Mindfulness. The term used to make me tense up. Which is just the opposite of its intention, of course — mindfulness is supposed to induce calmness and peace, not panic.
But mindfulness meditation requires something I don’t have a lot of: time.
Which is why, when I attended a class on mindful eating with Leslie Hubbard of the UVA Contemplative Sciences Center, her words resonated.
“We don’t have time to savor food because we’re rushed, stressed,” Hubbard said, to the gathering of 30 or so UVA employees. “We don’t have time to nourish our spiritual, emotional, physical, mental beings.” Heads nodded.
The appeal of mindful eating is that it’s something we already do everyday. There’s no need to introduce a new routine into your schedule. But Hubbard accurately described how most of us eat. “We don’t just eat,” she said. We multitask. We shovel in food at our desks while answering email. Or our minds wander, and we inhale whatever’s on the plate. Or we check Facebook, distractedly chewing more cookies than we intended. We eat, but we’re not really present.
The problem with this is that mind wandering has a direct correlation to unhappiness. A Harvard study on happiness found that people spent an average of 47 percent of their time not present — and unhappy.
The issue becomes not about making more time — but how one spends the time one has.
This ties directly into the work of Hubbard, who studied with meditation legend Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist author and leader. She touts an approach that encourages us to “use our everyday life to enhance our experience.” With eating, that means that we “really savor our food. Let the moment of eating be truly nourishing, not just for the body but for the mind.”
Starting the Practice
Part 1. Slowing Down
So how exactly does one transform a rudimentary ritual into a spiritual moment?
While passing out small handfuls of almonds and strawberries, Hubbard explained that there are two main parts to any mindfulness practice. The first is the goal of a calm mind, or “deep abiding.” To achieve this state of consciousness, you begin your eating mindfully by doing the following:
- Eating in silence
- Slowing down
- Observing senses — notice your food’s color, smell, taste, texture
- Try to chew each bite of food 50 times before swallowing
- Digestion starts in the mouth; focus on it
Focusing on chewing and the sensory experience of what’s in the mouth “right away calms both mind and body,” Hubbard explained. “Chewing becomes a meditation.”
A Cloud in Your Ice Cream
If you ask the cloud, “How old are you? Can you give me your date of birth?” you can listen deeply and you may hear a reply. You can imagine the cloud being born. Before being born it was the water on the ocean’s surface. Or it was in the river and then it became vapor. It was also the sun because the sun makes the vapor. The wind is there too, helping the water to become a cloud. The cloud does not come from nothing; there has been only a change in form. It is not a birth of something out of nothing.
Sooner or later, the cloud will change into rain or snow or ice. If you look deeply into the rain, you can see the cloud. The cloud is not lost; it is transformed into rain, and the rain is transformed into grass and the grass into cows and then to milk and then into the ice cream you eat. Today if you eat an ice cream, give yourself time to look at the ice cream and say: “Hello, cloud! I recognize you.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, “No Death, No Fear”
Part 2. Looking Deeply
The second part enters into contemplation. Before we began, Hubbard asked us several questions to consider while we ate:
- Where does your food come from? Be curious about the soil, the origins, the transport, the trucks and trains, the store, etc.
- What conditions had to exist to bring this food to you? This could include human labor, global trade, employment, your own history, etc.
- Recognize all people and elements who contributed to this meal — hands, energy, animals, machines, etc.
“These questions,” Hubbard told us later, “change how we interact with the world around us. If you’re lonely, for instance, at the cognitive and emotional level, when you see food as a gift from the entire universe, you ingest and savor that feeling, and you are not ever really alone.”
The Benefits of Mindful Eating
After a 15-minute interlude of sitting with a group of strangers, chewing in silence, Hubbard asked the class if we noticed anything different.
The mood in the room was one of genuine and happy surprise.
“It’s still here!” one man said, incredulous. “My food is usually gone by now.”
“It tastes so good!” said a lady, delighted. People nodded, eagerly, chiming in with more positive reactions.
“I’ve never gone to the deeper part of where it comes from, who prepared it.”
“It’s hard to eat a lot.”
“I noticed I was chewing while breathing, for the first time.”
“I’ve never been able to eat if I was not happy; but now I think, if I have a bad day, I can eat, regardless.”
“Someone took the time to prepare this, I took the time to taste this; I should not take it for granted”
“As I stopped and focused on the food, I wasn’t tuning out, I was really aware of everything else, really paying attention.”
The overwhelming praise for the exercise did not surprise Hubbard. Any kind of mindfulness practice — and Hubbard made clear that we could apply mindfulness to washing dishes, mowing the lawn, even driving — has the ability to ease loneliness and suffering, improve well being and imbue one with a sense of gratitude and generosity. If done on a regular basis, a mindfulness practice can even physically change the way our brain handles stress, making us more resilient in what many of us find to be a challenging, rushed world.
Take a Mindfulness Class
You can find mindfulness classes and programs at the UVA Contemplative Sciences Center.
Add to these benefits the result that often happens to people who practice mindful eating — weight loss — and it’s pretty amazing how something so simple can create so much change. All it takes is paying attention to the ordinary act of consuming food.
For those of us without a lot of time, this is the type of mindfulness that might actually work. We can practice being present and feeling connected with the world everyday, starting with one small bite.
You can attend free classes like this one through the Faculty & Employee Assistance program.