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Eating Disorders Through the Lens of Buddhism

Working to alter the perceptions of outer appearances.

While reading a book on Buddhism recently, I came across an idea that seemed to perfectly describe the nature of an eating disorder.

 Translated into English as “dependent origination,” the idea is considered one of the central truths of Buddhist thought. Wait! Before your eyes finish glazing over and you click to close this window, bear with me as I explain. It sounds daunting, but the term simply means that all things arise out of something else, and all things are dependent on each other. They are linked by causes and conditions.

 In Lotus in a Stream: Essays in Basic Buddhism, Master Hsing Yun explains, “Dependent origination depends first on the presence of a cause and then on the presence of right conditions. When both causes and conditions are right, a result or an effect will be produced. If there is no cause, there can be no effect.”

 Simple enough, right? Let’s imagine that in the case of an eating disorder, the “cause” is a genetic predisposition to an eating disorder and the “conditions” (although we can hardly call them “right” conditions) are things like a diet-crazy peer group, being the target of teasing about weight, shape or size, or some early childhood trauma.

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 The master explains, “Cause and effect are really interlocking parts of an endless chain of events. Seen from one angle, a cause is a cause. Seen from another angle, it appears as an effect.” True for an eating disorder as well. We call it a “multi-factorial” disorder because there can be many causes and effects; what matters is not so much which came first or which is most to blame, but that many different causes and conditions have massed together to form a very difficult situation, one that can push families to the brink of exhaustion and threaten their very cohesion.

The flip side of this principle is that solutions to an eating disorder also consist of an array of causes and effects. Master Hsing Yun would says that all eating disorder patients hold within themselves the seed, or “cause” of recovery, just as they contain the “seed of Buddhahood.” The catch is that if “they do not surround the seed with good conditions, then that seed is not likely to grow into a healthy plant.” The “seed” of recovery, then (perhaps the motivation to change), needs to be surrounded with good conditions, such as a good food plan; surrounding oneself with supportive, not undermining friends and family members, and avoiding both emotional and food-based triggers. (In the case of the nascent Buddhists those “good conditions,” the master writes, would be studying Buddhist thought, practicing precepts, etc.)

 Another interesting aspect of dependent origination is that perception of appearance depends on conditions. Master Hsing doesn't just mean outward physical appearance, of course, but for the sake of our eating disorder and body image analogy, let’s assume he does. All things have two universal features in common: impermanence and interconnectedness, he explains. But each thing also has other features: “Fire is hot, ice is cold, people all look different.” You would think that we would all perceive these things the same way, yet in fact, how these features are perceived varies from person to person. “Our perceptions of outer appearances are profoundly affected by the inner conditioning of our minds,” Master Hsing writes.

 How true this, for anyone who has studied body dysmorphic disorder! Those who suffer from it often perceive their bodies in vastly different ways than other people. The normal-weight person suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, for example, looks in the mirror and sees a grossly fat person, while everyone else is mystified by her self-flagellating comments about “looking like a fat cow,” and so forth.

You may not subscribe to the Buddhist belief that the reason peoples’ perceptions of things can vary so widely is that the conditions of their minds precede their births. Yet as a practical strategy it’s helpful to think about the Buddhist advice of countering negative perceptions created by our own minds by engaging in “intentional acts.” These can include acts of kindness to one’s self. If those who believe that they are somehow unattractive repeatedly try to think of and treat their bodies as beautiful, they will gradually come to see how that might be true. Master Hsing writes, “Once our minds have been conditioned in a certain way, then our worlds will ‘appear’ around us in a way that is consonant with that conditioning.” In a way, Buddha was the first proponent of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Those who are much more learned in Buddhist thought will no doubt find many bones to pick with this post, but it is my own rudimentary interpretation of my reading; I hope some of you find it helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance journalist who has written numerous stories on health, eating disorders, and body image.

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