Listen to your body

Listen to your body

I’ve been reading the work of Marion Woodman, an author and Jungian analyst who’s well known for her writings on addiction and eating disorders. In much of her work, she talks about how literal the body is in its signals; in a recent interview she says, “The longing for sweets is really a yearning for love or sweetness.”

If cravings really are that transparent, why are we so frequently at their mercy? I think it’s a simple answer: we just don’t take the time to listen to where the craving is coming from. What part of our selves is doing the craving–the body or the mind? The fact is, we don’t really pay much attention to our selves from the neck down. In our culture, the head is where the action’s at; it’s the part that’s sexy and loud and bright, and we’re completely at its mercy. Meanwhile, we drag the body around like a dog on a leash.

But the body is brilliant at expressing its needs and desires. It’s just not as shrill or strident as the mind, and we don’t get still and quiet often enough to hear it — or we do hear it, but allow the mind’s whims to subjugate the body’s needs. When we get sick, it’s often the body’s way of saying “Enough!” when it’s fed up with being ignored. And it’s an opportunity to check in with our selves from the neck down, and notice what needs attention.

What does all of this have to do with eating? Everything. In our culture, we eat from the neck up. When we dine out, we choose grilled salmon, no sauce, dinner salad, dressing on the side, because the brain tells us this is a nutritious choice that will keep us slim and healthy. At the store, we load up our shopping carts with nonfat milk, low-calorie “butter” spread and diet soda, because our minds tell us those foods will also keep us slim. Sometimes, we load up our shopping carts with frozen dinners and boxed mac ‘n cheese, because our minds tell us we’re behind on deadlines and we don’t have time to cook.

Ordering grilled salmon in a restaurant is a fine idea, and there’s nothing wrong in general with shopping for easy-to-prepare foods. But where is the body in all of this? If you order the grilled salmon to be virtuous, but you’re not in the mood for fish, and you’re longing for risotto, your body won’t be fed in the same way. The meal will be nutritious, but it may not be nourishing. You won’t experience pleasure.

Now, the tricky part about cravings is differentiating between the needs of the body and the capricious desires of the mind. Is it truly your body that wants ice cream or spicy cheese nachos, or is it your mind that wants them, to provide a momentary distraction from stress, worry, anxiety, loneliness? It could be that you don’t want food at all; maybe, as Woodman suggests, you’re really craving sweetness in your life. (Or in the case of nachos, more spice.)

Maybe the cells of your body really are crying out for ice cream or nachos; maybe you’ve been on a highly restrictive diet since eighth grade, and your cells are starved for fat. If that’s the case, you might want to engage your body in a dialogue; maybe another kind of fat–olives, avocado, coconut oil, organic butter–would appeal even more strongly.

Sometimes our cravings are what our minds call “healthy” cravings, for foods like fresh melon or walnuts. Because we indulge those cravings without mental or emotional suffering, those aren’t the issue. Other cravings for foods that cause adverse physical reactions in the body–like sugar for a diabetic, or wheat for someone with Celiac–simply shouldn’t be indulged. And if you have a serious eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, I encourage you to seek one-on-one, professional help.

For everyone else, try this out: the next time you have a food craving that’s causing you distress, just stop what you’re doing and notice. Where is the longing in your body? What exactly is it saying? If possible, find a place where you can be still and quiet for at least 10 minutes. Get comfortable, close your eyes and just sit with the craving. What comes up? What words, images, physical sensations, emotions are behind the craving?

Sometimes, when you’re sitting at the edge of a craving, you’ll find that your body wants to move in a certain way; allow it that freedom, and see if it’s offering a clue to what’s really going on. Begin to write about your cravings in a journal; it’s a fascinating exploration into the inner landscape. Sometimes, you’ll find that a craving really is signaling a nutritional deficiency in your body. But you may also notice that, most of the time, your cravings have nothing to do with food. It’s hard–painful, even–to sit there with a craving and be with what comes up. But if you can do it, it’s liberating, exhilarating and ultimately more rewarding than a chocolate chip cookie.