As our lives get busier and more frantic, eating has become an activity that we usually do alongside other activities. Be it watching TV, working, answering emails, or thinking about what we need to do next; rarely do we eat our meals with mindfulness and enjoy the flavors of the food. It’s almost as though we don’t consider eating interesting enough that we need to create further excitement by reading the news, checking Twitter or texting. I’m sure we have all experienced getting to the end of the meal and wondering where it all went, or we wish we could have just one more bite to enjoy the flavor of the food.
Another aspect of mindless eating that we are usually guilty of, is looking forward to the next bite instead of savoring the mouthful that is already in our mouth. We’re thinking about how good the next spoonful will be, or worst still, we’re thinking about the delicious dessert we plan to eat after our delicious meal. And this is something we all experience. Our mind always seems to be looking forward to something better in the future, even if the future is just a spoonful of food away.
Eating without mindfulness is what most of us are doing on a daily basis. We ‘hoover’ in the food to satisfy the hunger pains so we can move onto life’s more important tasks. But the practice of mindfulness teaches us that there is nothing more precious than the present moment, so even eating becomes an activity that is worthy of our undivided attention.
Learning to practice mindful eating brings us back into the present moment. It allows us to fully enjoy each part of the eating experience. It is a technique that requires us to be completely aware of the movements and sensations we experience when we eat or drink.
When people attend meditation retreats they often say how delicious the food is even though they are not being served five star culinary delights. They’re just eating their regular cornflakes and milk, soups, salads and vegies. But the difference is that when you eat with mindfulness, you can actually taste, experience and enjoy all the flavors. The meals are highly satisfying because you are really being present with the food.
Cultivating mindfulness through eating is a helpful way to increase our overall awareness and mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness in general has many great benefits such as reducing our stress levels, increasing our happiness, and allowing us to slow down and really enjoy our days with the people we love. If we can practice mindfulness eating meditation for one meal or even a snack, it can help to foster a greater awareness and calmness which we can then bring into the rest of our day.
There is no special ceremony we have to perform to do a mindful eating meditation. In fact, in the book, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, well-known Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, explains how we can use a simple apple to practice a mindful eating meditation. He suggests sitting quietly, without any distractions such as browsing the internet or watching the TV. We should give our complete attention to the apple, because by “…being focused and slowing down [it] will allow you to truly savor all the qualities the apple offers: its sweetness, aroma, freshness, juiciness, and crispness.” We have to admit that these are probably qualities that we have overlooked time and time again, irrespective of the number of apples we’ve eaten during our lifetime.
Thich Nhat Hanh then advises that we should spend some time taking note of the apple’s characteristics. “What kind of apple is it? What color is it? How does it feel in your hand? What does it smell like?”
Only once we have spent time examining the apple do we actually take a bite of it. And even then we should chew slowly, examining the taste, examining the sensation of chewing and swallowing, and our reactions to it. During this time Thich Nhat Hanh says that, “There is nothing else filling your mind as you chew — no projects, no deadlines, no worries, no ‘to do’ list, no fears, no sorrow, no anger, no past, and no future. There is just the apple.”
We should continue to eat the apple with complete awareness, until the whole apple is finished. By savoring the apple and being with it one hundred percent, you will “…really appreciate the apple as it is. And as you become fully aware of eating the apple, you also become fully aware of the present moment. You become fully engaged in the here and now. Living in the moment, you can really receive what the apple offers you, and you become more alive.”
Another great mindfulness eating meditation that has been popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn is the Raisin Exercise. It requires taking one sole raisin (or sultana) and eating it with a great sense of curiosity. You can find the script for this meditation here.
When we do mindful eating meditations it is good to reflect for a minute on how the apple/raisin/food has come to be here right in front of you. It hasn’t just magically appeared. It has come here as a result of the hard work of others (i.e. harvesting, packing, transporting, placing on the shelves). Within the food, we can see not only the workers, but also the eco-system that has become part of this food: we can see the sun, the rain, the soil and the clouds all there within the food. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, “Without the combination of these far-reaching elements and without the help of many people, the apple would simply not exist.” When we take a moment to consider this, a feeling of gratitude arises. We can bring this sense of gratitude to many other things in our lives as well, such as our car, electricity, fridge and blankets, just to name a few. Everything we own is a result of nature and the kindness and hard work of others. If we can remember this, we may never feel isolated or lacking again.
As we eat, we should consider how extraordinary this moment is. This same food cannot be eaten by us or anyone else at another time. This moment, this experience, is most precious because we can never replicate it again (with the same apple, raisin, etc).
Eating with mindfulness means we will avoid ingesting all the stress, anxiety and unrest of a distracted mind. And aside from the benefit of really enjoying our food, the calmness and presence we cultivate from eating mindfully will help us to enjoy life more as well. With increased awareness we will be more present with others, and we will ride the ‘waves’ of life with greater ease as opposed to drowning in them. Ultimately, mindfulness is an invaluable tool for those who practice meditation, as mindfulness is an essential tool for improving our concentration, which leads to greater insights.
Here is an interview between Thich Nhat Hanh and Oprah where he speaks on the importance of the book, Savor, especially in relation to helping countries fight the all-too-common problem of obesity.
Savor (co-authored by Harvard nutritionist Dr. Lilian Cheung and Thich Nhat Hanh) is available for purchase from Amazon:
My other posts on mindfulness:
Join me in a guided 10-minute mindfulness meditation
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