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Guest Blog: Want to Keep It Off? It's All About the Focus. By Alyson Mead

Posted Jan 22 2009 6:31pm

When I first came to meditation, around 13 years ago, I thought I was a pretty focused person.  During the day, I held down a job as a book editor, wrote at night, and juggled freelance assignments for various magazines and web sites in between.  Yay me.

But as I began to meditate, and read about what happens to the mind when we endlessly multitask, this "skill" didn’t seem so cool anymore.

At first, meditation just seemed like a good way to calm my over-stimulated mind.  Friends love to tease me about how many books I' m reading, or how many tasks I can take on (and accomplish) in record time.  I' ve also been an insomniac since childhood, and hoped meditation would help me sleep.

As meditation became part of my everyday life (a non-negotiable 15+ minutes was quickly added to my schedule), I saw my concentration improve.  I slept better, with fewer interruptions. There was a tiny gap in my experience, not terribly big yet, but there all the same. In that gap, I saw the beginnings of spaciousness, that wide-open sense of suspended time I needed to make life' s important decisions. The mental equivalent of counting to ten (or ten thousand), I suppose.

I also saw, as I struggled with my body through diets and militaristic workout routines, that carrying extra weight was, in essence, a reflection of how much engagement, or lack thereof, I had in my life at any given moment. In other words, how much I could focus on the needs of my body, mind, emotions and spirit at the same time. Aha!  Maybe it wasn' t enough to simply crank through life at top speed.  (Cut me some slack, OK?  I lived in New York City at the time.)

It' s no secret that we live in a copiously multitasking world. Some of my students even believe they can' t escape it, and silently give in.  Usually, the only sign they have that this has happened is a vague (or sometime not so vague) feeling of frustration and anger that follows them everywhere.  Technically, though, the brain can' t multitask (I know, tell that to the busy mother, or the businessperson, or the air traffic controller). What it does, instead of performing two tasks at once, is choose one thing to focus on, and move the second thing to the back burner.  In other words, we' re always engaged in a push-pull relationship between engaging and disengaging, since we' re constantly refocusing our attention. This results in a pretty serious lack of focus.

What does this all have to do with weight loss, you ask?  A lot, as it turns out.

Unless there' s a mitigating circumstance, such as illness, injury or reaction to medication, gaining and carrying extra weight is a outward manifestation of how disengaged we have become in our lives. Slowly, without noticing it, we lose touch with our senses first, forgetting to taste our food, to notice the sensual feeling of fabrics on our skin, to bring our awareness to the dancing sparks in our children' s eyes.

We may feel that we' re doing ourselves a favor, by "getting things done." But we' re really pretending our own needs – for nutrients, sleep, water, attention, exercise and good old-fashioned creative stimulation – don' t exist.   Soon, the pounds start to creep on, and we pretend they don' t exist, either.  And one day, something comes into our experience to shock us back to reality.  We wake up to find ourselves overweight, or obese, and need to address the problem sooner rather than later.

The natural impulse, from there, is to add shame to the already-confusing mix of emotions. Many popular diet plans and television programs (you know who you are!) utilize shame as a powerful weapon to make the overweight person toe the line, or achieve the officially sanctioned weight and shape.  This is disastrous for people who want to lose weight consciously, and keep it off for any length of time.

If you' ve ever trained an animal, you know that the most humane way is through the use of positive reinforcement. This means that if a desired result is achieved, a positive reinforcement is added (a reward, in other words). This causes that response to be repeated and even strengthened through time.

So every time my dog obeyed a command, I gave her a treat.  Soon, she was able to sit or lie down with no treat, or just a fond pet on the head. She was happier and less confused about what I wanted.  I got her to sit at the front door, so she wouldn' t race outside and get run over.  Everybody won.

The interesting thing, to me, is that we don' t treat ourselves as well as we treat our pets.  Instead, we believe that we' re not capable of making positive changes in our lives, and that we need to be reminded, or hounded, or shamed into making better choices.   If we actually began to make these changes, though, and gave ourselves that little bit of space and perspective to do so, we might actually find that the results themselves were their own reward.

 I know, no drama at all.  How boring! 

Which brings us back to meditation. When we sit down to meditate, we' re telling ourselves that we' re worthy of attention, of knowledge and most of all, respect.  We cast shame aside and cultivate tolerance for ourselves.  We learn to accept, not so we can become disconnected again, or fall into unhealthy habits, but so we can be realistic about our lives, and informed about our choices. When we label our thoughts, by saying "thinking" to ourselves, we' re not trying to cast them out. We' re calling a thought a thought.  We' re robbing it of its power to run way with us, and make us more reactive to outside forces. 

When we' re less reactive, we don’t eat mindlessly.  We have that tiny gap in our experience, right between saying "thinking" and our next breath, to remind us that we can make empowered choices. We can express gratitude for the food we eat, and enjoy it to the fullest.  We can be reminded of the journey our food has taken, from the fields to the trucks to the store or farmer' s market.  We begin to feel more connected, part of a greater whole. We move our bodies in ways that make us feel more alive.

When we add a personal storytelling practice, we learn how to express what' s inside us, and eventually release our pain and confusion.  This provides an invaluable way to dialogue with our bodies, minds and emotions, so we discover, perhaps for the first time, what we really need.

And when we make mistakes, as all humans will, we can return to kindness, and treating ourselves with respect.  We can be gentle as we readjust our focus on achieving the best body for us, just as we return to the next breath in meditation.

-- Alyson Mead is the bestselling author of Wake Up to Your Stories and Wake Up to Your Weight Loss.  The Write It Off Club, her new online coaching program, launches on January 1st, 2009, and provides an affordable and fun support system, to help you achieve your best body. (http://www.writeitoffclub.com).

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