Forced to overeat as a child, Sharon Suh finally learns for herself what is enough.
Smell your food and make sure to take small bites so you can savor the taste and appreciate the meal,” says Jake, a former Thai monk who is one of the teachers at the weeklong People of Color meditation retreat I’m attending.
Despite studying Buddhism for over thirty years, identifying as a Buddhist, and even obtaining a doctorate in Buddhist Studies, I am a relative newcomer to daily meditation and retreat practice. This lack of meditation experience is pretty common among Asian American Buddhist practitioners such as myself. In 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that only 14 percent of Asian American Buddhists claim to meditate. Yet I have long wished for a sangha where I could meditate, feel at home in my Korean-American body, and not stand out as a woman of color in the sea of white practitioners who seem to predominate meditation centers in the U.S. So when I saw an online advertisement for a People of Color retreat at a center in Northern California, I jumped at the opportunity.
At this retreat, which feels like a Buddhist summer camp, with its dormitories, kitchen hall, hiking trails, and even a resident peacock, our teachers encourage us to eat with the same focus we bring to our seated meditation practice.
“Put your fork down between each bite and don’t let yourself get distracted so you eat just until you are full,” says Asha, another of our teachers. “Trust your body to cue your brain when you have had enough.”
Am I capable of eating what my body wants, desires, and needs without judgment?
Despite the gentleness and simplicity of the instructions, I’m tentative about my ability to follow it. Will I be able to feel my body’s fullness once I have eaten enough? Am I capable of eating what my body wants, desires, and needs without judgment? Can I inhabit my body and feel it from the inside out?
In her soft, calm voice, Dee Dee, another practice leader, instructs participants to explore how we feel in our bodies in the present moment. I perk up from my slumping posture as she guides us in the practice of sitting, paying attention, and turning our senses inward.
“Because we tend to neglect the body, we should pay attention to it through careful and deep listening,” she says.
Instead of being encouraged to let go of our attachment to our bodies, we are invited to treat them as beloved friends. This is the first time meditation has been presented to me as the radical act of taking up space and appreciating myself as a woman with a body and a complex history surrounding it.
Asha encourages us to do the same—to use the body as an object of meditation to gain awareness of what’s happening inside of ourselves. Doing so, she said, will allow us to disengage from reactivity and from the endless stories we create about ourselves and our supposed shortcomings.
While I understand the value of this teaching, I struggle to follow it, not because I’m intent on ignoring my body, but because I have long been obsessed with it. Observing my body has never been an act of mindfulness, nor has it ever brought me freedom from desire or discontent. I often perform a body scan each day, but not the kind the Buddha recommended. Rather than exploring and focusing on how my body feels in this moment, I continually monitor and evaluate how it looks. For most of my life, the act of scanning my body has been entirely ensnarled with negative judgments that inevitably fueled desire—the desire to change the way my body looked and felt. I had learned from an early age to view every feature of my body (and thus to view myself) negatively, as though the body I inhabited were a reflection of my worth. I scan, and I judge—puffy, overly soft, weak, unattractive, fat, undisciplined… I wonder if Asha or Dee Dee have ever engaged in this form of self-abuse, or if meditation has cured them of it.
My struggle to feel my body and to discern whether I am hungry or full began quite young. I grew up in the 1970s, a second-generation Korean American in New York with a mentally ill mother who suffered from anorexia and bulimia. Throughout my formative years, she projected her body dysmorphia onto me, shaming me for my weight and my Asian features. I was never allowed to act on my own hunger or satiation because my mother always decided when I ate, how much I ate, and when I could stop. I was under her constant surveillance.
My mother had come of age during the Korean War, where starvation loomed large. After the war, she moved to the United States, where food was abundant. Eating as much as possible was necessary for survival in Korea, but here in her new home, thinness was a way to accumulate social capital. She left conditions of wartime starvation only to be met with a new kind of food deprivation, this time chosen. She starved herself for beauty and acceptance. In my mother’s eyes, Twiggy, the frighteningly thin British supermodel, represented the American ideal of feminine beauty.
“Don’t even think about trying to get out of your chair until you’ve finished all of it,” my mother quietly warns me. “And finish the milk too.”
From my high chair, I try to avert my eyes from the huge mound of steaming white rice flanked by an equally tall heap of bulgogi, a sweet and savory Korean grilled beef. A small pile of chopped up kimchi rinsed in water to nullify its spiciness rests by its side.
Each evening my mother ritually arranges the dinner plate on the high chair’s removable table. She reaches for the enormous glass of milk and places it exactly at the top front of the plate and sets a spoon and fork on each side. A soft plastic bib is secured around my neck and the plastic tray of my high chair clicks into place. I am once again locked in for the rite of eating.
