Training the Senses: Freedom From Compulsions

Day to day challenges like fighting off indulgence in junk food and having the discipline to exercise regularly provide plenty of opportunities for working on our willpower, the importance of which I reviewed here. This is a key aspect of training our brains so we can live free from compulsions.

For this reason, Eknath Easwaran emphasized “training the senses” as one of the key disciplines for self-transformation [1]. This is something I’ve dabbled in for years, but I really started taking it more seriously only a few months ago, as I reported back in February. I have really emphasized it during the Covid “shutdown”, which I’ve chosen to think of as a “retreat“.

And it has paid off. During that time I’ve lost some stubborn pounds and am back at what I consider my healthy weight. But more importantly, I am largely free of compulsive eating. It is great to be able to eat healthy most of the time, and have an occasional treat when I choose to, not when some inner voice compels me to. And it is great to be able to concentrate on reading or other activities between meals without that little voice whispering to me “how about a snack?”

I went for about five weeks when I started this where I just worked on ending compulsive eating and did not worry about the scale. I planned 3 solid meals in advance, and emphasized healthy meals but was generous on portions and did not count calories. An occasional dessert was also thrown in, but it had to be preplanned. The hard and fast rule was I was not allowed to eat anything not planned in advance. When tempted to break that rule, I reminded myself that the point of this was freedom from compulsions, and I used the affirmation “no junk, no exceptions, no negotiations”. This caused the little voice to become a lot weaker after several days, and weaker still after about 3 weeks.

The reason is it takes away all of its bargaining positions, at least for me. The voice of rationalization always tries to put things in terms of weight loss. So it can always have an excuse like “you went for an extra long hike today, surely just one piece of pie won’t hurt”. But if the point is freedom from compulsion, this is irrelevant.

After about 5 weeks, the weight came off, as a pleasant byproduct, and continued to do so until I hit my target. But I can attest from my experience in the past that the key to get this to work was not to worry about weight and emphasize “freedom from compulsion”.

This is all really training the palate, a specific example of training the senses, which for me is the most important. In yoga philosophy (e.g the Katha Upanishad) the distinction is made between actions that are pleasurable in the short term (preya in Sanskrit) and those that are beneficial in the long run (shreya). Living in freedom is felt to require avoiding compulsive “attachments” to pleasant things, and avoidance of unpleasant things. I can by no means claim to be able to do this in all areas of my life, but success in one important area gives me the confidence that I can do it in others if I put my mind to it.

References

  1. Easwaran, E, Passage Meditation, Nilgiri Press, 2016.

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