Have you ever had the experience of a cleanse or fast during which time you relinquish whole foods and drink only juices or water? While there are many sound reasons to give your body a break from eating, it presents an ideal opportunity to examine your attachment to food.
I witness this on a regular basis while overseeing groups of individuals as they progress through a five-day juice cleanse. While every individual has a different experience, a fairly common response is to overeat immediately upon reintroducing food. We transition the group from the cleanse to a bountiful raw food buffet where everyone is free to take whatever they want. I watch with interest as people salivate at the sight of the food then proceed to “load up” their plates as if it were the Last Supper.
Most of the plates are then returned to the kitchen with a great deal of food still remaining on them. While they have been cleansing, their natural appetite has had a chance to reset thus their bodies resist the amount of food they are attempting to consume. What hasn’t yet been resolved is what’s going on in their head. This anticipatory part of the appetite lives in the confines of the mind and is governed by a very different set of rules. The mind is constantly seeking zones of safety and adhering to its internal code of conduct. I imagine them saying” I should take more because we may not eat again for awhile”, “there may not be enough for everyone so I want to get my fair share”.
When I hear someone that struggles with food say “I love to eat” I translate that to “I am attached to food”. Watch this play out during a weight loss TV commercial as a popular talk show host embraces the virtues of a diet that allows for all of the foods she loves. The diet confines her by giving her what she craves, only in measured amounts. Not unlike a smoker who goes through the physical withdrawal from nicotine in a short time but continues to crave a cigarette. The attachment to smoking has not yet been addressed and desire remains. As does the attachment to food long after the diet ends.
What often passes for love in our common human understanding is a needs-based attachment, a need to possess, or a desire to cling to something. We often form these attachments because we feel incomplete within ourselves. We cling to our things, our food, the people around us, and our pets as if they are a vital life force that we could not possibly live without. We project all our unmet needs onto things like an abandoned puppy.
It is hardly a replacement for true love, which is impartial and unconditional. Supportive and reaffirming, it is nourishment unto itself. Most of us have forgotten how to feed ourselves this way. Attachments call up scarcity and send us scrambling to secure ourselves to something.
As part of a survival program that we construct early in life, our attachments become the criteria for what we think will make us happy. This becomes part of an operating principle that lives deep within the recesses of your psyche and warrants some understanding and respect for the way it governs your behavior.
Tethered firmly in the past and future, we fail to see the underlying depression and anxiety this pushes to the surface. Our dependence on food has become part of our emotional economy. True freedom comes when we can relinquish the hold this attachment has over us. To rest and enjoy life in the present moment.
Transitioning out of our dependence requires acknowledging parts of ourselves that have been neglected. You may consider a conscious introspection dating back to your childhood where the roots of these attachments were born. Not as a means to dredge up sticky memories of the past but rather to gain insight and understanding so they can be handled creatively and let go of.
This is an area many of us have avoided navigating. Appreciate that you may need some help with that bumpy terrain. Many people stuck in an obsessive food cycle would do well to with a good transformative coaching or therapy session rather than going on another diet.
While this process is a journey that requires a great deal of persistence and patience, there are some simple adjustments you can use immediately in your day-to-day interactions with food. All that is required is a basic awareness and a willingness to explore new territory.
Starting with a simple body awareness. Our attachments are fueled by our emotions. Emotions are tied to feelings and sensations. Feeling and sensations live in the body energetically. Thus, you must reconnect to the wisdom of the body and begin to hone your listening skills. Listening with your body. Turn up the receiver and tune into what you are feeling.
We so readily discount our emotions and often defer only to the power of our intellect. We keep trying to “figure it out” yet never appreciate why we still remain stuck. While the intellect is interested in understanding the “why” behind the behavior, the aim here is to let go of the emotional “what”. It is important to understand the “why” but that will become more clear when the blocked emotional energy is released.
As the workshop participants navigate the new food landscape after the cleanse, I suggest they begin tapping into these deeper resources that may not have been accessible before. When we are running across the top of life, highly unconscious, allowing our habits to govern our behavior, we have disconnected from an integral part of our innate intelligence. Our ability to self-regulate has become impaired as long as we are on autopilot.
