Saying Goodbye

By Elizabeth Eiland Figueroa, LMSW

 goodbye couch

“Is your couch heavy?” a colleague asks me. She is buying my office furniture, and needs to plan how she will load it into her borrowed truck.  I think of all the emotional weight the couch has bore during its time in the consulting room. “It’s pretty heavy,” I answer.

In a few days, I will be leaving my psychotherapy practice at Karuna. The process of physically disassembling my office has mirrored my internal process of saying goodbye. As I’m literally clearing space for Karuna’s new therapist to move into my office, I’m also making space within myself for the newness that is to come, in a different career direction as a school counselor.

Over the past ten years or so, moving among five cities, I’ve had to say a lot of goodbyes. I have said goodbye to communities that shaped me, relationships that nurtured and challenged me, and cities that I grew to call home; to friends and colleagues and ways of life. Although I’ve certainly said some goodbyes better than others, a few were clumsy or heedless. Some felt too big to process, and other goodbyes felt too big not to process. I’m still working through some goodbyes; others I’ve even avoided altogether. Goodbyes are complicated.

And: I’m learning that the opportunity to say goodbye well is a gift. Like countless other lessons, I’m learning this in the therapy room, right alongside my clients. My friend and fellow social worker, Garrett Gundlach, SJ, writes that “Termination is transparency: This is coming to an end. Let’s talk about it.” Even though these conversations can be complicated, this conscious goodbye can serve as a healing mechanism in the context of relationship – grist-for-the-mill, in therapy speak.

For me, these termination conversations have been an ambiguous mix of grieving the loss of what was and celebrating the anticipation of what will come. I feel the tension of grief and gratitude, guilt over my decision to leave and also ownership of it, care for my clients and care for myself too.

In these ambiguous days, I find myself thinking often about the idea of making space for something new to be born. All newness requires some kind of undoing – disassembling – and the transition from psychotherapist to school counselor is no exception. This empty space, the time between what was and what will be, can feel like a void, and yet I also trust that the creation of something new has already begun. Much of the work that takes place in the therapy room, I think, happens in space between what was and what will be.

I am also aware that many clients I sit with have not had the opportunity to say goodbyes in the past – to “do grief well,” as one client stated in session. People in their lives have often left too soon, too abruptly, too un-consciously. Termination can heal; it can serve as an after-the-fact stand-in for the brother, the father, the pregnancy, the memory, or the marriage that left too soon.

I am learning that termination can heal our beliefs about ourselves, too. It gives us a chance to name what we have learned about ourselves over the therapy process:

“I am not ‘too much’ for you, and therefore I’m not too much for the world.”
“I am worthy of being cared for, even when it makes me feel like a burden.”
“I can show others who I am and like what I see.”
“I’ve learned there’s nothing wrong with who I am at my core.”
“I know now that a different life is possible for me.”
“I can name what I need.”
“I am unconditionally loved.”

Not surprisingly, this learning has been mutual. My clients have taught me that I am trustworthy, stable, and capable of holding space for others. This knowledge is a gift I will treasure. I hope very much that at least some part of our processes have embodied spiritual writer Henri Nouwen’s definition of listening as hospitality:

“Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends.”

My clients have certainly welcomed me; we have made space for each other. They welcomed this brand-new therapist, and decided to trust me. They welcomed me when I may have been clumsy, when I said something challenging, or when I asked them to do hard things. They continue to welcome me even as I grope my way through termination. They are a brave group of people: artists, teachers, and seekers. It has been a privilege to witness their process, and they inspire me daily with their wholeheartedness, courage, and willingness to enter into this work. I will miss sitting with them.

I think back to my first few weeks at Karuna. Building my office space was like a barn-raising: my dad built my desk, my brother helped me paint the walls, my mom and I searched for throw pillows. Fellow Karuna therapists let me borrow their books, sound machines, and sage advice; they gave me their acceptance, friendship, mentorship, and loving-kindness. Every client that sat on the couch built up the space as well, trusting it could hold their sufferings and joys.

Now, as I disassemble the space in preparation for leaving Karuna, I’m struck by how similar it feels to building it. Indeed, space was then and is now being prepared for something new. During this season of goodbyes, I recall the words of spiritual teacher Anthony DeMello, SJ:

“Extend your arms
in welcome to the future.
The best is yet to come!”

