It seems that all we hear about lately relative to health and healing is, ‘Mindfulness this and Mindfulness-based that’. Along with this wave of ideas on Mindfulness come too many misperceptions. As if mindfulness were a product for purchase, that once we own, will make us better. I fear that the word itself, in its overuse, leads to the rolling of eyes, “oh no, not that again!”, or an over consumption of its superficial application. It takes a lot of courage to be mindful, not easy this seemingly simple awareness of right now, as it is difficult for us to set down our reflexive judgments that push away what we don’t want, or pull toward us what is known and brings confirmation. Mindfulness asks us to show up and fully experience what is occurring in the immediacy of this moment, with a simultaneous ability to observe with open curiosity. That means sensing it all, in mind, in heart, and in body. Ah, now we get to the gritty engagement of actually feeling. Otherwise mindfulness just becomes a great concept in search of a body.
Mindful eating is a great “practice” and eventual consistent capability, which helps teach us how to return to the present through this very sensory experience of consuming our food. Quite frankly, if we check ourselves, we might find that we are the one ingredient gone missing at the table! Have you ever had the experience during a meal of reaching for another bite but finding your plate empty and wondering who ate your food? How about feeling so speedy that you find the act of chewing to be irritating? There is no time for all this chewing, there are places to go and people to see! Then there is the classic American style, “Big Gulp”, more is better, leading to our over consumption and an inability to know when we are satiated, and then on to the incessant over-eating/dieting loop.
So how can ‘Mindful Eating’ help? Simply, it guides us back to a quality of awareness which reconnects us to our body and its real needs; we can know when we are hungry, what types of food we need, and when we have eaten enough. Direct sensory awareness brings us here, not dulled down in our conceptual knowing that says, ‘been there done that, I know this food because I have had it before’. No, you have never had this before, on this particular day, in this particular moment, and moreover, it will never be like this again. Now, this attitude can bring forward a new kind of aliveness, preventing our “sleep-eating”, which leads to unconscious consumption and disconnection creating dis-ease and lack of vitality. This is not the typical awareness of, “I know what I should be eating”, and all the external concepts of what is/is not healthy, or the internal attacks about weight and lack of will. Not the limited awareness of immediate pleasure at the cost of a larger value. It is a kind awareness, not harsh and attacking, but a gentle re-membering of what it feels like to be in a body, to sense its continual generative capacity, to create a relationship to it which gives an affectionate attention, appreciating and accepting it as it is and attuning to what it needs. Moreover, mindfulness is an awareness which attunes us to our heart, and what it needs, thereby freeing us to learn how to eat to live, rather than live to eat; eating relative to supplying vital nutrients to sustain good physiological functioning, not eating to soothe or disconnect from being here.
Mindfulness becomes the first necessary nutrient by creating a conducive environment for receiving what is good. Its like tilling the soil to soften and stimulate its richness which then offers the elements for full growth of the seeds planted. Health can’t be found in a particular diet or supplement. I have counseled many people caught in fear and rigidity about perfectly eating to create the perfect body or the perfect health. The quality of relationship to Self, to our emotions, to our body, determines our health. This relationship determines the connections made between our mind, brain, nervous system, and all the other interactive loops of our experience between emotion, thought, behavior, and sensation, to create wholeness and health, or stagnation and illness. The nutrients that make up our health begin with our mind’s quality of awareness. When we direct our attention to the sensory awareness of our body we create neural connections which inform our capacity for self-awareness and regulation of emotions, allowing us to respond rather than to react impulsively or mind-less-ly. Further, we help inform our body it can rest and digest now. The real physiological process of ingesting, digesting, metabolizing, can only be done efficiently and effectively with a body that is feeling safe and relaxed to allow these processes.
How do I practice Mindful Eating?
Practice is the operant word. We learn how by showing up, over and over, not knowing how, but learning through trying it on. In the case of mindfulness, it’s not ‘practice makes perfect’, but practice reveals already what is perfect, right in the middle of all our mistakes and messiness. First step to implementing a change in our relationship to eating is to prepare ourselves by seeding our motivation. Change occurs through our commitment to consistent focused attention on the very thing we wish to develop. Commitment arises from our intention. What is our good enough reason for practicing mindful eating? Our reason has to relate to some larger value or we will never stay motivated. Our intention is the engine of commitment. Commitment soon falls off when things lose a sense of novelty and excitement and only become a momentary trend without knowing what larger value is guiding the commitment. And commitment to practice becomes the fuel to keep our intention alive, they work in tandem, each supporting the other toward a steady consistency. This consistency then might allow a “good idea” to be a known as a direct experience that can become an eventual effortless pattern of our lives. Without intention and commitment, mindfulness becomes a fashionable short term idea rather than a long term lifestyle shift. To simplify, intention is the “why bother”, and commitment is the “no matter what”, two components needed prior practice.
