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The Eating Disorder Challenge Plus a Zen Story

By Joanna Poppink, M.F.T

Perhaps the biggest challenge confronting people in recovery from eating disorders is their own humanity. Whatever strengths, frailties and personal quirks a person possesses, those qualities will eventually show up for good or ill in their methods for coping with stress.

People wanting to improve or speed up their recovery come to me saying, "I know what I'm supposed to do. Why can't I do it?"

That's a fair and reasonable question. Unfortunately, these people too often have already decided that their answer lies in controlling, minimizing or eliminating their normal human emotions. Some people think that success in giving up eating disorder behaviours is equal to becoming automatons with no feelings and a surface facade of agreeable charm.


They hold the thought that if they could create themselves as an anaesthetized presence with a pleasant smile the human feelings of fear, stress, pain, greed, rage, love, need, vulnerability, separation and rushes of grandiosity or inferiority would pose no difficulty. Hoping for this wish to be true they believe that if they could accomplish this feat they would not have to resort to the controlling mechanisms of any eating disorder and at last be free of their self criticism and growing despair.


However, this dream is based on the actual structure of the eating disorder. The only difference is that in real life the eating disorder contributes to the anaesthesia. The impossible question being asked is, "How can I be numb without using an anaesthetic?"


The frustrating response to this on the verge of recovery question is that humans are humans. Healthy humans feel the full range of what human are capable of feeling. To be healthy we need to be able to access our feelings, tolerate them and be able to think, make choices and function at the same time.


Sometimes, to avoid feelings, we humans will seek a rush. We will put ourselves in a high stress situation full of illogic, unpredictability and high risk. Because we are aware of powerful sensations we can believe we are not numb and that we are feeling emotions. But the extreme sensations that flood our systems are yet another device we use to effectively block or numb our authentic human emotions.


Eating disorder behaviour may be an attempt to avoid feelings and risks, but the behaviour itself creates risk to life, health and happiness.


Living a satisfying life, free to pursue one's deeply valued dreams, requires a real presence in real life. Becoming a nonhuman is not an option. So, as I see it, the only healing option is to become a more evolved human. Each person could then learn to recognize feelings and bear them in genuine life situations. When we can feel and think at the same time we can rally our courage and make choices that permit us to strive for our true heart's desire.

Before individuals with eating disorders can move in a more evolved direction they need to acknowledge to themselves that personal evolution is indeed a goal.

As a clinician, I have learned that I can't work with people who want me to help them match an idealistic image they have of what a nonhuman successful non-eating disordered person must be. However, once their goal is clearly to outgrow the limitations that make an eating disorder necessary, we can cooperate with the powers of evolution. We can then reach for a more solid and clear presence in their relationship not only with food but with a full range of people, experiences and surprises that life presents to all of us.

On this path, teachers, helpers, benefactors, and opportunities for right action, invisible to controlling perceptions, seem to synchronistically appear as people awaken to their true nature. This occurs because perception based on authentic feeling is clearer and the person in recovery is attracted to and attracts people and situations that are healthy and that encourage even more health in the individual. From this evolving place former eating disorder habits can fall away, and a more realistic and healthy life can begin. At such a point individuals appreciate their humanity and can live a life more genuinely human.

Here's a Zen Story people on the verge of eating disorder recovery might particularly enjoy.

Concentration, A Zen Story

After winning several archery contests, the young and rather boastful champion challenged a Zen master who was renowned for his skill as an archer. The young man demonstrated remarkable technical proficiency when he hit a distant bull's eye on his first try, and then split that arrow with his second shot. "There," he said to the old man, "see if you can match that!"

Undisturbed, the master did not draw his bow, but rather motioned for the young archer to follow him up the mountain. Curious about the old fellow's intentions, the champion followed him high into the mountain until they reached a deep chasm spanned by a rather flimsy and shaky log.

Calmly stepping out onto the middle of the unsteady and certainly perilous bridge, the old master picked a far away tree as a target, fired a clean, direct hit. "Now it is your turn," he said as he gracefully stepped back onto the safe ground.

Staring with terror into the seemingly bottomless and beckoning abyss, the young man could not force himself to step out onto the log, no less shoot at a target.

"You have much skill with your bow," the master said, sensing his challenger's predicament, "but you have little skill with the mind that lets loose the shot."

I wish all of us the courage, determination and commitment to hear the Zen master's response to the naive challenger. Moving beyond life limits created by an eating disorder and being fully present and functioning in what life presents to us is the great recovery challenge.

Copyright held by Joanna Poppink.

Joanna Poppink, L.M.F.T. is a psychotherapist in private practice since 1980, specializing in providing treatment and support to people with eating disorders and their loved ones. 10573 West Pico Blvd. #20 Los Angeles, CA 90064; (310) 474-4165; website, EDRIL - Eating Disorder Recovery: Information and Links: e-mail:


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