A meal is an event; eating is a process. Activities such as watching TV or socializing both trigger eating and distract us from the process of it. The problem is that we can only consciously process one event at a time. True, it doesn’t seem that way as we manage to breathe, engage in a three-way conversation over dinner, skillfully manipulate food, and tap our feet under the table, all at the same time! As the mind rapidly shifts attention from one activity to another, we experience the illusion of parallel engagement in several activities at a time. Despite this mental agility, we are still disappointingly one-track. In a sense, the mind works like a flashlight: when you point a flashlight at an object in a dark room, that object emerges from the darkness, as if coming into existence. But when you move the flash-light away, the object – as far as your perception goes – ceases to exist. If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist; if it doesn’t exist, you can’t experience it. When we eat and watch TV or talk, our minds are in a constant tug-of-war between the incoming stimuli competing for a chance at existence. In this ping-pong of attention, the mind loses conscious experience and eating is reduced to a mindless hand-to-mouth behavior which we carry out with the unconsciousness of breathing, inhaling food by the mouthful.
So, what’s the solution? It’s offensively simple: when you eat, eat. Mindful eating is attention management. Problem is that just eating seems boring. In some ways it is and in some ways it isn’t. If you just eat, mindlessly, eating is, indeed, boring. But if you just eat, mindfully, eating is anything but boring. So, here’s the formula. First, turn the TV off. Then, turn your mind on. Chances are that you will unlock the gustatory excitement where you didn’t expect any. Consider mindful eating a kind of field practice in preparation for surviving the national binge-eating season that is about to kick off with the Thanksgiving dinner.