It has been more than twenty-five years since Geneen Roth wrote her bestselling book Feeding the Hungry Heart. Since then, she has worked with thousands of people using meditation, awareness practice, and a set of seven eating guidelines that are the foundation of “natural eating.” Here she talks with us about her most recent audio teaching series, When Food Is Food & Love Is Love.
Sounds True: So many of us began the New Year enthused: this was the year we were going to lose the extra weight, and keep it off. But we've already blown it. What happened?
Geneen Roth: Oftentimes, New Year's resolutions are based on the binges that you've done over the holidays, and these binges occur because you know you're going to deprive yourself starting January 1st. So the diet/binge cycle has been enacted. I don't believe in deprivation or the dieting that follows it. Without either one of them, there is no need for New Year's resolutions. Instead, I believe in listening to the hunger of your body, and of your heart. Begin to actually look inside and see what it is you really, really want with your relationship with food, and how to get there. And that is another process entirely from resolutions.
Sounds True: On When Food Is Food & Love Is Love, you talk about a time years ago when you allowed yourself to eat whatever you wanted, and you ended up eating chocolate chip cookie dough for two weeks. What was that about?
Geneen Roth: Chocolate chip cookie dough was just one layer of the issues I was facing. It was an acting out of all of the years of deprivation I had done through dieting—seventeen years of either being on a diet or being on a binge every single day. Mostly, I had been proceeding during those years with a conviction that my hunger was endless; that if I let myself eat what I wanted, I would start eating at one end of my kitchen and make my way clear across the United States.
Sounds True: How did you finally stop yourself?
Geneen Roth: I began to listen to what my body wanted, instead of what my mind wanted. You can't mediate this through your thoughts. If you're thinking about what your body wants, it's really what your mind wants. The mind has no conception of what is going to feel good in the body. The mind is acting on the past or the future, it is not in the present. Your body is in the present. If you listen to what your body wants rather than what your mind wants, then your body will get very good at telling you what it wants.
And, of course, what your body wants is to feel good. Your body wants not only to survive, but to thrive—to be active, alive, energetic, and to be able to serve you. If you're eating what your mind wants, it is usually at cross-purposes from what your body wants.
Sounds True: You first published Feeding the Hungry Heart in 1982. How has your work evolved since then?
Geneen Roth: My work has become more and more an expression of the inner life. It was always about mindfulness. It was always about telling the difference between what your body wanted and what your mind wanted. But as I have made a deeper commitment to my own spiritual path, and as the people I work with make a deeper commitment to their path, it becomes about using our obsession with food as a doorway in. What's most prominent in many of our lives is the fact that we constantly think about the shape of our bodies, our relationship with food, or what our lives will be like when we lose weight. So, because that is what's here in front of us, it becomes the path itself.
Sounds True: Can you give us an exercise to get started?
Geneen Roth: Part of the process of breaking the obsession with food is learning how to do something different. Most of us turn to food when we feel unhappy, sad, angry, or rejected. The next time you feel an uncomfortable emotion, rather than immediately reaching for the comfort food, be curious about the feeling. Where is the discomfort? Is it in the stomach … the heart … the throat? Does it have a color … a texture … a temperature? What is does it feel like? Our reactions to uncomfortable emotions are based only on the stories we tell ourselves about them. Begin to practice being in your body instead of reacting to emotions by eating or pushing them away or denying them. When you allow feelings to naturally occur, then food can be the nutritional resource it is supposed to be, and your emotions can be expressed and resolved in more constructive ways.