This Spring, I attended a 7-day silent retreat led by Tara Brach, Jonathan Foust, Ruth King and Pat Coffey at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW). On day one, they asked us to set our intentions. What do we want to get out of the retreat? To be honest, my first thought was that I really wanted to lose some weight on this trip! It had been a very stressful few months, and I am a stress eater, so…I was feeling badly for having gained a few pounds lately. Not that I knew for sure, because I stopped weighing myself years ago, in an attempt to be a more mindful eater and more in touch with internal cues than external ones. Having this thought, I immediately felt shame…you’re a mindful eating teacher, and you are still focused on food and weight? Noticing judging mind…
On day # 2, they encouraged us to inquire further when, during a meditation, negative thoughts or emotions surfaced. Instead of just noticing them, not judging them, and then refocusing on your object of attention, they encouraged us to “Take your demons to tea”. This was based on an old Tibetan myth. "Milarepa was a loner who lived in a cave by himself and meditated wholeheartedly for years. He was extremely stubborn and determined. One evening, Milarepa returned to his cave after gathering firewood, only to find it filled with demons. They were cooking his food, reading his books, and sleeping in his bed. They had taken over the joint! He did not know how to get these guys out of his cave. Even though he had a suspicion they were just a projection of his own mind—all the unwanted parts of himself—he did not know how to get rid of them. He first tried to teach them the dharma. He talked about compassion. Nothing happened. The demons were still there. Then he lost his patience and got very angry and ran at them. They just laughed at him. Finally, he gave up and just sat down on the floor saying, 'I am not going away and it looks like you are not either, so let us just have tea.' At that point, all of them left except one" (this excerpt written by Pema Chodron). Once we could do that, we were encouraged to practice R.A.I.N. Here is what happened to me.
R: Recognize what is going on. I subsequently sat down for the 9:30 a.m. meditation. Noticing thoughts, feelings, body sensations. Then, a thought entered, “Your hair is a mess!” Then another, “You’re too fat”. Then another, “Your belly is too big”.
A: Allow the experience to be there, just as it is. Allowing these thoughts in, I began to scan my body for any sensations connected to them. I began to feel a pain in my stomach, which became more intense the more I focused on it. As the moments passed, I began to feel like I had just been punched in the gut. I felt my throat tightening, like I was going to cry. I checked in with my emotions. I felt hurt by the terrible things I said to myself. It never occurred to me before that I was so abusive with these God awful statements! I would never say these things to my worst enemy!
I: Investigate with kindness. Allowing myself to stay with the unpleasant, I began to investigate. When did I first begin to have these thoughts about my weight? I thought back how, in my first year of nursing school, I was very shy and struggled to fit in. I figured that if I were thin, people would accept me. If I were thin, people wouldn't judge me. If I were thin, I would get a boyfriend and wouldn't be lonely.
Huh. I realized that these negative thoughts, however punitive, were adaptive at a time when I had very few coping skills. They were used to keep me "in line" so I would not feel rejected or abandoned. I had felt those feelings before, and I did not want to feel them again.
N: Non-identification of the experience. Becoming aware that these automatic, once adaptive, negative thoughts are just thoughts has been very helpful. They no longer define me. Now, I am making a concerted effort to notice these body bashing thoughts whenever they occur, allow them to be there, and know they are just echos from the past that no longer serve me. I also made a promise to trust my body to tell me when to eat (when hungry), and to stop eating (when satisfied). Things fundamentally shifted for me that day, and I now find that those thoughts come around less often. That feels nice.