The Zen of Eating
by Ronna Kabatznick

1998. 190 pages.

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If your mission is to lose five pounds or fifty pounds in as short a time as possible, The Zen of Eating - Ancient Answers to Modern Weight Problems will be about as effective as one hand clapping. If, on the other hand, you know that diets don't work and you're hungry for a deeper understanding of the weight issue (and maybe life in general), this is for you.

I'll admit I smirked when I first saw this book on my friend's kitchen table, thinking it sounded like New Age gimmicry. I'll admit I snidely asked, "Does this have Zen koans for dieters?" But once I started reading it, I found sustaining food for thought. Author Ronna Kabatznick is a long-time student of Buddhism and a psychologist specializing in weight management; she has had her own struggles with weight (as well as other greater personal challenges). Kabatznick methodically takes the reader through what sometimes seems like an entire survey course in Buddhism as she shows how Zen principles can help one deal with weight issues. Frankly, I don't think she had to take us through all the tenets of Buddhism, and it feels like the connections she makes between certain Buddhist precepts such as "not stealing" and "non harming" and weight problems are pretty tenuous. The book may be a heftier serving of Zen philosophy than many readers are looking for. Even I, who am familiar with some of the Buddhist basics, kept getting confused about relationship between the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path, and finally let go of trying to get it ("letting go" is big in Buddhism).

The Zen of Eating gives you what other books on the subject don't: it offers the tools which can help extricate yourself from our culture's weight obsession. Kabatznick writes, "Buddha defined suffering as a ravenous appetite to find peace and security in places where it can't be found." Places like a hot little size-6 black dress, right? Lots of us know that looking great in the size 6 is not the key to happiness. And yet it's not always easy to detatch our thinking from a culture that says it is. What we eat (or don't eat) becomes a way to either boost our self-esteem (with "virtuous" food like tofu and carrot sticks) or squash our self-esteem (with "bad" foods like Hagen Daas and double-fudge brownies).

Kabatznick writes, "When eating (or not eating) is connected to generosity and gratitude rather than how good you look or how thin you are, you receive a more lasting kind of nourishment." Sounds very altruistic, but how does it work in real life? Kabatznick suggests that before you eat you could say "a few simple words of thanks, privately or with those present" help give eating meaning that has nothing to do with fat grams. (I'm sure I'm not the only one who generally thinks of saying grace as a ritual confined to Thanksgiving dinner.) It was the emotional nourishment Kabatznick got from helping in a soup kitchen that inspired her to found a program called Dieters Feed the Hungry in which she matched volunteers and their skills and interests to various soup kitchens and food giveaway programs. It turns out that many dieters were eager to shift some of their attention from themselves to others. As Kabatznick says, "You help yourself when you help others."

It isn't until Kabatznick is three quarters of the way through the book that she tells us that daily sitting practice (aka meditation) of at least 30 to 60 minutes "is necessary if you really want to learn the art and skills of self-nourishment." She may be right, but that's a mighty big commitment she's suggesting, one that I bet most of the readers of Zen of Eating aren't ready to make. (If she thinks meditating is so important why does she wait so long in the book to bring it up?) I found the book helpful even without adding the rigors of meditation to my day. By employing the ideas like "mindfulness" and "letting go" I was able to summon up more equanimity than I'm usually able to muster when I'm ruminating over problems great and small. While the book's promise of "ancient answers to modern weight problems" may be the hook that gets you into the book, you'll end up staying with it for the wisdom it offers about matteres more profound than little size-six dresses.