How do I just be?

I'm filled with questions. I have an eating disorder. Why can't I accept things as they are?

Published October 19, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I wrote once before, many years ago, before a child and a move and the age 40 descended. It was a letter about cheese. About how to get my husband to quit eating my fancy cheese when he had perfectly fine cheese he bought for himself. He would sneak it, hide eating it, but always leave a telltale sign, like a partially zipped Zip-Loc. It was a letter about cheese, but way more than that too. What it wasn't was an admission that I had an eating disorder, even though I knew I did. It wasn't a question about the power struggles we have with ourselves and our spouses, about finding a way to be something true. It looked like a wacky letter from an uptight girl about fancy cheese. This is a different letter. But the same in some ways ... a question about how to be with what's true.

I have an eating disorder. I've been in out-patient treatment for just over a year. It caused some other physical issues I am still working on. But I'm eating enough (although still trying to calm all the rules) and exercising like a normal person does. Well, exercising the amount of time a normal person does. The intention is not the same; I don't do what I enjoy for enjoyment's sake; my intention is to change my shape, to be smaller. I know all the stuff (this isn't my first time at the rodeo) about low but healthy weight, quality exercise and recovery periods, quality calories, eating intuitively ... I understand the benefit of it all, and I physically feel better, but I can't accept the result. How do you accept that which you can't?

I'm not overweight. I'm not underweight. I'm just regular. My son just started kindergarten last week. My husband loves his job and we enjoy the town we moved to. I am an artist and I'm making some work now. I have my first scheduled exhibition in six years coming this spring. I applied for a state arts grant. I know I couldn't have done all of this a year and a half ago when I was sick. So why can't I let that me go? I want to be exceptional at something. That used to be being thin. I'm not good at that anymore. Now I have this body I don't like feeling. The feelings feel too big. Right now, even writing this, the contraction in my chest is palpable. I have a sitting practice I come back to. I take classes in the Feldenkrais method to encourage more freedom in my body. But I don't know how to be with it. Just being with this body feels an impossible task. My teacher once asked me to go inside, to contact my inner life, to feel what it tells me. All it told me is I don't want to know.

Nothing horribly tragic has ever happened to me ... why do I have this overwhelming fear and why won't I let myself know what it is? I know it is worse when I don't make work. I know it is worse when I feel like I am not being heard. But even if on days where I have time to sit and pick up a brush or needle and thread, why is there still an undercurrent of "not OK"?

After my teacher helped me with the "go inside" exercise, I asked him, "How do we do this? How do we be a person?" and he asked what feels OK, and I said nothing. And he asked, "What about your big toe? Does that feel OK?" and yes, it did, so he said, "Just be the big toe. Maybe the tongue too, if that feels OK. And smile." I want to do all those things, it just seems such an overwhelming task, figuring out how to be me, when I also have to do the dishes, pay bills, feed my husband and son. Then, what if the me I find is not the me everyone else accepts?

I would appreciate your thoughts. You often sound like my meditation teacher. I keep thinking maybe someone will say the right combination of words, and I will finally get it. Maybe it will be your words.


Just Me

Dear Just Me,

This teacher sounds like he is on the right track. The answers are in the concrete. When you ask, "How do you accept that which you can't?" you are asking a question that self-destructs. We can't do anything with that question.

You will do better to ask, "How do you accept ... X?"

If there is something you can't accept, then let's know what that thing is. Is it the murder of millions of Jews during World War II? Is it mass starvation? Is it your hips? Is it the shame and horror you feel when you see a person look at you and then look away? Let's pay attention to exactly whatever it is, and not look away from it.

We are trained as children to say only the things that will be understood. The vast forests and storms within us we are taught not to try to communicate because they are too vast. Yet they are still there. We are still filled with vast oceans of consciousness. We are trained to constantly replace, interpret, symbolize, instead of paying attention to the actual moment-by-moment flood of consciousness, in which is contained the entire history of our race, the cosmos, our species identity, our birth, everything we know. Instead of attuning ourselves to this we are more or less trained to do the exact opposite: to shut out or short-circuit or symbolize all that vast phenomena into really limited and imprecise verbal formulations, and whatever cannot be so symbolized and short-coded, abbreviated, all the rest stands outside of consciousness.

But it still affects us. Because it is real.

The best we can do is just accept it.

I don't know how that happens. I don't. I'm not a scholar or a neurologist.

The point is that it can be done. But how? Through long practice of meditation and mindfulness. By allowing the primitive to manifest. By acting like monkeys or apes or warriors, by letting some of the crazy energy dissipate, by going onstage and acting things out, by dancing, by fighting, by doing tai chi, by being in the moment. It can be done.

I suggest you adopt the habit of paying attention to those things that flit across your consciousness. Follow them and see where they lead. Cognitive therapy can teach us to hear the little thoughts that go through our heads that we're not used to paying attendant to. There's great power in those thoughts, more than we realize at first. Then, once we know what those thoughts are, we can start dealing with them. But it won't happen in the abstract. There is no magic word or instant breakthrough that will solve this. It is a matter of habits and daily living.

It is never done perfectly. But it can be done. Because we do have a choice. In sitting quietly in a room we have a choice. We may think we can't stop our thoughts, but if we sit still long enough, they will exhaust themselves; the storm of thoughts will subside if we wait it out.

So that is what I am doing now. I am just sitting. I have been sitting for almost an hour. I am typing this paragraph and then I am going to go back to sitting.

What else can I do? The world is too much for me.

This, too, can change. It will change. And so it goes.

By Cary Tennis

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