The Middle Way was taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Born into a rich family in the ancient city of Kapilavastu, Gautama lived a comfortable, privileged life within the grounds of his family’s palace. Gautama first set foot beyond the confines of wealth and luxury at the age of 29. He was horrified by what he saw — death, disease, misery, suffering. Humbled by this new reality, he was struck by the realisation of the thread of suffering running through humanity. From that moment, Gautama began his quest to find a way beyond suffering, to Nirvâna.
In a moment known as “The Great Renunciation,” Gautama calmly abandoned his life of leisure, giving up his status, wealth and possessions. His initial attempt at awakening was through asceticism, an extreme form of self-discipline. Six years of little food, little sleep, little interaction and hours and hours of meditation each day took their toll; Gautama collapsed in ill health. After this worrying wake-up call, he realised an important truth — an extreme, unbalanced approach would never lead to enlightenment.
Buddhism And Body Image
Despite being accused of cowardice by his pro-ascetic peers, Gautama knew a balanced approach was essential to reach Nirvâna. At the age of 35 he sat beneath The Bodhi Tree, determined to meditate until he reached enlightenment. After 49 days, he became The Buddha (The Awakened One). He then saw things as they really are, leading to his formation of the The Four Noble Truths, a philosophy on suffering. This principal formed the foundation of Buddhism.
The Eight Fold Path is a central teaching in this philosophy. This “path” avoids sensual self-indulgence and self-mortification. Its ethos: balance. This article will apply this philosophy to the complex and sometimes conflicting topic of body image. Below are five separations. Each distinguishes extremities in areas of suffering related to body image, carving a middle way. This is my attempt to structure the unspoken, abstract and often subconscious way spiritual practice has drastically improved my relationship with my body. I’m hopeful it’ll help you, too.
Separation #1: Worth From Appearance
“This Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.” — Excerpt from The Heart Sutra – Translated by Thich Nhat Hanh
Effective techniques to alleviate negative body image require unlearning. What do I mean by this? Improving body image requires us to undo the internalisation of strong cultural messages, messages assimilated since birth. The previous article explores the importance of unlearning the warped and unrealistic cultural definition of beauty. In similar vein, the first separation requires us to unlearn the cultural delusion that how we look has any influence, whatsoever, on our worth. This separation distills worth from appearance, avoiding the extreme of placing value on personal appearance — a remedy guaranteed to cause insecurity and anxiety.
Inherently, most of us agree our worth isn’t skin deep. You may be thinking, “that’s obvious Ricky, tell me something new.” But living and breathing this truth is a far cry from agreeing with it. That’s because intellectual acknowledgment — “I know I should feel this way” — is different from experiential understanding — “I feel this way.”
To clarify, think of a time when you’ve really, truly appreciated someone or something. Remember how it felt. You may have experienced a warming energy moving freely through your body, accompanied by an upbeat sense of ease, an unexpected outpouring of joy. These feelings are spontaneous. They don’t arise because of judgemental thoughts, as the consequence of evaluating a situation and deciding it is a moment for appreciation. These feelings arise in the absence of all thinking. Rarely, if ever, do they follow the thought: “I should appreciate this.”
Now, think of a time when you told yourself: “I should appreciate this moment.” How did you respond emotionally? For me, these types of thought are always followed by a suffocating sensation of guilt, accompanied by a self-sabotaging spiral of thoughts: “Why don’t I feel appreciation for this moment? I must be a bad person.” Self-worth follows this same blueprint.
The antidote is moving beyond the intellect, to a place we can spontaneously feel self-worth. There’s no magic pill or quick fix; it takes regular meditation and mindfulness practice to cultivate appreciation, compassion, love and acceptance — for yourself, for others, for situations. Experiential understanding in this sense breaks down into increased self-compassion and self-acceptance.
The good news is you don’t have to focus on attaining self-worth. Developing experiential understanding causes self-worth to radiate from within, arising in the absence of thought — just like the appreciation example. And when this feeling radiates from within, the value placed on external factors (including appearance) starts to evaporate, all by itself.
Separation #2: Satisfaction From Vanity
“We must distinguish between pride and self-confidence.” — Dalai Lama, Daily Advice from the Heart.
How do we apply the Dalai Lama’s above advice to body image? The key lies with Separation #2: satisfaction from vanity, the sweet spot between body shame and narcissism. Feeling content with the way we look isn’t indulgence. Vanity is. It’s a manifestation of the ego, a fragile form of attachment. Vanity causes suffering because indulgence in the body misplaces self-worth and attaches to the illusion of a fixed concept (more on that shortly). I’m not going to claim I don’t give a damn about my appearance; I cut my hair every three weeks and have an ASOS Premier Delivery subscription.
The Middle Way isn’t a lack of care. It’s taking care of physical appearance, without undue emphasis. This is particularly relevant to exercise and body composition. As mentioned in Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body Image, my body image struggles were sparked by feeling “too skinny” or “weak” or “not manly enough.” I started weight training because I thought building muscle would enhance my self-worth and value. I quickly learned a lesson. Instead, self-judgement increased as self-esteem decreased because I was paying even more attention to my physical form. I had gone from one extreme to the other.
I still weight train, and I finally feel I’ve found balance, most of the time. The key lies with perspective, not pull-ups. I no longer objectify my body as a piece of flesh I’m desperately attempting to sculpt by constantly pushing it to its limits. I value it as a vital extension of me, not something I own. I try to use exercise to increase the mind-body connection (at roughly 70% success rate). I listen to it and respect it by making a further separation.
