• If you’ve ever walked around Chinatown or looked at the Buddhas in many Asian Art museums, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Buddha had some weight problems. Many of the representations of Buddha depict a clearly overweight man with a double chin and a massive belly. But the images of the fat, laughing Buddha are actually based on the Chinese Zen master, Pu-Tai, who became a Buddha in a future incarnation. Pu-Tai was always depicted surrounded by smiling children with pudgy cheeks and rotund bodies. The wandering monk, whose name means Hempen Sack or Glutton, distributed sweets and gifts to children from his bulging sack.

    In North America, we love sweets, too, and every year, we’re looking a bit more like Pu-Tai. Obesity is skyrocketing in all populations. In 2005, there were 127 million overweight and sixty million obese adults in the United States alone.

    There is another image of the Buddha, more often found in Southeast Asia. In these drawings and statues, Buddha is recreated as he was during the time he practiced asceticism. Attempting to free himself from his bodily cravings, the man known as Siddhartha lived austerely for a time and ate almost nothing. His skeletal appearance and bird-like eating habits are reminiscent of another modern day eating problem. Between one and five percent of adolescent females have anorexia, a condition associated with dieting and thinness that leads to excessive weight loss.

    Many of us have access to information about what a healthy diet is and which foods are best for our health. We even know how to lose weight; eat less, eat better, and exercise! However, few of us dig down to the root of our troubles. The problem lies in our ultimate motivation. We struggle from eating problems because we have no fundamentally compelling reason to eat well.

    It is important to avoid imposing rigid dietary rules on ourselves. Suppose that it is a family habit to visit the ice cream store every Sunday and get triple hot fudge sundaes. As mindful eaters, we may have decided that this much ice cream isn’t what we want. But we will be causing our family pain if we refuse to join them and cause ourselves pain if we don’t go—feeling that we are isolated. But we can join our family, and take a bite of ice cream, as this small gesture can be a big reassurance. With patience, we can steer our family into new, more mindful directions. For example, we can avoid making food the focus of our interactions. We can concentrate on walking mindfully to the ice cream store, rather than on the ice cream itself. As we walk, we can bring our family into the moment – we can point out budding flowers, and watch a squirrel climb a tree. Our family will find joy in these new activities, especially because we are focusing our total awareness on them. With time, these practices will replace our former ways of connecting, and we’ll enhance our relationships.