Written by Caroline Baerten
Food Justice. Looking deeply with mindful and compassionate eyes
A just food system is one in which people produce, distribute and eat foods without being affected by systemic inequality based on race, class, ability or gender. Through the lenses of mindfulness and compassion, we are able to see clearly that injustice takes place on the level of unhealthy farming and production methods. When we look even more deeper, we become also aware of the structural causes of food injustice.
For mindful eating teachers it is essential to realize that food injustice affects the most those at the bottom of the power pyramid. For centuries, the Western world has been transformed in such a way where children, women and colored people in Europe and the US, were the least privileged to have free access to a rich variety and supply of foods. It could be for reasons such as a lacking the legal rights of land accessibility in order to cultivate their own produce or being financially dependent on others.
What is Food Justice?
Food justice actually means social justice as food is our most intimate connection with ourselves, our communities, our food tradition which has passed on from mothers to daughters and ultimately also mother earth. Unfortunately, the positive feminine and nurturing qualities related with food and eating got disrupted over the centuries. In many ways, the (cooking) fire became extinguished and replaced by a troubled relationship with good and bad foods, and the rich diversity of female bodies got ruled by thinness and fatness concepts.
Mindful eating helps us to look deeply into the belly of the food system. How the current food system creates a world where human beings, and especially women, feel disconnected from their natural food resources and alienated from the real needs of their bodies. The fear word today is obesity, and fat is designated evil. Unfortunately, in a perverse interference with appetite, restraint is offered as the only righteous path by the food or diet industry.
Eating awareness starts by questioning the origins of food.
Where is this food coming from and was it produced in a sustainable way? All kinds of foods, depending on one’s individual body and blueprint, will sit absolutely fine if they are made by real ingredients (real butter, cream or cheese, real flour, clean meat), instead of chemical-based long-shelf life foods.
Did the people working on the field, the food production plants and distribution companies receive equal living wages compared with their male and/or white colleagues? Food justice also address racial and socio-economic issues because there is no equal access to healthy food without equal access to jobs, education and transportation.
What kind of foods and recipes are rooted in your own cultural tradition? Opposed to the one-size-fits-all dietary rules certain health professionals are telling us, our eating behavior and food ways are not merely individual choices but expressions of a particular social and economic context. Sharing meals and eating heartwarming comfort foods (often high in calories!) have been part of our food history for centuries. These recipes and moments of social gathering around the table are especially important for families who migrated and are often the only remaining bond to their home country.
Food justice is weaved into the fabric of mindful eating. The spiritual practice of mindfulness meditation creates the link between sustainable planetary food choices and individual wellbeing. It is not just about changing the way we eat, it is changing the way we live and how we want to treat each other.
ME-CL blog 2019
Spiritual Hunger. What Nourishes You?
I guess we’ve all had those moments in life when we fell completely “starved and malnourished”. But what does “nourishing” mean and what do we really need?
Often in those challenging moments of life, the first thing people look for is information how to nourish the body with food -what to eat, how, why, where. Of course, there are some basic principles such as eating a nutrient-rich, (mainly) plant-based daily menu with whole foods and drinking good quality, clean water. As is proper rest and some kind of movement that the body enjoys.
However, this approach is somehow reductionist and too behaviorist. When you eat these nutriments or do that, then and only then, you will be healthy and happy. Often forgotten, when “consuming” whole foods, fresh air, clean water etc, we actually consume and commune with the deepest source of life. This awareness alone is extremely nourishing and helps us to remember how sacred food actually is. When touching the object of our awareness, it brings us in contact with all the wonders of life and nourishes us on a much deeper level. Nourishment comes in many surprising and mysterious forms beyond food.
Unfortunately, in search for something that would truly nourish us, we keep looking outside for all the answers. The green smoothie, the massage or yoga class might give us a brief moment of harmony or inner peace but it isn’t sustainable and long lasting. When we fuel our minds with ego-driven stories and psychic tension, we will always have a sense of starvation and disconnection. When we are burdened by thoughts such as “you’re worthless” or “you have to be perfect”, we create more harm than good. However, we don’t need to fight these thoughts, rather speak to the ego and envelop it with love. These open wounds need care, a soothing touch and kind whispering words.
