Mindful Eating: Watching What You Eat

Mindful Eating: Watching What You Eat

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Mindful eating is a way to enjoy one of the most pleasurable, yet one of the most ordinary, things we do. It’s also a practice that allows us to discover—or perhaps rediscover—many wonderful things that happen right under our noses and within our bodies.

Mindful eating helps us attend to our body’s inner wisdom and our natural capacity for compassion and gratitude. It also helps us appreciate our place in the greater web of life.

(Also Read: Mindfulness in One Day for Beginners)

I.      Eating with Mindfulness

Like walking, consuming our food and drink is a profoundly ordinary experience whose depth is usually overlooked. Most of us, most of the time, devour mindlessly, missing out on what is potentially one of the most satisfying experiences we can have.

To introduce you to mindful eating, we will mindfully eat a tangerine. You can perform this exercise with any kind of food, but this meditation is designed specifically for tangerines. As you’ll see shortly, the practice means nothing without your participation.

II.   Mindful Eating Example: Mindfully Eating a Tangerine

First, find a quiet, well-lit location where you can sit comfortably, free from distractions. You can do this at the kitchen table, on the sofa, or in your meditation space.

Take the tangerine in your hands and close your eyes. Allow your fingers and palms to touch the fruit’s surface, carefully attending to your sensations. Take your time. Notice its shape. Feel it as if you were going to draw a picture of the fruit afterward. Observe the irregularities, the bumps, and crevices, the curves, and eat areas. Examine the texture of the skin.

Now, hold the tangerine up to your nostrils. Feel it with your nose and lips and the area between them—called the philtrum. Move it around a bit and sniff. Notice your reaction to the citrusy fragrance.

Open your eyes and hold the tangerine about 12 inches away from them, allowing your gaze to focus on the fruit. Observe the subtle shadings of color, noting the reflection of light on the surface. Find the place where the fruit was attached to the tree. These tiny details make this tangerine different from every other tangerine in the world.

Ponder for a few moments how this tangerine came to be in your hand. Think of the tree that produced it. Imagine how many generations of tangerine trees preceded the tree from which this particular fruit came. Think of the person who planted the tree and the people who tended it. Consider all the sunshine, air, and water that were necessary to nourish that tree and produce this fruit.

It took many years, many hands, and many physical elements for this tangerine to be with you at just this moment. And shortly, part of this fruit will become part of you, and all those years, the work of all those people and insects, and all the sunshine and water will become part of you as well.

Note: Mindfully eating a tangerine can be a wonderful experience that deepens your awareness of the world.

Now, we’ll take the fruit and begin to open it. Break the skin with your thumbnail. Smell it again. The fragrance is more intense and richer. Continue to press your nail into the skin and slowly peel it back. Keep it as close to your eyes as you find comfortable.

Feel your thumb exerting pressure on the fruit, tearing into the soft flesh. Look at the yellow-white pulp underneath. See the texture and the shades of color. Notice how the skin and pulp pull away from the fruit as your thumb slides deeper within. See the strings of pulp that cling to the tangerine sections.

Observe the interesting shapes the peeling forms as you continue to remove them from the edible part within. Carefully finish detaching the skin and pulp, studying each detail. Feel the sensation of moisture on your thumb and fingers. See how some parts of the peeling can be more easily removed than others.

For a few moments, hold the tangerine close to your ear as you peel. Listen to the sound of the skin tearing away from the fleshy part. When you have completely separated the peeling from the flesh, take a minute to look at and smell the skin before putting it aside.

Now, take the edible flesh and observe. Notice the colors, the textures, the many crescent-shaped sections of the fruit. See how rough the surface appears and the laments of pulp sticking to it. Begin to break the cluster of sections in half. Hear the sounds of separation and watch as the sections try to cling to one another. Notice the pulpy part in the center.

Gently remove one section of the cluster. Observe the patterns on the section’s translucent skin. Peel away a bit of skin to reveal the orange, juicy flesh. The section comprises even more parts within. See how tightly packed they are—how nicely arrayed—each part is about to burst.

Take the section and place it in your mouth, letting it rest on your tongue. Don’t bite it just yet. Close your eyes. Let your tongue examine the fruit. Use your tongue to move the tangerine section to your molars and softly bite into it, but don’t bite completely through. Just chew the flesh slightly to allow the fruit to release its juices. Let the liquid flow from the fruit and swish it around in your mouth a bit. Taste it.

Now, continue to chew slowly and thoroughly. Then, allow the fruit to slide down your throat and swallow. For a few seconds, concentrate on the lingering sensations in your mouth. Notice how the sensations that were so intense just a few moments ago are now fading away. Examine your response to that impermanence.

