Archive for October, 2009

Caviar in the Backseat of a Car

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Sapience Series:

There is an intriguing interplay between the setting of the meal and our willingness to enjoy it.  One dish, when served in an upscale restaurant, will command far more attention than it will when you have it as a leftover for lunch the following day.  A banal slice of baguette dipped into olive oil will evoke more enthusiasm at a restaurant table than it will at the kitchen countertop.  Should high dollar caviar be served in the backseat of a car?  Heavens no, you might exclaim at the notion of wasting a delicatessen on such a prosaic setting.  Note that anyone presenting such an objection is likely to sincerely believe that you will simply not be able to appreciate the delicacy unless your elbows are stationed on a heavily starched linen cloth and your waiter has an endearing foreign accent.  But why the heck not?!   Why should the physical coordinates of our eating be a factor in our eating experience?  Why should we knowingly allow our unconscious to be charmed by the smoke and mirrors of interior design sophistication when it has nothing to do with the interior of our mouths?  I concede that while the setting of a meal is not an ingredient of a dish, it certainly can be an ingredient of an eating experience.  The sophistication of an eating establishment creates an expectation of quality.  This expectation heightens awareness.  This heightened awareness becomes a platform for mindful eating.  And mindful eating is the best chef.  But is it not an insult to our mind that for us to enjoy half-way decent food we have to be primed to expect it to be great?!  Is this not a measure of our experiential impotence that we have to rely on presentation to attend to what is already present?!

Rebel against the set-up of the setting, against the setting up of expectations.  Rebel against the elegance and eloquence of these  Pavlovian bells and whistles that have conditioned us to expect more out of less.  If you can’t enjoy caviar or some other exquisite gourmet item in the backseat of your car, throw …

Table Feng Shui: Creating an Eating Space

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Feng shui is the art of creating an optimal living space that is in harmony with its natural setting. Here’s an exercise for you to try in the spirit of feng shui tradition: create an optimal eating space that is uncluttered enough to accomodate your eating mind.

Clean off the table before you sit down to eat. Remove any reading matter. The less there is on the table not directly related to your eating, the more room there is for your mind to focus on the food.

If the strategy of distraction-proofing isn’t to your liking, create an eating space by selecting objects that would cue you to eat mindfully. One way to approach this is by selecting mindfulness-inspiring tableware. The idea of mindfulness as a meditative technology comes from the East. Therefore, you could try using Asian or Asian-inspired tableware as a cultural cue to get into a contemplative state of mind.

If you are fortunate enough (logistically) to have a spare room, consider the following experiment: set up your own eating room. If possible, move everything out of this spare room, except for a table and a chair. Serve yourself a meal in this eating space. Be your own company.

From Mindless Eating to "Just" Eating

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

First, an appetizer-thought, then a blog… Did you know that the word “sapiens” in Homo Sapiens stems from the Latin verb sapere which means “to taste, to be wise, to know”? Yes, indeed: to taste is to know!

My otherwise ferocious German Shephard is afraid of storms. So, living on the edge of Pittsburgh downtown, she now and then misinterprets the rumbling groans of the municipal nightlife as a cause for concern and jumps over on the bed with me, waking me up… So, here we are — wide awake at 3:25am…

One could say, with all the tenderness of the term: “Silly dog.” But I’d disagree. Not because this “silly” dog is my dog, but because this “silliness” is part of our biological sapience, this ability to wake ourselves up is part of our biological wisdom.

If I remember my physiological psychology correctly, my dog’s midnight awakening is a simple case of false alarm triggered by her Reticular Activating System, known as RAS.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about RAS:

The reticular activating system (or ARAS, for Ascending Reticular Activating System) is the name given to the part of the brain (the reticular formation and its connections) believed to be the center of arousal and motivation in mammals (including humans). 
The activity of this system is crucial for maintaining the state of consciousness. It is situated at the core of the brain stem between the myelencephalon (medulla oblongata) and mesencephalon (midbrain).

It is involved with the circadian rhythm; damage can lead to permanent coma. It is thought to be the area affected by many psychotropic drugs. General anesthetics work through their effect on the reticular formation.

Fibers from the reticular formation are also vital in controlling respiration, cardiac rhythms, and other essential functions.

Although the functioning of this system is a prerequisite for consciousness to occur , it is generally assumed that this system’s role is indirect and it does not, by itself, generate consciousness. Instead, its unique anatomical and physiological characteristics ensure that the thalamocortical system fire in such a way that is compatible with conscious experience. The reticular activating system controls our sexual patterns.


RAS is crass. Like a blind biological …

Al Fresco versus Al Desko

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

For some people, by choice or circumstance, work is life, office is home, and desk is the dining table. For others, for whom work is just work, and office isn’t home, the desk is still often times the dining table. Whatever you do for a living, chances are that work has become a setting in which you eat. What effect does this have on your eating habits? Have you been eating way too many pizzas and donuts? Do you get so caught up in shop talk that you forget to enjoy the sandwich you brought for lunch? Do you fake healthy eating habits to avoid judgment by your colleagues? If you do, experiment with making a shift from eating “al desko” to eating al fresco.

Compare two work weeks. During the first one, go out to eat during your lunch-hour. During the second, stay in. Now, when I say “go out,” I don’t mean leaving one building just to enter another. I mean “outside.” Assuming it’s not the dead of winter, go on a reconnaissance mission to find your own al fresco eating spots. Come up with a mental map of such spots that are within the walking distance of your work place. Look for “nature spots” (for park benches and picnic tables). Look for “interest spots” (promenades or neighborhood basketball courts where, assuming public access, you could watch a pick up game). Also look for a place to “bum.” Maybe courthouse steps you could sit on while you eat, or an arc-way to hide in if it’s raining while you snack. Maybe a parking deck where, with a sandwich in hand, you could get a bigger picture of the city around you or, perhaps, a glimpse of the sky. Once you come up with this map of al fresco opportunities, go out for lunch for an entire week. Then, the following week, stay in, eat at your desk. Contrast and compare. Make habit-forming decisions.

Cars are another setting of our meals.  The impact of this setting on our eating can be quite deadly – from daily laps through nutritionally hazardous drive-through lanes to hands-free driving while eating.  …

Categorical Eating

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

You’ve heard of the “clean plate club.” Some of us grow up with moralizing parents who instill an eating ethic of wasting no food. But there’s more to this than just cultural programming. The “clean plate” syndrome, at least in part, has to do with how our minds work, with our minds’ reliance on the notion of a category

Let me explain: when we want something, we want a something rather than a certain amount of that something. When we want a banana, we want its taste (substance), rather than its size or shape (form). At the same time, it’s hard for our minds to envision the banana substance abstracted from its form. So, when the mind wants banana substance, it ends up wanting it in the form of a banana. Thus, the thought “I want banana (substance)” unconsciously morphs into the thought “I want a (one whole) banana.” 

As a result, a desire for a taste, mediated by category-driven perception, predetermines the serving size. We see things in units – and we end up eating them in units – forgetting that these naturally-occurring units have nothing to do with our physiological needs. In sum, the mind perceives and consumes in categories. And since a category is a unitary concept, eating half a banana leaves us with a sense of being unfinished, with a lack of closure. Therefore, we clean our plates to unconsciously prevent a sense of lacking closure. It would be too odd to think that you had a banana when you know you only had half of it. A half of a banana isn’t a banana, after all. So, our decision to stop eating, instead of relying on fullness, becomes a matter of whether we are done eating a particular category of food (like a banana). 

To help you guide your decision to stop eating by a consideration of substance, not form, experiment with re-thinking your portion size decisions. Instead of thinking to yourself that you want an apple (which means a whole apple, a unit of apple fruit), rephrase your desire in terms of the …

Reinvigorate Your Romance With Mindful Eating

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

Mindfulness is being in the moment. As such, mindfulness is intimacy with what is. Intimacy – by definition — connects. After all, whatever our differences may be, we all share the same “now” — that is, if we are fully in it. If you and I sit down at a table, across from each other, with the same food in front of us, and you think about what happened yesterday while I plan my tomorrow, we are — for all intents and purposes — in different psychological places. But, if you and I put our respective preoccupations aside and focus on what’s going on right in front of us — at the surface of the table, on the surface of our tongues — we are, in a manner of speaking, coordinating and aligning our minds to one and the same plane of existence. We are connecting.

Whatever the status of your relationship, mindful eating can help you reconnect with each other or to deepen your connection. Mindful eating is an opportunity for the two of you to get out of your heads (where your differences ferment and smolder) and back into your bodies. Wherever you are in the history of your relationship, chances are this history began with shared sensory pastimes. There is a good chance that going out to eat, liking the same foods, and experimenting with exotic foods was part of your original romantic chemistry. So, before your break-up reaches a point of no return, why not sit down and reminisce on how you first broke bread? Sure, you’ve got issues. But you also have solutions. And some might be as simple as going back to some basic sensory pastimes the two of you had shared in common. Eating together takes you back to your original chemistry, to one of the pillars of your romance, to a time when you were in love… with everything!

No need to light that candle or pour a glass of wine yet (unless, of course, you are at a place where your relational problems don’t yet stand in the way of physical intimacy). Just sit down together, in a …

Select books by Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.:
Mindful Emotional Eating Reinventing the Meal
Present Perfect
Eating the Moment

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