On control and powerlessness
When we don’t live our light, our shadows step in. One of mine comes in the form of eating disorders, which I have struggled with since I was 15. Depending on my life situation, they are a more or less dominant part in everyday life. I am only now understanding in what ways they have served me.
I have always been terrified of that part of me. Not only did it seem uncontrollable, it seemed to be controlling me. I used to try and fight that part, not understanding that it was no accident that that only made it worse.
What I know now:
1. The eating disorder kicks in when I feel like I am not in control of things – more specifically, when I cannot accept that feeling of not being in control. Suppressed fear of control results in actual (self-induced) loss of control. Sounds simple but I could not see that connection until recently.
2. There is no winning in fighting. I can only lose if I try to wage a war on myself (or anyone else for that matter). As long as I hate that part of me that seems so out of control and destructive, it will control me. That is not winning.
3. Only when I allow myself to see that this dis-order is the (misguided) attempt to serve an actual need, am I able to find ways to truly fulfill that need without self-destruction. When I started to search for a way to live with myself, to live with my eating disorder, that was when it started to loosen its grip on me.
That meant accepting two things: 1. I am not in control of everything (and sometimes of nothing at all), 2. I am terrified of that feeling. Yeah, it’s the second one that is the biggie. What happens when I binge-eat is that I try to suppress and mollify those feelings. At the same time, this creates (more) suffering. In that sense the destructive nature of this habit is doing the exact same thing that I am trying to avoid: forcing me to face my truth – the fact that I am full of fear of not being in control.
The fear of not being in control naturally comes from experiences where my own powerlessness seemed to threaten my life or at least my well-being. My childhood like many others was full of those experiences (I also believe this is a theme we all have spent numerous lives exploring). Who does not have a memory of a situation where you found yourself at the mercy of others who were unable or unwilling to use their power over you with kindness?
The truth is this: there is nothing we could have done in those situations. That is the real misunderstanding, the origin of this need for control: the belief that if only we had done this or that, things would have turned out right. When it comes to abusive relationships where one experiences being at the mercy of the other, there is in fact nothing one can do right within that relationship. As a child we can hardly walk away from that. That’s what second chances (karma) are for.
As an adult I drew a work situation into my life that gave me a chance to re-live that feeling of complete powerlessness, of not being able to deal with a person who did not only not care about my well-being but who was perfectly willing and capable of throwing me under the bus if it served her agenda. When the scenario in my mind was at its worst, I felt like Alice in Wonderland who didn’t know whether the Queen of Hearts was going to invite her to a round of cricket or call her henchmen to decapitate her. It took me a while to get through the panic and see that my life was not in fact threatened. That my mind was reacting to an echo from the past. That this time I could in fact walk away, and that that was the only thing I could do right.
As I wrote in my post on How to deal with conflicting emotions:
Our ego is a lot less in control than it likes to make us believe. When I look back at my life, I was hardly ever aware of the significance of the events that really shaped its course. The things that seemed important, which I worked myself up over, turned out not to be. The things that were, were never entirely up to me. In fact, I could even “mess them up” and “somehow” they worked out anyway – because that was the way things were needed to be for me to stay on my path.
For the most part of my life, I have poured my energy into all the things I had no power over: the milestones that were already set, the situations and people I could not change. It’s only in the recent past that I began to see where my power is truly effective and needed: that it’s all the little things in between, the ones that aren’t the game changers but the ones that „fill out the space“ between the big events. I’ve come to believe those are my life. Or rather, they determine what kind of life I am leading, whether it’s happy or not.
With all that in mind, I’d like to re-adjust what I said about acceptance of not being in control. I don’t want to accept the fact that I am not in control of parts of my life. I want to embrace it. I want to enjoy the fact that a burden has been lifted from my shoulders – because that is what this really is, when you walk around thinking that you have to fix the big stuff all by yourself. One false move and you’ve ruined everything! Who wants to live like that? Not me.
So what to do with all that freed up energy? Put it into making sure all the small stuff in between is as light and happy as possible.