I know the drill. Eat until I can’t eat anymore. Eat because I have no choice. Eat even if I am not hungry, and don’t even bother telling anyone I am already full. It won’t do any good. I pick up my fork and begin. I know it is too much for my toddler body to handle, yet I keep at it.
My face reddens in shame and my stomach hurts, but I know the consequences of not clearing my plate. So I keep silent, hoping that I won’t be punished. Good Korean daughters do what their mothers tell them, after all.
A few hours have passed, I am sick of sitting still, and I still can’t finish the rice. My head bobs to the side as I grow tired, but I cannot go to sleep. I must stay awake, fork in hand, and eat until all the food on my plate is gone or at least until my father gets home from work. As soon as I hear the car come up the drive and the car door shut, I feel relief, knowing I will soon be set free from this chair until it’s time to return to it in the morning.
When that front door opens and my dad walks in with his briefcase, my mother doesn’t skip a beat. She says, as if it were just a coincidence, “Oh, she just finished eating.” She throws me that familiar warning look to keep quiet and says in exasperation, “at least finish your milk,” implying I am the cause of wasted food. I comply and she finally unlocks the small tray. I squirm uncomfortably out of the chair and greet my father with a meek “hello.” I am well trained in keeping secrets. And he never asks.
These memories of being fed beyond my body’s capacity return to me with fierce clarity as I sit in meditation. In Korean households, children are under the rule of the parents. Rebellion is not an option. We never talked back to our parents, and we kept quiet about negative things in order to save face. By forcing me to eat beyond what my body could contain, my mother short-circuited my internal cues for hunger and satiation, causing me to grow more and more estranged from my own body. The basic rule was “Eat, but don’t you dare throw up,” so I ate everything on my plate, terrified of allowing it to come back up. Sometimes, though, it happened anyway. There are only so many Devil Dogs one child can eat before heaving them back up all over the kitchen table.
If I can remember during the retreat to eat for pleasure and sustenance, to taste each bite of food, perhaps I can do it at home too.
The constant pressure to eat but remain thin is a common struggle among Asian American women. I was far from alone in being force-fed. Most Asian American women I know grew up bombarded by the same constant, contradictory refrains, “Eat! Don’t leave food on your plate. It’s rude! Why are you so fat? How will you get a husband?” The warnings were passed down from grandmothers, aunts, and mothers to daughters who are always critiqued for being too fat, but pressured into eating whatever is given in gratitude for those who feed us. This is the Confucian way.
Here at the retreat, Jake offers a very different admonition.
“Don’t eat yourself into numbness. Allow yourself to cultivate awareness and mindfulness about your mind-body process so that you can see how you feel while you eat.”
In the dining hall of this silent retreat, I’m working to introduce myself to the feeling of being satisfied. I’m learning to say yes to more food without anxiety or shame, and to say no without fear of disappointing someone else.
We are encouraged not to make direct eye contact with other practitioners as we eat in silence so we can focus on our own experiences. That privacy also makes me feel safe from the gaze of others on my plate. As a young girl, silence sometimes protected me from my mother’s rage, but it was detrimental to my ability to feel and express my body’s needs. Here in the meditation hall, though, silence has given me the space I need to check in with my body and begin to ask it what it wants.
“Are you hungry? Do you have physical hunger or emotional hunger? Do you feel full? Have you had enough?”
It’s a challenging practice, yet one the merit of which I am slowly beginning to see. If I can remember during the retreat to eat for pleasure and sustenance, to taste each bite of food, perhaps I can do it at home too.
“Our bodies often carry the stress, trauma, and burdens that filter in when we are not aware,” reminds Dee Dee. “We all suffer and carry somatic stress and trauma.”
My Korean American body melds into the larger hall, a space filled with more diversity than I have ever encountered in a meditation center. This retreat full of people of color engaged in silent meditation has become a true sangha in which I am no longer a racial minority. People of color such as myself are simultaneously invisible or hyper-visible in the public eye; learning how to take up space and be seen in our full humanity is a radical, mind-
altering, heart-opening experience. Throughout the daily dharma talks, our guides, all of whom are people of color themselves, teach us that deep looking, settling into our bodies, and taking up space, both in the meditation hall and beyond, lead to the ability to more clearly see the constructs of race, gender, and sexuality imposed on us. These practices offer us the freedom and ability to relate differently to our experience.
While this body may have been the object of violence and hatred in the past, through the breath I can return to the present. I can experience self-love and compassion in this very body, and I can be seen and heard in it and through it. I try to acknowledge, feel, and shed the light of awareness on my memories and painful experiences, just as a lighthouse illuminates a path to shore for vessels at sea. Finally, I can begin to accept this body after years of trying to make it conform to something it was not. While there may still be rocky passages in these waters, at least a light has been turned on.