One thing you can do to wring “health and wellness dollars” out of my excellent former company that I love very much is to work with a health coach on a self-chosen project. I don’t have any particular health problems where telephone counseling might help. My knees give me some trouble off and on, but that’s a matter of doing my exercises and riding my bicycle fairly often. Two years ago, figuring that everyone has some sort of stress they’d like to be free of, I requested help with that. Last year, my project was learning to be more patient with my boyfriend, and I could have chosen the same this year, but, in search of novelty, I said that I’d like to understand what is happening when I eat for non-hunger reasons. Not necessarily not to do that, but to understand why: What situations trigger this? What thoughts am I having? What emotions? What bodily sensations?
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking home from the church where Howie’s meditation group meets after determining that the cleaner smell was still too strong. It occurred to me that I might do well to go get a bag or two of Barbara’s Jalapeño Cheese Puffs. I thought, as I have thousands of times before, “OK, I’ll go get some cheese puffs [or whatever], but starting tomorrow, I’m going eat in such-and-such manner.” This is an obvious win-win: I get to have cheese puffs now, along with a lovely feeling of resolve and virtue.
But it means that the only way I’m not going to eat an entire bag of cheese puffs, or whatever, is if the thought doesn’t happen to cross my mind. That is a pretty precarious foundation, and if I’m ever to rest on something more reliable, I am going to have to learn to tolerate the feeling of wanting to do something without doing it.
I walked home and observed that I still wanted to eat cheese puffs. Half an hour and an hour later, ditto. But eventually, I didn’t want to, and it was OK that I hadn’t. The feeling of desire is impermanent, like everything other than awareness itself.
When I worked out my plan with the health coach, I told him what I was interested in, and he asked if I’d ever kept an eating log. For sure. I explained that this, for me, functions as just another backfiring diet, and that I’m not as interested in what or how much I eat as in learning about the causes of non-physical hunger. He asked if I’d ever thought of not eating the whole bag of potato chips. Again I explained that that’s not the point. There’s room for a certain number of whole bags of potato chips in my life. I just would like to have more choice and to understand what gives rise to compulsive eating.
Eventually, he suggested that I keep a log covering what I had said in the first place, but it was kind of a nice exchange, because he was now speaking of it as if it were his idea, meaning that he understood it and felt some ownership. I agreed that was an excellent idea, and that’s what I’m doing.
One big trigger is the transition between activities. The end of any meal can feel like stepping into something amorphous and undefined, a worrisome feeling of being without landmarks. No wonder some meals can last quite a long time. Quite often the thought accompanying a desire to eat for non-hunger reasons is simply an image of myself doing it, or the trigger might be a situation in which I have done the same thing many times before: I always buy Plentils when I visit Whole Foods.
I’m not getting too much when it comes to emotions, but investigating thoughts is very helpful: “I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do, so I should get to eat potato chips.” “It’s inevitable—I might as well go ahead.” “I don’t encounter this food often, so if I eat all of it, that will be that,” which is a form of “I’m going to do this now, but not later,” which is all about avoiding sitting with the experience of desire right now. Then there’s, “Oh! I’ve never seen those before—shouldn’t I try them?” and, “Oh, well, I’m already stuffed, so I might as well.”