With this clarity we can now engage with the two parts of being present to our eating: Experiencing and Observing. There is the content of the experience of eating: the food, our senses, images, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, emotions, (who knew so much was happening with a hamburger!). Then there is the context in which all this experience takes place. The context is the essential element which determines if it is mindful or not. The context is the environment, the quality of our relationship, to all those things going in the content. If it helps, use the acronym C-NOTE to remember what best environment in which to practice mindful eating. C=curious, N=non-judging (or more aptly stated, judging and then noticing it), O=openness, T=turning toward, E=engaged. This is creating the attitude or the ambience for your meal. This environment allows and includes whatever you might be experiencing, (content of experience simple acronym is SITE, S=sensations, I-images, T=thoughts, E=emotions).
Mindfulness is an open, inclusive, relational quality of awareness to what we are directly experiencing.
Now that the table has been set with your intention and commitment and a warm quality of attention creating a conducive ambiance– let’s eat!
Read through the elements of the long form for formal practice of mindful eating. Here you will notice the break down, step by step, of an experience which normally moves very quickly, almost like a slow motion video so we can begin to see how much is really going on in such a seemingly simple act of eating. You can carve out some time and place where this practice might be possible and just take it step by step.
You can also utilize the short form to warm up to the idea, or to use in-between long form practice, and eventually, with the consistent practice, let it be on-the-spot awareness that is implemented whether on an airplane, rushing through breakfast on a way to a meeting, or luxuriating over a beautiful meal with those you love. In the end, mindfulness is not so much about slowness, but about the quality of awareness applied no matter our external/internal circumstance.
Mindful Eating Long form:
Previous to eating
- Set your intention (why bother): why are you interested in mindful eating? What is the larger value which guides your effort?
- Make a commitment (no matter what): for the next 21 days pick one meal per day to practice, (in order to know, you need consistent practice).
- Remove distractions such as TV, phone, computer, reading material, etc.
- Sit down to eat, pause to notice from head to toe the state of your body, feel sensation of bottom against your chair.
- Notice sensation of breathing. Exhale out your mouth, dropping awareness down, like an elevator from head to neck to heart, belly, perineum, bottom, legs, and feet.
- Notice attention of your mind: What are you “chewing” on right now? Where are your thoughts, concerns, anticipations, regrets? Just notice and come back to sensation of feet, bottom, back, heart, neck, head, and breath.
Now attention to food
- Note color, scent, texture, and even the sound of your food
- Consider how it got to your plate: from earth to truck to table.
- Offer some gratitude that you actually have food and for all the work that went into its arrival.
- Notice anticipatory salivation.
- Notice your desire to eat—don’t.
- Now Eat—aware of your hand moving through space and its dexterity to bring food to mouth.
- Chew, noticing chewing, its quality, how much, how hard, how soft, maybe count the number of chews, put down your fork.
- Be aware of impetus to grab more before fully done with what is in your mouth.
- Be aware of the discomfort that might arise in having no distraction. Maybe this full awareness brings feelings of uneasiness, (remember your C-NOTE).
- This is not about being peaceful, not about liking, or disliking, but being aware.
- Sense your inside your body: tongue, throat, stomach, and so on, aware of all it does to make eating happen.
- When you get lost or speedy, just pause, re-member the sensation of your breathing, see your food, feel your feet, and then, gently, begin again.
- When finished eating—pause.
- Notice your body, new sensation of fullness/or not full enough in belly.
- Notice your mind, desire for more, or anticipation of where you are going next.
- Offer yourself some kindness and appreciation for showing up.
- Offer thanks, to this moment, to receiving, to your ability to receive, to your health.
Mindful Eating Short Form:
1. Pause to know you are breathing.
2. Feel sensation of interior of your body.
3. Sense the bottom of your feet.
4. See, smell, touch, hear your food.
5. Then eat—and taste.
6. Chew and know you are chewing.
7. Sense chewing, sense breath, sense body, not thinking, but direct sensation of each.
8. Notice content of mind and return to sensation of eating, (Apply the C-NOTE).
9. Pause when finished
10. Offer kindness to yourself, to your body, to all those who made this food possible.
Diane Renz, a licensed psychotherapist, founder of Your Gateway to Healing, writer, workshop facilitator, utilizes both her academic background and personal experiences to explore how pain can become our possibility. She currently studies with Dr. Dan Siegel integrating the latest scientific understandings on neuroscience and Mindfulness within her work. For more information feel free to visit www.yourgatewaytohealing.com.