Mindful eating is as common a practice at many monasteries, meditation retreats, and Zen centers as walking or sitting meditation. Like the more formal mindfulness meditations, mindful eating is a practice of presence, noticing sensations, and observing one’s surroundings. In the monastic setting, practitioners enter dining halls silently, bow to their food to acknowledge the farmers who grew it and the chefs who prepared it, then eat slowly and silently, bringing awareness to each mouthful of food. While we may not have the luxury to eat every meal in silence, we can incorporate some simple mindfulness practices into mealtime and move a more enjoyable relationship with food and more compassionate relationship with ourselves.
Many of us have made it a practice to inhale our breakfast in the car on the way to work or distractedly eat dinner standing up while watching the news. Our attempts at a better relationship with food usually involve strict, unpleasant dieting that feels more like punishment than health. Contrary to dieting, eating mindfully is not about restriction but about listening to our bodies, cultivating awareness of the present moment, and appreciating our meals. For those of us who eat as a stress release or coping mechanism, the practice of mindful eating provides us with the opportunity to face the normally unconscious, uncomfortable feelings that drive us to eat when we do not need or want to eat. We discover that what we are truly hungering for is not food, but a way to satisfy some other kind of hunger: emotional hunger, for example. The reason we are typically unsatisfied after eating and seem to experience endless hunger is that we have not given ourselves the opportunity to fully taste and enjoy our meals, have not made ourselves available to the body’s cues of satisfaction or hunger, and most importantly have not addressed the discomfort that we are compelled to suppress by eating. Instead of ignoring our feelings, punishing our bodies, and squelching the opportunity to enjoy our meals multiple times a day, we can bring awareness and healing to the experience of eating.
By practicing mindful eating, we do not need to binge because we are choosing to consciously address our feelings instead of stuffing them down with food. We no longer need to diet because by fine-tuning our relationship with the body and mind we automatically make healthier choices. Slowing down to fully experience our meals also invites us to become aware of the beauty and richness of the food we eat, where it comes from, and the time and care it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and prepare before it reaches our mouths. We bring awareness to our connectedness to the earth, the plants, animals, and people, and we can abide in our open-heartedness towards all of life, including ourselves.
Simple Mindful Eating Practices to Incorporate Each Day
- Sit, Breathe, Eat
As much as possible, get in the habit of sitting down to eat. When you sit, feel the weight of your body on the chair. Check in with yourself: what sensations are happening in the body? Before lifting your fork, take several deep breaths. Notice the feeling of the breath entering and leaving your body. Say a little blessing or grace before beginning your meal; thank the earth and elements, the farmers that grew your food, and yourself for taking the time to nourish your body and spirit.
- Chew Your Food
It’s incredible how quickly we can gulp down food after hardly chewing. As difficult as it may be at first, commit to taking one bite at a time putting down your fork in between bites, and fully chewing your food. Doing this will allow you to fully taste and enjoy your food and will also give your body time to cue your brain that it’s time to stop when you are full.
- Eat Until You are Satisfied
Even if you do not do this with every meal, as a practice once daily commit to eating only until you feel moderately (or two-thirds) full. What happens when you do this? Notice the feelings that arise when you stop yourself from automatically reaching for another mouthful of food. Observe how your body feels five, twenty, sixty minutes after this practice.