The term "mindfulness" is widely used in a variety of fields today--we hear about "mindful parenting," "the mindful manager," "mindful meditation," and in the diet and eating disorders field, "mindful eating." But what does "mindful Eating" really mean? It can help to turn the term on its head. Do you know what "mindless eating" is? Most people, especially those reading this blog, have an expert knowledge of "mindless eating." So, yes, in its most common-sense definition, mindful eating is the opposite of mindless eating. And that gives us a good place to start. Now for a more detailed explanation... The concept of "mindfulness" comes from Buddhist philosophy, and generally means "awareness." In Buddhist philosophy, "mindfulness" is one of the seven factors of enlightenment. The goal of mindfulness is to overcome greed, hatred and delusion. What's a delusion? A delusion is a belief that we hold on to, even though it is not based in reality. We may even know, on some level, that it is not based in reality, but choose to believe it anyway. There are many types of delusions. Can anyone think of an example? How about food-related delusions?
"I can have my cake and eat it too."
"I just walked 5 miles, so I can eat dessert tonight."
"If I don't write it in my journal, it didn't count."
Buddhism tells us that Mindfulness, or having an "attentive awareness of the reality of things" (especially the present moment), is an antidote to delusion. So, when you are being "mindful" you are slowing down and paying attention to the reality of things in the present moment, and if you do that, then you can't sustain a delusion. Mindfulness becomes a power when it is coupled with clear comprehension of whatever is taking place. "Clear Comprehension" means basically a good understanding of what's going on with you, in your life, in that moment. So, in order to have a "clear comprehension", you may need to really look at yourself, how you grew up, how you developed your relationship with food, how much power you project onto certain foods, and re-examine some of your ideas and assumptions about food and eating. In psychoanalysis this is referred to as making the unconscious conscious, and that is one of the main goals of therapy. You need to have both, "mindfulness" and "clear comprehension" in order to have power over your life, and specifically what we're working on today, having power over your eating.
So how do you become mindful about your eating? First of all, you need to slow down the process, and tune in to your physical and emotional state in the present moment, giving yourself time to breathe and get in touch with how you are feeling in that moment that you feel hungry.
We live in a culture that values fast-paced, multi-tasking lifestyles. And so it's not surprising that we tend to eat in a rush, oftentimes not even tasting or experiencing the food that we are eating. It makes sense that we don't feel satisfied because we don't take the time to fully enjoy and experience the food we're eating, or give our bodies a chance to feel full. Most people who struggle with a food addiction, are very familiar with "mindless eating?" Sitting in the car scarfing down a burger and fries, sitting in a movie theater powering through a huge tub of popcorn? If you are a binge-eater, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's like you are in a trance when you are on a binge. You are completely disconnected from your physical and emotional experience in the moment. Do you understand what I'm talking about when I talk about your "physical and emotional experience in the moment." When you have a food addiction, chances are that you use food to fill up not only your physical hunger, but also your emotional hunger. Do you know the difference between physical and emotional hunger? When you've struggled with overeating or bingeing, it can become very difficult to tell the difference. Can anyone give me an example of when they ate because they were emotionally hungry, but not really physically hungry? What's happening in that moment? You're over-riding your physical hunger cues because somewhere in your inner world, you've convinced yourself that food helps you feel better emotionally. But that is one of those delusions we talked about. Because it doesn't really make you feel better. It may distract you momentarily, but then (usually very quickly), your unpleasant emotions come back in full force and are joined by new ones of remorse, guilt, shame, anger, helplessness, etc. And the internal bully takes over and starts making you feel bad again, which in turn, makes you want to eat.
After years of eating mindlessly, it's no wonder many people feel like they can never again get reconnected with their own experience of hunger, how hungry they really are, how much food they really need to eat. In fact, after years of mindless eating, we begin to believe that we can't possibly know how much we need to eat. We look to the food labels to tell us how much a serving is, because we've become so disconnected from the experience of eating for nourishment that we can't remember, or maybe never knew what was a "normal" or "healthy" serving. One person told me that they bought a bag of goldfish crackers and to try to control their intake (rather than eating the whole bag), looked at the bag to see what a serving size was, and separated the bag into little baggies of one serving each. A serving was 35 goldfish. But one day, while driving she powered through a whole bag of 35 goldfish crackers and realized at the end that she hadn't even really tasted them. She had been shoving them in her mouth one after the next without even taking a breath in between. That's why when health professionals talk about "intuitive eating" many food addicts just laugh at the idea, knowing that if they trusted their "intuition" to tell them how much to eat, they'd never lose weight.
