On Being Mindful

May 1, 2008

I know I said I’d relegate comments about my Total Health program to a coda each week, but last night’s class spurred such a barrage of ideas that I wanted to set them down (despite last week’s blathering about eating styles–we all know how well that one went over). So be warned:  this entry features no recipe, and it’s about dieting.  Please feel free to skip if that’s not of interest!

When I first started this blog back in late October (six months yesterday!!), I wrote quite frequently about my diet and (tenuous) attempts to lose weight.  I actually never intended it to morph into a food blog, but once I started reminiscing about different recipe origins, preparation methods, ingredient sources, etc., it seemed to move naturally in that direction (at least, most of the time). I preferred to write about the dishes themselves rather than my reactions to, or feelings about, them.

Well, one of our “assignments” last week in my Total Health course was to “eat without distractions.”  From what I gleaned from our instructions, this meant virtually the same thing as “eating mindfully.”  For any of you who’ve read Jon Kabat Zinn’s seminal book on mindful living, Full Catastrophe Living, this concept is familiar.  In the book, Zinn suggests eating a raisin with full attention to its shape, color, texture, smell, size, mouthfeel, taste, and effect on your emotional or psychological state.  Giving that wrinkled grape your full awareness while consuming it takes several minutes at the least, and you’d presumably experience every nuance, every physical reaction, every sensory impact of consuming that raisin.

I was a little hesitant to embrace this homework, as my schedule these days is beyond hectic and I feel I barely have time to heave a heavy sigh before the day is over.  But I did it.  Breakfast became a private communion between me and my oatmeal (or scone, or almond butter-topped apple, etc.) as I cleared the table and sat and ate. . . mindfully. 

And what did I discover?  That my mind didn’t have very much to contribute to the exercise.  That I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

For me, trying to focus exclusively on my food as I observed, smelled, tasted and then mused upon it was like “torture lite”–maybe not a figurative year in a Medieval prison, but more like recess trapped in the corner of the schoolyard with the class bully.  As with meditation, my mind kept wandering, I found myself scanning the rest of the room as if searching for a deus ex machina to release me from my penance, and I twitched and evaded and couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Me?  Wishing EATING would be over??  It’s unheard of!

In our class last evening, I raised the issue.  Was I the only one who’d had a hard time with it?  Apparently, yes.  For the rest of the class (to be fair, not everyone actually did the exercise, so I don’t know about those few who didn’t), eating with no distractions was like an oasis of peace and calm in an otherwise crazy welter of their days.  One woman even said that she’d come to rely on her breakfast ritual, in particular, as a way to start her morning on the right note, and felt unmoored without it. 

According to our instructor, sitting one-on-one with your food and forcing yourself to focus exclusively on it accomplishes a few things.  First, you are more aware of the quality of the food itself.  As she mentioned last week, it’s virtually impossible to plunk yourself down and devour a cannister of Pringles mindfully.  I found that to be true as well (not that I’ve eaten Pringles in the last decade or so):  once you know you must to sit and attend to every puff of popcorn, or every corn chip, or even every goji berry, one at a time, over and over, the idea of grabbing a quick snack between writing assignments doesn’t hold the same allure.  Similarly, if you’re eating food that is of poor quality, paying close attention to every sniff and bite will only highlight that fact, and you may find you’re not as inclined to scarf down that McDonald’s burger and fries quite so often.

In addition, eating mindfully slows down the process of how you select, bite, chew, and swallow the food, so bingeing is virtually eliminated.  When I succumb to a chocolate binge, I’m not paying very close attention to the quantity I ingest.  Basically, I eat as much as there is, until it’s gone (which is why I try not to keep it in the house).  With mindful eating, however, I realized very quickly that I didn’t need all that much to fill my belly.  After one apple (cut in segments and smeared with about a tablespoon of almond butter) for breakfast, I realized I’d had enough.  Maybe I wasn’t used to this bizarre new physical awareness, and it made me uncomfortable.

