How Vipassana meditation cured my junk food cravings - guest post from Andrew Long

[ The following is a guest post from my friend Andrew Long, who helps men cultivate great relationships over at the Love and Freedom Project] I’m about to share a personal story about non-attachment, meditation, & my emotional relationship with food,

I say this because I realize that for some people, the below article could be triggering, as it contains descriptions of intense food cravings and emotional eating, as well as a few gratuitous food-porn-style shots, so if any of that bothers you, you probably should go read something else.

On the other hand, the story has a happy ending about freedom from cravings, so maybe you do want to read it after all.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Our story opens at a secluded, pastoral farm retreat in Onalaska, Washington, in November 2012. I am here to learn the method of Goenka Vipassana, which I have been telling everyone I am going to try for over a year.

Well, I’m finally keeping my word, so I find myself standing ankle-deep in crackle-frosted grass, watching the sun set as tendrils of fog creep across the farmer’s field. I don’t know it yet, but a full family of white-tailed deer lives on this land. I'll get to know them quite well over the next 10 days.

It’s a few days before Thanksgiving. (Really, is there a better time to take a 10-day vow of meditative silence and eat nothing but vegetarian meals?) I’m standing in the cold, observing nature, mentally preparing myself for 10 full days of Noble Silence, renunciation (nekkhama), effort (viriya) and 10+ hour days of pure, unadulterated meditation training.

Briefly, Goenka Vipassana is a popular form of Vipassana meditation spread by a Burmese businessman, S. Goenka and the Dhamma Foundation he started. It is said to be the original technique taught by Buddha, and preserved through a long line of teachers in Burma, the “land of Dhamma.”

(Whether you believe such claims or not, it’s worth keeping an open mind about the technique itself, as it is non-sectarian, non-religious, and completely free of charge. The Dhamma Foundation is not trying to sell you anything (well, other than liberation from your own suffering, that is): students may donate to the Course, but only after they have completed it.)

Vipassana teaches that all suffering comes from craving and aversion in our mind, and liberation from suffering comes from cultivating an attitude of equanimous mind, which is basically a steady consciousness of the transient nature of reality, and a steadfast refusal to react in a knee-jerk fashion when a pleasant or unpleasant sensation reaches us.

Another way to think of equanimity is as non-attachment:

“Equanimity is one of the most sublime emotions of Buddhist practice. It is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.”

-Gil Fronsdal (emphasis mine)

The great thing about cultivating equanimous mind is that as soon as you decide to become less attached, or practice the ways of non-attachment in any ways at all, the ego rears up and says, “Oh not so fast, you’re not so enlightened: look at all these delicious temptations you can’t pass up!

We all have these temptations and attachments, and sitting in silence for 10 days is a great way to examine them in stark and exaggerated detail.

And that, of course, is what happened to me, with food.

Andrew, Meet Food Fantasies

I’m a guy: I eat a lot of food.

I eat a lot of good food, as it happens, because I believe that “food is my medicine” (to paraphrase Hippocrates) and because I want to enjoy a long life in a body that functions well and allows me to do many different things, rather restricting my activity and enjoyment of life based on disease, injuries, or impingements.

I admit, I was a little nervous going into the Course. They were going to serve two vegetarian meals a day, and I typically eat a lot of animal flesh (and I do mean a lot).

But the lower volume of food and the restriction on eating animals was part of renunciation, nekkhama, so of course I was going to do it.

As it turned out, this gentle nekkhama gave me two big gifts: food fantasies, and my growing awareness of the ritual of eating.

Fantasies first. If you’ve ever been really hungry, you’ve had food fantasies: intrusive, syrup-soaked short stacks of olfactory & gustatory imaginings that you can practically taste, popping like little tart blueberries under your teeth.

vipassana and junk food cravings

Image via CallMeCupcakes

I’ve been hungry before, but not like this. At Vipassana, it was a non-stop parade of fantasies about various foods I was going to slam down my gullet when I got home.

My primary fantasy was junk food: extra-large jalapeno-no-cheese pepperoni pizzas,”Fiery Habanero” Doritos. . . fill in your own favorites. I was craving these foods.

