In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story about eating a tangerine with his friend Jim.
We sat under a tree and….he began to talk about what we would be doing in the future. Whenever we thought about a project that seemed attractive or inspiring, Jim became so immersed in it that he literally forgot about what he was doing in the present. He popped a section of tangerine in his mouth and, before he had begun chewing it, had another slice ready to pop into his mouth again. All I had to say was, “You ought to eat the tangerine section you’ve already taken.” Jim was startled into realizing what he was doing. It was as if he hadn’t been eating the tangerine at all. If he had been eating anything, he was “eating” his future plans.
Last night I went to the weight loss group that meets at the Girdwood Clinic. This was my second meeting with them, and each time I’ve struggled with not feeling like part of the group. Unlike the other participants, I’m not on the Medifast plan.
The nurse practitioner who leads the group asked me how it was going, trying to have frequent but small amounts of food, without the support of the Medifast meal replacements. I’m always a truth-teller in a group, and this time was no different. I said, “It’s really, really hard. I have a bit to eat, and then it feels like I should have a bit more, and more, and more, until I’m snacking all day long.”
They laughed–with me–and then someone said, “Yeah, I know what you mean. I have a tablespoon of hummus and suddenly the box of Triscuits has disappeared.” We laughed with her, recognizing ourselves, loving the witty way she had put words to our common experience.
As I thought about my downhill snacking slide, and listened to others share their struggles with a hunger that wasn’t really hunger, I thought about hungry ghosts. And the ghost I saw was a tiger.
It seemed to me that some of us had our tigers on a short leash, knuckles white with the strain. Others of us (well, me, mostly) felt battered and bruised by the tiger romping off-leash through our eating habits. But however we have chosen to deal with him, we all have a tiger, and he is not tame.
Some days it feels like my eating habits have deteriorated, not improved, since I decided I wanted to lose weight. And they may have. But I think what’s really happening is that I’m looking at them. I’m looking at what I eat, and when I eat, and how I eat, and why I eat.
For the most part, what I eat is good. I eat steel-cut oats, fresh fruits and vegetables, lots of nuts, less meat, etc. I follow most of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules.
When I eat is a mix of good and less good. I eat breakfast, and that’s good. But then I munch all day long, feeding the tiger. And at the end of the day, when my workaholic sweetie finally comes home, we have a big meal, sometimes as late as 10 p.m.
How I eat is a real problem. I eat breakfast sitting on the couch with the computer on my lap, often with the TV on. Sometimes I’m also glancing at a book. I pay little attention as I eat throughout the day, and we eat dinner watching TV.
So why do I eat this way? Why do I prefer to be distracted while I eat? I say that I love food, but how can I say that when it’s almost painful for me to slow down and actually notice what I’m eating? Clearly, food is serving some purpose other than sustenance or pleasure, and discovering that purpose will be the key to real change.
To tame a tiger, first you have to see him. As I gather up my courage and turn to face the tiger, I am glad that I am not facing him alone.