Stop scarfing down your food
And you might learn that eating can be a surprisingly meditative and transformative experience.
WHEN I first went on a long-stay retreat at a Buddhist monastery, I anticipated struggling with two things: the 4am rises, and being able to eat only one main meal a day.
I wasn’t a big eater at the time, so having what was, essentially, dinner at 11.30am didn’t bother me. Rather, it was having the choice taken away from me of eating whenever I felt like it. Having worked in politics and journalism, I was used to eating on the go, which often meant eating whatever I could find at all kinds of hours. I was in my early 20s then and I had never before experienced any restrictions on my eating habits.
Lay guests who spend time in Buddhist monasteries are encouraged to live the monastic way of life as much as possible. There are eight basic precepts to follow, including the commitment to take no food after noon every day.
Part of the reason for this precept is to help remove any distractions from leading a contemplative life. Knowing that there are no more meals after noon saves you from wondering what you’ll have for dinner. As such, you’re free to focus on the present.
It also encourages us to have a deeper appreciation for the food we receive. Since all the food is literally offered by the lay community (Buddhist monastics are forbidden to grow or cook their own food), the awareness that one meal will provide your sustenance for each day makes you more thankful for it.
It’s with this in mind that you’re encouraged to eat your meal “mindfully”. In other words, you take the time to savour your food with a sense of gratitude and contentment. Getting over my initial nostalgia for chocolate biscuits, I found a new appreciation for food that I had never known before.
I discovered that, rather than scoffing down the meal, I took the time to enjoy it as much as I could. And when “poor me” thoughts crept in, it was humbling to remember that many people throughout the world can and do go days without as much as a cup of rice.
I had no idea that eating could be such a meditative and transformative experience.
It turns out that the
Buddha was onto something when he laid down this guiding principle for the consumption of food. Not only does mindful eating have beneficial spiritual effects – such as developing gratitude, awareness, and heightened experience – it also comes with abundant physical benefits.
I’m sure most of us know what it’s like to be so engrossed in a film at the cinema that we barely notice the amount of popcorn we shovel into our mouths. Even after consuming large quantities – and despite having just taken in more calories than a large cooked breakfast – we find that we’re still hungry.
This is because, unless we’re paying attention to what we’re eating, the brain fails to register how much we’ve consumed and, as a result, fails to signal a feeling of being full. Researchers at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada found that people who engaged in a 15-minute mindfulness exercise before eating consumed 25% fewer calories compared with those who took part in a simple relaxation session.
Further research at the University of California discovered that mindful eating helps obese people to lose weight and lower glucose levels in their blood, which predicts a lower risk of developing diabetes.
I remember, as a child, my mother would often tell me, “chew your food properly”, and teachers would add to this advice by suggesting that each mouthful of food should last for 20 chews before swallowing. While perhaps not scientific, the point was nevertheless valid: take your time over the food you eat – don’t rush it.
At the time, I viewed the advice as just another bureaucratic rule designed to spoil my fun. As it turned out, the advice is well worth heeding for all sorts of reasons.
As my first stay at the monastery unfolded, I discovered that the more mindfully I ate, the more I could taste and appreciate, and I came to enjoy even the most basic foods such as brown rice and vegetables.
To eat mindfully, one isn’t required to sit like a Zen master in front of one’s meal. All that’s needed is to take the time to enjoy and savour our meals and to consciously bring feelings of gratitude to mind for the food that we’re able to eat and share with others.
Practising mindful eating with even just one meal in the day can show us the difference it makes compared to how we often eat our food. Not only do we become more thankful (benefiting from a boost in happiness), but it’s also great in a number of ways for our physical health – and the food tastes much better, too.
Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail email@example.com.