The Five Contemplations of Eating Together
- This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard and loving work.
- May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive this food.
- May we recognize and transform unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed and learn to eat with moderation
- May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that reduces the suffering of living beings, stops contributing to climate change, and heals and preserves our precious planet.
- We accept this food so that we may nurture our brotherhood and sisterhood, build our Sangha, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.
Jim and I have just returned from a week visiting Jim’s brother and his wife. We met in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, about half way between their town and ours. We spent 4 days enjoying each other, the unseasonably warm days and some great food! It’s the food that I want to talk about in this post.
Our pattern was to take advantage of the hotel’s continental breakfast, skip lunch, have a big meal in the middle of the day, and then skip dinner. You can imagine how this affected us! For me, the sticky buns for breakfast triggered a sugar high, followed by a free-fall into fatigue accompanied by a dull headache. I would be starving by our 3 pm lunch and would eat twice the amount I needed to feel good again. Well, who wouldn’t when it was the best New England Clam Chowder I ever tasted and the seafood enchiladas were to die for! An hour later, we all needed a nap. In the evening, we’d eat snacks on our ocean-front hotel balcony. This routine may be fine if you’re twenty-five; but for those of us past sixty; it is risky behavior.
I have struggled my entire life with my eating habits. My favorite indulgences are peanut butter/chocolate ice cream, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and bread, in that order. When I dedicated myself to a mindful retirement, I included a focus on not only what I eat, but how I eat. I obviously can’t declare victory yet but every time I eat an apple for an afternoon snack or make a vegetarian dinner, I feel satisfied and still energetic. That’s preferable to a sugar coma anytime!
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating is a concept that has its roots in Buddhist teachings. Like other forms of mindfulness, it aims to connect us with the experience of eating, and enjoying, our food. According to Mother Nature Network’s Jenni Grover, mindful eating is the opposite of diets because it suggests there is no right or wrong way to eat, but rather, varying degrees of consciousness about what we are eating and why. The goal of mindful eating is 1) to eat based on physical cues, such as hunger signals, not emotional ones, like eating for comfort, and 2) to be fully present and intentional while eating. Following these two goals can completely change one’s relationship to food. While bringing mindful eating into my retirement lifestyle hasn’t been easy, I’m integrating some easy, accessible approaches that help me to stay on track.
- Eat slower. As Jim likes to remind me, “We’re retired!” It’s not a race and we no longer have to pick up a child from crew practice or iron our work clothes for the next day. When you take the time to savor and enjoy your food, you’ll chew your food more, digest it more easily, and you’ll notice flavors and sensations that you might have otherwise missed. When I make a vegetarian meal, I like to ask Jim what flavors he can discern from the food we’re eating. I’m learning to use herbs and spices in new and culturally diverse ways.
- Try silence while eating. Of course, this may not be practical if you have children or company during the meal. However, Jim and I have recently discontinued our practice of watching the news during dinner. This helps us focus more on our meal and each other. In the morning, Jim usually sleeps later than I do. So, I’ve started drinking my coffee in front of our big back window in silence. It helps me to be aware of my body, my emotions, and to my connection to nature outside my window. Following my coffee, I meditate. I’m finding these two practices set me up for a mindful day.
- Know your food. Mindful eating is about how you eat AND what you eat. This year I planted an herb garden for the first time in my life. I’m committed to integrating at least three vegetarian meals into our weekly dinners. And I try to connect with the story behind the food I eat. Who grew this food? How? Where did it come from? How did it get there? I’m finding that the more questions I ask, the more I care about what I’m putting into my body.
“At its most essential, the apple you hold is a manifestation of the wonderful presence of life. It is interconnected with all that is. It contains the whole universe; it is an ambassador of the cosmos coming to nourish our existence. It feeds our body, and if we eat it mindfully, it also feeds our soul and recharges our spirit.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life
You may be wondering why I decided to put a picture of raisins at the top of this post. There is an exercise in some mindfulness training classes that has become popular. It may seem silly but it is effective. Try it!
Contemplating a Raisin: (yes, I’m serious!)
- Take a raisin and hold it in one hand, then concentrate on it as if you’ve never seen one before. Look at it searchingly. Notice how many grooves there are in it. How many little raised bobbles. Whether the color is the same throughout. Whether it’s symmetrical or misshapen. Use your eyes to really, examine it intently.
- After a minute or so, alter your focus to the feel of it. You might want to close your eyes. Does it feel smooth? Soft? Sticky? Rough where the grooves are? Roll it between your middle finger and your thumb. Concentrate on what you are feeling as you touch and hold it.
- Now lift the raisin to your nose. Is there any scent to it? Breathe in slowly and notice any aroma.
- Next gently place your raisin in your mouth. Just let it lie on your tongue for a while. Then move it around inside your mouth. Gently play with it. Ponder on the vague taste of it.
- Eventually, press your teeth onto it without biting through it. What do you notice? A change of smell? A building sense of sweetness? Focus on the experience and how intense the flavor is. Then, gently bite right through it – and become aware of how the taste increases and lingers on your tongue. Suck gently, noticing how fruity your saliva is as the raisin loses its shape and form. When you are ready, swallow it.
- Sit awhile, noticing the sensation as the raisin begins its journey down to your stomach. Become aware of the taste and smell that remains in your mouth and the slight stickiness on your fingers.
- Breathe in and out slowly.