“The Buddha taught one thing, and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering.” I heard Maha Gosananda repeat this phrase over and over to a gathering of Western Buddhist teachers. How ironic that in America, land of plenty, so many people struggle with food, suffering tremendous emotional distress, guilt, shame, and even premature death. Does Buddhism have anything to offer to relieve this kind of suffering? The facts are startling. Doctors predict that children born in 2000 have a 30 to 40 percent risk of Type 2 diabetes and may live shorter lives than their parents as a result.
According to the U.S. Department of Health, nearly two out of three American adults are overweight or obese. It’s also estimated that millions of Americans suffer from anorexia or bulimia. One could call this an epidemic of “eating disorders,” but I prefer to think of the problem as an increasingly unbalanced relationship to food. One of the primary causes of this imbalance is a lack of an essential human nutrient: mindfulness. Mindfulness is the act of paying full, nonjudgmental attention to our moment-to-moment experience. We can use mindfulness to free ourselves from unhealthy eating habits and improve our overall quality of life.
Mindful eating is a practice that engages all parts of us—our body, our heart, and our mind—in choosing, preparing, and eating food. It immerses us in the colors, textures, scents, tastes, and even sounds of drinking and eating. It allows us to be curious and even playful as we investigate our responses to food and our inner cues to hunger and satisfaction.
Mindful eating is not based on anxiety about the future but directed by the actual choices that are in front of you and by your direct experiences of health while eating and drinking. Mindful eating replaces self-criticism with self-nurturing. It replaces shame with respect for your own inner wisdom.
As an example, let’s take a typical experience. On the way home from work Sally thinks with dread about the talk she needs to work on for a big conference. She has to get it done in the next few days to meet the deadline. Before starting to work on the speech, however, she decides to relax and watch a few minutes of TV when she gets home. She sits down with a bag of chips beside her chair. At first she eats only a few, but as the show gets more dramatic, she eats faster and faster. When the show ends she looks down and realizes that she’s eaten the entire bag of chips. She scolds herself for wasting time and for eating junk food. “Too much salt and fat! No dinner for you!” Engrossed in the drama on the screen, covering up her anxiety about procrastinating, she ignored what was happening in her mind, heart, mouth, and stomach. She ate unconsciously. She ate to go unconscious. She goes to bed unnourished in body or heart and with her mind still anxious about the talk.
The next time this happens, she decides to eat chips but to try eating them mindfully. First she checks in with her mind. She finds that her mind is worried about an article she promised to write. Her mind says that she needs to get started on it tonight. She checks in with her heart and finds that she is feeling a little lonely because her husband is out of town. She checks in with her stomach and body and discovers that she is both hungry and tired. She needs some nurturing. The only one at home to do it is herself.
She decides to treat herself to a small chip party. (Remember, mindful eating gives us permission to play with our food.) She takes twenty chips out of the bag and arranges them on a plate. She looks at their color and shape. She eats one chip, savoring its flavor. She pauses, then eats another. There is no judgment, no right or wrong. She is simply seeing the shades of tan and brown on each curved surface, tasting the tang of salt, hearing the crunch of each bite, feeling the crisp texture melt into softness. She ponders how these chips arrived on her plate, aware of the sun, the soil, the rain, the potato farmer, the workers at the chip factory, the delivery truck driver, the grocer who stocked the shelves and sold them to her.
With little pauses between each chip, it takes ten minutes for the chip party. When she finishes the chips, she checks in with her body to find out if any part of it is still hungry.
She finds that her mouth and cells are thirsty, so she gets a drink of orange juice. Her body is also saying it needs some protein and something green, so she makes a cheese omelet and a spinach salad. After eating she checks in again with her mind, body, and heart. The heart and body feel nourished, but the mind is still tired. She decides to go to bed and work on the talk first thing in the morning, when the mind and body will be rested. She is still feeling lonely, although less so within the awareness of all the beings whose life energy brought her the chips, eggs, cheese, and greens. She decides to call her husband to say good night. She goes to bed with body, mind, and heart at ease and sleeps soundly.
Mindful eating replaces self-criticism with self-nurturing.
