When I first started meditating on a regular basis, many years ago, I decided I should join a class, so I Googled it (ok, maybe not that many years ago), and found a free intro meditation class. I don’t remember much about the class – I think it was in a loft in Chelsea, we sat on cushions, I’m sure I was much more distracted than I realized at the time – but I do remember the discussion after our meditation. I remember because the teacher asked if there were any questions, one of the other students asked a question, and a jolt went through me as I simultaneously realized I knew the answer, started to give the answer, realized that it wasn’t my job to give the answer, and reflected on my impulse to jump in with the answer. For that single moment – enlightenment!
It reminded me of a story I read somewhere by a Buddhist monk, where he was on retreat, relaxing into simple living. At dinner one night, they were served yogurt for dessert, and he really liked yogurt. As the person serving the yogurt worked their way around the table, spooning the portion onto each plate, our hero watched, and caught himself simultaneously anticipating the delight of eating the yogurt, worrying that it might run out before they got to him – and caught himself in a moment of attachment. An attachment to yogurt, of all things. When the server got to him, he bowed and politely declined the yogurt.
Little moments of awareness like this open the door to change. The first step to change is becoming aware of attachments, of patterns of behavior that you may not recognize are holding you back.
Several years ago, a lost a lot of weight. People I saw regularly asked me what I was doing and I answered, “Diet and exercise.” I didn’t want to advise because people often ask for diet advice and rarely take it. I’m going to let you in on my secret now, because it was all about moments of awareness.
The first thing I did was download a free food tracking app, and start tracking what I was eating. That immediately made me more aware of exactly what I was eating. The commitment to logging my meals was intense. Sometimes it was easier not to eat, just to avoid having to log the food, so I really had to choose what I was eating. It also made it easier to refuse foods I might otherwise have accepted, because I could look at the app, see how many calories I had left that day, and make a choice.
I also committed to eating fewer sweets and carbs. I reduced the amount of pasta and bread that I ate, replacing it with spaghetti squash or quinoa. I started checking labels to make sure I wasn’t getting sugars, because the food companies will sneak it in wherever they can – salad dressings, “healthy” cereals, veggie burgers (!) – some granola bars have more sugar than candy bars! I replaced fruit juice with whole fruits. Reduced alcohol, a prime candidate for sugars. I replaced diet soda with unsweetened ice tea because the sweetness of soda made me crave more sugars. Mostly, I became aware of what I was eating and made decisions about whether to eat it or not.
And I made the decision to give myself one day off a week – usually Sunday because we did football with friends, and it’s hard to resist a football spread. To balance my cheat day, I went on an extra-long walk beforehand. It didn’t balance completely, but if offset it enough. I could have lost the weight faster if I didn’t do that, but (like my walking) it wasn’t about speed, it was about distance.
Lastly, I started walking more. I walked to and from work (4 miles total). I walked down the stairs from my apartment (10 floors). If I arrived somewhere early, I walked around the block to kill time, rather than hanging out on the corner and checking my phone. When I went out west to see my sister, I walked from my hotel to her house (4 miles). When I went to the airport, I walked instead of taking the moving sidewalks. If I drove somewhere on business, I parked further away from the hotel or store entrance. I used another app on my phone to track my walking. After a while, I found myself looking for opportunities to walk and making the choice to walk, and it became nothing to clock 7 miles a day – much to the consternation of visiting house-guests. I practiced yoga, too, which counter-stretched the walking muscles – but the main thing was changing my attitude toward walking and become aware of how much I was walking.
This awareness, this seeing the opportunity and making the decision to take advantage of that opportunity, is what helped me change. It’s like in meditation when you recognize that you’ve stopped focusing on your breath and started judging/day-dreaming/planning/remembering/falling asleep – in that moment you have the opportunity to make a decision, to choose whether to follow that thought or whether to come back to the discipline of meditation, just for the five or ten minutes that you are practicing.
The awareness of the choice and making the decision to commit is what leads to change.