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Five ways to develop a skillful relationship with food from physician and Zen Priest JAN CHOZEN BAYS
5. Out of Sight, Out of Mind
I am subject to what I call “fits of favorite foods.” I’ll crave and eat one thing, like licorice, for several weeks and then lose desire for it completely. I used to love chocolate, but a few years ago I developed an allergy to it. Every time I ate chocolate I would get painful blisters in my mouth. I tried every way to get around this sad fact, abstaining for a month, abstaining for six months, to no avail. Even one little chocolate chip could set it off. I felt deprived without my favorite comfort food.
One day I discovered that Reese’s Pieces candy had no chocolate! I was so happy that my loving husband bought me a giant bag (cheaper by the pound, right?) and put it in a drawer of my desk. First I had a few pieces, now and then, then a few small handfuls, now and then, and then I had gained five pounds. I stepped back to watch how craving for these candies worked in my mind. I found that when I sat where the bag was in my reach, soon an image of the candy would enter my mind. If I pushed it away, it would return, and return again, until I finally gave in and took a few. The farther away I was from my office, the less often the image appeared and the less vivid or compelling it would be.
I moved the bag to a file drawer in my husband’s office, several halls and doors away. I was reluctant to enter his office and go digging for the bag under his eyes. I ate less of the candy, and with less reinforcement the colorful candy images appeared in my mind less often. Craving for those little peanut butter delights gradually lessened and finally disappeared. Now I look at them with indifference. They hold no charm. This kind of solution is supported by eating research. Secretaries who were supplied with free chocolate candies in a glass dish ate the most candies if the chocolates were visible on their desk, less if the candy dish was hidden in a drawer, and even less if they had to walk just six steps to reach the candy. People also eat significantly more if serving dishes full of food are left out on the dining table. If a person has to get up from the table and go back to the kitchen to serve themselves seconds, they tend not to go to the trouble.
The researcher Brian Wansink tells the story this way: A man comes into the office on Friday, hungry because he’s had to rush to work with no breakfast. On the way to his cubicle he sees a plate of doughnuts left over from a meeting the previous day. He pokes a doughnut and finds that it is hard and stale. He goes to his cubicle, where the vision of the doughnuts keeps reappearing in his mind. He says “no!” to the impulse to get up and go get a doughnut. He says “no!” ten times. Finally he gets up and heads for the staff room and the stale doughnuts. There he meets a coworker who did not see the doughnuts on his way into the office and has been working all morning without the distracting visions and impulses. Who will eat the most doughnuts? As Wansink notes, the man who has been struggling with the vision and the impulses all morning will always eat more. Because the existence of the doughnuts entered his awareness, because he took in the possibility of eating them and said no ten times, eventually he is likely to say yes.
I once had a striking experience that confirmed this observation. I have never liked doughnuts. There is something in them that tastes peculiar to me. My first husband loved doughnuts, so once in a while I’d surprise him on a Sunday morning by going out to get a box of fresh doughnuts. He liked them, and the kids liked them too, but for myself—I tried bites of many different kinds and finally gave up even trying to like them.
Fast-forward thirty years. I had just finished a workshop and was relaxing as a friend drove me home. We stopped at a corner where people were selling something to raise money for their church. Ever sympathetic toward these kinds of fundraisers, my friend handed five dollars out the car window. Back in came her hand, holding a white box. The box, it turned out, was full of doughnuts. “No thanks,” I said, “I don’t like doughnuts.” “These are Krispy Kremes,” she said. I had read about the national passion for Krispy Kremes. I was tired and hungry, hungry enough even to eat a doughnut, so I took a tentative bite. Yum! I took a bigger bite. Creamy and sweet! I could see what the passion was about! I ate one whole doughnut, then another, and a third. They were really good!
Over the next few days I noticed during meditation that a new window had appeared on the screen of my mind. The window was full of . . . a very enticing KRISPY KREME DONUT! When the thought arose, “But I don’t even like doughnuts!” the Krispy Kreme window would grow larger. “But you DO like Krispy Kremes!” it broadcast. I watched to see what caused the window to appear. I found that it opened when I was feeling anxious, tired, or hungry.
Because I have never liked doughnuts, and because daily meditation created a certain spaciousness of mind, I had a measure of objectivity. I could even be amused by this window winking open in my mind. Fortunately I live at a rural monastery, an hour and a half from the nearest Krispy Kreme outlet, so I didn’t reinforce the sudden appearance of desire by running out to get a doughnut. I just noted the window as it opened and closed. It took about three weeks for the window to shut and never open again. It helped that I heard a rumor (untrue) that Krispy Kremes derived their creamy texture from glycerin. If the desire for a doughnut arose, I could counteract it by imagining a doughnut being injected with mineral oil.
The practice of out-of-sight, out-of-mind works because anything we do not reinforce will lose its strength. It is a principle of conditioning. If we do not think, speak, or initiate action around something, the force of that thing will eventually wither. This involves active substitution, not forceful resistance, for what we resist can become perversely persistent. For example, when my mind began to conjure up Krispy Kremes, I substituted a more beneficial and interesting mental activity such as a breath meditation, a body scan, or lovingkindness practice. When I did not think or talk with others about these doughnuts, did not run out to buy them, and did not smell or eat them, eventually they lost their hold on me.
All of us want to move toward greater freedom, but the experience of freedom does not occur overnight. Often we overchallenge ourselves, as when making New Year’s resolutions. This results in frustration and more critical inner voices. We can get off to a good start by lowering our standards and initiating our mindful eating by having one conscious sip of tea in the morning. Take a moment to become aware of the color of the tea, its fragrance. Feel the liquid in your mouth and throat. Open your awareness to the presence of the warm sunlight, cool rain, and dark earth in this one sip of tea. Everything will unfold from this simple act. Just being aware for a few moments seems like a small event. Don’t underestimate the power of mindfulness. It is through these small moments of mindfulness that we reverse old habits and initiate an inner movement toward health.
Small Changes, Big Results
Consider this list of small lifestyle changes aimed at changing the energy equation to lose weight. If this is a goal of yours, pick one and try it for a month. Or create a small change of your own in the energy equation, and try that diligently for a month. Enlist the support of family and friends to remind you of your project or to join you in the task.
At the end of the month, tell someone what you learned from the task. It could be a mindful eating partner, folks in a mindful eating group on community.tricycle.com, or just a friend.
—Walking across the shopping center instead of getting back in the car and driving to a second store
—Parking several blocks away from my destination
—Taking the stairs whenever I can
—Not buying candy or soda
—Keeping substitutes for ice cream in the freezer, like frozen fruit
—Buying the small package of chips and doling them out to myself one by one
—Taking moderate first servings and looking at why I'm taking seconds—hunger or habit?
—Eating the meal first, waiting a while, and then checking with the stomach and body to decide whether to have dessert and how much to have
Jan Chozen Bays, M.D., has taught mindful eating for more than 20 years. This article has been adapted from her new book, Mindful Eating, and is reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, shambhala.com.
Images © David Halliday, courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery