects on Dr. Anderson's list, including flight from all of them.
Yet another way of eating is non-eating, using self-sacrificial means to control others and to make up for lack of control in other areas of life. It's using food by wasting it to waste away a body. It's attempting to create a body that is desired because of almost all of the defects listed above. Plus, non-eating is a way to disregard the gifts of life supporting life including the life within one's own physicality.
When a person is bingeing mindlessly does he or she "deserve" the offering from the earth?
These are the kinds of thoughts and questions we develop when we contemplate the contemplations.
Contrary to what people seem to believe when they write me about this article, contemplations are designed to remove guilt. Guilt arrives when a person with an eating disorder thinks he or she is doing something wrong and must stop, should stop, could stop but can't stop.
Instead, the philosophy expressed here involves contemplating our behavior and internal experience. The willingness to contemplate, the generosity of spirit that allows room to contemplate, can open our minds, hearts and bodies so that positive changes occur, not from self punishing acts of control, but naturally, organically and at the pace that is just right for individual healing.
If you are struggling with or haunted by bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, compulsive overeating or binge eating this mindful and respectful approach to yoiur meals can soothe and empower you to a new level of appreciation and kindness to yourself and the food you eat.
Giving thoughtful and regular attention to the ancient contemplations can help us release ourselves from stray remnants of our character defects. When we can maintain a healthy and personal alert awareness of what nourishes life we can we appreciate how we are part of all life and how, by living our lives well, we in turn nourish others. Then we can get through our days, nights, meals, snack times not only with strength and serenity, but also with grace and a vibrant internal joy.