 

 

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Toss off a Song

by Claire N. Scott, Ph.D.

A few years ago I had the following dream:

I am in a line of people and we are all walking single file into a lake.  There is no hurry.  Everyone is calm and moving easily along.  There’s a tranquil feel to the scene.  I notice someone near the shoreline to my left, guiding and watching us as we enter the lake.  I’m singing a song as I walk along.  I become aware that I’m soon to enter the lake and it’s time for me to “toss off my song”.  I notice there’s another line of people coming out of the lake so I toss my song off to one of them.  My song is caught by some guy and he starts singing it.  It’s still similar to the song I was singing, but it’s got this new guy’s own unique expression to it now.

 

This dream was incredibly powerful for me and I seemed to know even in the dream exactly what it meant.  The lake represents death, or at least the afterlife, which also seems to be the state we’re in before we begin life.  A friend of mine calls that place “the cosmic soup” — the place from which we are all born and to which we all return after we die.

The song represents my journey, my unique contribution to the physical world, the “note” I am to sing in the “symphony” of life.

The people going into the lake are the ones whose turn it is to die, to give up their song and move on to the next phase of the journey, whatever it is.  The people coming out of the cosmic soup are the ones coming to life, the ones whose turn it is to take up their song and begin their journey on the earthly plane of existence.

I love that I toss my song off to someone just coming out of the lake.  I am done singing for the time being, but my song is not lost.  It will be taken on by someone who will add their own unique tone and expression to it.   I like that it’s a man who catches the song; perhaps a deeper voice or more masculine presentation is called for now.

In the dream nothing is revealed about what was going on with the people (souls, energies) while in the soup.  Not mine to know yet.  That remains a part of the mystery life calls us to live in.

I like to think the dream means that I’ll get to come back again someday and have another go at life.  Sometimes it seems like I’m just now getting wise enough to be able to contribute something worthwhile to the world and soon it will be my time to go.  Other times it feels like there so much more to learn and do that it’ll take another thousand lifetimes before my evolvement could possibly be complete.  Who knows?  Not me for sure.  I think I’ll hang with Jung and Rilke who both suggest it is more important to live into the questions rather than think you have the answers.

I told my brother this dream when he was dying in 2006.  I had to write it down and read it to him because I couldn’t trust myself to be able to speak it.  I wanted it to comfort him.  It had been such a comfort to me.  But I don’t think it did.  He loved life and did not want it to be over.  He wasn’t ready to stop singing.  I can understand that.  Life is a sweet song to sing.  Often bittersweet, but sweet nonetheless.  I’m not ready to stop singing either.

I do hope by the time it’s my time to go that I will be ready.  I hope I can surrender to the final kiss of life with peace and an openness to whatever comes next.

Someone said to me recently in the midst of a loved one’s dying that they wondered if God didn’t often let death be accompanied by pain so that death could come as a relief, both for the dying person and for the ones left behind.  I’ve wondered that too.  We fallible humans have such an indomitable spirit that we have a hard time letting go, even when letting go is the only option.  I will never be a fan of pain, but it helps me to think of it as something to help me stop clinging to a song that’s no longer mine to sing.

 ***

The recent illness and death of the friend I just mentioned led me to buy a book called Final Gifts.  I was stunned when I opened the book and found the first chapter to be entitled “It’s time to get in line.”  That kind of amazing synchronicity always trips my radar.  Again like Jung I think those uncanny coincidences are likely not random.  It’s like The Universe is tapping me on the shoulder saying “Hello.  You might want to pay attention here.”

I always feel very affirmed and confirmed when a synchronicity like that happens.  It’s like a surprise package has been arranged just for me!  Maybe I read too much into it, but you’ll never convince me of that.  To paraphrase a favorite humorist/philosopher/author, I do think The Universe is always conspiring to shower us with blessings.  You only have to believe to make it so.  And you only have to not believe to miss it.

 

Books:

Final Gifts:  Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying. By Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelly.  Simon and Schuster: 1993.

