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Dear Rinpoche: I’m an Emotional Eater

A Buddhist meditation master provides guidance on readers’ real-life problems. Here is his advice on handling emotional eating.

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Buddhist Master
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Dear Rinpoche,

I am an emotional eater. I eat (and overeat) when I’m not hungry to console feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as excitement. While I haven’t always had this issue, I’ve seen it more pronounced in the last year. I want to train myself to eat better, but I’m feeling frustrated and don’t know where to start. What would you recommend as a course of action?

Sincerely,
Anxious Eater


Dear Anxious Eater,

When dealing with an issue that feels insurmountable, it’s helpful to think about the vast potential of mind. The mind always has the potential to get better, and there are many exercises that can help lead to improvement.

The first method I want to share is the simple practice of “creating space.” All you need to do is take a moment to bring attention to the space above your head. Feel that space, explore it. See where it ends, where it doesn’t end. Just look. Then bring attention to the space in front of you and do the same thing. Feel the space to the right and left of you, behind you, and below you. Just gently explore the spaciousness of your surroundings. You aren’t really “meditating,” so much as investigating through feeling. Turn your attention to this openness, and then relax into it. At first, you may not detect anything, but I guarantee that by the 20th time you try this, you will feel an opening in your chest, a lightness. You may even feel very tired. If this happens, no problem, just take a nap. That nap is so much more restful than normal sleep.

You can do this practice anywhere at any time. When you feel the urge to eat because of anxiety or stress, stop and gently do this practice, and then see how you feel.

You can also practice lightly bringing attention to your breath. Do not focus on your breath as if you need to “win,” like you are taking an examination. Just gently bring attention to the air entering and exiting your nose. Let your eyes rest in the space in front of you, and hang loose. The breath is an anchor that helps you rest. Over time, you can slowly decrease attention on the breath until you are resting loosely and alertly in space. This will help your mind relax.

It’s also good to remind yourself of the strength of the mind through writing. Write down a nice statement like, “The mind always has the potential for improvement,” or, “There is no limit to what the mind can develop,” or something that is inspirational for you, and put that paper someplace where you can see it. Maybe you can tape it to your bathroom mirror. Most importantly, though, you need to know how to hang loose and relax. You don’t need to focus too intensely on this eating habit. Hanging loose and relaxing will help you better than anything.

Lastly, another practical tip that may help is to keep a healthy snack like mixed nuts or dried fruits in a small package. Whenever you are nervous or excited and feel the urge to eat, you can practice making space and then eat that smaller portion instead of an unhealthy meal.

With Compassion,
Rinpoche

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