Women Food and God
The World on Our Plates
Eighty hungry women are sitting in a circle with bowls of cold tomato vegetable soup; they are glowering at me, furious. It is lunchtime on the third day of the retreat. During these daily eating meditations each woman approaches the buffet table, lines up to be served, takes her seat in the circle, and waits until we all sit down to eat. The process is agonizingly slow—fifteen minutes or so—especially if food is your drug of choice.
Although the retreat is going well and many people here have had life-changing insights, at this moment no one cares. They don’t care about stunning breakthroughs or having ninety pounds to lose or whether God exists. They want to be left alone with their food, period. They want me to take my fancy ideas about the link between spirituality and compulsive eating and go away. It is one thing to be conscious about food in the meditation hall, and another to be sitting in the dining room, refraining from taking even one bite until the entire group has been served. Also, I’ve asked that silence be observed, so
there are no frissons of laughter or chatty how-are-yous to distract attention from hunger or lack of it, since not everyone is hungry.
The retreat is based on a philosophy I’ve developed over the past thirty years: that our relationship to food is an exact microcosm of our relationship to life itself. I believe we are walking, talking expressions of our deepest convictions; everything we believe about love, fear, transformation and God is revealed in how, when and what we eat. When we inhale Reese’s peanut butter cups when we are not hungry, we are acting out an entire world of hope or hopelessness, of faith or doubt, of love or fear. If we are interested in finding out what we actually believe—not what we think, not what we say, but what our souls are convinced is the bottom-line truth about life and afterlife—we need go no further than the food on our plates. God is not just in the details; God is also in the muffins, the fried sweet potatoes and the tomato vegetable soup. God—however we define him or her—is on our plates.
Which is why eighty women and I are sitting in a circle with cold vegetable soup. I look around the room. Photographs of flowers—intricate close-ups of a red dahlia, the golden edges of a white rose—are hung on the wall. A bouquet of peach gladiolas is splayed so extravagantly on a side table that it looks as if it is prancing at the prom in its finery. Then I begin noticing the faces of my students. Marjorie, a psychologist in her fifties, is playing with her spoon and doesn’t meet my eyes. A twenty-
year-old gymnast named Patricia is wearing black tights and a lemon-colored tank top. Her tiny body sits like an origami bird on her cushion—delicate, perfectly erect. On her plate is a handful of sprouts and a fistful of salad, that’s all. I look to my right and see Anna, a surgeon from Mexico City, biting one of her lips and tapping her fork on the plate impatiently. There are three pieces of bread with thick slabs of butter on her plate, a bit of salad, no soup, no vegetables. Her food says, “Fuck you, Geneen, I don’t have to play this ridiculous game. Watch me binge the second I get the chance.” I nod at her as if to say, “Yup, I understand how hard it is to slow down.” I take a quick glance around the rest of the room, at faces, at plates. The air is thick with resistance to this eating meditation, and since I am the one who makes the rules, I am also the one at whom the fury is directed. Getting between people and their food is like standing in front of a speeding train; the act of being stopped in compulsive behavior is not exactly met with good cheer.
“Anyone want to say anything before we begin?” I ask.
“Then, blessings on our food and all that made it possible. The rain, the sun, the people who grew it, brought it here, served it here,” I say.
I can hear Amanda, who is sitting to my right, taking a deep breath at the sound of the prayer. Across the room Zoe nods her head, as if to say, “Oh, right. The earth, the sun, the rain. Glad they’re there.” But
not everyone is grateful to take one more second to do anything but eat. Louisa in her bright red running suit sighs and grunts an almost indiscernible “Oh for God’s sakes. Can we puh-leese get on with this?!” She looks as if she is ready to kill me. Humanely, of course, and only with the slightest bit of suffering, but still.
“Now, take some time and notice what you put on your plate,” I say. “Notice if you were hungry when you chose the food. If you weren’t physically hungry, was there another kind of hunger present?
“And looking at your plates, decide what you want to eat first and take a few bites. Notice how the food feels in your mouth. If it tastes like you thought it would taste. If it does what you thought it would do.”
Three, four minutes pass amid the symphony of eating sounds: rustling, chewing, swallowing, clinking. I notice that Izzy, a six-foot-two willowy woman from France, is looking out the window and seems to have forgotten that we are eating. But most people are holding the plates up to their mouths so they can get the bites in faster.
Laurie, a thirty-five-year-old CEO of a Boston mortgage company, raises her hand. “I am not hungry, but I want to be. I want to eat anyway.”
“Why is that?” I ask.
“Because it looks good and it’s here, right now. It’s the best comfort in town. What’s wrong with wanting comfort from food?”
“Not a thing,” I say. “Food is good and comfort is
good. Except that when you are not hungry and you want comfort, food is only a temporary palliative; why not address the discomfort directly?”
“It’s too hard to address things directly, too painful, and there isn’t any end to it. And if it’s going to be endlessly painful, then at least I have food,” she answers.
“So you figure that the best you can get out of life is cold vegetable soup?”
When she talks again, her voice is quivering. “It’s the only true comfort I have, and I am not going to deprive myself of it.” A tear jogs down her right cheek, hovers on her top lip. Heads nod in assent. A wave of murmurs passes around the circle.
Laurie says, “This thing we do here—waiting in silence until everyone gets their food—reminds me of what it was like to eat dinner in our family. My mother was drinking, my father was furious and no one was talking. It was horrible.”
“What were you feeling during those times?” I ask.
“Lonely, miserable, like I was born into the wrong family. I wanted to escape but there was no place to go; I felt trapped. And this feels the same way. Like all of you are crazy and I am trapped here, with a bunch of loonies.”
More head nods. More murmurs. A woman from Australia looks at me defiantly, her black waist-length hair brushing the edge of the soup bowl. I imagine she is thinking that Laurie is right and can she get a ride to the airport in fifteen minutes.
But right here, right now, in the center of this wound—I’ve been abandoned and betrayed by who and what really matters and what I’ve got left is food—is where the link between food and God exists. It marks the moment when we gave up on ourselves, on change, on life. It marks the place where we are afraid. It marks the feelings we won’t allow ourselves to feel, and in so doing, keeps our lives constricted and dry and stale. In that isolated place, it is a short step to the conclusion that God—where goodness and healing and love exist—abandoned us, betrayed us or is a supernatural version of our parents. Our practice at the retreats of working through this despair is not one of exerting will or conjuring up faith, but being curious, gentle and engaged with the cynicism, the hopelessness, the anger.
I ask Laurie if she can make room for the part of her that feels trapped and lonely.
She says no, she can’t. She says she just wants to eat.
I ask her if she is willing to consider the possibility that this has nothing to do with food.
She says no, she can’t. She is staring at me with a look of grim determination that says, “Keep out. Go away. Not interested.” Her eyes are narrow, her mouth is tight.
The room feels as if the air has been sucked out of it. People have stopped breathing; they are staring at me, at Laurie, waiting.
“I am wondering,” I say, “why you are so intent on
keeping me out. It seems as if there is a part of you bent on isolation, maybe even destruction.”
She puts down her spoon, which she has been holding in midair, and stares at me.
“Have you given up?” I ask.
It’s a risky question because it plunges right into the despair, but I ask it, since she has been fighting with me for the past three days and I am concerned about her leaving the retreat in a state of stony withdrawal. “When did the determination not to believe in anything ever again set in?”
She inhales sharply. Sits without speaking for a few minutes.
I look around the room. Suzanne, a mother of three young children, is crying. Victoria, a psychiatrist from Michigan, is watching, waiting, absorbed in what is happening.
“I’ve wanted to die since I was about ten,” Laurie says quietly.
“Can you make room for the ten-year-old?” I ask. “The one who didn’t see any way out of the hopeless situation she found herself in? Very gently, see if you can sense the hurt itself.”
Laurie nods her head. “I think I can do that,” she says quietly.
