Is Psychology Making Us Sick?

Introducing a love-based psychology

Zen and the Art of Dieting: Part 1

The Great American Koan

This blog, “Is Psychology Making Us Sick?” presents a critique of normative/mainstream psychology as well as a powerful alternative—a “love-based psychology.” The blog will cover a wide range of topics from anger, lying, weight loss, and addictions to domestic violence, race, gender, and conflict. The first series of posts (five in all) will discuss the issue of weight loss and body image. 

“Look, you’ve got to love yourself not only in the abstract;

you’ve got to love your big lips; you’ve got to love your flat nose;

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you’ve got to love your skin, hands all the way down.” 

—Toni Morrison

Millions of people look in the mirror or step on the bathroom scale and decide they want to lose weight. And billions of dollars are spent and countless lives haunted trying to answer the question of how to accomplish this task. The most popular answer, and seemingly the most logical, is to go on a diet. Experts and non-experts alike tell us, often for a hefty fee, to eat more fiber, cut down on sugar, eat less gluten, eat more vegetables, drink more water, reduce calorie intake, or eat less and more often. Another popular answer is to simply take a weight-loss supplement. There are many options, from appetite suppressants such as Liporexall and Phenedrine to drugs that help people burn fat such as DecaSlim and Lipofuze. Yet another answer is to focus on the ever-popular wide range of exercise programs.

The question is simple to ask; the answers are plentiful and logical. So it would seem that success should readily follow. Instead, people try to lose weight and fail, or repeatedly lose weight and then gain it back in a process referred to as yo-yo dieting. However, after studying people’s experiences with diets, it is clear that the diet problem cannot simply be solved by logical action—eat less, exercise more—but instead more like a koan—a question that confounds and defies comprehension until we awaken to a new understanding, and even a new heart.

Koans, which derive from the Zen tradition, are questions, riddles, or paradoxes presented by a master to a student to perplex his or her rational mind and dislodge it from its habitual assumptions and thought patterns. The student could ponder a koan for months or even years, bringing answers to the master, who evaluates them. Unless the student has broken free from habitual patterns of thinking, the master refuses to accept the answer and sends the student away to contemplate further. For example, one traditional koan asks the student, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” If the student answers logically, such as saying, “The sound is a kind of a whoosh that occurs when the hand moves through the air,” the master might reply, “Go back and meditate for six more months.” However, if the student becomes frustrated and blurts out something like, “I don’t know,” the master might say, “Good, you’re on your way.” This is because an admission of not knowing can become the first step in shifting the student’s mindset, or as one Zen master said, “You have to empty your cup before you can refill it.”

The question of how to lose weight is one of the great American koans. Many people have meditated on it for years, desperate to determine the answer. The unsuspecting dieter comes up with a plan, such as a fortified resolve to eat less and exercise more, but eventually returns to the bathroom scale, mirror, or feelings of lack of self-worth with a sense of failure. Then, an imaginary master takes out a teaching stick, whacks the dieter on the shoulder, and sends the dieter back to try again. Because although the efforts made may have been based on a slightly new approach, the dieter’s fundamental way of thinking about the question had not changed. The dieter tries harder, just as students do with koans, but the dieter’s basic assumptions don’t change, and the same cycle will be repeated. What are these basic assumptions, and what are the new answers to the diet koan? Look to upcoming posts to answer these questions in the form of stories, research, and transcripts from therapy sessions.

Copyright David Bedrick, author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology.

David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW, graduated from Lewis and Clark’s Northwestern School of Law. He is the author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. more...

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