A Spiritual Connection in Recovery and Neuroscience?

     A few months after my book was published, a family member told me that some of the concepts I talk about in my book tie into his personal spiritual path (he is Hindu). I don’t consider myself a spiritual person, although I am highly interested in religion and spirituality; and I hope to find my way to some form of faith one day. When I was writing my book, I knew there were some similarities between what I’d done to recover – which ultimately was a form of mindfulness – and Buddhist  meditation. However, at the time I actually quit binge eating, I did not think I was doing anything even remotely spiritual. In fact, I thought it was the opposite of spiritual because I was relying on myself – my own will, my own brain – to stop binge eating, and I wasn’t sure I even believed in God at the time. 
     But, a year after my recovery when I read The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, a book I quote from frequently in my own book; I realized that there may have been something more philosophical, more spiritual, to what I’d done. The author of the book, Jeffrey Schwartz, taught his OCD patients to observe their own thoughts in such a way that allowed them to turn attention away from the harmful OCD urges and therefore resist them. In his book, he makes a connection between his OCD therapy and Buddhist mindfulness meditation. I didn’t include information about this in my book, because it wasn’t something I explored too much.  It was an intriguing afterthought, not something that helped me understand my bulimia or helped me recover. However, the comments from my relative after my book was published got me thinking about it more, and realizing that maybe meditation could help me in other aspects of my life. 
     I am mentioning this now because I came across a book this week in a used book store while I was there for storytime with my kids. It’s called The Art of Living by S.N. Goenka, and it details an ancient form of meditation from India called Vipassana mediation. I have only read a few paragraphs here and there when I have a minute; but I’ve read enough to realize what my relative was talking about when telling me the concepts in my book relate to certain spiritual philosophies.
     Below I’ve included quotes from a particular section of The Art of Living, and even though they aren’t referencing binge eating specifically, I think they could be useful to anyone who wants to quit. The paragraphs below may help you begin to view the urge to binge differently – not as something to dislike or try to fight; but as something to let come and go, without letting it lead to strong craving and wrong action. For anyone who may have already been helped by the approach in my book, I hope this can possibly give you something to think about and explore.  
“The Way to Liberation…
By developing awareness and equanimity, one can liberate oneself from suffering. Suffering begins because of ignorance of one’s own reality. In the darkness of this ignorance, the mind reacts to every sensation with liking or disliking, craving or aversion. […]

These momentary, unconscious reactions of liking and disliking are immediately multiplied and intensified into great craving and aversion, into attachment, producing misery now and in the future. This becomes a blind habit which one repeats mechanically.
By the practice of [Vipassana meditation], we develop awareness of every sensation.  And we develop equanimity: We do not react. We examine the sensation dispassionately, without liking or disliking it, without craving, aversion, or attachment. Instead of giving rise to fresh reactions, every sensation now gives rise to nothing but wisdom, insight: ‘This is impermanent, bound to change, arising to pass away.’  
The chain has been broken, suffering has been stopped.  There is no fresh reaction or craving or aversion, and therefore no cause from which sufferings can arise. The cause of suffering is the mental deed, that is, the blind reaction of craving and aversion. When the mind is aware of sensation but maintains equanimity, there is no such reaction, no cause that will produce suffering. We have stopped making the suffering for ourselves. [...] 

The entire effort is to learn how not to react. A sensation appears, and liking or disliking begins.  This fleeting moment, if we are unaware of it, is repeated and intensified into craving and aversion, becoming a strong emotion that eventually overpowers the conscious mind. We become caught up in the emotion, and all our better judgment is swept aside. The result is that we find ourselves engaged in unwholesome speech and action, harming ourselves and others. We create misery for ourselves, suffering now and in the future, because of one moment of blind reaction.
But if we are aware at the point where the process of reaction begins – that is, if we are aware of the sensation – we can choose not to allow any reaction to occur or to intensify. We observe the sensation without reacting, neither liking or disliking it. It has no chance to develop into craving or aversion, into powerful emotion that can overwhelm us; it simply arises and passes away.” 
By remaining detached from my urges to binge, I did not dislike them or try to push them away; I did not begin thinking of how much I “liked” to binge; I did not develop strong craving; and I did not attach myself to the urges, thinking I “needed” to binge for this or that reason. I maintained equanimity, as Goenka puts it, and the urges gradually went away. What Schwartz explains in The Mind and the Brain is that once we can observe and remain detached from thoughts/urges in this way, neuroscience shows that we exert real physical changes in our brains. There are many deep implications here about volition, mind, matter, responsibility for our own actions, and spirituality.  Schwartz says, “what is new here is that a question with deep philosophical roots, as well as profound philosophical and moral implications, can finally be addressed (if not yet fully solved) through science.” We now know that we can change our own brains by how we choose to think and what we choose to do; and this gives great credibility to the profound change that spirituality often brings people, and it should also give individuals with eating disorders great hope for recovery.   

4 thoughts on “A Spiritual Connection in Recovery and Neuroscience?

  1. Dear Kathryn, I just finished reading your book and I feel hope for the first time in a long time. I’ve had binge eating disorder for over a decade; I’m now 29 and I weigh 265 pounds at 5’5″. I put on the last 50 pounds while in therapy and simultaneously devouring self-help books, journaling consistently, blogging for accountability and motivation (I started and then deleted a few blogs over the years), and even attending OA for several months. I continued to binge throughout all these things, and now I understand why.

    I couldn’t believe how many parallels to my own life and experience I encountered in your book. Thank you. A million times, thank you.

    I loved this post because I’m a secular binge eater, interested in developing a meditation practice, and I’m married to a Hindu. I foresee some excellent conversations with my husband about all this!

    I hope you will write more about non-reaction to and non-identification with urges and the animal brain as a whole. As excited as I am to finally have a way forward, I am also feeling a bit nervous about my ability to navigate these new waters, and this is what I’m most nervous about.

    Thanks again for the work you do!

  2. Thanks for writing. I’m glad you liked and related to the book, and I hope you and your husband find this topic interesting to discuss. I personally find Hinduism fascinating.

    I think worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to navigate new waters is normal and completely understandable. I had those nagging concerns too; and really, the only thing that eased my mind was time and success. Once a couple weeks passed, I felt a lot more confidence in my ability to recognize/not act upon urges to binge; and I hope your experience is similar.

    I will certainly try to write more in the future about non-reaction to/non-identification with the urges/animal brain.

    I wish you all the best – I truly hope this approach helps you.

    1. “I had those nagging concerns too; and really, the only thing that eased my mind was time and success.”

      This makes perfect sense to me. And rather than worry fruitlessly about my ability to not-react and not-identify, I think I am going to take some Vipassana classes. 🙂 I found a center near me that offers them, and I am excited.

      I find the articles on your blog to be great companion reads to the material in the book. Very helpful stuff here, and I will continue to follow with interest. Thanks for responding to me!


  3. Rachel,
    Great! I’d be very interested to hear how you like the classes. I would love to take some one day as well.

    I’m glad you find my blog helpful.

    Take care, and happy meditating:-)

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