This felt sense is where we turn our focus, without trying to shut it down or disassociate from it. We are trying to create an ebb and flow. You must connect to the body by slowing down and turning inward. For some of us, this is not a simple process. We have spent a lifetime disassociating from our bodies. We have felt that they have betrayed us on such a deep level.
A starting point for the workshop participants is to have them take a step away from the buffet before filling their plates. To observe the buffet by running their eyes up and down the food line and concretely identify various items. A bowl of red peppers, a basin of lettuce, a dish of hummus. Keeping the process abstract and cognitive allows the part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, to cool off our heated desire for short term gratification. The program that is running the need to fill our plates is the hot, emotional aspect of the limbic brain and will activate at the first thought of food. These two areas of our brain are in a continuous dance as the underlying foundation for our ability to self-regulate. This momentary interruption alone provides an opportunity for the participants to shape their next move a little differently.
Another technique that has proven effective in our moment-to-moment interactions with food comes from Dr. David Hawkins. Dr. Hawkins was a renowned psychiatrist and spiritual teacher and the author of more than eight books. He coined this process the “Mechanism of Letting Go”. It is a simple technique of surrender that can be done anywhere, by anyone. It doesn’t require any special skills or equipment and it costs nothing but a willingness to surrender the energy of a feeling state as it arises.
This technique works well on a craving. A craving is activated as part of the pleasure/reward system in the brain that has set up a habitual response to an intense feeling state. The next time you experience a craving take a moment to “step away” from it by trying out this technique.
As you are aware of a feeling, allow it to come up, give it some space and let it run its course. Make no attempt to modify it or label it. Observe it with no attachment to it. It is just a feeling. Close your eyes, turn your attention inwards and relax into the feeling. Bring awareness to the rate of your breath, allowing the exhalation to lengthen as you release more and more of energy underneath the feeling. It’s like taking the lid off of a pressure cooker to allow the steam to escape.
As we become adept at surrendering the feelings as they arise our dependence on food for meeting emotional needs diminishes. We are allowing the emotions and feelings to flow through us, seeing them as a temporary state that is perfectly normal for any human being to experience. Rather than seeking food as a means of escape or to feel better, we can now create that comfort by allowing the intensity to pass. Comfort in the absence of a feeling.
This technique has become a grounding force for me. When I am grounded, and “in” my body, I am less susceptible to the hijacking of a fleeting desire. I also feel protected and empowered rather than weighted down by my compulsions. I am not so easily distracted by things that compete for my attention. I am able to respond rather than react, regardless of the trigger.
Imagine there is a chocolate cake sitting in front of you. You have completely surrendered the attachment you may have to that cake. It is just a cake. Brown and round and sitting on a glass plate. Every thought, every memory, every feeling is let go as it arises. Stay with the feeling until it runs out. Breathe. Allow the tension to melt from your body.
What is left is a neutral zone. Now you can make an empowered decision about eating the chocolate cake. It’s okay if you have it, it’s okay if you don’t. It is not about whether it is right or wrong to eat the cake. It is about having the power to make a decision with the absence of an intense emotional state. It becomes much easier to orient your current choices to reflect your future desires.
Losing your attachment to something does not mean you have to give up anything but the attachment. It means that this object no longer has any control over you. You are free to simply enjoy it or walk away from it. As you continue to let go of your feelings, you are no longer a victim of them. You begin to enjoy a lightness and a fluidity that fosters a sense of wellness and freedom.
Some attachments may lord more power over us to the point of taking on an addictive quality. The letting go technique can be used effectively here but may take some time and patience as you continue to surrender the energy of each urge as it arises. If the tendency to overeat is a problem this technique can be used mid-meal to create some distance between you and the next bite of food.
Keep on practicing and the effortless nature of these techniques will begin to transform your relationship with food. It will become easier to orient yourself towards good health rather than to be driven by your compulsions. Each time you practice letting go you rewire the reward system in the brain to support rather than hijack you.
Loving to eat turns to eating to live. Without giving up any of the enjoyment of food.