Mindful eating

‘When walking, walk. When eating, eat.’ Zen proverb

To eat more mindfully is one of the most powerful ways we can transform our lives. In the delightful German/Japanese movie ‘Enlightenment Guaranteed’, Gustav meditates every morning and works as a Feng Shui consultant. We see him visiting a new client, discussing how to harmonise the flow of energy in his apartment, using all kinds of elevated and spiritual phrases, and minutes later we see him standing on the street wolfing down a hamburger. From these two scenes, we get the impression that Gustav has an idealised notion of enlightenment, but hasn’t yet found a way of integrating it into his daily life.

Most of us have probably heard about the benefits of mindful eating – we tend to eat the right amount rather than over- or under-eating, it helps us make better food choices, get away from emotional or stress-related eating, and also assists with our digestion. Another clear benefit is that we actually get to taste the food! We often spend considerable time and money organising a meal, and then might consume it mindlessly, barely noticing the taste. I’ve worked with people who for medical reasons were unable to swallow food, and had to be fed a nourishing liquid through a peg tube directly into their stomach. Their grief and loss at no longer being able to eat and taste food was immense.

Yet there are many complex reasons why mindful eating may be a challenge. Often we are distracted by the people we eat with, and our attention is on them rather than the food. We might feel guilty a lot of the time about what we eat, so by paying less attention we can ignore the feelings of guilt more easily. We might just be very busy, and feel we have no time to stop and eat properly. Perhaps we had to eat everything on our plate as children, and so didn’t learn to listen to our body when it tells us it’s full. Or we might be exhausted, and regard food as petrol to fuel our body rather than a source of nourishment and joy.

If you struggle with mindful eating, it’s worth starting small, and not being overly ambitious. You can choose to eat one meal or one snack mindfully each week. Eating a whole meal by yourself in silence is a great practice, but you may find you’re always eating with other people, either at work or at home. So you could choose to eat an apple mindfully. You might sit down somewhere, take a breath, look at the apple, smell it, think about where it came from. If you can, close your eyes. As you take the first bite, imagine that you’ve never eaten an apple before. What does it taste like? What is the texture? What do you feel in your mouth as you begin to chew and swallow? Eat slowly, stopping to pause and take a breath every now and then. Afterwards, notice how it felt to eat the apple mindfully. If you do this regularly, you will find yourself also eating meals more mindfully – slowing down a little, tasting the food more, having a greater sense of nourishment and enjoyment.

Weekly practice idea:

Eat one meal this week in silence, mindfully, and notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

Selective hearing

‘Old pond

Frog jumps in-

Splash’

Basho

We all know people who seem to have selective hearing – who hear only what they want to hear. At times these people can drive us to distraction, and yet in fact we all have selective hearing. Most of the time, we pay little attention to the sounds around us. This is adaptive, because if we listened to every sound with our full attention, there wouldn’t be much time left for anything else in our lives.

Yet the practice of mindful listening can greatly enrich our lives. We can do this during meditation, and also at other times. Mindful listening simply involves opening ourselves to the soundscape around us, and hearing each sound as individual, unique, without attaching some meaning, judgment or storyline to it. As a trained musician, I’m used to making continual judgments about the sounds which I and the other musicians produce. In the context of musical training and performance, this has its place, but it’s liberating for me to open myself up to the sounds around me, without a running commentary of good sound, bad sound, want more of this sound, want less of that. Where I live, I can hear both bird song and also traffic sounds, including trucks. It’s quite a challenge to be just as open to the traffic noises as to the birds. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to practise non-judgmental awareness, which is one of the core attributes of mindfulness.

Sound is waves travelling through the air and hitting our ear drums. The range of sounds we can hear is quite extraordinary (though limited compared to many animals), and each sound has unique properties. We also tend to become quite habituated to ongoing sounds, taking less and less notice of them. This gives us an opportunity to practise another core attribute of mindfulness – beginner’s mind. We can be open and fresh to each sound – the low humming of the fridge as well as a sudden arpeggio of bird song outside our window. This gives us a wonderful sense of resting in the present moment, of being right here, right now.

We can underestimate the effect which sounds have on our bodies and our psyches. Sound is used to torture people, and also to sing a crying baby to sleep. Supermarkets use certain music to slow you down and have you lingering in the aisles so you end up buying more than you need. One train station near me plays classical music over the loud speakers to discourage teenagers from hanging out there. To me that’s a rather sad use of classical music (and I used to love getting off the train and hearing the Mozart oboe concerto in all its joy and glory), but apparently it’s very effective!

Mindfulness of sound can open us up to the present moment, and it can also allow us to be more in tune with how the sounds around us affect us. It’s a simple but powerful practice we can easily incorporate into our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten minutes, and sit with your eyes closed, allowing yourself to hear as many different sounds as possible, without judging them or getting caught up in story-lines about them. Open your eyes again, and notice how you feel.

Anja Tanhane

Seeing with fresh eyes

‘The true journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having fresh eyes.’

Marcel Proust

It is delightful to spend time with little children who are exploring the world with fresh, open, curious eyes. Their senses haven’t become dulled yet, as can happen when we get older. Often, the only time we come close to matching the fresh curiosity of children is when we go travelling, particularly if we go to a country which is very different from ours. In those places, everything is interesting – the clothes people wear, the shops, how they boil their kettle, the food, houses, even traffic signs. Yet there is nothing stopping us from walking through our own street with the same sense of interested and open curiosity.

Our senses, including sight, do not give us ‘true’ information. A stimulus connects with the part of the body set up to receive it – in the case of sight, light is sent through the cornea and lens to the retina. After this, the signal is processed in the brain, starting at the back of the head in the occipital lobe, and goes on quite a journey. One part of the brain processes peripheral vision, another spatial awareness, another visual acuity, another controls the eye muscles, and so on. In fact, if someone’s had a stroke affecting their eyesight, it’s possible to locate the part of the brain which was damaged by the kind of impairment to their eyesight. We also have a blind spot in our visual field, which we effortlessly ‘fill in’ with the picture we think should be there.

Our culture also influences what we ‘see’. Studies such as those by psychologist Richard Nisbett found that when shown pictures of objects against complex backgrounds, Westerners focused mainly on the central object, whereas Asians took in the whole picture and had a more holistic understanding of the context. A follow-up study by Masuda et al (2007) showed participants cartoons of a happy, neutral or sad person, surrounded by people with the same facial expression or a different one. Japanese people took into account the whole group when they judged the emotion of the central person, whereas Westerners only focused on the central person. What we look at also changes across cultures – in the same studies, they tracked the eye movements of participants, and Japanese spent more time looking at the whole picture, whereas Westerners focused mainly on the central object or person.

It would be interesting to do a similar study with people who’ve practised mindfulness for many years, as mindfulness allows us to step back and take into account the bigger picture, and especially to become more aware of the context of a situation.

One effect of mindfulness meditation on seeing, which is reported again and again by participants in the MBSR course and weekend retreats, is that colours seem more bright, more intense, after meditation. There is indeed a sense of seeing the world with fresh, revitalised eyes, of being able to perceive the world with new delight.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit somewhere pleasant, like a garden or a park, and close your eyes for a few minutes, tuning into your breath. Then open your eyes and look at your surroundings with a friendly, receptive curiosity. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Coming to our senses

One of the most direct, effective ways we can feel more connected is by tuning into our senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. We tend to take them for granted, but people who lose one or more of these senses, whether through an accident or illness, suddenly realise how much their felt presence in the world relies on their sensory awareness. When we are busy, rushing from one task to the next, constantly bombarded with noise and stimulation, it’s easy for our senses to become dulled. It’s like a self-protective mechanism which tries to prevent us from being overwhelmed. Unfortunately, this dulling of our senses leads to a more impoverished life, where countless opportunities for joy and appreciation are missed because we aren’t even aware of them.

In his book ‘Coming to our senses – Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness’, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes:

‘The fact of the matter is that it is not so easy to come to our senses without practice. And as a rule, we are colossally out of practice. (…) We are colossally out of shape when it comes to perception and awareness, whether orientated outwardly or inwardly, or both.’

People who come to a mindfulness course or retreat often report seeing colours more brightly, tasting the food more, feeling more present in their bodies. They might have come to mindfulness because of serious stresses and difficulties in their lives, hoping to learn to deal with these more effectively, and are delighted to discover a whole world of sensory richness which previously they hadn’t even realised they were missing.

Yet coming to our senses is more than just an added bonus of mindfulness, like a free set of steak knives with our new super wonder cooker. It’s at the heart of living a mindful life. Over the coming weeks, we will explore our different senses, and how mindfulness can enrich these in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one of your senses, and write down what it means to you. What would it be like to lose this sense? Think about the role it plays in your life, and how precious it is.

Anja Tanhane