I've been thinking about chocolate cake recently. To be precise, I've been thinking about what happens when a piece of bittersweet flourless Chocolate Decadence Cake from Debbie's Does Dessert arrives at a table at which I happen to be sitting with a few friends when we are sharing one piece amongst ourselves. Eyes light up. Glints of mischief appear on people's faces. Oohs and Ahhs are exclaimed. The whole environment becomes vibrant and joyous and thrillingly alive.
The waitress puts the cake down in the middle of the table and for a moment there is a feeling of reverence, of hushed silence, as if we are all in the midst of a holy event.
Forks get lifted.
Eyes are cast down.
Will it taste as divine as it looks? Are there hidden surprises (like almonds or pecans) in the dark, rich, thick mound of chocolate? Is disappointment in store for us? Will it be as good as the last chocolate cake we ate -- or the first? And -- can we get our forks in there quickly enough to procure a satisfying morsel or will our beloved friend (who suddenly seems like she has a huge appetite and is ready to take it all for herself) take such a big bite that there will be none left for us?
Winnie the Pooh, in A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner says, "...although eating honey was a very special thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called."
Pooh might not have known what it was called, but I do. It's called desire. It's called anticipation. It's called wanting -- and if we let ourselves really really feel it, have it, love it for its own sake, we set ourselves free.
I realize that that's a radical statement -- if you let yourself feel the depth of your wanting, you will set yourself free -- but believe me, after twenty-seven years of working with hundreds of thousands of compulsive eaters, I've gotten the hang of what works and what doesn't. Recently I worked with one of my students who said, "I LOVE cupcakes. I love love love them. Every time I see them, I have to eat every single one. I am helpless in the presence of a cupcake."
The story we usually tell ourselves about our lack of control -- especially if it's about high fat or high sugar foods -- is that we need to discipline ourselves and stay away from them. Keep them out of our houses. Lock the cabinet doors and throw away the keys. I had a student once who was so frightened of eating the foods on her most wanted list that she locked them all in her kitchen cabinets and asked her husband to hide the keys. Then she'd spend the middle of the nights while he was asleep ransacking his drawers, trying to figure out where he'd hidden the keys so that she could eat all the food she'd promised herself she wouldn't touch.
Sound familiar? (Okay, maybe you haven't locked your food in a cabinet, but how about those times you are certain that the potato chips have suddenly developed vocal chords and are calling you from across the room?).
If you find yourself bingeing and dieting, making proclamations about which foods you absolutely can't have in the house only to find yourself, in a moment of madness, running to the store and loading up on those exact foods (and telling the grocery clerk that they are for your daughter or that you are having a party), here's the million-dollar question: What are you wanting when you want those potato chips, that Chocolate Decadence cake? I can hear you saying: The potato chips of course! The chocolate without a doubt!
But remember what Pooh said: That the wanting was better than the having. That the moment before he put his hand in the honey jar was actually better than tasting the honey itself. And then ask yourself: If honey was truly what he wanted, why was it better to want it than to have it? Why is the race to the food or the moment before you eat it equally or more delicious than actually having it?
Here is a dialogue I had with the above mentioned Cupcake Student:
Cupcake Student: I want cupcakes.
Me: What about the cupcakes do you want so much?
Cupcake Student: I want the sweetness. I want the richness. I want the feeling of it in my mouth.
Me: When you have one in your mouth, how do you feel?
Cupcake Student: I feel calm, I feel loved, I feel like everything is good.
Me: So, it seems as if what you really want is to feel loved, calm, relaxed.
Cupcake Student: Uh-oh. Is this a trick? Did you just talk me out of wanting cupcakes?
Me: Nope. You can still choose to have them if you really want them. We're just trying to figure out what it is you really want when you say want cupcakes.
Cupcake Student: Well, okay then, I do want to feel loved, calm, relaxed.
Me: How about giving yourself permission -- just for a minute -- to want that? To want love?
Cupcake Student: But what if I know I can't have it? I just got divorced, my kids are living with my husband half-time, I'm not dating anyone. What's the point of wanting love when I can't have it?
And that is million dollar question number two: what is the point of wanting something I can't have? Why not spare myself the pain and turn to something I can have -- food -- instead?
The point is that when you give yourself permission to want what you want instead of replacing it with a substitution, you make contact with your heart's desire. Believe it or not, feeling the desire itself is incredibly, immensely, deeply satisfying. It's the desire -- not its fulfillment -- that nourishes you because it's the language of your heart. When you listen to that language, you hear your self. You return your own true, deepest nature (which is, after all, what we thought that cupcake would do for us).
The things you want are breadcrumbs leading you home. If you follow your desire for them, if you trust that desire, if you are willing to be curious about and really feel the depth of the desire rather than push it away or act it out, you get closer and closer to who you really are. To what you really want from this life. And what you end up discovering is what good ol' Glinda told Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz: that it wasn't the ruby slippers, it wasn't the balloon, it wasn't the Wizard. Dorothy had the power all along to return herself home. It's not the cupcakes, it's not the potato chips, it's not the chocolate cake. If you give yourself permission to want without judging or dismissing your desires as crazy, you too have the power to return yourself to what you want most: the center of your own stunning, tender, radiant heart. You, it turns out, have been the cupcake all along.
So . . .
The next time you find yourself seized with wanting to eat a particular food, celebrate the fact that you are in touch with what you want and then take a few minutes to ask yourself these questions:
- What do you love about this food?
- How does it make you feel when you eat it?
- Can you let yourself feel your wanting? Notice how it feels in your body. Notice how it feels in your mouth. Notice how you feel when you are interested in it. Notice what changes by allowing your wanting instead of acting it out or pushing it away.