“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” —Carl Jung
Geneen Roth’s incisive and well-written book “Women Food and God” is a timely book. I don’t know if eating problems have proliferated but women today certainly discuss them more openly than in previous generations. Speaking for myself, I think a great deal about what I should eat, if I can risk a second helping, and my all-time least favorite thought is that I would be best off if I skip the meal altogether. Obviously, I do not follow the rules of diet books.
Mercifully, this is not a diet book. We all know what foods are good for us, to limit our calorie and fat intake, to, yes, refuse that second piece of pie. But who listens? I listen, have all the right answers, which has never yet kept me away from that second piece of pie.
In “Women Food and God” Ms. Roth explains that food, and the way we eat, reveals how we connect to spirit, to spirituality, that “… our relationship to food is an exact microcosm of our relationship to life itself. I believe,” she writes, “we are walking, talking expressions of our deepest convictions; everything we believe about love, fear, transformation and God is revealed in how, when, and what we eat.”
I read this and thought: Oy! But, knowing she is right, she had my attention. Here is the truth according to Roth who has written seven previous books, all on the subject of food and our eating habits: “When we inhale Reese’s peanut butter cups when we are not hungry, we are acting out an entire world of hope or hopelessness, of faith or doubt, of love or fear. If we are interested in finding out what we actually believe—not what we think, not what we say, but what our souls are convinced is the bottom-line truth about life and afterlife—we need go no further than the food on our plates. God is not just in the details; God is also in the muffins, the fried sweet potatoes and the tomato vegetable soup. God—however we define him or her—is on our plates.”
Interestingly, Roth writes about her own struggle with overeating: “Overeating was my way to punish and shame myself; each time I gained weight, each time I failed at a diet, I proved to myself that my deepest fear was true: I was pathetic and doomed and I didn’t deserve to live. I could have expressed this despair through drugs or shoplifting or alcohol, but I chose chocolate instead.”
How she changes how she thinks about herself, how she comes to believe in something greater than herself, “a world beyond appearances, a vast expanse that we cannot penetrate with our minds,” how she brings about these realizations to her retreat attendees is what she offers on every page.
Too many of us do not feel good about ourselves. Our eyes are the wrong color, our hair is too thin, our job is boring, our relationships don’t work; and of course we need more money; too many people feel worthless. Eating helps us to forget our misery, at least temporarily, as our extra poundage (or our Twiggy-like skin and bones) divert our attention away from issues we would rather not face.
Roth explains that it is better to feel our unhappy feelings than to avoid them by eating. “If you don’t allow a feeling to begin, you also don’t let it end.” She teaches that what we eat and how we eat are potential doorways to our psyche, to that place in our psyche that lets us hide. However, if we are willing to enter the doorway, we will find a great opportunity right in front of us … on our plates, in our snacks, our second helpings, our fantasies of what to have for dinner. Perhaps my favorite words in this wisdom-filled book are: “… until you understand who you take yourself to be, true change is not possible.”
OK, so how do we do this? Roth introduces us to the process of Inquiry, the philosophy of Hameed Ali and his Ridhwan School. Inquiry is exactly that: asking questions. We need to sit down, take time with ourselves, and a question will occur. It is important to question if the beliefs ingrained in our psyches, for perhaps an entire lifetime, are really true; only then does change begin to be possible. She elaborates on this process, and guides us through it.
The good news is: There is humor throughout. She writes about her retreat participants who hate her for insisting that no one pick up her fork until everyone is seated. Though the nutritious food on their plates (lettuce, cherry tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, grains) does not thrill them, they are nevertheless hungry and impatient. There are even a few who rebel, who select the “wrong” foods with a kind of F… you! attitude, and glare with open hatred at Roth who understands: “They don’t care about stunning breakthroughs or having 90 pounds to lose …” She understands they have no interest in hearing her ideas about God and food. Their obsession is food; food brings them comfort and they will fight, if fight they must, to keep eating.
Reading the dialogues between Roth and the diehard Fressers (the German word for those who eat and eat and eat) which help them to see how they are hurting themselves with food, helped me with my own attitude toward food. Here is a brief example: “I ask Laurie,” Roth writes, “if she can make room for the part of her that feels trapped and lonely. She says no, she can’t. She says she just wants to eat. I ask her if she is willing to consider the possibility that this has nothing to do with food. She says no, she can’t. She is staring at me with a look of grim determination that says, ‘Keep out. Go away. Not interested.’ Her eyes are narrow, her mouth is tight.
The room feels as if the air has been sucked out of it. People have stopped breathing; they are staring at me, at Laurie, waiting.”
What happens next is brilliant and important and should be read in the context of the entire book. I would like this incomplete conversation to encourage women to buy it so they may discover for themselves the skill with which Roth deals with the problems of food.
We tell ourselves we will find happiness when we achieve our so-called perfect weight or attain some dreamed-of goal, but, deep down, we know this is not true.
Even Roth confesses “I’m not exactly proud to say that I have been miserable anywhere, with anything, with anyone. I’ve been miserable standing in a field of a thousand sunflowers in Southern France in mid-June. I’ve been miserable weighing 80 pounds and wearing a size O. And I’ve been happy wearing a size 18. Happy sitting with my dying father. Happy being a switchboard operator. It’s not about the weight. It’s not about the goal.”
But, as she points out, it is also not not about the weight or the goals we aspire to because, if we pay attention to them, they can lead us to a better understanding of our deeper issues.
Relating food to God is not as strange as it may seem. Roth believes “… the only definition (of God) that makes any sense is one that uses this human life and its suffering—the very things we believe we need to hide or fix—as a path to the heart of love itself.” And, I would add, to the heart of love for ourselves.
This profound concept is what this exceptional book is all about.
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