As a psychotherapist, I spend my days listening to people talk about their lives. As I listen to their stories, I notice that the more they stuff themselves with information and entertainment, the more they feel empty and a sense of something missing. Our culture suffers from the disease of absence.
In an effort to try and fill this absence, a surprising number of people turn to food, a something to insert into the nothingness. While food may fill the hole for an afternoon, people know that it will not alleviate the sense of lack that is now a part of our human experience. Sadly, some people spend their entire lives riding the hamster wheel of dieting and bingeing, striving for a way out of the emptiness, with this as the primary focus on their life.
I am always surprised by the number of strategies people have used to try and get off this wheel of suffering, and the renewed sense of This is the answer! that comes with each new strategy, whether their first or their 50th. They have replaced the Doritos with cauliflower, the donuts with yogurt. They have called friends, taken walks, run baths and gone shopping, when their cravings appeared. They have kept food journals, recorded their triggers and eliminated the people who set off binges. They have become gym bunnies, spiritual seekers and spokespeople for healthy lifestyles. But eventually, all the strategies fail, and the absence and subsequent bingeing return. As a result, people end up feeling like failures when in fact, it is the strategies that are inherently flawed. The strategies fail because they are designed to make us well by keeping us estranged from ourselves.
The way out of this cycle is much simpler than we make it. It is not about finding smarter techniques for out-running our feelings, better distractions from what we are experiencing. In truth, the only way out is the way in.
The key to getting off the diet-binge hamster wheel is a willingness to directly experience the urge to binge. Emptiness, anxiety, excitement, frustration... what do they actually feel like as sensations, in their nakedness, before we make stories out of them or react to them? We are not taught to invite our feelings to the table, like guests in our home. And indeed we must learn and practice this skill of inner-attention as we would any other skill. We must learn to slow down and meet the moments that lead us to flee from ourselves.
Right now, in this moment, drop out of what you are thinking and down into your body. Bring your attention to the physical sensations occurring right now within you. There, you have learned this skill and begun your practice.
Even those feelings we thought would kill us lose their power when we bring our direct attention to them. Uncomfortable though they may be, we can learn to tolerate and survive any feeling, even the feeling of having to get away from our feelings. What hurts us most is the fear of our feelings and the belief that we must do something to change them. Afraid of our own experience, we opt for unconsciousness, the soil for all addictions.
The second key to ending the diet-binge cycle is knowing what to do once we become aware of what is happening inside us. Though counter-intuitive in a do-more culture such as ours, the answer is actually do nothing! We don't create a story about the sensations, about what they mean or who they make us. We don't explain or justify them, and we don't try to make them go away. In truth, we do do one thing: We stay here with the sensations, fully present, and change nothing.
Our feelings are like weather patterns passing through us. Some resemble raging tornados and others summer sun showers. When we can stay curious about what is occurring within our inner landscape -- without reacting -- then we discover true freedom and can confidently throw out all the techniques for good. The end to the cycle of suffering, no matter our particular brand, is discovered on a well-lit journey into ourselves. The answer to the absence we feel is not to find something better to fill it with, but rather to bring our own presence into the absence, and finally allow the two to meet.