I’ll be honest. Meditation is about awareness, and Vipassana in particular is about remaining aware of the physical sensations in your body.

At this, I was failing at spectacularly. I was highly aware of my mental sensations and mental impressions, but that was a big sideshow, distracting me from my physical sensations, and my mental reactions to them.

Still, it was valuable.

After a few solid days of this, a funny thing happened: my food fantasies started to get boring. After playing these same tapes over and over again, after simulating these tasty morsels in my mind ad infinitum, they became . . . yes, boring.

Now, your first thought may be, He wasn’t hungry enough, and I sort of agree with that: I was being fed high-quality vegetarian food on a daily basis, and part of what happened had to be that my body adjusted to this new feeding routine (and it was very routine.)

But the human mind is also a novelty-seeking device, and my mind quickly abandoned food fantasies in favor of replaying every movie I’d ever seen in my head, as well as forming elaborate theories about what precise factors accounting for the relative quality of each film in a film trilogy (you know how the second film of a trilogy is almost always the best? Yeah, I have an elaborate theory for that. Don’t ask me about it, ever.)

So even though my mind had moved on, I definitely wasn’t “over” my food fantasies; I planned to indulge them fully when I got home.

In fact, I couldn’t wait.

Andrew Gets His Junk Food

So let’s fast-forward past the high drama of finishing a Vipassana Course; the final day, the first sentence you speak after 10 days of silence, and the striking natural beauty that awaits your freshly-sharpened mind when you emerge from the countryside.

I had enjoyed the experience. I certainly felt refreshed, with a new resolve, and more clarity.

But it hadn’t rocked my world. It hadn’t been the spiritual awakening that so many people reported.

Oh well, at least I could have my damn pizza now.

(Fast-forward to Andrew, ordering his craved-for pizza, buying his crazed-for junk food, and dutifully cramming it down his throat with much enthusiasm, in anticipation of a big post-binge high.)

Ta-da: the best trick Vipassana pulled on me, now revealed:

It wasn’t that satisfying.

Sure, it tasted good,in the moment. . . and maybe for a moment afterward. . .but then the effect faded. Completely.

Ten minutes after eating, it was as if the whole thing had never happened. The experience was completely sensory, and contained zero emotional fulfillment.

That gave me pause. It made me think hard on the reason I would put junk-food or craved-for “special” foods in my body in the first place. I knew they were of dubious nutritional value, and I knew how fleeting the taste was. . . and how long-term the potential damage.

I realized that the reason I was eating certain foods came down to how they made me feel . . . emotionally.

Yes, I had discovered emotional eating in myself. This was something that, in mind, I wasn't supposed to have to deal with, as a guy. (Welcome to my sexist brain!) It was a valuable lesson for me that the emotional turmoil that can cause us to seek food for emotional solace are in no way limited by gender.

So, how did it happen to me? Here’s the chain of causality, as near as I could figure it out:

Growing up, Mom kept two large freezers and a large walk-in pantry absolutely stuffed full of food. Despite this, I never got much joy out of eating at home. I remember most sit-down meals to be pre-packaged affairs, reheated from a frozen foods company. (For clarity: my Mom cooked meals for the family for decades before I was born. Dad did breakfast, which is probably the reason I now lust after that meal like no other (thanks, Dad.))

What I do remember enjoying quite a bit was going out to eat with my family. We’d go to a family restaurant like Stanfords, and I’d always bask in the feeling of ‘specialness’ that came with eating out -- it felt like a splurge, like we were living large, and therefore, like everything was going to be OK.

This feeling was reinforced when one day I overheard my Mom say that, because our financial situation wasn’t so good, we’d have to forgo eating out for a while. Uh-oh. Link established: feelings of emotional well-being, based on financial security, now tied intimately to eating at restaurants.

What I discovered on the Vipassana course was that my emotional craving for store-bought or restaurant-prepared foods was driven by a desire to recreate the emotional feeling of financial security that came with eating out with my family.

In other words, certain eating experiences had come to represent financial security for me and -- even deeper -- fundamental feelings of security in the world.

It didn’t matter that this connection made zero logical sense. It was an emotional link that had lain dormant, unacknowledged, for years. Vipassana had just uncovered it.

Vipassana had also broken it. After my post-Course junk-food feast, I didn’t experience the same post-binge emotional high. The junk food didn’t satisfy me, physically or emotionally.

There was no emotional pull to go back to it.

Food as Nourishing Ritual

The Course had one other gift to give my relationship with food.

During one of the silent, 6am breakfasts of oatmeal, raisins, and nuts, I realized that what I was doing eating in silence with all these other men was a ritual, a sacrament, done for the edification of my body, not for my fleeting sensual pleasure.

It really wasn’t about me at all. I was eating so I could fuel my body through 8 more hours of mental focus & training: I was was eating so I could be stronger, and then give more to others.

Even though I knew intellectually that ‘food is fuel’, the actual practice of this idea was a revelation.

This was one of those slow, quiet, creeping realizations that totally blindsides you. For six or seven days, mealtimes had been a welcome break from meditation, but the repetition of them, the uniformity, the silence, the indistinguishable quality of the tables, the chairs, the food, made me realize what they really were: just another extension of the meditative practice, the practice of mindfulness, the practice of non-attachment.

How much mindfulness do we typically have as we eat? Are we focused on the taste, or the number of calories, or what other people are thinking about our meal? Are we wishing we had chosen something different to eat?

Or are we focused on gratitude for all the beings that had to die, to bring us this food? For the labor of so many beings, that made it possible for us to eat this meal?

I learned in that retreat that, if we practice mindfulness of each meal in this way, each meal is transformed; we realize that each meal is a tremendous gift from the planet to us, and that we are part of that cycle: we eat, and someday, we’ll return to the earth from whence we came. We’ll become food, too.

That’s part of why junk food no longer has the same meaning. It’s nearly impossible to tell what it was, where it came from, and so it’s hard to know where to direct my gratitude.

And now there’s also no other reason to eat it, either.

I’ve always known it’s a sham -- but more importantly, I am now free from the emotional cravings that were overriding that knowledge.

Think of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. It’s so simple, right? But there are so many ingredients. The grains in the bread, to start -- where were they grown? Who harvested them? What other animals lived around, in, under them? To what biotic community did they belong? Were they grown in a monocrop, or did they share the soil, or were they rotated with other crops? Did pesticides blanket their fields? Where did the water that they drank come from -- was it fossil water, pumped up from an aquifer where it had slowly gathered for millions of years, or was it river water, taken from its course, never to reach the sea, or was it rain? What microorganism were hitching a ride on that water and were diverted, deposited in the soil, perhaps forming some of the minerals you are now taking into your body? Can you taste the past days of sunlight stored in the grains?

What about the peanuts? What was their destiny, before being harnessed and ground up to make peanut butter? Can you think about the potential verdant lushness that was going to come from this very small seed, now nourishing you? Can you see the multiplicity of things in the form you ingest? Can you, to paraphrase the Frenchman Valéry, come to a new appreciation of food, by forgetting the name of what you eat?

Peanut butter. Image from Peanut Inn

To do honor to our food, to receive full nourishment, is just to be mindful.

Previously, I had spent most of my time eating in a mind-less routine. My experience at the retreat made it easier to be pulled into mindfulness.

A little more attention paid will, at the very least, improve my digestion.

Freedom From Junk

My life is different now, post the Vipassana reatreat: no more junk food cravings.

I still enjoy eating out, but I’ve stopped conflating fine dining with financial security. The two have very little to do with one another, and I’ve got that straight in my mind and in my heart now. I am, as the Buddhists might say, not attached.

The feeling of freedom is nice. Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoy my food. I enjoy every bite. But it’s no longer an activity that brings me so much emotional solace, and I think this is a good thing.

For anyone who didn’t have this emotional linkage personally, I can only imagine that all the above probably sounds faintly ludicrous, if not totally insane.

All I can say is, it’s hard to emphasize just how powerful it is to have something like that wield so much power over you, and then have that power completely broken.

It feels like freedom.

And that, my dear reader, is what I’m after in my life, and the lives of my loved ones -- freedom, a state assiduously to be cultivated in human beings.

Thanks for letting me share my story.

Posted on March 2, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.