It is too rarely mentioned – probably because almost no one knows it – that our ability (or inability) to love ourselves lies at the root of most eating addictions.

If we don’t believe that we are worthy of treating ourselves with love and respect, then our behaviors will reflect those beliefs.

Now it’s true that on a conscious, everyday level we may believe that we love and respect ourselves. But I’ve found that most people with eating addictions hold subconscious beliefs that are quite the opposite.

It’s in our very nature to love, and that doesn’t just mean loving others. To not love ourselves hurts. To believe we aren’t worthy of love hurts. Yet many of us hold on for dear life to unconscious beliefs such as “I’m not lovable.” We probably grasped beliefs like these in order to give meaning to an experience in the past. The mind is a meaning-making machine. That’s how it makes sense of the world. “Why does Daddy treat me so bad? It must be because I’m not lovable.” The experience eventually ended (if only because we grew up), but we may still hold onto the belief, even though it has no truth to it (and never did!).

If we believe, even unconsciously, that we aren’t worthy or lovable, we can never heal ourselves and our eating.

Fortunately, we can begin to dissolve these beliefs and judgments, and cultivate new healthy love and respect for ourselves, through the practice of lovingkindness. Lovingkindness powerfully complements the practices of mindfulness meditation and mindful eating. As we repeat brief lovingkindness phrases to ourselves such as “May I be happy, may I be loved,” we cultivate an inner environment for love to grow, and for old beliefs to be released.

Lovingkindness is a deceptively simple practice, but it’s not always easy. I’ve struggled for many years to maintain a lovingkindness practice, starting over and over with the best of intentions, but quickly giving up. In hindsight, my struggle was a reflection of the power of lovingkindness itself. The lovingkindness phrases were conflicting with deeply-held egoic beliefs such as “I will never be loved.” And for a long time the inner beliefs won out. But I have kept coming back to lovingkindness, sensing its power for me. And the more I see these unconscious beliefs in the bright light of lovingkindness, the more I see that they are simply untrue. How could I, or anyone, not be worthy of love? So gradually the beliefs are releasing their hold on me, and in their place, love is rushing into to fill the void.

Here’s a moving story about lovingkindness, as told by M. Scott Peck:

Long ago, there was a monastery that had fallen upon hard times, and there were only five monks left: the abbot and four others, each, over seventy years old. In the woods surrounding the monastery there was a hut that a rabbi occasionally used, for silent contemplation. As the abbot agonized over the decline of his order, it occurred to him to visit the rabbi and ask if he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It’s the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue, anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. When it was time for the abbot to leave, they embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing to meet after all these years,” said the abbot, “but I fear I’ve failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give, that would help me to save my dying order?”

“No, I’m sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery, his fellow monks asked him what the rabbi said. “He couldn’t help us,” said the abbot. “All he said was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know, what he meant.”

In the weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he meant Father Abbot, our gentle leader. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas, a man of light. But he couldn’t have meant Brother Benjamin! Benjamin gets crotchety at times. Though when you think about it, he’s very wise. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so lazy. Though he does have a gift for always being there when you need him. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary man. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? Oh God, not me.

As each of them contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them, might be the Messiah. And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, each began to treat himself with extraordinary respect.

It so happened that people occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its lawn, wander on its paths, and sit in the chapel to meditate. As they did, they sensed this aura of love and respect that now radiated from the five old monks and permeated the atmosphere. They began to come back more frequently. Then, they brought their friends. And their friends brought their friends.

And then, one of the younger men who came to visit, asked if he could join the monastery. Then another. And another. Until, within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order.

Doug Hanvey, M.S., is the author of The Mindfulness Diet program.