Most of us have been there. We find ourselves standing in front of an open refrigerator, late at night in search of the next snack to fill the void…only we aren’t physically hungry. We are hungry however, but it is a different sort of hunger. We are hungry for validation, procrastination, approval, excitement, companionship and knowledge of our worth. Pediatrician and Buddhist mindfulness expert Jan Chozen Bays refers to this as “heart hunger”, an emotional longing that can bring us straight into the arms of food and marching in that repetitive parade to the kitchen cupboard late at night.
In my own history with food I always fought the label of ‘emotional eater’. I didn’t view myself as someone who relied on food to help me with my problems. After all, I was resourceful, I was self-aware, I was trained in psychotherapy for Peet Sake!…and yet when I really entered in to a period of observing myself and my patterns with food I recognized that it wasn’t necessarily the big emotions; the devastating heartbreaks or the major losses that had me eating past the point of full. It was a much more subtle and therefore more insidious type of void I was filling. It was often a very low grade anxiety, a quiet ‘dis-ease’ that left me feeling stressed, tired, bored or underappreciated…all of which seemed to be soothed by food.
Enter mindfulness. Mindfulness is an ancient practice born of Eastern Tradition that is seeing increasing popularity in Western Medicine and psychology. Quite simply, it is the act of focusing your complete and total attention on the present moment experience in a non-judgmental way. You don’t have to be a master meditator or a yogi sitting on a hill to engage in mindfulness, all of us have the capacity to be mindful in any given moment. It is a matter of directing our attention. When you bring mindfulness to your experience of eating it means engaging all your senses and bringing your full attention to the experience of the food in your mouth.
While the definition of mindfulness is quite simple, bringing it into our lives as a daily practice is anything but easy. Most of the time, we are anywhere BUT in the present moment. We are usually thinking about our ‘to do’ list, replaying a conversation in our mind, planning for a future event, judging, analyzing or problem solving. Eating while fully present? Not a chance. We live in a fast food era, we eat while on the run, in front of the television or while checking our text messages or sending an e-mail. We rarely truly taste and savor our food. Sometimes we are so wrapped up in our thoughts that our entire plate can be gone without ever tasting a bite.
As such mindful eating can be an incredibly powerful practice to transform your eating patterns. Here are 5 gifts that mindfulness offers.
1) Awareness: Mindfulness allows us to feel our emotions and brings clarity in terms of what we are truly feeling when we reach for food when we are not hungry. We learn that we often use food to check-out, to distract ourselves from whatever is happening in our life, to give ourselves a little breather from our mental noise or to procrastinate. Awareness is the first step to changing the patterns.
2) Compassion: By becoming mindful while overeating we begin to develop a practice of non-judgment. We can then develop what I call ‘compassionate curiosity’ about what was happening for us in the moment. So often overeating is associated with shame and feeling disappointed in our actions. By practicing non-judgment we are able to observe our behavior with enough detachment and kindness that we can begin to make sense of why the eating is ‘serving’ us in that moment. Gaining this understanding allows us to begin to find more adaptive ways of coping.
3) Communication: Something I teach to clients who take The Deeper Cravings Path™ is how to differentiate the very subtle shifts in their body when they go from slightly hungry to feeling satisfied so that they can then choose to stop eating at that point. In our culture most of us decide to stop by the cue of an empty plate…period (perhaps a fall out of the ‘clean your plate’ generation). We have fallen out of communication with our body’s natural language that directs us (quite efficiently, I might add) on how to feed it. Our body is wise and it is always whispering to us but when we are so distracted and disconnected from the moment we cannot hear it. Mindfulness opens up the lines of communication.
4) Appreciation: Non-judgmental awareness translates to beginning to appreciate the body, maybe not always for its form but most certainly for its functions. When we begin to actually like our body, regardless of its shape and size, we can develop a true motivation to take care of it. We learn to move when it asks us to move, eat when it needs us to and stop when we have had enough. This sense of appreciation also translates to our relationship with food. We so commonly tend to look at food as either ‘good’ or ‘evil’. We think of our food in terms of numbers; calories, fat grams etc. Mindful eating connects us back to the joy in food. Rather than eat out of guilt, fear or rebellion we eat for pleasure and nourishment and truly enjoy eating once again.
5) Empowerment: As we begin to notice ourselves stopping when we’ve had enough, choosing foods that really feed us, listening to our bodies and treating ourselves with increased kindness we begin to feel empowered in our relationship with food. We learn that our bodies can be trusted; and that if we let them, they will teach us how they need to be nourished. Our bodies are geared towards optimal health and they can take us there without the need for fancy diet plans, pills or expensive products. By understanding the emotional hungers that are causing us to overeat and by learning how to employ a regular practice of mindful and intuitive eating we tap in to our body’s natural wisdom.
And if you do find yourself ‘feeding’ a difficult emotion try this experiment borrowed from The Mindful Therapy Group: Promise yourself that for one minute you will pause from your eating and engage in the following meditation (after that minute you can go back to eating whatever it was you were about to eat if you like). Say to yourself in time with your breath “Breathing in, I feel this feeling, breathing out, I let it be” You can even shorten it to saying silently in your mind “feel” on the in-breath and “let be” on the out-breath.
As you begin on the path of trying to bring mindfulness to your eating experiences remember to be gentle with yourself. You may find yourself fully aware (more aware than you’d like to be) that you are eating out of emotions and yet you choose to keep on eating anyway. Try not to see this as a failure. What I have learned is that it is just as important to bring compassionate awareness to those times we do ‘give in’ to our cravings as it is to find strategies to avoid them. It is a huge step to simply acknowledge that it is emotional hunger we are feeding and to not judge that. Imagine the shifts that can emerge when we replace all of our guilt and self-loathing with acceptance, compassion, awareness and kindness. Ahhhh…freedom with food…doesn’t it taste sweet.
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