Pronoia:  How The Whole World Is Conspiring To Shower You With Blessings.  By Rob Brezsny.  North Atlantic Books:  2009.

 

 

Posted in 2015 Articles, Claire's Articles, Dreams & The Unconscious, Grief & Loss | Leave a comment

Take Two Laps Around the Block and Call Me in the Morning

  lakeby Lisa Anyan Smith, Ph.D.

Years ago, as a budding mental health professional, I took a job at a residential treatment center for emotionally and behaviorally challenged youths.  I lived and worked alongside teens at a rural camp, where we slept in cabins. The teens hauled water, carried wood, trekked between the living quarters and classrooms, tended the grounds, and stoked the wood stoves that heated our dwellings through the cold winter nights. We set out on long therapeutic hikes and participated in team building exercises in the forest. A therapeutic magic seemed to transpire when those kids participated in physical activities together outdoors.

Years later as a parent, I again recognized the value of getting kids outdoors to work and play. Anecdotal evidence from fellow parents reinforced my belief in the importance of fresh air, exercise, and play to children’s well-being. When my children were young, I noticed a tremendous difference in their moods and behavior when they ran around outside with other kids, as opposed to those dreary rainy days when they were stuck indoors.

Later still, feeling stressed and depressed due to some life transitions, a friend recommended that I join a local outdoor club. I tentatively signed up for a hike up and down Kennesaw Mountain. I felt unsure of my abilities and reticent about joining the circle of strangers gathered at the base of the mountain. But I introduced myself, the group set off, and up the mountain we went. I was out of my league, unprepared physically and mentally, and I huffed and puffed to keep up with the group. From time to time one of the others would wait for me, check to see if I was okay, or murmur words of encouragement. I was exhausted by the time we finished, but as I staggered back to my car I noticed something: I felt fantastic! I was in a great mood, my stress had melted away, and I had gained a tremendous sense of accomplishment. You’d think I had scaled Mount Everest.

Countless research has confirmed the benefits of exercise on mental health. Cardiovascular exercise – physical activity that raises the heart rate – has been shown to increase endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain which transmit electrical signals within the nervous system. Endorphins interact with receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine. In contrast to the opiate drugs, however, activation of the opiate receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence. In addition to decreased feelings of pain, endorphins lead to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress. Endorphins have been suggested as modulators of the so-called “runner’s high” that athletes achieve with prolonged exercise. When you need an emotional lift or need to blow off some steam after a stressful day, a brisk 30-minute walk can help. Physical activity stimulates those endorphins which may leave you feeling happier and more relaxed. You may also feel better about your appearance and yourself when you exercise regularly, which can boost your confidence and improve your self-esteem.

Exercise also promotes better sleep, by helping you fall asleep faster and deepening your sleep. Regular physical activity can leave you feeling energized and looking better, which may have a positive effect on your sex life. But there’s more to it than that. Regular physical activity can lead to enhanced arousal for women. And men who exercise regularly are less likely to have problems with erectile dysfunction than are men who don’t exercise.

There is a plethora of scientific evidence to support the physical and emotional benefits of exercise. In addition, two landmark studies have found promising evidence that a walk in the park may provide cognitive benefits and also improve mood for individuals with clinical depression. Finally, a third groundbreaking study brings together the trifecta of exercise, being outdoors, and social support in reducing depression and stress.

The first study was led by Marc Berman with partners from the University of Michigan and Stanford University. This research examined the effect of nature walks on cognition and mood in people with major depression. “Our study showed that participants with clinical depression demonstrated improved memory performance after a walk in nature, compared to a walk in a busy urban environment,” said Dr. Berman, who cautioned that such walks are not a replacement for existing and well-validated treatments for clinical depression, such as psychotherapy and drug treatment. This research is part of a cognitive science field known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART) which proposes that people concentrate better after spending time in nature or looking at scenes of nature. The reason, according to ART, is that people interacting with peaceful nature settings aren’t bombarded with external distractions that relentlessly tax their working memory and attention systems. In nature settings, the brain can relax and enter a state of contemplativeness that helps to restore or refresh those cognitive capacities.

