Written by Caroline Baerten
Mindful eating : A Place For Vulnerability
How would our professional approach look like if love and connected presence would be the priority?
Would a mindful eating program then have a weight loss or eating behavior focus?
No doubt, mindful eating has a very specific entrance gate which is less broad than, for example, a MBSR course where coping with stress is the initial focus. However, I’ve noticed after all those years of offering mindful eating and MBSR courses, that mindfulness has nothing to do with striving towards a certain goal or outcome. In both MBSR and ME-CL programs, our starting point is that every participant is already good enough and whole. This is a radical position statement in the Western world but crucial for the wellbeing of our patients and participants.
Living out of love, on physical, social, psychological and spiritual level, is maybe the essence of our existence. It is only when we have enough attention for these four dimensions and acknowledging our human vulnerability and strength, existential wellbeing has a chance to manifest. Interesting enough, in order to experience our own nature, first we have to fall into pieces and go to a place where there are no longer certainties and nothing more to grasp. Pema Chodron says in one of her books : “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth”.We haven’t learned how to stop running from fear and definitely haven’t been told to move closer or to befriend with anxiety. In general, the advice we get (from an early age) is usually to sweeten it up, to distract or to take a cookie (or the whole box).
What I’ve realized as a mindful eating teacher is that those, who use foods to cope with fear, are in general very sensitive individuals with a strong preference for soothing and calming environments. [Three generations: The tribe is only accessible by boat from Manaus - where England will play their first World Cup game in June. Above, a mother, grandmother and baby] Paul Gilbert would explain this behavior from evolutionary perspective. More than 10.000 years ago, individuals with this emotion regulation system were the ones who cared for the elderly and young children in the tribe, who would keep the fire burning while those with a stronger drive system would go out hunting and taking the risk of being killed.
Nowadays, at least in the Western world, there is a bias for people with a strong urge to achieve goals, and they are rewarded for this mindset. Not only at work but also in the gym or weight loss centres. It seems an ideal way of living but as a health professional I’ve seen too many patients where the drive system went into overdrive, ending in a burn-out or a severe eating disorder.
The bottom line is that both groups –the ‘soothing system group’ and the’ drive system group’- experience moments where everything falls apart and no more options for escape seems to work. There is nowhere to hide. This is the experience most participants have when they apply for a mindful eating course. They’ve tried every possible diet and subscribed for countless gym sessions.
With this feeling of vulnerability and desperation they enter the classroom, or better said the arena. Roosevelt said in his speech of 1910 in Paris : “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man (or woman) who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
With admiration and love I embrace all those men and women who dare to walk in the arena of a mindful eating course. They have had the courage to show up and let themselves to be seen, knowing “I’m enough”.
Shame. The soul-eating emotion
We can never touch the depth of vulnerability when shame and guilt are present. Most people with eating issues are driven by this devastating feeling of shame.
After a couple mindful eating sessions, one of my patients whispered to me that she gulps down her food without swallowing. It was not because she liked the experience of eating in this way (few people do) but she thought she could trick her mind with eating fastly as if she hasn’t eaten anything (forbidden).
Almost all my clients tell me that they eat certain foods secretly and hastily when nobody is around. For most of them this pattern exists for many years and is often repeated on a daily basis. Not only these eating habits have become a conditioned pattern, also the underlying feelings of shame and the anxiety of being “discovered” are non-stop present. Imagine living with this hidden secret of “not being good enough” and how energy-consuming this must be…
After doing a bit of research on the differences between shame and guilt, what cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict says is quite clarifying, “Shame arises when one’s ‘defects’ are exposed to others, and results from the negative evaluation of others (whether real or imagined); guilt, on the other hand, comes from one’s own negative evaluation of oneself”. Psychoanalyst Helen Lewis added that, “The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus.”
Simply put, a person who feels guilty about certain eating behavior would say “I did something bad.”, while someone who feels shame is saying “I am bad”. Brené Brown states : “I’m pro-guilt. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behavior. It occurs when we compare something we’ve done – or failed to do – with our personal values”. Shame on the other hand corrodes courage and it makes us believe we are not capable of change.
In mindful eating sessions I spend quite some time on exploring ‘shame’. Participants learn to identify this affect/cognition and how it is expressed in many different ways within themselves. Sometimes shame shows itself as ‘the inner critic (or self-blamer)’ or ‘the pusher (for who it is never good enough)’.
