Seated at a big round table in the dining room of a conference center in Monterey, California, my breakfast, a bowl of yogurt, waited in front of me along with eighty-five other women who were sitting in silence as per the rules. No one was eating.
None of us knew quite what to do in the large space of silence. We’d been instructed to wait for the retreat leader before eating and she took her long, slow, sweet time getting there. While waiting and waiting, we sat in various stages of angst. Some were visibly agitated. Others were trying to pass off serene zen-vibes that eventually gave over to nervous fidgeting. Others had smug “even though I’ve been sitting here for over twenty minutes and I’m starving, this doesn’t bother me at all” smiles on their faces which I knew was total bullshit because they were the ones watching their scrambled eggs get colder by the nano-second.
It seemed like forever before the ring leader arrived. Geneen Roth was tiny in size but her presence packed a punch. Let me tell you what ninety pounds can do; without saying a word, she had the undivided attention of an entire room of hangry women. It was impressive.
She did a little workshopping with us, the “hard part” of this process, and eventually gave us permission to eat. I looked down reverently at my bowl of yogurt, picked up my spoon like a prayer and slowly took a bite.
The cool, creamy tang hit my tongue like a cloud of delight. “I’ve never tasted yogurt like this,” I thought. “I wonder what brand it is! I must buy this brand when I get home. After breakfast, I’m going to go ask the kitchen staff about it.”
That’s when the tears started. There was a catch in my throat and my mind down-shifted. It was as if my tongue wanted my mind to shut the eff up so I could actually enjoy this bowl of deliciousness. “Geez…” I thought sheepishly, “I’ve never cried over yogurt before.”
But there I was, tears streaming down my face as I took one sensual bite after another; feeling every slippery inch in my mouth, tasting every creamy nuance there was to taste. I was experiencing the full fidelity of what that yogurt had to offer. It was singing in my mouth. It was divine.
What brought me to this table was surrender. Over the course of thirty years, I had struggled with an on-again-off-again eating disorder. For the past five years, it had been very on-again and there seemed to be no end in sight. I could tell you I was worried about my health and I didn’t want to die and blabbity-blah, but the fact was, I was tired. It takes a lot of effort to sustain an eating disorder; the extreme-sport-mind-games with food, hiding the behavior, keeping the secret from absolutely everyone, and getting back up from the floor of shame to do it all over again.
The next five days at the retreat were wonderful and awful. The three days we spent in silence were surprising (because I somehow overlooked this detail in the course description) and transforming. Being a meditator and meditation teacher, I love being in silence; thirty, forty minutes, an hour. Three solid days of silence were grueling. But at the end of it all, after oceans of leisure-time, writing in my journal, walks along the beach, and experiencing food in a way that felt like falling in love, I finally came to a place that felt like coming home; back into my body, back to my self.
What the retreat taught me was that I could eat in a way that both nourished and pleased me. I could have what I wanted and as much as I wanted, which is just the right amount it turns out, as long as I’m eating mindfully and following a few guidelines. I learned to feed my body instead of my aching heart or my stressed-out mind. I learned many other women were hungry for a way out of the same life-sucking boat.
During meditations and visualizations, I connected with a wise and powerful woman who had the presence of a queen. She turned out to be me. Meeting The Queen was such an empowering and moving experience, I wrote a poem about it and read it aloud to my small group and made them cry. I think they cried because it’s what we were all there to do; to reclaim our power which we’d relinquished to a God named Food.
The fact that I’m sharing this story at all is mind-blowing to me. It’s a secret I’ve been ashamed of and kept hidden all these years. To make matters worse, I’ve felt an extra dose of shame because I’m a meditation teacher and “I shouldn’t have problems like this.”
Well, I’m here to tell you it’s true. Teachers of all kinds are humans with problems. The most ironic part of this story is that the answer to my problematic eating was found in mindfulness. I teach mindfulness. Why I hadn’t applied it to eating? I don’t know. But what I do know for sure is that knowing about something (like mindfulness) is worth nothing if you don’t apply it.
For the past year, I’ve studied, gone on retreats, and finally started practicing mindful eating. It’s been like a miracle for me. My first clue that mindful eating was going to change everything was at that Geneen Roth retreat. Since then I’ve cried over lots of things (because I’m digesting my feelings now instead of numbing with them with food) and slowly have formed new habits that give me peace and freedom to eat with pleasure and not guilt, shame, or regret.
Now I’m powered by something other than my destructive urges. Something like ravenous grace. The more I meet the secret parts of myself as the benevolent queen looking into the eyes of a lost child, the more invincible I am in my vulnerability. I consider myself ridiculously fortunate when moved to tears by the truth I find in all things — the shadowy rawness of humanity, a heartfelt conversation, a spoonful of yogurt.
If you'd like to know how I started applying mindfulness to eating, read this.