“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Every fad diet and nutrition philosophy has one problem in common: they all ask you to mistrust the signals coming from your body, and to instead place your trust in an external authority.
Even if the diet succeeds, you’ve lost faith in what your own body is telling you.
The choice of which food to eat is one of the most fundamental decisions we make. Food is our fuel, our locus of community, our nutrient source, and our primary interface with the natural world.
Yet all of our attitudes toward food can be traced back to one fundamental assumption: that we cannot trust our desires.
What if our cravings and urges for food are actually telling us something important?
We crave sugar because our body is telling us it needs comfort in the face of a challenging day. We crave processed foods because our body is telling us it can’t process the emotions it is experiencing. We crave rich foods as a form of self-care in the face of unsustainable demands on our spirit.
What if there was a different way? What if there was a way of eating that didn’t rely on strict rules, didn’t vilify any particular food, and put you more in touch with your desires instead of denying them?
Instead of using the rational mind and its sophisticated nutritional knowledge to overrule a stupid body which craves foods that are bad for it, what if we trusted that our body knows what food it needs, and listened to what it is telling us, even if that contradicts received wisdom about nutrition?
This seems like a radical approach to food. Even more radical than the most restrictive, complex diet regimen. I’m supposed to simply trust my body to tell me what to eat?
In his book The Yoga of Eating (affiliate link), author Charles Eisenstein tells the story of a personal experiment he conducted – to trust his body’s desires and to see where they led. It was an experiment to treat eating as a spiritual path, and offers an alternative approach to diet that doesn’t depend on finding which of hundreds of conflicting nutritional philosophies is correct.
This article is a summary of the parts of his story I found most interesting and helpful.
Food is a source of information
Food is a source of information about our environment, a complex biochemical language developed over millions of years of coevolution.
Eating is a special, even sacred time in which we are literally absorbing new elements into our system. There is tremendous information encoded in that food, from the exact conditions in which the ingredients were grown, to the people who prepared it, to the packaging and processing it underwent to find its way to your plate, to your own physiology and state of mind at the moment you eat it.
When you chew food slowly, fully absorbing its flavors and textures, you are more attuned to the information it carries. Your need for sensory fulfillment is more easily satisfied, leading you to enjoy simpler food, and less of it.
When you pay attention to the food you eat, your diet improves not because you exerted more willpower, but because you found the inherent delight contained in simple foods prepared with care.
By this action, what am I saying “yes” to?
To decide what to eat without willpower but also without judgment, ask yourself, “By this action, what am I saying ‘yes’ to?
Treating food as information, every bite you eat connects you to everything that happened to bring that food into existence.
For example, suppose you eat a banana from a South American plantation, located on destroyed rainforest wrestled violently from indigenous tribes, who now labor at the plantation at starvation wages, using pesticides that pollute the ecosystem, shipped thousands of miles using polluting oil-fueled ships, by a company that puts small independent growers out of business through corrupt practices.
It’s just a banana, right? Yet if you’re honest with yourself, there is no way to avoid the implication that you become part of that entire chain of events by consuming it. Any way you look at it – from an informational lens, a nutritive lens, an economic lens, a sociopolitical lens, a metaphysical lens – you will arrive at the same conclusion.
By eating that banana, you ever so slightly reinforce this state of affairs. You say “yes” to the world that produced those effects and those systems. Is it any wonder that so many of us experience chronic pain, illness, or a sense of alienation traced back to our food systems?
When anonymous strangers grow, process, ship, and prepare our food, is it any wonder we often feel consumed by loneliness and estranged from others?
One principle: pay attention
The only principle of the Yoga of Eating is to give your food your full attention:
- Before all meals, observe a brief moment of silence (or if you prefer, say a prayer) to center your attention
- Slow down when eating, reserving a part of your awareness to see that each bite is fully chewed and swallowed
- Every day, take one meal in silence, without distractions of any kind. If this is too difficult, start with 5 minutes of a meal
- At every meal, let the first bite you take from each dish be with perfect attentiveness
- During lulls in the conversation, or when someone else is talking, patiently experience the pleasure of each mouthful
When you use these practices for attentive eating, even once a day or less, you begin a habit of completely chewing your food and receiving what it is telling you. And not by exerting more willpower, but by the sheer pleasure of the sensations themselves.
By paying attention to what you eat, you let your body know what it is getting. In turn, you can hear the body’s responses to the food it is receiving – is this satisfying or not? Is this meeting a need or not? When is enough enough?
You may find it takes time to develop greater sensitivity to the foods you eat. Many modern foods have powerful flavors that overwhelm and numb our palettes, demanding an even more intense flavor the next time. Our chewing becomes lazy and incomplete, since these flavors are obvious and immediate. Additives and processing confuse the body by offering tastes that don’t correspond to the food’s nutritive qualities.
You might be surprised to discover that some foods you thought you liked really don’t taste very good at all. Some foods you will find you are consuming only for the bodily effects they have – squashing a feeling of tiredness, assuaging a threatening fear, numbing an uncomfortable pain. Once you’ve identified those needs, you can look for other ways to satisfy them.
As you learn to listen to your body, it will naturally guide you toward the diet that is right for you. You will discover that certain foods complement your emotional state, the time of day, the weather, or other foods. Feel free to try certain foods out for a while to see if they fit. If you have mistrusted or ignored your body’s signals for years, don’t expect instant sensitivity to its needs.
Willpower is a temporary phenomenon
Any discussion of food quickly turns into a discussion of willpower.
We assume that in order to eat food that nourishes us, and to avoid the temptations of unhealthy foods, we must exert as much willpower as possible.
But everything we know about willpower tells us that it is severely limited. Willpower gets depleted, like a muscle, and that same muscle is being used to make all the other decisions and resist all the other temptations we are faced with in our lives.
Any diet (or other habit) based solely on willpower is bound to fail. There simply isn’t enough of it.
We are told instead to rely on “systems.” Habit trackers, reminders, accountability mechanisms, coaches, rearranging our environment. But all of these are external mechanisms that bring us right back to the original problem: anything that teaches us to ignore our inner intuition ultimately robs us of our power. And without standing in our power, we are all the more vulnerable to external voices telling us what is best for us.
Often we use our self-discipline to tell our inner voice to shut up, preferring to trust in an external authority for what to eat. But another definition of self-discipline is “self-remembering.” It is about reminding ourselves of what is important to us and who we really are, and making a small adjustment that realigns us with our values.
When used in this way – to remember oneself, to come back into alignment – willpower is natural and energizing. Whereas when we are fighting ourselves, it is an ordeal. This kind of self-discipline comes naturally when we integrate into our present awareness the full experience of food.
Eating supports a certain way of life
Any given food supports a certain lifestyle.
Monks in a monastery will often fast or eat only the simplest, most plain foods not just because that is the tradition, but because the needs of the body are minimal. Eating a lot would only interfere with the work of the mind and spirit.
On the other hand, if you are living “in the world” – pursuing a career or raising a family, for example – you will need a different kind of fuel. A more nutrient-dense diet will support that lifestyle better.
Neither one is inherently superior. Each diet is aligned with a different way of being in the world.
There might be seasons of your life that call for a dramatically different diet. If you are going through a major life transition, you might be attracted to very simple plant foods and fasting. If you are building a company or launching a major new project, you might need strong, earthy flavors and proteins.
Don’t be afraid to let go of a diet that is no longer serving you as your life changes.
Eating to be good
One reason strict diets appeal to us is that they make us feel good, worthy, and deserving. We love to sacrifice because it feels like we can earn the things we need through hard work.
But sacrifice is not inherently necessary, and it too can become a habit. We can learn to impulsively withhold from ourselves whatever it is we want or need, assuming that the greater our desire, the worse it must be for us. Our willpower becomes a weapon we wield against ourselves in a futile attempt to coerce ourselves into needing less.
When we ignore what our body is telling us, we cultivate in ourselves the skill of self-denial. The skill of saying no to what we need. But no matter how skilled we become, those needs don’t go away. They fester and they mutate, emerging in increasingly urgent and obsessive ways.
The result is an even deeper division, with cravings moving deeper and deeper the longer they are submerged. The tension builds, and the cravings and aversions become more intense. The body speaks its needs louder and louder, even as it does its best with what it has.
How can we be surprised when we emerge from this experiment joyless, aimless, looking for someone else to tell us what we should want?
The illness seeks the medicine
It’s so easy to judge our diet choices and shame ourselves for not following our best intentions.
