Three Mindful Eating Stories
I recently attended the memorial of a dear friend. While it was a sad occasion, it also brought a group of old friends together who are more accurately described as family. One of these is my friend Katie whom I have known for twenty years. She flew out to Arizona from Sacramento and I from Los Angeles. We met at the Tucson airport and had a two hour drive together to the town of Bisbee.
I noticed that she had lost a tremendous amount of weight and looked radiant.
This was bit surprising, only because whenever we spoke, she told me (not in a complaining way) how busy and challenged she was. In my experience this is a time when people tell me they can’t possibly lose weight, in fact it’s their reason for gaining weight! Katie is a mental health/addictions nurse at the V.A. where she listens to tragic stories of war and trauma all day, and has a workload that should be for three nurses. She is also getting her Masters degree and writing papers and doing research. One of Katie’s greatest joys is that she has brought mindfulness meditation to the wounded warriors, men and women, and they flock to it. There is always a waiting list to get into her groups. So in addition to her regular workload she manages to fit in 3 meditation groups a week. Needless to say, she practices meditation herself, no matter how busy she is.
Now a bit about her history; she is the oldest of 12 children and became a “mom” at the age of 5. Her family was poor and she survived several serious traumas including sexual abuse. She has done a lot to heal and enjoys life, good relationships with her own 4 adult children and eight grandchildren and many meaningful friendships. She raised her kids mostly as a single mom, working in the restaurant business while later she put herself through nursing school and became an addictions nurse. Katie knows how to get things done and achieve goals. She is also one of the most generous people I have ever met and she knows how to be a great friend. She can be the best person to cry with and the best person to laugh with.
One area I have watched her struggle with for many years is her weight. It seems to be one area she cannot apply her great heart and mind to; caring for her body in as loving a way as she cares for others. She’s aware of this, but has never been able to take it further than just trying yet another diet, and promising her daughters that, “Yes, I will use that gym membership, bike, elliptical trainer,…etc that you bought for me.” (Her kids would like her to be around for a while-wouldn’t you?)
On our drive I didn’t mention her weight, but she did. “Have you noticed that I’ve lost a bit of weight?”
“Yes I did, you look great”. Again I didn’t ask because I have heard all the diet stories before.
“Something shifted this year”, she said. “For years I have been convinced that the only way to lose weight is to eat a high protein low carb diet, because that worked once years ago. In practicing and teaching mindfulness- especially the forgiveness and compassion required for the soldiers, I started to be kinder to myself. I started to ask my body what it really wanted. It turns out my body does not want to eat meat, and was really missing fruit. So I started eating more complex carbohydrates including plenty of fruit, no meat , I am enjoying food much more and I continue to lose weight effortlessly and pleasurably.
I also started to learn to play the ukulele. The young part of me that wants to eat has no language, no words, but does like to play. So while I am studying, I used to use food to get me through the tough parts, now I have “ukulele snacks”.”
I listened fascinated, because Katie had found her way to all the truths I have learned from practicing and teaching Mindful Eating. Be kind to yourself, feed yourself lovingly and pleasurably (indulgence, compulsion and avoidance of feelings is not the same as true enjoyment and love.) And find other ways to “feed yourself” enjoy all the senses, not just taste.
In another recent encounter, I met with a young man from Australia one on one. Because I had only ninety minutes with him, I went in, really curious about what drove him to ask for this meeting and what was really going on with him. One thing I knew already, it would not be about the food and not even about weight. I asked a little about his history.
“Well, I travel the world and I’m what you would call a ‘foodie’. I love fine food and wine and I even just wrote and published a book about eating my way around the world.”
I looked at this young man and wondered where the problem was, he wasn’t very over weight, his face and voice revealed no distress.
“I wake up thinking about what I am going to have for dinner and I think about food all the time. I know that’s not normal, but that’s just the way I am.”
“I took an eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class (at Insight LA) and then started to read about Mindful Eating. In fact I have read several books on Mindful Eating and I have been trying to do it for about eight years. I can usually last about two weeks.”
Now we were getting somewhere. I could see by his language that he was approaching Mindful Eating like a diet, that he could go ‘on and off of” rather than the ongoing practice of awareness that it really is. Not just awareness of eating, but of emotions, thoughts, body sensations and relationships.
“Tell me little about your childhood dinner table, what was that like”. Silence. So I enquired more specifically, asking the questions we use in the eight week class. ”Who was there? What was the emotional atmosphere like? Who did most of the talking? And other questions along those lines.
“All I remember is the food; lamb, peas, potatoes. And I remember stuffing my mouth really full. I really like the feeling of being stuffed even to this day.”
As I listened I felt sadness rising in my chest; somehow as he described the physical fullness, I sensed the emotional emptiness, the lack of connections. And I was struck by the fact that there were no memories of the people. I mentioned this to him.
“Well you see I was adopted, and I never felt close to anyone in my family. I don’t have anything in common with them. When I see them now, mostly we talk about food, and I cook for them. They really like my cooking.” He looked down a bit embarrassed, like he didn’t think he should boast.
In the time we had left, we uncovered the fact that while he has friends all over the world he really isn’t very close to anyone. We also discovered that like Katie, he often finds himself in the position of giver and care taker even with his friends.
I asked if he ever allowed himself to receive the same kindness.. “Not really, I only see people when I feel like I have something to bring to the table”.
I suggested that there might be a connection between overeating and loneliness.
“As a former overeater myself Rick, who also didn’t feel like I fit in my family, food felt like it was my best friend. Does that sound familiar to you?” He nodded.
“I know this isn’t going in the direction you probably thought it would. Is that OK?”
“Yes, I mean it’s really caught me off guard, but you know I recently re read my book and while it has great stories about food; there are no people in it. I have to say I noticed that and it made me uncomfortable.”
We spent the rest of the session practicing loving kindness meditation together, and talking about some ways he might explore making more connections with people. Maybe starting with a therapist and his biological sister with whom he had made a recent connection.
“Go slowly and gently Rick and most of all start with yourself.” I taught him the self healing with our own hands meditation and suggested that he might be “hungry” for some of the other senses, like touch.
“The real feast of life Rick is love, its relationships, it’s the human connection. You are part of the human family, and you deserve that.” At this point I had moved from my chair and was sitting next to him on the couch.
With a shy smile he looked at me, “I like that, ‘the real feast of life.’.” he said, and we gently bumped shoulders and laughed.
The last story is short one and it’s about me. Without going into the details, I have had a really difficult summer. To support myself, I have been practicing a lot more loving kindness meditation. One day this week, I was tired and rushed while picking up a few things in a Mexican market close to my house. I passed by the case of pan dulces and thought, “I think one of those would pick me up.” Then right away I heard a voice saying, “Oh not that dear one, those are made with lard.” It made me laugh, that’s not how I usually talk to myself! And I kept going, buying the Comet and dog biscuits that I originally went in there for, and knowing that if wanted a treat later, it would be a really lovely one.