So, practicing mindful eating a little bit each day, even for just a few minutes, can quickly help you get back in touch with your body's cues, how much you need to feel full, and identify what is physical or emotional hunger, so that you can gain back power over your eating. Another very helpful tool in discerning physical hunger from emotional hunger is your food journal. If you've already eaten most of your allotment of calories today, chances are pretty good it's emotional hunger.
Just as with any new concept, understanding is one thing, and doing is entirely another. Take a few moments to walk through the experiential exercise below. This is best done with some sort of small finger food like grapes or edamame. Make sure you have your choice of finger food in front of you, along with a plate or napkin. Make sure it is a quiet place where you can be alone and focus for a few minutes.
MINDFUL EATING EXPERIENTIAL EXERCISE
Close your eyes, and pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in and out slowly. Notice how you are breathing. Is it deep or shallow, are you barely breathing? If so, try to slow it down and breathe a little more deeply. As you are breathing in, count one, ... two, ... three... now exhaling, count one,... two... three.
Notice how your body is feeling... Is there tension in your body? If so, imagine breathing into the tense places and sending your breath there, and then on the exhale, one... two... three... release the tension with your breath.
You might notice distracting thoughts coming into your head as you are doing this. Try not to hold onto the thoughts, let them flow into your mind and then out of your mind on the exhale. Notice how you are feeling emotionally. You may notice some anxiety, as this is new and strange, or you may feel calm and relaxed. Whatever you are feeling, allow it to flow over you without judgment, and then on the exhale release the feelings.
Now, try to notice your hunger level. Are you feeling hungry? Is it a physical hunger, or an emotional hunger? Try to tune in to the physical hunger, and let the emotional hunger flow over you and as you are exhaling, let the emotional hunger flow away. Gently bring your mind back to the physical hunger. Is it absent? Are you full? Or if it is there, is it small, medium or large hunger? Does it seem overwhelming? If so, try to breathe some of the overwhelming feelings out on the exhale... one... two... three... What does your body need right now?
Now slowly open your eyes.
The next part of mindful eating is staying centered in the here and now, as you are eating. Take some grapes or edamame and put them on a plate or napkin in front of you. Take as many as you feel hungry for--take a small amount for a small hunger, a medium amount for a medium hunger, and large amount for a large hunger. Don't worry about how many counts as small, medium or large for you. Everyone is different.
Pick up one grape or one edamame. If you have both, pick up the one you feel you are the most hungry for. Take some time to look at it. Turn it around in your hand. Feel the surface and the texture. What do you notice about it? How does it smell? You can share things you notice with the group if you'd like...
Now put the grape or edamame into your mouth. Don't bite down, just let it sit on your tongue. Notice the taste. Can you still smell it? How does it feel in your mouth? How does the skin taste or feel on your tongue? Is it spicy? sweet? earthy? You can turn it around in your mouth a few times so that can feel all sides.
Now bite into it. How does it taste? Notice the juice or the meat and if it tastes differently... Is it sweet? spicy? Is there a little zing? How does it feel on your tongue? Slowly chew it and try to notice as much about it as possible. The taste, the smell, the feel? The way your mouth reacts to it? As you swallow, notice the way it feels going down. How does your throat and stomach react to it. Can you feel it in your stomach?
Did you notice anything that surprised you? What was this experience like? What did it bring up for you? Did it make you feel impatient? bored? content?
Now focus back on your hunger. Is it still the same size? Is it a small hunger, a medium hunger, or a large hunger? How has it changed? How much do you want to eat another one? Are you hungry for something different now? Did anyone find that they went from a large hunger to a small hunger? Or was it just one step down? Or did it not change at all? Were you surprised at how quickly you felt satisfied or how one little piece of food could be so satisfying?
How does this compare to how you normally feel when you eat? Is anything different? How often is it that, during a meal, you ever put your fork down? Many of us just power through our meals and don't put the fork down until we are done. So if you make a point of putting your fork down from time to time, it gives you a chance to enjoy what you've just eaten, and to tune into your body and really experience the enjoyment of eating and a good meal. It also will give your body some time to feel full.
How can you see this working or not working in your daily life? Obviously when you are out to dinner with friends, or eating in a group, or on the run, it can be difficult to go through this whole process of slowing down and getting in touch with your breathing, and your body, closing your eyes, examining the food, smelling it, placing it in your mouth and not biting down or chewing right away. So, how can you do this in daily life? There are a couple of simple techniques to make even your most crazy day a mindful eating day. See the Tips for Mindful Eating article below.