I ask her to do this not so that she can comfort her “inner child.” I don’t believe in inner children. I do believe that there are frozen places in ourselves—undi
gested pockets of pain—that need to be recognized and welcomed, so that we can contact that which has never been hurt or wounded or hungry. Although the work we do at the retreat is often experienced as therapeutic, it is not therapy. Unlike therapy, it is not designed to bolster self-esteem, which was created in reaction to our past. The work at the retreat is designed to reveal that which is beyond self-esteem, unconditioned by our past. Our personality and its defenses, one of which is our emotionally charged relationship to food, are a direct link to our spirituality. They are the bread crumbs leading us home.
Laurie says, “I don’t know what just happened, but suddenly I have no desire to eat the soup.”
I say, “It seems as if there is something even better than food: touching what you considered untouchable and viscerally discovering that you are bigger than your pain.”
She nods her head and smiles for the first time in three days. “Life doesn’t seem so bad at this moment. Saying out loud how bad I thought it was when I was ten makes it seem not so bad now. I guess what happens is that I can feel the ten-year-old and how big her sadness was without totally becoming her—that’s a good thing.”
The simple fact that her pain can be touched and that it won’t destroy her means that all is not lost or hopeless or unredeemable. I nod my head and ask if she wants to keep talking to me. She says, “I think this is enough for now.”
I ask people to pick up their silverware and take a few more bites—noticing what they want to eat, how it tastes, how they feel.
A few minutes later, Nell, a student at the retreats for seven years, raises her hand. “I am not hungry anymore, but I suddenly realized that I am afraid to push the food away.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because . . .”—and she starts to cry—“. . . because I realize I am not broken . . . and that you will be angry at me if you know.”
“Why would I be angry at you?” I ask.
“Because you’d see who I really am and you wouldn’t like it.”
“What would I see?”
“Vitality. A lot of energy. Determination. Strength.”
“Wow,” I say. “And what wouldn’t I like about that?”
“I wouldn’t need you then. And you would be threatened by that.”
“Who are you taking me to be? Anyone you know who was threatened by how gorgeous you are?”
Nell starts to laugh. “Hi, Mom,” she says.
The room erupts in a wave of laughter.
“She was so depressed,” Nell says. “And if I was just myself, that was too much for her. I needed to shut down the bigness—I needed to be as broken as she was—otherwise she’d reject me and that was unacceptable.”
“What’s happening in your body, Nell?” I ask.
“It feels like a fountain of color,” she says. “It’s as if I am streaming with vivid hues of red, green, gold, black streaking in my chest, my arms, my legs . . .”
“OK, let’s stop here for a minute. . . .”
I look around the room. Anna, who’d wanted to tell me to fuck off, is crying. Camille, who has looked bored since the retreat started, seems utterly absorbed in what is happening. The group attention is riveted by what Nell is saying about the need to be broken. They can relate to the belief that if they keep themselves wounded and damaged, they will be loved.
I look at Nell and say, “When you stop and let yourself feel what is being offered to you, it is never, ever what you thought it would be. You go from being afraid to being a fountain in three minutes. . . .”
Nell says, “It feels as if this quiet, calm space has been waiting for me to come back to it, like it’s been here all my life, like it’s more me than anything else.” And then Nell stands up and looks around the room. She pulls her chair aside and says, “Listen to this, girls! I AM NOT BROKEN!!!!”
More laughter. Then Nell continues, “This process amazes me. First I had to deal with the food thing. I really did have to stop using food to comfort myself—otherwise I felt too crazy—and there was no time for this spiritual stuff. Then, when my eating calmed down, I had to at least allow myself to feel the feelings of brokenness—that was tough. That was the part where I just had to believe what you were saying, Geneen—
that my resistance to the pain was worse than the pain. But to actually feel that I am not broken—I can hardly explain what that is like. It’s like being a piece of holiness. It’s like saying that goodness is not just for everyone else, it’s also for me. It is me!”
Since it’s almost time for the next session to begin in the meditation hall, I ask people to check in with their hunger levels, to rate themselves on a scale of one to ten, with one being hungry and ten being full, and to eat accordingly. “We’ll meet down in the meditation hall in thirty minutes,” I say, standing up from my seat.
As I am about to walk out the door, a woman named Marie grabs my hand and says, “I just have to say one thing to the group. Is that OK?”
I nod my head, bracing myself for what is coming. Marie has been a skeptic since the retreat began. She has sat in the sessions glaring at me with her arms folded across her chest as if to say, “Prove it to me, honey. Prove that this food thing is anything more than just shutting my mouth.” After each talk I’ve given, she’s challenged me, confronted me; yesterday she told me she was sorry she ever came. “This is just AFGO,” she said. “And I’m tired of it. I just want to lose the damn weight and be done with it.”
“What’s AFGO?” I asked.
“Another Fucking Growth Opportunity,” Marie answered.
I laughed so hard I started snorting. “I’m sorry for laughing,” I said. “But it seems as if AFGOs have got
ten a bad rap. Maybe you will find that this retreat opens you in ways you never imagined.”
“I doubt it,” she answered, and stomped away, her loose ponytail of curly red hair bobbing as her body receded in the distance.
Now, in the dining room, Marie says, “It just occurred to me that everything we believe about our lives is right here. The whole world is on these plates.”
“Amen, sister,” I say. Before stepping out the door, I bend down to Marie’s ear and quietly say, “Let’s hear it for AFGOs.”
On my way to the meditation hall, I am once again aware that the entire retreat could take place in the dining room, that what we believe about food and eating is an exquisite reflection of all our beliefs. As soon as the food comes out, the feelings come out. As soon as the feelings come out, there is an inevitable recognition of the self-inflicted violence and suffering that fuel any obsession. And on the heels of that recognition comes the willingness to engage with and unwind the suffering rather than be its prisoner. The exquisite paradox of this engagement is that when the suffering is fully allowed, it dissolves. Weight loss occurs easily, naturally. And without the self-inflicted pain and the stories about what is wrong, what’s left is what was there before they began: our connection to meaning and to that which we find holy.
In 1978, I led my first group for compulsive eaters; at the initial meeting I was fifty pounds overweight and, due to a misunderstanding with a hairdresser friend who’d given me a permanent, was sporting a set of rollers in my hair.
Months earlier, a few hours away from killing myself after gaining eighty pounds in two months, I’d made the radical decision to stop dieting and eat what my body wanted. Since adolescence, I’d gained and lost over a thousand pounds. I’d been addicted to amphetamines for four years and to laxatives for two years. I’d thrown up, spit up, fasted and tried every diet possible, from the All-Grape-Nuts diet to the One-Hot-Fudge-Sundae-a-Day diet to Atkins, Stillman and Weight Watchers. I’d been anorexic—spending almost two years weighing eighty pounds—and I’d been quite overweight. Mostly overweight. My closet was stuffed with eight different sizes of pants, dresses and blouses. Crazed with self-loathing and shame, I vacillated between wanting to destroy myself and wanting to fix myself with the next best promise of losing thirty pounds in thirty days.
By that first dollar-a-session group, I’d been eating what my body wanted for a few months. I had lost a few pounds—a major accomplishment for someone who believed that she’d be living in diet hell until her last breath—and it was slowly dawning on me that my relationship with food had affected every other part of my life.
Those women who did not run screaming in the opposite direction when they realized that the over
weight woman with rollers in her hair was—no kidding—the leader of the group met with me weekly for two years as we explored the role food was playing in our lives. Until my first book, Feeding the Hungry Heart, was published in 1982 and I began teaching all over the country—in Alaska, Minnesota, Florida, New York—I worked with hundreds more women in weekly groups. Women who swore that they’d always need to lock their food in their kitchen cabinets and hide the key were suddenly able to eat one of something—one bowl, one piece, one bite. Women who had never been able to lose weight were suddenly finding their clothes too baggy, their waistbands too loose.
Within a year after I stopped dieting, I’d reached my natural weight, where I’ve remained for three decades. But more than the new body size, it was the lightness of being that enthralled me; although I didn’t quite understand the connection between trusting myself around food and trusting less tangible hungers (for rest, contact, meaning), the relationship with food became the lens through which I began to see almost everything.
Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said that enlightenment was following one thing all the way to the end, and I soon suspected that if I tracked the impulse to eat when I wasn’t hungry to its core, I’d find every single thing I believed about loving, living, and dying right there, in that moment. Which—following the relationship with food to the end—pretty much describes how I’ve spent the last thirty-two years.
When I offered my first six-day retreat in May 1999, it was supposed to be a one-off event. I wanted to bring the twin passions of my life together: my work with eating and my years of meditation and spiritual inquiry. I’d meditated since 1974, lived in ashrams and monasteries, and was an ongoing student of the Diamond Approach, a nondenominational teaching that uses psychology as a bridge to spirituality. I still cringed when I heard the word God, and the word spiritual evoked a vision of piety and austerity that did not match—this would be an understatement—my vast collection of nubby sweaters and honey-colored boots. I still had about a dozen moments of neurosis per day, but I also had more moments of contentment and freedom than I ever imagined possible for a formerly fat girl from Queens. I wanted everyone to know what I knew, have what I had.
Still. I was stunned at what happened.
It wasn’t the stories about bingeing or dieting or fasting I’d heard; it wasn’t the tales of abuse or trauma. I’d heard most of them before. No, what shocked me was that after years of working with compulsive eating, I’d been treating it as a psychological and physical problem, and although it was both of those, I suddenly saw that it was also a doorway into a blazing inner universe.
After the first retreat, the students wanted to come back; they wanted to do it again. They reminded me of the afternoon I saw a full eclipse of the sun in Antigua.
My husband and I were standing in the ocean with dozens of other people, wearing dark plastic glasses so that our eyes wouldn’t get burned by the sun. We watched as the moon completely covered the sun. And we stood speechless in enchanted darkness. As the light slowly returned, someone yelled to the moon, “Again. Do it again.”
Since we had an advantage over the moon—we could do it again—we did. And we still are.
As I’ve taught the retreats, I’ve learned that each of us has a basic view of reality and God that we act out every day in our relationship with our families, our friends, our food. It doesn’t matter whether we believe in one God, many gods or no god. Anyone who breathes and thinks and experiences has beliefs about God. And since mothering is our first preverbal template for an existence in which we feel welcomed or rejected, loved or abandoned, many of us have fused our relationship with our mothers with our concepts of God.
Whether we are aware of those early experiences or believe in preverbal templates does not alter the truth: our daily lives, from the mundane to the sublime, from our reactions to sitting in traffic to our responses to the death of someone we love, are expressions—outpicturings—of our deepest beliefs.
To discover what you really believe, pay attention to the way you act—and to what you do when things don’t go the way you think they should. Pay attention to what you value. Pay attention to how and on what you spend
your time. Your money. And pay attention to the way you eat.
You will quickly discover if you believe the world is a hostile place and that you need to be in control of the immediate universe for things to go smoothly. You will discover if you believe there is not enough to go around and that taking more than you need is necessary for survival. You will find out if you believe that being quiet is unbearable, and that being alone means being lonely. If feeling your feelings means being destroyed. If being vulnerable is for sissies or if opening to love is a big mistake. And you will discover how you use food to express each one of these core beliefs.
The retreats now take place twice a year, and many of those first students, having worked through their painful eating and lost weight, are still coming as a way—as they call it—to come home to themselves.
Introductions (or, in this case, prologues) are supposed to tell you who the book is written for and why you should read it. I’m probably not the best person to address these questions because it seems to me that every single person has a shtick with food and therefore everyone should read this book. Everyone who eats, everyone who wants to know why they can’t stop eating, everyone who wants to use what they most want to get rid of (their addictions, their uncomfortable feelings, their unquestioned beliefs about their own limitations) as a
path to what they most want more of (unruffled peace, everyday holiness and ease of being in body, mind and heart) should read this book. Also, anyone who has ever wondered about the meaning of life and/or questioned or felt abandoned by God.
Did I just include all living beings?
Probably, but as I said, I’m not objective in these matters, having spent two-thirds of my life astonished at the power and implications of the relationship with food.
Here, now, is almost every single thing I know about using eating as a doorway to freedom from suffering, the demystification of weight loss, and the luminous presence that so many call God.