Reinventing the Meal: A Path to Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is about much more than simply understanding the health impact food will have on your body.
By Pavel G. Somov, PhD
November 2012
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Mindful eating can be as simple as taking a moment to think about the path your food took to arrive at your plate.
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In Reinventing the Meal (New Harbinger Publications, 2012), you’ll learn how to reconnect with your body, mind, and world with a three-course approach to mindful eating. Inside, you’ll find mindfulness exercises to help you slow down and enjoy your food, pattern-interruption meditations to infuse presence into your eating life, and unique stress management tips to prevent emotional overeating. In Chapter 4, "Third Course: Reconnecting with Your World," author Pavel G. Somov, PhD, offers a variety of ways to connect with your food, such as pattern-interruption strategies.

"Every rite has its irrational, mystical center, its acme of concentration, its moment out of time… Its purpose is ecstatic union, however fleeting, with transcendent reality, with the ultimate, with what is beyond mutability."

—Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews

The old-school meal begins with food, proceeds with mindless eating, and ends with feeling stuffed and existentially empty. The new meal begins with a first course of relaxation, proceeds with a second course of self-awareness, and then progresses into mindful, conscious, intimate appreciation of the world at large through food. As such, the third course of the new meal is about both mindful eating and mindful interbeing with all that immediately is. Having reconnected with your body and then with your essential self, the challenge is to stay in touch with the world as you consume it. Remember, when you’re eating, you’re  eating Earth and becoming Earth. So the goal is to stay humble and not let your mind wing you away to the heavens of abstraction. The goal is simply to just eat. However, while it’s easy to say “just eat,” it can be hard to do. The point of this chapter is to make it easier.

Mindfulness Is Awareness of Choice

Habits preempt choice. Once a given behavior goes on autopilot, we just keep on flying on the course set by habit. Making choices is work, and the mind often doesn’t want to hassle with it. So it leaves the dirty work of making choices to the memory of the body. Mindless eating is basically muscle memory, whereas mindful eating is a series of mini choices.

The body itself makes no choices, it just repeats what it has done previously as trained by the mind. In terms of eating, we have pretty much trained ourselves to ignore eating. Watching TV or checking email is the steak we have for dinner; the food itself is just garnish. That’s the wheel of automaticity, the wheel of mindlessness. Eating is one of the most overlearned voluntary behaviors in the human repertoire of skills. So let’s breathe some mindful choice into this mindless choicelessness. In the meantime chew on this: mindlessness is choicelessness, whereas mindfulness is an awareness of choices, that is, choicefulness.

Try This: Draw the Circle of Choice

Get three sheets of paper and a pen. Draw a circle on each piece of paper, for a total of three circles. Please don’t read any further until you have drawn your three circles. Once you’ve drawn your circles, look at them. Chances are you have drawn all three circles in more or less the same way. I bet that the placement of the circle on each page is similar, and that all three circles are somewhat similar in diameter. Most likely, you even drew all three by starting at the same point (probably somewhere in the upper right) and drawing them in the same direction. Did you consciously intend for these circles to be similar in terms of their placement on the page, their size, and even the starting point and direction in which you drew them? Probably not.

In a sense, you didn’t draw these circles—habit did. These circles, as evidenced by their unintentional similarities, were drawn too mindlessly, too reflexively, too mechanically, too robotically—ultimately, too unconsciously—for you to take full credit for this action. This was a reaction, meaning a reenactment of some circle-drawing habit. True action involves conscious deliberation. Realize that habits are just like these mindlessly drawn circles. They are mindless behavioral feedback loops that endlessly flow into and out of themselves.

If habits are the wheels that keep life spinning in circles, let’s toss a monkey wrench into this circle cycle. I invite you to draw another circle. But this time, draw it mindfully, with the awareness of the options available to you. Intend the choices that you didn’t make the first time. Choose where on the page to place the circle, choose the starting point, choose the direction in which you will draw the circle, choose the diameter of the circle, and even choose whether to bring the ends of the line together to make a full circle or not. Go ahead and do it and notice the difference.

Enso Your Way into Eating

Enso is Japanese for “circle,” a common subject of Zen calligraphy. An empty enso circle symbolizes enlightenment and the void (emptiness). Why void? Why enlightenment? An enso drawing, as I see it, documents the fleeting insubstantiality of the moment and the enlightened awareness of its impermanence. As such, an enso drawing is a pattern interrupter. It is a moment of presence, or mindfulness, and a commitment to the moment, however fleeting it might be.

