Susan Abbattista, guest blogger
This is a story about two women, a rebel, and a raisin. The first woman, an accomplished writer and arts aficionado, is quite lovely. She has the kind of rare beauty that inadvertently draws attention from men and women alike. Woman One moves through life with grace and ease, frequently hosting dinner parties with tasty nibbles and interesting, often hilarious, conversation. She loves delicious food and is content to share a decadent dessert—perhaps chocolate pudding or creamy Mexican flan—savoring only one or two bites. She will exclaim “Yum!” and then saunter away from the table, wearing some cute outfit that accents her naturally toned arms and perfectly shaped buns.
Enter Woman Two. She too loves art and food—and, like Woman One, appreciates the art of food. She grew up surrounded by heaping dishes of pasta with Bolognese sauce. Meals were often soup-to-nuts affairs, attended by aunts and uncles who ended every sentence with some passionate exclamation (“I’m making the COFFEE!”). The highlight: dessert platters piled high with flaky, puffed, and overstuffed pastries. Now in midlife, Woman Two has grown up to be a sweet, shy person (who, incidentally, still loves pastries). She’s respected by her work colleagues and loved by her friends. There is something decidedly smart and perceptive about Woman Two. But in truth, she spends a lot of time thinking about food. When des- sert comes to the table, her heart quickens. She will eat the whole thing, down to the last drizzle of chocolate. She will exclaim “Yum!” and she will look down and worry about the soft roll of flesh draping her waistband.
Do you identify with either of these women? I know that I do, because I am Woman Two. You might be thinking that the first woman is an imagined alter ego, but she’s quite real: She’s a close friend, someone whom I love dearly and—I admit—sometimes envy deeply. She may love food, but she’s still an eat-to-live kind of person. She eats when she’s hungry and stops when she’s full. To me, that’s an Olympic feat, because I am a live-to-eat person. And it’s fair to say that I have some issues with food, and that includes how I feel about my body.
If you were a food archaeologist, you could dig down through the layers of time and find fossils of my food history. Like clusters of dinosaur bones, each layer offers clues about the emotional terrain of that time: the Early One-More-Meatball Era (childhood); the Half-Cheese-Sandwich Era, also sometimes called the Starving Myself Skinny Era (adolescence); the Every-thing But the Kitchen Sink Era (early college); the Ramen Noodle Era (post-college); and the Enormous Greek Salad Era (later adulthood).
Strewn across the landscape of the recent past, you’ll find mounds and mountains of tortilla chips—what I’ve been eating for dinner. Chips and hummus. Chips and cheese. Chips and guacamole. And, of course, chips and salsa. This chip-a-thon has been going on for (I’m embarrassed to admit) a few years. Sometime over the winter, when I realized that my favorite loose jeans were becoming distressingly tight, I decided that it was time to address my clinging behavior with chips, and food in general. All the mind- less munching seemed to be trying to tell me something. And so, I came to Kripalu to find out. During a crazy-warm spell in March, I put on my sweatpants (feeling deep gratitude for elastic waistbands) and settled in for the Healthy Living program Women and Food: A Journey to Nourishment. About 30 other women attended the workshop, each with her unique relationship to food. Some said they ate too much. Others, too little. A bunch of us were stuck in a spiral of self-loathing. All of us were seeking peace. Susan B. Lord, MD, was our teacher, friend, and guide. Throughout the program, she offered frank, compassionate wisdom on all topics related to physical and emotional nourishment—and the murky mix of factors that often sway us when choosing what to put into our bodies—and our minds. Each session offered opportunities for learning, feeling, and understanding: meditation practice; lessons about nutrition and the effects of stress on the body; self-discovery through writing/drawing exercises; and group discussion.
The Turning Point
Sometime in the middle of things, we went from talking about food to eating it. Right there, in front of our teacher and each other. This was very different from chatting over heaps of veggies and quinoa in the Dining Hall. No, this was an eating meditation. In this exercise, we received a small container filled with a scant tablespoon of raisins and chocolate chips. The instructions sounded so simple: Choose only one piece of food and hold it … smell it … put it into your mouth … feel its contours against your tongue … and then, after an eternity, chew it—slowly. Keep chewing …. and chewing. And, after yet another eternity, swallow.
