The meaning of dinner

A big thank you to those who’ve bought a copy of my book recently. I wasn’t expecting it! I hope you find it helpful!

*Sigh*

I didn’t want to do this, but it’s clear that my attitude to dinnertime is distorting my relationship with food.

It’s evident in my BMI that I’m still continuing to overeat. And if that wasn’t enough, my reluctance to examine my ritual of the evening meal indicates that there’s something going on.

Okay here goes.

As a parent and a husband I’ve poured my creative efforts into cooking delicious meals for my family. And both the preparation and especially the eating are a relief from daily burdens and boredoms.

There’s a kind of magic in setting out to cook. And there’s a delicious escape in sitting down to eat.

Last night I cooked pizza and switched off my brain to eat.

Tonight I’m cooking jiaozi dumplings, and my anticipation of their deliciousness is already taking me to a happier place in my mind.

The thought of depriving myself of that is painful. But using the principles developed in my book, that means I already feel pained and I’m relying on dinner to help me avoid facing it.

When I think of the food I’m going to cook tonight it gives me a sense of direction and purpose that is otherwise lacking. It’s a purpose and meaning firmly under my control, since I source the ingredients and do all the preparation. So it comes with a sense of efficacy too.

Purpose, direction, control, efficacy, and then enjoying the fruits of my labour.

The thought of cooking but not eating, or eating only what I need, brings feelings of resentment and discouragement to the surface.

I’ve imbued my evening meal with an equal and opposite emotional sway. I’ve practiced switching off once fork hits food. And so at dinner time I overeat, eating less throughout the day in anticipation of the nightly feast.

It’s not about the quantities per se, but the fact that I’m eating for reasons that override and distort my natural relationship with food. I’m letting the experience determine how much I eat and that makes it hard to stop when I’ve had enough.

Can I really cook those delicious jiaozi tonight and only eat as few as I need to keep going?

It’s not going to be easy, and I’ll probably not succeed this time around, but at least I’ll be mindful.

Mindful not just of how much I’m eating and why, but also of the negative emotion already there.

Because when I tune out of the negative emotion I’m feeling, I’m actually tuning out of myself and my life. I’m tuning out me, and that is the most disempowering thing I could do.

The answer lies instead in accepting how I feel, acknowledging that it’s okay to feel bad, if that’s how I feel (and I can’t stress this enough: get professional help for dealing with negative emotions and the experiences that caused them).

I’m learning to sit with negative emotions and not run away, not busy myself in efforts to escape them. I just breathe, feel, and remind myself it’s okay to feel this way and it won’t last forever.

As I learn to continue being myself in the midst of negative emotion, the emotional escapism tied to eating (or drinking, or any other compulsive/addictive behaviour) will soften and fade.

My jiaozi are delicious, but that’s not why I’ve been eating too many of them. My family dinners are delicious and rewarding, and in fact they will become more rewarding as I begin to enjoy them for what they are, and not use them as an escape from something else.

Tonight I will pay attention to how I feel as I cook and eat.

Food as fuel

I like to imagine food as fuel. Imagine you’re throwing wood or coal into a furnace. You want the fire to keep going at it’s optimal rate…you don’t want to give it too little fuel because then it will die down. But nor do you want to smother it with too much fuel.

It’s not a bad analogy, since cellular respiration (the process of converting chemical energy into cellular energy within our bodies) is technically a combustion reaction, just like burning wood or coal.

But I’m keeping it as a rough analogy, because what I like to imagine is the food I eat being akin to fuel thrown on a fire. Too little and I feel weak and dizzy – the fire dies down. Too much and I feel heavy, full, and bloated – the fire is smothered.

And it’s not just the amount of food, it’s also the type of food. Eating heavily-processed sugars and carbohydrates provide energy but leave me feeling unwell, like throwing accelerants on a fire – the burst of flame from flammable liquids and solids dies down quickly and gives off unpleasant fumes.

So I let my body guide me, and it can have some surprising results. Fruit doesn’t appeal to me as much, and I naturally eat fewer carbohydrates overall.

But occasionally this same intuitive sense of what to eat leads me to fats, oils and salt, or to wholemeal bread, dairy, protein – all in small quantities but presumably fulfilling a need for specific nutrients.

Wholesome is how I would describe these impulses. Certainly different from the needy sensation of craving other kinds of foods, and different even from the feeling of wanting to repeat a wholesome food experience.

Food, fat, and finding inner peace

Can you see the excess fat on your body as equivalent to the excess food in your diet?

It’s a direct cause and effect relationship. Eating more than you need translates into more fat on your body.