The roots of the word shame are thought to derive from an older word meaning “to cover”. Covering oneself (downward cast eyes, lowered head, unstable posture) is a natural expression of shame. Other physical sensations which occur with shame are warmth or heat and blushing. It is clear that the feelings of shame have huge consequences for our wellbeing.
Gershen Kaufman summed up many of the consequences of shame in one paragraph of his book on the psychology of shame (Kaufman, Gershen, Shame: The Power of Caring, Rochester, 1992). “…shame is important because no other affect is more disturbing to the self, none more central for the sense of identity. In the context of normal development, shame is the source of low self-esteem and deficient body-image. In the context of pathological development, shame is central to the emergence of alienation, loneliness and perfectionism”.
The art of surrendering to vulnerability
It is definitely true that many eating disorders are largely disorders of shame. When our participants abuse food (or their bodies), shame and guilt can get in the way of finding support and thus moving forward. I believe that mindful eating teachers have a responsibility to create a safe and holding environment for vulnerability. When feelings of shame are embraced without any judgements, something shifts how we relate to ourselves. If our participants can share their story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can never survive. Often they mention this as one of the most transformative experiences in the mindful eating program.
Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. So it is our duty to acknowledge over and over again that it takes courage to expose the hidden stories and all the imperfections to the light because it is much easier to hide in the dark.
Brené Brown says : “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Mindful eating, a tool to lose weight?
When a new approach is developed, often it manifests in many different voices and original styles. It is like a seed of a Marigold (which I have in abundance in my little city garden!). Calendulas will all manifest as yellow flowers with similar leaves and stems. However, if we look in detail, each plant has distinctive features and its own appearances.
The same for mindful eating trainings. Each teacher grew up in a different environment, was exposed to other “weather conditions” and had many or few caring experiences in life. All this creates a personal way of perceiving the world and thus placing different ‘punctuations’ in the mindful eating teacher manual.
Mindful eating trainings are like bright yellow Marigolds sprouting in our society. They all belong to the same family and have the same roots.
What are then the foundations of a mindful eating training? The core components of mindful eating draw mainly from secular and well researched mindfulness and compassion based interventions (MBI’s such as MBSR/ MBCT/ MSC). Indirectly, it also incorporates elements from Buddhist psychology, as the practice of mindfulness is elaborately explored in 2500 years of Buddhist teachings.
Does a mindful eating teacher then have to be a Buddhist? Of course not. A professional who teaches mindful eating only uses the energy of mindfulness and compassion so he or she blooms like a flower for the benefit of others. Therefor, in a ME-CL training we stress the importance of a regular mindfulness meditation practice which will set the conditions for personal growth (knowing oneself) and encourage this way the transformation processes in the participants.
Confusion… The confusion arises when mindful eating teachers are also health professionals with a counselling background in weight loss and/or nutrition. It’s true that participants in mindful eating programs may benefit from weight loss. As quitting smoking, walking in nature and having a supportive social network may also make them happier and healthier human beings…
However, claiming that pure mindful eating would lead to weight reduction, as an outcome after 8 or 10 weeks, would be very naïve. Every dietitian, who works with overweight individuals, is well aware that there are more than 100 different variables playing a role in weight increase. Food (or calorie) intake is only one of the causes when looking at the larger picture.
Secondly, the ‘normalization’ of weight is ideally spread over a period of at least 6 months. This period is necessary for the body, gut and brain to adapt to the new physical situation. An 8 or 10 weeks course with a specific weight focus would harm the body (and the mental health) of the participant.
If the goal of a mindful eating training is weight loss, the teacher has to bring in many nutritional exercises (like 500 calorie reduction/day, food reporting, weight control) to achieve this outcome. This has nothing to do with the essence of a mindful eating training where participants are encouraged to cultivate a deep understanding of the nature of oneself and life, learn about gentle self-care and radical acceptance through the practice of mindfulness and compassion.
My personal experience… As a health professional -working for many years with obese clients and teaching mindful eating courses, I’m convinced that a program where food restrictions and weight loss are addressed, can never be called ‘a mindful eating training’.
Mindful eating and a nutrition/weight loss intervention are two completely different approaches, accidently dealing mostly with a similar target group where overweight and negative body image is strongly present.