I looked at my newfound friends and workshop-mates, who were staring thoughtfully at the small containers of goodies. It was a very naked moment. Raisin or chocolate chip? Which do I really want? Is this some sort of test? How long do I have to keep it on my tongue? Can I chew now? And finally, when can I have more?
I did my best. But the raisin did not sit on my tongue very long. Neither did the chocolate chip I quickly snuck into my mouth when nobody was looking. I put the cover back on the container. Rebel child! I thought, as the chocolate melted in a swirl down my throat.
As everyone quietly swallowed her chosen morsel, I mentally and emotionally abandoned ship. I didn’t hear the conversation about the meditative experience. Like a dog who stares unflinchingly at the Milkbone in your hand, I could only focus on the itty-bitty gems that remained, their presence larger than life inside the container.
The eating meditation lasted five, maybe 10, long minutes. Yet the lessons were profound: First, I had an Inner Rebel who didn’t like having restrictions put on her. Second, despite the Inner Rebel’s best efforts to play by her own rules, the food was actually controlling her, and not the other way around. And third, I wasn’t experiencing a thing, emotionally speaking—except the anxiety of wanting … and more wanting. Most important: My stubborn tunnel vision had short-circuited the process of discovery, cutting me off from the full-spectrum experience of both appreciating the tangy- sweet flavor on my tongue and sharing the moments of connection with my group mates.
A Wedge of Awareness
Who knew there’d be so much drama in a raisin? Or scandal in a chocolate chip? What new doors would I have opened if I’d allowed myself to really savor the moment? And if a self-imposed shutdown had happened on that microcosmic level in the workshop— with just one tiny tablespoon of food—how was it playing out in “real life”? Even though I had not done the meditation properly, I had learned something big: I was using food as a wedge between myself and my deeper self.
Lessons like those, which Susan called aha! moments, were abundant in the program. We constantly wrote things down in our notebooks (see sidebar). The aha! moments constituted a cross-pollination of ideas that moved from day to day, activity to activity, and person to person. They were opportunities to nurture ourselves with greater awareness.
One lesson led to another. The biggest one for me was the importance (and difficulty) of staying present in the face of food. To be honest, now that I’m back to my regular life, I haven’t been entirely successful with that. But I’m committed to practicing the art of coming back to myself. Every moment presents a choice—you choose in that moment, and then you move on. And if what you’ve chosen doesn’t feel right, choose something else. Each moment is a chance to turn a new corner of self-discovery. Now, choose.
Two nights ago, I went out to dinner with Woman One, the beauty from the beginning of this story. We went to Casa B, an amazing tapas restaurant in our neighborhood. Another friend, who is a real foodie and the best cook we know, joined us.
I am right there. We order a dessert called dulce tres leches. With delicate porcelain spoons, we start digging into the layers of sweet, creamy cake with fluffy topping. We’re having a deep conversation about the top pillowy layer. Is it meringue? Whipped cream? Soon the subject changes to other things, like wine, and the latest ridiculous excerpts from our bittersweet, funny lives. Our spoons are raised high. We are laughing. It is heavenly.
10 Lessons learned from Women and Food: A Journey to Nourishment
1. Load the deck in favor of healthy choices. Choose foods you love. If you love cantaloupe, for example, cut up some chunks and keep them in the fridge.
2. Identify thoughts, feelings, and people that cause stress. Be aware that reducing stress can help you make better food choices.
3. Try meditating to settle your thoughts before a meal. If you identify what you feel, you may not be so inclined to stuff it down.
4. Remember that small changes go a long way. If you have trouble staying mindful throughout a whole meal, try doing it for just one bite.
5. Judgment is a showstopper. Watch what you tell yourself. It could be hurting you and keeping you stuck.
6. Realize that your Inner Rebel may be undermining you. Learn to say a compassionate “No” to her when you suspect that you really need something else.
7. If you feel stuck, go outside for a walk. Fresh air and exercise is one of the best ways you can alter your mood and shift your momentum.
8. Experiment. Try something new (one mindful bite!) and see what happens. The more you feel good, the more you want to feel good.
9. Know this and live this: Acceptance is the fastest way to make change.
10. Fill your cup. Find out what makes you happiest on the deepest levels, then be sure to nourish yourself with those things.