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!

The last few nights, I’ve been having trouble falling asleep, then waking up in the morning feeling exhausted.  My heart is pounding too fast, my chest feels full and heavy, my stomach aches ever so slightly.  I’d say this was caused by overeating or binging, but I haven’t actually been indulging in those lovely activities in the past couple of days, so that’s not it. 

What it is, I’ve recognized, is the oppressive stress I’m feeling because of this impending move (only 5 days away!), the lack of organization in our home preceding it, work pressures, and having to keep up with daily routines because of two little fur-babies who don’t have the faintest idea that their lives are about to change radically and irrevocably in less than a week. (“What?  Change radically? What are you talking about, Mum? Are you going to change our food?  Are you going to buy us new toys?  Are we finding a new trail to walk in–??? WHAT???”)

 Now, when this sort of thing has occurred in the past, I’d either ignore it (if all else were going well, or I found myself otherwise distracted), or rush to make a doctor’s appointment and check out all vitals (if anxiety were rearing its ugly persona once again).  In this case, however, I’m trying to be more self-aware as part of my overall plan, so I stopped to take a closer look at what it is and how it’s affecting me. 

Years ago, when I suffered regularly from panic attacks, I saw a wonderful therapist who practised cognitive therapy and recommended a program based on the philosophy of Jon Kabat-Zin, called Mindfulness Meditation.  I attended the sessions for eight Saturday mornings (culminating in an entire day of silent meditation–bliss!),  and learned how to use a form of meditation based on progressive relaxation.  Then, during my halcyon year at CSNN, I resurrected the practise as a daily routine before going off to school.  I have to admit that I felt fantastic.

So, this very morning, I awoke at 6:53 AM, mere minutes after the alarm blared beside my ear, and determined that I’d begin to meditate again.  Yes, I had promised myself (again) that I’d walk on the treadmill this morning, but this seemed more pressing.  So, after being greeted by one exuberant puppy pressing her cold, wet nose into my cheek (C. and I sleep on a futon bed, resting on a pedestal frame–which means our faces are perfectly aligned with dog-face level), I dragged myself upright and padded into the TV room.

I had done this before, only a couple of years ago, so there should be no problem, right?  I clearly remembered the routine, the progression from general relaxation to focusing individually on each body part and relaxing it in turn, along with breathing in while focusing on the part (and any sensations, pain, etc. there), then breathing out while letting the part go limp, consciously relaxing the muscle, freeing my mind of any thoughts (and gently returning it to the business at hand should it wander in any way).  I can do this, I thought. It’s like riding a bike.

And so I began.  Bare feet flat on floor.  I sit on a chair with a special back pillow behind me for support (bad back), so I’m actually upright and sitting fairly tall.  Face forward, eyes closed, tip of tongue on roof of mouth, breathe in–deep–breathe out, a heavy sigh, relaxing all of the body.  I’d deliberately left the light out (there’s just barely enough to limn the various pieces of furniture and assorted packing boxes in the room , these grey autumn mornings) so that I could close my eyes and really focus.

I’d gotten as far as focusing on the soles of my feet when I felt it again–the cold wetness, this time on my big toe.  Then used said big toe to push Chaser out of the way, Nylabone still in her mouth.  Back to the soles.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Relax.  Focus.

Not ten seconds later (I was at the ankle by now), she’d returned to chewing her bone, this time using the top of my foot as a brace so she could prop the bone between her paws and get a better chewing angle.  And I thought meditation was supposed to be RELAXING.  At this point, I was more tense than when I’d awoken.  I gave up with a sigh and headed toward the shower.

I think I will need to close the door next time I meditate.

(“But I found it very relaxing, Mum!  You should try chewing a Nylabone once in a while.  Great for the tension in your teeth.”)