The excess fat feels like it’s not really a part of you. That’s why we feel bad when we look in the mirror or catch a glimpse of it.

There’s a thematic link between this fat that feels like it’s not a part of us, and the excess food we eat. Because the moment we try to stop eating we feel bad. Even the thought of eating less feels bad.

But why does it feel bad? Not because eating too much is good. Not because we are being deprived of something we need.

It feels bad because we have been using that excess food to keep ourselves occupied…literally full of something, a distraction from our own selves.

Binge eating – like binge viewing and binge drinking – immerses us in something other. The word itself originally meant to soak wood in liquid until it swells. When binge eating our whole body and mind are entranced with the process. That’s what makes it such a potent escape.

We lose ourselves in food, and the byproduct is excess fat that looks and feels like it’s not truly a part of who we are.

But why do we feel bad? What are we trying to escape from? Why are we seeking to lose ourselves in the first place?

The exact reason differs from person to person, because our lives and our stories are unique. But the bad feeling that comes when we stop eating is not about the food, but about ourselves.

Whether it’s fear or anxiety, shame or self-hate, boredom or disappointment, bad memories or an unwanted reality; whether we need professional help to manage it, or just time and acceptance to reconcile it; finding peace with ourselves and our world is the answer.

Don’t try to lose weight

Don’t try to lose weight, try to fix your relationship with food.

That was the central point of my book The Weight-Loss Paradox. In hindsight I think it worked for me precisely because it took my focus away from the vexed issue of weight loss, and onto the real problem of how I use food.

Plenty of people can lose weight by just restricting their intake, with no further thought required. But for many of us eating less is a big challenge.

That’s why we need all our focus to be on fixing the problem – our relationship with food – not on the outcome of weight loss.

Being overweight is not the problem. It’s natural and healthy to be overweight if we consistently overeat. Really take that on board: my body weight is not the problem. I’m not trying to lose weight. I’m trying to bring order and balance to how and when and why I eat.

I’m not trying to lose weight. My weight is merely an indicator of my eating habits. There is nothing wrong with my weight, but there is something wrong with the way I use food.

It’s like drinking too much. There’s something wrong in drinking too much, hangovers and other health problems are just a side-effect and indicator that there is something wrong.

Saying “I’m trying to have fewer hangovers, but it’s just so hard!” sounds weird, but that’s how many of us approach weight-loss.

Being hungover every day is a good reason to do something about your drinking habits. Being overweight is a good reason to examine your eating habits. But in the end the solution must be in finding a renewed, healthier relationship with food and drink; a more balanced and reasonable way of using them.

Weight loss: Time to get serious

So I’ve lost 4-5kg using my approach, and I’m borderline overweight according to my BMI.

At this stage the pleasure of eating still motivates me to eat more than I need to keep going. It’s easy to think “screw it” and eat more for dinner and also have something for dessert.

I’ve been at this point for a couple of weeks and the beauty of doing this mindfully is that I’m increasingly conscious of my decision to overeat.

It’s simply cause and effect: my overeating maintains my current weight.

But as time goes on the pleasure of the food holds less allure, or rather, the displeasure of being overweight becomes more salient.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be in the normal weight range? Wouldn’t it be nice to not be carrying excess weight? Wouldn’t it feel good to be lean again?

I’m well-versed in the pleasure of eating, but what about the pleasure of a lean and healthy body? What about looking good? What about wearing whatever I want?

It feels good to be attractive and healthy. It feels good to be lean. And these good feelings are motivators that can counteract the allure of food.

Feeling good about my body can help me make a different decision as I approach mealtime, or when my wife brings home snacks (it’s all her fault!).

Appreciating your body in a healthy and normal weight range is far more powerful than the pleasure of most of the food that most of us eat on a daily basis.

And it is possible to have both: you can be lean and healthy and still enjoy the pleasure of truly delicious food; just not to the extent that it robs you of the pleasure of a lean and healthy body.

Weight loss: connecting the dots

The basics of weight gain and loss are simple. I eat an average daily amount of food. If it’s more than I physically need, I gain weight. If it’s less, I lose weight. If it’s equivalent I maintain weight.

Since I’m currently overweight, that average daily amount has been more than I need. I’ve been decreasing the amount I eat, and sure enough my weight is also slowly decreasing.

Some people adjust their food intake with ease, but others of us find it difficult. When I had been overweight for most of my adult life I found it extremely difficult to decrease the amount I was eating sustainably.

In the end what helped me (and became the subject of my book) was a personal approach informed by my work as a philosopher.

Approaching weight loss as a process of discovery and personal meaning helped me, because that’s where I find enjoyment.

