By Alison McCabe
Two years ago, I started breathing and stopped bingeing. Through an acquaintance, I met someone who introduced me to the power of the breath. Since then, I have been on an incredible journey of healing and growing that has let me learn to live life without bingeing or dieting and accept myself and others unconditionally.
Recently, meditation has been attracting a lot of attention on the internet and in alternative health circles, but it has been used by many cultures for centuries. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims use meditation and prayer to connect with God and overcome inner obstacles to peace and serenity.
Today, we are discovering that meditation has more than spiritual or religious uses. Many studies have shown that the potential health benefits range from enhancing the immune system by increasing the activity of “natural-killer cells” which kill bacteria and cancer cells and reducing the activity of viruses, to lowering blood pressure by increasing blood flow and slowing heart rate.
But, more importantly, meditation actually helps to calm the body and heal the soul. Research has also shown that, by lowering the levels of blood lactate, increasing serotonin production (low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, obesity, insomnia and headaches), and shifting brain activity from the stress-prone right frontal cortex to the calmer left frontal cortex, meditation decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety . It also diminishes activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear.
However, after two years of practicing meditation, I don’t need a scientific study to tell me that meditation works. I have experienced it first-hand. When I spend time meditating every day, I am able to face life without food or diets; when I don’t, panic sets in, and life becomes overwhelming.
I ate because I was afraid, depressed, and stressed out. Food was my quiet place. When I binged I was numb, dazed, and oblivious to the painful emotions I was creating and avoiding. When I dieted, I was so fixated on losing weight that I didn’t have to face my problems or accept that I needed to change. The hope of the next binge or the next diet provided me with a temporary safe place, but in the end, it only caused me more fear, stress, and depression because it was an illusion. I was never happy when I ate or lost weight. I was just as miserable as I was before, but then I was starving or felt fat, too. By the time I started practicing, I was so sick, mentally and physically, of being obsessed with food and dieting that I was willing to try anything. I needed something that would help me deal with those feelings without numbing out with food or hiding in a diet. Meditation, my safe place, is just that.
When I began practicing, I was working with an understanding and supportive therapist, but I was missing the willingness to trust myself around food and commit to the long-term changes recovery requires. That’s where meditation came in. From my work in therapy, I knew what I had to do, but I wasn’t able to do it until I found the peace to let my self-defeating thoughts go and accept a new certainty: I had to recover, and I could.
Breathing takes me to my safe place, my centre, about two finger widths below my belly button. When I focus on that point and breathe into it, something miraculous happens: a space opens up between me and my fear, judgment, anger, sadness and impatience. Usually, they disappear altogether, but they sometimes they just fade into the background and stop being so unmanageable. Some days it takes ten minutes, others, forty-five. Once my anxiety is at bay, I have access to the inner strength that helps me accept the truth about myself, that I am strong, capable, and imperfect. It is hard for me to accept my imperfections when I am not centred because I am living in the fear that I won’t be loved unless I get “it” right. But when I am in contact with my inner strength, I am open to the truth that I am loved no matter what I do, that I am perfect just as I am, and that I am more loveable the more I love and accept myself unconditionally. This is similar to what I did with food when I binged or dieted. I created a safe little world where no one judged me and I could feel in control of how others perceived me. Now, instead of eating or dieting, I can breathe deeply, let go of my worries and thoughts, and be myself.
My journey with the breath has not always been smooth. It means getting up a lot earlier that I would like to go to class or fit my practice in, letting go of my old, comfortable ideas about what’s best for me, facing physical, emotional, and mental discomfort, and making a commitment to myself one day at a time. But I do these things, even when my mind screams “NO!”, because I cannot recover without it. Without my safe place, recovery feels too scary, and I need to keep recovering if I want to be happy and make the most out life. Now, thanks to my practice, recovery is no longer terrifying, but a possibility, and, for me, a reality.