A Spiritual Path Toward Weight Loss and a Longer, More Fulfilling Life
Let's face it, millions of us have difficulty with weight. We may have tried a dozen different diets. Atkins. Low Carb, South Beach. These names trip off the tongue. There are even diet programs targeting Christians. The Christian weight loss industry is booming. And I have reviewed and evaluated several of them here.
Still, it's clear there is no magic way to take off those unwanted pounds; there are no miracle workers who can say a prayer over you with the result that the extra weight mysteriously disappears. When it comes to losing weight, there are a few essentials, and most of us understand what they are. First, one needs to know what foods to avoid, and what foods to emphasize in a diet that will lead to permanent weight loss, without depriving the body of any of the life sustaining nutrients. Second, and even more important .. motivation and discipline are required to avoid temptation and sustain both weight loss and well being over the long haul. Obviously, these are harder to come by. Third, exercise. Many of us never get around to it, but ANY diet will be more effective if combined with the activity needed to keep your body in condition. And finally, the loving support of friends and relatives, or members of the faith community that one belongs to. A support group can be extremely helpful. But friends and relatives can also make things worse by putting on too much pressure or making you feel guilty when you don't live up to their expectations.
Given the difficulty of applying the knowledge, finding the motivation and discipline, and pushing forward to lose that extra weight, something more may be needed. An appropriate and effective spiritual practice. Breaking through the obstacles that others put in your path or the traps you set for yourself may involve unleashing inner resources that you didn't even know you had. That's where a spiritual practice can be helpful.
To that end, I offer the following. Rather than dwelling on the food you should NOT be eating ... most of us already know about that ... it is far more useful to focus on the food that is both nutritious and good to eat, while not being loaded with unnecessary calories. I believe that the key here is not to approach weight loss as a matter of sacrificing all those tasty and toxic foods we tend to indulge in. Rather, a more promising approach, it seems to me, is to focus on all of those delicious foods that can and should be part of any plan for a long and healthy life. In this context, the carrot works far better than the stick ... literally.
The successful way to lose weight may in fact be the route that Columbus took in trying to find a route to the "New World" he was looking for. Sailing West to find a shorter route to the East. Since what you really need is a permanent change of those habits of the heart that contribute to your problem, and most diets are not permanent routes to a long and healthy life, let alone that deeper sense of self-worth that all of us desire, I am going to suggest setting out on a new path. Forget about dieting. Think about the quality of the food you are eating, and the qualities of character you'd like to nurture within yourself. They tend to go hand in hand.
It turns out that many of the foods that are recommended by dieticians and experts on nutrition, just happen to be those that are associated in the great spiritual traditions with positive qualities of character. I have explored the world's great religious and spiritual traditions, and find that a strong pattern emerges. People tend to associate various kinds of food with qualities of the spiritual or emotional life. This is not a matter of fad or fashion. Such associations have evolved over centuries and millennia as people experience the affects of the food they eat. What we eat has consequences for the body, of course, but diet also influences the soul. And it does so in specific ways.
Accordingly, I have taken a chart that catalogues the physical benefits derived from eating various sorts of food, and added a column listing the qualities of soul that are associated with these same foods in the world's great spiritual traditions. I've also created a printer friendly version of the chart so you can print it out and keep it with you .... especially on trips to the supermarket or neighborhood deli! I call it the "Spirit Food List."
My suggestion is simple.
Think about the good and delicious foods on the list... and the benefits of eating more of them. Count calories if you want. Avoid carbs, fat, fast food and fatty meat to be sure. Try and stick with any reputable diet program, if you prefer. But also include the following spiritual practice. Before heading out to the supermarket, sit down for a few moments with the spirit food list and let your mind focus on the positive qualities associated with some of the foods on it. Try it right now. What do you see?
Apples are right there at the top of the list. Not only do apples provide various physical benefits ... protecting your heart, improving lung capacity ... those would be sufficient reason to include some delicious, juicy, tasty apples on your shopping list. Apples have been associated by millions upon millions of people who have pondered these things with health, peace, even immortality! "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." You've heard that many times; what we tend to forget is that this familiar saying is rooted in the wisdom traditions of the world's great religions, including Christianity. It's a wisdom confirmed by science to be sure, but it reflects the actual experience of real people eating real food. It is the nearly universal consensus of humankind that what is good for the body is also good for the soul. The chemicals in various foods that tend to calm the nerves also tend to soothe the soul.
Looking a bit further down the list, there's the avocado. Not as often found on a typical grocery shopping list, the avocado is equally valuable to the body as the apple. It tends lower cholesterol, while protecting the heart and smoothing the skin. There are strong physical benefits to be derived from avocados, to be sure. But in the world's great wisdom traditions, the avocado is associated with love and beauty. Not just the outer beauty that is skin deep, but the inner qualities of beauty that reflect a strength of soul. Further, a ripe avocado is delicious!
See what's happening here? You are not only going through a mechanical process of building a shopping list ... you are becoming attentive to the qualities of character and the aspects of your spiritual life that you'd like to enhance. You are beginning to associate eating good food with leading a good life. You are letting your imagination, your sense of touch, taste and smell become supports for a more powerful spiritual practice. You are weaving the practice of attending to the needs of the soul into your daily routines. You are bringing mind and body together in a new way to work in concert with each other ... building a stronger foundation for a longer and more fulfilling life. Try it. And let me know how the spirit diet works for you. I'll be adding to The Spirit List over the coming weeks and months, and your feedback will be helpful as I do so.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.