In every moment of every day, we have a myriad of options for what to do. Even if highly constrained (let’s say bedridden for a day), we have choices about what to watch, what to read, what to think, etc. Every selection we make is also a deselection of all other available options. Every choice to do something is a choice not to do 1000 other things.
Most of the time, this passes without notice. But, in times where we feel that our choice is somehow limited, we focus more on the “not doing” than on the “doing.” We end up at work thinking, “I could be home right now, but I have to do this stupid work.” Or we are at home thinking, “I could be out with friends right now, but I’m stuck here.” We go on a diet and spend our time noticing that we “can’t have” a brownie or a cookie or chips. We are in a yoga class and thinking about that we can’t go into the advanced version of the pose or can’t get the bind. And so on, and so on.
In my yoga classes this month at Yogawood, we’ve been focusing on the yoga sutra, “Vitarka-badhane prati-paksha bhavanam,” which more or less means “When disturbed by disturbing thoughts, think of the opposite.” This certainly can be applied to the issue of focusing our attention on what we are not doing/having, rather than what we are doing/having.
The idea relates very well to the way that most of us understand our food consumption. We put an incredible amount of attention (individually and culturally) on what we can’t/shouldn’t/don’t eat. We ascribe to diet plans that are plans of exclusion (“no carbs,” “no fat,” “no meat,” “no sugar”) and celebrate our ability to not consume XYZ. It’s no wonder that many people find themselves unable to maintain such plans, as the very focus of the experience is on deprivation.
A noted scholar of communication, anthropology, and sociology, Gregory Bateson, wrote that “the only way to achieve a proposition which contains its own negation (“I will not bite you,” or “I am not afraid of him”) is by an elaborate imagining or acting out of the proposition to be negated.” That is, the only way we can think about, or accomplish, that which we are not doing is to think about doing it. So, when we focus on not eating carbohydrates, or not having fat, or not consuming animal products, we spend much time thinking about carbohydrates, fat, and animal products that we could be eating. And then we spend much time feeling deprived.
It’s a tough nut, because we are so conditioned to think about things this way, to focus on the “not.”
In diet, the “get around” for this is to put our attention firmly on what we are doing, or eating, or preparing. There is nothing wrong with enjoying food. That’s why we have tastebuds. Sure, food is our fuel, and that’s important. But, it’s not just our energy source. It’s a sensory pleasure. It’s a point of connection with others. It’s an opportunity for play, exploration, and delight. Food shouldn’t be an experience of deprivation. It should be an experience of joy and possiblity.
The first time that I tried to be a vegetarian, it didn’t go very well. I was pretty miserable. I couldn’t stop thinking about the coney dog that I couldn’t have, or the tuna salad that I would be eating if I could. It was not good. The second time, something clicked and I started to really investigate all the possibilities of vegetarian cooking. I discovered vegetables that I didn’t even know existed and new ways of cooking things that I didn’t think I enjoyed. I got excited about the colors on my plate and how textures of food could combine. It made all the difference.
But even now, there are times that my mind wants to turn to what I “cannot” have. This most often, these days, crops up in the form of desserts or “junk” food. I’ll still sometimes tune into my thoughts and notice that I’m busy internally grousing and wishing (for a candy bar, or a piece of cheesecake, or a plate of fries). What I’m trying to do is to cultivate the opposite by:
1) reminding myself that the way I eat is a choice “to,” not just a choice “not to” – if I want to go back to eating ice cream, I can. That choice is still available to me. Of course, I would have to live with the physical consequences, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the choice. No vegan police will come and arrest me if I eat a slice of cheese.
2) having something that I enjoy in those moments and focusing on it, so that I don’t feel deprived. If I want a brownie, I’ll go make a chocolate banana shake. Nope, it’s not as nutritious as a kale salad, but it’s tasty, and it’s not going to hurt me, and it means that I get to spend that time cultivating my feelings of joy, not of deprivation. If I want a cup of coffee and it’s 9:00 at night, I make a cup of decaf or some hot soy milk. If I want some fries, I put some in the oven. I’ve found that, generally, if I eat this way, my diet evens itself out eventually. I may go through a few days where I eat way more simple carbs than is a good idea. But, then I’ll spend some time looking at recipes or blogs with pictures of amazing vegetable and fruit dishes, and before long those are what I’m wanting and things start to come back to balance.
This principle can be applied to exercising (instead of thinking “I can’t run,” I try to focus on “I can do yoga”), abilities (not “I’m not good at small talk,” but “I enjoy listening”), and so on. I spoke about this same idea in regard to understanding of the self last week in my post I Am Worthy. There are always ways to think about what we can/are doing positively instead of simply focusing on what we cannot or are not doing.
If you read this blog regularly, or even if you read it irregularly but read the last post and this one, you know that I’m not always able to do this, but I am trying (see what I did there?).
You can too. Be not deprived.