Monday, February 15, 2010

It's Not (Just) About Food

I just read a book by a colleague of mine, Michelle Lelwica. Her book, Religion of Thinness, is brimming with insights on the sources and supports of eating disorders, including one I want to highlight here.

You can’t (just) think your way out of an eating disorder.

Lelwica explains why. By using categories drawn from the study of religion (myth, icon, ritual, morality, community, and salvation), she is able to document a set of phenomena in contemporary culture that function as a self-reinforcing system, what she calls a “religion.” People with eating disorders believe that by engaging in rituals of food manipulation (whether dieting, binging, purging, obsessing, calorie counting, or some combination of all), they will find the happiness and acceptance they desire.

The system works because the practices have real physiological effects that provide those who perform them with immediate feedback and concrete measures of success. People lose (or gain) weight; experience all manner of chemical rushes, sugars to endorphins, and in the process, cultivate a sensory awareness of these effects as proof that they are OK. The effects of the practices make the beliefs seem true.

Moreover, this net of beliefs and practices is not only self-reinforcing, but as Lelwica suggests, the needs it serves are real. Her discussion about what human “spirits” need resonates with what I describe in What a Body Knows as a “desire for spirit”: humans desire a sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that allows them to affirm their lives as worth living.

Manipulating food is one way to pursue the sense of satisfaction, and it is particularly powerful because it enlists another primal desire—a desire for an experience of nourishing ourselves. As I discuss in WBK, nourish and nurture are forever entwined. Eating disorders extend a mind-over-body diet mentality to life as a whole: if I were thin, if I could attain perfect control of my body, I could get the life I want.

For these reasons, then, you can’t think your way out of an eating disorder. It is not enough to develop a critical immunity to cultural images of thinness. It is not enough to modify behaviors. Nor is it enough to deal with whatever fear, pain, and stress might prompt you to buy into the “religion of thinness.” While all of these interventions are helpful to some extent, none work at the level at which an eating disorder functions as a(n unhealthy) religion. Its patterns of belief and practice, icons and values hook into a set of basic physical and emotional needs and provide tangible, if deadly, life-depleting results.

Healing from an eating disorder requires that you lose your religion. Losing your religion means finding a new one.

The path to doing so is challenging, for it requires shifting your most basic experience of being in the world at the level where you sense and respond to your own bodily self as well as the bodily selves of others; and from this shifted place, embracing or creating the beliefs, images, practices, values, and human communities that will support you in that care-full attention to your bodily self. It’s risky. Scary. The results aren’t guaranteed.

So how do you do it?
Leif, 8 months yesterday, is standing. For the past month he has been pulling and pushing himself up onto his tiny feet at every turn and resting there for ten or twenty seconds at a time. His smile curls his cheeks into ruddy mounds; he waves his hands joyfully. Yet he has absolutely no interest in moving his feet. He will reach forward to the floor, sit backward on his rear, and even twist sideways to land on his hands, but his feet, rooted to the earth, won’t budge. It’s as if he is living up to his name, and trying to be a tree.

He reminds me: if you want to walk, you have to be willing to fall. Every time you take a step, for a fraction of an instant, you are aloft and moving through space. In that moment you must trust that the ground is going to be there for you, that your spine will connect to it through your legs, and that your center will hold you up.

How do we ever venture to take such a risk? There comes a moment when we are able to feel a pulse of energy that rises in ourselves and takes shape in our muscles as a desire to move. There comes a moment when we are willing to trust our bodily selves and allow new patterns of sensing and responding to walk us into a new world--a world of walking and walkers.
In counseling her readers to lose the religion of thinness, Lelwica identifies alternative resources across a range of religious traditions, and guides readers through specific practices of mindfulness for heightening awareness of their sensations, and promoting inner peace.

All good. I would add as well that we need to engage in bodily practices that help us cultivate a sensory awareness of the movement that is making us. We need to remember what it takes to walk.

Sometimes practices of sitting and stillness can serve to reinforce the sensory education we receive in perceiving our bodies as material objects, there for us to control. To shift this experience at its root, we need practices that provide us with an experience of our bodily selves as something other than the mind over body self that the religion of thinness itself exemplifies. We need practices that help us learn how to discern, trust, and move with the wisdom of our own bodily selves—such as those I described in my last entry.

Such movement practices yield a network of energizing, vitalizing pleasures that are capable of holding their own against the immediacy of eating practices. They put us back into our bodily selves, so we are more able to feel and follow the arc of our eating pleasure. They provide us with a lived experience of discerning, trusting, and moving with impulses that arise in us. They thus provide us with an experiential ground that can support a matrix of beliefs, icons, and values that affirm this rhythm of bodily becoming.

As I explore in WBK, humans look to religion for the opportunity to exercise their ability to name and make real the world in which they want to live. It is by participating consciously in this process that we find the sense of vitality, direction, and belonging we need in order to affirm our lives as worthwhile. It is not so much about identifying the right belief or the right practice or the right vision of life as much as it is about the willingness to take the risk of finding ways of being that support us in becoming who we are and unfolding what we have to give. It's not just about food.

We can learn to launch ourselves forward into space, willing and able to inhabit space, take up space, and move through it, because we are alive. Step by step, we walk into a new world.

