First of all, I need to say that I think the term “mindfulness” is getting a bit overused, and I hesitate to use it for that reason. On the other hand, I believe it is a valuable concept and it is a useful tool when talking about healing from an eating disorder. Since the concept of mindfulness is used in so many contexts currently, let me define how I am using it. I am talking about mindfulness as being aware, without judgment, of what is currently happening in our body and our mind. It is not an attempt to stop our thoughts, or to direct them in a particular way. It is not an attempt to escape from emotional or physical pain but rather getting to know the pain better. It is bringing our experience closer, looking at it in an intimate way rather than from a distance.
How does this relate to eating disorders? Most of my experience is with anorexia and bulimia, so that is the perspective I am coming from, although I am sure much of what I am saying can be generalized to include compulsive overeating. When someone is suffering from anorexia or bulimia, he/she is in contact with the experience of being distracted from his/her true experience rather than being in contact with the raw experience. The behaviors of an eating disorder serve a purpose; they provide an opportunity to either work through something that is unresolved, or they provide a distraction from working through something that the person feels unable to handle. Either way, the underlying problem, emotion or thought is distorted in some way so that it becomes difficult to really work with it.
Mindfulness can help settle the muddy water so that we can see more clearly what is being hidden by the behaviors of anorexia and bulimia. The idea is to sit still long enough to let the mud settle to the bottom so the water becomes clearer. It sounds simple, but it is certainly not easy. It can be especially difficult to do alone when one is consumed by something like an eating disorder. It can be frightening, painful and confusing. It is helpful to have a trained person to help guide you through the process. I have experienced this process many times with many different people, and it is usually surprising what comes up when the mud settles. It’s usually not what the person thinks is going on. Again, that’s when it is helpful to have someone there to help with the process; someone who can help you feel safe enough to look at what’s coming up so that it can be seen, resolved, and then fade into the background.
What I have found in using mindfulness to help people suffering from anorexia and bulimia is that every person is so unique, and the function of their eating disorder is just as unique. All the books in the world that describe why a person has an eating disorder and how to fix it, can’t explain what’s happening for you. Even people with years of experience and education don’t know what is going on for you until they sit with you and help you through the process of letting the mud settle to see what’s really there. You are unique, your life and your experiences are unique, and you have the keys to unlocking the process of healing. You don’t need someone to tell you why you have an eating disorder, you need someone to listen to you and support you in finding your own answers. Mindfulness is a way to get there.