A saying of Rumi “What you seek, is seeking you”. Instead of living solely an outward-focused life, when we start turning within we will find what we are truly longing for. To get there takes courage, strong determination, patience and surrender. “Don’t get back to sleep”, says Rumi, “Let’s stay awake and drink the sweet nectar of the Divine Love”. When we are more and more emptied out of our mental and emotional conditionings and able to dismantle the inner critic, perfectionist or pusher, we can nourish ourselves deeply with a loving heart.
Spiritually hungry, we long for our true nature where love resides at its core. Not just a glimpse now and then in a meditation room, rather feeling this loving presence in our daily lives like an ocean that surrounds and supports us. The desire for true nourishment often starts with a search outside of us. Then, after many years this hunger takes us on an inward journey with a very unexpected outcome.
How would you describe and nourish this deep longing?
Caroline Baerten, MA, RD – Belgium
The First Bite: How We Learn to Eat.
A book review
In her book ‘The First Bite’, food writer Bee Wilson draws on the latest research of psychologists, neuroscientists and nutritionists to reveal how our food patterns are shaped. She is interested how we come to acquire bad food tastes and how we might help to change them. Nutritional experts lecture us about what we ought to eat, Wilson wants to understand why we eat what we do. In fact, also we -as mindful eating teachers- ask our participants in mindful eating training similar kinds of questions.
Wilson writes: “We are not born knowing what to eat; as omnivores it is something we each have to figure out for ourselves.” Isn’t this the struggle most parents have to deal with?Even for a vast majority of the adults, eating is often a daily mental challenge. The overarching question Wilson asks in her book is how we acquire our tastes and what might be done to change these.
She shows that food habits are shaped by a whole host of factors: family and culture, memory and gender, hunger and love. She reckons that adults already know very well what kind of nutritional foods are best to eat and what a healthy diet is. It is a matter of common sense that eating too much salty, sugary and fatty processed foods might be not the most compassionate way to treat our precious organs and cells.
In The First Bite, Wilson explores how tastes are not merely shaped by genetics but mainly through learning. In all cultures, newborn children have a preference for sweet flavors and dislike the bitter. However, every food culture is different. Some children learn to prefer spicy foods, while in Japan natto beans are a delight for little kids. With other words, tastes are experienced at home and after many years of repeating, they are condensed into strong habits. So where does the misperceptions start? Because patterns which are so engrained, we think we are unable to alter our sweet, salt or fatty foods craving. On top, what makes these foods so attractive is that they are entwined in our minds with so many good and soothing memories. We all know from our own eperience that our tasts are partly driven by nostalgia, by where and with whom we were eating certain foods.
I think one of the most interesting points Wilson make, is the fact that our taste habits are not rigidly innate. And thus can be altered. As a mindful eating teacher (working with people with disordered eating), this is great news. With other words, we don’t need to be the slaves of our wild cravings and therefor conscious food decisions may become an attainable reality.
The approach in ‘The First Bite’ is an optimistic one and not at all finger waving. She shows us ways to widen our appreciation of complex, multi-layered and nourishing foods instead of the convenient processed meals and snacks. She acknowledges the importance of health, but even more so, for pleasure and the joy of eating. Wilson offers suggestions and not rules. The mantra of Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” is easy but hard to follow. According to Wilson, to adhere to this well-meant advice we need to: ‘Like real food. Not enjoy feeling overstuffed. And appreciate vegetables.’
With her book, Wilson wants to make a point that there is a possibility of changing our food habits in a kind and non-restrictive way. A positive approach where more emphasis is placed on the joy of eating. For every mindful eating teacher this book is a must-read!
Caroline Baerten, Belgium
The Life Cycle of Food
Mindful eating has many meanings. Sometimes it is perceived as the opposite of distracted eating or as merely a technique to eat with awareness and all the 5 senses. Most often ‘mindful eating’ refers to an intervention for individuals with eating issues. Indeed, all these aspects can be placed under the umbrella of mindful eating. However, when mindful eating is reduced to a clinical setting or the eating moment itself, we might miss the richness of the life cycle of food. If we would shift our attention and view the world from the perspective of food, how would this particular viewpoint influence our food choices and eating behavior?
