“Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
It’s Sunday night. A steaming plate of spaghetti is set in front of me. Salivating with wide eyes I grab my fork and prepare to dive in. We know how this will end. I will say to my husband while patting my tummy and undoing my top button, “Tomorrow we will start our healthy eating plans.”
This scene raises a number of questions:
Why can't I resist the urge to inhale my meal like an out of control Scooby Doo bingeing on Scooby snacks? Even when my body is screaming “Enough—you’re killing me,” I will still reach for another donut.
Secondly, when did we become so unconscious that my Mandarin buffet gorge from the night before is a mere fog like hangover?
We are just plain food obsessed.
You don't have to look far to prove this obsession. Walk down any fast food-lined street in any North American town and observe the unprecedented obesity.
Look to our health crisis. Not only are millions of Americans suffering from eating disorders, but the hospital hallways are lined with people with heart disease, cancer, and an epidemic influx of diabetes.
Look to our media. I shudder every time I hear someone say they love the show “Man versus Food.” Have you ever been to a factory farm? In order to feed our gluttonous ways, factory farms are piling millions more animals into production spaces, causing harm to animals, the environment, and humans.
In short, we have a lot of sick people and a lot of animals suffering.
Why is something we deem so pleasurable causing so much harm? We could debate many arguments as to why we have developed unhealthy food relationships, reasons such as two working families, fast food biggie sizes, lack of exercise, technology, and inexpensive junk food.
But at the root of the problem is that in our fast paced society we have forgotten how to slow down and eat mindfully.
When we regain consciousness and reconnect to Mother Earth the ugly side effects of our food obsession inevitably dissipate.
My very wise Buddhist teacher recently gave us a challenging assignment. The intention was to discover that everyday mundane tasks, such as eating or washing the dishes don't have to be mundane at all. Our first challenge: Practice mindful eating. The results must surprise you.
5 Steps to Mindful Eating
1. Examine your emotions.
It’s nearing bedtime; the house is quiet and dark, my agitated mind illuminated by the dim fridge light. What am I feeling? Boredom, anxiety, anger, sadness? Am I really hungry? After all, I did have dinner a mere three hours ago?
The truth is, my husband and I had an argument, I'm in need of comfort and my mind is fixated on the chocolate peanut butter ice cream in the freezer. But after three months of nightly indulgence and two inches added to my waistline I've only compounded my frustrations, not abolished them.
This is a perfect example of eating by emotion. Looking at your mind from above it makes it easer to recognize unhealthy eating patterns and make changes. Before you steal from the cookie jar always ask yourself, does my body need nourishment or am I feeding my emotions?
2. Find a food you love and set the stage for success.
A natural, colourful fruit is always a good first choice; an apple was my first. Now turn off all media, put your iPhone away, and no talking. It might be hard at first to bottle your urges for idle chatter, but be still, breathe deeply, and fight against it. Start with ten minutes.
3. Express gratitude.
Resist the urge to bite into your apple. Take a moment to consider all the kindness that went into growing this apple. This may at first sound absurd but this practice develops your own loving kindness and gratitude.
Think about the mother who raised the farmer who planted the apple tree. Think about the miraculous ecosystem. Consider the apple pickers, the supermarket workers. Honestly, we could go on forever and what you would ultimately discover is that the kindness of the entire universe is in this apple.
Now that's some food for thought, but don't worry if you’re not there yet. Maybe just start by expressing gratitude that you are able to eat in peace and comfort. Say a silent thanks.
I've noticed that expressing gratitude centers me in the present moment, negative emotions dissipate, and it reminds me not to take things for granted.
4. Savor the flavor.
While this may seem like an eternity with your bowl of sweet raspberries on the counter taunting you, but in reality it’s only a mere minute or two; still, if you can, hold off long enough to closely observe your food. Feel the coolness of the apple, examine the deep red color, smell the sweetness. Allow your senses to explode.
Okay, now we're ready. Slowly take a juicy bite, roll the apple in your mouth, savor the sourness, play with the texture, and notice the intensity. Before you take another bite, chew slowly and completely before swallowing. Eat the entire apple this way: slowly, silently, mindfully.
Unbeknownst to my co-workers the mundane mid-day apple break in my cubicle has suddenly turned into a powerful experience. After practicing mindful eating I’m also fascinated to realize that I don’t even enjoy the tasteless, processed morning granola bar that I scarf down in the car.
Mindful eating naturally results in a love of healthy foods. It’s inevitable.
5. Build the mindful eating habit.
We live in a busy world and there will always be days when we need to wolf down a slice of pizza on our lunch break, but consider practicing this technique once a week, and then once a day. Eventually, it will just become habit. You'll become be present.
However you should beware there are side effects of mindful eating, the fine print reads:
You may develop a love of natural foods, feelings of satisfaction, a sudden desire to be active, an ability to recognize your body's nourishment needs, weight loss, mood control, more energy, glowing skin, disease prevention, control over your emotions, living in the present moment, and quieting the mind.
Imagine the change we could invoke throughout world if everyone practiced mindful eating. It’s not too late to teach our children new habits. The positive transformation to our health care system, our own and our children’s health and wellness, and the entire animal kingdom is exciting and within grasp.
We don’t have to be food obsessed. Let’s break the cycle. Doesn't it make you want to go grab a fuzzy peach and give it a try? Go on. I'm about to enjoy an intense blueberry experience myself.
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt