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heart hunger

In preparation for leading a day-long retreat on “baking and eating our daily bread,” I’ve been paying attention to my eating habits. Food and I have long been in a problematic relationship, marked by occasional overeating. I’ve noticed, for instance, that whenever I become anxious, I turn to eating. Even as simple a dilemma as not finding my car keys or anticipating a difficult phone call — and Swush! I’m in the kitchen, stuffing my face. Feeling lonely or distraught: I eat! Uncertain or pressured: I eat! And no, not healthy carrots and celery sticks, but anything that comes my way. And more than just a light snack; give me a loaf of bread, a bar of chocolate, or a tub of yoghurt: I’m your man!

This doesn’t happen every day, but certainly once or twice a week. And has been going on for years and years. The instance I become aware, I usually stop. On occasion, when I’m really  feeling numb, I take one more gulp as if to cause deliberate discomfort. Because discomfort inevitably follows: heavy stomach, tiredness, lethargy, guilt, and self-loathing. 

What’s with that ???

Zen teacher Chozen Bays MD has written Mindful eating: as guide to rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food — where better to look for answers. But as I type the book’s subtitle, it occurs to me that the last time I had a “healthy and joyful” meal was at my mother’s breast. During the seven years that followed, in post-war Germany, all food was rationed. We lived near the poverty line. There was neither a fridge nor a food pantry in the apartment. Meals were plain and modest, never enough to go around. Kids were always hungry: snacking and second helpings were unheard of. Not even during a three-year cook’s apprenticeship did eating become any easier: six intimidated teenagers were forbidden to eat (except during end-of-shift meals) and developed devious ways to grab-and-swallow.

Dr. Bays identifies seven kinds of hunger involving ways “to sooth, to distract, to procrastinate, to numb, to entertain, to seduce, to reward, and even to punish.”

Many people are aware that they eat in an attempt to fill a hole, not in the stomach but in the heart. We eat when we are lonely. We eat when relationships end.  … These are [some of] the ways we try to take care of ourselves …, but we must understand that food put into the stomach will never ease the emptiness, the ache of the heart.

There’s no quick solution to my dilemma. It’s been with me for ages and won’t be cured by a pep talk or factual information. I do know what good food looks like, know how to prepare it creatively, set a fine table, and cook for others. Yet for myself, even on stress-free days, the relationship with food remains mysteriously problematic. 

To launch an investigation into ways I may be filling the empty place in my heart, I commit to tracking the next incident and, as Dr. Bays suggest, observe what precedes it, and how I feel before, during, and after stuffing myself. Let’s see where that takes me.

If any of this sounds familiar, I’d be grateful to read your Comments. In turn I’ll report on my investigation, whatever the results.

source: Bays, J.C. (2009). Mindful eating. Boston: Shambhala, p. 43. image:


6 responses »

  1. i will be interested in following what you have to say, peter, on this topic; i struggle with similar issues

  2. Catherine Davey

    Dear Peter,
    I was a participant at the MIndfulness & Eating workshop. I felt somewhat anxious in the group feeling that I would be judged by the others and yourself as rather disgusting because I am overweight. Thoughts that the others would think “wow she really does need to learn how to eat mindfully” and “she doesn’t need to be baking bread.” As my thoughts took over I felt a wave of shame roll over me.

    You asked us what kind of hunger we had and I said “Heart” hunger. The feeling of wanting to belong, not feeling good enough, loved, worthy of loving and a spiritual hunger that also fuels the heart. When I went home I cut a slice of my homemade bread and to be honest it was not that great. (this could have something to do with my breadmaking skills & the fact that it resembled a curling rock!)

    But to my surprise I smiled and thought of the experience of making the bread – the warmth in the kitchen, the lovely heady aroma of yeast, the feel of the dough, the laughs shared with others and yourself. Usually I would have eaten a half a loaf feeling anxious about the day and what others thought of me, etc., etc. But today I left the bread. My heart felt full.

    Thank you so very much Peter for this and so much more.
    Catherine (the “Artisan baker” – and I use that term very loosely)

    • And look at the courage it must have taken for you to sign up, show up, and return the next day !!!!! I admire your mindfulness practice, Catherine. Baby steps!

      Since your loaf came from the same dough as the others (and I found mine to taste quite good), I suggest you toast a slice. Give it a nice little crust, lightly browned. Then give the Inner Critic a vacation and savour each bite as if you’d never seen this thing called ‘bread.’

      May your life go well.

  3. Thank you for this post. I turn in the opposite direction and stop eating when I’m troubled. Taking away vitamins = not good. For years, I kicked this habit and forced myself to eat before the evil self-punishing part of my brain took over.

    • Stacey: I too have begun to turn away — a couple of times i “caught” my hands reaching in the fridge without me knowing how they got there. Also noticed that I’m drawn to eating when I’m happy/serene. Not just when I’m anxious (comfort), also when all’s well (celebration). Much to learn by paying attention.


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