food

Stepping out of obsessive thinking

Man leaping into water, doing a cannonball

I’d gone into therapy during my sophomore year in college, and remember the day I brought up my current prime-time fixation: how to stop binge eating. No matter how committed I felt to my newest diet plan, I kept blowing it each day, and mercilessly judged myself for being out of control. When I wasn’t obsessing on how I might concoct a stricter, more dramatic weight-loss program, I was getting caught up in food cravings.

My therapist listened quietly for a while, and then asked a question that has stayed with me ever since: “When you are obsessing about eating, what are you feeling in your body?” As my attention shifted, I immediately noticed the painful, squeezing feeling in my chest. While my mind was saying “something is wrong with me,” my body was squeezing my heart and throat in the hard grip of fear.

In an instant I realized that when I was obsessing about food—craving it, wanting to avoid it—I was trying to escape from these feelings. Obsessing was my way of being in control. Then I realized something else. “It’s not just food” I told her. “I’m obsessing about everything.”

Saying it out loud unlocked something inside of me. I talked about how I obsessed about what was wrong with my boyfriend, about exams, about what to do for spring break, about when to fit in a run. I obsessed about what I’d tell her at our next therapy session. And most of all, my tireless inner critic obsessed about my own failings: I’d never change; I’d never like myself; others wouldn’t want to be close to me.

After pouring all this out, my mind started scratching around again—this time for a new strategy for changing my obsessive self. When I started down that track, my therapist simply smiled and said kindly: “If you can notice when you’re obsessing and then feel what’s going on in your body, you’ll eventually find peace of mind.”

During the weeks that followed, I kept track of my obsessing. When I caught myself planning and judging and managing, I would note that I was obsessing, try to stop, and then ask how I was feeling in my body. Whatever the particular focus of my thoughts, I’d find a restless, anxious feeling—the same squeezing grip I had felt in my therapist’s office.

While I didn’t like my obsessing, I really didn’t like this feeling. Without being conscious of pulling away, I’d start distancing myself from the pain almost as soon as I’d contacted it, and the relentless voice in my head would take over again. Then, after a month or soof this, I had an experience that really caught my attention.

One Saturday night, after my friends and I had spent hours dancing to the music of a favorite band, I stepped outside to get some fresh air. Inspired by the full moon and the scent of spring blossoms, I sat down on a bench for a few moments alone. Suddenly the world was deliciously quiet. Sweaty and tired, my body was vibrating from all that dancing. But my mind was still. It was big and open, like the night sky. And filling it was a sense of peace—I didn’t want anything or fear anything. Everything was okay.

By Sunday morning, the mood had vanished. Worried about a paper due midweek, I sat down to work at noon, armed with Diet Coke, cheese, and crackers. I was going to overeat, I just knew it. My mind started ricocheting between wanting to eat and not wanting to gain weight. My agitation grew. For a moment I flashed on the evening before; that quiet, happy space was like a distant dream. A great wave of helplessness and sorrow filled my heart. I began whispering a prayer: “Please … may I stop obsessing … Please, please.” I wanted to be free from the prison of my fear-thinking.

The taste of a quiet, peaceful mind I’d experienced the night before had felt like home, and it motivated me not long after to begin spiritual practice. In the years since, I’ve become increasingly free from the grip of obsessive thinking, but awakening from this mental trance has been slower than I initially imagined.

Obsessive thinking is a tenacious addiction, a way of running from our restlessness and fears. Yet, like all false refuges, it responds to mindful awareness—to an interested and caring attention. We can listen to the energies behind our obsessive thinking, respond to what needs attention, and spend less and less time removed from the presence that nurtures our lives.

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On practicing mindfulness of hunger

apple being held in someone's hand

We all know about mindful eating: Don’t do anything else, like reading or watching TV. Take your time, really experience the sensations of lifting food to your mouth, putting it inside, chewing, swallowing. Notice the thoughts and feelings you have.

I have to confess I don’t do it very often. Last week I only really ate mindfully twice, and that’s because we undertook to eat mindfully at least twice as part of a meditation class. And it was actually quite hard to restrain myself from reading while eating. It’s quite a powerful habit!

