Most of us eat food every single day, and the average person eats two to three meals per day. Yet, many of us are not really aware of how we are eating food. Eating can be a meditative practice, an opportunity for us to offer our full presence at every meal. If we relate to food in this way, it can have profound effects on our health—physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Food is a sacred thing. It is what gives us nutrients, it is what gives us life. Our body is literally made of the food that we eat—what we eat becomes us. Not only are we dependent on food for life, but contemplating our food a bit more, we can see that food can reveal to us our connection to the whole of Nature.
Many elements come together to provide us our food—the rain, sunshine, the earth, the care taken by the farmers and the cooks. If we look deeply, each one of them is present in our food. Through our food, we can see the entire universe supporting our existence.
Food is something that should be received with gratitude, as having food to eat is a great privilege. There are many people in the world who are hungry, and who do not have access to an abundance of food like many of us do in more developed countries. Knowing this, we can see that we are very fortunate to have food we can eat and nourish our bodies with.
There is a saying, “the way that you do anything is the way that you do everything,” meaning that the attitude, energy, and attention with which we perform any action, reflects how we perform all of our actions. With this in mind, the way that we eat food reflects the way that we live our lives.
Many people eat food with little attention or appreciation for their meal. Often, people feel the need to do something else while they are eating—they turn on the television, put on a podcast or listen to some music. When eating with others, people typically talk and eat in a very rushed and hurried way, hardly focused on their food or how they are eating it.
In this article, we’d like to invite you to a new way of relating to food, and following that principle of “how you do anything is how you do everything,” by transforming the way you eat and enjoy your food, you can transform the way that you live and enjoy your life. We would like to invite you to eat food in a conscious way, to really be present with your food while you are eating it, and hopefully, through this practice, you will also begin to live your life in a conscious way, to really be present with what you are experiencing.
Living in the Moment - Conscious Living and Mindful Eating
Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh defines mindfulness as: “the energy of being awake and aware of the present moment.” One of the greatest causes of stress and mental unease in our culture is the fact that most people are not really living in the moment. We are either focused on the future—worried about something that may happen, stressed about an upcoming event, or planning for something we want—or we are focused on the past—reflecting on some situation, reminiscing over memories we enjoyed, holding onto old experiences, etc. Most people do not stop to smell the roses, and don’t know how to really enjoy simply being in the present moment, and this is a big problem, because life is only happening in the present moment, so if we aren’t in touch with what is here and now, we aren’t in touch with the reality of our lives.
There is an old Zen story that captures this point well. A student once asked his master, “When one seeks to follow the way of peace, is there a particular manner in which one should behave?”
“There is,” replied the master. “When one is hungry, one eats. When one is tired, one sleeps.”
“But everyone does that,” complained the student. “Your behavior isn’t different from that of anyone else.”
“They’re not the same at all,” asserted the teacher. “When most people eat, they don’t just eat—their minds are preoccupied by ten thousand things. When they sleep, they don’t just sleep, but dream innumerable dreams.”
This is the way that most of us live. We don’t do what we are doing while we are doing it. We don’t just drive when we drive, or walk when we walk. We are not really in touch with our direct experience—we don’t deeply feel the immediate sensations of what is happening. Instead, we are constantly thinking, planning, fantasizing, imagining, worrying, reacting, and so on. Really so many of our problems are the result of our thinking, and a result of not experiencing life as it is in the moment, but instead experiencing our ideas about life, preoccupied by a whole world of thoughts that exists only in our minds.
How to Practice Mindful Eating
The practice of eating mindfully is the practice of bringing awareness to food as we are eating food. As the Zen master said, it is to “eat while we eat.” Not only can this help us to really enjoy and appreciate our food, it can also help us to better digest our food, and therefore to get more nutrition out of it. As spoken to earlier, it can also help us to bring more attention to the other actions that we perform every day, and to see them in a new light.
What is great about this practice, is that every day we are given multiple opportunities to practice it. The next time you eat, try these few simple things and notice how it makes you feel.
- Turn off all distractions. When it is time to eat your meal, allow yourself the time and space to just be with your food. Turn off the television, put your phone away, and sit down somewhere pleasant, preparing to enjoy your meal.
