Since my book about mindful cooking and eating came out in September, I have been speaking and teaching more about the practice of mindful eating, and how to work with habits that cause us to suffer. Especially at this holiday time of the year, it can be difficult to “manage” our eating when there are so many sweets, drinks, and relatives around.
One of the things I find trickiest about teaching people how to be mindful in challenging situations is that there is no recipe to follow. There is no recipe because when we are mindful we respond to situations directly from our inner wisdom. If we could always make choices from that immediate wisdom, we probably wouldn’t so often regret our actions.
Well, you are saying, that sounds so easy. If it’s that easy, why do I, and so many others, eat and drink to excess and then feel guilty? And what can we do about it? Here’s the hard part: that wisdom isn’t always available. A lot of the time it’s gets knocked unconscious by our anxiety, avoidance, and craving. All three of which are fueled by conditioned fears. And here’s the good part: it is possible to spend more time in our inner wisdom.
Though I hate to admit it, when I was in college, there were times when I drank so much that I didn’t remember much of what happened. Being overtaken by our anxiety, avoidance, or craving is a lot like being blackout drunk. Only it doesn’t require any alcohol, just our naturally fearful mind. In an instant that fear can put our cool, calm, Buddha-nature out cold, and before we know it we are eating our third piece of pie in bed with a pint of coconut ice cream.
Our first reaction is to condemn ourselves and those parts of us that ate too much. But that would be like blaming the alcohol for our black out. The nature of alcohol (when taken in large quantities) is to inebriate us. The nature of the mind is to make sure we are “safe” by worrying and craving. Getting angry at ourselves for our mind’s anxiety habit is about as effective as screaming at the vodka bottle, “Damn it, you got me drunk again!”
The only way I found to keep from getting blackout drunk was to recognize that if I kept drinking I was going to do things I would seriously regret in the morning. In the same way, remembering that our awareness and concentration will keep us clearheaded and practicing staying present in each moment, we know we will have less to regret later. Being present we are more likely to act from our deepest intentions for well-being. Though I can’t tell you what those actions are or should be, I have faith that when we aren’t blacked out on fear, our actions will tend to reduce suffering– our own and others’.
“What you can plan is too small for you to live. What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough for the vitality hidden in your sleep.” –David Whyte
Those times when we do lose track of our wisdom and eat a pile of Christmas cookies, we can either stay lost by blaming ourselves, the cookies, or our families or we can return to our Buddha nature by simply accepting that this is how the human mind is designed to operate. Anxiety and acting out of anxiety is gonna happen. And the more we blame and judge ourselves and others, the more lost we will become.
When we simply return our mind to our body — by becoming aware of our feet on the floor, our breath coming in and going out, or the sounds of the world around us — we easily wake up. Unlike a real alcohol blackout, we have the power to wake up from our anxiety, fear and craving anytime we want. It only takes one breath. Whether we were blacked out for a minute, a month, or a lifetime doesn’t matter. Obsessing about the seemingly “bad” things we did while we were out only serves to keep us unconscious. Returning to our Buddha nature again and again is the best we can do.
“And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” –Rainer Maria Rilke
This is why there is no recipe for mindfulness. Each moment is unique and full of opportunity, and we know exactly what to do or not do when we are fully present. To eat or not to eat, is not the question. When we arrive in the present moment and recognize our deep connection to the world, we will know just what a next right step will be.