I always knew I had a sweet tooth. I ate peanut M&Ms on the way home from work, chocolate on study breaks, candies, cakes and other office treats and ice cream after (and sometimes before) dinner. It hardly seemed like a problem. I rarely gained much weight, and I brush my teeth regularly so cavities weren’t an issue.
Yet over the past year, I started to become sensitive to the effect that the sugar has on my emotional health. Usually about 30 minutes to an hour after eating something sweet I begin to feel a general malaise. Physically, there’s a light contraction and heat along the chest and throat. My breath is shallow and sometimes I have mild tension in the back and shoulders. Emotionally, I am anxious, flighty and depressed. Often these feelings are accompanied by negative thoughts: You ate too much. You’re lazy and out of control. You’re ruining your body. You’re a mess. You have no discipline. This is the kind of person you are. And I find I have a very very strong desire to find more sugar to make the bad feelings go away.
These feelings and thoughts that arise when I eat sugar are very similar to the feelings and thoughts that arise when I watch addictive videos on the internet, particularly those that contain sex or violence, when I look at real estate prices online, and even when I fantasize about renovating my house or buying a dream home on the California coast. Each of these activities provides a temporary bump of pleasure, which, for a little while, blots out all the other feelings that I was having.
On the surface, it seems like a great trade off. Would I rather think about how I’m going to fix the plumbing or eat a cookie? Would I rather have that difficult conversation with my dad I’ve been putting off or watch YouTube videos? Would I rather do research a new career – and face all of the fear and insecurity that comes along with it – or look at home prices online and imagine how rich I’m going to be when Ridgewood is fully gentrified (and then feel guilty for having had this thought). But, when the high wears off, I find myself facing the same issue that I was avoiding when I started, plus now I am also feeling lousy physically and my mind is filled with a barrage of self criticism: lazy, selfish, undisciplined, fearful, greedy. Instead of finally facing reality, I have often chosen to go back for another pleasure bump. One cookie at the office would turn into 7 or 8. Sometimes I would notice myself standing at the kitchen counter before bedtime eating leftover cake by the handful.
I have also frequently gone on benders, choosing the pleasure bump over and over, until something snapped me out of it or it became unsustainable. It went well beyond food. I have watched 10 hours of TV in a single day. I have spent entire weekends on the Internet. I have spent weeks, particularly on holidays, alternating between food, video games and alcohol.
So…sugar. I make an effort not to eat it anymore. Not because I want to be pure or spiritually perfect or better than other people (though those thoughts have entered my head from time to time), but because I’ve found that my addictive behaviors are not in fact separate. For me, there is one addictive pattern, and it will glom onto anything it can find, and when it exhausts one source of pleasure it will move to another, and it will invariably leave me feeling terrible, isolated and disconnected from life and love.
Most importantly, in seeking pleasure I can also hurt myself and those around me deeply, leaving wounds that can last a few hours or a lifetime. The negativity that I generate inside of myself invariably spills out into my relationships. If I’m berating myself all day for being lazy and selfish, I will be quick to attack others for those same characteristics, because it temporarily makes me feel better. If I’m lost in addictive behaviors and fantasies, I am capable of neglecting people and responsibilities, which can have serious consequences.
A friend, noticing that I’m giving up more and more of my old behaviors, recently asked me if I want to be a monk. After sitting with the question for a few days, I realized that I’m not making these changes because I want to be a monk or anything else. What I’m seeking is a life where I’m healthy, happy and giving as much love, care and attention to the world and the people in it as possible. And when I can see clearly that all of that is on the line, it’s easier to say no to a cupcake.
This is where the meditation can really help. Meditation attunes us to our physical and emotional experiences. It helps us recognize negative thought patterns and negative behavior patterns and brings greater awareness to all aspects of our experience. Since I started down this path several years ago, I have found that I am increasingly sensitive to the food I eat, the air I breathe, the images I see, and the words I invite into my mind. This is not to say that my body, mind and spirit are any more or less susceptible to harm than they were before, it’s that I am more aware of the effects that my consumption has on this being. I literally can “sense” things much earlier and at much subtler levels. Things that seemed OK before are now clearly unhealthy. And once they are clearly unhealthy, the old rationalizations and justifications that used to work, don’t work so well anymore. I find that I start to change, not through my will power – which has never really worked – but simply by bringing a kind awareness to life, being honest about what I find and returning over and over again to my deepest intentions, which are to live and love fully.