See my 5-star amazon review of Religion of Thinness!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Come to Your Senses

It is one of the first lessons that any dancer learns: if you want to go up, you have to go down. If you want to soar with the greatest of ease, first you must bend your knees.

It is a lesson rich with implications. For example, the movement down might seem to lead in the opposite direction of where you want to go. I want to go up! It might seem to delay gratification. It might even seem to pose an obstacle to what you desire. The reverse is true: going down is the movement that enables a dancer to go up.

Further, since it is impossible to stay up forever, going down is also the movement that enables a dancer to land without falling. It is her ability to complete the arc of a jump that gives that jump its dynamism and punch.

This logic characterizes all natural processes. It is not just a question of balance, but of a rhythmic oscillation that involves moving in two opposing directions in order to move at all. We must exhale to inhale, sleep to wake, eat to run, and so on.

It is a logic that our mind over body training teaches us to ignore.
I ended last blog asking about the kind of movement practice that would provide us with the sensory education we need in order to ensure that our use of electronic devices in particular and technology in general serves the ongoing health and well being of our selves and the planet.

Short answer: we need movement practices that encourage us to bend our knees.

Longer Answer: The driving force in our technological development, one with long roots in western civilization, is to resist the downward pull of nature. We aspire to transcend our sensory selves and go to god, or at least into rarified realms of objective reason. We want to protect ourselves from the shocks and uncontrollable wildness of the natural world, while harnessing its power for our own ends. The latest gear promises to save us time and energy, to save us from manual labor, pain and death, to save us from ourselves. Following this path, we use our screen devices to move up and out of our bodies into vibrating virtual realms of imagination, abstraction, and ease.

We take it as a sign of advancement that, in the middle of a cold winter night, we can be wide awake, texting on a blackberry in a warm, well lit room, drinking coffee and eating bananas.

Yet our insulation has become isolation. Living in contemporary times, we hardly even feel the downward pull of nature in us and around us. The technologies that connect us with people and places and knowledge around the world lure us away from a sensory awareness of the nature of ourselves and the oscillating movement that sustains our existence. We stand on tiptoe, trying to reach higher and higher.

To balance this upward flight, then, we need to engage in practices that draw our attention back down into our bodies and out through our senses. Given this aim, it doesn’t really matter what kind of movement you make. What matters is whether you open to sense and appreciate how the movements you are making are making you.

I offer four guidelines.

1. Move in ways that require you to breathe. Of course, every movement we make requires us to breathe, and breathing itself is a movement we make that makes us. However, when we engage in movements that require us to breathe more and other than we do when sitting or standing, several shifts happen. We become more aware of the fact that we are breathing and that we need to breathe. We also shake off the patterns of compressed breathing that we have mastered in our quest for moving up into our minds. Most of us never breathe to our full capacity. We have forgotten what it feels like. We don’t even know that we are not breathing with our bodily selves. We have lost the ability to sense what we aren't sensing. So move in a way that demands that you breathe big.

2. Move in ways that require (some) coordination. When we engage in movements that require the repetition of specific patterns of coordinating our limbs and lobes, several shifts happen. First, we become aware of the fact that we are always making patterns, and that we have the capacity to learn to make new patterns. Second, in so far as we are moving in ways that are requiring us to breathe, we will also find that our differences in our breathing generate new experiences of the movements we are making. Our experience of the movement pattern changes, depending on whether we are inhaling or exhaling, winded or full. We find our running stride lengthens, our yoga stretch deepens, or our swimming stroke quickens. So move in a way that requires you to execute patterns of sensation and response.

3. Move to invite your attention into your breathing, moving bodily self. When we are moving to breathe and breathing to move, the breathing movement exerts a downward pull on our attention, drawing us to notice what we are feeling as we move. Let it. Feel the twinge of a muscle ache, the pinch of a stitch, the ease of a released cramp. When you do, you are feeling how the movements you are making are making you. Your movements are producing those sensations and your responses to them. And once you realize this fact, you can also begin to sense that you have the ability to make movements that will not produce whatever feelings of discomfort you may be feeling. You begin to appreciate the wisdom of your bodily self. You open to the rushes of energy and vitality that strengthen your sense of who you are.

4. Move, if you can, near nature. The nature in us responds to the nature around us in ways that help us come to our senses. Nature offers experience in the round, engaging all of our senses in ways that extend beyond their ranges. Move in ways that place you in infinity.

Run, walk, bike, swim, dance, ski, do yoga, stretch, mow, play tennis, fold laundry, clean the house.

If we move to breathe and breathe to move in patterns of rhythmic, coordinated action, with a willingness to have our attention drawn into our sensory selves, preferably in a natural setting, we will develop the internal criteria we need in order to discern when it is time to unplug from our virtual worlds and reconnect with the lived experience of our sensory selves. We will know when we start to suffer from an isolation from our sensory selves. We will feel the discomfort of it and seek to move differently.

We will also have the internal sense we need to make sure that the thoughts we are thinking and the dreams we are dreaming while soaring in our virtual realms will support us in replenishing our sensory sources, so we can jump again. We will be more likely to generate ideals and pursue values that honor the earth in us and around us as the condition for our thinking and dreaming at all.

Going up is great, ecstatic even. But to do it well, we need to be able to bend our knees and land on our feet.