‘When walking, walk. When eating, eat.’ ~Zen proverb
This classic mindfulness instruction is being shown by modern research to have many health benefits. Mindfulness meditation usually focuses on the breath, bodily posture, physical movement, thoughts and emotions. The goal is to enrich life by living in the only time we truly have- the present moment- rather than spending so much time, mentally and emotionally, in the past and future.
We often eat mindlessly, paying more attention to the television, movie, newspaper or conversation than to the life-sustaining act of eating. We use antacids and digestive aids to control symptoms created by unhealthy eating habits. But eating can also be a meditative practice- providing nourishment physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually. For adults and children, mindful eating can be a friendly introduction to meditative practice.
Mindful eating brings a 3-dimensional, meditative awareness to the preparation, serving and eating of your food. Looking deeply into the history of your food, you can see the sunshine, rain, topsoil, farmers, truckers, grocers and all those involved in bringing this food to your plate. Though religions honor this connection through mealtime prayers and thanksgiving, one does not have to be religious to appreciate this universal interdependence underlying our food supply.
Mindful eating can be your gateway to the practice of mindfulness in other daily activities. It can help you cultivate a deeper level of appreciation for life, bringing more joy to life and enhancing relationships with yourself, other people and the earth. When driving, cycling or walking on the road, your life may actually depend on how aware you are in the present moment. Mindful eating may help you travel life’s highway more safely.
Approaching a mindful meal as a mini-meditation retreat, you may begin to cultivate relaxation, joy, happiness and compassion simply from eating mindfully and meditatively.
Tips for mindful eating
-Mindful eating does not require meditative experience or a lot of time.
-“When eating, just eat”. Simply pay attention to eating and drinking.
-Begin with one meal a day for one bite, one minute, 5 minutes or the entire meal. Eventually it may become a habit at all meals.
-You can practice mindful, meditative eating alone, with others, at home or eating out.
-Begin by paying attention to your hunger and satiety levels. Eat only when you are hungry, not simply because it is ‘time’ to eat.
-As you sit with your plate, wait at least one mindful, grateful breath or one minute before beginning to eat or drink.
-Take only the amount of food that is good for you. If you are trying to control portion size, research suggests using a smaller plate.
-Appreciate the hard work and loving intention of all those involved in the life history of your food, noticing any compassion and loving connection that arises in you.
-Be aware of the nutritional quality of your food and how your food choices impact your health, the health of farm families and the environment.
-Be aware of the quality of life of farm animals.
-Holding some food between your fingers, notice its color, shape, texture and aroma.
-Raising the cup or utensil, be aware of movement of your hand and arm, appreciative of the body’s function and wisdom.
-Pause between sips and bites, setting down utensils and cup.
-Chew each mouthful slowly, aiding the digestive process.
-Notice while mindfully eating and drinking there is no room in your mouth for worry, fear, anxiety, depression or other distressing thoughts and emotions. If these arise in your mind, simply bring awareness back to sipping and chewing. If you persistently recognize emotions associated with your eating habits, it may be worthy of journaling, self reflection or discussion with a professional counselor.
-As you chew, notice changes in food texture, temperature and taste.
-Bring full awareness to each sip as you drink liquids.
-After swallowing, be aware of how far down your esophagus you can feel your food or drink.
-Enjoy each bite of food and the presence of friends eating with you.
-Remember your intention to be aware of eating in this present moment, avoiding memories of the past and plans for the future.
-Eating in silence can add a meditative dimension to your experience.
-Limit talking to pleasant, friendly conversation rather than emotionally charged topics.
-Yoga tradition advises remaining seated while eating.
-End your meal when you notice your hunger is gone.
-After your meal, notice the physical sensations of satiety and the gratitude that you have enough to eat.
My own life has benefited greatly from mindful eating. I wish the same for you.
John A Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP