I know, I know. You’ve been doing your yoga practices faithfully every morning and every night—but somehow they aren’t enough. Progress seems slow at best, and sometimes you wonder if you’re not worse off now than when you started. Don’t get me wrong—daily practice is important. The yogic texts say it is essential! Yet at times we all get frustrated and dream about a magic practice—one that doesn’t take much effort but has the power to instantly transform us into great yogis. But what if the next step in your spiritual journey has nothing to do with your regular yoga routine? What if it involves what you’re doing with your mind when you’re not meditating or practicing asana? What if it’s that moment when you are seemingly furthest from your practice, that instant just before you abandon yourself to overindulgence? I’m thinking of the moment when you’re looking for a snack when you aren’t really hungry or when you’re already full.
What if the next step in your spiritual journey has nothing to do with your regular yoga routine? What if it involves what you’re doing with your mind when you’re not meditating or practicing asana?
The following exercise can rescue you from the temptations of overindulgence, and the self-awareness it engenders could very well be the magic practice you dreamed of. It’s called The Great Ice Cream Practice. You can use it to combat any habitual craving—chocolate, potato chips, pizza; it works for them all. Before proceeding, however, be forewarned: unhealthy habits—even some that have been with you for life—weaken and disappear when you use this practice, and you may in fact banish overindulgence for good.
The next time your mind begins to chant, “Give . . . me . . . ice cream!” and you’re heading for the freezer, freeze! Shift your attention to your body and breath, and allow the ice cream desire, thought, or craving (it doesn’t matter what you call it) to remain in your awareness. Observe and experience it for what it is—just another thought.
Then begin to study and witness it. Is the ice cream thought a visual, tactile, or textural image? Is it a memory, or anticipation? Is it verbal? Does it have emotional tones, and if so, how strong are they? What happens to the ice cream thought? Does it remain constant, as if carved into your awareness, or does it fluctuate, sometimes growing, sometimes fading? If it fades, what replaces it?
Soon you’ll discover what you are really trying to satisfy by eating ice cream.
Next, gently extend your awareness to the region surrounding the ice cream thought. What’s going on above, beside, and below the thought? What comes before and after it? This will help you uncover the unconscious desires that motivate your snacking habit. Soon you’ll discover what you are really trying to satisfy by eating ice cream. Armed with this knowledge, you can weaken your habit and then substitute a healthy activity in its place. Like a researcher, you can conduct experiments with more helpful behaviors, observe their effects, and compare them to the effects of eating ice cream. The direct experiences that come from this have the power to transform you.
In case all this isn’t making much sense to you, I’ll show you how it works by giving an example from my own experiments with The Great Ice Cream Practice. A few years ago I had an unusually heavy teaching load. I was on my feet most of the day, and after an hour’s drive, I returned home late in the evening. I always entered by the back door, and as I passed through the kitchen I usually stopped for a dish of ice cream—even before greeting my family.
When I first began working with this practice and began to pause while I reached for the ice cream, I noticed several things. First, I saw that my craving was a memory of how the snack had soothed me in the past. Second, as I surveyed my body and breath, I realized that I was hardly breathing and definitely wasn’t hungry. Third, as I expanded my awareness beyond the ice cream thought, I noticed a large clump of fatigue suspended in space around it. Before this discovery, I hadn’t realized that I usually reached for ice cream when I was tired.As I paused and looked beyond the fatigue and the ensuing craving, I noticed that I wanted something nice to happen to me. And as I examined this association more closely, I saw that what I really wanted when I walked into my house was to be comforted by my wife.
Once I became aware that fatigue and a need for TLC were feeding my craving, I brainstormed several alternatives: I could do a relaxation exercise before leaving work; I could ask my wife for a hug when I got home; I could take a shower and do some pranayama in my bedroom. All of these were better ways of taking care of myself than impulsively eating ice cream.
That’s how The Great Ice Cream Practice works—it makes us aware of our unconscious desires. Once they enter our awareness, they aren’t unconscious anymore, and they lose their capacity to control our behavior. From now on, we can either choose to eat ice cream or to pass it up—but we gain the option of satisfying the underlying need another way.
Of course there may be times when you pause, allow yourself to experience your craving, witness it, think of alternatives, and then eat the ice cream anyway. If so, don’t beat yourself up. Simply reconnect with your body and breath, and eat with awareness. With each bite, pause and allow yourself to fully experience the taste, texture, and temperature of the treat. Be present with the movement of your hand and arm as you bring each spoonful to your mouth. Monitor the movement of your jaw, tongue, and throat. Check your breathing. Is it steady and even, or are there pauses? What’s going on?
With each bite, pause and allow yourself to fully experience the taste, texture, and temperature of the treat.
Keep studying these sensations. Expand your perspective and allow any thoughts, feelings, or memories to arise without judging them. And remember that the effects of food linger in our consciousness for hours, so to determine the long-term effects of ice cream on your body and mind, continue observing yourself long after you’ve finished it. If you notice any unpleasant effects, and if they linger long after the pleasure of eating the ice cream is gone, this knowledge will help weaken your craving.
You can read about the negative effects of impulsive snacking until the cows come home, but mere intellectual information will rarely inspire you to kick a craving for good. Experiential learning is the key. The Great Ice Cream Practice will help you gain direct experience of the motivations underlying your desire for ice cream. You’ll come to recognize its subtle and long-term effects on your consciousness. And if at any point you feel you are mastering this practice, try an advanced variation: do it where you learned the habit in the first place. For me, this is my parents’ kitchen. And in that arena, so far, it’s…oops, back to square one!
And that brings us back to where we started—with the daily practice of asana and meditation. It is these practices that gradually strengthen our capacity to pause, allow, and witness. The Great Ice Cream Practice is only one way to apply these same skills to our daily life. Witnessing can generate a quantum leap to another level of awareness. It gives you the choice of converting thought into action—and this, my friends, is at the heart of true maturity and freedom.