For many of us, our bodies are unruly objects on which we continually try to impose the policies: Less Food. More Exercise. It doesn’t work. We try Keto, or intermittent fasting, or a personal gym trainer, or a video system. Something may work briefly, but the power struggle continues.
The body is unruly for a good reason. It is persistently misunderstood as a clothes mannequin. It rebels against this emaciation in an attempt to draw our attention to its higher purpose: Pleasure.
Most people consider the body and pleasure in only a few contexts: sex, seawater, and the bathtub. The body offers much more. When we ignore, punish, and malign it, it responds with laziness and overeating.
We have come to approach most of our daily body-related activities as a confusing mixture of conflicting emotions. We dread the start of our exercise regime, but we feel elated afterwards. We feel nurtured while eating and regretful about indulging afterward. We buy a fashionable outfit and feel guilty when we realize we haven’t worn it.
To turn the body into a full-time pleasure zone, we need to analyze and redesign.
This most important part of the day has powerful psychological, emotional, creative, and physical effects. It is a time of concentration, reflection, and prioritizing against distraction. We all already know that the days with exercise are more productive, happier, and calmer than those without. In truth, it’s the top priority around which everything else ought to jostle for attention. And yet we let busy-ness or overwhelm derail our best fuel and antidote.
The unpleasant part is starting, the anticipation and the first few minutes. Once we are into it, we may experience physical pain, but the psychological hard work is done. At the end, we feel high from relief, endorphins, and pride.
So how to make starting better? Not with military force and emotional repression, but by creating a starting ritual full of pleasure. Then the “start” of the exercise is something to look forward to, rather than dread. For example, making a delicious drink which we only have at the start of exercise. Or taking a hot shower before starting yoga. I love candlelight, so I often use a pair of candles as a gateway that defines the spacetime for exercise or writing. Basically anything that loads up pleasure at the moment of transition to exercise.
Exercise is not the only time we move. As dancers we know that there is a lot of pleasure in movement. We can extend this awareness and skill into walking and nearly everything we do. We can enjoy a stretching sensation when we reach for something, we can rotate hands, feet, arms, legs, and spine any time because that mobility feels good on our joints and fascia, and there’s even a bit of self-expression in it.
We can create good psychological feelings through posture alone.
We can create emotions of gentleness and care by slowing down any activity. Before The Distance, I did everything as quickly as possible, often bruising myself on the way. I thought that “being gentle with myself” was something that started in the brain. During The Distance I experimented with touching things more slowly. Not only did I became less clumsy, I also discovered that taking more care with ordinary interactions with objects made me feel like a gentle person, which quickly showed me how to be gentle with myself.
Another way to think about this is that by attending to pleasure in every moment, we stay in the present and in appreciation for our bodies and environments, instead of crashing about while thinking about something else.
There is a diet that works. I learned it from someone who learned it from Geneen Roth. I call it the Desire Diet. It goes like this: Eat exactly and only what you really want. It sounds terrifying when you believe that you will then only eat chocolate and you will eat it all. But actually that’s not what happens.
It sounds like indulgence, but it’s not. It’s actually self-awareness and discipline: but instead of disciplining yourself to restriction and suffering, you discipline yourself to happiness.
In order to try this system, you need a period of asociality. During this initial period you train yourself as a connoisseur of craving. You stop every kind of food routine. Do not eat because it’s “meal time” or because someone cooked for you, or because something smells or looks good. Even when your stomach is growling, eating must begin with introspection: What do I WANT to eat?
Discipline is required to not eat whatever is available or fastest. Those foods may stop the growling, but will not satisfy you and then you will eat more than necessary in seeking to satisfy inarticulated or ignored desires.
It’s cheaper (in calories, and sometimes money as well) to go directly to what you really want, even if it means waiting a bit longer, walking a bit further, or watching your friend eat while you wait to get the thing you want afterward.
If you wake up in the morning craving a chocolate donut, do not try to talk yourself out of it with an apple followed by a sandwich, or even a chocolate frozen yogurt. The result of this is usually comparable (or more) calories and no satisfaction. You’ll find that if you go get the exact donut you want, you may be so satisfied that you don’t need to eat for the rest of the day. Just as important is not to turn one day’s craving into a habitual indulgence, but be just as mindful the next morning, so that you can realize you want a banana and orange juice for breakfast.
Do not try to avoid fatty, rich foods. Fat is the stuff in food that is satisfying. I find it’s better to eat a cookie than granola with yogurt, because the cookie has more fat and richness. Afterward, I’m completely satisfied.