In the second study we will examine, a 2012 followup to the initial experiment, researchers explored whether a nature walk would provide similar cognitive benefits, and also improve mood, for people with clinical depression. Subjects (all having a diagnosis of clinical depression) participated in a two-part experiment that involved walking in a quiet nature setting and in a noisy urban setting.  They were randomly assigned to go for an hour-long walk in a woodland park or traffic-heavy portions of a downtown metropolis. After completing their walk, they completed a series of mental tests to measure their attention and short-term/working memory and were re-assessed for mood. A week later the participants repeated the entire procedure, walking in the location that was not visited in the first session.

Participants exhibited a 16 percent increase in attention and working memory after the nature walk relative to the urban walk. However, interestingly, interacting with nature did not alleviate depressive mood to any noticeable degree over urban walks, as negative mood decreased and positive mood increased after both walks to a significant and equal extent. In other words, walking outdoors decreased depressive symptoms whether the outdoor setting was in the quiet woods or the noisy downtown area. The mood elevating effect of exercising outdoors was significant despite the setting.

Finally, a brand new study indicates that what I witnessed in the rustic teen treatment center, in watching children play, and in my own experiences with hiking in a group, are indeed real phenomena.  This new finding suggests that group nature walks are linked with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental health and well-being, according to the study conducted by the University of Michigan, with partners from De Montfort University, James Hutton Institute, and Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom.

Researchers evaluated 1,991 participants from the Walking for Health program in England, which helps facilitate nearly 3,000 weekly walks and draws more than 70,000 regular walkers a year. The study found that group walks in nature were associated with significantly less depression, perceived stress, and negative affect and greater positive affect and mental well-being. People who had recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, marital separation or unemployment especially seemed to see a mood boost after outdoor group walks. “We hear people say they feel better after a walk or going outside but there haven’t been many studies of this large size to support the conclusion that these behaviors actually improve your mental health and well-being,” says senior author Sara Warber, M.D. “Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster. Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression. Group walks in local natural environments may make a potentially important contribution to public health and be beneficial in helping people cope with stress and experience improved emotions.

jogging

So grab a friend or two, lace up your walking shoes, and get outside! Even if you live in the city, an urban walk with a group of companions can elevate your mood and calm your stress. Of course, outdoor exercise with a group is but one tool in a well-stocked stress-busting and depression-lifting toolbox. Treating clinical depression and anxiety may also require other tools, including psychotherapy and/or medication. Talk to your therapist about how outdoor group exercise can be a helpful adjunct to your healthy coping regimen.

 

Recommended Reading

Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out by Jonah McDonald 

60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Atlanta: Including Marietta, Lawrenceville, and Peachtree City by Randy Golden and Pam Golden

References

Berman MG, Jonides J, Kaplan S. The Cognitive Effects of Interacting with Nature. Psychological Science., 2008 Dec;19(12):1207-12. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x.

Berman, MG, Kross, E, Krpan, KM, Askren, MK, Burson, A, Deldin, PJ, Kaplan, S, Sherdell, L, Gotlib, IH, and Jonides, J. Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2012.

Marselle Melissa R., Irvine Katherine N., and Warber Sara L. Examining Group Walks in Nature and Multiple Aspects of Well-Being: A Large-Scale Study. Ecopsychology, September 2014.

The benefits of physical activity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/health/index.html

Posted in 2014 Articles, Anxiety, Depression, Lisa's Articles, Mind-body-spirit Integration, Physical Health & Wellness | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discovering the Sun of Self and Eclipsing Your Inner Critic’s Discomfort

orange sunBy Metta Sweet Edge, LCSW, MAT

Driving home at sunset from the beach this summer, my two-and-a-half year old son pointed West and shouted excitedly “Orange Sun! Orange Sun! Orange Sun!” over and over in delight.  Clearly amazed and thrilled by its size and glow, the sun did seem especially big and bright, indeed like a ripe juicy orange.  But then it dipped below the tree line along the highway, temporarily obscured.  To my two year old, it may as well have set altogether—delight turned into desperate demand for its return.

