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From Mindless Eating to "Just" Eating

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 tripwire it rings the bells of alarm regardless of who is crossing — friend or foe. RAS functions as a threshold of consciousness, as an alarm clock programmed to awaken the sleeper when the environment might pose a potential danger. And this system of self-awakening is part of our biological wisdom.

On to Gurdjieff, the early 20th century “rascal sage” that tried to get people to wake up from their slumber of mindlessness. Gurdjieff talked about the necessity of self-remembering if, in our pilgrimage of growth, we are to transcend our biological zombiness and to become fully human. His approach to this paralleled that of the method of mindfulness. In trying to help his students to minimize their mindlessness and absentmindedness, he offered an exercise of Crossing the Threshold.

Crossing the Threshold is a kind of psychological RAS, a kind of conditioned mindfulness, in which any given ritual of your life — be it walking through a door or sitting down to eat — becomes a trigger to an awakening of mindfulness. Simple idea, isn’t it? But how also fruitfully complex!

The genius of Gurdjieff — in my opinion — is that he offered us to harness the mindlessness of our daily rituals to serve the work of our awakening.

Human life — on a day to day basis — is a series of rituals, protocols, scripts. The alarm clock goes off and our body wakes up. The brain wakes up, but the mind still sleeps as we go from night-dreaming to day-dreaming. Get washed, get dressed, eat breakfast, get out of the door… And so it goes: the nomads of consciousness, we forget to homestead the moments of our life.

But Gurdjieff, that mysterious Armenian-Georgian-Greek-Russian Shephard of Mindfulness, reminds us: remember the Mystery of Self. Let the rituals of your life awaken the curiosity of your own Presence. In crossing the thresholds of your moments, wake up to remember the one who is crossing…

Eating is a perfect opportunity for mindfulness. As a biological ritual, eating is inevitable. Unless you are fasting, chances are that on any given day you will eat and, most likely, more than once. So, if you were to decide that eating — from this point on — will be an opportunity for you to become mindful, eating would begin to become a meditation of presence. With time and practice, eating would begin to serve as a back-up alarm clock for your mind. So whereas now when the alarm clock goes off and your brain awakens and you sail from night-dreaming to mindless functioning and day-dreaming, in the future you can begin to count on eating to remind you of your own Presence.

To make this possible, agree to “just” eat — to eat without the distractions of the TV, so that instead of watching somebody else on TV eating, you can begin to watch and remember your Self; without the distraction of the newspaper or the book, so that instead of reading about somebody else’s eating, you can begin to write in yourself as a protagonist of your eating narrative.

The capacity for self-awakening, for self-remembering is part of our Sapience, part of our Wisdom.
We just have to bother to set the alarm clock of mindfulness… And, towards this end, the time to eat can be the time to know yourself, the time to have a taste of conscious presence.

After all, to taste is to know.

In crossing the threshold of eating, claim and “homestead” the moments of your eating life, you, the ever-fleeting Nomad of Consciousness.

5:59am: time to salute the Sun and almost time for breakfast, huh?

Why not have some consciousness for breakfast?

A taste of Self, perhaps?

Why not break this fast of self-remembering?

Haven’t you been starving for a little snack of the here-and-now?

Go ahead: taste your Self!

From Mindless Eating to "Just" Eating

Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and the author of 7 mindfulness-based self-help books. Several of his books have been translated into Chinese, Dutch & Portuguese. Somov is on the Advisory Board for the Mindfulness Project (London, UK). Somov has conducted numerous workshops on mindfulness-related topics and appeared on a number of radio programs. Somov's book website is and his practice website is

Marla Somova, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Counseling at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the co-author of "Smoke Free Smoke Break" (2011).

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APA Reference
Somov, P. (2011). From Mindless Eating to "Just" Eating. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2018, from


Last updated: 9 Jul 2011
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Jul 2011
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