I’m writing this because I’m reading that people are turning to the comfort foods of their childhoods: Spaghetti O’s, Goldfish crackers, Cheetos, ice cream bars for comfort. I just need the comfort, they are saying. Give me processed food. Knock me out. And I’m writing this because after forty-two years of tracking how feelings and thoughts that have nothing to do with food express themselves through the relationship with food, I’m convinced that now, right now, in the middle of a pandemic, could be the great unwinding of addictive and compulsive eating.
I understand the need for comfort. I woke up a few nights ago in a panic about almost everything: my ninety-one year old mother who is living alone in New York and unbearably lonely; how the world has changed since the onset of the virus, how it will be forever changed in ways I cannot begin to fathom. I was in a panic about my friends who have the virus and if they will die. In a panic about not doing enough to help people. In a panic about not using this time to study French or clean my closet or empty out that incredibly messy kitchen drawer into which I throw errant nails, plugs that have lost their purpose, old cell phones, Ipods, and whatever else I don’t know what to do with. I told myself that I was failing earth school. That I wasn’t taking this time to review my life and apologize to anyone to whom I may have caused pain, even if they are now dead. And that I was not working hard enough and my brain was deteriorating from the amount of hours that I watch season after season of Endeavor. At the very least, the panic said, you should be writing a book of haiku’s. A novel. If I had Spaghetti-O’s in my house (or ice cream bars or cold pizza or Cheetos or packages of anything whose first ingredient was sugar), and if I wasn’t aware of how sick I would be after eating them, I might have been standing at the refrigerator at six am when my husband woke up, my mouth going as fast, in my mother’s words, as a duck’s tail).
Instead, I got up, walked around the house because moving my arms and legs often breaks the trance of panic my mind fabricates. I made room for the thoughts, the feelings. It wasn’t comfortable but neither was the panic. I saw that I had been telling myself terrible stories replete with horrific images. “They’ll die; I am a lazy sloth; we’re going to run out of food, masked men will show up at our door demanding the last of the lentils and then what. I better get a gun.” But that night, I kept bringing myself back to what was here, now. Feet touching floor. Hands moving. Chest heavy. The panic subsided as I questioned the stories that had created it and they were all images of the future and not one of them was happening now.
Feelings come and go. Panic comes and it goes. Sadness appears then disappears. I wake up happy. I wake up sad. The challenge is how to welcome it all. To welcome and then—here’s the catch—not react. Instead, to be interested. To make room for whatever is going on without using food to push it down, away, out of sight.
Everything that has always been true about compulsive eating is true now, albeit more exaggerated:
It doesn’t solve anything.
It doesn’t lessen the sadness or loneliness or fear.
It makes all of those, and more, worse.
It doesn’t allow you to trust yourself, your hungers, your wisdom.
It leads to shame, which stops all change, growth, learning.
It adds suffering on top of suffering. When you’re done with the Spaghetti-O’s, the feelings you wanted to numb by eating them are still there.
Even in these days of the coronavirus, the true comfort is where it has always been. In you. With you. You already have it. You already are it. And to see that, feel that, know that, takes turning toward not away from yourself. It takes sheltering in that place.
How do you do that? You begin here, now. You turn to yourself as you would turn to a beloved friend. You become interested, curious about what is actually going on instead of the story of what has happened or what could happen. You invite yourself into your own heart. Your arms, legs, chest. What are you sensing in your body? Where are you sensing it? If you allow yourself to notice the sensations rather than get lost in the story of them, a world of kindness opens, even if what you are sensing is aching. Because now you are with yourself instead of warring with yourself. Now the sadness has company: you.
From there, which is really here, you begin inquiring into the immediacy of your experience and notice the difference between being lost in the mind and being here, now. And although you get lost and go back in the mind a hundred times in five minutes, you keep returning because the true home, the true comfort, is always here, and it doesn’t hurt, even if you are sick. Even if your mother is 91 and alone. You have, as a host of meditation teachers keep telling us, the direct experience of sensing the one who notices as well as that which is noticed, and in doing that, you know firsthand that there is sadness and there is you witnessing the sadness. You realize you are bigger than the fear or sadness. You relax. You begin to trust that the desire to eat is not about food but an invitation to ask yourself more questions.
When you feel the urge to eat Cheetos to comfort yourself, you ask yourself what needs comforting. Is it loneliness? Fear? Boredom? And you turn towards it. You touch it with your awareness. And in this way, you learn how to be there for and with yourself. As the poet Derek Walcott writes: “You give your heart back to itself.”
And yes, this is a practice, not a one-time event (but what else do you have to do that’s more important than being at peace within yourself?) And yes, there are further questions to ask. Patterns to explore. Old beliefs to examine that keep you paralyzed and small. But this is do-able. This is heal-able.
In the end, it’s not that anything disappears, it’s that you appear in your own life by the willingness to be with instead of resist your experience. When you drop the war, the blame, the divisiveness, something miraculous happens: you become the world you dream of.