But an interesting thing I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks is being mindful of hunger.

I’ve noticed some things.

I find it easier to practice mindfulness of hunger than mindfulness of eating — perhaps because mindfulness of hunger is a new thing?

Also see:

Sometimes when I think I’m hungry, I’m not. It’s just craving.

Television is a trigger for fake hunger. (I don’t actually have a TV, but I watch shows on Netflix on my laptop.) In particular, the theme tunes of TV programs induce craving — that desire to rush to the fridge to see if there’s something I can snack on.

If I simply pay attention to this craving, it’s manageable, and I can resist eating unnecessarily.

When it’s real hunger, I can mindfully pay attention to the sensations in the body.

When I’m mindful of my hunger, the sensations change. It’s less localized in the stomach and becomes a more general sensation throughout the abdomen.

When I feel real hunger, I tell myself, “This is how my body feels when it’s losing weight.” This also helps change the feeling-tone of the hunger. It ceases to be an unpleasant sensation. It’s just a sensation, like any other. If I tell myself, “This is the sensation of my body burning off fat,” I feel happy, because my brain now interprets the hunger as a good thing.

When I’m mindful of hunger, I don’t feel that I have to jump up immediately and eat something. It stops being a signal that something is “wrong” and needs immediate attention. It’s a bit more like the fuel gauge on a car pointing to 1/4 full — it’s a sign that I’m going to have to find fuel soon, but not necessarily right now.

Without mindfulness, my brain treats even mild hunger as if it were an emergency: “You have to eat right now!” It’s more like the scary feeling you get when the low fuel light comes on in your car, indicating that you should head straight to a gas station or you’re going to end up stranded by the roadside.

When I’m mindful of hunger, I can comfortably be with the hunger for an hour or so. Sometimes it even goes away for a period of time. When I’m unmindful, I want to get rid of the unpleasant sensations right away.

I’ve lost about 4 pounds (1.8 kg) in the last couple of weeks.

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Five tips for National Relaxation Day

In our fast-paced world it seems everyone’s stressed, hassled, and exhausted, so it’s a good thing that August 15, 2012 has been declared National Relaxation Day.

When they think about relaxing, most people would tend to hit upon rather conventional things, like soaking in the bath, having a glass of wine at the end of the evening, or watching a movie. But those things are temporary fixes that don’t lead to long-term change. Instead, I’d like to suggest five habits that can be cultivated and practiced every day. These are skills that can become a permanent part of the way you function in your daily life, and bring you long term benefits. And you can do them whether or not you have time for a long relaxing soak in the tub.

1. Take your time eating
We all have to eat, and we don’t generally do it very mindfully. We watch TV while we eat, or we read, or we’re caught up in a conversation, or we just space out. Sometimes, heaven help us, we even eat while we drive.

It’s very enriching, and deeply relaxing, to eat mindfully. It might not be feasible to eat every mouthful of food with complete attention, but what if we were to eat the first and last mouthful of a meal or snack mindfully? Whether you’re eating a gourmet meal or a candy bar, really notice the movements of your body as you transfer the food toward your mouth. Notice yourself receiving the food — how it feels, tastes. Eat slowly. Chew methodically. Savor the experience. If you find you’ve plowed into your food and are mindlessly scarfing it down, pause, and take the next bite with full awareness.

2. Give yourself short breathing breaks during the day
You may have heard of the three-minute breathing space, in which you spend a minute just tuning in to an awareness of your experience, a minute focusing on the sensations of the breathing in order to gather your attention, and a minute expanding your awareness so that you’re no longer noticing just the breathing, but also other sensations from the body, your mind and emotions, the sounds, light, and space around you. Even on the busiest of days it’s a good idea to take a few of these three minute breaks.

If that seems impossible, then just pause what you’re doing, take a few mindful breaths, and then bring your attention back to the task at hand.

3. Notice what your thinking is doing to you
A Harvard study of 250,000 people found that they spent almost 50% of their waking time thinking about something other than they were doing. What’s more, they found that the people who were most distracted were more likely to report feelings of unhappiness. Much of our thinking promotes unhappiness.

