Stop scarf­ing down your food

And you might learn that eat­ing can be a sur­pris­ingly med­i­ta­tive and trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - star2@thes­tar.com.my Sandy Clarke

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 star2@thes­tar.com.my.

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