Secret Thinkers (May 31, 2012)

My wife’s been watching this program here in England called Secret Eaters. The premise behind the program is that people are getting fat (the UK is apparently not far behind the US in this department) because they don’t realize just how much they are eating.

Each week they take an overweight family that is mystified by why they are so large. They have them keep food diaries and they interview them about their history with eating, diets, and weight. Even though they are fully aware of the premise of the show, they swear, in front of what they know will be a national audience, that they eat very little. One man said his main issue was not eating enough to keep himself from getting weak with hunger. A woman said that she had tried every diet out there, had stuck by them rigorously, and yet hadn’t lost a single pound from them. As the host repeatedly chided her with “So, you have a miracle body?” she didn’t miss a beat: “Yep, a miracle body.” And their food diaries bear this out. These really overweight people are, according to their diaries, eating somewhere between 1200 and 1800 calories a day.

Then, however, the show mounts cameras in their homes and, unbeknownst to them, has private investigators follow them wherever they go, filming their eating and even getting restaurant receipts to see what they ordered. Every bite they take is tracked. And lo and behold, they are actually eating over 3000, and in some cases well over 4000, calories a day. They are, in other words, eating two or three times what their food diaries reflect. Once you see the films of them eating, and see re-creations of a week’s worth of food laid out on a table, suddenly it all makes sense. There’s no miracle here at all. The size of their bodies is proportionate to the amount of their food.

For a weight-conscious audience, the moral of the story is obvious, and very sobering. But just as sobering are the lessons here about human psychology. That food they’re eating has to be shopped for or ordered, paid for, in many cases prepared, put in their mouths, chewed and swallowed, cleaned up after, and some hours later, eliminated. There are many steps associated with each bit of food. And yet they are sincerely unaware of half or two thirds of what they have eaten. They are the ones performing every step of that complicated process, and yet most of it completely drops out of their story of what they have done.

The self-deception going on is mind-boggling. But it gets far more sobering when you add two thoughts. First, these people are almost certainly not that different than you and I. Second, this kind of self-deception cannot be restricted to food.

The big focus in the Course, obviously, is on our thoughts. The Course is very focused on training us to watch our thoughts and be vigilant for ego-based thoughts. But thoughts are a lot subtler than food. Thoughts can’t be filmed. They are not physical activities like putting physical matter in your physical mouth. They are, in short, a lot easier to deny. If, then, we can deceive ourselves that profoundly about something concrete and visible like eating, then how much more can we deceive ourselves about something intangible and invisible like thinking?

It’s always surprised me just how much of the Course does not seem to apply to people. For instance, a great many Course students, if you listen to their self-report, do not seem to have attack thoughts, do not seem to compete for specialness, and do not take advantage of others for the sake of selfish gain. They do have ego thoughts, but these are thoughts of feeling victimized, of feeling inferior to others, and of being too hard on themselves. They seem to lack the whole aggressive side of the ego, which the Course claims is responsible for all suffering.

I can just hear us Course students: “I hardly feed my ego at all. I mean, I starve it all day long. I can’t understand, then, why it’s still so big.” Much like the people on that program, we are probably chewing on thoughts all day that somehow completely drop out of the story we tell about our “ego-intake.”

Our capacity for self-deception appears to be so boundless that it may seem like there is little hope for us. Yet there is hope, for we clearly have a corresponding capacity for self-honesty. When people were shown the films of themselves eating, shown a table of food corresponding exactly to what they had eaten, and shown the calorie totals, you can almost see the self-deception fall away from them. They instantly size things up, understand exactly what had been going on, and change. They embark on a ten-week “Food Rehab” regime in which they change their eating habits and drop a load of weight.

It makes you wonder what would happen if we could all be guests on a show called Secret Thinkers.

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