In a few (long) miles, the sun reappeared as we crossed over a bridge.  Again, he squealed in delight like encore applause.  Too fast, though, the tree line returned and soon thereafter the horizon enveloped the sun for another night.  My son, confused and angry, cried out loud and strong for its return.  He was livid at its abandonment.  He finally calmed somewhat when he spotted the moon and then car lights, but neither seemed to be quite adequate replacement.  He was still mumbling “Orange Sun” as he sniffled and with stuttered breath drifted finally to sleep.

Witnessing the progression of my son’s emotions moved me deeply: his burst of delight in his discovery, shock at its sudden disappearance, desperate demand to regain it, and then despair at having lost it (albeit temporary as we adults know but alas he does not). This experience reminded me of the palpable power of that which makes each of us connect with life—that sense of “all is well” and “I belong” when [fill in the blank with your particular “Orange Sun” such as “when all is peaceful,” “when I am loved,” “when I am safe,” or “when I’m enjoying myself”].

But when those “Orange Suns” are obscured or have “set” for a time—when peace is replaced with conflict, love with betrayal, safety with danger, and enjoyment with boredom—our “Inner Critic” takes over.  It criticizes us for losing our particular Sun and orchestrates maladaptive strategies for us to attempt to regain it.  But the pain of failing at doing so furthers the cycle and can indeed lead to not only discomfort with self and life but with further disintegration—into despair.

But you can choose another way.

Begin with being aware that when you feel discomfort (lack of wellbeing) and disconnection (lack of belonging).  Start there. Admitting and being kind to yourself by simply acknowledging, “I am uncomfortable right now.” Just experience that discomfort with compassionate curiosity.  Allowing yourself to wonder (not worry!) why.

Looking to your Enneagram personality drive is a rich place to find some answers to “Why?” Knowing your drive’s particular “Orange Sun” can help you to stop following your Inner Critic’s futile demand of your “Sun’s” return.  Instead, you can begin to accept your “Orange Sun” has, in fact, never truly left—it is simply out of your personal view or experience at the moment (i.e., “the sun is obscured by the trees or has set”) and the integrated transformation of self will indeed return to you (with “dawning of the new day” in your self).

In their Inner Critic/Psychic Structures workshop, The Enneagram Institute explains that each of the nine personality drives has a different Essential Quality (“Orange Sun”) that they have lost connection with due to the rigors of life.  Our Inner Critic demands us to re-create or manufacture that “Orange Sun” by perfect adherence to a personality drive fixated strategy.  Alas, we cannot, though, manufacture the sun.  We can’t even get too close without getting burned as Icarus taught us.  Not because we are no good or not enough, though, but because it was never destroyed in the first place.  It’s been there all along.  It never left—we did—through listening to our Inner Critics’ interpretations of what life means when it falls short of an ideal.  Through believing that sense of separateness that feels so real and is quite uncomfortable in the moment.  We can return, though, by surrendering our sense of separateness with acceptance using  our adult abstract understanding instead of concrete understandings and toddler tantrums.

I offer the following table combining this article’s “Orange Sun” metaphor and The Enneagram Institute’s Inner Critic workshop information to help you identify:

  1. Your personality drive’s “Orange Sun” (Essential Qualities)
  2. Your superego’s specific demand of you to regain your “sun” when you feel discomfort at it being obscured or has set (Inner Critic Message)
  3. Ways to “seek the rising sun/new dawn within yourself as a new way of being (Path of Transformation).

If you do not know your drive, you may find this table to be a helpful way to determine and/or clarify your drive.  Or you can take one of the Enneagram Institute’s tests.

Personality Drive

Essential Qualities
(“Orange Sun”)

Inner Critic Message
(Superego demands to regain obscured or set Sun)

Path of Transformation
(“Sunrise/Dawn of a new way of being”)

