Bringing Mindfulness to Eating

Being alive during a time of overwhelming planetary crises can sometimes mean waking up with existential angst. At these times, I always come back to how I can be most useful in the world; and then mundane reality reminds me I have to eat or else I’ll have no energy to be of use to anyone.

Although I am not one of them, I am happy to know that many of the world’s coffee drinkers choose coffee that is grown free of chemicals, in the shade to protect birds, and with fair trade practices. Eaters who are paying attention to the big political issues surrounding food are choosing local, organic and non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) food. Once we become aware that so much chocolate is produced with child slave labour, we cannot ‘un-know’ it. Our chocolate hit can then become a way to intentionally support conscientious growers and sound agricultural practices.

All of these kinds of issues are part of a grassroots global phenomenon called Slow Food, which of course is not just about eating slowly. It’s an idea, a way of living, and a way of eating. Certainly chewing slowly promotes good digestion, while simultaneously being an excellent way to enjoy the sensual pleasure of eating. But Slow Food is more yet. To quote from their website, Slow Food “connects the pleasure of eating with a commitment to community and the environment.” Slow Food people campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of GMOs and promote community-run markets which strengthen local food networks that enrich local economies. They work to save our agricultural heritage by searching out forgotten flavours and products at risk of extinction. We don’t need to have a wheat allergy to be thankful for the diligence of those who saved the seeds of the delicious ancient grains spelt and kamut.

Every day we eaters prepare food to eat. Who can argue that cooking is one of the world’s most fascinating art forms, as diverse as the many spices and cultures in existence? When we cook, we take our own life force and imbue the food with it, creatively combining taste, texture, presentation, aroma, temperature and proper timing. On an energetic level, I believe that our attitude while cooking also has the potential to affect the final product. While it’s an industry joke that chefs can be quite arrogant, there’s nothing funny about chefs with a nasty attitude when they see a cook make a mistake, as seen on some television cooking shows. I prefer my food with a pleasant dash of life-giving attitude.

But sometimes life is just hard. If we have a family to feed, the well-known Zen practice – eat when hungry – just doesn’t work. We are forced to rise above any negative emotions we may be feeling and consciously work on cultivating a better attitude. The best strategy at times like this is to keep the meal simple and nutritious. If we don’t have to be responsible to others, it’s best not to eat at all if we’re feeling angry, sad, or any other of the more difficult human emotions. Have you ever noticed how in movies, the family dinner table often becomes the scene of arguments and vicious truth-telling? Since art imitates life, I am sure this actually happens, and I often wonder how the cook feels to see his/her efforts to create a nourishing meal ignored, as mealtime becomes a toxic environment. We can learn to avoid this by adopting another Zen practice: when eating, just eat.

This makes me think of someone we learned about in the hippie ‘70s –  a health faddist named Horace Fletcher who earned the nickname “The Great Masticator.” He argued that food should be chewed at least 32 times before being swallowed: “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate”.  He and his followers even claimed that liquids, too, had to be chewed in order to be properly mixed with saliva. His mastication method became known as “fletcherizing”, which does work well with some foods, such as brown rice. It certainly makes sense that by chewing well, meaning chewing as its own activity and not talking, that our attention to the food will aid in proper digestion.

However, the simple truth is that we eaters multi-task, and not only talk when eating, but also eat while driving, crossing a bustling city street, or watching TV. If we are in a hurry, we wolf down food. If tempted by a holiday feast, we eat too much, especially rich food, and pay later with the discomfort of indigestion. I do not claim to be an expert on any of this, however the reality is that each of us needs to learn that the body has certain requirements when we eat, such as observing the body’s reaction to spicy food, or to the eating environment. Recently, when my partner and I tried to take our young grandsons for dinner, as soon as we walked into the family pizza place, we had an instant reaction to the almost ear-splitting ruckus of noisy children. We knew we could not stay there, let alone spend money and eat! Very loud adult chatter has also sent us away from restaurants. Therefore, for me, a noisy eating environment is hard on the old nerves.

A mellow attitude of gratitude is always soothing. Here is a wonderful foody quote about gratitude, from “The Honey Sutras” by Ingrid Goff-Maidoff:

“When I add a spoon of honey to my tea, I give thanks to a dozen bees for the work of their whole lives. When my finger sweeps the final drop of sweetness from the jar, I know we’ve enjoyed the nectar from over a million flowers. This is what honey is: the souls of flowers, a food to please the gods. Honey-eaters know that to have a joyful heart one must live life like the bees, sipping the sweet nectar from each moment as it blooms. And life, like the world of honey, has its enchantments and stings….”

If we sincerely want to overcome the stings of life, and be participants in the evolution of human consciousness, we know we have to start with ourselves. We all eat for a living. From buying or growing quality food, to preparing it with loving focus, to giving thanks to the sun, soil, water and farmers, to chewing properly, eating can be a meditation. Then we can take that mindfulness out into the chaotic world and try to be useful human beings working towards the betterment of us all.

Tsiporah is a Gabriolan of 37 years, and keen observer of our times and evolutionary potential as compassionate human beings.