Finally, I realized that this exercise simply highlighted for me how much I’m overstuffing my schedule as well, and how I usually attempt to fit in too many items in a day; so many, in fact, that taking an extra hour or two to consume meals in isolation throws off the rest of the itinerary.  As I sat chewing my apple with awareness, I was also painfully cognizant of the newspaper draped across the opposite corner of the table, and that my solo meal meant I wouldn’t have another moment to read it that day (well, my teacher would say, you shouldn’t be reading the paper anyway–too much negative energy).

I’m going to try to stick with the practise, despite my discomfort.  For one thing, it’s helped me to determine whether or not I really want to eat something before I dig in; if it’s worth stopping my current activity to sit down and spend some alone time with a food, then I figure I must really feel like having it at that moment. Our instructor promises that the purpose of the exercise is to create a greater appreciation of what we eat, and, ultimately, a greater enjoyment of the food.  I’m waiting for that to happen.  In the meantime, I am glad for the decreased caloric intake.

This week’s homework:  incorporate greens into the diet once a day, along with cultured veggies.  Recipe coming up!

5 Responses to “On Being Mindful”

  1. VeggieGirl Says:

    I would never be able to stick with that practice – I’d go nuts!! Good luck with all that!!

  2. Romina Says:

    I’ve tried doing that, trying to taste every bit of my meal, but I find that I spend an hour in the kitchen and my parents think I’m insane! And as much as it would be nice to spend so much time thinking about food as I eat it, who has the time??

    But I think it’s a great idea for weight loss, food has become such an afterthought for so many people, and we are losing touch with what is really nourishing us. Maybe finding a balance between enjoying your food without overconcentrating on it would be optimal?

  3. Meg Wolff Says:

    I think that being mindful is not only a good experiment but a necessity. I am also practicing this on a daily basis … trying. It also slows me down, improves my digestion (a huge problem in the past that still lingers) and is a huge piece of my healing. This IS very important for everyone, but even more so for people with allergies or digestive problems. The time they might take to say eat slowly & mindfully can actually free up the time spent at a doctors appointment or being sick with a reaction or a headache.

    One of my macro friends said that how we eat is as important as what we eat, and I believe this whole-heartedly. But, as Americans we are not encultured to sit and take the time to eat so we do have to make a concious effort. Thank you for this great post as it reminds me to pay attention … and keep trying and practicing this.

    FYI … my mind (big time) would rather eat less and run around doing other things too, but it gets easier the more I practice. I liked your being in the school yard with a bully analogy.

  4. holler Says:

    Hi Ricki,

    I really enjoyed your post! I am afraid I don’t do much in the way of mindful eating. I do mindful cooking and taking photos of food, but then it is usually way too late and I am starving, sigh. This is a good reminder!

    I do mindfully eat dark chocolate, savouring every snap and melt, so maybe that is my starting point😉

  5. Ricki Says:

    VeggieGirl,
    Thanks for the good wishes. I think I’d go nuts, too–but from what I gather, we’re meant to do this only temporarily, until we learn to really appreciate out food. Maybe then we won’t feel the need to eat too much of it!

    Romina,
    I think that’s exactly what the teacher has in mind for us, too–this is, after all, a course for people who need some help with their eating habits. I’m with you, though; I think the reason I hated it was because I was ultra-aware that I “should” be spending my time on something else!

    Meg,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful and useful comment. I’d never thought of the time in quite that way–of course it makes sense and I’d much rather spend my time eating mindfully than waiting for a doctor’s appointment! Your words were also really reassuring to me, since I’ve just started really doing this, and it helps to know that even someone who’s been at it a while still needs to reflect sometimes and remember to eat this way. I’ll keep working at it, too.🙂

    holler,
    I love the idea of taking mindful photos!! Probably true of every food blogger. And I have to agree, chocolate is a great starting point for pretty much anything!!😉


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