Food: A Conversation with Charles Eisenstein

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After reading Charles Eisenstein’s book, The Yoga of Eating, I wrote:

It’s not our fault that we have no idea how to engage the most basic and arguably sacred human relationship to the environment – eating. This confusion stems from our deeper disconnection from self, from our place in the great web of planetary existence, and from each other.

We buy products from strangers to get rid of hunger, to soothe our pain, and to ease our boredom.

Most don’t bother to engage in “healthy eating” efforts because the crossfire of judgment-soaked expertise is too gnarly.

My work with Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez affirmed a deep intuition that we are all meant to eat different things. That our most optimal diet reflects our ancestral co-evolution with the environment. And that we are almost always meant to eat what we love.

Charles and I agree that only you know how to nourish yourself. But how do we get clear enough to feel our inner guidance? As one Vital Mind Resetter wrote:

Our program is intended to be the beginning of a transformational process foregrounding nutrition and self-care as a portal to self-initiation. But this program requires focus and commitment and perhaps you think you want this change, but find yourself unable to make it, stick to it, or sustain it.

For a deeper dive into the why of your relationship to food as it stands, I couldn’t be more thrilled to announce Charles’s new course: Dietary Transformation from the Inside Out which I believe to be an incredibly powerful complement to the potential self-critical and personally limiting thoughts that can come up around more structured advice and guidance, and the behavioral patterns that can keep us stuck (and why).

In this conversation, we discuss:

  • Why do we keep doing things that are “bad” for us?
  • What is sugar craving really about?
  • Is dietary change alone enough?
  • What drives addictive eating?
  • Can we trust our desires?
  • What is a simple but powerful way to begin to heal our disordered relationship to food?

Hope you enjoy!

Full Video Transcript

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Hi everyone. So today, I have the pleasure of chatting with Charles Eisenstein. As many of you know, he wasn’t always a dear friend (perhaps in past incarnations).

But his work came into my life about a year and a half ago—and not a moment too soon. I was at a point that I think many of you are aware of having shared the journey with me where I felt a level of exasperation, desperation and hopelessness around all of my primary advocacies and pointed activism. And I just only was really able to see the darkness. My mentor had passed away just previous to that point in time. And I was in a hole.

And so, Charles’ book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible totally changed my trajectory. And like so many of these teachings, it really just awakened something within me that was dormant. It really just reminded me of something perhaps I already knew.

And so, I have the honor and privilege of referring to you as one of my dearest friends at this point in time. I often turn to you for your perspective on very complex matters as you know. And what I think you offer, Charles, and what I want to share with anyone who’s not familiar with your work (and what we’ll talk a bit about today) is I think you have a gift for bringing in awareness of the greater context and meaning of a perceived problem or conflict. And so much of my intention and agenda is around bringing meaning—deep, personal meaning—to perceived health problems or diseases or labels of mental illness, the kind of reclamation that can come from owning it as a teacher, owning your experience as a teacher.

So today, we could talk about 10,000 topics. But today, I want to zoom in on a subject that is very, very near and dear to my heart personally and also professionally. I want to talk about food specifically and your perspectives on how people should interface with all of the dietary information that is saturating the internet at this point, the kind of overwhelm that people feel about finding the right diet maybe because we sense that food is an important vector of information. I think that your perspective is so much more nuanced.

And so, as someone who wrote a tremendous book I’ve blogged about called The Yoga of Eating a long time ago, I’d love to just maybe start out with a bird’s eye view of your relationship to this subject. Why is this of interest? You range in your work from deep, political analysis to environmental activism to just the concept of conscious resistance in general as a life posture. And so I think it may surprise a lot of people to learn that you’re interested in such a mundane topic as what to eat and how to know what to eat.

So, how did this get on your radar as a subject of relevance to your experience; and then, by extension, maybe what you feel you have to share to others.

Charles Eisenstein: Well, one, it got on my radar because I started eating at a very young age. It’s been pretty relevant to my life ever since.

But actually, I developed some interest in the topic when I was a teenager. And I approached the problem or the issue the same way that I was taught to approach every issue—which was the mathematical approach. You gain valuable information, you approach it scientifically. So you’re supposed to get this many calories, and this much protein, this much fat, this much this and that. And the idea is that if you can get the numbers right, you’re going to be healthy.

