Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Mindful Eating Meditation I Do to Stay Calm (Step-by-Step)

Mindful Eating Meditation

15 years ago I discovered a simple mindful eating meditation technique at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. It's been a lifesaver.  Today, whenever I notice that I'm eating in a rush, stressed, or anxious, I try eating mindfully using this method.  By the time I finish my meal I usually feel calm, present, and clear-headed.


How I discovered mindful eating


The first time that I had the opportunity to experience eating in silence and mindfully was back in 2006 when I stayed for one month at Kopan, a Buddhist monastery in Nepal.

Well, as a solo traveler I've had plenty of opportunities to eat in silence and on my own, even before visiting the monastery, but eating in silence is not the same as mindful eating.  

Eating in silence is a good habit because it gives you the opportunity to eat mindfully.  But you can be eating in silence and at the same time pay no attention at all at what you are eating.  

On the other side, you can be having a meal with friends yet at the same time, you might be eating mindfully.  That's a lot more difficult though.

Anyway, there was no instruction on how to eat mindfully at the monastery.  We were simply told to have our meals in silence.  But mindful eating is something that happens almost naturally when you are in this kind of environment.

It was very easy to do it at this time, and I really got into it.  I got so much into it that other foreigners staying at the monastery would approach me just tell me how much they love seeing me eating.  

My body movements became conscious and graceful.  My breath became very slow and deep.  I felt calm, relaxed, and radiant.  Mindful eating became clearly another form of meditation. 


How our environment can influence our behavior


I never imagined that eating slowly and quietly could make me feel this way.  It was a very profound and joyful experience.  

But it is easy to have this experience when you are in a conducive environment like at a Buddhist Monastery.  The spiritual vibrations of a place like this make it very natural and almost effortless to eat slowly and consciously.

The day I left the monastery after the one month course was over, I decided to have lunch at one of the local restaurants in Thamel.  

Thamel is a very touristy area in Kathmandu.  It is packed with shops, bars, and restaurants.  It has a very different vibe to that of the monastery.  As a matter of fact, it is the complete opposite.  

So when I got my food served I was ready to eat mindfully like I did every day for one month at the monastery, but believe it or not, I couldn't do it.

I could feel how I was rushing through my food.  I was not stressed, worried, or anxious, but I was definitely not in the same calm state that I was when I was at the monastery.

Like I mentioned in my video My Meditation Retreat in a Buddhist Monastery in Nepal, Kopan is a very powerful spiritual place.

A few years later when I visited the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala for my yoga teacher training course, I tried mindful eating again.  Because of the environment, I was once more able to do it without any effort. 


We need determination to overcome our habits


But don't worry, this doesn't mean that you have to go to a monastery, a retreat, or an ashram to be able to practice mindful eating.  You can try it right from the comfort of your own home.  

I must admit though, mindful eating in our day to day life is still challenging.  

Even if you have the opportunity to eat in silence you might still need a strong determination and will power to eat mindfully.

A lot of times, although I can see myself eating in a rush, with my body and mind tense, somehow I'm still unable to stop myself.  

It can take me a lot of determination to slow down and eat more consciously, and even then, many times I've failed.  Such is the power of our habits.

But whenever I do succeed, after a few minutes I can clearly feel all the mental restlessness and physical tension dissipating.  Instead, an experience of calm and tranquility takes place.

I'm always amazed by this experience.  It is mind-blowing how from one moment to next my physical and mental state can have such a drastic change.  

I can assure you that if you follow the steps that I suggest below, by the time that you finish your meal you can have that same experience.  The effort is totally worth it.


Why we eat so fast


It is true, sometimes I eat so fast that when I'm done with my food I wonder where did it go. Lol.  Does this ever happen to you? 

There could be many reasons for this.

One reason, as I mentioned in my blog The Beauty of Silence, could be because we are used to eating while doing something else, like watching TV.

Another reason could be because of stress and anxiety.

We might feel overwhelmed by our endless to-do list, so we eat fast to continue with our work right away.  Perhaps we believe that by finishing our food quickly we will have more time to complete our tasks. 

The reality is quite the opposite.  Although we might have “saved” a few minutes, eating in a rush creates even more mental tension.  

This means that we are unable to think clearly and work with concentration.  So whatever we have to do takes us even longer.