In January 2017, my husband -who is a chef- and I opened a fine dining spot in the heart of Brussels. Humus x Hortense restaurant is a culinary project (quite crazy to be honest) where on the one hand we create the conditions to explore and to savor many unknown flavors, colours and textures. On the other hand, our aim is to create a place in the bustling city where guests have the opportunity to reconnect with nature and the earth. They do not only learn where the ingredients in the menu come from but also, in terms of food waste, what happens with the food afterwards. Our guests love the concept and it is clear that there is a deep longing for more mindful living.
Worldwide, more and more people are living in cities and no longer work on the fields. Because of this disconnection, many of us don’t even consider the cycle of food. The labels on the packaging aren’t giving us more information than beautiful landscapes, slim people or cold nutritional facts. As a health care professional and eco-activist/entrepreneur, I believe that, by not knowing the origins of our food, we are experiencing a deep loss for humanity. We will miss the opportunity to nourish ourselves on a much more satisfying level than solely feeding the body.
When we pause for a moment and consider everything that is involved in the meal in front of us, our hearts are filled with gratitude. We can see our loved ones who have prepared the ingredients for a nice lunch, also the owner of the food store and the cashier, those who have transported all the boxes with food from one country to another and the farmers who have planted and harvested. We can reflect on all those millions of mothers (and fathers) in the past who have nourished their children day after day and handed down so many family recipes. All this has shaped our culinary and cultural traditions. We can also be mindful of the soil with all the microorganisms, the water and rain, the air and the use of fire. All these elements which are also present inside of us, help us to reconnect with ourselves and the earth.
When we look deeply into the meal, it doesn’t need much effort to feel appreciative for all these contributions. With a little bit more mindfulness, it is an easy step to looking into the future and seeing where leftovers (and packaging) will go after the meal. Awareness of the origins of food and the future of food waste helps us to make wiser choices about what kind of food to buy (love the ugly vegetables), who you want to support (love small scale farmers) and how wellbeing could be expressed (love yourself and your beloved ones). Awareness and compassion will not only change humanity but will all living spirits on this beautiful planet.
Caroline Baerten, Belgium
Eating with equanimity
Does a mindfulness meditation practice will help us to feel less reactive and more at ease with food?
For most people, eating is not a neutral experience. Often meal times give rise to many thoughts around food (do’s and don’ts) and emotions ranging from fear to worries. Sometimes even past memories are triggered when eating certain foods. How can we stay balanced and calm in this turmoil of mental experiences?
Maybe we will find answers in ancient Buddhist scriptures. Equanimity is one of the most sublime heart qualities of Buddhist meditation practice. Besides equanimity there are three other heart qualities. These are described as loving-kindness, compassion and sympathic joy. If we look deeper at equanimity, this quality is often associated with “not feeling anymore”, “dry and coolness” or “neutrality”. However, the Buddha described it completely different as a mind which is “abundant, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.” The English word “equanimity” is a translation of two separate Pali words. Equanimity refers to the ability to observe without being caught up by what we see, smell, feel, taste or think. It is seeing the larger picture with patience and understanding. Another way of translating equanimity is “to stand in the middle of all this”. It refers to balance, confidence, and integrity.
Also neuroscience supports the power of equanimity. In many situations, especially when we are under stress, we may find ourselves over-reacting to events, feelings, thoughts or eating-related physical sensations such as stomach hunger or cravings. The ability to stay calm under pressure is a great quality, and is modulated by the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). Such non-reactivity has been shown to be a core factor of mindfulness (Baer et al 2006. Siegel, 2007) and improved over time when practicing concentration and insight meditation.
In the 21th century we can apply equanimity to protect us from being caught up by superficial events. In Buddhist terms these are described as the “eight worldly winds”.
- Praise and blame: For example, compliments don’t need to be taken more serious than when we hear the critical mind telling how ugly we are today. Both experiences can be observed with inner calm and confidence.
