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Five ways to develop a skillful relationship with food from physician and Zen Priest JAN CHOZEN BAYS
Mindful eating is a way to rediscover one of the most pleasurable things we do as human beings. It also is a path to uncovering many wonderful activities that are going on right under our noses and within our own bodies. Mindful eating also has the unexpected benefit of helping us tap into our body’s natural wisdom and our heart’s natural capacity for openness and gratitude.
Here are five principles we can use to help us to cultivate mindfulness as we eat:
1. Slow It Down
Zucchini & Tangerines, 2007, archival pigment prints, 9 x 12 inches
In America we eat very quickly. Many people have told me that their attitude toward meals is to “just get it over with as soon as possible.” The American habit of eating fast is not new. Foreigners visiting early American taverns recorded their astonishment at how quickly food was eaten. The technique was dubbed “the three G’s” for “gobble, gulp, and go.” A Tennessee historian records that a European visiting the colonies was puzzled by the “haste, hustle, and starving attitude the inn frequenter displayed. Everyone stuffed himself at uncanny speeds.” Another visitor “was amazed that in barely twenty minutes he had witnessed two series of meals in his hotel.” Our propensity to eat and run has not diminished over the intervening two centuries. Research shows that North Americans spend only eleven minutes eating lunch at a fastfood restaurant and thirteen minutes at a cafeteria in their workplace.
There are many ways to slow down our eating and drinking. You might experiment by trying each of the following techniques for one week:
Make a point of pausing.
Here are some methods for helping yourself to slow down your eating by creating pauses:
1. Pause before beginning the meal. Look at each item of food, taking it in with the eyes. Notice colors, textures, shapes, arrangement on the plate or bowl.
2. Take a moment to say grace. Thank the animals, plants, and people who brought this food to you. Be aware of their gifts as you eat.
3. Begin the meal by pausing to inhale the fragrance of the food. Imagine that you are being nourished by just the smell.
4. Eat food like a wine connoisseur tastes wine. First sniff the food, enjoying the bouquet. Then take a small taste. Roll it around in the mouth, savoring it. What ingredients can you detect? Chew slowly and swallow. Take a sip of water to cleanse the palate. When the mouth is empty of food and flavor, repeat the process.
5. If you notice that you are eating without tasting, stop and pause to look at the food again.
When we gulp drinks, we don’t taste them. As a result we drink more, trying to get more taste sensations. We can slow down our drinking in two ways. The first is to enjoy what we’re drinking by holding the liquid in the mouth for a few seconds before swallowing it. Swirl it around a bit and enjoy the taste before swallowing. Pretend you are in a TV ad, showing the audience how much you enjoy this drink.
The second method is to put the cup or glass down while tasting and swallowing. Only when the mouth is empty and the taste is fading do we pick it up and take another drink.
Put down the fork or spoon.
This is one of the most reliable and simple ways to slow down your eating. Each time you put a bite of food into your mouth, put down the fork or spoon, onto the plate or into the bowl. Don’t pick it up again until the bite you have in your mouth is chewed and savored completely and swallowed. For real appreciation of the bite that is in your mouth, you can close your eyes as you chew and swallow.
When that one bite has been thoroughly tasted and is gone, then pick up the utensil, take another bite, and put the utensil down again. Watch the interesting impulses that arise in the mind with this practice.
2. Right Amount.
The next guideline for mindful eating has to do with how much we eat. The concept of “right amount” comes from the Buddhist teaching of the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. Each part of the path is described with the adjective “right”: right view, right mindfulness, right effort, and so on. In the Buddhist teachings “right” means appropriate, beneficial, leading to happiness and freedom. What, then, is “right amount”?
I first heard of right amount from my Zen teacher Maezumi Roshi. He said that when we considered what was ethical to do in any situation, we had to consider several factors: right time, right place, right people, and right amount. I didn’t understand the last factor, right amount, very well until I began practicing mindful eating. I saw that mindful eating is ethical action. It is ethical action toward our self, toward all the beings who bring us our food, and toward all those who are hungry in the rest of the world.
In the monastery, our meals are an essential aspect of our spiritual practice. We eat at least one meal a day according to the ancient Zen ceremony called oryoki. Except for chanting, we eat in silence, using a special set of bowls. The bowls are graduated in size so they can nest inside each other. Even the largest bowl is not very big. It holds about one and a half cups. Oryoki means “just enough.” The modest size of our eating bowls helps us eat just enough to remain healthy, just enough to feel satisfied, just enough to meditate without becoming sleepy, just enough to not be swayed by greediness.
“Just enough” is not a fixed amount. It changes according to circumstances. To be aware of “just enough,” we have to be mindful. When we practice oryoki, we can’t take too much, as we must eat everything in our bowls within the time allotted for the meal. We have to be aware of changing conditions, how hungry we are, how much we’ve been exercising, and how cold it is. The monastery is cold in winter, and we need extra calories to keep our bodies warm. A young man who is still growing and has been working all morning digging holes for fence posts needs portions twice as large as a middle-aged person like me. We all adjust how much we take to the amount of food in the serving bowls, the number of people who will be served, and how much food they need to eat.
The beloved Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah gave these guidelines about right amount:
When you think that after another five mouthfuls you’ll be full, then stop and drink some water and you will have eaten just the right amount. If you sit or walk afterward you won’t feel heavy. . . . But that’s not the way we usually do it. When we feel full we take another five mouthfuls. That’s what the mind tells us. It doesn’t know how to teach itself. . . . Someone who lacks a gen uine wish to train their mind will be unable to do it. Keep watching your mind.
If we followed the advice of the spiritual masters, we would maintain mindfulness of hunger as we ate, stopping when we were 80 percent full—or at least four or five mouthfuls from being full. Then we would drink some water.