Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One: What is Mindful Eating?
This book is written for all those who would like to improve their relationship to food. Whether you have a moderate tendency to overeat, as so many of us do, or whether you are struggling with obesity, bulimia, anorexia, or other such problems, this book is for you.
I am a doctor (my specialty is pediatrics), and I am also a longtime Zen teacher. At the heart of Zen, and of the Buddhist tradition in general, is the practice of mindfulness. Over my many years practicing medicine, and many years of practicing mindfulness and teaching it to others, I have come to trust mindfulness as one of the very best medicines. Most books and techniques for changing our eating try to impose change from the outside. Sometimes this fits with the unique being that we are and it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Mindfulness brings about change from the inside. A natural and organic process, it occurs in the manner and at the rate that fits us. It is the ultimate in natural healing.
What is Mindfulness?
It is not necessary to become a Buddhist or attend a weeklong silent retreat in order to experience the benefits of mindfulness. Mindfulness is an ability we all possess and can cultivate. Recently mindfulness has become a popular concept, increasingly accepted and studied in the worlds of science, healthcare, and education. When mindfulness remains only a concept, however, it has little use in our lives. When it is learned and used, it becomes a powerful tool for us to awaken to the full potential of our life.
Mindfulness is deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening both inside yourself—in your body, heart, and mind—and outside yourself, in your environment. Mindfulness is awareness without judgment or criticism. The last element is key. In mindful eating we are not comparing or judging. We are simply witnessing the many sensations, thoughts, and emotions that come up around eating. This is done in a straightforward, no-nonsense way, but it is warmed with kindness and spiced with curiosity.
Mindfulness is rooted in the realization that when we ignore what we are seeing, touching, or eating, it is as if it does not exist. If our child or partner comes to talk with us and we are distracted and not listening, we all go away feeling hungry for connection and intimacy. If we eat while watching television, distracted and not really tasting, the food goes down without our noticing it. We remain somehow hungry and unsatisfied. We go away from the table searching for something more to nourish us.
Through mindful eating we can learn to be present when we eat. It seems so simple, to be aware of what we are eating, but somehow we have lost track of how to do it. Mindful eating is a way to reawaken our pleasure in simply eating, simply drinking.
The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has called mindfulness a miracle. It seems like it. When we learn how to use this simple tool and find for ourselves what it can do, it seems miraculous. It can transform boredom into curiosity, distressed restlessness into ease, and negativity into gratitude. Using mindfulness we will find that anything, anything, we bring our full attention to will begin to open up and reveal worlds we never suspected existed. In all my experience as a physician and a Zen teacher I have never found anything to equal it.
A large and growing body of scientific studies supports the claims about the surprisingly reliable healing abilities of mindfulness. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has developed a curriculum that draws on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). He first taught MBSR techniques to people suffering from chronic pain and disease, people whose doctors had referred them as a last resort after other medical therapies had failed. The results were so good that he expanded his research to other illnesses. Other doctors and therapists learned MBSR techniques and tried it out successfully with a variety of disorders. There are now many articles in medical and psychology journals documenting the benefits of MBSR in illnesses ranging from asthma to psoriasis, heart disease to depression.
The Joy of Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is an experience that engages all parts of us, our body, our heart, and our mind, in choosing, preparing, and eating food. Mindful eating involves all the senses. It immerses us in the colors, textures, scents, tastes, and even sounds of drinking and eating. It allows us to be curious and even playful as we investigate our responses to food and our inner cues to hunger and satisfaction.
Mindful eating is not directed by charts, tables, pyramids, or scales. It is not dictated by an expert. It is directed by your own inner experiences, moment by moment. Your experience is unique. Therefore you are the expert.
Mindful eating is not based on anxiety about the future but by the actual choices that are in front of you and by your direct experiences of health while eating and drinking.
Mindful eating replaces self-criticism with self-nurturing. It replaces shame with respect for your own inner wisdom.
As an example, let’s take a typical experience. On the way home from work Sally thinks with dread about the talk she needs to work on for a big conference. She has to get it done in the next few days to meet the deadline. Before starting to work on the speech, however, she decides to relax and watch a few minutes of TV when she gets home. She sits down with a bag of chips beside her chair. At first she eats only a few, but as the show gets more dramatic, she eats faster and faster. When the show ends she looks down and realizes that she’s eaten the entire bag of chips. She scolds herself for wasting time and for eating junk food. “Too much salt and fat! No dinner for you!” Engrossed in the drama on the screen, covering up her anxiety about procrastinating, she ignored what was happening in her mind, heart, mouth, and stomach. She ate unconsciously. She ate to go unconscious. She goes to bed unnourished in body or heart and with her mind still anxious about the talk.
The next time this happens she decides to eat chips but to try eating them mindfully. First she checks in with her mind. She finds that her mind is worried about an article she promised to write. Her mind says that she needs to get started on it tonight. She checks in with her heart and finds that she is feeling a little lonely because her husband is out of town. She checks in with her stomach and body and discovers that she is both hungry and tired. She needs some nurturing. The only one at home to do it is herself.
She decides to treat herself to a small chip party. (Remember, mindful eating gives us permission to play with our food.) She takes twenty chips out of the bag and arranges them on a plate. She looks at their color and shape. She eats one chip, savoring its flavor. She pauses, then eats another. There is no judgment, no right or wrong. She is simply seeing the shades of tan and brown on each curved surface, tasting the tang of salt, hearing the crunch of each bite, feeling the crisp texture melt into softness. She ponders how these chips arrived on her plate, aware of the sun, the soil, the rain, the potato farmer, the workers at the chip factory, the delivery truck driver, the grocer who stocked the shelves and sold them to her.
With little pauses between each chip, it takes ten minutes for the chip party. When she finishes the chips, she checks in with her body to find out if any part of it is still hungry.
She finds that her mouth and cells are thirsty, so she gets a drink of orange juice. Her body is also saying it needs some protein and something green, so she makes a cheese omelet and a spinach salad. After eating she checks in again with her mind, body, and heart. The heart and body feel nourished but the mind is still tired. She decides to go to bed and work on the talk first thing in the morning, when the mind and body will be rested. She is still feeling lonely, although less so within the awareness of all the beings whose life energy brought her the chips, eggs, cheese, and greens. She decides to call her husband to say good night. She goes to bed with body, mind, and heart at ease and sleeps soundly.