Five Years Plus

{April 24, 2010}   An Edge on Hunger

For most of my life, I have eaten as if my life depended upon it. It seems to me I was practically born into needing to overfeed myself to feel satisfied. Perhaps this was influenced by my parents’ participation in Dr. Spock’s experiment in childrearing that recommended prescribed eating times for babies, rather than feeding me when I was hungry. The family story goes that I would be upstairs crying in my crib while my parents and three older siblings were downstairs eating dinner. “But she’s hungry”, my 3 year old brother would lament. “It’s not time yet”, my mother would gently but firmly explain. Whatever the psychological or physical reasons, I was a kid and then an adult who ate quickly until I couldn’t any more, either because there wasn’t any more or because I was uncomfortably full.

My readers know by now that I have lived in an ashram in India and practiced meditation for many years. Nonetheless, I resisted bringing eating into the realm of formalized meditation for all that time. I didn’t want anyone telling me how I should eat. I told myself that I usually ate consciously, just getting out of control at holidays or when going out to eat. But it does get old, waking up about three in the morning, holding my belly and groaning, “Why did I eat so much?” Well all things change eventually, even the ones we hold onto the tightest.

About six months ago, without realizing exactly what I was getting into, I purchased a CD called Sacred Nourishment by Alison Gaines. The photograph of the pear on the cover caught my attention – pears are one of my things. I began listening to it in bed at night before going to sleep. The CD’s centering exercise: Take three deep breaths while I scan my body and emotions, and asses my level of hunger, and then give a little prayer of gratitude, seemed really simple and beautiful and I tried to remember to do this before taking my first bite at meals. Then the Christmas holidays hit and I was swept into the “holiday spirit” which for me is a perennial bout of sugar-charged unconscious overeating. I’ve been working hard to conquer this once and for all since mid-January and have even blogged about it (The Eating Roller Coaster and Losing Weight is a Beach). Ten days ago I finally pulled the Sacred Nourishment CD out of my nightstand drawer and put it to work at mealtime instead of bedtime.

The part of the CD designed to be listened to during meals is a five minute centering exercise followed by another ten minutes of encouragement to eat with awareness, with simple tips such as remembering to breathe while eating and noticing when fullness is reached. Whether it was fortuitous timing, Gaines’ calming voice, her skillful use of words, or all of the above, I found that I was able to let go of my resistance to “conscious eating” and surrender to the process of eating differently. I started listening to it with nearly every meal. At a dinner party a week later a long-time friend noticed that my eating behavior had dramatically changed. “You were always such a frantic eater” she observed. “I’ve never seen you take your time before”.

“The edge of hunger” is a concept I particularly like about this CD and I’ve been steadily exploring it. It involves relaxing my belly, putting my attention on my stomach and rating my level of hunger on a scale of one to five: 1) uncomfortably hungry; 2) hungry; 3) neither hungry nor full; 4) full; 5) uncomfortably full. I experience the five levels as significant points on a continuum of sensation. For example, my ideal is to eat when I’m hungry (2) and stop when I’m full (4). With this simple act of awareness, I’ve consistently avoided eating to uncomfortably full (5). I’m still working on noticing that middle point when I’m neither hungry nor full (3). I notice that if I wait to eat until I’m uncomfortably hungry (1), I begin to feel panicky and I have to work hard not to shovel in my food to alleviate that feeling.

I’ve also noticed that allowing enough time to eat without rushing and relaxing for a few minutes after to receive my meal helps my digestion, avoiding the nausea I frequently experienced about an hour after breakfast. It seems that in terms of having a comfortable digestive experience how I eat at least as important as what I eat.

One of Alison Gaines’ contributions is the recognition that how we eat reflects how we live our lives. Now that I am regularly relaxing my belly to check my edge of hunger I am noticing times during the day when I tense my belly as a response to stress. Now that I practice putting my fork down in between mouthfuls to pay attention to the food I have in my mouth rather than preparing for the next bite, I find myself being more present at other times of the day too. When I give myself the time to eat without multitasking and a few minutes to relax after eating to fully receive the meal, I feel a great sense of self-love. Last Sunday, I decided to share this experience with our meditation group. Thirteen of us sat around a table resembling a holiday feast and ate consciously. It was a beautiful experience, but more importantly for me, sharing this with my community has given me a sense of confidence that I can take advantage of this new edge in my lifelong relationship to hunger.


Sue says:

Gyta – Again I have enjoyed reading your article for the week. There was an article about the “clean plate club” and how that group is struggling with weight control. I would eat until my stomach hurt – then eat rolaids. Makes sence doesn’t it. NO MORE FOR ME. I also have been working on changing how I “approach” food. My cupboards and refrigerator were cleaned out Saturday. I am tired of trying to eat everything that no one else will. I will re-read many times “the edge of hunger” paragraph. Keep writing – see you in the Fall.

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