Part of a series of short talks about how to think about food and eating in a Buddhist context.
- Considering one’s relationship with food
- How meeting the Dharma helped to overcome an eating disorder
- Coming to believe in one’s inner potential
Venerable Chodron has been teaching us about how we as Dharma practitioners relate to food and eating. I wanted to offer a perspective on how the Dharma has influenced my relationship with food.
I was a pretty normal kid growing up in the 1970s. I was never overweight or anything like that, but I had this fear of gaining any kind of weight whatsoever. By the time I was 12 I was pretty heavy into dieting. By the time I was 15 I was anorexic, and then later on in my teens, bulimic. And I spent about two decades toddling back and forth between starving myself and binging and panicking and throwing out all the food in the house, trying to control my weight and what I was eating. I think ultimately what I was trying to do was be loved, and trying to control what other people thought about me so that i felt good about myself. And food obviously was a very central part of this.
In the meantime, of course, what we think about translates into our words and actions. In those 20 years, obviously because of the pain I was experiencing, the jealousy, the anger, the craving, I did a lot of harm. By the time I was in my early 30s I was very sick, physically. Very depressed. I had pushed away a lot of family. I was on my second marriage and it was headed for divorce. Everything kind of was crumbling, and I had a lot of despair, a lot of hopelessness.
I was 33 when I met the Dharma, struggling (obviously) considerably with the eating disorder. And yet I didn’t really know how to be any way else, any other way. I had done this for as long as I could remember, it was the way I coped, the way I dealt with stress. It was something I did every day, to some extent. And I hated it. And I hated myself for doing it. But I didn’t know any other way to be.
When I met the Dharma, I immediately connected, but of course, reading a book isn’t a magic wand that just everything changes immediately. It takes work and it takes time. I really was still struggling with my relationships, I was struggling with the eating disorder, but I was gobbling up all the books I could find. Our library had a few, and I was reading them over and over again. I found some podcasts online and I was listening to them over and over again. And despite the fact that my relationships were still messy, and I was still struggling with this eating disorder, something was changing. And I knew it was changing, I could see it. There was a little less attachment, there was a little less aversion, a little less jealousy. Things were calming down in my mind. I could feel that things were happening. I was feeling less and less despair. I was finding more and more of my self-esteem, not tethered to the food and the eating and what I look like and whether people liked me, but in this potential that the Buddha says that we have for change, for eliminating all our suffering, for developing all our good qualities.
When I first met the Dharma, really all I wanted was to be happy. I was so miserable that all I wanted was a moment’s happiness. So I wasn’t really paying attention to the religion side of it. I just wanted a little bit of peace because I was so miserable, I was so unhappy. So I studied.
For about three or four years it went on like this, just reading books and watching podcasts. I didn’t know a single Dharma practitioner. I hadn’t gone to any Dharma centers, nothing like that. Then like I said, about three or four years into studying in this way, in very rapid succession I had five loved ones die. Life kind of throws these things at you, it’s part of being alive. One of those deaths was particularly devastating, and I was suffering a lot. And all I could think about was how much time I had wasted. How much I had been consumed with counting calories, and what I looked like, and being loved, and being thin enough, and all these things that, in the end, didn’t matter. These loved ones were gone, and I could have spent that time loving them and caring for them, and being with them, and I couldn’t get that time back. It was gone. And I didn’t want to live like that anymore.
I didn’t want to be controlled by food, by what people thought, by how thin I was. And again, it’s not like waving a magic wand. And it would have been really, really easy to fall back into despair at that point, to go back full bore into those bad habits, into harming myself and lashing out at other people through this pain and this loss. But I knew enough of the Dharma at that point that there was a way out of suffering, I remember thinking that specifically, that there was a way out, and I just had to practice to achieve it. I knew at that point that I had to get more serious about spiritual practice, and that meant finding a teacher. And I had no idea what that meant or how to go about it. But I knew it was important.
It took some time. Eventually I connected with the Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner, and started taking the SAFE teachings, and started going to the Abbey, and that’s, I think, really where things took off. Particularly in that first SAFE course we learn about how to identify the afflictions in our mind, how to apply the antidotes right there in the moment, how to create space between what we’re experiencing and how we respond, and that gave me the tools, the in-the-moment tools that I needed to work with what was going on in my mind and to start healing myself. Healing myself and my relationships. I’ve spent years doing this, and it’s made an incredible, incredible difference. Like I said, my identity is no longer wrapped up, it’s no longer tethered, in food, what I look like, but in this beautiful potential that we have -- not only to transform our own minds but to create an environment for other people to transform theirs.
That’s been my experience. The Dharma really gave me the tools to work with my mind, right there in the moment, and just one day, one meal, one breath at a time. It’s made a huge, huge difference in my life.
I hope this is helpful for people who might be struggling with the same thing, or maybe know somebody who is. May the Dharma transform your mind and may it bring you peace and joy, as it has me.