Ayurveda on eating disorders
A lot has been going on. It’s hard to put in words, I have been re-writing this sentence several times now. Part of me wants to tell the whole story, another part doesn’t think it’s relevant for anyone but me (maybe that’s true, or maybe that’s just the part talking that is reluctant to show itself for what it is).
Waking my demons
The short version is: The circumstances in my life – less than two weeks away from unemployment, a long week at work coming up involving travel, and spiritual growth – have awoken an old demon: my eating disorder (binge-eating). It hasn’t been this bad since university, in some respects it’s even worse. For several weeks now it has been a daily struggle („struggle“ seems like a euphemism since I haven’t had much fight in me it seems), I have even gone and bought stuff I craved, which I never ever have done before.
Practical remedies for when you feel weak
I think I know what the underlying issue is here: and old karmic trauma, the memory of which I recently conjured when I made a wish. I do want to get into that at some point but right now I want to focus on the symptoms. For while I believe that my best chances of overcoming this self-destructive habit is by dealing with the issues I am trying to distract myself from with it, I also feel a need for something more hands-on, a lower obstacle. Because honestly: sometimes the advice „Well then just don’t give into these cravings, and you’ll find out what’s really the issue“ is just not practical. If it were easy, or if I felt that strong, I probably wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.
This is the part I want to share with you not just because it helps me writing about these things but because I think that the information I came across this afternoon is helpful to anyone with an eating disorder/an unhealthy relationship to food (just out of curiosity, are there any people left who have a healthy one?).
An Ayurvedic approach to eating disorders
I remembered some of the Ayurveda books I read also mentioned eating disorders as symptoms of dosha imbalances (I wrote about Ayurveda and its terminology before, click on the category „Ayurveda“ or scroll down to the relevant links if you want to know more). So I tried to find books with an Ayurvedic perspective on eating disorders. Once again I am grateful for the internet, and people sharing their work there so generously. I found a very informative article (please note that all facts I’ll be stating are from that article, unless otherwise marked):
„Pathology of Eating Disorders From an Ayurvedic Perspective“ by Alakananda Devi
It uses a lot of Ayurveda terminology, so I am trying to make this a sort of easy to understand summary. I encourage you however to read the original article in any case. There are lots of cases to illustrate the technicalities, and also because I will (for obvious, selfish) reasons mostly be going into the things that pertain to my situation, since those caught my eye.
Some basic insights
Let’s start from the beginning:
- Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia, overeating) are related to stress and/or food allergies.
- How we react to stress in our eating habits depends on our individual constitution (dosha – Vata, Pitta or Kapha).
- Bad choices regarding food may stem from lack of education (meaning: we just don’t know any better than to eat they way we were taught as children), and for some (especially Pitta) they are a way to cope with trauma.
I am a Pitta-Kapha (right now with a severe Kapha imbalance, I’d say). For me, just recognizing myself in a lot of the symptoms stated in this article helps. Heck, just reading that
- Vata types are prone to anorexia/bulimia and tend to forget to eat,
- Pitta cannot skip meals and has a tendency to sugar addiction,
- Kapha easily puts on weight and is inclined to overeating
is huge! It takes away the feeling of personal guilt, and shifts the perspective to „This is how I as a Vata/Pitta/Kapha person react to stress, now let’s see what can be done about that“.
There is no „one size fits all“ solution
I have been praising Ayurveda for its individualistic approach in probably every article I wrote, and I find myself wanting to stress this crucial point once again: what is great about Ayurveda is that it does not claim to offer a universal solution. What is good for you always depends on who you are, therefore any „‚one size fits all‘ approach“, as Alakanda Devi puts it, is bound to set you up for failure. Unless, of course, you just happen to be the right person for the method but I’d prefer finding the right method for me …
Like increases like
Although there are no universal remedies, Ayurveda knows of certain universal principles. One of them is: like increases like. Often times like is also attracted to like, which is highly relevant when it comes to eating disorders. For according to Devis article, some eating disorders are the result of food allergies, and once recognized as such can be (relatively) easily cured.