Most of us in the West eat off of circular plates. Next time you see the circular shape of a plate, think, “enso!” Think, “a symbol of void and emptiness not unlike my hunger.” Think, “an opportunity for awareness!” Recognize the circular dish in front of you as an invaluable cue and ask yourself, “Will my next eating moment be just another mindless spin around this carousel of eating? Will it be another vicious cycle of mindless overeating? Will I spend the next ten minutes flipping through the menu circle of TV channels with untasted food in my mouth? Or will I break the pattern, select a new course, notice the moment, notice the world, touch reality, and see myself interact with it?” Before you find yourself mindlessly cleaning your plate, clean the cobwebs of routine patterns from your mind.

Try This: Put a Finger on It

You don’t have to stop with enso-inspired thoughts. You can literally enso your way into eating. Whereas classic Zen enso calligraphy is brushwork, you can use your fingers. Put an empty plate in front of you and trace the rim of the plate with your finger. That’s an enso finger painting—but a fairly mindless one. Now allow the empty plate in front of you to symbolize the void of your hunger, then make a conscious choice about whether you will trace it clockwise or counterclockwise. Then consciously choose a starting point and mindfully trace an enso of presence around the rim of the empty plate. Practice this enso routine as a rite of eating passage, a green light of presence and awareness, a way of giving yourself permission to proceed. Consider this enso moment as a kind of preflight inspection: “Here I am. I have showed up for this moment, fully myself, self-aware, and aware of my choices—an eater, not an eating zombie.”

Pattern-Interruption Strategies

Choice-awareness training is intended both as a general tonic for promoting mindfulness and as a specific tool for leveraging more presence while you eat. The idea behind choice awareness and pattern interruption is to take you off of autopilot and keep you off. Mindlessness is blindness. Mindfulness is vision. Here are some approaches to help you loosen up your eating patterns and to help you see—with your mind’s eye—what you are eating.

Try This: Eat with Your Nondominant Hand

Switch the hand you use to eat with. If you typically eat with a fork or spoon in your right hand, hold it in your left hand, and vice versa. Note the confusion of the mind and the increase in your level of mindfulness. Likewise, if using more than one utensil at a time, as with a knife and fork, switch hands to break up habitual eating patterns and to infuse more presence into the process of eating.

Try This: Eat with Atypical Utensils

Utensils are part of the hypnotic ritual of eating. They cue our hands—and minds—to engage in a certain complex of motor behaviors. As such, a utensil is an ignition key for mindless eating. Take the utility out of utensils to inconvenience your mind and leverage more presence. Experiment with using either “wrong” or unfamiliar utensils to appreciate the effect of this strategy on the staying power of mindful presence. For example, use a fork to eat soup or, yes, a knife to eat peas. If you aren’t familiar with using chopsticks, try eating with them. Another option would be eating with your hands. Or try makeshift utensils, perhaps a piece of celery as a spoon. Throw your mind a curveball to keep it on its toes while it eats.

Try This: Adopt a Different Posture While Eating

Another avenue to increased mindfulness is experimenting with different postures while eating. If you typically eat at a table, try sitting on the floor. Note how this change in posture changes your eating experience. Chances are, you usually sit while eating, so try eating while standing up. This will keep your mind from falling asleep over your plate and also help you notice the food.

Try This: Eat with Your Eyes Closed

Close your eyes to see—with the mind’s eye of mindfulness—what you are eating. Mindfulness is “super-vision”: it sees and “over-sees” with the eyes shut. Try this out in the weeks to come to keep your mind on track while you eat.

Try This: Eat in a Different Setting

Places teem with stimuli. They become conditioned cues for behavior. Redraw the map of your eating geography. Move to a different side of the table. Eat at a different table to enjoy a different view, including a different view into yourself. Eat in a different room to make room for your mind. In short, change your eating habitat to change your eating habits.

Try This: Experiment with Exotic Foods

Change up what you actually eat. Trying out unfamiliar, exotic foods will help

your mind stay put on eating. The tongue is a thrill seeker; it wants an adventure. But without the tour guide of mindfulness, the tongue will miss out on the gustatory scenery. Therefore, I encourage you to combine new foods with the pattern-interruption techniques above to leverage the mindful presence you bring to eating. This will help you notice these new worlds of taste on your eating journey.

Finding the Flavor of the Moment

There are two ways of looking at flavor. One is to see flavor technically, as a convergence of taste, smell, and texture. The other take on flavor is more existential. By all means notice the flavor of the food in the technical sense, but also notice the flavor of the eating moment. Time hides itself; it slips away when unattended. It takes presence of mind to experience a moment in time. Ask yourself, “What is significant about this eating moment?” But try not to sink too deeply into this thought; try not to let your mind soar too far aloft. Just open up to the significance, if any, and let go.

