The Importance of Being Present to Pain

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Often, for weeks or months at a time, I have very little negative self-talk about my body. Then, sometimes with a distinct trigger and sometimes without warning, the negativity begins…a single, seemingly rational, thought (“You ate too much today”) followed by a fear-based attempt to control something (“You should skip dessert tonight” or “You shouldn’t have any cappuccinos this week”). I often catch myself before I get swept away in the undertow, but not always.

Today, as I frantically headed outside for a walk (not with the intention of enjoying the scenery but of burning off calories I ate while out to lunch with a friend), I suddenly realized that not only was negative self-talk present with me, it was running ten paces ahead, begging me to stop being a loser and catch up. So, I did. I caught up to those thoughts and realized what was happening.

In the past ten days, I have mourned with the nation over the senseless deaths of 58 country music fans. I have learned that my beloved spiritual director is leaving the area to pursue a new ministry. I have said goodbye to my pastor of 10+ years at her retirement service. I have listened to my clients’ stories of pain and loss. And I have been unable to stop or control any of it. Although I’ve cried often and engaged in meaningful self-care, it wasn’t until my walk this afternoon that I realized my mind is trying to control something (someone) when everything feels like it’s slipping away.

And when I realized that was what was happening, I was disappointed and sad. I slowed my pace and started sulking. I remembered my spiritual director’s oft-asked question, “Have you taken this concern to prayer?” and my usual answer, “No. God knows my suffering already.” But this time, I decided to try it. I started talking out loud to God. “Why do I keep falling back into this pattern? Why can’t I be free from this negativity forever? Why can’t I just love myself 100%, all the time? Why do you let me suffer? Why do you let any of us suffer?! WHY DO SO MANY OF US SUFFER?!” I kept walking. I didn’t hear God’s voice responding. The clouds didn’t part. Nothing magical happened. So I kept walking, silent now and more calm.

As I rounded the turn of the last road that would take me back to my apartment, I took a wider path than I usually take, one that took me closer to the road than the houses. I paused to take a photo of some pansies on the corner and then looked up and saw a magnificent tree with sunlight streaming from behind it. And in the middle of the tree was a heart-shaped hole…a scar of sorts. (The photo is kind of dark. Can you see it?) I smiled. I stood in awe. I tried to think of something profound and meaningful to sum up that moment, but the only thing I can say for sure is that it was a moment of True Presence — my presence with pain and God’s presence with me. I took a photo and started walking home.

I still don’t know the answers to my questions, but I know the value of being present to pain instead of running from it. I pray for the courage to continue to be so and for the awareness of God’s presence in my and others’ pain.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

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Looking With New Eyes

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It’s been two months since I posted on my blog. In that time, I left my job of 6 years to pursue two part-time jobs in my field. While I don’t regret the decision to leave, it brought new challenges, one of which was an unanticipated month-long grieving process during which I focused on all I had lost: the closeness with my colleagues, a steady routine, predictable income and benefits, my summers off, feelings of competence and pride in my work, and the general approval of others. I didn’t realize how much these losses would affect me. And, for a while, loss was the only thing I could see.

During my grieving, I noticed an increase in emotional eating. I was eating when I was bored, sad, lonely, anxious, or frustrated. I noticed an increase in calorie counting, body-part checking, and obsession with the number on the scale. I increased my exercise and slipped back into thinking certain foods are “bad”. All the while, I noticed my desire to isolate and not talk to anyone about it. However, I did talk to God. I wrote in a prayer journal, prayed out loud, cried about my struggles, and practiced Centering Prayer. I read books by wisdom teachers that reminded me of God’s presence with me…especially in my struggles. Somehow, I was able to trust that this was a temporary relapse into familiar coping skills and not a permanent abyss.

 

Having journeyed through that shadowy valley to where I can now feel the sun again, I find myself looking back at it with wonder, noticing the tools I used, the self-care I maintained, the people I stayed connected with, and the belief I maintained that “no matter what happens, I am beloved”. I marvel at those blessings, having not seen them when I was in the midst of that valley. Then today I picked up my book — published almost 10 years ago — and started reading. 50 pages into it, I started to cry. What an incredible, blessing-filled journey my recovery has been!

Reading my own story certainly brought back for me the pain and suffering I experienced, but I also saw all the grace-filled moments, moments when God was present with me through my dad’s willingness to share with me his experiences with binge-eating disorder; through my mom’s research about B.E.D. in 2005 and encouragement through buying me my first self-help book; through my therapist’s gentle persistence in helping me cultivate self-compassion; and through my recovery community’s support during relapses. At the time, I overlooked God’s presence in those people. Today, I couldn’t help but see it.

