Monday, August 8, 2016

"The substance of moderation"

Until a recent conversation, I’d only ever thought of behavior-modification in mathematical terms: Take something out, and figure out what to directly replace it with to keep from feeling deprived (and thus risking relapse). For dealing with addictive eating behaviors, this mathematical model has never led to long-term success for me, nor changed anything at the deepest karmatic level of my life.

We can’t completely eliminate sugar like alcohol or drugs; so, moderation is the key. We’ve been trained to see moderation as a middle-ground between extremes. While there’s nothing inherently flawed about this idea, it is rather flat. What if, instead of looking at this process as getting rid of something to get to a static center, we take the approach of aspiring to something else?

What if we were to see moderation as a more dynamic state, having an actual substance of its own? This idea was presented to me by Jason Howard, one of the young men’s division leaders in my SGI Buddhist group.

I became friends with Jason through conversations at the SGI Community Center in Southfield, and then as a co-leader when I was given leadership responsibility in our chapter. During a phone conversation in late June I felt an intuitive nudge to tell Jason about what led me to have the health problem I’d just mentioned.

I wrote previously about how food-related addictions are often not treated seriously, and are instead viewed as genetic or willpower problems; this leads many people to suffer in silence, and keep punishing themselves with deprivational weight management programs and feeling like failures instead of seeing that these programs themselves are the failure.

When I realized that I could find (or create) a better way of dealing with this almost-lifelong challenge by applying my Buddhist practice to it, I decided to finally open up about it beyond occasionally mentioning that “I’m trying to cut back.”

This idea of “the substance of moderation” is exactly what I needed. There’s a skillset involved in learning moderation, Jason said, so I can focus on the development of that new skillset instead of focusing on relinquishing something that I’ve relied on for over 30 years.

I think that’s why sugar is so difficult: When we were small children, we had a positive association with sugar: Popsicles on summer family outings, sweets as rewards for good behavior or our bravery at the doctor, Halloween, etc. When we grew up and got stressed out, we reached for something sweet to tap into the peace we associated with sugar in childhood, when our needs were taken care of by other people. For some of us, it then became habitual no matter how we feel.

From this perspective, I decided, I can look at sugar like how I would look at a person with whom I used to have an enjoyable and beneficial relationship, and with whom the relationship gradually changed into something that is no longer in either of our best interests. I can relate with sugar how I’d relate with a person I need to change how I relate with, and how often, while we still respect each other, instead of prolonging things until we have resentment and all kinds of problems due to not setting boundaries soon enough. Part of this, too, is forgiving myself for any slips I may have in the early stages of reinventing the relationship, rather than fight myself over it.

So, my prayer is not for “overcoming sugar addiction,” but for “having a healthy relationship with sugar.” My recent illness has actually been a compassionate warning from the Mystic Law of cause and effect that governs the universe (which Nichiren Buddhists pray to the Gohonzon as a visual representation of), to get me to fix the problem now rather than continue to risk something worse happening to my health.

As Jason so wisely said, it’s not about eliminating a problem, it’s about transforming it into something else, something value-creating, that I and other people can benefit from. I do hope you are benefiting from it by reading this.

Image: “Ascension Dance #2,” by Karla Joy Huber, 2013; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen