Overcoming the Wanting Mind

resisting ChocolateBy Lynn Rossy, PhD

One of the most common statements I hear at the beginning of my mindful eating classes is “I can’t stop eating because it tastes so good even when I’m full.” My question is “Are you listening to your belly or to your mind?” After a short pause, I hear “From my mind!”

People get it. They can immediately recognize that we get different messages from our bellies (which register the amount of food we put in it) than we do from our minds (which is almost constantly seeking pleasure). Our bellies don’t want to have too much food, no matter how tasty, and our mind wants more and more pleasure, even if it makes us sick!

The belly actually has great wisdom about when to stop, if we would listen to it. However, our mind tells us all kinds of things about why we should keep eating—“I’m never going to have it again,” “I’m already a failure, so I might as well keep eating,” “It tastes so good, I don’t want to stop.”  The mind is never satisfied.

The wanting mind is clearly described in the Eastern teachings of Buddhism. The first noble truth says that we experience suffering in life. That’s pretty easy to acknowledge, yes? The second noble truth says the cause of suffering is craving, attachment, longing, and wanting. However, our happiness comes in the moments of not wanting, not trying to make anything different, non-clinging.

Let’s relate that to eating. When we want too much pleasure and comfort from food we end up eating more than we need, then we feel guilty about it, and then we eat more. And this happens over and over again. This definitely sounds like suffering to me.

But we can jump off the hamster wheel. We can recognize that we have this “wanting mind,” that it is never satiated, and we don’t have to let it be the decision-maker. Instead, we can pay attention to the wisdom of our body (particularly our bellies) and let it decide when it’s had enough based on actual fullness.

It helps when we know we can always have more later. When tasty food is not forbidden it doesn’t all need to be eaten in one sitting.  As a result, after a few weeks of of practicing mindful eating, I hear over and over again how much easier it is to respect the wisdom of the body and much less food is needed to satisfy.

Five Ways of Skillfully Addressing the Wanting Mind

Mindfulness helps us to become aware of this wanting and protect ourselves against it. Try these tips:

LABEL IT. First we recognize when the wanting mind is present and we just name it.  When we label the emotion we actually activate the left prefrontal cortex, quiet the limbic system, and calm the mind.

DO ONE ACTIVITY AT A TIME. Combating the pull of wanting means taking our time, not flitting from one activity to the next, and not doing several things at once. Instead we must act calmly and gently whenever possible; restoring ourselves with a dose of doing nothing. In particular, the next time you eat, “just eat.”

MEDITATE. Establish yourself in the present moment even for a short time. Feel your feet on the ground, your breath and your body, the weight of your hands. Ground yourself physically. Cultivate awareness so that you can see when you are caught in habitual states of mind.  Through practice we begin to see the thoughts that catch us into obsessing, wanting, distracting and we come back to the present.

NOT NOW. We can tell the mind that’s wanting “Not now, later.” Noticing instead of indulging. You can actually begin to feel the relief that comes from not wanting. Wanting doesn’t last and we can surf the wave of wanting until we reach the shore.

GENEROSITY. One of the best methods for reducing craving and wanting is to practice giving. The act of generosity can be practiced in many ways—giving thanks, time, money, food, service, understanding. When our focus is on giving instead of wanting, happiness is available to us without external pleasures.

Enjoy every moment!