For example, Kapha types are often (or more often than other types) allergic to wheat, gluten, and cow dairy. The „like increases like“ and „like is attracted to like“ explains why someone can be craving food that is actually bad for them. Various readings and nutrition experiments have led me – time and time again – to the conclusion that I am better off skipping sugar, dairy, and carbs (mainly wheat/gluten). Yet when I have cravings, I want ice-cream, cereal with lots of milk, and bread with cheese. Now I know why. (I kind of want to put sugar in a separate category because it seems like it works more like drug. Some say that refined sugar isn’t good for anyone, especially not the amounts we are used to consuming nowadays, others say that only certain people are more sensitive to its negative effects – either way, I’m it, I guess.) I know that cutting out the foods that are bad for me does not help with the psychological aspect of my eating disorder – but I imagine that for someone whose problems with eating are the result of an (undetected) food allergy, this information is really a big piece of the puzzle.
I think my Kapha is out of balance …
Even before I read this article I had been observing myself and recognizing certain tendencies which just seemed to have „excess Kapha“ written all over them:
- I have been feeling very tired, pushing my getting-up time gradually to way into the Kapha or even Pitta phase of the day.
- I have been feeling heavy, and at the same time craving foods with that exact quality (peanut butter with honey turned out to be my no. 1 poison, not to give you any ideas …), which made me feel even heavier – both principles, „like is attracted to like“, and „like increases like“ working at their utmost here.
- My cravings and the binges have been at their worst at night, between 6 pm and 10 pm, which is the second Kapha cycle of the day (despite the knowledge of the different dosha cycles, I had not been able to connect the dots previous to reading Devi’s article, so thanks for that!).
- I have been lazy, not exercising at all, basically the thought of physical labor could make me feel exhausted.
There is a lot more in that article but this seems like a good place to stop for now.
Now that I have realized all this, what am I to do with this?
First of all, like I mentioned in the beginning, just having this information and recognizing myself in the symptoms/cases described makes me feel like a weight has been lifted off me. Apart from dealing with the underlying issue, which may seem daunting and hard to grasp at times, there are „hard facts“. There are factors that contribute to me going on binges, and factors that can make it easier to withstand them. Those seem more tangible, easier to change, even when I don’t feel strong enough to deal with the big picture.
Once again, it’s the little things – baby steps.
Like being aware of the fact that it’s not necessarily just a question of willpower and discipline whether I can withstand cravings at night but that the Kapha dominance during these hours is a contributing factor. So I prepare myself for the risk, and find something to do to take my mind off of food – like writing this post.
I am reminded of the impact that sugar, wheat, and dairy have on me – not only on my physical well-being but also emotionally. This makes me feel motivated to try and make more deliberate choices about what I eat. I try to focus on what is good for me, and what I enjoy eating instead of thinking of it as „All the things I’m not allowed“. This is a tricky one since I am never oblivious as to whether what I eat is good for me or not …
Exercising helps reduce Kapha – as with everything, I am going to try and set the bar as low as possible, and raise it gradually (I tend to set my goals to high, get frustrated by failure, and respond by giving up completely). Going for an hour long walk every day seems do-able.
I want to try and see my cravings as something positive: after all, they are undeniable hints of something being awry. In my quest to find out my what my issues are, what it is that I am so afraid of to surface that I need to stuff it down with vast amounts of food, there is one fail-proof way of finding out: not giving in to the cravings, and seeing where that leads me. Like I said before, this is the hardest part.
I want to get better at asking for help. Both friends and the universe in my morning meditation.
Going to see to it that I get back to getting up early again.
More practical advice
Here’s another site with a few more hands-on things to do, e. g. different yogi techniques, which I want to try:
- Sweet Ayurveda Treatment to Stop Emotional Eating & Lose Weight – I know I’ll feel silly doing this even when nobody’s around, but it’s worth a try, right?
- Healthy Ayurveda Diet To Burn Fat & Lose Weight – OK, that title does not sound good, and I am not so sure about some of the advice but still, I’m definitely in need of some Kapha reduction.
- 5 Healthy Weight Loss Tips from Ayurveda – More weight loss stuff. I am actually proud of myself for not even having tried hard to not make this the focus of this post (gee, that was a lot of negatives). And the fact that I am finally at a point where weight loss isn’t my main concern anymore (although claiming that it isn’t a concern at all would be a lie, sadly).
- 6 Safe & Natural Weight Los Solutions – again, dumb title, not so sure about some of the advice (drinking hot water with honey? From what I understand honey has the same effect as sugar, so probably a red flag for me) but most of it sounds pretty good to me, especially the meditations and yoga exercises.
- 11 Guidelines for eating healthy | Guide on how to eat right – This is straight up Ayurveda, you can probably find this in every book on the subject. I should print these out and put them up somewhere to remind myself. Very basic, very true – often times hard to abide by because we’ve overwritten this common sense (for that is really what this, or anything Ayurveda, is) with other rules.
Other relevant links
Ayurvedic Diet – A good overview
Ayurveda – Becoming your own expert
Facing our demons | Say yes
Yup. More rantage coming up. Writing yesterday’s post felt liberating but it upset parts of me that are afraid of the path I’ve begun to walk, parts that are afraid of letting go, afraid of letting something new (= unknown) in. Parts that try to hang on to the old, no matter how destructive it may be.
I ended up doing what I do when I am deeply anxious – binge eat. Or rather: it is what I do when something inside of me tries to raise its voice to tell me something I don’t want to hear. And it works, too. By creating another problem that I can focus on – eating till I feel sick to my stomach, beating myself up over it, asking myself why I keep doing this to myself (but only on a physical level, of course) – I don’t have to look at the real issues. Really convenient, right? Except for the part where I’m destroying my body, and oh yeah: that keeping an issue from coming to the surface of my mind doesn’t solve anything, it just suppresses it – until something else triggers it. Apart from those minor details, this method works perfectly well.
I have been using food/eating as means of reacting to emotional stress since I was about 16. I don’t find the clinical terms („eating disorder“, „anorexia“, „bulimia“, etc.) helpful anymore, although I used to define myself that way. I could recognize myself (to a t) in the various descriptions you find in self-help books etc., which I read at some point.
It is definitely comforting to know that you don’t do the things you do because you’re crazy but that your behavior can even be construed as „normal“ given the circumstances. From that perspective, this rational/scientific/psychological way of dealing with these issues has its merits. However, putting a label on things can also become a way of stigmatizing yourself, of locking yourself into a box. A box that is difficult to climb out of, even though really it only exists in your own mind.
Every time this „happens to me“ (well, if you read my previous post you know I don’t believe in that), when I am overcome with the feeling that I just have to eat, and that nothing else will make this anxiety go away, it scares me. It makes me feel like a failure that no matter how far I seem to have come I still resort to this self-destructive measure. Sure, these binges have decreased in frequency. There was a time in my life when they could go on for days, I couldn’t even go to school, I was completely overpowered – now there can be months in between. Sometimes I even think I have „beaten“ this „thing“. Usually, that’s when it comes right back to prove me wrong. I have laden this behavior and its side-effects with a lot of meaning. Doing it means there’s something wrong with me, not doing it means everything is ok. One side-effect is obviously my weight, and me attaching meaning to that as well. So, in accordance: weighing less would mean I am normal, gaining weight = failure.
I don’t like to talk about this part very much, not because I am ashamed but because I find it frustrating that no matter where you turn, no one seems to be happy with how they look, and somehow it usually boils down to their weight. I know that I am not obese, that my weight in fact is „normal“. I know that I could, SHOULD be happy with myself, and I really wish I were. I would love to be one of those examples that I myself am looking for everywhere – someone that has not been affected my the media brainwash, someone that is truly happy with themselves and how they look even though they don’t fit the mold. Sadly, on a lot of days I can only pretend to be that person.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, binge eating = something’s wrong, not binge eating = everything’s peachy. I’ve come so far to realize that the key is not to think in these kind of opposites. I find myself best protected against these self-inflicted attacks when I am aware and accepting of the fact that this is part of my life. I guess just like alcoholics or addicts of other drugs still refer to themselves as addicts even when they’ve been sober for years.
