People usually come to my retreat because they want to lose weight. They want to stop suffering. They want to be happy. I talk to them about trusting themselves and about listening to their bodies. Once you do that, I say, everything — your relationship with food, yourself, your body — tends to fall into place.
But to get them to really pay attention to their bodies, I often have to remind them of the good fortune of having a body. I have to point out that they are not just walking heads with various and sundry appendages.
“Huh?” they say. “Do you think we actually forget our bodies? The ripples on our thighs? The second and third chins underneath our chin?” Exactly my point.
We usually look at ourselves from the outside. We notice our imperfections first, and then we zero in on them, obsess about them. We are often so focused on what is wrong with our bodies that we forget to remember what is right. As if we are the sum of what is wrong with us.
A woman in a recent retreat said, “My mind is what is special about me. You keep saying to be aware of my body, but I hate my body. It’s fat and ordinary; freckled and lumpy. But my mind! My mind is fast and quick and sharp. I graduated summa cum laude from college because of my mind, not my body. I’d much rather forget that I have a body and live in my mind.”
But here’s the problem with that: Minds don’t exist without bodies. You need a body to be able to take action on the plans that your mind creates. Your body is where life happens to you. Your body is your home. And it’s hard to live in a home that you are constantly trashing.
A longtime student of mine was recently misdiagnosed with a brain tumor. I’d worked with her over a three-year period as she struggled with being 20 pounds above her natural weight. She hated her body with a vengeance. “I want to get rid of my thighs,” she’d say. “I can’t stand looking at them.” Yet in the two weeks between being diagnosed and then re-diagnosed — in addition to going through the cascade of denial, grief, and anger — she never once thought about cellulite, the size of her thighs, or the wrinkles around her eyes. She felt more grateful for the scent of the air, the sight of her child running, the feeling of warm water on her skin than she had ever felt in her life. When faced with the prospect of losing her body, she was suddenly aware that it was a great blessing to have a body at all.
Whenever you hear yourself treating your body — or body parts — with contempt, stop immediately and feel the human body you are sitting in. Think about the fact that you can actually take a breath, and then another one. Think about what it would be like if you had emphysema or lung cancer and couldn’t take a long, cool draft of air. Would you really give up your ability to breathe freely for thinner thighs or less underarm jiggle?
Then think about the people you know who have died, and what most of them would have given to have just one more minute in their bodies, no matter what their size. To speak to a person they love. To notice a yellow crocus poking through the snow in early spring. To walk, to run, to touch, to listen, to taste.
Ahh. To taste. Think about what it would be like not to be able to taste food, about how it would feel to lose your hunger. When my father was dying, he lost his appetite for food. Nothing, not even his favorite rice pudding, could bring back the excitement of eating. I realized then that just being hungry is thrilling.
Think about wanting to eat. Eating. And then tasting the food with those 10,000 taste buds that are miraculously situated on and underneath the tongue so that you can taste anything, everything, especially chocolate, which, as far as I am concerned, is one of the best things about being alive.
Usually, we are so concerned with calories and the glycemic index and whether we should or shouldn’t be eating this or that particular food that we don’t take time to taste it, to let ourselves really have it. Or else we are perennially multitasking: We are talking on the phone, checking our e-mail, putting on makeup, even driving, while eating at the same time. It’s difficult to appreciate the subtle flavors in seven-grain bread when you are intent on making a straight line with your eyeliner, composing that all-important business memo, or not hitting pedestrians on the street. But the upshot of constantly doing everything is that you miss doing any one thing. You miss your life while you are in the midst of it. You miss the joy of having a body while you are well enough to appreciate it. It’s like being at a feast and starving yourself.
Don’t wait until a scary medical diagnosis to take the time to appreciate what you have right now. Instead, give thanks to the body you’re in now. If you think it’s going to get better when you get thin, if you think you are going to suddenly like your body (and therefore your life) when you are 20 pounds lighter, you are wrong. A student of mine once said, “I would die to be as thin as I was five years ago — and five years ago, I would have died to have been thinner.”
All we ever have is now. If you can’t look around now and see the abundance in your life, you won’t be able to notice it in five years either, no matter how thin you are. Happiness is not about changing your circumstances but changing the eyes through which you view your circumstances.
So the next time you’re tempted to start feuding with your thighs, take a moment to thank them for helping carry you from place to place and forming the lap that held your children. When you look in the mirror, don’t grab those love handles roughly and wish them away. Remind yourself that they’re part of the body that allows you to be here to enjoy all life has to offer. When you’re reaching for a cupcake because you think you’re just a bundle of imperfections — isn’t that how it always starts? — stop and focus on the blessing of still having a body despite the years of abuse you’ve probably heaped upon it. You survived the all-red diet, the oat-bran diet, the cabbage diet — all the fad diets that had everything in them except what your body actually needed: a friend, someone to nurture and care for it, to feed it and treat it with kindness.
What can you do, right now, to show your body kindness?