Or perhaps, like Irene Rubaum-Keller mentions in this article,
“There is anxiety associated with eating if you have a weight problem and sometimes you just want to get the eating over with so you can reduce that anxiety. It's stress, and guilt, and fear all rolled into one strange feeling when sitting down, or in many cases, standing up to eat.”

Whatever the reason is, when we eat in a rush without truly appreciating our food we are not in the present.  

This creates, besides more stress and health issues, a certain feeling of discontent within that we might not be very aware of.  

The solution to this is quite simple though.  We need to slow down, and we can use mindful eating meditation for that.  

Using our mealtimes as a meditation session can leave us feeling calm and relaxed, ready to continue with our work with concentration and mental clarity.


What exactly is mindful eating?


Let me first give you my own definition:

Mindful eating is simply to pay full attention to the food we are eating, the act of eating, and our mental or emotional state while we are eating, allowing ourselves to experience the present moment with a calm state of mind.   

This is the way that I like to express it, but there are many other definitions that you can find online.  

For instance, Headspace, a very popular meditation site, says about mindful eating:
“Mindful eating simply invites us to be present while cooking or eating, allowing us to truly savor our food without any judgment, guilt, anxiety, or inner commentary.”

“In essence, mindful eating means being fully attentive to your food—as you buy, prepare, serve, and consume it.”

And according to HelpGuide:
“Mindful eating is maintaining an in-the-moment awareness of the food and drink you put into your body, observing rather than judging how the food makes you feel and the signals your body sends about taste, satisfaction, and fullness.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, probably the most popular mindfulness teacher in the world, says in his book How to Eat:
“If you are thinking of work while you chew, that's not eating mindfully.  When you pay attention to the apple, that is mindfulness.” 

I think that summarizes it all, right?


The benefits of mindful eating


There is a myriad of benefits from eating mindfully.  Leo Batuta, the author of a very popular blog called Zen Habits, included a nice summary of these benefits in his own article about mindful eating:

    1. You learn to eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re sated.
    2. You learn to really taste food, and to enjoy the taste of healthy food.
    3. You slowly start to realize that unhealthy food isn’t as tasty as you thought, nor does it make you feel very good.
    4. As a result of the above three points, you will often lose weight if you’re overweight.
    5. You begin to sort through the emotional issues you have around food and eating. This takes a bit longer, but it’s important.
    6. Social overeating can become less of a problem — you can eat mindfully while socializing, with practice, and not overeat.
    7. You begin to enjoy the eating experience more, and as a result enjoy life more, when you’re more present.
    8. It can become a mindfulness ritual you look forward to.
    9. You learn how food affects your mood and energy throughout the day.
    10. You learn what food best fuels your exercise and work and play.

I'm sure you'll agree these are all valuable benefits, and a good reason to start eating mindfully right away.  But almost none of them are really of my interest.  

In my opinion, the main benefits of eating mindfully are the experience of calm and the experience of being in the present that you can have, during or after your meal.  

Seriously, you can feel like a different person by the time you finish your food.  That's my main interest and the focus on the approach I take.  

I'm surprised Leo didn't mention these benefits in his list.


How I Practice Mindful Eating Meditation (Step-by-Step)


The steps I mention below are what I discovered at the monastery in Nepal, simply by trying it. 

Like I mentioned before, my intention when I try this mindful eating meditation is on being calm and present. It is basically an extension of my sitting meditation practice. 

You might have other intentions and that's perfectly fine.  You can adjust these steps to your own liking to find what works best for you.

I also published a video to show you how I actually do it.  It's like a guided meditation, so you could try mindful eating with me.  But make sure you also read the steps below for more clarity.



I was moving a bit too fast in the video though.  You know, I was worried about the recording, the framing, and so on, so I was not very relaxed at that moment.  But by the end, I started to really get into it.


1.  Take a moment


When I try mindful eating I normally like to sit in silence for a moment before I start my meal.  I observe my breath allowing myself to calm down and enter a relaxed state before I take the first mouthful.

Like I mentioned in my previous blog, I turn off all distractions like online videos or even music so that I can eat in silence.  

During this moment I also like to say a mental prayer to express gratitude for the food that I'm about to have.  Actually, I try to do this in every meal regardless if I'm practicing mindful eating or not.