But then I later came across conflicting information that said, “No, no, no. What you need isn’t X, Y and Z. It’s A, B and C. And you need to eat raw food. You only eat this and not eat that.” And each one of these dietary philosophies made a lot of sense to my untutored mind. I would be like, “Yeah, this is the gospel. And those other people, they just don’t get it about living enzymes and the enzymatic potential that gets drawn down every time you eat cooked food. Those idiots!”

But then, I would maybe read some Chinese medicine take on diet. And it would say, “Don’t eat so much raw food because that dampens the digestive fire or the spleen sheet” or something. “Those people just don’t get it about the spleen sheet. So, okay, who am I going to believe?”

And now with the Internet—I mean, this is like 15 or 20 years ago. Now, with the internet, it’s like you were saying, it’s a jungle.

And there’s another problem too. Even if you do find the right information, who says you’re going to implement it? People do things to themselves all the time that they know is going to hurt them; and they don’t do the things that they know is going to make them feel good. Why? Even if you had the perfect information, who says you’re going to implement it?

What’s going on when you do things that harm yourself consciously, that you’re aware? Babies don’t do that. Animals don’t do that because they have this biological guidance system of “pleasure= good” and “pain= bad.” You don’t touch a hot stove because it hurts. You know that.

So, one of the questions I have gotten into is, “Why is that? What would have to happen to us to be able to trust ourselves when, often, it seems that I think every want that feels good is actually harming us? Do we have to then conquer desire just like we conquered nature outside of ourselves?

So, that’s the starting point of the inquiry that I’ve been dabbling on and off. And that’s why I made this course because people don’t read books anymore, it seems. Even I don’t read books as much as I used to.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: I read tons of books!

Charles Eisenstein: I read probably a third of what I did 20 years ago.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: And we want to have experiences at this point. I think that’s why people stopped reading books.

Charles Eisenstein: So, I developed a course to deliver the information in a way that you experience it and you have some community around it.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Right! We call it “dietary transformation from the inside-out.” And I think what you’re trying to unpack is a message.

Because I read a lot of books that I am receiving from a lot of different places—like for example, one of the books I relished recently is called Pussy: A Reclamation. And what that book is about is how do you identify with your desire as your greatest advocate? How do you lead with literally bodily sensations to guide you through your life? It seems like, so many of us, in an effort to unite with our bodies again, sort of re-embody, we’re struggling with the intellectual constructs that are getting in the way.

So, it seems like what you’re suggesting is if there is a breakdown between understanding and cognitive appreciation and then action, there must be something meaningful there. It can’t just be that we only grow through pain and pleasure. It only leads us to the circles of hell. It can’t be that totally flip-flopped relationship. There has to be something there that we can gain better insight into.

Charles Eisenstein: Yup. In our culture, we don’t have a lot of encouragement to trust the body because we have, a lot of times, an indoctrination through school to trust the mind, to trust the authorities telling us, to trust the quantitative measures. And if you are a rational person, a scientific person, that’s what you do.

So, that means that even if you decide, “Okay, this kind of make sense. I’m going to try to trust my body. I’m going to let pleasure and desire guide me,” what I discovered is that I hardly even knew what I wanted. And I hardly even knew what really felt good because I was so in the mind all the time, eating things that I was telling myself, “I must really like this because it’s got X, Y and Z in it.” But actually, I didn’t know if I liked it or not. I was not in touch with that. I was making a choice from somewhere entirely else.

And that meant that the choice never had certainty behind it. It never had a conviction behind it because when you shift to another map, and that map says, “No, this is your bad,” your conviction is only as solid as the information that you’re receiving from somebody else. And it’s important to me to recover your authority.

This is one reason I’m doing this in a very, in a sense, narrow topic although it truly actually is related to everything. It’s our primary relationship with the material world.

But the reason that I have some dealt some attention, my energy and time on to this topic is that it is what’s really practical. It is something that I have personal experience with that actually works for me. The amount of liberation that I discovered when I really pursued this deep self-trust is incredible!

People think I have a lot of will power because there are the cookies, and I don’t eat any or maybe I take a tiny bite of one or eat literally one potato chip. They think I must have a lot of will power. But it’s the exact same amount of will power it takes to not dig my thumb into my eye. Why would I do that? Because I’ve integrated a full experience of that food. And so, to not have to struggle to eat a healthy diet and to know what a healthy diet is, those two pieces, it’s just a tremendous gift that I’ve received. And yeah, I want to pass this on.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Totally! What I find fascinating too is we have somewhat differing perspectives on how to cultivate this. Certainly, in my approach (as sort of imprinted by Dr. Nicholas Gonzales), I’m interested in experiential where people can ultimately free themselves of these potentially more yoyo-like relationships. At the end of that, it’s up to you to feel that self authority and to be able to begin to identify what you want.