- Success and failure: For example, feeling successful when you’ve lost weight can be great but it might also lead to arrogance when people with overweight or obesity are perceived as failures without will-power. On the other hand, merely identifying with failure may give rise to feelings of incompetence or inadequacy.
- Pleasure and pain: If we become too attached to the pleasure of eating, then there will no longer be freedom. When one experience is preferred above another, we will always run after pleasure and we try frantically avoid pain. The moment we see the larger picture, we will realize that suffering is part of life and that reacting to pain might not be the best strategy to happiness.
- Fame and disrepute: When the mind is calm, we might notice our deep longing to be seen or heard. However, “15 minutes of fame” won’t give us lasting happiness. It is only by becoming aware of the coming and going, the rise and fall of fame and disrepute that will will set us free.
As mindfulness becomes stronger, so does our equanimity. When the mind is calm and we understand that our sense of well-being is independent of the eight winds, we are more likely to follow our inner values and life vows. When we live and act with integrity, we will feel confident and it will be easier to stand in the midst of the storm with equanimity and inner stability.
How do you develop equanimity during your eating moments and life? Who comes to mind as an ’embodied equanimous person’?
Caroline Baerten, RD, MA.
Certified ME-CL teacher. Belgium
Baer, R.A.; Hopkins, G.T.; Krietemyer, J.; & Toney, L. 2006. Using self-reported assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness. Assessment.
Gilbert, Paul. 2009. The Compassionate Mind. How to use compassion to develop happiness, self-acceptance and well-being.
Hanh, Thich Nhat: 1998. The Heart of the Buddha’s teaching; transforming suffering into peace, joy and liberation.
Siegel, Daniel J. 2007. The Mindful Brain. Reflections on Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being
Understanding Our Boundaries. A Life-Giving Mindful Eating Practice
Understanding our relationship with food is merely a metaphor for all our other relationships in life. In the past years, I’ve met many women who struggled with setting or preserving their boundaries. ‘Setting boundaries’ refers to many layers of our human existence. In personal relationships, for most of my clients it is difficult to find the edges where they end and others begin. All the time we meet people with other values and world views. However, remaining in touch with core values can be a challenge for some, often accompanied with feelings of powerless and being unheard or unseen.
On the level of the relationship with ourselves, the skin of the body is a natural boundary where through tactile awareness we “touch” the outside world. Also on the inside of the body we can notice our physical limits in for example a full stomach. Almost 9 out of 10 women with eating disorders (AN and BED) I welcome at my center have experienced some kind of physical boundaries violation, mainly during their childhood. It might range from verbal/physical aggression to sexual harassment and abuse. In the survival strategy of abused children, the parents are always ‘good’ and the body must therefore be ‘bad’. Sadly, these negative experiences will lead in a later stage to feelings of shame of the body, self-abuse through starvation or binge eating and lacking basic compassionate self-care. The history of crossing boundaries is repeated.
Setting boundaries also means taking your space. However, in order to create room in an authentic and confident way, one needs to have sufficient inner stability, calmness and clarity. During my mindful eating sessions I will always start with grounding work to teach my clients to feel more centered and in balance.
Grounding as a tree
Grounding is akin to the way a tree sinks her roots to stay secure in a storm. It’s the first tool in creating healthy boundaries—nurturing a connection with our bodies, mind and heart. It is a reminder that the earth always supports us, no matter what happens. There are many ways to ground but they all have two things in common –awareness and stillness. If we don’t pause for a moment and tune in, then it will be less likely that we find stability, both for us as health professionals as for our clients.
Here are some grounding practices from the ME-CL manual:
- Mindfulness meditations; Transition Meditation, Three Minute Breathing Space or Mini-meditation (checking in how the body is feeling now)
- Mindful Yoga with the Standing Tree Pose and Walking Meditation (feet firmly grounded on the floor)
- Taking a moment to look deeply into the food, or offering a blessing over your meal or beverage (Gratitude practices)
- A brief compassionate touch of your hands placed on your body as a reminder to bring affectionate awareness to yourself.