Allow yourself to be aware of the irrelevancies of the eating moment. Take them in and note them, but avoid pondering them or considering them to be any deeper than they are. Here you are, Earth yourself, eating Earth, while Earth itself is spinning along on its cosmic ride—the significance of the moment need not be much more than that. Be at home in the moment, mixing mouthfuls and mindfuls.

Ask yourself, “What is the flavor of this moment?” At a minimum, if you are mindful you are in touch with reality, touching the world by eating it, being touched by it as the food massages its way inside you, feeling touched by all that lived, breathed, worked, and died for you to have this eating moment. You are touched by all of this but not overwhelmed. No undue sentimentality is required. Simply eat—just eating quietly and gracefully, with awareness. Note the significance, but don’t cling to it. Feel subtle awe of this life process without being paralyzed or taken aback by these invisible connections that unite us all in the triviality and momentousness of eating.

Find the moment-specific poignancy of this experience and let it pass. In searching for this flavor, release any expectations. It need not be existentially jalapeño. A plain vanilla moment would do just fine.

Practice Just Noticing

Mindfulness involves two essential mechanisms: applying a certain kind of attention and practicing disidentification. Attention can be active or passive: that of an active observer or that of an uninvolved witness. This distinction is easy to understand through contrasting such verbs as “to look” versus “to see.” “To look” implies an active visual scanning, a kind of goal-oriented visual activity. “To see” implies nothing other than a fact of visual registration. Say I lost my house keys. I would have to look for them. But in the process of looking for my house keys, I might also happen to see an old concert ticket. Mindfulness is about seeing, not looking. It is about just noticing or just witnessing without attachment to or identification with what is being noticed and witnessed. This is where disidentification comes in.

Cravings (for dessert or something specific to eat, or just to keep eating) come and go. Mindfulness—as a meditative stance—allows you to recognize that craving is a transient, fleeting state of mind, and just one part of your overall experience. Mindfulness teaches you to realize that this impulse to keep on eating is but a thought inside the mind. Yes, it’s part of you, but it isn’t all of you which is exactly why you can just notice it, just see it without having to stare at it. In sum, mindfulness— as a form of impulse control—is a strategy of controlling by letting go of control.

Mindfulness of Fullness

Mindful eating is a subtle balance between enjoying yourself and not getting too carried away by the undertow of this enjoyment. Keep your mind on a tether of its body: stay progressively more attuned to the emerging sensations of fullness. Make use of the fullness-sensitization eating, you already had a chance to note the pleasant distention of your stomach as you filled up on air and water, setting that as a kind of fullness cue to watch for. So as your mind sails through the third course of actual eating, keep your attention anchored to the dynamics of your tummy.

The bigger issue is not awareness of fullness per se but your willingness to make use of this information. This will help you consciously deal with the desire to keep eating when you’re already full. Mindfulness definitely comes to the rescue here. The following techniques are a few ways you can combine breath-focused relaxation with mindfulness to help yourself stop eating.

Try This: Rest in Fullness

Get a piece of paper and a pen, then trigger an impulse to eat. Think about some food you like or, better yet, expose yourself to it directly, putting that food right in front of you. Next, put on your mindfulness cap and notice cravings and thoughts of desire as they arise. Each and every time you notice a craving thought, draw a small dot on the piece of paper. Then refocus on your breathing. Do this for a few minutes.

Now take a look at your drawing. It’s a series of dots—and a series of spaces. Each dot represents a craving, an impulse to eat that you registered on the radar of your awareness.

Now let’s apply this to fullness. Next time you eat, have a piece of paper and pen at hand and watch for the onset of fullness. Once you feel full, sit back and notice if you have a desire to keep eating. If you do, sit it out for a few minutes while you watch your mind. Each and every time you have a desire to keep eating, draw a small dot on the piece of paper, refocus on the sensations of your breathing, and rest in the fullness of the moment. After spending a few minutes doing this, make a conscious choice about whether you’ll continue eating or not.

An important note: What you decide is irrelevant at this point. What matters is that you practice mindfully pausing after the onset of a pleasant sensation of fullness.

