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From Kitchen Stool to Meditation Cushion


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After years of eating compulsively, the author learned that prayer makes it possible to sit down on a meditation cushion and to be a guest at a feast.

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of Spirituality & Health.

One woman’s story of how prayer really does feed the soul

Seventeen years ago, my eating disorder reached a crisis. I was 30 years old and I'd been bingeing off and on since adolescence, compensating for my bouts of greed with strict regimens of dieting and fasting, plus endless miles of compulsive running. By the spring of 1982, I was desperate. I felt trapped, with no way out.

When a counselor urged me to explore prayer as one part of recovery, I was skeptical. I hadn't been to church in years and had no use for religion. How could something as intangible as prayer address an eating disorder as intractable as mine? Wasn't that line about prayer "feeding" the soul just a fantasy, only wishful thinking?

I can see now that under the skepticism, I was also afraid. What would happen if I stopped running from the pain that I'd been burying with food for so many years? Could I bear to face my emptiness? Could I bear to sit in silence and let myself feel the anger and sorrow that I'd been swallowing all my life? And what if God never showed up when I prayed or turned out to hate me? What then?

Despite my fears, I was desperate enough to take the risk. I signed up for a class on mindfulness meditation. I bought myself a meditation cushion so that I could pray in a posture both relaxed and alert. I carved out 20 or 30 minutes a day and began to pray.

The first thing I noticed was my jumpy mind. Memories, plans, regrets, worries — one thought would career after another, racing fast, spinning, and colliding like cars on an icy highway. I needed to focus, and learned the art of paying attention to each breath, allowing each breath to invite me in to the present moment.

What I noticed next, as my mind settled down and grew more quiet, were the powerful feelings that began to surge through me. This was not fun. Shame, anger, sorrow, fear — they all came through as I sat in silence. Such emotions are painful to endure, but I couldn't help noticing that the more I allowed them in to awareness, the more I felt real, alive, and spacious. Slowly I learned that I didn't have to run away from my feelings, nor did I have to eat over them. They wouldn't kill me nor lead me to kill. That was news to me. Good news.

The third thing I noticed was the love. I hadn't expected this, but the more I learned to welcome every part of me into prayer without pushing anything away or clinging to anything, the more I was surprised by a tenderness that would come upon me unexpectedly, as if out of the blue. I remember walking in the woods one afternoon, bringing awareness to each moment as best I could, quietly noticing what was there to see and hear. Suddenly I was overcome by the sense that the whole world was inside my heart. I loved it all, held it all tenderly. I wept with joy.

Experiences like that one helped lead me back in to church, and eventually to seminary and ordained ministry. After years of eating compulsively, I'd learned that prayer makes it possible to sit down on a meditation cushion and to be a guest at a feast.

Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is the author of Holy Hunger: A Memoir of Desire (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999). She teaches courses on prayer at Episcopal Divinity School. An Episcopal priest, she serves as associate rector of All Saints Parish, in Brookline, MA.

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