- Take a moment to thank your food. This meal is feeding your cells and giving your body the nutrition that it needs to function. This food, and all of the elements that have produced it—the sun, the rain, the earth, the farmer, etc.—are supporting you so that you can continue living. Not only this, but the food itself is giving its life for your life. Whether it is an animal or plant, it was once a living being, and it is being offered to you so you can continue being alive. Reflect on this before you eat your meal, and simply give thanks to all that was involved in bringing this food to you here now. Whether spoken out loud or silently to yourself, simply acknowledge the source of the food and give thanks.
- Smell your food. Giving thanks for your food helps you to appreciate it more, and appreciating anything helps us to enjoy it more. This next step—smelling your food—is a continuation of appreciating and enjoying your food. Inhale and smell the scent of your food, what does it smell like? Just get in touch with this sensory experience of the food. Smelling food also triggers our salivary glands to begin producing digestive enzymes that help us to better break down and digest our meal.
- Savor the first bite. Continuing this process of appreciating and enjoying your meal, take the first bite, and instead of quickly swallowing it and rushing for the next bite, pause and simply savor the flavor of what you are eating. It may be helpful to even set the fork or spoon down for a moment after your first bite, and really just enjoy the taste. What does it taste like? What is its flavor? Is it salty, sweet, sour, bitter, astringent, pungent? What is the texture of the food? Soft, rough, creamy, crunchy? Is it delicious? Do you enjoy the flavor? Sit for a moment, perhaps even with your eyes closed, and just connect to the sense of taste, and to the specific flavors and textures of the food you are eating.
- Chew thoroughly. Staying in touch with the flavor of your food, you can begin to eat at a more regular pace. Try to avoid the unconscious habit of taking a couple of bites and then swallowing the food before it has really been chewed. You don’t have to eat very slowly, but just be more mindful of the food as you chew it, and chew it thoroughly. Chewing is an essential part of the digestive process, as it helps to break down food and mix it with the digestive enzymes in our saliva, supporting our stomach with its important job of digestion.
- Be present. As mentioned before, many people look for a distraction while they are eating—television, radio, cellphones, etc. Allow yourself to really be with the experience of eating. If it is just you eating, then make it into a meditative practice, experience each bite. Experience the whole process of chewing, tasting, swallowing, feeling it in your stomach, etc. If you are eating with others, keep some of your attention inside, still focused on the sensations of eating, but allow yourself to also be present with the people you are sharing this meal with. Remember to eat in a relaxed and mindful way, even if the other person is not. It is easy in conversation to lose our attention and to quickly eat our food without having really experienced it mindfully.
- Take a moment to pause. Sometime in the middle of your meal, take a moment to just stop eating and check in with your body. This is an important part of the practice, because many of us have a difficulty in stopping eating once we have started, and often just keep going until our plate is clean, regardless of the signals our body is giving us. At some point in the meal simply stop eating, set the fork down, and see how you are feeling. Is your stomach full? Would it be good to keep eating or is it a good time to stop? If you do continue, remember to continue mindfully. Taking a pause to check in during our meal is a great way to get more in touch with our bodies and what they really need, rather than just giving our tongue what it craves.
- Enjoy it! Remember to enjoy your meal! Sometimes people find difficulty in eating more mindfully, because they just want to ravenously eat their delicious food. But which one is really more enjoyable—devouring our meal in seconds with little attention to what we ate, or savoring and appreciating each bite?
- Give thanks. Once you’ve finished your meal, feel the satisfaction of fulfilling your hunger, and once again give thanks for the meal that you just ate.
Make Your Mindful Eating a Meditation and Practice of Awareness
The practice of eating mindfully is not limited to just eating food, but can also be incorporated into cooking and cleaning your meal. When you are cooking, just cook—be focused on the job at hand, and let your mind be here, rather than thinking about whatever else may be asking to have your attention. When you clean, just clean—wash the dishes mindfully, rather than drifting away into a daydream.
The practice of mindful eating is really just the practice of mindfulness—in the context of eating food. It is an invitation to be more awake and aware in our lives, and to experience the reality of life in the present moment. Our thoughts, self-talk, opinions, judgements, ideas, beliefs, fears, stresses—they are all rooted in thinking, and being occupied by the mind. Take a breath in, and let the mind be quiet. Open up your attention to the present moment, and experience being alive here and now.
The more you practice this, the more you will realize that thoughts are just thoughts, and they are not reality. When you allow yourself to experience reality as it is, you’ll begin to feel much more happiness, joy, and contentment with the simple experience of being alive and in touch with what you are doing.