When you’re ready, pick up another slice and repeat the process, all the while concentrating on your sensations and reactions—trying to savor the experience without judgment or evaluation. Do this for each section of the tangerine until it’s gone. Pause between each section. Don’t pick up another section until you have finished with the one that’s in your mouth.

III. Mindful Eating = Eating Mindfully as a Habit

The value of this exercise is to reveal the possibilities available to us for using the ordinary experience of eating to deepen our awareness and act in more wholesome ways. Perhaps it would be great to eat this way all the time, but for many of us, that’s not practical. We can, however, incorporate some of the methods and principles of tangerine meditation into our daily lives in relatively painless—but very meaningful—ways.

First, let me suggest that you set a goal to practice mindful eating during one meal each week. This is a modest beginning, and as you start to see the benefits, you may want to have mindful meals with greater frequency. You’ll also begin to notice how the practice of mindfulness while eating begins to affect all of your eating experiences.

After committing yourself to a regular practice, decide if you’d like to observe it alone or with others. Eating with others provides additional richness to the experience when they are also committed to the practice. Although no one says a word, having a mindful supper with friends and family can strengthen the intimacy of these relationships.

Whether you choose to eat alone or with others, the practice of mindful eating begins before the meal starts, as you choose and prepare your food. If you dine with a company, it’s an enriching practice to include them in the preparation phase.

IV.   Mindful Eating: Choosing the Menu

It’s important to give careful thought to the menu. The principal reason we eat is to nourish our bodies and minds, so making wise choices about the food that will ultimately become us is essential. The mindfulness tradition doesn’t specify a particular kind of diet; it only encourages us to consume food and drink that will keep us healthy and contribute to our moment-to-moment awareness.

Knowing what is wholesome food and what’s not, however, isn’t always easy. Almost daily, the media reports the shifting opinions about this or that food item. For now, we can only say that mindfulness practice entails using our best wisdom and the knowledge we have available to choose the most wholesome foods.

Being conscious of what we eat also involves awareness of how food gets to our table. Unless we grow all our food, we probably have little idea about where most of what we eat comes from or how it is produced.

Note: Cooks everywhere—from gourmet chefs to mothers and fathers—help sustain life and bring happiness.

We exist in a complex web of life. How we sustain our own life has a profound effect on the rest of the biosphere of which we are part. Today, we are becoming more aware that how we get our food affects the greater world in which we live.

As an exercise in mindfulness, investigate where some of your food comes from—or at least give some thought to the source of your food before you eat it, as we did in our tangerine meditation. If you’re able, consider gardening, if you don’t already.

When the food has been bought and the menu set, you can make preparation itself a mindful practice. Work in a quiet, clean, distraction-free environment. Enjoy the sensual nature of your experience. Notice colors, textures, aromas, and tastes.

Think about how your actions are part of the greater web of life. Reflect on the fact that other beings have given up their lives to sustain yours. If you’re cooking for others—or even just for yourself—remember that what you are doing is an act of compassion. You’re helping to sustain life and bring happiness.

V.      Mindful Eating: Eating a Meal in Mindfulness

When you are ready to begin the meal, make sure the location is quiet and uncluttered. An appropriate beginning to a mindfulness meal could be a few words encouraging reflection on the purpose of eating, the process by which the food has come to the table, and the fact that many in the world are malnourished. Depending on your personal beliefs, these words may or may not make mention of God.

When grace is concluded, the meal may begin. Eating the entire meal in silence helps create an environment conducive to moment-to-moment awareness. If you have company, eating in silence may seem awkward at first, but most people quickly become used to it.

Eating a meal in mindfulness follows the same principles as the tangerine meditation, with just a few variations and additional options. You will, of course, eat slowly and attentively, trying to experience the richness of the moment. It will be most helpful to vary your usual eating experience to break the habits of mindless eating.

Eat your meal at a leisurely pace, and be keenly attentive to your body to know when your hunger has been satisfied. Many of us continue to eat long after our hunger pangs have subsided. When you sense that you have eaten enough, stop.

When everyone has finished, and the mindfulness meal is over, the participants might engage in some quiet chatting, perhaps even discussing their experience.

Like preparation, the clean-up can be done in a meditative way, but it may be harder to do so because you usually want it done as soon as possible. The mindfulness approach is to reorient your attention from getting the job finished to staying aware of what you’re doing.

VI.   Things to Consider:

  1. Reflect on the ways you can integrate mindfulness practices into your everyday eating experiences. What aspects of the rest of your life do you need to change to accommodate mindful eating?
  2. Invite a like-minded friend, or group of friends, to spend an evening together cooking and enjoying a mindfulness supper using the principles suggested in this lecture.

(Related: Walking Meditation: Mindfulness While Moving)

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