But what’s interesting is while some people may balk at the elements of my dietary recommendations or this template initially as being sort of characterized by deprivation, by the end of the experience, it often is a portal to some greater transformation.

And so, what I think we share language on (if not all of this) is the fact that the transformation for a sustained relationship, a healthy relationship with your diet needs to be in realms other than just nutrition. You talk about this idea of a conscious dietary approach can’t exist in an otherwise unconscious cultural context in one’s life, that the transformation has to be deeper.

What I love about what you’re positing is that it doesn’t require some grand gesture. It can be as simple as just sitting with the mess of it all—sitting with your deep cravings and desires, and responding or not responding. But that attention and awareness may be the first step, perhaps the only necessary step, intentional step, to generating this experience of unfolding and lasting change.

Charles Eisenstein: Yup, yeah. Really, the key to it is attention, giving attention to that which had been invisible or to that which had been unconscious and integrating the things that we weren’t paying attention to which could be the pleasure or discomfort that comes from certain foods or certain eating habits that maybe you never paid attention to it because right after your done eating, you turn the television on or you watch a lot of T.V. or you do something else to distract.

Maybe you even binge on a huge amount of potato chips or donuts or something, and then distract yourself from the discomfort by thinking, “I’m never going to do that again. I’m turning over a new leaf starting tomorrow.” That is a way to distance ourselves from integrating the effects of a choice.

And it’s not just with food too; it’s with any choice.

Actually, the hardest part is the easiest part. The hardest part for people to get is that really paying attention to something will change you. It will change you as a chooser. Even if you don’t go through the whole rigmarole of “Okay, that felt really bad, so I’m not going to do that again because if I do that again, it’s going to feel bad again,” and that kind of regime of reward and threat, trying to force yourself not to do something, that doesn’t work!

Dr. Kelly Brogan: And perhaps even not extrapolating into behavioral commitment or change. What you’re suggesting is just be with. That’s it!

Charles Eisenstein: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, yeah. Just that simple.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Just that simple.

You suggest that there are potentially unmet needs that drive a lot of our food behaviors. I think that’s resonant for most people because we all get this concept of emotional eating. It’s penetrated popular consciousness, this idea that sometimes we eat just because we’d rather not feel whatever we will be feeling if we didn’t eat whatever it is that we’re choosing to eat.

So, is it important to identify do you think what that unmet need is or where that source of pain is? Or will that become clear on its own? Or does it not really matter? Is it just simply acknowledging that there may be a driver beneath the self-soothing behavior that loosens its grip a bit?

Charles Eisenstein: I think there’s a whole module on that question. I’ll try to answer it simply. I don’t want to present it as this puzzle where you have to figure out in your mind, understand mentally, what it is that’s driving your over-eating. But sometimes, it becomes really obvious. But even if you know what it is, that doesn’t necessarily make it go away because the need has to actually be met.

It might be a need for, say, intimacy or connection or just not hurting that might drive the over-eating. Just because you get that, “Oh, yeah, I’m eating because I’m lonely. Oh, yeah, I’m eating because my marriage sucks.” That might have been unconscious, but then you become conscious of it. But that does not necessarily improve the marriage. It doesn’t make you less lonely, et cetera, et cetera.

But at least you can stop beating yourself up about it in thinking that the problem is your lack of will power or your selfish desires and you can say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a symptom.” And then giving attention to what hurts, giving attention to that. It is the path that we follow. This is the avenue that takes us to the core. Giving attention to that thing then does generate changes. And you might then come across opportunities that you haven’t had before that you didn’t recognize before to change the circumstances that are generating the loneliness or the bad relationship or whatever.

When these things come into consciousness, often, along with it comes a choice that you can say, “Which self am I going to choose? Which being am I going to align with right now?”

So, like this. And your course I think is probably the same. It’s not this can come and rescue you. But when somebody reaches a certain point where they’re ready to transition to a different state of being, then the course appears in our lives because we’re ready for it.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Yes, I am smiling because that’s exactly what it is. It took me a long time to learn that perhaps either this information, again like I said at the beginning, it serves as a remembrance for something that you couldn’t hear the whisper of at an earlier stage in your life, and then it catalyzes the kind of change that was just waiting to unfold anyway.

