For a long time, whenever I wanted to improve my health, I started by slapping myself hard in the face.
Not literally, but emotionally.
Here’s how it would go. I’d want to lose a few pounds, or not feel sluggish, or stop eating so much chocolate, and for a long time I would just walk around with a vague feeling of desire + procrastination.
Then one day, I’d have HAD ENOUGH. Maybe I tipped the scale at 190. Or I was cramming chocolate bar wrappers into my pants pockets so I could throw them out somewhere else. And I would begin to feel really angry and ashamed.
Ha! That was the energy I needed to get into full heroic action mode. So I’d milk it in my mind.
“You lazy, hypocritical so-and-so,” I’d tell myself. “You fat slob.”
And it would work. I’d stop eating chocolate (or quickly consume the last six bars, so I could stop quicker). I’d go raw, or full vegan, or stop eating scallion pancakes cooked in enough sesame oil to float the Titanic, or whatever.
But it wouldn’t last. And it didn’t feel very good to be treating myself with such scorn and loathing.
Talking To Our Bodies
Here’s a horrifying thought: What if we thought of our bodies as young, innocent children, totally eager to please?
Would you constantly put down your child the way we talk to our own bodies?
“You’re so fat. You’re so slow. You hurt too much. I don’t like your face. Your arms are too skinny. Your thighs are too big. What’s with that rash on your calf? And why are there spaces between your teeth after all that orthodontia?”
A child would develop any manner of psychological defenses against such an onslaught of criticism, especially if it came from a parent upon whom they had to rely for sustenance and safety.
Maybe learn to tune it out.
Maybe internalize it and make it more cutting from the inside.
Maybe revel in the accusations and find new ways to be objectionable.
Your Body is Your Faithful Servant
When we think about it, our bodies are totally at our service, and they perform as well as they can for as long as they can.
Want to pull a month of not enough sleep and stay amped up on Red Bull and Kit Kats? Your body will do its absolute best to stay alert and functioning.
Want to force your body to sit at a desk for 10 hours a day? Your body will comply.
Want to feed your body junk food? It will open its mouth and take it, no matter what damage you’re doing to its health.
And after all that abuse, we have the nerve to complain that our bodies are sluggish, aching, and fat.
We moan about our bodies’ conditions and diseases.
And our bodies, still so innocent and loving, just want to serve us. They would love to get better so we can be happy, even as we’re beating them up emotionally for becoming what we’ve forced them to become.
See how messed up this is?
The Wrong Way Out
Here’s where things get tricky, and quite beautiful. Once I realized how I was treating my body, I felt ashamed. Like a parent who’s finally confronted his own abusive behavior and suddenly realizes the damage he’s caused to one who loves him without question.
And shame is exactly the emotion that will keep us stuck in this cycle.
The fearful ego will grab onto that shame, feed off it, and grow stronger and more dominant.
As in, “See how you’ve been abusing your body. What’s wrong with you?”
And the negative cycle of self-talk continues, intensifies, and leads to more dysfunction and, eventually, disease.
“Oh look, now you’re criticizing your criticizing. You really are an idiot, aren’t you.”
And so on, in an infinite spiral of rusty razor self-judgment.
The Right Way Out
The way out of this trap is gracefully simple. It’s just to accept and acknowledge what you’ve been doing, with compassion. And to hold that part of yourself in tenderness, and just be with it.
Instead of trying to change immediately, just accept the part of you that’s ashamed. The part of you that’s scared. The part of you that’s angry. The part of you that’s jealous. The part of you that feels hopeless and defeated.
Whatever behavior you’re trying to change, it’s being fueled and maintained by those parts of you that you keep down, in shadow.
You know that you can choose food wisely when you’re feeling loving, happy, and fulfilled.
You know that you can exercise joyfully when you’re feeling expansive, connected, and grateful.
It’s when we keep our negative emotions locked up, suppressed, under tight ego control so we can hide them from ourselves and others (as if that ever works!) that we knowingly behave in self-destructive ways.
We Are What We Think
The Cambodian Buddhist monk Bhante Dharmawara (who lived to the impressive age of 110, so I’m guessing he knows something about health) said frequently, “You are what you eat. You are what you drink. And you are what you think.”
His point is that our thoughts are food. And like all food, they can nourish us, or harm us.
And while we can’t “choose” our thoughts (they just sort of land unbidden, don’t they?), we can choose exactly how we respond to them. We can agree. We can vehemently disagree. We can argue. We can hate ourselves for thinking them.
Or – and here is the secret of all human freedom and power – we can hold them with compassion and not react personally.
How to Change a Negative Behavior
While the negative self-talk often motivated me to take action, the side effects of self-loathing generally undermined my good intentions in short order.
Love, including self-love, has no negative side effects.
And when I’m motivated by love, I can act from a much more powerful place.
I don’t have to beat myself up to eat vegetables instead of chocolate. I can choose to improve my diet because I love myself and I want to experience all that life has to offer in radiant health.
I don’t have to mentally whip my body to go for a run or do yoga. I can choose to treat my body to joyful movement because it was created precisely for that purpose, because I love it and want only the best for it.
The choice is ours, and it exists in full in every moment. That’s the amazing grace of being human: no matter what we’ve chosen before, we have complete freedom to choose anew in each new Now.
May all our choices be fueled by love.
[image by fbellon]