I’m in recovery for an eating disorder and I attended a women-only program retreat in Napa this past weekend. I’d been looking forward to it, a chance to get away for a few days and meet some new people on a similar spiritual path. As I drove to the retreat center, the winding roads and golden fall leaves invited me to relax and take it easy for a while.
So it struck me as funny that the retreat’s first group activity, the thing that kicked off the weekend for 35 women who all wrestle somehow with food and weight and body image was…dinner. Don’t be late, the retreat organizers cautioned, because you might miss the meal.
You’ve got to be kidding. Compulsive eaters, late for dinner? Not a chance.
In my personal experience, compulsive people tend to use substances or behavior patterns to avoid feelings. I’ve learned more and more how not to do this — to instead use tools like praying or talking to a friend or reading some piece of calming literature or taking a walk or pounding a pillow — so that I can stay with myself and whatever is going on inside rather than jumping ship. So when I entered the dining hall that first evening and the uncomfortable feelings started sparking in my body I knew I’d have to use some of my coping techniques (not only was I joining a group of strangers, but I was also going to eat in front of them! And try to be outgoing and friendly! Holy crap).
It went fine, really. The retreat staff served us good, healthy food, and of course, since we were all there for the same reason we had quite a bit in common already. But it’s amusing to me that so often the very things that I suffer over are just right there, an unavoidable part of everyday experience. It reminds me of what Tibetan Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön says in her essay, “This Very Moment Is the Perfect Teacher” (part of her book When Things Fall Apart):
“Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues could be regarded as good news. We don’t have to go hunting for anything. We don’t need to try to create situations in which we reach our limit. They occur all by themselves, with clockwork regularity. Each day, we’re given many opportunities to open up or shut down…This very moment is the perfect teacher and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
It’s so true, and it really is good news, even though I don’t always understand that right away. The stuff that challenges us is always there, offering endless opportunities to confront it and, with each iteration, to heal a little bit more. So if I struggle with food and body image, I told myself that first night of the retreat, there’s no better way to recover than to practice eating — with a bunch of other people who struggle, too.