This experience has me thinking about the power of changing our focus. In mindfulness practice, we learn not to stop looking at our pain (in other words, not to avoid it), but to view it with new eyes, eyes of curiosity, not judgment. When I picked up my book today, I was curious about my own story. In viewing my story with new eyes, I saw it differently. I wonder how I can look at other aspects of my daily life with the new eyes of curiosity instead of resignation or judgment. Perhaps my losses would be seen as “a natural part of the ebb and flow of life” and other moments of struggle would be seen as just that: a moment of difficulty, not another line added to a narrative made up and stoked by my egoic self.

Perhaps there’s an aspect of your life that needs to viewed differently. Consider the power of being mindfully aware instead of judgmental, critical, or resigned. If you’re unfamiliar with mindfulness, the body scan meditation on UCLA’s website may be a good place to start your practice: click here.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

Body Positivity

It’s the third day of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (2/26-3/4/17) and today I want to focus on body image. *sigh* I don’t even know where to start. I could start with the lies sold to us by the diet and fitness industry. Lies that suggest we will gain happiness, success, money, or health if we lose weight or tone up. Here are just a few of the seemingly innocuous slogans of the multi-billion dollar business:

“What will you gain when you lose?” (Special K cereal)

“It’s all about being a better you” (L.A. Fitness)

“Get paid to lose weight” (Weight Watchers)

These lies suggest that dieting will lead to bigger and better things. For years, I thought dieting was a good thing. My parents dieted. My friends (even at age 14, 15) were dieting. My professors talked about dieting. Church members dieted. I thought, “If I don’t like something about my body, I can change it. I can diet to lose weight or I can exercise to change my shape.” What happened, however, was that dieting didn’t make me lose weight. It made me lose connection with my body’s own ability to regulate itself. Exercising 2+ hours a day 5 days a week changed my shape at first, but it also changed my mind, so that thoughts of exercise and calorie-burning left little space in my head for anything else. The more I dieted and exercised, the more self-conscious I was about my body and the less I liked my body.

So, during this week of raising awareness, I want to point out a website (one of many) that promotes body positivity: Proud 2 Be Me. Proud2Bme.org is a partner of the National Eating Disorders Association, but it was created by and for teens (or 39-year-olds like me!) to increase body confidence and positive body image. I was especially moved by this recent blog post: Let’s Change Our Mindsets, Not Our Bodies.

Take some time this week to notice the self-talk that runs through your head and listen to the body talk you hear from friends and family. Consider saying something more positive instead. Things like, “You’re amazing just the way you are.” “You’re beautiful.” “Beautiful bodies come in all shapes and sizes.” “You are unique. Don’t change.”

These types of messages won’t sell diet plans, power bars, personal trainers, or make-up. But positive messages like this WILL change your life, one phrase at a time.

Peace, joy, and body positivity,

Megan

“It’s Time to Talk About It”

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week began yesterday and continues until 3/4/17. The goal of the awareness campaign this year is to get the word out: eating disorders affect people of different races, ages, cultures, incomes, and body types. We can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder based on their appearance. As a result, all are encouraged to complete this anonymous screening tool and learn about online and telephone resources: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-tool

Whether you complete the screening or not, I hope you’ll join me in sharing accurate information through word-of-mouth and social media platforms this week. The National Eating Disorders Association is a good place to start for accurate and helpful information: http://nedawareness.org/

One topic that may help you start a conversation among friends or acquaintances is the relatively recent push for “clean eating”. You’ve probably seen the Panera Bread Company commercials advertising “clean foods”: https://www.panerabread.com/en-us/our-beliefs/our-food-policy/clean-ingredients.html But when does “clean eating” become “dieting”? Is it ever helpful to label foods as “good” or “bad” or “clean” or “dirty”? I don’t have the definitive answers, but posing that question to your peers is a great place to start the conversation.

Also, be sure to check out this infographic from the National Eating Disorder Association to increase your knowledge about who is impacted by dieting and how dieting contributes to the development of eating disorders.

Peace, joy, and good conversation,

Megan

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National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2017

Next week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 26 – March 4) and the theme this year is “It’s Time to Talk About It”.

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At the college where I work, we’ll be posting body-positive messages around campus, providing screenings and resources, offering a workshop on mindfulness, and doing whatever we can to get the conversation started. Although individuals are seeking treatment for eating disorders more frequently now than in past decades, they are still under-diagnosed and under-treated. I believe this has a lot to do with the continued stigma and shame.