It’s true that a Daffodil is as yellow as a Marigold flower, however it doesn’t have the same roots, grows in a different season and has other features. The same way, we have to respect different kinds of interventions, appreciating their value within specific settings and both not mixing up.
A Daffodil doesn’t need to be a Calendula.
Anxiety Is Killing Your Appetite
Anxiety, that unpleasant feeling of dread that something negative is going to happen in the future,
can also strongly affect eating behavior.
“It is an unpleasant feeling; I want to get rid of it!”— These are often the only words people can express when asked to describe their anxiety. However, anxiety is an emotion that occurs very frequently and it may strongly affect eating behavior.
It is not the same as fear, which is an appropriate response to danger.
Anxiety is a more complex feeling, with elements of fear, worry and uneasiness, and is often accompanied by restlessness and muscular tension.
The origins of anxiety
In general, anxiety is the unpleasant feeling of dread that something negative is going to happen in the future. The feeling of anxiety is particularly fed by rumination, such as worrying about calorie-intake, weight gain, appearance, social rejection, healthy, or unhealthy foods. The list of threats is endless.
People with restrictive eating patterns (or more extreme: anorexia, orthorexia) often experience anxiety before, during, or after a meal.
The food is seen as a potential threat to their weight or health.
Through controlling emotions, thoughts, weight, or food intake, people try to get a grip on this undefinable feeling.
Unfortunately they continue to affect us and bring us even more anxiety.
“Anxiety comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment,” as Thich Nhat Hanh states in his book Savor.
When we have the power to look deeply at our emotions at this moment, then anxiety, fear, and worry cannot control us anymore.
First step: Welcoming our feelings
The first part of looking at our anxiety is just inviting it into our awareness without judgments, being overwhelmed or suppressing the feeling. This process of pausing and allowing the uncomfortable feeling to be there creates a space and brings a lot of relief.
Second step: Acknowledging what is here
When we can acknowledge our anxious thinking, we will see clearly how it keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. Only then we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now,?we are still alive, and our senses can experience the beautiful colors and the delicious tastes of food on the plate.
Third step: Connecting with the body
Emotions don’t just happen in the brain, they are closely linked to the condition of the body. We may not realize we are hungry, excited, anxious or happy, without this link to a reaction in our body, particularly in the heart and the gut. The body gives a signal—a stitch, cold feet, a heat flare, or a nerve signal—that doesn’t even register in our consciousness.
Fourth step: Dialoguing within
“Is this anxious feeling coming from something that is happening right now or is it an old fear or worry from when we were young? What does this feeling want to tell us?”
When we practice welcoming all our anxieties and not pushing down our feelings, we can simply enjoy the sunshine, the fresh air, the water, the food on the plate.
A daily practice of mindfulness can be of enormous help. When we begin with awareness of our breath, we bring ourselves to the present moment and are better able to meet whatever comes our way. But don’t wait for a crisis before trying to practice transforming anxiety into living more mindfully. If we make mindfulness practice a habit, we will already know what to do when difficulties arise. No longer anxious, we are able to make free and balanced choices for our health and well-being.
May 13, 2015
Touch,the forgotten hunger: The role of touch in eating
Touch, such as bonding and comfort between parent and child, is the earliest form of communication. The caregiver’s touch -secure holding, hugging and consistent caressing-, is essential for the child to form a felt sense of the body.
An interesting empirical study of the relationship between the body image and the experience of touch was done by Gupta and Schork (1995, 2006). They observed a direct relationship between current body image problems and the individuals’ perception of a lack of tactile nurturing such as hugging and cuddling. In other words, there is an inverse relationship between touch deprivation and high scores on the Drive for Thinness scale.
What role might touch play in a mindful eating training?
During many years of offering mindful eating exercises, I’ve noticed that simply touching the food with awareness offers many insights. However, the felt sense of sensitive fingertips, lips or palate touching food with awareness is often neglected in daily life. In general, we have a strong tendency to see food and bite it as quickly as possible. The focus of attention lies mostly on what the eyes and the taste buds perceive.
In the more than 500 raisin exercises I’ve done, I’ve becoming aware that when food touches the body it has been one of the most profound experiences for participants.
Eating becomes a sensual act when the surface of a food is delicately caressed with the fingertips, circled on the lips and then gently placed in the mouth to explore how the texture might feel. When eating is slowed down it may become a sensual and intimate activity which gives pleasure and joy, but which can also be very frightening for some people. There are many similarities between eating and sexual intimacy when we take something from the external world into our bodies.
