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The Spiritual Dimensions of Recovering From an Eating Disorder: Transforming Suffering and Finding New Sources of Meaning

Recovering from an eating disorder is an ongoing process of learning to transform the very pain and emptiness that the obsession functions to cover into a new source of personal growth and well being.
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There is a Sufi aphorism that says: "Love the water more and the pitcher less." Muslim scholar Amir Hussain interprets this to mean that "Too often, when people seek to quench their thirst, they focus on the outward form of the container that holds that water rather than on the water itself" (Oil and Water, p. 176). This is precisely what happens to people who struggle with body image and eating problems. The attention devoted to creating a "good" figure (the "pitcher") diverts energy away from cultivating a deeper sense of meaning in life (the "water"). The goal of losing weight becomes all-consuming, and the result is the feeling of being eternally hungry (or, to stay with the water metaphor, thirsty).

Relinquishing the holy grail of thinness is far from easy for those who pursue it with religious-like fervor. For however debilitating it can be, an obsession with weight functions as a profound source of meaning, giving those who aspire to a "good body" something to strive for, a goal by which to measure their success and worth (or lack thereof). Indeed, it's virtually impossible to let go of this purpose-giving preoccupation without finding and/or creating new sources of meaning to replace old attachments and mental habits. This is what makes recovery from an eating disorder a spiritual journey. It is an ongoing process of learning to transform the very pain and emptiness that the obsession functions to cover into a new source of personal growth and well being.

Some people who struggle with eating/body image problems know exactly where the suffering they seek to avoid came from. For example, they can trace it back to a particular person, family situation, and/or incident(s) in their life. For others, however, the origins of their distress are more nebulous. This was the case for me as a young adolescent. My parents, though not perfect, were responsible and loving. I didn't experience psychological, physical, or sexual trauma. I was successful at school and had plenty of friends. Still, there was a significant part of me that was hopelessly unsatisfied, a part that felt empty, anxious, insatiable. While I projected this dissatisfaction onto my body (with more than a little help from the media images I uncritically devoured), I sought to escape the internal void through food and the quest for a body that would somehow make me complete.

I spent much of my freshmen, sophomore, and junior years of high school binging, purging, and wishing I were thinner. By the summer before my senior year in high school, I was scared. I hated feeling so out-of-control; I hadn't menstruated in years; I was getting cavities for the first time; and I was terrified that someone would find out about my shameful food rituals. I became so afraid of what I was doing, that somehow I managed to stop my bulimic behavior. For the next year, I still counted every calorie and policed my appetite with rigor, but I no longer resorted to gorging and vomiting, and this was a tremendous relief.

Still, the real process of healing for me didn't begin until I started college. It was there that I discovered new sources of meaning. For the first time, I encountered a world of interesting ideas and supportive friendships. I became aware of society's injustices towards women and other "others," and I learned to question some of the religious beliefs I had accepted without question. In the process, I started to envision my life as having a purpose larger than the size of my body. I wasn't sure what that purpose was, but I knew, in the idealism of my college youth, that I wanted to help make the world a better place. The sense of emptiness wasn't gone, but through my education, particularly my study of philosophy, history, literature, and religion, I was beginning to understand that it was something to be explored, rather than avoided. This insight this opened up new possibilities for self-knowledge and self-definition.

My own experience illustrates the spiritual process of finding/creating a larger sense of life's meaning to replace the never-ending pursuit of a "better" body. However, I don't mean to suggest it as a norm. As a professor, I know plenty of young women for whom college has not been a time of flourishing but rather a time of exacerbated struggle with body image and eating problems. Indeed, there is no one-size-fits-all method for finding/creating a deeper sense of purpose in life. Nor is there a universal answer regarding what that purpose might be. Ultimately, the search for a larger sense of meaning is a spiritual journey that each person must travel in her or his own way. Whatever the particularities of your path, you will need enough courage to let go of the security of easy answers and enjoy the mystery of life's great questions.

Many people come to a spiritual path in life because they are unhappy. What they often discover is that this very unhappiness -- that feeling of perpetual dissatisfaction -- offers enormous possibilities for personal growth. This is precisely true in the case of eating disorders. Both the suffering they cause and the suffering we seek to avoid through them have enormous potential to transform us. Such suffering can open our minds, expand our hearts, and free our spirits -- if we are brave enough to be present to it. Pain itself will not change us. But becoming conscious of it, sitting with it, getting to know it, and eventually letting it go can help to wake us up spiritually. As the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr points out, "Spirituality is what we do with our pain."

Some of the most simple and effective spiritual tools for transforming pain and finding new sources of meaning are the "big questions" we can ask ourselves. These include:

• What is most important in my life?

• To what should I devote my energy and attention?

• How should I deal with suffering?

• To what or whom am I accountable?

• How do I understand my life's purpose?

For those who have devoted much energy to losing weight and "improving" their bodies, such questions may seem impossibly large or immensely heavy (puns intended). And, of course, they are -- if you assume the goal of exploring them is to arrive once-and-for-all at an absolute answer. But if instead you approach them with a sense of adventure, they can replenish your sense of purpose in life, reminding you that life is much bigger than the size of your body, and it's worth the risk to explore it more deeply.

Whether you are new to a spiritual path, or a veteran traveler along the way, you can use these questions to keep you grounded in and motivated by an awareness of what is sacred in your life. And when you're feeling lost and/or insecure, it may help to remember something Zen teacher Bernie Glassman observed, namely, that "there is little energy in answers." This includes the "answer" of a "perfect body."