I can already see how important accountability is when trying to adhere to an eating regime:  I got home from work, desperate for something chocolate.  Yet, knowing that I’m going to be posting this to the whole world (even if the whole world isn’t reading it!)–well, that’s what basically prevented me from stopping at the local Loblaws on the way home and buying a large-sized chocolate bar.

I’m still feeling a little full from lunch, even (and a healthy lunch it was, too:  the leftover sweet potato salad, with raw almonds and a big, crunchy Gala apple), yet still have a craving for chocolate–anything chocolate.  What to do?

Well, if I’m going to be honest and stick with my original rules, then I shouldn’t eat it unless I’m really, really hungry.  Should this rule be amended, then, to include “or when you really, really want just that thing“? This is what The Solution advocates.  So maybe it’s worth including.

What I’m going to do with this craving is twofold: first, I’m going to examine it, try to figure out why it exists today, at this time.  Next, I’m going to give in to it, within limits.  I know myself well enough to know that it’s impossible for me to eat “just one piece” of chocolate (at this point in my life, anyway).  Therefore, I will attempt to assuage the craving, but with something chocolatey that fits within the parameters of the NAG diet.  So:  Halvah!

I like halvah, it’s very filling, and I do a great halvah with a chocolate swirl.  But guess what?  Having blogged about this, I no longer feel like eating it.  So it’s off to the next activity, in this case packing for our house-move (coming up in one week–yikes). 

We’re so proud of you, Mum!  And what was that about a house move??

Have you ever woken up in the morning, still feeling full from the previous night?  I have to admit it’s happened to me more than I care to remember.  Of course, all that’s over for me now, right?  Hmm.  Not right.

I really thought yesterday was a near-perfect day in terms of meals and portion control.  True, I wasn’t eating a “perfect” selection of foods according to my diet plan, but I did the best I could in terms of a restaurant meal, and my dinner was brilliant (as my friend A would say).  What did I eat, you ask?  I will swallow my pride (along with all those meals) and tell you.

Brunch:  as previously mentioned, a Cora’s skillet.  True, non-organic egg and likely oil in the veggies, but a good choice given the venue.  The only better thing I could have done would be to order the oatmeal and sweeten it with stevia.

Snack: pink grapefruit; water; faux “iced coffee” (my fave:  made with coffee substitute and vanilla rice milk).

Dinner:  raw vegan sushi (made with raw almond pate, nori sheets, cucumber, radish, red pepper, avocado) and a ginger-lemon sweet potato salad (the recipe from Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food–which, as it turns out, is a great mag for some interesting vegetarian dishes).  Forgive me the lack of photos, for now; I will post as soon as I can figure out how to do it.

So. . . note that I haven’t mentioned how much of anything I ate.  This is because The Plan allows me to eat as much as I want, until I feel “comfortably full” (I just made up that last part–I assume that’s how much “normal” eaters eat).  And last evening, I did just that–did not overeat, I thought.  Proud of myself for the fabulous minerals in the nori, the protein in the almonds, the many veggies, the beta-carotene, fibre, and low GI in the sweet potatoes.  Not to mention the ginger dressing, a great immune-booster and anti-inflammatory (my eyes said, “thanks”).  And the Girls loved the salad, too (“Yum, Mum, you can make that any time!”).

I want to be able to eat what I want, without worrying too much about how much I’m packing away.  Again, it’s my quest for normalcy:  normal people (ie, those like my honey, without weight issues) eat what they like, when they like, and how much they like.  Unlike me, they don’t overdo it on a regular basis. 

So when I woke up this morning, still feeling a bit bloated from last night’s dinner, I wondered why.  Am I unaccustomed to the additional fiber in those sweet potatoes? Did I actually eat much more than I realized?  Is my digestion so screwed up that I’m unable to process even healthy food effectively? My answer is, “probably a bit of all three.” 

Off to work today, where I’ll consume the remainder of the s.p. salad and perhaps an apple for lunch.  Will see how that leaves me by the afternoon.

For a later post: trying to eat only when I’m really hungry.