You may think that mindfulness doesn’t have much to do with body image. But in many ways, mindfulness can actually help to heal body image issues.
For insight, I spoke with Michelle Lelwica, ThD, associate professor at Concordia College in Minnesota and an expert in mindfulness.
Michelle is also the author of The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight. I’ve had the great pleasure of interviewing Michelle before for Weightless about her fantastic book, the pursuit of thinness, fulfilling our genuine needs and more (part 1, part 2, part 3).
Below, Michelle talks about what mindfulness is and how it relates to body image. Tomorrow, she discusses the common misconceptions about mindfulness – and there are many!
Q: What exactly is mindfulness? Where does it come from?
A: Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening inside you—in your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations—in the present moment. This awareness itself has a gentle, non-judgmental, observing, and accepting quality, so that when you are mindful you experience a sense of inner calm and serenity, regardless of the contents of your experience. You can also practice bringing this awareness to what is happening around you in the present moment, i.e., being mindful of your environment and of other people.
I love the question “Where does mindfulness come from?” because it kind of sounds like a Zen koan (a riddle used to catapult the mind out of its normal ways of thinking). On one level, the answer is fairly straightforward: we can train ourselves to be more conscious/aware of what is happening in the present moment by practicing mindfulness both formally (though meditation) and informally (throughout the day). In this sense, mindfulness comes from practicing mindfulness. It’s a skill we can develop through training and repetition—i.e., again and again, noticing what’s happening in and around us and returning our awareness to the present moment.
On another level, the answer to the question of where mindfulness comes from is more elusive. After all, where does awareness itself come from? What is it that makes us conscious? What power or presence animates our bodies/minds/spirits? Where does life itself come from? I love these kinds of questions because they invite us to stop for a moment, step out of our daily routines and habits, and allow ourselves a moment of wonder at the mysteries of life. Such questions lead us to realize that amid all our planning and projects and notions about how the world is or ought to be, we don’t really know for sure why we’re here on this planet. Although mindfulness itself is not an activity of philosophical speculation, the question of where it comes from can itself provide an opportunity to recognize and appreciate the great mysteries behind the life we so often take for granted.
All this may seem tangential to body image issues, but I think it’s actually quite related. After all, obsession with body size and weight-loss can be seen as symptoms of a larger loss of meaning in life, including the loss of a sense of wonder and appreciation in life. Beneath an obsession with food and thinness there is a quest for control, and this quest is seductive in part because it provides such a clear sense of purpose.
Unfortunately, looking for security and meaning through a slender body leaves us feeling even more dissatisfied and impoverished than ever, because what we need is not to be in control or to have our lives all figured out; what we need is to know we are capable of dealing with the problems and challenges life throws our way.
We need to be able to accept the uncertainties of our lives and to let go of the “need” to constantly be on top of things. We develop this capacity by staying in touch with our inner strength and our sacred values, and by practicing mindfulness—the capacity to stay present—even and especially when we feel like running.
Q: How is mindfulness helpful for body image?
A: Mindfulness practice is a particularly valuable tool for healing body image problems for several reasons:
- It helps us develop an inner life by teaching us how to observe and be curious about what is happening with our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations – without judgment; this inner life can become a new source of meaning that replaces the (superficial/destructive) sense of purpose that one gets from the pursuit of a “better” body
- Mindfulness practice shifts our attention away from our external appearance to how our bodies feel from the inside. To be aware of the present moment you must be fully present in your body
- Practicing mindfulness helps us recognize how we have been conditioned to think, feel, and act in response to various stimuli (i.e., media images, food environments, etc.), and this recognition opens the possibility for making more conscious choices with regards to our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
- Learning to slow down, observe, and/or sit with difficult thoughts and feelings—instead of being carried away by them (or running away from or clinging to them)—creates new habits that counteract the unhelpful escapist coping strategies that frequently surround disturbed body image
- Mindfulness practice teaches us the value of having a spiritual practice—a method for transforming our pain and returning to a place of inner peace and reconnecting with our deepest values; this method is reliable and loving and can foster wisdom and strength for helping others
- Mindfulness practice is just that—a practice. It is not about doing it “right” or striving for perfection. Like healing itself, it is a process of retraining ourselves and our energy to stay more focused on the present reality—on what is—rather than pour our energies into how we wish things would be
- Mindfulness practice does not require adherence to a particular set of beliefs. You don’t have be religious or even spiritual to do it. Though it originated in Buddhism, it is essentially a non-sectarian practice, which means people from all walks of life (including agnostics and atheists) can do it.
Thanks so much, Michelle, for your thoughts on mindfulness and body image. Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of our interview!
Do you practice mindfulness? Has it helped heal your body image issues?