1
Reformer
Goodness
Sacredness
You are good and ok if you are good and do what is right
  • Accept all parts of self without judgment
  • Let go of belief to judge anyone/anything objectively
2
Helper/Giver
Love
Sweetness
You are good and ok if if you are loving and close to others
  • Learn to nurture self and look after own needs
  • Let go of belief that there is anything you can do to earn, create, or get love
3
Achiever/Performer
Value
Glory
You are good and ok if you are successful and others think well of you
  • Follow your heart’s desire
  • Let go of belief that your value is dependent on the positive regard of others
4
Individualist
Identity
Depth
You are good and ok if you feel something and are true to yourself
  • Realize there is nothing wrong with you
  • Let go of your belief that you are more inherently flawed than others
5
Thinker/Researcher
Illumination
Clarity
You are good and ok if you know and have mastered something
  • Become engaged with reality
  • Let go of belief that you are separate from the environment
6
Loyal Skeptic
Awakeness
Guidance
You are good and ok if you are responsible and do what is expected of you
  • Discover your inner authority
  • Let go of your belief that you must rely on something/one outside of yourself for security
7
Enthusiast/Adventurer
Joy
Freedom
You are good and ok if you are happy and getting what you need
  • Stay in contact with present reality (including pain)
  • Let go of belief that you require specific objects and experiences to be fulfilled
8
Challenger/Self-Reliant
Strength
Aliveness
Immediacy
You are good and ok if you are strong and in control of the situation
  • Allow vulnerability to surface
  • Let go of self-image of always needing to be strong and in control
  • Use power in service of love
  • Temper energy
9
Peacemaker
Wholeness
Unity
Being
You are good and ok if you are at peace and those around you are ok
  • Reconnect to instinct/anger (feel, know, speak to it)
  • Let go of belief that my participation is not important

 

By knowing your “Orange Sun,” hearing but not believing your inner critic messages and strategies catered to demanding it, and applying liberating transformative resolutions, you can return to that place of wellbeing and belonging with more elegance and ease.

And, by the way, this is indeed a continual lifelong process as sure as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West.  But I share the hope offered in this blessing I saw posted on a loved one’s refrigerator: “May every sunrise hold more promise, and every sunset hold more peace.”

 

Recommended Reading:

Wisdom of the Enneagram, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, pp 352-366.
The Gift of Imperfection, by Brene Brown

 

 

Posted in 2014 Articles, Anxiety, Depression, Meditation & Mindfulness, Metta's Articles, Mind-body-spirit Integration | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful

By: Elizabeth Eiland Figueroa, LMSW 

apple

[Title from Susan Albers, Psy.D., author of Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful: How to End Your Struggle with Mindless Eating and Start Savoring Food with Intention and Joy (2008)]

We all eat and drink, at least several times a day. This means that no matter what else is happening in our busy lives, we have several chances a day to enter a place of inquiry, a place of renewal, a place of simple happiness. When we are able to find happiness in the most basic activities of our lives – breathing, walking, eating, drinking, and lying down to sleep – we discover an ancient secret, the secret of how to become truly happy and at ease in our lives.

-Jan Chozen Bays, in Mindful Eating

 

Popcorn at the movie theatre. Grandma’s chicken pot pie shared around the kitchen table. A homegrown heirloom tomato.  The last bite of a dark chocolate bar.  For most of us, eating is imbued with memory, emotion, story, and connection. Although food is of course necessary for our bodies’ nourishment, the experience of eating holds much more than simply addressing physiological hunger.  When we consider that the way we eat is related to the environment, justice and labor practices, our health and mental health, ethics and values, public policy, our personal history, current life stage, relationships, and overall well-being – essentially, the way we organize and experience our lives – we realize that each bite contains multitudes.

Indeed, our collective relationship with food, eating, and our bodies contains multitudes as well. Evidenced by our culture’s plethora of diet fads, food marketing, and increasing incidence rates of disordered eating, this relationship is complicated at best.  Indeed, competing ideas of what to eat, how to eat, and the meaning of eating can easily cloud the actual experience of eating.  In contrast, mindful eating calls us back to ourselves.

It is my hope that this article offers a brief introduction to mindful eating and provides the first basic tools to practice these concepts.

 

mindfulness

What is Mindful Eating?

Mindful eating is a practice that honors our hunger holistically, inviting us to listen attentively to our bodies, minds, emotions, and spirit.  In her book Mindful Eating, Dr. Jan Chozen Bays defines this concept best:

Mindful eating is an experience that engages all parts of us, our body, our heart, and our mind, in choosing, preparing, and eating food. Mindful eating involves all the senses. It allows us to be curious and even playful as we investigate our responses to food and our inner cues to hunger and satisfaction.