Try This: Pause in Midmeal

As you’re eating your meals in the coming weeks, occasionally stop eating and put your utensils down. Wait for your stomach to say, “Hey, aren’t you going to finish the food on your plate?” Notice the body’s knock on the mind’s door. Recognize that this is just a fleeting impulse to continue. Whenever you feel the desire to keep eating, tap a finger on the table. You don’t have to fear this impulse to keep eating. You can satisfy this impulse in a moment, but for now let it pass. It’s good to practice this early in the meal, when you aren’t as full and the desire to keep eating is stronger. This will help you get better at resisting the temptation to keep eating when your stomach is already pleasantly full.

Practice: Creating an Evolving Ritual

In building a ritual of mindful eating, part of the ritual is to deritualize the process of eating. In the three-course new meal of relaxation, meditation, and mindful eating, it’s a good idea to ritualize the first two courses: relaxation and meditation. But do leave yourself a degree of freedom when it comes to actual eating. Recall that the point of choice awareness and pattern interruption is to get in the way of eating rituals and thereby keep the mind alert and awake while you’re eating.

Let the eating part of the new meal be an evolving process of experimentation. During some meals you might keep yourself mentally awake by using your nondominant hand. During other meals you might keep your mind from falling asleep by using atypical utensils. The point is to develop a habit of breaking habits. Consider this a ritual-breaking ritual! Keep thwarting your eating habits to keep eating mindfully.

Conclusion: Ready to Ritualize?

You now have a full-fledged, total body-mind self-care ritual that is welded into the very platform of your day-to- day eating:

1. First course: Relaxation

2. Second course: Meditation

3. Third course: Eating mindfully

This three-course meal allows you to reconnect with your body, reconnect with your mind and sense of self, and reconnect with the world at large through more conscious and attuned eating. We’ve covered all the basics here. All that’s left is to practice. But unlike other projects of skill acquisition, this one doesn’t require anything fundamentally new of you. You don’t have to set aside any separate time for this. Whatever else you do on any given day, you will almost assuredly be eating. The new meal approach is simply an opportunity for you to transform this daily activity—which is underutilized at best, and chronically dissatisfying at worst—into nothing less than the yoga of eating. Savor your new meal and its convergence of relaxing lungfuls, soothing nosefuls, humful mmm-fuls, soulful self-fuls, and mindful mouthfuls. That ought to fill you up!

An Amuse-Bouche of Pattern Interruption

Guess what time it is! It’s time to dump a bucket of pattern-interruption ice on the eating zombie. It’s time to jolt yourself awake into unmediated presence. It’s time to contemplate the bottomless mystery of eating with a dose of philosophical provocation.

Gut Check, Identity Check  

There are 75 trillion cells in your body. There are 750 trillion bacteria in your gut (Levy 2004). Within “your own body,” your own cells are outnumbered by at least a ten-to- one ratio. Now you see why I used quotation marks around “your own body.” So who are you, eater?

Eating Is Life Giving  

When you eat a fruit, such as an apple, you are stepping—wittingly or unwittingly—into someone else’s reproductive cycle, becoming involved in a kind of ménage à trois with a tree and Earth in a life-giving project. In fact, when you eat a piece of fruit, you are literally eating a plant-based sex organ. A fruit, botanically speaking, is a sexually active part of a flowering plant. When you consume an apple, you eat its fleshy, sweet, pulpy ovary tissue, and then you participate in the process of seed dispersal by throwing out the apple core. Naturally, if you shred the apple core and its seeds in a kitchen garbage disposal, there isn’t any life-giving going on. But if you eat an apple and toss the core into your backyard, you might just be participating in the birth of a future apple tree. Ponder this apple bite from the tree of knowledge before your next meal.

Life in a Leaf  

What is a leaf? According to early twentieth-century Russian scientist Konstantin Merezhkovsky (as paraphrased by Rob Dunn), “The pale green chloroplasts in plant cells evolved from bacteria ingested by plant ancestors… The green of forests was not plant matter at all,…but instead the ancient cyanobacteria held up by trees in every leaf, like so many guests standing in the window of a house, candles in their hands” (Dunn 2009, 144). Merezhkovsky’s views of life-forms as composites were echoed later in the century by such American biologists as Ivan Wallin and Lynn Margulis. According to the theory of symbiogenesis, or evolution by mergers of organisms, “Key organs of eukaryote cells (mitochondria, chloroplasts, flagella, cilia, and centrioles) had their origins in ancient bacteria engulfed by another cell” (Dunn 2009, 142). My point is this: each leaf is not just a being; it is a microcosmos. Even a cabbage leaf—even if separated from the head of cabbage—is alive. So when you have a chance, eat a leaf of spinach and swallow an invisible world!

Eating Is Life Taking  

Eating isn’t just life giving. It is also life taking. To eat is to kill. This is true not just for carnivores, but for vegetarians and vegans. Unless you are surviving on carrion or fruit fallen from the tree, there’s a good chance that something living had to die—purposefully or accidentally— to become your food.

The argument that a carrot doesn’t suffer when pulled out of the ground whereas a lobster does when boiled alive is speciesism—a subjective value judgment and an arbitrary assignment of importance to particular species of life. Sure, it’s easier for us humans to relate to being boiled alive than to being yanked out of the ground. Being rootless, we have no reference point for the latter. But, fundamentally, anything that is alive wants to live. If we eat a living thing, we kill it. So there are no saints among animals. Animals—whether the lion or the lamb—kill to eat and live, whereas plants photosynthesize to live. Even an ascetic vegan surviving on a handful of uncooked fruits and nuts is still predatory upon plant life. So let us eat, as we must, but not with guilt—rather, with grateful humility.

Primordial Cooking  

Which came first, swallowing or digestion? If you said swallowing, you’re in for a surprise. When prokaryotes—our earliest ancestors (who still inhabit Earth in the guise of bacteria)—first evolved, they were basically living stomachs floating freely in the primordial ocean. Prokaryotes accomplish digestion outside their cell membranes by surrounding themselves with “a kind of halo of digestive enzymes” (Stewart 1998, 78). Prokaryotes digest first and then swallow. Now digest this: When you cook, are you not predigesting (preprocessing) that which you are yet to swallow? Case in point: Which takes less work to chew, a boiled carrot or a raw one? In a sense, your stomach is an anatomically internalized kitchen.

Eating Outcasts  

Breaking bread with someone is a form of intimacy. But eating can also alienate. As Lucille Schulberg wrote in Historic India, “A primary impulse behind the caste system was probably the fear of spiritual pollution through food” (1968, 140):

[The Indians believed that] the mana, or ‘soul-stuff’ of human beings was the same as the soul-stuff of food, especially vegetable food. Unbroken cereal food—grasses growing in a field, seeds waiting to be gathered—retained their soul-stuff when they were handled; anyone could touch and eat them safely. But once grain was softened in cooking or seeds were pressed for their oil, their soul-stuff mixed with the soul-stuff of the person who prepared the food… A taboo on sharing food with an outsider—that is, with anyone not in [one’s] own caste—was a protective measure against such spiritual pollution… The higher a caste, the more restricted its menu.

A couple of questions for you. Do you believe that the “soul-stuff” of food is the same as your “soul-stuff”? If you do, how does this inform your eating? If you don’t, how does that influence your eating practices? Also, in what ways are you an eating outcast? How does your eating style isolate you? Ponder how what you eat might have stratified you socially.

A Seed of Awareness  

Botanically, a seed is not the potential for life; it’s already a life—a tiny plant life with a lunch box of its own food, awaiting a journey of life. In my book The Lotus Effect (2010), I shared a story about 1,300-year-old lotus seeds that managed to germinate and grow when given a chance. Eat a handful of seeds to meditate on how innocently your metabolic needs result in killing. Here you are, taking care of yourself and, at the same time, denying a living thing its chance to grow and flourish. Wrestle for a moment with the question of which is more important, you or those seeds. My answer is you, of course. If those seeds could eat you to survive, they would. Life is inevitably self-serving. As long as there is a self, it is going to serve itself a serving of environment. That’s just how it is. So, even as you contemplate this inevitable zero-sum metabolic scenario, enjoy your sustenance. No guilt, I say—just compassion and gratitude!

Eating Kills  

Life is movement. Movement creates friction, damage, and erosion. Eating, as part of this process of living, is no exception. free radicals, and countless forms of metabolic wear and tear. Studies of calorie-restriction diets uniformly show that eating less leads to decreased morbidity and mortality (Walford 2000)—up to a point. Of course, no food means no metabolism means no life. However, too much food means too much metabolic wear and tear means premature death. So ponder the irony that the very food that allows you to live also hastens your demise, even if you’re eating goji berries, with their renowned antioxidant properties. Any eating event is an instance of metabolic wear and tear. Life is its own opportunity and its own risk. Strangely enough, life kills itself. Life is messing with us, playing with us. Since this is inevitable, let’s choose to laugh at this peculiar paradox of arising and ceasing, at this peculiar wave of creation and destruction.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Reinventing the Meal, published by New Harbinger Publications, 2012.  


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