In Zen we are instructed, “When hungry, just eat.” Whenever we eat or drink we have the opportunity to turn our attention to the vivid clarity of this very moment of experience—if we take time to just eat.
Too often we feel that eating is something to get over quickly while we multitask. We eat while talking on the phone or working on the computer. It is the simplicity of just that we need to turn toward.
This moment is the only place where we are alive. Our original buddhanature, our natural mind, is not in some other place or some other time. It is, as the Shangpa tradition of Tibet says, “So close you can’t see it, so simple you can’t believe it.”
The more time we spend in moments of alive-ness, the greater ease and satisfaction we will experience in our lives. Mindful eating gives us many opportunities to be fully present and experience the liveliness that constantly arises in the vast field of open awareness.
In mindful eating, we deliberately direct our full awareness to that liveliness, in the form of the bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise and disappear as we eat. Most important, we do this without criticism or judgement. We bring clear attention and curiosity to the colors and shapes of our food (as if appreciating a work of art), to the changing fragrances and flavors, to the textures and even the sounds of our food.
Eating can be a dharma gate, because when we are truly present with anything we open the gate to Great Presence, which is an inexhaustible source of true nourishment. Here are five steps you can take to practice mindful eating during every meal.
1. Begin with Gratitude
Begin your meal with a traditional grace, perhaps one from childhood. Or you can take a few silent moments to call to mind all the people (farmers, packagers, grocers, checkout people) and other life forms (insects, bees, earthworms) whose life energy has contributed to the food you are about to eat.
Visualize them all gathered at your table and thank them. Research shows that a small ceremony before eating helps us eat more mindfully and in appropriate amounts.
2. Be Kind to Your Stomach
Too often we live at a distance from our bodies and ignore the teachings they offer us in every moment. Before you take your first servings of food, bring your attention to your stomach. How much volume would it be comfortable working with? One cup? Two cups? Three cups?
Serve yourself two-thirds of that amount to begin. After you have eaten it, check in with your stomach again. How full is it? The tongue may say it wants more tastes, but does the stomach really want more volume to work with? We can learn to make such daily life decisions not from desire or compulsion but from overarching awareness. Awareness brings choice, and choice brings freedom.
3. Take Mindful First Bites
Take a few minutes to savor the first few bites of food or sips of liquid. It helps to close your eyes and bring full awareness into your mouth. Pay attention to changing flavors, temperatures, and textures. Halfway through the meal, pause and have something to drink in order to refresh your palate. Pauses like this enable you to savor the freshness of more “first few bites.”
4. Slow Down
It takes twenty minutes for satiety hormones to be released and reach the brain, signaling that we have had enough to eat. Slowing down can help us eat more appropriately and expose our conditioned habits.
Try eating with your non-dominant hand. It’s fun and funny. Or try putting down the utensils between bites. Don’t take another bite until the first bite is fully chewed, enjoyed, and swallowed. If you want to eat less and enjoy it more, slow down.
5. Feed the Multitude Within
There are more living organisms in your gut than there are human cells in your body. This “second genome” of 100 trillion beings is involved in many aspects of our health, including immune function, excess weight gain, heart health, and even mental health. (Note: the helpful bacteria thrive on “real food,” not processed food.)
So after you eat, bring your awareness to the universe of tiny beings within your belly. Send them loving-kindness and a wish for their good health and continuing support of your body, heart, and mind.
Finally, widen the field of loving-kindness with the prayer “May all beings be equally well nourished, both with food and drink and also with the most satisfying food—the food of dharma.”