Mindful eating is not directed by charts, tables, pyramids, or scales. It is not dictated by an expert. It is directed by your own unique inner experience, moment by moment.

Mindful eating is not based on anxiety about the future but on actual choices that are in front of you and on your direct experiences of health while eating and drinking.

Mindful eating replaces self-criticism with self-nurturing. It replaces shame with respect for your own inner wisdom.

Because mindful eating is directed by one’s unique inner experience, the eater is the expert.  When I introduce clients to mindful eating, clients oftentimes report experiencing the newness of this expert role.  Indeed, it is easy to lose sight of the body’s expertise in eating; for many, a mother’s or a classmate’s or a diet book’s eating rules are heard much louder.  A recent New York Times article, Mindful Eating as Food for Thought, emphasizes this idea of trusting the body’s expertise:

“Mindful eating is not a diet, or about giving up anything at all. It’s about experiencing food more intensely — especially the pleasure of it. You can eat a cheeseburger mindfully, if you wish. You might enjoy it a lot more. Or you might decide, halfway through, that your body has had enough. Or that it really needs some salad.”

Mindful eating re-trains us to tune in to our own inner wisdom.

baby mindfulness

How Can I Begin to Practice Mindful Eating?

The starting point for mindful eating is building awareness around the way that we eat: integrating the mindfulness skills of paying attention to the present moment, non-judgmental observation, and acceptance into eating. The “Four Foundations of Mindful Eating” are offered below as a starting point. Many find it helpful to process the exercise below by writing in a food journal.

The Four Foundations of Mindful Eating
Adapted from Susan Albers, Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful

 Mindfulness of the Mind. Think about your level of awareness at this moment. Observe your state of mind, and notice the taste, texture, smell, and sound of food as you eat. Questions to consider: How present was I during lunch? Mindlessly munching? Zoned out? Distracted? Very aware? Obsessed? Attentive to each bite?

Mindfulness of the Body. Listen to your body. Think about whether you pay attention when body says to stop eating or whether you ignore your body’s feedback. Identify how your body tells you its hungry and full. Tune into hunger pains, a rumbling stomach, your energy level, movement, body posture, and muscle tension. Specify what kind of hunger you may be experiencing: emotional hunger, physiological hunger, or another kind. Questions to consider: Was I hungry? Did my meal fill me up? How did my body feel before and after I ate? Did I eat what my body wanted to eat? How quickly did I eat?

Mindfulness of Feelings. Being mindful of your feelings means to notice feelings that trigger you to start and to stop eating. Anxiety, guilt, stress, need for comfort, boredom, desire for pleasure, and sense of necessity are just a few emotions that can affect eating behaviors. It’s important to get in close touch with your emotions, noticing non-judgmentally and with curiosity what you may be experiencing related to eating. Questions to consider: What emotions came up for me? Nervous? Wary? Bored? Satisfied? Did I feel anxious about any element of eating in particular?

Mindfulness of Thoughts. Observe any thoughts you may experience, especially thoughts involving “should” or “should nots,” thoughts that begin “I’m so ___,” any food rules you employ, and “good” or “bad” food categories. Notice how your thoughts, positive or negative, may affect your food choices. Questions to consider: What was I thinking about while eating? Were my thoughts compassionate? Critical?

Mindful Eating Loving-Kindness Meditation

The practice of mindful eating can help infuse joy, gratitude, and play back into the experience of food.  An adaptation to Buddhism’s traditional loving-kindness meditation, the meditation below is offered to you as you begin your mindful eating practice.

May your body be free from suffering.

May your body be at ease.

May your body be well.

 

 

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Contact Information:

Elizabeth Eiland Figueroa, LMSW

elizabethe@karunacounseling.com

404.215.0577

 

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Recommended Resources:

Center for Mindful Eating; www.thecenterformindfuleating.org

Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful by Susan Albers, Psy.D.

Mindful Eating by Jan Chozen Bays, M.D.

Women, Food, and God by Geneen Roth

 

 

 

Posted in 2014 Articles, Elizabeth's Articles, Meditation & Mindfulness, Mind-body-spirit Integration, Physical Health & Wellness | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment