Taking a bite of mindfulness

Post 173 of 177
Taking a bite of mindfulness

Eating is a very touchy topic in our society (see also this recent article on WMRI). There are enormous social problems associated with addiction to food (listen for a discussion of this to Upaya’s podcasts about Zen Brain). In fact, for many of us, food occupies a significant portion of our moment-to-moment thoughts. Can we bring some of our meditation wisdom to bear on this aspect of our lives?

In general, of course we need to eat to be able to live, and there is nothing wrong with that. When does eating become a problem? When it starts to take over our lives. Of course we have been wired for being preoccupied with food, because that is how we survive. But when food is abundantly available, as it is for many of us, then it can become a problem. We can obsess about what we are going to eat, how our body looks when we eat this, whether our partner likes what we eat, etc etc. Indeed: food is an almost endless source of worry, rumination and thoughts. Actually, when you look at it that way, it almost seems a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it? Just observing your thoughts from this perspective and seeing where they come from can create some distance from them, and thereby make them less powerful. And of course this is exactly what we practise in meditation. In addition, you can bring mindfulness to the process of eating itself. Many people report that eating mindfully makes them feel the food is more nourishing, and they tend to eat less.

One particularly poignant example of where eating becomes a problem and takes extraproportional significance in people’s lives is emotional eating, which is thought to be one of the major causes underlying the obesity epidemic. Maybe you have had the experience of eating a large cookie when feeling quite distressed, and ending up feeling still quite dissatisfied. When we eat mindlessly in this way and use food to fill a gap that is really emotional in nature. At that point, the food we eat cannot really fill the void and therefore cannot really nourish us. Consequently, we feel compelled to eat a lot of food, preferably of the sweet and fatty variety, and it doesn’t really fix the problem. Moreover, we are so used to this strategy that it often happens before we notice it. This is a moment when meditation “tactics” can also come in handy: you can first apply the strategy of waiting a moment before succumbing to the urge. After all, that is what we do all the time when we meditate: we just wait and suspend our impulse to do something–we just let me. And then secondly, we can actually observe the process of how we feel we lack something, and howe we try to fill that lack with food. As we gain this insight, the food may lose some of its allure. And maybe we can start to feel a little more whole.

In short, it is worth it to try to experiment a bit with your feelings around food. Can you see what happens when you want to eat something, and when you eat something? Can you take a step back and observe the urge? Do you need food, or do you need some other type of nourishment? This observational process can be an important tool in transforming both how we relate to food and to our own mind.

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