Sometimes, I marvel at the outcomes through my online course or even in my practice. And I wonder was this just the fancy dress put on the situation that was pre-existing, but very ready? Is it just sort of a ritual necessary to give ownership back where it belongs which is in this deep seat of self-authority as you referenced?

I wonder what you have to say about self-love. Sometimes, resistance to change is framed as being a deficiency of self-love. “I’m not worthy of the kinds of outcomes that I know are on the other end of this change. I don’t want to deal with that level of unknown. And so I’m not even going to bother engaging because I’d rather sit in the familiar discomfort of my known reality.”

But sometimes I imagine that self-love bubbles up. Out of this kind of multilayered transformational process, it’s revealed to you. But I do have the perspective that commitment to self-care can proceed as a felt experience of self-love—obviously, only if there is readiness (so maybe it’s the readiness).

Charles Eisenstein: You know, there are all these pieces about self-love and self-acceptance, self-worth, all these things. I kind of agree with what other spiritual teachers are saying about it, except for one thing. They imply that self-love is something that you can do. “Okay, start loving yourself.”

Well, how do you do that?

A lot of people will try to impose—impose is not the right word. When people fight to enact self-love because they have heard that it’s a good thing to do and it will solve their problems, they end up enacting this counterfeit self-love. Deep down, they still don’t really believe it.

So, how do you actually learn to love yourself? I think this gets down to the primary conceit of our culture, which is the separate individual. And it might be that this is something that you can do from your own—

Well, for me, the way I learn self-love is people loving me and showing me how it’s done, and loving me in even in situations where I thought I was completely unlovable. And the more of that I receive, the better I’m able to love myself.

So, we’re all kind of each other up by the bootstrap, acknowledging ourselves by the bootstraps. And that’s why—myself included—people need the books, the courses, the seminars, whatever, the experiences that are becoming available, to at least get that taste of what it’s like.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Absolutely!

Charles Eisenstein: One thing that comes through in the course is that I really—not to say I love everybody, but I’m going to say it’s a release of judgment. I think maybe it’s more of self-acceptance that I’m transmitting through, just understanding that even if you’re binging on sugar, maybe that is because when you were growing up, that was how your parents show you love. And maybe that was […] Or maybe you have a big deficit of the kind of thing that every child should get.

In our culture, children grow up with—I mean, I’m sure you know more about attachment theory than I do. But basic human needs are tragically unmet in our civilization. And so, when I see somebody with any addiction, I see, “Ah, here’s somebody who is valiantly trying to meet their needs with whatever is available.” And if food is the only thing available for you to love yourself, and you’re meeting your need that way, there might even be a wisdom in that. Maybe there’s an unconscious reason that’s choosing food rather than heroin or something else. Maybe there’s an intelligence to that that I’m not going to necessarily want to monkey with.

But I’m assuming that maybe you’re ready to be done with that. And so, I’m offering the tools. When someone’s ready to be done with that, ready to transition to a higher level of well-being, then I’m just offering some tools for them to be able to do that.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: I couldn’t agree more. I think it strikes me big time what you just articulated in terms of sort of the incubation that needed to occur in order for you to learn how to love yourself, this incubation in space, dyadic space, with others who showed you that they were there unconditionally in adult relationships.

And it’s interesting that perhaps what you’re creating the experience of through this course is a means to do that within yourself, a means to show yourself a level of self-acceptance and presence no matter how you show up—in all of your flaws and wrong behavior and all the mistakes and failures and all the ways you said you were going to do something that you didn’t.

There is like an unconditional self-presence that you can cultivate without even having to feel that you love yourself. All you have to do is be there.

And I think we both know that’s one of the parenting pearls of all time. You don’t have to do anything fancy as a parent other than be there judgment-free for all of the tears and laughter and screaming and raging or whatever it is. If you just don’t set up conditions under which love flows, you’ve done the ultimate job as a parent.

Obviously, that’s more difficult than it sounds. But this is almost a re-parenting exercise, perhaps a way of showing yourself a kind of deep acceptance that then allows the wound to present itself for what it is. And then, perhaps, it will transform.

And I love that that’s what you demonstrate for this course. It’s highly possible that all of the behaviors that you seek to change will end up changing before you even intended for them to change just because of the conscious presence you can devote.

Charles Eisenstein: It just occurred to me that one of the unmet needs that gets displaced on food that I don’t think I mentioned it in that course is the need for attention. Children don’t get enough attention because their parents are overworked, over-taxed, living. I mean, it’s a pretty desperate situation.