So develop the skill of checking in from time to time to see what your thoughts are doing to you. Notice whether you’re relaxed or tense, whether your overall experience is pleasant or unpleasant, whether you’re happy or distressed. Notice this without making any judgements about yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re “bad” or a “failure” for harboring thoughts that make you feel bad. But see if you can just notice those thoughts, and let them pass away. Actually, just to notice how you’re feeling you have to let go of some of the compulsion around these inner dramas.

4. Reduce input channels
One thing that really stresses us is being interrupted. So give yourself a chance to focus. If you’re writing a report, shut off your email program, turn your phone off (don’t just switch it to vibrate). Close any programs you don’t need to have open. It’s just you, and the task. You’ll find that when your concentration isn’t interrupted, you’re not only more relaxed and happy, but you get more done.

5. Give yourself a break from the news
We get really hooked on the news, and we stress about it. That politician and his lies! Those criminals! That tragic accident two cities away! It seems like it’s vital to keep in touch with what’s happening. What if a war were to break out and nobody told you? Well, I remember times I went abroad on vacation and didn’t have access to English-language news media. And you know what? When I got back, I felt like I hadn’t missed anything. Most of the news is the same old yadda-yadda, and the TV companies are trying to built it up so that you’ll get mad, be scared, and pay attention (and by the way, here’s an ad for a new wonder-drug).

Try unplugging from the news entirely for just a day. Or maybe for a week, go on a news fast and do nothing more than glance at the headlines in the newspapers. The world will go on, and you’ll be happier.

I’m not suggesting that you abstain from news for life, but at least for a while give yourself a break so that reading or watching the news is a choice and not a compulsion. And you’ll realize how much your own habits stop you from being relaxed.

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Better eating through mindfulness

Jill Suttie, Yes Magazine: How can increasing your awareness of tasting, craving, and satisfaction be a tool for healthier eating? Here’s what psychologists have to say.

Deborah Hill used to think she was skinny. Her 5 foot 9 inch frame could take on a lot of weight without making her look out of shape. But last year she was shocked to discover that she weighed over 210 pounds, which classified her as medically obese.

“It was just crazy,” says Hill. “I’d never had a problem with weight.”

Hill is one of a growing number of Americans—over 35 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control—who are considered …

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If you meet the Buddha in the produce aisle, eat him

A funny thing: If you go to Google Images and search for “bad Buddhist art” (don’t ask) you’ll find that the first result is of a pear shaped like a Buddha. No, it’s not like one of those potatoes that looks like Mickey Mouse — a freak of nature. It’s a cultivated pear.

And there’s not just one of them. A Chinese farmer called Hao Xianzhang has been growing pears inside Buddha shaped plastic molds. And he sells them. For 50 Yuan, which is, at today’s rate of exchange, just over $7.85.

It’s cute, but I’m not sure many Buddhists would want to bite into the juicy flesh of the Fully and Perfectly Awakened One, or how many non-Buddhists would be willing to shell out almost $8 for the same privilege.

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Lose weight by making every bite count

Alisa Bowman, The Morning Call: Do you wish you could love every luscious bite of food and still lose weight — without dieting? Who doesn’t? While loving what you eat and losing pounds while you do it might sound mutually exclusive, it’s not.

The solution, say researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, is a simple one: Taste what you eat.

When researchers there taught women mindful eating and stress reduction techniques, the women were able to hold the line on weight gain or even to drop a few pounds, even though none of the women were dieting.

“You’re training the …

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Mindful eating: a teacher responds to readers

Readers have posted comments on Jeff Gordinier’s article on mindful eating, along with questions for Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and meditation teacher in Oregon. Dr. Bays, the author of ”Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food,” responded to a first batch of comments.

News Flash — Mindful eating has been practiced for thousands of years by Jews. Prayer of thanks depends on the contents of the food, with multiple requirements on preparation, etc. Not sure why it’s described here as Buddhist, per se — philiphdc, Washington, D.C.

