Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Spending so much time at home has got me looking at the refrigerator a lot and every time I do I remember how good it feels to eat. Ice cream or cookies. Or chips, leftovers, salted roasted peanuts, a banana with almond butter, a sandwich, pretty much anything that I can put in my mouth, chew, and digest. Every time I’m near my kitchen, even if I’m not hungry, the thought of eating comes into my mind and my senses become aroused. I have plenty of baggage tied to eating and unpacking it has taken a lot of work. The most helpful thing I’ve come across on this path has been cultivating an awareness of the thoughts, sensations, feelings, emotions, actions, results, and consequences that revolve around eating. There is a lot to work with and everybody’s relationship to eating is wholly unique. As someone who practices Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation, I thought I’d share three practices that have helped me understand eating much more fully.
The first practice is to cultivate gratitude for the food that is in front of you by thanking all the people that made it possible for the food to get to you. This practice sheds light on how much energy is behind each bite of food and allows us access to all of that energy. I like to take one piece of food in the meal (say, a vegetable) and work backwards in time to thank all the people that brought it to where it is right now. For example, if I’m eating a salad that has red lettuce in it, I will start by giving thanks to myself for preparing the lettuce, and then work back through the life of the lettuce, thanking everyone I can think of who had a hand in bringing it to where it is right now. Here is what it might sound like: “I am grateful to myself for chopping and dressing this lettuce with such care and intention to fuel my body. I am grateful to myself for taking the time to drive back from the grocery store safely with the lettuce. I give thanks to myself for choosing such a good head of lettuce from the grocery store. Thank you to the grocery clerk who sold me the lettuce. Thank you to the grocery worker who moved the lettuce from the back to the front of the store and stocked it on the shelf. Thank you to the person who unloaded the lettuce from the delivery truck and handled it with care. Thank you to the delivery driver who drove the lettuce from the distribution center to the grocery store. Thank you to all the people who handled the lettuce with care at the distribution center. Thank you to the person who delivered the lettuce from the farm to the distribution center. Thank you to the person on the farm who loaded the truck with the lettuce and handled it with care. Thank you to the farm worker who cut the lettuce and delivered it to the proper place so it could be picked up. Thank you to the people who cared for the plant by watering it and making sure it was healthy and not infected and safe to eat. Thank you to the owner of the farm and all who run it. Thank you to the person who planted the seed. Thank you to the person who delivered the seed to the farm. Thank you to the person who bought the seeds. Thank you to the person who owns the seed farm. Thank you to the worker of the seed farm who packaged the seed. Thank you to the worker of the seed farm who picked the seed. Thank you to the worker of the seed farm who watered the plant and cared for it to make sure the seed was good for growing and safe for consumption. Thank you to the people who oversee the sales of seeds to farms. Thank you to the people who make sure our food is grown responsibly and is safe to eat.” This can go on as long as you want and it can be fun to get creative with it. The longer you go, the more gratitude you’ll create for this little piece of lettuce and when you finally eat it, it may be the healthiest thing you’ve ever eaten.
The second practice for mindful eating is to meditate on the elemental makeup of the food and see how it is similar to your own elemental makeup. We can look at the earth, air, fire, and water elements of the food and compare them with those elements within us. Doing this practice leads to a dissolution of the separateness between “I” and “that which I eat” and unlocks the wisdom that both our being and the food are simply energy in motion. Let’s take a banana. Beginning with the earth element, I would look at the banana in terms of it's solidity and ask questions about it. What is the shape of it? Is it curved? How is it curved, where is it curved? Where is the density of the banana? And then moving to questions of the earth element in me: What shape am I? Where are my curves? What parts of me are solid, dense, material? What is the weight of the banana? How does it feel in my hands? What is my own weight and how do I hold myself up? The questions don’t need to be answered in words or concepts. Just let the questions hang and meditate on them. Next is air: Where is there space in the banana? Are there holes in it? Where is the space in me? Where do I feel lightness and air moving through me? The fire element relates to temperature: How warm is the banana? Is the temperature uniform or does it vary in different places on the banana? How warm am I? Am I uniform in my temperature? Where am I colder? Where am I warmer? What makes me feel warm or cold? Then moving onto water, the binder of material: How wet is the banana? Where is it wet? Where is it dry? Is it sticky? Where am I wet? Where am I dry? Where am I sticky? Where am I lacking water? All of these questions can be asked before a bite is taken from the banana. Once you begin eating, you can ask more questions as the elements of the banana and those of the self come together. What is the temperature of the banana in my throat? Is it making me warmer or colder? Is the banana changing temperature too? How wet does it feel in my mouth? Is it making me salivate more? Is the banana becoming wetter in my mouth? What is the shape of the banana in my mouth? What is the shape of the inside of my mouth? How is the shape changing with the banana in it? As you do this practice, notice how you are relating to your body and take note of any changes.
The third practice of mindful eating is to cultivate detailed awareness of the actions of eating as experienced through the senses. Our entire experience of the world around us can be broken down into our intake of phenomena through the five sense doors, and eating is an experience that stimulates all five of them. There aren’t many daily activities that so thoroughly activate our senses. No wonder we are so driven to the pleasures of food! In this practice, we name the actions that are happening as they are happening as we are eating the food. It is necessary to work slowly to find awareness of all processes that are happening. Let’s say we have a bowl of warm food and we’re eating with a spoon. The bowl is in front of us and we are looking at the food. We see the shapes and colors so we say “looking, looking, looking” as this is the action that is happening. We don’t need to specify what we’re seeing, just label the action (looking at the food) and repeat it as it’s happening. If we catch a smell coming from the bowl, we would say “smelling, smelling, smelling.” We might then feel our arm move toward the spoon and we say “moving, moving, moving” because we’re feeling our arm move. As we grab the spoon, “holding, holding, holding.” Then as the spoon goes into the bowl, we hear the sound of it entering into the food and we say “hearing, hearing, hearing.” Our hand then feels the warmth of the food and we say “feeling, feeling, feeling.” As we bring the spoonful of food toward our mouth, we can say “moving, moving, moving.” And as it enters our mouth, “tasting, tasting, tasting.” We don’t need to label what it is we are tasting, or what we are moving. It’s not about the objects at play (nouns) it’s about the actions (adjectives) as they relate to the senses. You may begin chewing the food, “chewing, chewing, chewing” and you may notice the taste changing, “tasting, tasting, tasting” and the consistency shifting, “feeling, feeling, feeling” and as it moves to your throat, “swallowing, swallowing, swallowing” you may find yourself with another spoonful of food ready to go into your mouth before you’ve swallowed everything that was in the previous spoonful. Did you notice how the spoon got there? Were you “moving, moving, moving” your arm while you were “chewing, chewing, chewing?” Did you do any “smelling, smelling, smelling” as the food was being taken from the bowl, or any “seeing, seeing, seeing” as it was being lifted to your mouth? As with any mindfulness practice, if you notice that you’ve lost focus or are not paying attention, don’t worry about it. Noticing is the whole point and it means you’re doing it! Just take note and start again.
Eating mindfully can be a very difficult process and it’s important to be kind to yourself. Just giving one of these practices a try is cause for celebration, for it shows that you have an intention to become more mindful and that intention alone will carry you toward a deeper awareness of yourself.