When we are able to fully appreciate the basic activities of eating and drinking, we discover an ancient secret, the secret of how to become content and at ease. The Zen teachings talk about the exquisite taste of plain water. Have you ever been very, very thirsty? Maybe you were on a long hike, or sick, or working without a break in the summer heat. When you were finally able to drink, even plain water, you remember how wonderful it was. Actually, each sip of liquid and each bite of food can be that fresh and delicious, once we learn again just to be present.
Here are five principles we can use to help us to cultivate mindfulness as we eat:
1. Slow It Down
In America we eat very quickly. Many people have told me that their attitude toward meals is to “just get it over with as soon as possible.” The American habit of eating fast is not new. Foreigners visiting early American taverns recorded their astonishment at how quickly food was eaten. The technique was dubbed “the three G’s” for “gobble, gulp, and go.” A Tennessee historian records that a European visiting the colonies was puzzled by the “haste, hustle, and starving attitude the inn frequenter displayed. Everyone stuffed himself at uncanny speeds.” Another visitor “was amazed that in barely twenty minutes he had witnessed two series of meals in his hotel.” Our propensity to eat and run has not diminished over the intervening two centuries. Research shows that North Americans spend only eleven minutes eating lunch at a fastfood restaurant and thirteen minutes at a cafeteria in their workplace.
There are many ways to slow down our eating and drinking. You might experiment by trying each of the following techniques for one week:
Make a point of pausing.
Here are some methods for helping yourself to slow down your eating by creating pauses:
1. Pause before beginning the meal. Look at each item of food, taking it in with the eyes. Notice colors, textures, shapes, arrangement on the plate or bowl.
2. Take a moment to say grace. Thank the animals, plants, and people who brought this food to you. Be aware of their gifts as you eat.
3. Begin the meal by pausing to inhale the fragrance of the food. Imagine that you are being nourished by just the smell.
4. Eat food like a wine connoisseur tastes wine. First sniff the food, enjoying the bouquet. Then take a small taste. Roll it around in the mouth, savoring it. What ingredients can you detect? Chew slowly and swallow. Take a sip of water to cleanse the palate. When the mouth is empty of food and flavor, repeat the process.
5. If you notice that you are eating without tasting, stop and pause to look at the food again.
When we gulp drinks, we don’t taste them. As a result we drink more, trying to get more taste sensations. We can slow down our drinking in two ways. The first is to enjoy what we’re drinking by holding the liquid in the mouth for a few seconds before swallowing it. Swirl it around a bit and enjoy the taste before swallowing. Pretend you are in a TV ad, showing the audience how much you enjoy this drink.
The second method is to put the cup or glass down while tasting and swallowing. Only when the mouth is empty and the taste is fading do we pick it up and take another drink.
Put down the fork or spoon.
This is one of the most reliable and simple ways to slow down your eating. Each time you put a bite of food into your mouth, put down the fork or spoon, onto the plate or into the bowl. Don’t pick it up again until the bite you have in your mouth is chewed and savored completely and swallowed. For real appreciation of the bite that is in your mouth, you can close your eyes as you chew and swallow.
Mindful eating is a way to rediscover one of the most pleasurable things we do as human beings.
When that one bite has been thoroughly tasted and is gone, then pick up the utensil, take another bite, and put the utensil down again. Watch the interesting impulses that arise in the mind with this practice.
2. Right Amount
The next guideline for mindful eating has to do with how much we eat. The concept of “right amount” comes from the Buddhist teaching of the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. Each part of the path is described with the adjective “right”: right view, right mindfulness, right effort, and so on. In the Buddhist teachings “right” means appropriate, beneficial, leading to happiness and freedom. What, then, is “right amount”?
I first heard of right amount from my Zen teacher Maezumi Roshi. He said that when we considered what was ethical to do in any situation, we had to consider several factors: right time, right place, right people, and right amount. I didn’t understand the last factor, right amount, very well until I began practicing mindful eating. I saw that mindful eating is ethical action. It is ethical action toward our self, toward all the beings who bring us our food, and toward all those who are hungry in the rest of the world.
Related: Just the Right Amount
In the monastery, our meals are an essential aspect of our spiritual practice. We eat at least one meal a day according to the ancient Zen ceremony called oryoki. Except for chanting, we eat in silence, using a special set of bowls. The bowls are graduated in size so they can nest inside each other. Even the largest bowl is not very big. It holds about one and a half cups. Oryoki means “just enough.” The modest size of our eating bowls helps us eat just enough to remain healthy, just enough to feel satisfied, just enough to meditate without becoming sleepy, just enough to not be swayed by greediness.