Try different ways and you’ll find the one that works for you.
Building boundaries is like any muscle —the more you work with it, the better it serves you!
Caroline Baerten, Belgium
Mindful Eating and Anorexia. Part 1 A Sustainable Relationship?
Intrinsic motivation is the first step
For many years I’ve been working young women with Anorexia Nervosa. Many professionals have asked me what the role of mindfulness might be in this very specific healing process. There is hardly any research done in this field. so I’ve tried to summarize my approach in different steps.
Identifying the readiness
The first step is to inquire the level of motivation. Prochaska and DiClemente have developed 6 stages of change to identify “readiness”. For example, a young girl with anorexia is referred by her medical doctor but doesn’t perceive her behavior as problematic. People in this ‘pre-contemplation stage’ are hard to treat because there is no intrinsic motivation for wholesome action in the near future. It is only in the next stages where people begin to recognize that their behavior is problematic. Only at that point, a mindful eating program might be effective.
Besides identifying the stages of change, understanding the psychopathology behind every kind of disturbed eating behavior is part of the good practice. My experience tells me that the best results can be noticed when ‘mindful eating’ is imbedded in a larger integrative approach with other health professionals, especially in the case of anorexia.
Stabilizing the mind
When working with anorexia, I will always start with what I call, “stabilizing the mind”. With anorexia, the judgmental mind has taken over and the physical sensations in the body are often completely overruled by the killer critic. I’ve noticed that general mindfulness exercises with the body as focal point can enhance their inner stability. Some examples: basic mindful breathing exercises, mindfulness of body parts in contact with the chair while sitting, mindfulness of the feet in contact with the floor while walking or standing (mountain pose).
Responding with kindness when there is fear.
Compassionate health care
In research findings, it is known that the primary reasons for dieting are not based on a desire to be thin (‘thinspiration’) but on a fear of gaining weight. An important nuance. It is anxiety and not desire which is the driving force behind the restrictive eating behaviour. This understanding will it make easier for the health professional to feel compassion for their clients instead of judgmental questioning weight and food intake. The embodiment of kindness by the therapist has been proven to be one of the most effective mirrors to question the harsh relationship people with eating disorders have with themselves and their bodies.
It is often a misconception that people with extreme restrictive eating habits never have moments of binge eating. These binges almost naturally occur as a result of food restriction when the nutritional needs of the body are depleted. The cellular needs of the body will then overrule the anorectic thoughts, sadly often combined with a punishing mindstate. However, I’ve noticed that individuals with anorexia have an excellent sense what the cells of their body crave for… if they are ready to listen with a free mind and a calm heart.
In a customized program for AN, we challenge the anorectic voice by asking “Are you sure?” or “Is it true, can I absolutely know that this thought or belief is true?” After a while it is possible to listen to any of those blaming thoughts of the anorectic voice without the need to follow blindly its irrational rules. The mind is capable to discern what is wholesome and what not and opens up for other kinds of information. And if the mind relaxes, then also the heart will become more receptive for wise, compassionate care and the joy of eating. In fact, “anorexia” becomes their greatest teacher.
In the absence of defensiveness, love and gratitude is all that’s left.
Caroline Baerten, Belgium
Mindful eating and anorexia. Part 2
Emotional fullness and stomach satiety
In the previous blog post I’ve addressed different steps when working with people with anorexia. Intrinsic motivation and readiness to change destructive eating habits is essential. If the behavior itself is not perceived as problematic, then there is hardly any room for self-reflection. Somebody with severe restrictive eating patterns also has to be followed up by other health professionals to prevent any further physical harm. All these precautions have to be taken before the start of a mindful eating course.
Separation and integration
I think one of the reasons why I love to work with women with anorexia is exploring together their relationship with the mind. In the beginning of the mindful eating path, the anorectic, perfectionist and/or critical part in them has completely taken over. There is no (head)space left for any grateful, kind or compassionate thoughts. How to separate then the anorectic from the wise voice inside?
The first step in self-inquiry is doing a reality check. Do these thoughts match with real life? Will I become fat when eating a piece of chocolate? Yes, no or not sure? Most often the honest answer is “no” which opens the mind for new kinds of information.