It doesn't matter what is your tradition or religion, or if you are a non-believer.  You can always take a moment to feel grateful and realize how much we depend on grace and on others for our own sustenance. 

At the monastery, meal times were used as an opportunity to practice loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity, feeling gratitude towards all the people that have worked to bring our food to our table.  

Just think about it.  From the farmer till the cook, hundreds of people have contributed with their work and effort so that we can have this meal.  We couldn't survive on this planet if it wasn't for the kindness of others.  

Realizing how much we actually depend on others just to have one meal, help us to be humble and it teaches us to cherish others.  


2.  Move consciously


Whenever I'm ready I consciously and slowly allow my hands to move to reach for my first bite.  Making conscious and slow movements helps to keep the mind in the present moment.  

You can think of it as a moving meditation, or a meditation in action, such as Tai-Chi or the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  Every movement is conscious, graceful, and deliberate. 

Moving slowly can also help us to become a detached witness of our actions.  You are able to observe yourself eating, taking some distance from the act of eating, and from any negative mental or emotional state at this time.

But don't worry if you miss these first two steps, as it will most likely happen at the beginning.  You can always start your mindful eating practice in the middle of your meal.

To be honest, when I am restless and agitated I can barely manage to take a moment before I start my meal.  I may say a quick prayer and then I quickly start to eat.  

Often, halfway through my meal, I have to make the conscious effort to slow down and be mindful.  This means that many times I start eating mindfully from the following step 3.


3.  Put your hands down


As soon as I take the first mouthful, with slow and conscious movements, I put down the fork and knife, or the spoon that I'm using.  Then I rest my hands on my lap and I focus on the food I'm chewing.  

This is really important.  You have to let go of the cutlery and put your hands down.  

If you keep holding your fork and knife you will not notice that all of a sudden your hands start reaching for your next bite, even without having finished the food you still have in your mouth.

By putting your utensils down, and resting your hands on the table or on your lap, you are allowing yourself some time to be fully aware whenever you take your next bite.

Putting your utensils down also gives you an opportunity to move mindfully, by making every movement graceful and conscious, placing your utensils very carefully on your plate.

If you are from India or other neighboring countries where you normally eat with your hands this won't apply to you of course.  But you can still just relax your arm down without touching your food.  


4.  Chew your food thoroughly


When I'm chewing my food I'm not trying to experience every flavor or texture, like many teachers suggest.  

That's certainly a good thing to do, but I prefer simply to focus on chewing my food thoroughly.  

I always remind myself at this moment that the stomach has no teeth.  By chewing our food properly we are helping our digestive system to better assimilate our food and make the best out of it.  Like the quote says: 

“Chew your liquids and drink your solids.”  

It is the same idea.  Even when we drink we should keep those juices for some time in our mouth to stimulate the release of digestive enzymes.  

I know, this doesn't have much to do with mindful eating, but you might consider counting how many times you chew to help the mind stay present.

Some people suggest that you should chew your food for at least 32 times.  I see no reason for that.  I don't think you can chew mash potatoes that much, right?  And a salad could take even longer than that.

The point is to take your time to properly chew your food before you swallow it and go for another bite.


5.  Take two slow breaths


The next step is the most important step in mindful eating.  In my experience, this step is what has mainly helped me transform a mundane activity like eating into a truly meditative experience.  

After I finish chewing my food, and while I keep my arms relaxed with my hands on my lap,  I take two slow breaths.  As I inhale I feel my belly slowly expanding and as I exhale I feel my belly slowly contracting.  

I'm not chewing at this moment.  I'm not doing anything at this moment.  I'm simply observing my breath with my arms relaxed and my hands resting on my lap.

I make sure there is no movement at all in my chest.  This is very important.  Belly breathing induces relaxation while chest breathing induces tension.  If you watch my video you'll notice that my chest hardly moves, if it moves at all. 

Well, you can't barely notice the movement of my belly as well because of the position of the camera but if you pay attention carefully, you might see my t-shirt moving slightly, following the movement of my belly.

By observing the movement of your belly, according to the rhythm of your breath, you naturally enter a relaxed state of mind.  You need to make sure though the breath is relaxed, slow, and effortless.