Obviously, this is not easy, because who wants that, right? I don’t want this in my life, so why should I have to accept it, let alone embrace it?! Someone (I should probably know who, like Buddha or the Dalai Lama, ehem) once said that pain is not something we choose but suffering is. And if you’re into this „spiritual stuff“ (I only got into it two years ago, so a lot that may be old news to you is still new and revolutionary to me) you run across this realization sooner or later, and maybe you run into it even if you’re not into „spiritual stuff“: the only way we can suffer is by trying to reject what already is, which of course we cannot succeed at. No matter how much I don’t want something that already is, my not wanting it to be cannot undo its existence. It’s a waste of energy.
So, if you cannot change something, allow it to be. Obviously, this permission isn’t really about the external thing, for it is what it is no matter what you think about it. That permission is for you. Allow yourself not to judge. It will spare you the suffering that you will inevitably go through if you try to fight what already is.
Please don’t get me wrong: this is not to say that there aren’t things we should change in the world, that we should just sit back. But you have to know what is and isn’t in your power to change, and when the time is right.
This concept may seem simple, and in theory, I guess like the best concepts, it is. I can also see how I could/should/want to apply it in interactions with others: there is no point in me getting mad over something someone else already has done. I mean, getting mad is important, too, to not let anyone run over you but there has to be a limit. After you’ve expressed your discontent, you should try to get over it and move on, instead of dwelling on it. As I said: simple in theory …
Where it gets tricky is when it comes to one’s self. For intuitively I want to claim that anything I do is in my control, so how can I accept the things I don’t like about myself? Well, I think just that last part kind of questions my premiss: if I am fully in control, how can I do something which I do not approve of? Sounds kind of schizophrenic, don’t you think? Yet I am going to be so bold as to state that we all do things we later regret, we even do them over (and over and over again), and regret them over (and over and over again) – and that at least most of us would say that they are in control over our own actions – who else would be? I mean, sure, you can argue that we are products of our environment, the society we live in. But on some level, the individual does make a choice for a concrete motion it is about to undergo (whether physical or mental), right?
I have gotten side-tracked again here, I see the term „ego“ coming up, which is not what I had in mind when I started this paragraph out, so please excuse if I am bringing this one to a screeching halt before I get into something I cannot possibly cover in a paragraph or two. Once again: yay for the internet, feel free to go ahead and read about the ego elsewhere now – or continue here with me.
What I did want to get at was this: our experience tells us that – for whatever reasons – we are not free from contradictions, we do things that we later wish we hadn’t, we detect character traits in ourselves which we’re not happy about. Therefore, this notion of allowing what is applies to ourselves just as much as it does to our interactions with others/external factors.
I try to do this with my eating habits, and obviously, it’s not easy. Because I really don’t want to have this in my life – but somehow that is not for me to choose. I don’t feel guilty about it afterward as much as I used to, even though that is hard, too. I try not to punish myself. Again: not easy.
Yesterday, I tried something that in a twisted way felt especially difficult because it made the whole binge-eating episode obsolete: I looked into myself and asked that voice that I had shut up by stuffing it down with food to speak to me, and tell me what had upset it so much. It spoke to me, and this confirmed what another part of me knew all along: there is nothing to be afraid of when facing our demons. They are parts of ourselves that cannot actually threaten our existence. They are scared themselves and need healing.
May we remember that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, that our souls are indestructible. And may we be kind and forgiving to ourselves when we act cowardly.
PS: I first came across this concept of „allowing what is“ when I listened to Eckhard Tolle’s The Power of Now and Realizing the Power of Now, something I can recommend to anyone. I think it is pretty accessible even if you think spirituality is „mumbo-jumbo“ but then you probably didn’t read this far, so …