The Joy of Mindful Eating
How Can Eating Be Meditation?
Meditation is much more than just sitting in the lotus pose and putting on your monk face. In the case of mindfulness meditation, the goal is to be aware of the moment. More precisely, everything that happens in that moment must be experienced with awareness. For example, if a fly lands on your nose, experience it fully. The movement, the blurry black body. Feel the ticklish sensation as it explores your pores (sorry for that mental image). Similarly, if a meal is enjoyed while staying mindful of the details, it is meditation.
What's the Difference?
Every person has their favourite dishes. Nobody parks at a drive-through, orders that double-thick milkshake and double-cheeseburger and thinks, "Wow, I'm not going to taste or enjoy this at all." On the contrary, we approach that window like it's the highlight of our day, full of expectation and delight. Yet, how many times did a meal end on autopilot because somewhere between the first bite and another, you began thinking about unrelated stuff? You look with more focus at the empty chips bag than the food itself. Where did the food go so quickly? Still hungry...
Giving food your whole attention during consumption provides the pleasure we seek from eating. We want flavour and fullness, texture and aroma. With practice, that is exactly what unfolds - the whole culinary show. The experience never leaves emptiness or guilt. Instead, satisfaction blossoms, no matter if it were a large meal or a single cookie.
Speaking of that single cookie, when learning to do this meditation, one can start small. It may sound easy (bite, oh yummy, another bite, lovely!), but it's not. Most who try it for the first time realize that the same thing that plagues sitting meditation, the famous monkey mind, will arise. It hops everywhere, throw other thoughts at you or make you try too hard. To start with, pick something that won't take too long to eat. A fruit or snack is perfect.
Touch, Sight and Smell
Look at that biscuit. Really look. Many have attractive designs like swirls and lattice, fan ribbing or just a rough surface. Touch it with your fingertips. How does it feel? Next, inhale the scent. Close your eyes and relish the flavour you just experienced without taste. Soft banana or perhaps a sharp strawberry tang? Appreciating the colours, texture and smell all serve the same purpose. Sure, it's very mindful but it also halts compulsive hand-to-mouth shoving. The pause heightens the need for the biscuit which in turn, will make it taste better.
Using the Tongue
Take a slow bite. Listen to the crunch or the snap of the biscuit as it breaks. Don't chew yet! Weigh the piece on your tongue and mentally describe its texture and fully focus (thus enjoying), the slow release of flavour. Move the biscuit around if that pleases you. Does it melt? How does that feel against your tongue? If the cookie is somewhat tougher than that, chew it when you are done with the initial tasting. Do so slowly, staying mindful of the noise, texture and the taste that follows. Finally, swallow and experience the sensation the food causes while moving down your throat.
The Rest of the Cookie
At this point, boredom and impatience are ready to strike the novice. Our whole lives, mindless and binge eating provided instant comfort. Instant products and services are also synonymous with comfort. Instant food, online shopping, impulsive behaviour in our sex lives, desperate moves under pressure, seeking forever the fleeting comfort of getting that burger/partner/loan right now. Grasping at the Instant Culture is damaging, to say the least. One needn't be a snail but pausing can prevent overeating, the wrong partner and dangerous financial decisions. But can you really gain such wisdom by mindfully completing a cookie? The cookie has nothing to do with it, except acting as a starting point for a powerful mindfulness technique. If one can complete a small snack and later an entire meal this way, awareness leak into other areas of life. Sights, sounds, sensations and smells will display their full character (to which most people are blind to). A song will capture you more fully, the conversation with your child will be without distraction and so much richer. You'll think twice about that expensive item.
Deepen the Technique
If the mood strikes, mindful eating can be taken to the next level in one of three ways - physically, mentally and spiritually.
Eating With Your Body
In addition to experiencing what a fruit tastes and smells like, what does your body say? Feel the hunger and want. Is the stomach settling or rejecting it? Perhaps satisfaction glows on your skin or a tooth decides to ache. Closely monitor every physical reaction with a mild curiosity. This makes one more in tune with the body, even when not eating.
Make it Mutual
Eating With Your Mind
This technique is not designed to bring you closer to your own mind but to observe the thoughts provoked by eating. Our complex relationship with food is often revealed when we become aware of the thoughts attached to our diets. Does any of these sound familiar?
- I'm a total pig for eating this, but it's the most comforting thing that has happened all day I'm fat.
- Everybody's looking at me when I eat
- It's unhealthy, but I'll feel better about everything when I eat this burger
- I'm so hungry but cannot eat that, I'll get fat and look ugly
- I'm a failure because I'm over my daily calories limit
For some reason, despite their sting, negative food-thoughts are fleeting. They beat us up while we eat and only return once we start thinking about food or eating. That's why it's so hard to stop that kind of self-abuse. However, mindfulness is like a net they cannot escape. Catch and examine the little suckers and observe them like they're not yours. Eventually, their power over you will weaken. Observe and agree with the positive thoughts to develop a healthier relationship with food.
- I'm nourishing my body
- This flavour reminds me of good times
- My hunger is being satisfied
- I enjoy this so much!
- I love eating with my partner, our discussions are making some great memories
Some mindfulness practitioners turn eating into a spiritual session. This is not necessary for everyone. Nevertheless, it's an interesting tradition of the mindful-eating community. When they bless the food and abstain, hunger arises and they reflect on the nature of hunger. Not just the rumbling in their tummy but about those who starve physically, emotionally and spiritually. They reflect on the journey the meal took to reach them, right from the start where the vegetables grew from the earth, the people who laboured through the harvest and the shop that sold it. Spiritual "eating" can take some deep turns in the mind and soul.
How to Practice
Mindful eating really does start small. You don't have to Zen every dinner. In the beginning, be curious and opportunistic. Mindfully drink your next cup of coffee. Eventually, a daily short practice can follow. If you wish, see how far your focus holds during a main meal. If you maintain a practice, however loose but regular, food will become a joy and not a struggle. The way it was meant to be.
© 2018 Jana Louise Smit