I am basically combining mindful eating with mindful breathing, and this is very effective as each practice support the other.  It's like half the time you are in a sitting meditation and the other half you are eating consciously.

By the way, if you feel like you just can't wait for two breaths to take your next mouthful then I recommend you take three breaths instead.  

Yes, I am serious.  

If you feel that almost irresistible urge to go for your next bite, this means that you are definitely stressed, and that is exactly what we are trying to deal with here.  

By gently forcing yourself to take another slow and relaxed breath you give yourself more time to relax and to overcome this anxiety.

I suggest you visit my blog Why Sitting Still Doing Nothing is More Productive Than You Think to understand better the effect of stress on the mind and how the breath can help to overcome this tension.


6.  Decide when to move before you move


This next step is another very crucial step.  After taking these two breaths, before I make any movements, I bring my awareness to my arms knowing that I am about to move.  

I resist the tendency to let my arms move right away, and instead, I consciously decide when to move them.  Only then I allow my hands to reach for the fork or spoon before taking my next mouthful.

It is actually quite difficult to be aware that you are about to move before you move.  Taking those two breaths makes the process much easier since this allows the nervous system to relax, and it also gives you the time to be mindful.


7.  Move slowly


Once you decide to move, since the movement is under your control it is easier to move slowly and consciously.  

You will notice that if you eat like this for a while there will be a moment when you naturally start moving very slowly and without any effort.  

Even if you get distracted and your arms move before you decide to move, you will notice that your movements are more graceful.

This last step is pretty much the same as the second step.  

I decided to make an emphasis here though because it is much easier to do after you finish chewing your food and after you take those two slow breaths.  

Also, as I mentioned before, even if you forget about mindful eating when you start eating you can always start in the middle of your meal.  You will then naturally start by putting your hands down, watching your breath, and then moving consciously.

After this last step, you simply keep repeating this process on and on until you finish your food.


In Summary


These few steps (steps 3 to 6) of putting the hands down, watching your breath and consciously decide when to move next, is what in my experience truly helps you to stay mindful throughout your meal.  

It doesn't matter if you forgot to take a moment in the beginning.  It doesn't matter if you are already eating in a rush.  You can start eating consciously at any time by putting the hands down and taking two slow breaths.  

Taking these two slow breaths and moving slowly each time will gradually relax your nervous system.

If you were feeling anxious or stressed when you sat down to eat, by the time that you finish your meal you will most certainly experience a completely different mental and physical state.


When is the best time to practice mindful eating meditation


The easiest way to practice this mindful eating meditation is to do it whenever you are able to eat in silence.  That's probably going to be the first challenge for most people. 

Mealtimes, particularly in western countries, is a moment to be sociable and to engage with our family or friends.  For many of us, it is a very strong part of our culture.  We can't just sit in silence and ignore others, and we can't force others to do the same.  

However, if your partner is open for it you could both try this together.  

Believe me, eating in silence with your loved one, when both of you are into it, can be a beautiful experience.  Sharing a meal in silence it's a different way to connect with each other.  

After you finish your meal you can always stay on the table to talk with each other.  Who knows, maybe after sharing that experience you might have more meaningful conversations.

If you have children, depending on their age they might also like to try this.  Make sure you respect their desires though, instead of forcing them into it.

But of course, you don't have to eat in silence to eat mindfully.  You can still practice mindful eating even if you are engaged in conversation with family and friends.  

However, this is a lot more challenging.  It might be better just to be fully present with others instead of worrying about mindful eating. 

If you are eating alone in a public place like a restaurant, you can definitely use that moment to eat mindfully.  I suggest you don't close your eyes though. Lol.

Mindful Eating Meditation Pinterest

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash


What is your experience?


If you decide to try this mindful eating meditation I would love to hear about your experience.  Let me know how did you feel before and after, or what challenges did you face.

Also, feel free to share any other tips you might have in the comments section below.

If you think this information is valuable don't hesitate to share it with your friends, and please make sure you subscribe to my newsletter here so you never miss an update.  Thanks for your support.

2 comments:

  1. thanks for sending this Marco, I read it once and will keep it to read over once again to savour it well

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    1. Thanks to you for taking the time to read it and savor it well 😊🙏

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