The next step is identifying who is talking now. The anorectic part talks in a judgmental, manipulative manner. One of my patients said that the anorectic part is never satisfied, it is always fearful and goes in overdrive, screaming “not good enough!”. The moment she could recognize and acknowledge this presence, it became less overwhelming. Together with the anorectic part, we also invite the more hidden and neglected compassionate, kind and wise voices. The following step is not only noticing different voices but also feeling these thoughts mirrored in the body. For people with eating disorders, it is crucial to re-establish the forgotten mind-body connection. Without any exception, people report that a fearful or judgmental voice creates a lot of tension in the body and feels very unpleasant. On the other hand, the more friendly counterpart relaxes the muscles, releases any unnecessary tension and feels very wholesome. The body rewards us with feeling good when having a positive mind state.
Stomach fullness and emotional satiety
Fear, anxiety and worries are the allies of the anorectic part. Often people with anorexia perceive their stomachs as being always full, although barely any food is inside the belly. When inquiring, their feeling of satiety is most of the time 10/10. So not a good measure for mindful eating teachers to invite them to eat more. What are our options?
- LOCATING: Firstly, being aware of the physical sensations of fullness in the body. Really pointing out with the hand, finding the exact spot or smallest area. Then exploring the surrounding areas: “something there, other sensations here?’
- NAMING: Next step is describing the sensations in details as if talking with a medical doctor. Is it heavy or light, warm or cold, expanded or contracted, pressure, moving or still? Henepola Gunaratana has written the qualities of the four elements in a very clear way and I find his neutral descriptions of physical sensations very useful to support participants. This way the stomach is no longer perceived from the mind perspective (thoughts) with its tendency to categorize everything in pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
- DISCERNING: Finally, discerning heaviness or pressure in the stomach due to fear, anxiety and the actual physical experience of fullness when having foods in the stomach. For some people, emotions are expressed as feelings of hunger in the belly, others feel the opposite and link emotions with fullness, similar as after eating a heavy dinner.
In the past years, I’ve seen people with anorexia shifting their base of operation from perfectionism and criticism towards a more open awareness. When there is sufficient mental flexibility, the protective qualities of the anorectic voice can also be appreciated and softened with kindness, compassion and wisdom.
Caroline Baerten, MA,RD, Belgium
The Mantra of Not Causing Harm
Primum non nocere is a Latin phrase that means “first, do no harm.” It is one of the principal ethical precepts that I –and all health care professionals throughout the world- was being taught in school. This fundamental principle reminds me over and over again to consider the possible harm that any intervention might do.
Mindful eating is often perceived as a “soft intervention” where no elements in the program carry an obvious risk of harm. I’m not so sure about this statement. Maybe the mindfulness meditations itself are beneficial, however the skills and mindset of a mindful eating teacher will play a pivotal role how the teachings are transmitted.
Since a couple of years some health professionals have started using “mindful eating” as an intervention to lose weight and as hidden form of restrictive eating (dieting). As a health professional and mindful eating teacher since 2009, I’ve seen many clients having a hateful relationship with their larger bodies. However, from health perspective they were in a perfect condition. While those with so called normal size had, due to extreme dieting (to maintain their weight), several deficiencies, osteoporosis or hormonal imbalance.
One of the main reasons why I’m against combining mindful eating with a focus on weight, is the initial intention set by the teacher. Basically one says: “There is something wrong with you (your body, weight, appearance)”. How unethical and harmful is this way of thinking! Mindful eating is about acceptance of oneself in this very moment, being non-judgmental and not striving towards a certain outcome. While a weight focus is the complete opposite.
If we look at reviews and cohort studies, researchers are puzzled about what is now called the ‘obesity paradox’. It seems that people with larger bodies have a better life expectancy than their peers within a normal weight range, especially in conditions where diabetes type 2, heart failure and osteoporosis are involved. Thus, what prevents us then from accepting everybody, each person’s specific DNA and unique way of metabolizing food and energy?