I know that providing information about eating disorders will help some students feel validated and will encourage them to seek more support. I also know that efforts to teach healthy self-care will have an impact. But I often feel overwhelmed by the mountain of toxic body messages that stands in the way of all people loving themselves as they are right now. This mountain gets bigger every day as the (well-meaning?) American Medical Association pushes their research on the link between obesity and poor health and as the fitness, fashion, and diet industries preach at us about the religion of thinness. “Being thin/fit/ripped won’t just make you happy, it will save your life!”

Reminding ourselves of the great progress we’ve made in affirming all people of all body types is important, but we must look ahead and tackle the work that still needs to be done. I hope you’ll join me next week in posting something on social media or talking with your friends. And be sure to check back with my blog next week when I’ll share some ideas about how to chip away at that mountain of negativity and build up your own (and others’) body esteem.

Peace and joy,

Megan

Person of the Year

Time Magazine named Donald Trump its “Person of the Year”. I understand their decision to do so. He has captured our nation’s attention for the entirety of 2016, for better or for worse, and thus has had a big impact.

But Donald Trump is most certainly NOT my “Person of the Year”. As 2016 draws to a rapid close, I reflect on the people who have had the biggest influence on my life. And the first person who comes to mind is my spiritual director, Sister Julia (“Julie”) Grey.

I can easily label 2016 “The Year of Spiritual Growth”. From discerning a call to become a spiritual director, to beginning my own spiritual direction sessions, to maintaining a mindfulness practice, to being stretched and challenged through participation in the parish profile committee at my church, to starting a new practice of daily centering prayer…this year has opened my heart to receiving God’s immense love which has allowed me to give more love to others than I thought I had in me to give.

By living the “little virtues” of gentleness, kindness, humility, and patience, Sister Julie has allowed me to grow and flourish. The light and love of God are evident in her quiet presence and her desire to help me see God’s involvement in my daily life. I’m so grateful for the doors that opened and drew us together as director and directee, and I look forward to continue my spiritual growth in 2017.

On my facebook page yesterday I encouraged my friends to share with each other the person who has had the greatest impact on their personal or professional life this year. I hope you’ll take some time to do so, as well. Share your thoughts with that person, if you can, or with others. Focusing on those positive people in our lives is like throwing water on the wildfire of negative self-talk that otherwise might consume those of us who struggle with disordered eating. Eating disorders thrive on disconnection from others. So take some time to notice and thank those positive people who have made a difference in your life this year. (And share your thoughts with me by commenting below!)

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

Thriving and Giving Thanks

Last week I facilitated a workshop for students with disordered eating called “Thrive! Don’t Just Survive Thanksgiving”. Attendees were invited to anticipate stressors that could make them more vulnerable to relapse in their recovery. Then each individual created a list of coping skills to deal with those stressors. I was in awe of the number of skills they identified: walk away from the table; take some mindful breaths; text a supportive friend; watch a funny movie; have a discussion with family ahead of time about feelings and needs; listen to uplifting music; and self-soothe in healthy ways.

I enjoyed leading the workshop because I can easily recall a time when holiday meals were agonizing. Food was “the enemy”. I told myself I had “no self-control” and believed if I was around foods I enjoyed (pretty much everything on the Thanksgiving table), I wouldn’t be able to stop eating. I would gain weight. And, to my warped mind, fat was the biggest enemy of all.

It has been eleven years since I began my recovery journey. I still have some fear-based thoughts about food: Am I eating too much? Have I eaten enough variety of nutrients? Did I exercise this morning? Should I eat fewer calories tomorrow? But, thankfully, those thoughts are fleeting. At this point, I’m able to mindfully notice them and gently send them on their way. They are a remnant of my former way of thinking, my former behaviors. They do not consume me now.

One thing that has really helped me thrive, at Thanksgiving and every day, is being grateful. It’s easy to be thankful for the obvious blessings of family, friends, freedom, food, shelter, and companionship with my cat. But I’m also learning (slowly) how to be grateful for even the pain and difficulties in my life.

This Thanksgiving, I hope you’ll start (or continue) a routine of gratitude. There are many small ways to give thanks — a thought, word, or written note; a gesture of kindness; a pay-it-forward moment; or even by contributing your time, talent, or treasure to a charity of your choice. However you choose to give thanks, take the time to do so. Eating disorders thrive on fear and secrecy. Open-hearted gratitude is the cure.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan