By: Cait O
I have gone through many spiritual cycles in this life. I was born into an Irish Catholic family (which is where I probably received my training in guilt and shame). Before I went away to college, I began reading Buddhist scripture.
What I remember most profoundly about my first encounter with Buddhist text is the story of pretas, or hungry ghosts. These are believed to be the souls of people who have suffered tragic death in the physical life.
I didn’t realize it quite yet then, but at seven years old I experienced the loss of this lifetime as I know it. My parents split up, and as in most cases of divorce, the court decided which parent got to spend which days with me. Each parent moved on with their lives. In the meantime, I surrendered to the false belief that nothing I could ever need or want was important. I would always be starving to feel significant. I became a hungry ghost. Invisible. Needy. Afraid. In-between.
Most peoples’ first experience with Buddhism is the concept of karma. The literal translation of karma in sanskrit is ‘action.‘ In this westernized, co-opted culture of instant gratification, I have observed that people often perceive karma to be the retribution or punishment we receive from the universe as a form of atonement for our mistakes, selfishness, and wrongdoing.
This is, in my opinion, a very shortsighted view.
I have begun to view karma the way I view recovery and my own body. What I put in, I also receive. The law of cause and effect is our karma. It is neither good nor bad, it just is. We receive it as we see it.
Receiving happens only as long as I am open. This idea of karma is more gentle. It does not see actions as good or bad, it just sees them for what they are. They tilt the proverbial scales accordingly–it is our perception of the outcome that convinces us that anything is “good” or “bad.”
Karma is merely the sum of our actions, and mindfulness of the times we give or withhold compassion in this life.
In my recovery, I have had to do the same thing. I no longer see foods as “good” or “bad”; they are what they are, and I decide how and when and how much to put them into my body. If I binge, I feel uncomfortably full. This leads to suffering; physical, mental, and spiritual–sending me down a shame spiral, possibly to other behaviors. If I skip out on food and ignore my hunger, it leads to suffering–I am hungry, I get irritable, obsessive, and I am unable to act out of kindness. I withhold compassion from myself.
In recovery, I am more mindful of the how, when, what, and how much I use to nourish my body. And most importantly, I no longer withhold compassion from myself or others.
So when somebody sat down next to me the other day as I was eating and said, “Ooh, pizza, huh? Pizza is bad. I can’t do the carbs.”
I raged on the inside. Forgetting that this person is suffering, just like I have, from their own perception of food, body and self. I wanted to judge them, stay angry with them, put distance between myself and their ignorance.
But then I remembered that withholding compassion from this person is a guaranteed way to increase my own suffering, or samsara. Just the same way that withholding compassion from myself for nearly 15 years increased my suffering greatly. Believing that I was not enough was the reason that I committed to several disordered behaviors across the spectrum, rather than looking to recovery as a solution.
I realized that there was nothing wrong with this meal in front of me. It was delicious, I planned it, decided on it, committed to it and enjoyed it. I quickly reminded myself that this person has no knowledge of my eating disorder. Then I let it go.
Being from Long Island, the road rage capital of the world, anyone in my immediate surroundings would probably ask themselves, “how???? I would have at least cursed her out or mentally flipped her off.”
The hardest lesson I have learned in recovery is the ‘letting go’ part. In Buddhism, this is known as ‘nekhamma’, or non-attachment. I developed my eating disorder out of a codependent need to control people and things, or at the very least, give myself the illusion that I was doing so. There was a hole in my family-of-origin story that I filled with bingeing, which quickly became the pressure to be perfect in every aspect of life.
Oscillating between binge eating and exercise purging based on other peoples’ expectations of me is how I facilitated my own suffering, abused my body and have carried a broken spirit around for far too long.
I have since had to consciously and thoroughly drop all the expectations, beliefs, emotions that are not my own. I did this in the pursuit of an easier, softer life, and it’s given me a new peace to settle into. My recovery is one gift that I took for granted until I realized that I couldn’t come to expect it unless I put in the work, unless I let go of resentment and hurt and anger, and started building bridges to people who’s experiences looked different than mine; rather than building walls of judgment, difference and fear to keep them out.
Recovery, to me, has come to mean being willing and open to sitting with my biggest fears, and feeling the joy of conquering them through meditation, compassion, service to others, kindness and work. I am no longer a hungry ghost because I have started to heal, make myself visible, live a life that’s authentic. And whether it’s through Buddha, program, treatment, love or family–you can, too.
“Every human being is the author of [their] own health or disease.”