Mindful eating is about relieving suffering and not causing harm to those who are seeking help. One of the most painful experiences for human beings is being excluded and stigmatized for a certain condition. The consequence of this shame-based approach leads to more guilt, self-doubt and low self-esteem. Three aspects which doesn’t bring us any closer to our true nature and finding happiness.
The Mindful Eating, Conscious Living training is developed as a journey to learn a new and intimate relationship with the person who is day and night there, yourself. Mindful eating is not about food or size, it is all about living life in its full brightness.
What C. Rogers wrote in ‘On becoming a Person’, resonates deeply within me. “We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.”
Caroline Baerten, Brussels Belgium
The illusion of control
What we –as mindful eating teachers- often hear from participants is: “If I work hard enough, then I’ll get what I want (the perfect body and weight, a better relationship, a great job). A quite tricky statement. It actually says: “If you are successful, it is thanks to your efforts. If you fail, it is your own fault”. Our 21th century Western culture is submerged by this management thinking. It claims that if we keep everything under control, we will be fine.
Unfortunately, life isn’t interested in linear thinking and there are always unpredictable situations and nothing is permanent.
The desire to control and to plan rigidly (food intake, weight), is something I observe with all my clients who struggle with eating issues. In this sense, restrictive eating and indulging in food could be seen as two extremes on the continuum of control.
How did all this –what I call- “controlitis” started? Namely, the crazy idea that you have to be 100% the CEO of your own life? On a sudden point in human history, we thought we were the center of the world and external (supernatural) forces were no longer relevant. The positive outcome of this perception was individual freedom. However, by pushing the idea of individual freedom to an extreme, we are also very much on our own. If we want to create a world dictated by an individual, fixated self, then there is no other to blame if we don’t succeed. Your shit is your responsibility… “Overweight, illness or stress-eating? Well, I’ve told you what to do!”
The urge to control is never ending. There are apps checking cholesterol levels and smart balances which send warning signals to a personal health coach. Nothing wrong with using the latest technology to monitor -for a while- your health. However, the frantic controller wants to plan, to suppress or to dominate for the rest of its life everything that is not part of the perfect world. The more we are trying to keep every possible aspect of life under control, the more fear and anxiety will rise to the surface. If we are really honest, we know that deep inside of us there will always be something trying to escape our control.
The neuroses of controlitis arise most clearly in contact with the little unexpected things during the day or when the body -and not the thinking mind- decides to follow its own needs. Maybe it starts in the morning with a bit of irritation when somebody arrives five minutes too late at an appointment. And then after a whole day of inner and outer struggles, the evening ends with a full-blown binge, driven by hunger and accumulated anxiety and frustration.
The dark, hidden and suppressed parts in us are interestingly enough showing up in food obsessions, in all the strange eating behaviors and shame-based thoughts about ourselves and the body.
After recognizing and acknowledging controlitis, how to work with it? In the first class of a mindful eating course, I used to say that we can’t control the outcome of this course. With often disappointment in the eyes of the participants. Almost every person starts a training with high expectactions such as losing weight within 8 weeks or getting rid of bad eating habits. The fact that these habits have already persisted for more than ten years is for most participants just a minor detail.
If it is impossible to control the outcome of a mindful eating course, then what remains? Maybe only gaining mastership over the mind and awareness of the process itself. In a mindful eating program, the participants learn to become aware of the cobble stones on the path instead of being obsessed by an unknown end goal. By walking the path, step by step, people learn to be no longer driven by the automatic pilot but gently guided by insight and compassion-based awareness. Our most reliable companions to make wise decisions are definitely ‘mindfulness and compassion’.
Another level to work with controlitis, is to understand and feel how devastating egocentric thinking is for our wellbeing. It kills basic notions such as inter-connectivity and the nourishment of good relationships.
By letting go of the idea that we –as individuals- can control every aspect of our lives, we might open up for unexpected wonders and new fresh encounters.
By letting go of our fixed selves, we might truly meet the beautiful nature of ourselves and human beings.
Caroline Baerten, Belgium
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”.
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
can also 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.
A culinary experience in Japan
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 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
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?