I turned weight loss from an exercise in caloric restriction into a kind of personal philosophical experiment and adventure.

And that’s why it’s a bit different for me now. You can’t have the exact same adventure twice, not when you’ve changed and grown in the process.

I’m more patient now. I know it just takes time for my body to catch up to my changed eating pattern. I’m also less intense. I accept that I’m still eating for pleasure at specific times, and I’m aware that I am deluding myself a little when I have some late night snacks.

But what I love about my approach is that I can’t hide from my own awareness and insight. I’m aware that I’m still slightly overweight and that I don’t like being overweight. And I’m also aware that when I snack I am ignoring those feelings temporarily.

This higher level consciousness grows over time and repeated experiences. There’s only so many times I can keep repeating the same actions and having the same unwanted outcome.

It’s just that I haven’t mindfully connected the dots between the brief sensation and distraction of the late night snack and the continued unwanted experience of being overweight.

But something has to give. If I’m really genuinely tired of being overweight and miss how my body feels when I’m in the normal range of BMI…I’ll bring that focus and feeling to mind next time I’m tempted to snack.

What motivates your diet?

About three weeks ago my BMI was 26.59. A BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight.

Today my BMI is 25.68. I’ve been focusing on my eating habits and motives for about ten days, and from past experience I’d expect to refine my process more over the coming week.

I won’t put a timetable on it, but while I’m preoccupied with my own motives and sensations around eating, I’m eating more to keep going with other aspects of life and less for escapism and pleasure and therefore it won’t be long before I’m back in the normal range for BMI.

Where I go from there is an open question. I tend not to focus on weight or aesthetic goals, because I really like the idea of seeing how my body and mind respond to a balanced and…let’s say philosophically satisfying…approach to eating.

If I eat only to give me the energy I need to keep going, what will I look and feel like? Not just because I’m consuming fewer calories but because I’m no longer using food to manage my emotional state. I’ve walked that path before, but I have to admit I’ve never gone right to the end.

To me that is an exciting and intriguing question. I’m curious to see what happens. Will I have to make myself eat more to have enough energy? Will I become someone who forgets to eat because I’m so engrossed in other activities? Will I find even more refined and satisfying sources of pleasure and fulfilment?

These questions are, for me at least, far more motivating than weight-loss goals and physical aesthetics these days.

Eating is about context

I wasn’t planning on blogging my latest round of my diet, but it’s actually nice to share all the little reminders and ideas that come to me in this process.

Back in late 2016 I worked out an approach to weight-loss that worked for me. After years of struggling with weight and diet it was a big relief to finally gain clarity on this important subject.

I wrote a book about my discoveries in 2017, and since then I’ve been happy with my weight, enjoying the benefits of my process, with occasional tune-ups along the way.

That’s where I am now: I originally lost 20kg and dropped from an overweight BMI down to the normal range. But with enough time in the normal range (a couple of years) and some changing circumstances I’ve crept back into the overweight range.

Which is not a big deal. I have my process, and I know it works. Whether I gain weight or lose too much weight, my approach to diet has given me the lifelong tools to stop, reassess, and put my focus where it’s needed to restore balance.

So with that in mind I actually just came online to post another observation:

I’m constantly surprised how long I can keep going without needing to eat anything. And when I do need to eat something, it takes very little to get me going again.

But I’m also conscious that my BMI has been in the overweight category, and it makes sense that with so much stored energy available as fat, I really don’t need much food to keep me going.

As always, the words “keep going” remind me that life is meant to be about the many different things that bring fulfilment, meaning, and pleasure to our lives. Eating was never meant to be our dominant occupation in life; we simply don’t need that much.

That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy and appreciate good food when we do eat. It’s just a matter of context: how much we eat and how often, and what else is going on in our lives.

It’s a game…12!

When I went through my weight loss process I was incredibly open minded.

I considered all kinds of possibilities: if I didn’t want to stop eating but felt bad about my weight, maybe the answer was to stop feeling bad about my weight?

Maybe my objections to being overweight were just cultural conditioning?

This kind of thinking helped break down my old thought patterns. Even though I eventually concluded that it wasn’t simply cultural conditioning, or a desire to look more attractive to others.

What was it?

In the end it wasn’t about health or attractiveness. What it came down to was that my appearance didn’t match how I felt about myself; and that disconnect between feeling and appearance was the real source of my discomfort.

In much the same way I’ve felt the same kind of disconnect between how I feel about myself and my whole reality.

I’ve only met a couple of people in my life who share this feeling. Most people have areas of life where their expectations don’t match their reality, but for me it is a deeper and more pervasive sense of incongruence.