Research on touch hunger
Gupta and Schork noted that their findings support the importance of tactile nurturance in the development of body image, especially among women. As a mindful eating teacher I believe it is extremely important to connect with the body and our physical sensations in relation to food. In general, most participants in mindful eating programs experience or have experienced ‘touch deprivation’, both during childhood and in their current lives. Eating with ‘tactile awareness’ can reveal these hidden needs.
The ninth hunger
This specific touch-focused mindful eating practice offers insights into unbalanced eating habits which are sometimes driven by the desire for connection and intimate touch. Besides the 8 Hunger (ear hunger included) I would propose a ninth hunger: ‘touch or tactile hunger’. From the smooth, melting texture of chocolate to a jar of body cream with an image of soft peaches on the label, are metaphors for how we want to be touched: from the surface of our skin to the depth of our heart.
The energy of mindfulness encourages self-care and to find alternative soothing activities to fulfill our human needs for tactile nurturing and the freedom to choose the best option for each moment.
How do you nourish your touch hunger? What are your professional experiences with touch deprivation?
Reference: Gupta, M. A. and Schork, N. J. (1995), Touch deprivation has an adverse effect on body image: Some preliminary observations. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 17: 185–189.
Belgium has become the hub in Europe
for the exploration of Mindful Eating!
This came about because of yearly mindful eating professional trainings being offered since 2013. Health professionals are invited to attend a 5-day residential retreat in Ghent, Belgium and receive hands-on training from two experienced mindful eating/meditation teachers, Jan Chozen Bays and Char Wilkins. This year, the Centre for Mindful Eating & Nutrition (me-nu.org) organizer of the trainings, selected a beautifully renovated and serene 16th century monastery in the midst of the historical city centre of Ghent.
ME-CL Advanced Training
For the first time ever, ME-CL2 a second-level program was added for those who had already completed the foundational training. Seventeen very skilled and highly motivated participants from all over the world attended this ME-CL2 training. They came from Ecuador, Mexico, US and many countries in Europe.[Meditation a key element]Meditation a key element
During the 4 days they explored, practiced and deepened their knowledge about mindful eating. As usual, there was a strong emphasis on meditation and the training started with a 16-hours of silent retreat. Later, topics such as craving, the influence of the microbiome on weight and food, mindful eating with children and specific eating disorders were investigated and discussed in the group.
ME-CL Foundational Training
In the ME-CL1 foundational training, 28 professionals in the mental and health care field were in attendance. It was an active and exciting week as they experienced for first for themselves mindful eating exercises and meditations, and then practiced teaching those exercises to each other so as to gain confidence to teach when they returned home.
Because of the interest in the ME-CL1&2 trainings, they will be offered again in Belgium in 2016. If training in mindful eating is of interest to you, contact Caroline Baerten directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for 2016 information or to register.
A sensory experience in Japan
How it started...
It was a cold February in 2004 and all Japanese people would celebrate sakura or ‘cherry trees in bloom’. In Japan, cherry blossoms are a symbol of spring and impermanence. As life is short and beautiful like the cherry blossom, I decided to dedicate my Nippon trip to the culinary richness of the Japanese cuisine.While staying in Kyoto, the mecca of fine food, I had the chance to eat a special meal in a Buddhist Zen monastery. The meals served at the Zen monastery are carefully planned and prepared by the monk holding the important post of tenzo. His task is to serve meals that will enable everyone to practice Zen with the least hindrance, with their body and mind. The meals are called shoyin ryori, and are purely vegan. Vegetables and their plant-based friends are celebrated in all of their diverse glory.
At the old monastery
We were sitting in a minimalistic dining hall with only one calligraphy on the wall. While waiting there in silence for the food to come, contemplation and awareness would naturally arise. About ten minutes later, a tray with different handmade ceramic bowls was placed in front of us.
After being in silence, the ears started hearing sounds. A larger dish made of stone came straight out of the oven and inside were tofu cubes cozily sizzling side by side in a soy-based sauce.
The eyes were pleased to see all these different shapes and colors. On the outside of the little bowls there were delicately carved cherry blossoms, colored in a light pink tone to celebrate the new life after wintertime. The food itself was like a piece of art and almost too pretty to eat. The tray was filled with a dozen or so intricately carved, dyed, folded, rolled, skewered, and sliced vegetables. It was a prism of colors and forms; white rice in contrast to the black skin of the nori seaweed, orange carrots sliced like matchsticks, leafy green vegetables with yellow yuzu slivers, speckles of roasted sesame seeds…
There was subtle attention given to the nose. When removing the lid from the lacquer soup bowl, the delicious smell of the miso broth swirled in the air.
Of course also the mouth hunger –probably the most challenging one of all the senses- needed to be satisfied. The perfectly cooked rice would give a natural sweetness in combination with the salty taste of the seaweed and soy sauce. On top of the crunchy pickled baby vegetables there was a light sweet-sour vinaigrette. The bitter flavor would come from the roasted sesame seeds that would pop in the mouth. Finally, the hearty taste or umami was present in the rich, warming miso soup and the patiently simmered soy sauce with tofu cubes.
The chef of the monastery succeeded in his aim to bring mind and body into harmony. At the end of the meal I felt completely satisfied on every level, from the senses to every cells of the body. This food was prepared with so much respect for the seasons and with love for life and all living beings. I remembered walking in the streets of Kyoto afterwards with such a light stomach and at the same time I was deeply nourished. The mind was quiet, the heart was full of joy, there was no craving anymore for anything else…
Mindful Eating : Getting from one shore to the other
Mindful eating can be interpreted in many different ways– from savoring food with all our senses to losing weight by eating in full awareness.
Mindful Eating is in this sense is a skill. Viewing mindful eating in this way, we understand it brings more enjoyment to the eating experience rather than trying to get rid of something which is bothering us.
In my opinion, mindful eating goes beyond just achieving a goal of being “mindful enough.”
To practice mindfulness –which is the basis of mindful eating- may be a way to go to the other shore.
Let’s explore this.
The shore on this side that most of us live on is one of suffering or discontent and stress, filled with anger, fear, anxiety and physical pain.
Traveling to the “other shore” is where there is kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, open-mindedness.
It is actually a lifetime journey and not a state of being to accomplish as quick as possible. Most people who participate in a mindful eating training want to achieve a goal and they hope the training will do that. There is nothing wrong with setting good intentions or wishing ourselves the best.
But the need for change is often embedded in critically attacking oneself and not motivated by unconditional love for who we are at this moment.
The roots of attacking ourselves
What lies at the roots of this behavior?
If we look deeply, people get stuck when not trusting and respecting the body and themselves as they are.
And here is where it begins. This is the starting point for all the mind loops and where everything gets twisted.
“If I lose 10 kg, then everything will be fine.” At the base of this thinking there is fear and strong core beliefs.
These are the deeply held fear of the loss of groundedness and security, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being loved, loneliness and not being somebody. It is a fear colored by shame which keeps us from looking closely at ourselves and just accepting who we are.
How to deal with fear?
Fear is like a dot which arises in the mind and can create a mind loop in two directions.
The first is to get rid of the fearful thoughts.
People might start looking for security by judging themselves or others, or clinging to diets, perfect body images or even ‘mindful eating’.
Another path is leaning into the fear and being receptive , curious and compassionate for whatever arises, touching it with lightness and softly letting go.
Our true desire is to be at ease in the place we are right now, with the person we are right now.
To do this, we will have to let go of (clinging to) the hope that somewhere else is a better place to be, and that someone else is a better person to be.
This does not mean that we do not work to change, but we start that work from the foundation of complete, even joyful, acceptance of what is.
No mud, no lotus
So traveling to the other shore is not climbing a ladder and leaving behind what is unpleasant or perceived as not being good enough. It is taking with us the suffering and discontent which is the mud to nourish the lotus flower. In a mindful eating training every participant is courageously heading to the other side by bravely looking closely at him/herself.
Walking the path is cultivating everlasting curiosity about what is happening in the body, thoughts and emotions instead of getting rid of what is perceived as unpleasant or fearful. Mindful eating is paying attention with tenderness and joy to the wonders of life, moment after moment.
At the same time the awakened heart sends a compassionate message: “There is no need to be fearful of yourself, you are beautiful the way you are.”
As a teacher, how do you introduce mindful eating participants to ‘the other shore,’ which is kindness, joy and open-mindedness?
As a teacher, what is your intention or focus when you facilitate a mindful eating program?
For more articles of Jan Chozen Bays, Char Wilkins and Lily Graue, have a look at the ME-CL website