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.
Fasting as a means of celebrating is as old as the world. Much has been written about fasting and health benefits associated with it. I encourage you to develop some curiosity about it (Dr. Fuhrman’s writings are a good place to start). My use of the term “fast” refers to a continuum of eating restrictions ranging from complete food-free, water-only fasting to various dietary restrictions (as you would find, for example, in the tradition of Lent).
Before undertaking fasting a) read up on the health benefits of fasting, and b) consult your physician about whether fasting (of any degree) is safe for you. Select a calendar, personal, anniversary-based or spiritual/religious holiday, commit to a fast (of whatever definition that would be appropriate for your level of health), prepare for the fast, and conduct it on the day in question. If you find fasting on a holiday to be a more meaningful experience than feasting on a holiday, consider a yearly tradition of having at least one fast-not-feast holiday. Get stuffed on the spirit of the occasion! Notice how the fast leverages your overall mindfulness.
Have you noticed that we tend to celebrate with food? Celebrations are a powerful, culturally-sanctioned trigger to eat, over-eat, and even binge-eat. For many over-eaters, food-centered holidays are a dreaded challenge and a source of post-holiday rumination and self-dissatisfaction.
Here’s a new paradigm to try: have a fiesta without having a feast. The word “fiesta” originates from the word festus which is Latin for “joyous.” The essence of a holiday is celebration. Eating is but one way to celebrate. Try to experiment with celebrating a single holiday in a way that is not food-centered, in a manner that is joyous but not necessarily gluttonous. Pick one of the many calendar holidays or personal events, and make it a fiesta, not a feast. For example, instead of going out to eat to celebrate your birthday, have a picnic. Eat, commune with nature, throw a Frisbee. This way you’ll have a celebration that will involve some eating but will not be primarily food-focused. With Thanksgiving coming up you have a perfect opportunity to try out this kind of celebration mentality.
Start simple: if a particular heavy-eating event has been a long-standing tradition (such as a family reunion), then it is best you leave it alone, as it is (at least, for now). Practice this fiesta-not-feast mentality on a more personal occasion in which your wishes for the format of the celebration are fundamentally your prerogative. Relational anniversaries and birthdays are perfect opportunities to experiment. Aim to develop a standing tradition of celebrating some of the calendar and personal events in a non-food-focused manner.
Reading about mindful eating can get you only so far. Just like reading about what “sweet” is. At some point, you have to set aside all these books on mindful eating, all these descriptions of mindful eating (this post included), and set a precedent of mindful eating.
Here’s what Chogyal Norbu has to say on this point:
“We don’t understand in an intellectual way how sugar tastes. If we have never had the experience of sugar, we don’t know what ‘sweet’ is. We can read many books introducing us to the meaning of ‘sweet,’ and we can learn and construct many ideas, but we can never have a concrete experience of ‘sweet’ in this way.” But: “If we get a small piece of chocolate and place it on our tongue, we can have a concrete experience.” (Dzogchen Teachings, 2006, p. 113).
So, here’s what I propose to you now: put whatever you are doing aside (of course, if you can) and go have a bite of something… mindfully. Remember to open your mind before you open your mouth. Set a precedent of mindful eating and then read about it.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles Moore write in “Indian Philosophy:”
“There is no such thing as pure awareness, raw and undigested. It is always mixed up with layers of interpretation.” (1957, p. 623).
Do you agree? I don’t. So, go grab a bite to taste. Bury yourself in the experience deep enough to forget that you can even think. Slow down to a mind-still. Taste yourself tasting whatever it is you are tasting. Let your interpretations of what is going on vanish raw and undigested. Bungee-jump into your next mouthful like there is no tomorrow.
“Two birds with fair wings, inseparable companions,
have found a refuge in the same sheltering tree.
One incessantly eats from the peepal tree;
the other, not eating, just looks on.”
This verse is from Rg Veda (or Rigveda), an ancient Indian text of sacred hymns. What is this enigmatic passage about? Who is this “other” bird that is not eating and just looking on? While mindful eating is a wonderful vehicle for weight maintenance, it is also an invaluable platform for daily meditation. Eating …