But the Yoga of Eating isn’t about self-judgment. The choices you made in the past were the best you could do with the knowledge you had available to you. In fact, your body has always taken care of you, choosing foods that helped you to navigate the disappointments, grief, and trauma of life.
You can thank your body for how far it’s taken you. It has received whatever you gave it, and did the best it could possibly do to turn it into energy, comfort, and strength. Your body loves you, in a sense. It always makes the best possible use of the nutrients it has access to.
Shame is the glue that holds unhealthy habits in place. And the opposite of shame is gratitude. Which means that, paradoxically, the moment you can view your body with total gratitude, you are in the best possible place from which to begin making a change.
Let go of the diets of the past that you thought you needed to survive, receive love, and gain respect. Thank your past self for everything it’s done to keep you alive. Even the rolls of fat and the high cholesterol can be viewed as resources your body has stored up for the crises it thought it would face.
How can we blame ourselves or anyone else for seeking to dull the sensations of a very painful world? How can we feel guilty for doing anything we can to address the feeling of wrongness in our experience of life? Food may have been our medicine, allowing us to continue functioning in a harsh environment.
But like any medicine, it eventually stops working. The quality of the underlying pain comes to the surface sooner or later. Then and only then is it time to give it up. Not because it’s bad or wrong, but because it no longer has the intended effects.
Consider that the soul is wise, and always seeks out the right medicine for its condition. It might be television, social media, alcohol, drugs, toxic relationships, or conflict with others. If we view each of these as neither right or wrong, but as temporary palliatives, we can see that the medicine is always changing, always in flux.
Rather than take away our medicine, we can instead change the conditions that make the medicine necessary. That change is, in fact, constantly happening. It is left to us to simply recognize it.
Underneath everything you do is a sweet, innocent being doing its best to cope with the confusing world it’s been thrust into. The pain we feel is our ally, because through its refusal to go away it continuously compels us to try to heal ourselves again and again.
When you understand every action, of yourself and others, as the touchingly naive response of an innocent child to a world gone incomprehensibly wrong, you will see glory in every person. You will realize that we each possess a divine and radiant beauty.
Food is an expression of Mother Nature’s unconditional love and generosity. Food is an expression of our appetite for life – the most primitive reminder that the world is good, that the world will provide. We consume too much not because we enjoy food too much, but because we enjoy it too little.
If you could completely extinguish your desire, it would only be because your desire is weak. Your resistance to external authority is your greatest expression of self-love, defending your essential goodness and wholeness in the face of a world trying to convince you otherwise.
The Yoga of Productivity
Everything that Charles Eisenstein learned in regards to food also applies to productivity.
We constantly mistrust ourselves and our desires for what to work on. We assume our natural inclinations toward work are lazy and will lead us astray if we give in to them. Any avoidance or aversion to a task we treat as shameful procrastination, to be rooted out and exterminated with copious amounts of coffee.
Like food, our work is an essential part of how we interact with the world. In information terms, it represents our contribution to society, our role in the community, the basis of our reputation and respect from the tribe. It’s easy to lose sight of this with knowledge work that can be so remote, abstract, and disconnected from the people we ultimately serve, but work is an act of service to someone somewhere.
As with food, we live in a time of plentiful productivity advice, ideologies, frameworks, and strategies vying for our attention. Each one promises salvation if we only believe enough and never stray from the doctrine.
Yet once again, all these philosophies have one thing in common: they ask you to disregard the natural impulses arising from within your body, trusting instead in an outside source of authority. Even if the productivity technique succeeds, it is at the cost of your trust in yourself.
The Yoga of Productivity is to bring union to all the parts of yourself that you bring to your work. To trust that you are inherently good and worthy, and that your inner intuition ultimately knows what it needs and what is best for you. Every impulse – every bit of resistance, every moment of self-doubt, every minute of procrastination, every irrational deviation from the plan – is an important signal from your inner self.
A common objection to this line of thinking is, “Well if I followed my desires, my life would go completely off track.”
Yes, maybe it would. But the life that is going off track is only one version of your life. You might find yourself pursuing different kinds of projects and goals. You might discover that you want to change roles or companies. You may even discover that you’ve chosen a career or business that isn’t compatible with your deepest self.
Those consequences might seem jarring, but it’s nothing compared to the alternative: finally succeeding in all your goals and all your ambitions, only to find out you have no idea who you are or what you want. Many seem to define professional success as the ability to force themselves to do what they don’t want to do, again and again for years on end. I wouldn’t wish that kind of success on my worst enemy.
What would it look like to apply each of the principles of The Yoga of Eating we looked at above, but to productivity?
As with any kind of change, it begins and ends with paying attention. Each time you sit down to work, take a minute and close your eyes. Feel a sense of awareness permeating every part of your body. Ask yourself, “What does my body want to work on right now?”
Instead of pretending you have no choice for what to work on, and forcing yourself to do it, open yourself up to all the options at your disposal. It is actually very rare that there is only one, single task available to you at any given time.
Ask yourself, “What are all the ways I could create value right now, and which of them is most in alignment with my emotional state, my natural curiosity, and my heartfelt purpose in this moment?”
Repeat this 60-second ritual every time you switch to a new kind of task. Check in with yourself and sense if there is any particular kind of work that your body is craving right now.
I find that depending on the time of day, how hungry or tired I am, the weather and temperature, and what’s going on in my surroundings and in my life, I may be drawn to quieter, more focused work, or collaborative activity, or repetitive rote work, or more imaginative and open-ended work.
I’m often surprised that all I need is to pause for a minute, or get a drink of water, or take a short walk, and my mood shifts enough that a task that seemed impossible suddenly becomes much more palatable.
If these questions don’t lead you anywhere, start by simply trying to detect what you are feeling now, and giving it the most precise name you can think of. Ask yourself, “What is the truth or need this feeling is pointing to in this moment?”
If you are feeling overwhelmed, what is that feeling telling you you need to come back into balance? If you are feeling the need to procrastinate, what do you need to gain clarity on to feel a sense of agency? If you feel resistance to a project or a client, what is that resistance pointing to that isn’t in alignment with who you are?
Learning to listen to yourself
The yogic approach to eating and to productivity have one thing in common: they ask you to listen to what the voice of intuition inside is telling you.
You may think that your body hates all kinds of work equally, but as your awareness grows, you’ll discover that isn’t true at all. Your body’s attraction or aversion to a particular kind of task is extremely sensitive and dynamic, varying wildly even within the span of a few minutes or hours.
You might discover that certain kinds of tasks you thought you loved performing don’t bring much long-term satisfaction. Other kinds of tasks that felt like torture and seemed to take forever, once you approach them with curiosity, surprisingly turn out to require only minutes. You will uncover many facets of your motivation, coming to realize that sometimes you can change one variable in your work environment and a whole new pathway for progress you weren’t seeing will open up to you.
As you learn to listen to your body, it will naturally guide you toward the tasks, projects, strategies, and approaches that align best with your deepest self. Certain seasons of your life may require very different approaches to how you work. There are times when you do need to be checking your email constantly, reacting to the needs of the people around you, and iterating at a rapid pace. Other times deep focus is more appropriate, calling for you to go into isolation and think through ideas carefully.
Don’t be afraid to let go of a productivity tip, habit, technique, or tool as your life naturally changes. Release them with gratitude like a beloved child heading off to school. Don’t believe the lie that self-sacrifice is the only way to perform. You will end up sacrificing the very curiosity and enthusiasm for life that makes achievements worth having.
Notice that every request you agree to, every decision you approve, and every commitment you make in your work reinforces the current state of affairs. If there is a certain kind of work you no longer want to do, every minute spent doing it makes it more likely to recur in the future. Every time you say yes to a request that your heart is saying no to, you increase the odds that kind of request will come your way again.
Remember that all parts of yourself are connected, and all are necessary to keep you healthy and safe. Pursuing this path means you are deciding to treat your work not just as a means of making a living, but as a path of personal growth within itself.
If we treat the self as holistic, we see that every part affects every other part. Which means any recurring obstacle in your productivity – a persistent problem with focusing, a tendency to leave things unfinished, difficulty setting boundaries with coworkers – is a symptom of a deeper underlying part of yourself that you haven’t yet learned to accept, understand, and love.
All parts of yourself are connected, all parts affect all the others, and all are worthy of love and acceptance. At the heart of our struggle with our desires is self-division. After all, the self cannot fight itself unless it is split in two.
The choice of whether to face those warring parts, forgive them, and integrate them back into the fold of your self-love is yours and yours alone.
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