Yes, you are right. Mindful eating doesn’t belong …

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Seven ways to eat more mindfully

1. WHEN YOU EAT, JUST EAT. Unplug the electronica. For now, at least, focus on the food.

2. CONSIDER SILENCE. Avoiding chatter for 30 minutes might be impossible in some families, especially with young children, but specialists suggest that greenhorns start with short periods of quiet.

3. TRY IT WEEKLY. Sometimes there’s no way to avoid wolfing down onion rings in your cubicle. But if you set aside one sit-down meal a week as an experiment in mindfulness, the insights may influence everything else you do.

4. PLANT A GARDEN, AND COOK. Anything that reconnects you with the process of creating food will magnify your mindfulness.

5. CHEW PATIENTLY. It’s not easy, but try to slow down, aiming for 25 to 30 chews for each mouthful.

6. USE FLOWERS AND CANDLES. Put them on the table before dinner. Rituals that create a serene environment help foster what one advocate calls “that moment of gratitude.”

7. FIND A BUDDHIST CONGREGATION where the members invite people in for a day of mindfulness.

From the New York Times article, Mindful Eating as Food for Thought, Feb 7, 2012.

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Mindful eating as food for thought

Jeff Godinier, NY Times: Try this: place a forkful of food in your mouth. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but make it something you love — let’s say it’s that first nibble from three hot, fragrant, perfectly cooked ravioli.

Now comes the hard part. Put the fork down. This could be a lot more challenging than you imagine, because that first bite was very good and another immediately beckons. You’re hungry.

Today’s experiment in eating, however, involves becoming aware of that reflexive urge to plow through your meal like Cookie Monster on a shortbread bender. Resist it. Leave the fork on …

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How meditation might help with weight loss

wildmind meditation news

Alex Knapp, Forbes: A group of researchers at UC San Francisco have conducted a study indicating that meditation could be a key in helping people to control their dietary habits and help them lose weight. It’s only a small-scale study and needs reproduction, but its findings are consistent with other studies of mindfulness.

Here’s the setup: the researchers took a randomized group of 47 overweight women and divided them into two groups. Both groups received training on the basics of diet and exercise, but no diets were prescribed to either group.

The experimental group received training in “mindful eating” and meditation in weekly sessions. In the mindful eating training, the women were trained to experience the moment-by-moment sensory experience of eating . They also meditated for 30 minutes a day.

The goal of the experiment was two-fold – to use mindful eating to help control cravings and overeating, and to use meditation as a stress relief to prevent “comfort eating.” The preliminary results showed that they were successful. The women in the control group gained weight, while those in the control group maintained …

their weight and showed significant reductions in their cortisol levels (high cortisol levels are a side effect of stress).

“You’re training the mind to notice, but to not automatically react based on habitual patterns — to not reach for a candy bar in response to feeling anger, for example,” said researcher Jennifer Daubenmier in a press release.  “If you can first recognize what you are feeling before you act, you have a greater chance of making a wiser decision.”

Dr. Catherine Kerr, a meditation researcher at Brown University, is also encouraged by the study. She told me in an email that “These findings are consistent with numerous brain studies showing that this practice of attending mindfully to present moment experience brings about changes in brain areas responsible for body sensations, especially body sensations related to hunger and craving (in the brain area called the ‘insula’), the idea here being that daily practice actually trains your brain to help you tune in to your body in a more healthy way.”

There are caveats to this study – it’s only preliminary, and it had a small test group. Also, the difference in the weight changes reported above only applied to the women in the study who were classified as ‘obese’ by their BMI. Overall, there wasn’t a statistically significant difference between the control group and experimental group when it came to weight.  (The stress levels were different, however.) But given this study’s consistency with other findings, I think that a bigger scale study would show that the combination of stress reduction via meditation and craving control via mindful eating should work to maintain weight if practiced consistently.

The science of meditation is a subject that will never stop fascinating me – now that it’s started to become the subject of serious research, it’s revealing some aspects of the human brain that are truly insightful. I think that as we explore it more, we’re going to discover some human potential that for most people has remained untapped.

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