When giving a talk about my paintings, a member of the audience saw this piece and said, “ You’re not fat. How does this mind state pertain to you?” Before I could speak up, another person called out, “It’s about over-indulgence in general,” making me wish I had a co-explainer with me at all times.
While immoderation comes in many forms, I focus here on eating because it is one of my go-to pacifiers. I did another painting that portrayed food, as in cupcakes, but it referred to the concept of temptation. The hippo here has already succumbed to temptation. And has kept going.
In this painting there is a big round animal in the middle of a pile of food. This is one of the most literal paintings I’ve done, so there’s not much explanation needed. I wanted the overpowering pile to engulf the figure, so the food does not realistically recede into the background around the hippo. The perspective is skewed so that the food is as big and front-stage at the top as it is on the bottom. Looming, I wanted it to be.
Like many in our culture, I became confused about food because my path through life exposed me to complicated messages about it. Although food is nourishment and pleasure and survival, I was prompted to attach all sorts of unconstructive thoughts to eating and to the results of eating. I was taught that if you eat too much you’re going to get fat, and fat is bad. With it came the fact that food took the edge off feeling stress. In the center of a stressful life, this leaves a no win situation.
The perplexing mindset about eating made food an enemy. I became out of touch with my own impulses of hunger and satiety because a punishing idea pervaded eating. Being fat (and unloved) was at stake, so I walked a tightrope of getting it right. The pressure of having to eat in a controlled manner did what restrictions usually do: it backfired. I overate or underrate or ate appropriately, always with the idea in the background that I wasn’t quite getting it.
Then I’d exercise a lot, or read tips on how to stay trim, or get over-analytical about nutrition. My weight stayed in a 15-pound range, so it wasn’t a dramatic health issue, but it was a trap of the mind. It was a waste of time, and it was annoying. I used to stress over it more when I was younger because I was more concerned about looking attractive. Later I was mostly bothered by undesirable thoughts and a lifetime habit of unconscious eating.
The reason I overdo anything is to make up for a lack of something else. A sense of lack, or scarcity, feeling like there’s not enough or that it can never be just right, that I can never be OK: these are the insidious thieves of wholesome living. Add onto this fear the gargantuan tangle of thoughts, feelings, and experiences I’ve had in trying to navigate my way into getting it right, and you have a seemingly impenetrable maze. If I were to end to this perilous thinking I would feel sustained, satisfied, fulfilled, happy. That is what I am hungering for. To find the ways that actually nourish I must go deeper in my search. I must find the “bread of life.”
I am told by many faith traditions (and Shakespeare) that the deep, unending well of peace and satisfaction is found inside me. I can picture those calm waters underneath all the frothy waves of dissatisfaction and desire on the surface. In order to access that place, which I believe is in all of us, I have to acknowledge that the confounding thoughts that make up the stormy surface of my mind are just that. They are thoughts. Everything I was taught, everything I tried, everything I believed, every experience I’ve ever had with food is all a part of a giant, invisible pile of thoughts in my head. They may be compelling and convincing and troublesome, but they are only thoughts. They are not me.
This painting is meant to sum up every facet of the mind scramble that surrounds food. It’s meant to corral all of the swirling mess of old ideas that never worked into one thought-object so I can hold it outside of myself and look at it for what it is: something other than myself. I can stand back and observe it. I’ve captured it, literally and figuratively, and I can use it to remember that it is actually an outsider. It has been a lifelong visitor, a punishing invader, a conniving brat, a taunting pretense at happiness, but it was never anything more than a set of ideas that brought up feelings. I have lots of reasons to have held on to them for so long, and they have certainly become so entrenched that they feel like a part of the definition of myself, but the fact is they are vapors, phantoms, clouds.
Of course a good look at the original impetus for the issue is imperative. I’ve written about the process of introspection in my essays about other paintings. Becoming familiar with the mind-snarl in all its manifestations helps make sure I understand its depth and pervasiveness. It gives me compassion for myself in hanging onto it for so long. And once I’ve taken a good look, I have the option to step back.
The main way I acknowledge that my thoughts are not me is to practice at it. Having a painting of it (or some way of labeling or picturing it) helps. When I can personify it as a separate entity it’s easier to distance myself from it. Every time a food related thought arises I can catch it remember that I put it in a painting. I can imagine the hippo and think, I see you! The immediate corollary to this idea is that I have just made a statement that implies that I (me) am different than you (the food thought). Without having to consciously acknowledge any of this, I’ve freed myself from the worst implication, the one that kept me trapped in the maze of this issue. I’d always assumed that the thoughts were valid, navigable, contained answers, and were inexorably attached to my self-worth. They were my attempt at controlling the situation, but my control was an illusion. When I separate myself from them I am giving up that control and admitting that I am something other than mine or other peoples’ thoughts.
When I encapsulated the thought-mess into a hippo and looked at it outside myself I was left with an unfamiliar feeling inside. It was empty, quiet, and kind of scary. I felt a little blank. There is a hush of relief in your home when a loud, complicated, contradictory visitor leaves. After a lifetime of entertaining it, I felt a little lonely, but so peaceful. It would knock loudly pretty much constantly, but I said no to opening the door by telling myself, “Any thought about food has got to be wrong or it would have helped by now. I’m not going there.” I still had to eat, like everyone else, so I would assume that common sense would keep me from eating or starving myself to death, and other than that I would trust that whatever I did, it couldn’t be worse than the destructive thinking.
I figured that when the Contradictory Visitor left I would have something else to replace it. A new, nice visitor with good manners. Good thoughts about food are still thoughts, just as much phantoms as all the rest. I say no to those, too. Only in this way can I take each moment without judgment. Judgment was the catalyst for this mess in the first place, and I don’t feel I have the luxury of entertaining it. If I were asked if I’ve grown from painting my hippo, I’d say that I have, but I don’t think I’ve found the fancy answer to everyone’s eating issues. I know that one minute and one meal at a time I notice less judgment. That fact alone nourishes me more than the extra food I used to crave.
I had to get used to that empty quiet that exists after thoughts dissipate. At first I could only handle a few seconds. With much practice I’ve come to love that place. Thoughts of all kinds come and go, but knowing that they are like clouds in the sky—happening, but not the sky itself—helps me to watch them dissolve or just hang out without demonizing them. The more I practice noticing my thoughts the less tantalizing their patterns are, and the more peace I have.
If I get suddenly triggered, if disturbing thoughts blindside me after a long absence, I am humbled and usually willing to take a closer look at what might have triggered it. In all cases, it is no longer an invisible, mysterious, complicated plague. Food issues were on the board of directors of my menagerie-of-the-mind, and are now retired. They can bluster into the board room with new ideas, sure that their presence is still welcome and sought-after, but they are quickly ushered back into the waiting room and offered a cup of tea. The new board of directors is more like a knitting circle than a business, a quiet, patient, funny, and gentle group, who are always interested in what new (or old) friend will walk in the door.