In meditation, when you get lost in thought or a daydream, or caught up in a strong emotion and forget to focus on to your breath, the instruction is to let go and come back to the practice. Let go and come back. The letting go isn’t harsh, there’s no rejection or pushing or running away or resisting, but rather a simple and gentle letting go. To notice, be with the thought, with the feeling, to acknowledge it, to watch and soften as it dissolves.
To feel what that feels like, clench your fist, hold it as tight as you can manage for a few seconds, and then let it go, relax your fingers and open your palm. Do you feel that release? How ease replaces tension? There is such relief in letting go.
As does so much of my meditation practice, this instruction finds it’s way into my life off the cushion all the time. I struggle with being a “better” person, with improving and becoming and doing. I get so focused on changing, on fighting with who I am now in this moment, on self-improvement, that I forget I’m enough already, and that who I am right now is the gift, that there is no destination, no goal, nothing to win and no finished or done. There will be no summit I’ll reach where I’ll finally and permanently be happy and safe and well. As Pema Chödrön suggests, we should just go ahead and “abandon hope.”
Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, not to run away, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on. If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death. ~Pema Chödrön
One place this instruction keeps coming up for me is around my relationship with food. I’ve mentioned it briefly before: depending on when you ask me, I am either a highly functioning food addict or a recovering one. It’s gotten so much better in the last year, the obsession and the smashing myself to bits. The swing between rational and compulsive behavior is relaxing its grip, my wisdom in relation to food and eating is developing into something that can often look like health, and I go for long stretches of time where I could even say I’ve left it behind me.
Then something triggers me, and I’m right back in the thick of it. The stress of being an introvert and highly sensitive person at a party, or in the presence of people I admire and adore, or in a room full of 1000+ other people, or having to go in to my paid work when I’m supposed to still be on vacation.
The month we spent at the beach left me feeling relaxed and hopeful. I was getting enough sleep, spending enough time resting and playing, and was feeling so good about the opportunity I had to clean up how I eat and take better care of myself, so happy about how I’d “changed.”
Then I had to go in to work for half a day. I had been getting lots of emails about what needed to be done, what was coming up, pulling me back into that space, rushing me into fall. The night before, after eating so happily and healthy for days, I got out a bag of caramel corn and my ipod and ate and numbed out until I made myself sick, first my stomach aching and then my head hurting from sugar and tension. I thought when I went to bed that night how much better I’d feel if I could throw up, but I’ve never been good at that, ever since in grade school when a friend tried to teach me how by sticking the eraser end of a pencil down my throat. Back then, no one talked about Bulimia, so I had no idea and told no one.
I don’t talk much about my food addiction, even with how open I am about everything else. It’s because I’m ashamed and embarrassed by it, upset that I can’t control myself, shy about sharing the details of how low I sink, how gross it gets. And there’s the added bonus that in a thin obsessed culture, where your worth is measured literally in terms of your size, that I get to also feel guilty and ashamed of the extra weight I lug around as a result. I love to exercise and eat healthy food, but coupled with this compulsion, they can only keep me from becoming obese, not overweight. Add perimenopause to the equation, and I’m screwed.
This feeling bad about “failing” and what I look like robs me of joy. I get to go to this fabulous World Domination Summit prefunction party at Kelly Rae Roberts’ studio, with all of these women I adore and admire, and when I start to show up in pictures of the event on their websites, I can only feel happiness and gratitude for having been there for a split second before the disgust and despair kick in: “my stomach looks so fat.” I can’t even appreciate how amazing it is that I was at this event and there are pictures to prove it, on some of my favorite blogs even, can’t say “hey, look, there I am!” with any kind of excitement because all I can see is how fat I look, and am so sick in that moment that I actually think “maybe people will think I’m pregnant,” which is quickly followed up by a nasty voice that says “that doesn’t necessarily explain your arms or double chin.”
I can’t tell you–no actually I can tell you how much, how badly, how desperately I want released from this thing. Not the weight, but the obsession and confusion that is underneath, the self-loathing and despair that comes after. It’s not about the weight at all, it’s not even about food: it’s about hunger.
Rachel Cole did a reunion conference call for those of us who attended her Well-Fed Woman Retreatshops this past year, so I’ve been thinking a lot about hunger. Typically what is happening when I am obsessing about food or eating too much or making unhealthy choices, it’s not about food at all, certainly not about physical hunger. I am hungry for self-care, but I keep feeding myself food.
I was thinking about this in terms of taking a shower. It is important for me, unless I am planning to take the dogs on a walk or go to the gym, to shower in the morning as soon as possible. If I don’t, I won’t put on clean clothes, because I’m not “clean,” which means I’ll stay in my bathrobe or put on the kinds of clothes I wear to do messy chores, like painting or cleaning the bathroom, and this isn’t uplifting at all. These clothes, worn for that reason, make me feel depressed, dull and down, which leads to behaviors that are triggered by such feelings, like overeating or numbing out on the computer. I feel disorganized and discombobulated, stuck. Nothing sane or healthy happens and it’s hard to move on.
Taking a shower is one way to truly feed my hunger for self-care. Sometimes I am feeling unworthy, maybe my blog stats are low and I haven’t meditated for a few days and I’m comparing myself to others, beating myself up for not measuring up, comparing my blooper reel to their highlights. Sometimes it’s overwhelm, so much has to get done, so much I want to do. Sometimes it’s taking care of the should and have to work, the paid work, and the energy it takes, how much I’d rather be doing something else but can’t yet afford to leave that work, and that can lead to depression.
I have been feeding these real hungers with food, always with food. What are the real needs, what am I really hungry for? Physical tiredness needs rest and sleep, pure and simple. Unworthiness needs connection and a reminder of my basic goodness, of the real need for my voice, my light. Overwhelm needs to have permission to only do what can be done, and then to practice self-care, to rest and play, experience joy. Depression needs to exercise and reconnect with nature, be in the body and the world.
When you are in the grips of something so old and deep, sometimes you give up. You look back at the struggle and then ahead to your future, and you can’t imagine it will ever leave you, fear that you’ll be stuck in this cycle of obsession, swinging between control and crazy, gaining and losing the same 20 pounds forever, trying and eventually giving up on every new system, method, or plan, feeling the rise of hope and the sink of despair, like Sisyphus and his rock, never finding a way out. But you can’t divorce yourself, can’t leave or move out, get any kind of legal separation, split your assets 50/50 and wish each other well. You have to stick it out, are stuck, have to live with it, with yourself and your confusion.
When I really look at it, really think, trust myself, I’m pretty smart, pretty sure about what to do. I know the hunger, but still tend to feed it the wrong thing, still fall into the old habits, the discursive patterns, the way of being when I am tired, and I am tired a lot. But that’s okay, if only I can remember to let go and come back. This is what practice is, falling down and getting back up, falling apart and being whole, trying again, continuing to show up, again and again, time after time. This is what all of life is, isn’t it?
Let go and come back.