Mindfully Transforming Body Image
By Peter Kuhn
One morning, feeling serene and well-grounded after meditating, I took a mindful shower. Awash with gratitude I stepped out with a smile and looked in the mirror. All I saw was my big belly and love handles. Contented joy vaporized into distress. I berated myself, obliterating peace and the morning’s merit. Breathing in, I realized the thoughts and feelings I was consuming were toxic. Breathing out, I released and attended to them. My suffering had something to tell me. How do I cultivate peace and compassion for all sentient beings when I find parts of myself unacceptable?
The body scan from the Satipatthana Sutra* has been a fantastic tool:
“Further, the practitioner meditates on his own body from the soles of his feet upwards and then from the hair on top of his head downwards, a body contained inside the skin and full of all the impurities which belong to the body: Here is the hair on the head, the hair on the body, the nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.”
The mindful penetration of each body part cultivates understanding and gratitude. I appreciate their miraculous design, their unique and interdependent natures. Each part serves and supports all others; each part serving and supporting my life and transformation. In time I penetrated my fat with the same equanimity as my heart or lungs. When judgment and aversion were overcome an old knot was untied.
With right concentration, I see that fat is storing energy for future use and is an evolutionary survival tool. My eye of understanding can now see fat as battery packs instead of a cloak of shame or nemesis. My heart softens and I suddenly appreciate my fat as a precious gift and see that it is here to serve and support me, too. “Oh, my poor misunderstood fat, I am here for you.” I think of loved ones and others who are unable to gain weight due to illness, of the millions who are starving, malnourished, or lacking enough to eat. For the first time, I am able to thank my fat and express real gratitude that it is here for me. I appreciate that it is working well and caring for me by storing energy for future use in times of famine, drought, or hardship. With an open heart, I let my fat know that I’m grateful it’s here for me but I do not need this amount of energy stored presently. With deep sincerity and a smile I let my fat know that I am working for its liberation as well as my own. Looking deeper, I see that liberating stored energy from my body makes it available elsewhere, in another form, where a need may exist. Nothing is wasted in nature.
Neither produced nor destroyed.
Weight is not the enemy,
I bow deeply to my fat.
When I embrace my pain, distorted perceptions are revealed. I gain understanding and insight; in this case, a new perspective on the way I view my body and weight. Looking deeply I touch the reality of impermanence, non-self, and interbeing. Accepting my fat, new peace and happiness are born.
Mindfulness practice led me to exercise. There were times when I wanted to quit a workout early. I learned to exercise for those who cannot do it themselves instead of just ‘toughing it out’ for myself. I think of my hospice patients at the VA Hospital, the wounded, ill, lame, and incarcerated. I can work for them and my ancestors, for my dead son, David, and the uncountable masses who would give anything for the good health and freedom I enjoy. Interbeing supports and sustains me on all levels.
Thinking of others helps me practice mindful consumption as well. I can transform hunger pangs from a self-centered panic button to a mindfulness bell. My hunger becomes “the hunger,” shared by millions, most of whom lack the choice of when and what to eat. Small self becomes the large self.
I vow to liberate stored energy
To benefit all beings.
Eating mindfully for nutrition,
Even as a vegetarian my relationship to food can be unwholesome. I’ve used food as a drug, but thought of it as a comfort as I eat to escape my feelings, fill a void or find pleasure. When I eat sweets I’m compelled to keep eating them. I tell myself, “This is a treat,” and “I deserve this pleasure.” When finished, I’ve consumed thousands of nutritionally void calories without satisfaction. I’ve watered seeds of indulgence and gluttony, not well-being and happiness. If I am mindful of my feelings I know that I am suffering. Buddha taught that there is a cause and end to suffering. My suffering has something very important to tell me. Piercing the cloud of denial and illusion, I see that eating for taste alone is a root cause of my suffering. The end of this suffering is eating for nutrition. I no longer mistake sweets for something wonderful. Not eating sweets is the real treat.
When appetite calls I know I’m alive.
The fire of transformation ignites
A calming smile.
All is well.
I’ve dropped three pants sizes in the last year and am in better shape than I’ve been in a long time. Even so, one look in the mirror at my remaining pot belly and that old tape, “What’s the use?” can pop up, shadowed by doubt and futility. Breathing in, I recognize my old friends. Breathing out, I know these are just thoughts and feelings. Embracing them I smile. Breathing in, I know I want to lose more weight. Breathing out, I know the pounds are dropping. Slow and steady. Breathing in, I know I am doing well. Breathing out, I smile as my practice grows stronger and supports me.
I question my thoughts, feelings and perceptions as they arise. Dining at a friend’s house I was offered homemade chocolate mousse and politely declined, feeling quite good about myself. The hostess had worked hard on her creation and my wife explained, “Pete doesn’t eat sugar any more.” Craving arose immediately. Breathing in, I observed a small voice whispering, “See what you are missing? You can’t have that.” For that instant, mousse seemed like the key to my happiness. Suddenly, eating it seemed a greater act of independent volition than declining. An expression of freedom! Other thoughts started to dog-pile on the first: it would make the hostess very happy if I broke my diet for her creation, I don’t want to hurt her feelings, I adore chocolate, it does look great! Breathing out, I recalled the pain I’ve experienced firsthand from unmindful consumption. I reaffirmed my well-being, knowing I could eat whatever I wanted right here and right now. I was not “missing out,” but gaining solidity in freedom from suffering. I politely explained to them, as well as to myself, that I had not “stopped” eating sugar or dessert, but was choosing not to, just for today.
There is no diet to stick to,
I am not stuck.
There is no renunciation.
I eat for nutrition.
Am I feeding my liberation or my suffering? Thay explains, “True love cannot exist without understanding.” Sometimes, what I perceive as love is a mislabeled distortion, a romantic guise for obsession. I’ve loved food all my life, but the nature of that love was self-centered gratification. As I practice mindful eating and the Five Contemplations, my love of food is no longer based solely on gluttonous self-centeredness.
Hunger pangs ring
A mindfulness bell.
In a moment’s pause
I taste the fullness
Of my great essential nature.
As I cultivate true love, it radiates, inside and out. When I’m awake in the present moment and I know what I am eating, in the mundane and greater sense, the nutritional value of my meal increases. I am enriched on all levels and dine on the miraculous, feeding my awakened nature and physical form. Abstaining from meats I’m cognizant of the great harm caused directly and indirectly by the consumption of animals, engaging compassion for all creatures and our mother Earth, and truly generating the “peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness and in the collective consciousness” that the Fifth Mindfulness Training describes. The taste of love is sweeter than chocolate mousse.
My fork rests between bites
Inviting full awareness
Of habit energy and what I chew.
When I focus on weight loss there is no satisfaction. I can’t lose it fast enough and fear gaining it back. I want to lose weight but it isn’t my goal. The practice is my process and the process is my goal. There can be no failure, only an aspiration.
The spoon and I inter-are.
We release between bites.
I am deeply grateful to my teacher, Thay, who helps me turn walls to doors while cultivating true love.
*See Exercise 7 in Healing and Transformation: The Four Establishments of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Peter Kuhn, Deep Transformation of the Heart, lives in San Diego, CA with his wife Jackie. He is a recovering addict, clean and sober 23 years, and practices at the World Beat Center Sangha, the Still Ripening Sangha and Sweetwater Zen Center.