“Just enough” is not a fixed amount. It changes according to circumstances. To be aware of “just enough,” we have to be mindful. When we practice oryoki, we can’t take too much, as we must eat everything in our bowls within the time allotted for the meal. We have to be aware of changing conditions, how hungry we are, how much we’ve been exercising, and how cold it is. The monastery is cold in winter, and we need extra calories to keep our bodies warm. A young man who is still growing and has been working all morning digging holes for fence posts needs portions twice as large as a middle-aged person like me. We all adjust how much we take to the amount of food in the serving bowls, the number of people who will be served, and how much food they need to eat.
The beloved Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah gave these guidelines about right amount:
When you think that after another five mouthfuls you’ll be full, then stop and drink some water and you will have eaten just the right amount. If you sit or walk afterward you won’t feel heavy. . . . But that’s not the way we usually do it. When we feel full we take another five mouthfuls. That’s what the mind tells us. It doesn’t know how to teach itself. . . . Someone who lacks a gen uine wish to train their mind will be unable to do it. Keep watching your mind.
If we followed the advice of the spiritual masters, we would maintain mindfulness of hunger as we ate, stopping when we were 80 percent full—or at least four or five mouthfuls from being full. Then we would drink some water.
3. The Energy Equation
Another way to cultivate mindful eating is to become aware of what I call the energy equation. Food is energy. It is actually sunlight, which is converted into plants and then into animals. When we eat, we are taking in the energy of sunlight. When we live our lives, we are releasing and spending that energy.
If our weight stays constant, it is a sure sign that the energy flowing into our body is equal to the energy flowing out. We are in energy balance. If we are losing weight, it means that the energy out is greater. If we are gaining weight, it means that the energy in is greater. How does the energy flow in? By eating and drinking. As much as we might like to believe that we absorb calories mysteriously from the atmosphere while sleeping at night or just by looking at rich food, it’s not true. We ourselves put energy in through our own open mouths.
If we want to lose weight, there are only two ways to do it. We have to decrease the energy flowing into our body or increase the energy flowing out. Conversely, if we want to gain weight, there are only two ways to do it. We have to increase the energy flowing into our body or decrease the energy flowing out.
4. Mindful Substitution
Most people are aware that they have many voices in their mind. A childish voice may say, “I want something sweet! I’ve worked hard all day, and I deserve a treat! I happen to know there’s a carton of ice cream in the freezer.” A parental voice says, “It’s only four o’clock. No dessert until you eat a good dinner.” An indignant voice exclaims, “Wait a minute! Aren’t you about ten pounds overweight? You shouldn’t even think about dessert for at least a year!”
How can we work skillfully with these conflicting voices and bring peace to the table? It does no good to stifle them; they just go underground, where they can cause mischief. It does no good to indulge them; they just gain strength.
First, we become aware of the voices. Each one contains some measure of truth. It could be simultaneously true that you have worked hard and would enjoy a sweet reward and that you won’t benefit from a jittery sugar high or gaining extra pounds. How to honor both truths? Find a substitute reward.
When we offer the hungry voice a sliced peach drizzled with honey instead of a hot fudge sundae, we are making use of an essential mindful eating practice, that of mindful substitution. When we become aware that there are many voices in our minds—some that are needy, restless, and frightened— we should honor and care for these energies and voices, not in a neurotic, self-absorbed way but in the thoughtful and deliberate way a good parent notices and cares for a young child. This doesn’t mean walking out of a tense planning conference at work in order to indulge your “inner child” with an entire Sara Lee cheesecake eaten in a bathtub full of bubbles. It might mean hearing the worried voice inside or feeling the first tendrils of tension in the body and asking for a short break so you can sip a hot drink or suck on a hard candy.