Notice also that higher quality foods will satisfy you at lower quantity than lower quality food. A few bites of really good cheese will satisfy you faster and better than a bag of cheap chips (or cheap cheese). Rich fine chocolate faster than the adulterated mostly-sugar grocery store variety. Notice that cheap food usually has less intense flavor and that in the end because you eat more of it, it’s not cheaper.
If you are concerned about your weight or health, shop in the most expensive store you can find. This way you will not be tempted to bring home cheap things you shouldn’t eat. Treats are fine, if they are mindful, not careless. A way to ensure that your treats are mindful is only to expose yourself to expensive ones! Then you can be sure that everything you bring in to your house is really a strong and true desire.
While eating, you must stay alert in order to know exactly when to stop. When you feel happy and satiated it’s time to stop, even when there’s “not enough to save”. (There’s always enough to save, because if it’s something you really like, you’ll be happy later on to have those few bites waiting in the fridge.) Even put down a forkful when you realize you’ve reached that moment. That forkful will not make a difference to your weight, but to reinforce the habit of awareness and discipline, it’s important to take the action of stopping seriously. Don’t read, watch entertainment, and –at first– don’t even talk while eating. To learn how to listen to your desire, you need to be quiet.
While learning this system, frequently remind yourself “you can have anything you want, but only when and so long as you really want it.” Note that wanting something NOW is not the same as liking something in general. There could be a whole plate of your favorite cookies in the kitchen, but the question you are asking yourself is do I really really want one NOW? You may be surprised for how much of the day the answer is “not really.”
Unbelievably, this system will lead to salad cravings as well as ice cream cravings. Maybe not immediately, so you’ll have trust. After 15 years with this system I’m still astonished at how many cookies I leave uneaten. And how much I crave raw fennel and radiccio.
In the long-term, of course, you will need to eat socially, although this may become less attractive than it was before. Observe that when you don’t choose the food, it’s harder to become satisfied. Try not to solve this problem by overeating. Stay conscious of what you want and plan to have at least a little of it after the gathering. When you have a clear craving in advance of the gathering, it may be possible to bring some of what you want with you to add to the meal. Explain this to your companions as “I’m just loving this right now, so I wanted to share it with you.” To be polite, do eat what has been prepared for you, accompanied by your own.
As dancers we know that good movement looks better than just good clothes. Anyway, we still need to wear clothes and shoes and they have a big impact on pleasure and self-confidence.
Most of us buy the clothes that the stores offer us, instead of identifying our own specifications of what makes us feel beautiful and confident. A great current example is what has been going on with men’s pants the last few years. Fashion has decided they should have narrow legs. I don’t know a single man who likes this, but they still buy and wear these ugly things.
You know your favorite pants and why. If you can’t find this cut, have it made. It will cost you less in the long run to have things you like and wear, than buying things you don’t really feel happy in.
And what is the cost of feeling less than ideal in your clothes? Reduced power and lost pleasure.
Get rid of every piece of clothing and shoes you own that does not make you feel bold and joyful. These are taking up space and could ruin your day. Don’t keep anything you don’t love, not even as “work/cleaning clothes”. If you have to do grubby work, shouldn’t you feel great about yourself then too?
We each have body parts we like and others we want to hide. For example, the general directive for dressing me is: “Hide the ass, show the legs, and never wear flat shoes.” This leads to clothing specifications that you should adhere strictly to when shopping and cleaning out your closet. For shopping I have precise specs:
- No skirts below the knee.
- No tight waists or hips, no full skirts; look for drop waists and A-line skirts only
- Soft, decorative necklines, no v-necks or boat-necks
- If it’s scratchy or tight it will not be worn, no matter how cute.
- No high-contrast patterns on the upper body.
When you find a really nice fabric in the wrong cut or size, that is the time for discipline and self-respect. When shopping, never buy something that’s “ok”, or “might work”. It will be worse at home. Only buy things that make you smile when trying them in the store.
Finally I’ve learned to avoid feeling ugly at dinner parties or weekends at houses where hosts require outdoor shoes to be removed. (I used to just get angry that they had destroyed my costume. Now I treat other people’s houses like a milonga, and design an outfit for which I have two pair of shoes. For weekends as a guest I’ve realized my platform house slippers are as essential as my makeup kit.)
The bottom line
What all of these techniques have in common is to stop imposing ideas, fashion, routines, and rules and start listening and trusting yourself. This practice will produce more pleasure, less helplessness, less self-indulgence, better health, more confidence, and power.