Photo by ماما بابا, 2014
Have you ever paused for a moment to observe what’s going on in your mind? If not, I invite you to try it right now! All you have to do is sit quietly and breathe. Interesting, no? I’m willing to bet that your mind came up with all sorts of observations, judgments, memories, stories, songs, worries, imaginings, and so on – without any effort on your part.
Here’s another question: what takes place in your mind and body when it’s time to eat? Have you ever noticed?
I bring this up to introduce the idea of mindful eating, which is my very favorite way to eat. But first, let’s start with the broader concept of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying careful attention to the present moment without judgement. We all have the innate ability to take refuge in the present moment, and we can do that by directly experiencing the five senses and the breath.
When we see something – a color or shape, for instance – we see it right now. When we smell a flower or baking bread, that’s happening in the present, too. Not in the past, not in the future, but now. The mind travels back and forth through time, but taste, touch, smell, sight, physical sensations, and breathing only happen in the present.
When we practice mindfulness and try to stick with the present, the mind will interrupt and take us on a journey somewhere else, which is one hundred percent normal. The point of mindfulness practice is not to turn off the mind, but to redirect it to the present as soon as we notice the wandering. We may come back to the sounds around us, the rising and falling of the chest as we inhale and exhale, or the tastes of the food we’re eating. We come back without making any judgments on the wandering mind, and without making any judgments on the present.
Just thinking about mindfulness helps me feel more relaxed. I’ve noticed that it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to follow my mind’s endless ramblings and for me to pronounce a judgment on everything (“I like this, I don’t like that.” “This is good, that’s bad.”). Not only does this drain my energy, but it actually causes me to suffer. When I can pause and just be with whatever’s taking place right now, there’s room for insight, creativity, and wisdom to flow.
Though mindfulness is simple, it’s not necessarily easy. But as with any muscle or part of the body that we’re trying to train, our minds need repeated practice in order to improve. (Reminder: What are we trying to improve? Noticing when the mind wanders, and nonjudgmentally bringing it back to now.) Mindfulness is also like swimming: you could read and talk about technique all day long, but until you get in the pool, you’ll never learn how to swim.
“What does it mean to be mindful? Being here, not there, with whatever is arising, and doing so with kindness.”
Mindful eating is one way to practice the nonjudgmental awareness of the here and now. It requires deep focus on the entire experience of eating, and so we eat without distractions like texting, reading, and watching TV.
To make the transition to mindfulness, we sit down at the table and take a few deep breaths. We feel our bodies and whatever sensations are taking place. We might look at our food and feel gratitude for everything in the universe that conspired to make this food possible: the sunshine, soil, rain, farmers, grocer, and cook.
Next, we might use our curiosity to start noticing what the food looks and smells like. (Does it have a sound?) With each bite, we experience the flavors, smells, and textures as they are now. We notice how each moment may bring a change; for example, the texture of a cracker definitely changes the more we chew!
As we eat, the mind will surely interrupt the present with stories and judgments: “This smell reminds me of the time I ate at that fancy restaurant. The view of the mountains was amazing! I should go hiking there sometime. I wonder where I put my boots? I need to clean the closet…” or, “I wonder how many carbs I’m eating?” With kindness towards ourselves, we return our attention to just eating.
Mindful eating is for everyone, from the person who delights in eating and wants to experience more joy, to the distracted eater who wants to practice slowing down, to the anxious eater who wants to find peace with food. Mindful eating can also help with overall stress reduction, regardless of eating habits.
One of the great things about mindful eating is that it’s always available because the present moment is always happening. Every sip of water or bite of food is an opportunity to practice. No special knowledge or experience is necessary, and there’s no wrong or right way to do it. All that’s required is an appetite and some curiosity.
If you’re curious about mindful eating, give it a try! Just one mindful bite will do. What do you notice?