Separation #3: Functionality From Objectification
“Apart from the obvious health benefits, we received evidence that physical activity can improve body image by diverting attention from what the body looks like to what it can do.” — A Body Confident Future
In a world obsessed with objectifying physical form, switching focus to functionality is an effective way to tackle self-objectification. Exercise plays a valuable part in this process. A philosophy I’ve developed for weight training is:
Switch mindset, from judgement to intrigue. Move from evaluation to fascination.
From the moment I ordered my first protein shake and stepped into the sweaty, windowless confines of my local gym, I was desperate to move away from self-perceived inadequacy. Consequently I began mindset of judgement and evaluation. What did that lead to? It led to constant self-judgement and self-evaluation, even once I’d got going. I’d feel frustrated and downbeat staring at my reflection. I’d obsess over the parts (parts = objectification?) of my body not developing as quickly as I’d hoped.
I’d started to change my body to change my self-esteem, yet I was operating within the paradigm of unrealistic beauty standards. I was placing my worth on how close I was getting to the perfected images I’d seen in the media. This expectation, this hope, was fuelled by a deceptive fitness industry that sells a lie of what is possible, without the aid of steroids. I’d internalised a distorted expectation of the functionality of my body. I wasn’t tuned into me, I was tuned out, hopelessly trying to attain someone else’s look.
The above philosophy has radically changed my outlook. I take a playful approach to the way the body changes and adapts. I try and step back, simply notice changes without actively labelling them “good” or “bad” or myself a success of failure dependent on my reflection. I take a curious approach to when I feel weaker or stronger on a particular day, or how certain foods give me more energy than others. At a basic level, I’ve developed an appreciation for the miracle of the human body, and its ability to change.
Self-criticism does of course still catch up with me. I get days where I feel anxious about my appearance — maybe I’m shrinking, putting on too much fat, incapable of exercising properly, not eating enough, eating too much — but these are reduced, fleeting, they don’t stick and I’m able to step back quicker, rationalise.
Separation #4: Impermanence From Fixed Concepts
“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta
Attachment is fixation. Attachment to fixed concepts causes suffering. Fixed concepts are an illusion — the reality is nothing is fixed, everything is constantly changing. Impermanence (anicca) is central to Buddhism, and one of the three marks of existence along with suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anattā). Ignorance to these three marks causes suffering, as all elements within our universe are transient, in constant flux. The Four Noble Truths, as mentioned previously, are:
- All existence is dukkha. Unsatisfactoriness, suffering… Ultimate happiness cannot be found in anything we experience. Gaining six pack abs or dropping a dress size won’t bring happiness.
- The cause of dukkha is craving. We grasp at some things, push others away, putting us at odds with the way life is. We grasp perfect beauty standards, we push away images of perceived ugliness.
- The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving. We can’t change what happens to us, but can change our response. Our bodies are our own, each a unique shape and size and composition. Severing the craving for a different body and accepting our body as our own can reduce suffering.
- There is a path that leads from dukkha. This is the Noble Eightfold Path.
One of the biggest attachments we develop is to the body. Eastern practice offers remedies to this; the Kāyagatāsati Sutta, for example, is practice of developing mindfulness through contemplations on the body. If we can accept the impermanent nature of the physical body, its inevitable fate, the decay over the course of time, we can cultivate a more peaceful relationship with it. Balance with this separation is respecting the transient nature of the body, avoiding attachment (indulgence). Conversely, we simultaneously want to cultivate a sense of ease with this knowledge. Impermanence and eventual death doesn’t justify bodily neglect (mortification).
Separation #5: Health From Aesthetics
Western culture is heavily invested in the idea the self, intelligence and consciousness is all contained in the mind. Other traditions don’t see it this way. Chinese medicine, for example, correlates emotions to specific organs, and treats symptoms accordingly. Viewing emotions are a form of abstract experience is a fallacy — look no further than cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress, referred to as “public enemy number one” for its damaging physical effects. Then there’s growing evidence that gut microbes may influence our mood. A 2011 study by McMaster University discovered implanting bacteria from anxiety suffering humans into mice increased their level of anxiety-like behaviour.
Not only does this study bring new meaning to “gut feeling,” it highlights the symbiotic relationship between mind, body and soul. The way the body is treated has a significant impact on the mind. One of the biggest tools I’ve used to manage depression and anxiety is to make sure I’m treating my body well. At a stage of crisis, the first point of call to assess exercise, nutrition, sleep hygiene, stress, alcohol and drug consumption. My direct experience tells me to achieve an optimum mental state, a solid foundation to handle day-to-day fluctuations, all of these areas have to be in order.
Mental health can’t flourish whilst the body is abused by junk food or neglected by lethargy. Sadly, our culture is so set on bodily abuse is taking active steps to better health is sometimes seen as a rebellious (or even presumptuous) act. Just try abstaining from alcohol and see how challenging it is. Forget exercising and eating well to shape up to Instagram models or Hollywood stars; this level of care is crucial not to look good, but to feel great. Ignore the messages saying you don’t deserve it — you do.
That’s why the fifth and final separation is an important one. Learning to tune-in to your bodily sensations and energy can act as a visual guide to your health. This is very subjective and personal to you. Weigh up the pros and cons and be your own guide. If you feel a certain way after eating a certain food, or feel energetic after less than eight hours sleep, follow your guide. If your skin indicates a lack of hydration, or too much fatty food, follow the guide. Respect the body, refer to it, let it guide you to good health.
A final word
Drastically improving body image is possible. But no article, no single tool, no words of wisdom or fads or movements or meditations will magically flip a switch. It takes hard work. It takes daily application of the tools, some of which I’ve shared, many of which are out there, waiting for you to uncover. The moment you consciously decide a negative body image isn’t serving you, is the moment you spark change.
Good luck. You can do this.