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Sex, Spirituality, and Eating Disorders

Depressed Overweight WomanHunger is the driving force for all three: sex, spiritual-seeking, and eating. They form one mighty Gulf Stream: appetite, desire, need, hunger, craving and even ambition. (Just now, I mindlessly rose from the sofa to get two more Hershey’s Kisses — at 10:22 a.m.; hand deep in the candy bag before I realized the irony.)

Buddhism pretty much argues for giving up all of that lust and attachment. I’d rather not. But it’s certainly true that this powerful engine can get out of whack in an individual, leading to compulsion (or serious overdoing) in one area or another. Or it can be the basis for a continuous restlessness and dissatisfaction, like that fellow repeating “I want, I want” in Saul Bellow’s Henderson The Rain King.

I don’t think that not giving a damn is the answer.

What brought this to mind was yesterday’s UNC Radio interview by Frank Stasio with leading eating disorder expert Cynthia Bulik. She has found that genes form a large part of the cause for eating disorders, a finding I see as particularly valuable, in part because it can lift some blame off of the sufferer.

(I’m sitting here snacking and hoping I can write my way to recognizing some new wisdom in myself on this subject, which is one of the great things about writing: to be able to discover what one knows.)

I do have some credentials in the subject of wild craving: for one, a long-running binge-then-starve-and-exercise eating disorder in my late twenties and early thirties (I was a pioneer! most of us had never heard the term “eating disorder” back then; the terms then were only “anorexic” and “fat.”) I also wrote a novel about a troubled and angry 400 pound American woman living in semi-seclusion in a Hindu holy city by the Ganges (Sister India) and a novel, Cobalt Blue, about a Pinehurst artist’s compulsivity and spiritual passion erupting in the form of sudden and frightening sexual addiction. Of course, we all know the joy and fierce misery of romantic passion. And like a lot of writers (maybe most or all?), I’m usually subject to Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition/which overleaps itself” to make the ambitious one happily itchy, absorbed, and driven. (Oddly, the ebbing of the familiar need is much more uncomfortable.)

All of this is hunger; in the case of the anxiety component it’s hunger for safety and certainty. Spiritual craving is, in addition to its other drivers, simply desire for a way to cope with desire.
Man at desk
So what to do with restless hunger? In the heat of a frenzied moment, I don’t know that any philosophy will help a lot. It’s in the lulls that one can best prepare.

I’ve been helped by a number of things: psychotherapy, belief in an enduring spiritual center, a few meetings to absorb the wisdom of Overeaters Anonymous, medication, meditation, learning that others wrestle with the same wacky stuff, happy marriage, writing, reading the daily devotionals in Science of Mind magazine (no relation to Scientology), and likely some mellowing with age (I’m 66). With the food problem, I was also improbably helped by being told that I’d never get over it. I did! So there! Ha! There’s nothing like a dare!

Even so, I still know that the Gulf Stream of somewhat-calmer crazy need pours on;Red life buoy hanging on a boat. Help and support concept. I seem to have developed a sort of mental skill of stepping to the side of it. That works some of the time. The idea that sticks in my mind that describes this is Gandhi’s philosophy of do-the-work-and-then-step-back; he’s talking about not getting attached to the fruits of one’s labors, which is a great thing, on the occasions when one can manage it.

Hunger doesn’t feel hollow to me; and that’s probably because I’ve always had enough to eat. Instead it feels heated, itchy, angry: more like a bad rash. It calls out for scratching, which rarely helps. More and more I think that dealing with unreasonable hunger is on most everyone’s to-do list.

One other thought: I co-authored a book called The Healing Power of Doing Good; helping others can actually help the giver and it’s an approach that I have seriously neglected.

I welcome any thoughts, techniques, arguments you have on the subject of physical/spiritual craving. Please leave them as comments here. Thanks.

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  • Bob Braxton
    April 16, 2015 at 10:36 pm Reply

    obedience, poverty, chastity – power, wealth, sex – what a life (age 70 going on 71). Food / hunger, that, too. When I began college I weighed at most 125 pounds and was shy of my ultimate height. On the meal plan, I figured out exactly what items I could select to use completely the meals allowances: breakfast 50 cents, lunch 90 cents, supper (dinner) dollar and twenty cents – twenty meals per week (only two on Sunday). When I began to put on weight, … – by graduation after four years, I weighed 147 pounds (a year before marriage). Now I am more like 187 pounds.

    • Peggy Payne
      April 17, 2015 at 12:04 am Reply

      Sounds as if you had things well under control, Bob.

  • April 21, 2015 at 10:09 pm Reply

    Thanks for sharing this Peggy! It’s true that spiritual hunger, physical drives, and carnal pleasures are so frequently linked together. Your take on this was honest and refreshing! Everyone struggles with these issues at some point – consciously other otherwise! Thank you for sharing this!

    • Peggy Payne
      April 21, 2015 at 10:32 pm Reply

      Thanks, Katherine. And I’ll bet you work with a lot of folks dealing with these issues.

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