Immediately after the workshop, I began a meditation practice. Committed to finding time that I could make available every day, I decided to get up 30 minutes earlier in the morning. This was a challenge and a sacrifice for me since I am neither an early riser nor a morning person. I did not know much about meditation other than it involved a certain amount of time set aside to be quiet and to “be;” and I wasn’t really sure what that meant. But, every morning, I lay on my living room floor bundled in a blanket listening to a piece of soothing music I had first heard at the “Opening the Heart” workshop: Petals. It was 22 minutes long. (I had forgotten why I still meditate or pray in the morning for 22 minutes.) At first, I did have to discipline (force!) myself to consistently devote this time to being silent. But very soon, something drew me into the silence, and I was eager for morning to come.
Not knowing exactly what to do with these precious silent minutes, but believing they must be somehow structured in order to provide maximum “good,” I began searching. Over the years I filled the time with specific techniques, following the instruction of a variety of Buddhist and Sufi meditation practices, Hindu Yoga practices, Christian prayer practices, and medical models designed to elicit the relaxation response. Without being conscious of what I was doing, I built myself a sanctuary with this time set aside
Without realizing it, seeds were being planted within and preparing me for a transforming experience. A few months after I began my morning practice of being quiet and listening to Petals, I encountered a life-long demon. For over twenty years I had struggled with various manifestations of an eating disorder. Since childhood I had been a binge eater, alternating that obsession with dieting – crossing the line into anorexia on more than one occasion. I either completely controlled my food intake or completely lost control. My weight fluctuated in a wavelike manner increasing by 20 pounds when I was drinking heavily, decreasing by 10, increasing by 15, decreasing by 25 when I was using drugs daily, increasing by 30. I felt powerless and hopeless; I was trapped by my historical, habitual dependence on food to take away pain, to help me avoid feeling, and to give me comfort. Through therapy and reading popular books on eating disorders, I came to realize that my impulse to overeat – which was in reaction to a gnawing in my stomach – had nothing to do with being hungry or my body needing food.
One Saturday afternoon, in the late Fall of 1982, the familiar gnawing started in my stomach – right on cue, it seemed – one hour after finishing lunch. I did not know the cause of this physiological reaction, but I did know it was not about hunger. Although eating always stopped the gnawing – temporarily – I was invited to dinner at the home of friends, and did not want to spoil my appetite with my usual binge. So, I made a different choice. Instead of eating, I spent the afternoon sitting on the sofa in the living room with the gnawing in my stomach and a glass of water, sipping small amounts as needed to douse the flames inside. Silently, I sat there, noticing the physical discomfort in my body and the darkness crawl throughout my apartment as the sun slowly set. I do not remember having conscious thoughts about eating or not eating, about struggling or conversing with this demon; I do not remember analyzing my feelings or recalling anything I had read. I remember sipping water, sitting silently, and noticing. And finally, in the dark of that winter afternoon, the gnawing stopped. That miraculous moment marked the end of my eating disorder.
The wisdom of all spiritual traditions, and an encouraging adage found in 12-Step programs, suggests that to get out of hell we have to go through it, not around it. My demon had been encountered, and cast out. My body, my being, was flooded with waves of peace and joy. I had “let go;” I had abandoned my old sense of security - the one that had always let me down - and with new faith I had chosen a new path.
I admit feeling a bit disappointed, though, that this important transformation had not come about through more dramatic means. I wished that the story about the end of my lifelong eating disorder had more pizzazz, more jazzy details and concrete steps to guide others with similar struggles. When people asked me how I overcame this disorder, I said, “I sat quietly in the dark and waited for the pain to stop.” I did not realize I was doing exactly what addictions counselors advise – waiting for the urge to pass – or that I was unconsciously cultivating the spiritual virtues of acceptance and patience. I did not struggle against the pain, anxiety, and discomfort. I accepted it all, and waited in tranquility – sitting on my sofa between my demon and The Aloneness.
Over the next 3 years, I cultivated the skills of consciousness and patience through meditation. By choosing to sit in consciousness and tranquility with my pain and discomfort, transformation blossomed in many areas of my life. I stopped overspending and took pride in paying my bills on time and living within my means; I changed jobs from one that was demanding, chaotic, and stressful to one that was fun, easy, rewarding, and of comparable pay; and I stopped drinking alcohol when I realized it I been endangering my life through risky behaviors. I realized that drinking alcohol was not good for me. My serial addiction made it easy to stop drinking; I started smoking marijuana every day. I did this until a psychiatrist gave me an article about the effects of marijuana on brain function and memory. She encouraged me to stop, to protect the wonderful job I had and the wonderful life I had created for myself. She said it was not good for me. I stopped; it was easy. I moved on to prescription sleeping medication. I used these until they lost their effectiveness – I had to take higher and higher doses to get to sleep, and finally they just did not help. In February of 1986, after a deeply drugged, sleepless night, I caused a traffic accident on my groggy way to work. I never took another sleeping pill. Clearly, this was not good for me.
Gently – over time and continuing commitment to my meditation practice – without knowledge, effort or specific intention, I had been cultivating my capacity to change. I was, again, choosing life.