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

Mindful Eating

‘Seventy-two labours have brought us this food – we should know how it comes to us.’

Zen meal sutra

At a time of year when most of us are probably eating and drinking a bit more than usual, it might be helpful to pause from time to time and think about where all this food comes from. The sheer volume of food can be overwhelming, especially if you celebrate with a big family or have been to a lot of work parties. And all this food required an incredible amount of work and effort to get to you in the first place – from developing the cultivars over thousands of years, clearing and cultivating the land, sowing the crop, looking after it, harvesting and transporting it, to the packaging, advertising and selling. Then we or someone else bought the food, prepared it, served it and cleaned up afterwards. If we’re eating meat, then animals had to become pregnant, the young ones reared, transported to a slaughter house, killed, butchered and processed, then transported, sold, prepared and cooked…

It is indeed seventy-two labours which have brought us the food, as the Zen sutra says. And many of those involved in food production, whether in farming, transport, retail or hospitality, aren’t paid very well. Much of the time, however, we eat with little awareness of the taste, let alone appreciation of where the food comes from. Yet eating connects us directly to the earth – from digesting food we get the energy of the sun, of rain, of air, of the nourishing earth, all of which went into allowing the food to grow. So by eating we are literally imbibing and staying alive through the elements of fire, water, air and earth, which make up life on our planet.

As the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes so beautifully:

‘If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.’

To offer someone food you’ve prepared is an act of kindness, of caring. It connects us to our families, whether these are biological families or families of people close to us. Eating together is at the heart of community, of celebrating together and being thankful. The more we can slow down in the midst of this often very hectic time, and appreciate the nourishment given to us by food, the more we can feel connected to our community and to our planet.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take the time to look at one meal you’re eating, and think about where all this food comes from – some of the labours which have gone into growing it and getting it to you. Allow a few moments to appreciate the work of all these unseen hands, and let yourself feel nourished by the food.

Anja Tanhane