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Five ways to develop a skillful relationship with food from physician and Zen Priest JAN CHOZEN BAYS
Parmesan & Tomatoes, David Halliday, 2007, archival pigment prints, 9 x 12 inches
3. The Energy Equation
Another way to cultivate mindful eating is to become aware of what I call the energy equation. Food is energy. It is actually sunlight, which is converted into plants and then into animals. When we eat, we are taking in the energy of sunlight. When we live our lives, we are releasing and spending that energy.
If our weight stays constant, it is a sure sign that the energy flowing into our body is equal to the energy flowing out. We are in energy balance. If we are losing weight, it means that the energy out is greater. If we are gaining weight, it means that the energy in is greater. How does the energy flow in? By eating and drinking. As much as we might like to believe that we absorb calories mysteriously from the atmosphere while sleeping at night or just by looking at rich food, it’s not true. We ourselves put energy in through our own open mouths.
If we want to lose weight, there are only two ways to do it. We have to decrease the energy flowing into our body or increase the energy flowing out. Conversely, if we want to gain weight, there are only two ways to do it. We have to increase the energy flowing into our body or decrease the energy flowing out.
4. Mindful Substitution
Most people are aware that they have many voices in their mind. A childish voice may say, “I want something sweet! I’ve worked hard all day, and I deserve a treat! I happen to know there’s a carton of ice cream in the freezer.” A parental voice says, “It’s only four o’clock. No dessert until you eat a good dinner.” An indignant voice exclaims, “Wait a minute! Aren’t you about ten pounds overweight? You shouldn’t even think about dessert for at least a year!”
How can we work skillfully with these conflicting voices and bring peace to the table? It does no good to stifle them; they just go underground, where they can cause mischief. It does no good to indulge them; they just gain strength.
First, we become aware of the voices. Each one contains some measure of truth. It could be simultaneously true that you have worked hard and would enjoy a sweet reward and that you won’t benefit from a jittery sugar high or gaining extra pounds. How to honor both truths? Find a substitute reward.
When we offer the hungry voice a sliced peach drizzled with honey instead of a hot fudge sundae, we are making use of an essential mindful eating practice, that of mindful substitution. When we become aware that there are many voices in our minds—some that are needy, restless, and frightened— we should honor and care for these energies and voices, not in a neurotic, self-absorbed way but in the thoughtful and deliberate way a good parent notices and cares for a young child. This doesn’t mean walking out of a tense planning conference at work in order to indulge your “inner child” with an entire Sara Lee cheesecake eaten in a bathtub full of bubbles. It might mean hearing the worried voice inside or feeling the first tendrils of tension in the body and asking for a short break so you can sip a hot drink or suck on a hard candy.
Students have told me about many substitution tricks they have invented. They substitute chewing gum for candy, a chocolate hard candy for a chocolate truffle, the slow ritual of fixing hot tea for gulping a soft drink. One student substitutes frozen mango slices or strawberries for ice cream. Another cuts a piece of cinnamon toast in little pieces and eats them slowly in place of a piece of cake and frosting. Another said that when she becomes aware of a craving for sweets, she gives herself a little snack of something sour, finding that it erases her desire for sweets. She uses a small serving of sauerkraut out of a jar kept ready in the fridge. If that doesn’t appeal, you could use a few pickles, some olives, or kimchi (pickled cabbage). It helps if the flavor is somewhat intense. If you use substitution and then eat mindfully, you get double the benefits.
The point is to take good care of ourselves, the way a loving and wise parent would do. We don’t fall into the extreme of angrily scolding and denying ourselves, nor do we lose track of what is healthy and become overindulgent. We steer a skillful but somewhat wobbly course along the middle way.