As Eating Disorders Awareness Week rolls around, I regret that another year has gone by with little serious attention paid to food obsessions as a spiritual malady. Before the fall of the Roman empire, vomitoriums were common. Romans ate themselves into oblivion. Americans, who, outside of some south sea islanders, are the fattest people on earth, are following in those footsteps, gorging at elegant tables or fast food drive thrus.
Despite our extensive knowledge of calorie counts, food combining, pulse rates and fat content, we keep putting on more weight. Instead of focusing on food plans, our time would be better served in FEAR ... Face Everything and Recover. Cultural expectations of unnatural thinness have created this national epidemic. Yes, advertisers have contributed to the anorexia-bulimia-obesity continuum, but there is more to it than the model culture, fitness crazes, heart disease, diabetes, or arthritis.
We are facing a spiritual crisis, where striving and competition are our mantras. On national television shows, we pit obese sufferers against each other, to tragically compete at weight loss. Our national epidemic shows up in bulbous bodies, while we fear letting too much softness and human kindness into our hearts. Can't we acknowledge how frightened we are? Even after 9/11, we watched our leader yelling cheers as if at a football game, egging us into a preemptive strike and war. All our collective unexpressed fear has piled onto our plates and ultimately onto our hips.
Overeaters are the "miner's canary" for a society trying desperately to ignore it's softer side. When excess eating is curtailed, senses are heightened, and we feel and notice in a much deeper and more vibrant way. But, many would rather keep focusing on dieting.
After all this time, you'd think we'd all learn that there is more to life than four ounces of protein, a cup of vegetables, and 10 laps across the pool; and there is more to beating the weight game than intellect and food plans. All diets work. Take your pick. Mark Twain said, "It's easy to stop smoking. I've done it thousands of times." But how do we stay stopped? As so many are now going under the knife, everyone truly knows how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off. Most know that the stats indicate a 98 percent failure rate for all dieters.
Even though we have a super-sized appetite for fast foods, the national malady has more to do with our spiritual connections: how we live, who we are, how we think, how we fight, how we love, how we face fear, how we die. Genetics might load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.
Simply put, it's not a battle, but a surrender. It's a surrender to a more spiritual way of living. But, the spiritual life is not for sissies. Some think that wearing Birkenstocks or lighting incense gets it. You can't just hang out with the "metaphysical maniacs" for six months, become your own personal prom queen, and then get back into the fray.
Spirituality is not thinking less of yourself. It's thinking of yourself less. Some of my patients were avid churchgoers, organizers of charity bazaars, dedicated to helping others and behaving in what they felt was a "spiritual" manner. They all looked the part, even the 600 pound father of eight who told me he could not follow my recommendations because he had to devote time to the church. He died in a pew.
But what does spiritual living mean? Does it mean giving up to become a dishrag? Can you just wave a white flag and be zapped thin? How does one know if they've actually surrendered? The answer comes quietly as we keep asking the question.
It seems a great cosmic joke that most of us are impatient, intolerant individuals but we're given a body that won't lose weight on our timetable. It instead provides unexpected cravings, non-scheduled undulations, gaseous emissions, and clamorous noises beyond our will. And with all that going on, we have to trust that body as conduit to spirit. The body that seems to have a mind of its own will be our transmitter, our dilemma, our teacher, our karma.
Due to the Freudian, scientific, mechanistic thinking of the nineteenth century, we overvalued intellect, saw ourselves as machines, and lost trust of the senses, the land of the body. The answer might be in Albert Einstein's summation, after years of struggling to explain relativity, and one night finding the answer in a dream: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."
At some point, many in remission express gratitude for having a food obsession. They view their relapses back to compulsive eating as a signal that something's wrong; a searchlight calling in rescue boats. When pounds pile on, they know they are steering off course. "What an accurate barometer!" Carl Jung quipped. "We never cure our neuroses, but if we're lucky, they will cure us." They are the signal that we are living out of sync with our true, inner natures. Those who don't live consciously ultimately binge.
Sir William Osler, an early teacher in American medicine advised that the key to longevity was to develop a lifelong, chronic illness and focus on taking care of it. Living consciously and courageously with a food obsession keeps us awake and alive.