I used to find some solace in philosophical skepticism because for all we know we really might just be brains floating in jars (a standard philosophical thought-experiment). Reality might not be real. And that thought brought me comfort.

Finding congruence

When I looked in the mirror I felt discord. When I look at reality I feel discord.

Through attempting to understand weight loss I eventually discovered that the discord was already in me. I already felt bad about aspects of life, and I used food as a distraction from it. But the distraction only perpetuated the bad feelings, giving them physical form in weight gain.

Being overweight was a physical representation of my discord.

(As an aside, dis-cord means negation of the heart, from the French.)

I didn’t resolve my discord, I just decided to stop distracting myself with food and by letting myself feel the discord instead I changed my eating habits dramatically and lost weight as a result.

The same process also relieved chronic pain I had suffered.

Surely the same principle applies on a global scale: the discord in reality itself is a representation of the discord in me.

The many things that bother me are distractions and externalisations of something already within me.

Don’t blame external conditions for “making” me feel discord; I already felt it, and denying it has pushed it out into external manifestation.

Reality is therefore doing its job perfectly. It is perfectly reflecting what I feel inside – even if I don’t like it.

Don’t blame reality for something that I’m projecting into it. If reality changed right now I would still feel discord.

Making peace

I like knowing that the discord is in me rather than in reality. I’ll be glad to stop feeding discord into my reality. I’d prefer to just feel the discord in myself directly rather than create external conditions for me to blame.

Either way I feel discord, so I might as well keep it simple and just feel it directly. And in saying that, I notice that I reach out subtly for distraction, in much the same way that I used to look to food for distraction. I subtly reach out to my external reality for some kind of distraction from my own discord.

I appreciate noticing this subtle dynamic. I’d prefer to just feel the discord rather than try to distract myself ineffectively. I’m curious as to how reality will look and feel if I stop using it in a flawed attempt to escape from discord.

It’s okay to feel discord if that is what I’m feeling. It’s healthy to allow myself to feel whatever I’m feeling rather than trying to escape it, which doesn’t work anyway. I appreciate my growing conviction that reality has in fact been perfect in its reflection of my discord. It’s up to me to not project my discord on reality – reality itself has never been at fault in this dynamic.

I’ll end the post here even though it feels unresolved, because I can see that it is better to accept the unresolved feeling than to push for some kind of resolution. Let’s call it the resolution of being okay even if things feel unresolved 😉

Practicing happiness 22

Exploring the relationship between wealth and body weight helped me recognise the feelings of insecurity, insufficiency and vulnerability that are helping create my reality.

Wishing I had more wealth or feeling bad about lack of wealth turned out to be self-deceptions that kept me from noticing how I feel at a deeper level.

Living a “marginal” existence reflects my fear of external forces, my desire to withdraw into safety even if that means making do with material insufficiency.

Yet there’s another beautiful paradox at the core of it: because wealth to me means or feels like sufficiency, security, and invulnerability….things I had already regarded as beyond me.

Denying my own sufficiency, security, and invulnerability, I thought it better to treat that awful state as “true” and adapt to it as best I could. Make the most of subjugation and try to limit my exposure to damage and suffering.

I really thought it was true, hence the terror I felt. It is terrifying to be convinced of your own insufficiency, insecurity, and vulnerability in a hostile world, and believe that no one and nothing is coming to save you.

It felt like an improvement to say “that’s just the way it is” and quash any hope it might be different. It seemed like progress to put all the pressure and burden on my own internal efforts to transform myself.

“Grow up”, “this is just life”, but I held onto my spiritual goal, thinking I could somehow transcend the limitations of this ****** existence.

But I was wrong. I was wrong to accept that I am insufficient, insecure, and vulnerable. I was wrong to believe in hostile and cruel external forces. I was wrong to think I am powerless unless I somehow met the requirements of spiritual transformation.

My thoughts create my reality – so I made that my truth, but it doesn’t have to be. I can change my thoughts and change my reality. I can allow sufficiency, security, and invulnerability to be my reality. I can deny the ability of any external force to create my reality. I can accept and allow the power already and always within me.

Real freedom, real security, real sufficiency real invulnerability — I can allow these with my thoughts and begin enjoying them immediately.

My life is my creation, and I can choose what goes in it – thoughts that feel good or thoughts that don’t. It’s entirely up to me. And when I change my thoughts my reality really does change. I feel it, and I see it, and that process of deliberate creation is the most satisfying and delightful thing of all. It’s the meaning and purpose of my existence – freedom, expansion, and joy.