You can’t give that much attention to a child. They should be getting attention from a whole community—from aunts and cousins and relatives and friends. That’s how people grow up in a village, that cliché. Sometimes, these things are clichés for a good reason—they’re true. It takes a village, right?

We don’t get that, so how do you give attention to yourselves? How do you “Okay, it’s me time right now. Yeah, I’ll need to sit down with that bag of popcorn”?

As long as that need is unmet, you’re going to keep wanting the popcorn.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: There’s something very precious and very available to people today around a self-guided experience of transformation. It’s so much more valuable than something that was otherwise facilitated by a guru, a healer or a doctor.

And so I think that’s why this is incredibly valuable. It’s such a powerful compliment to all of my accumulated perspectives on the power of nutrition as a vector of epigenetic information all the way to a portal to psycho-spiritual transformation. This is really a layer that is, in my opinion, not addressed by many of those who are seeking for the magic pill cure in a dietary template.

Charles Eisenstein: But that doesn’t mean that the kind of nutritional knowledge that is irrelevant.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Of course, yeah.

Charles Eisenstein: What I’m offering is a way to know in your body that this is a solid commission that’s useful to you—or not, but to know it in your body and not have to trust Kelly Brogan as opposed to trusting Dr. Mercola or trusting whoever else. Probably you and Dr. Mercola is fairly more or less aligned. But you know…

Charles Eisenstein: But anyway, who are you going to trust?

Dr. Kelly Brogan: One hundred percent, yeah.

Charles Eisenstein: It’s still good to have a map; to have some other resource that you can navigate and decide, “Yeah, this is the right map for me at this moment of my life.” There might be a time in your life where you should be eating just plant foods or you should be fasting or you should be doing whatever, I don’t know.

And then, of course, there’s the execution of it. Knowing that information, how do you actually stop it? [You have the wrong fix] when will power hasn’t worked, [and you fight that].

Most people tried that. They’re telling themselves, “I’ve got to stop eating like that because I’m going to get fat, I’m going to get sick.” But no manner of threat actually works. It only works temporarily.

And then, at some point—what’s the phrase, “you jump off the wagon,” is it?

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Yeah, you’re right. This overlaps in two areas. We also agree that this is relevant to all manner of addictive behaviors from pulling your hair out to drinking a pint of vodka every two hours.

Charles Eisenstein: You try harder not to do that, but that is a recipe for despair.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Yes.

Charles Eisenstein: And it’s also judgmental, “You just didn’t try very hard—not as hard as me because I’ve got my shit together. I’ve got the will power that you don’t have.” That is not spiritually true. That is false.

Any program of self-control or healing that sources from that kind of judge mentality is going to end up pulling you back.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Yes, one hundred percent! And that’s why I feel fundamentally, in spirit and philosophy, we are totally aligned in our intentions. I think it’s worth approaching with circumspection any course or program that doesn’t ultimately seek to put you in charge of your health and wellness destiny. That should be the goal. In this era of total intellectualized inundation, we have to find a way to ignite this within ourselves.

And so I think that what you’re suggesting and the tools that you offer are certainly a means to beginning to experiment with that.

Charles Eisenstein: With meditations and homework assignments.[I’m making mini ones, mini-modules], which I’ve only recorded one about fasting, feeding children is one, exercise. I have a couple of other topics. And then, I’m going to add. As new topics come up in the Facebook group that we have around this, then I’ll record a 5- to 10-minute mini-sessions on whatever comes up.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: I hear meditations and recordings and homework and I feel overwhelmed. But having done it, it is 100% high yield and manageable. It’s totally doable, totally accessible, self-paced.

And as it’s consistent with your long-standing financial and economic perspectives, this is by donation—gift economy first. So, whatever you feel is commensurate with its value or what you imagine perhaps its value to be is what you will pay for (which I think is incredible).

So, I’m super excited. I obviously couldn’t endorse it more. I learned an incredible amount myself from it even just to put language to something that is so clear to me in my observations clinically and personally.

I’m just ever fascinated with whatever you’re putting out there. I want to thank you. Thank you for your gifts and for sharing them. And I look forward to the feedback.

Charles Eisenstein: Yeah, thank you, Kelly.

Dr. Kelly Brogan: Thank you.

Charles Eisenstein: Dietary Transformation from the Inside Out

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More