One of the key pieces to understanding-and changing-compulsive eating, overeating, binging or any other uncomfortable patterns with food is being deeply and fully in your body. We call that embodiment. “But,” you might say, “I’m always in my body. Where else would I be?”
It’s a good question. The answer is, “In your mind.” That’s where most people spend the bulk of their lives. The mind is bright, witty, cunning; it spins a clever yarn, makes up exciting stories about the future, dramatizes the past. Meanwhile, we drag the body around all day like a dog on a leash, paying attention only when something goes dreadfully wrong.
But until you’re keenly aware of your body, it’s hard to change your relationship with food. By listening to your body’s cues and attending to its needs, you can learn to feel — not think — when you’re hungry, when you’re full, and what you really need. You can stop binge eating, shift the way you use food, and make peace with your body. Some practices to try:
• Allow sensation over form. Have you watched the way toddlers move? They jump up and down, tiptoe then sprawl on the floor, roll about in the grass, arch and stretch; they touch their noses, grimace, yawn, stick out their tongues. They look silly and bizarre and wonderful. And you know what? They could care less (even about looking wonderful). They’re completely enchanted with the process of sensation.
That’s not how grownups work. We are encourage to craft our bodies and our lives a certain way. We are celebrated for material triumphs, for thinness, for beauty and youth; we’re all about the form. A life lived this way can appear quite spectacular yet feel empty to its participants. Trading form for sensation is rarely a good deal.
What happens if you let go of form, if you just allow sensation? If you focus on how your body feels inside, rather than how it looks to your co-workers, friends, siblings, lovers? When we heap upon ourselves the worries and cares of adulthood, it’s easy to forget how it feels to be a toddler in a body. See if you can remember; just notice the sheer pleasure of being in a body — embodied — no matter what its shape or size. Sense the temperature of the air on your cheeks, notice the texture of your shirt against your shoulders, feel the strength of your legs. And the next time you pass a mirror, don’t heap judgment on them, or wish them thinner or longer. Like any toddler knows, the body is really just a place for the soul to live.
• Be still. In our culture, we have impatience for discomfort of any kind. Thus we react. When we’re sad, lonely, bored, frustrated, unsettled, we rush to fix it. But there, at the edge of the discomfort, is where magic can happen.
Many years ago, I was in a long meditation retreat at an ashram. It was in the middle of an especially hot summer, and the windows were flung wide in an attempt to coax a bit of breeze into the room. The only thing that entered was a drove of flies. They crawled on our sweat-slick skin, and we swatted and flicked until the leader of the meditation commanded “Be still!” So my practice at that moment became tolerating the considerable discomfort of flies crawling purposefully across the bridge of my nose or along the part of my hair, while remaining perfectly still. And in that stillness in the face of discomfort, I found something new, a vast and quiet field that lay beyond the momentary flurry of reactivity.
Try this practice: when you’re emotionally uncomfortable, can you let your discomfort just be there, instead of swatting it away? Instead of turning to food to soothe your discomfort, can you sit still and let things just be as they are, without needing to fix or change them? An embodiment therapist I know says she gives herself simple and clear directions in these times: “Sit. Stay. Good girl.” It works every time.
• Downshift. If you ask ten people today how they are, at least six of them will say “busy.” Most of us live in a state of busy-ness and perpetual arousal; hyper alert, we’re ready to spring into action as soon as the alarm clock sounds. We rush to work, race between appointments and carpools, dash to the grocery store to buy fast-and-easy meals for dinner. Meanwhile, we’re thinking and planning for the next thing on our to-do lists. But when you’re racing about in your car and in your mind, you’re just not in your body.
Try this: the next time you find yourself rushing from or to anything, stop moving, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Feel the soles of your feet. Let your toes and jaw unclench, and let your belly relax. Take five deep, slow breaths, and consciously downshift inside. When you open your eyes again, resume movement at a decelerated pace. Apply this practice as you go through the day, and especially before you eat. Then eat very slowly, paying attention to every bite. This practice alone can transform the way you eat, think and feel about food.
• Make friends with your feelings. Early this year, I had a sudden and terrible loss that left me reeling and forced me to actually feel in a way I’d never done before. Once I became willing and stop resisting it, grief and anger and fear and pain washed over and through me, without direction, carving its own pathway through my soul. It wasn’t pretty, but it was real. And that raw emotion left in its wake a sweet openness — like emptiness, but more peaceful and friendly. My muscles stopped gripping my bones. My jaw unclenched. I came more deeply into my body than ever before.
What happens when you encounter strong emotions? If you’re struggling with food, those potent feelings may lead you straight to the kitchen, in search of solace. But what happens if you don’t go, if you just let yourself feel? Find a quite place to sit and notice your feelings. What is the physical sensation of anger? Where does it live in your body? Does it have a color? A voice? Surrender entirely to the experience, and let the transformative power of pure, raw emotion work on you. You’ll know when you’re done. And you might not even be hungry any longer.