Students have told me about many substitution tricks they have invented. They substitute chewing gum for candy, a chocolate hard candy for a chocolate truffle, the slow ritual of fixing hot tea for gulping a soft drink. One student substitutes frozen mango slices or strawberries for ice cream. Another cuts a piece of cinnamon toast in little pieces and eats them slowly in place of a piece of cake and frosting. Another said that when she becomes aware of a craving for sweets, she gives herself a little snack of something sour, finding that it erases her desire for sweets. She uses a small serving of sauerkraut out of a jar kept ready in the fridge. If that doesn’t appeal, you could use a few pickles, some olives, or kimchi (pickled cabbage). It helps if the flavor is somewhat intense. If you use substitution and then eat mindfully, you get double the benefits.
The point is to take good care of ourselves, the way a loving and wise parent would do. We don’t fall into the extreme of angrily scolding and denying ourselves, nor do we lose track of what is healthy and become overindulgent. We steer a skillful but somewhat wobbly course along the middle way.
5. Out of Sight, Out of Mind
I am subject to what I call “fits of favorite foods.” I’ll crave and eat one thing, like licorice, for several weeks and then lose desire for it completely. I used to love chocolate, but a few years ago I developed an allergy to it. Every time I ate chocolate I would get painful blisters in my mouth. I tried every way to get around this sad fact, abstaining for a month, abstaining for six months, to no avail. Even one little chocolate chip could set it off. I felt deprived without my favorite comfort food.
One day I discovered that Reese’s Pieces candy had no chocolate! I was so happy that my loving husband bought me a giant bag (cheaper by the pound, right?) and put it in a drawer of my desk. First I had a few pieces, now and then, then a few small handfuls, now and then, and then I had gained five pounds. I stepped back to watch how craving for these candies worked in my mind. I found that when I sat where the bag was in my reach, soon an image of the candy would enter my mind. If I pushed it away, it would return, and return again, until I finally gave in and took a few. The farther away I was from my office, the less often the image appeared and the less vivid or compelling it would be.
I moved the bag to a file drawer in my husband’s office, several halls and doors away. I was reluctant to enter his office and go digging for the bag under his eyes. I ate less of the candy, and with less reinforcement the colorful candy images appeared in my mind less often. Craving for those little peanut butter delights gradually lessened and finally disappeared. Now I look at them with indifference. They hold no charm. This kind of solution is supported by eating research. Secretaries who were supplied with free chocolate candies in a glass dish ate the most candies if the chocolates were visible on their desk, less if the candy dish was hidden in a drawer, and even less if they had to walk just six steps to reach the candy. People also eat significantly more if serving dishes full of food are left out on the dining table. If a person has to get up from the table and go back to the kitchen to serve themselves seconds, they tend not to go to the trouble.
The researcher Brian Wansink tells the story this way: A man comes into the office on Friday, hungry because he’s had to rush to work with no breakfast. On the way to his cubicle he sees a plate of doughnuts left over from a meeting the previous day. He pokes a doughnut and finds that it is hard and stale. He goes to his cubicle, where the vision of the doughnuts keeps reappearing in his mind. He says “no!” to the impulse to get up and go get a doughnut. He says “no!” ten times. Finally he gets up and heads for the staff room and the stale doughnuts. There he meets a coworker who did not see the doughnuts on his way into the office and has been working all morning without the distracting visions and impulses. Who will eat the most doughnuts? As Wansink notes, the man who has been struggling with the vision and the impulses all morning will always eat more. Because the existence of the doughnuts entered his awareness, because he took in the possibility of eating them and said no ten times, eventually he is likely to say yes.
I once had a striking experience that confirmed this observation. I have never liked doughnuts. There is something in them that tastes peculiar to me. My first husband loved doughnuts, so once in a while I’d surprise him on a Sunday morning by going out to get a box of fresh doughnuts. He liked them, and the kids liked them too, but for myself—I tried bites of many different kinds and finally gave up even trying to like them.
Fast-forward thirty years. I had just finished a workshop and was relaxing as a friend drove me home. We stopped at a corner where people were selling something to raise money for their church. Ever sympathetic toward these kinds of fundraisers, my friend handed five dollars out the car window. Back in came her hand, holding a white box. The box, it turned out, was full of doughnuts. “No thanks,” I said, “I don’t like doughnuts.” “These are Krispy Kremes,” she said. I had read about the national passion for Krispy Kremes. I was tired and hungry, hungry enough even to eat a doughnut, so I took a tentative bite. Yum! I took a bigger bite. Creamy and sweet! I could see what the passion was about! I ate one whole doughnut, then another, and a third. They were really good!
Over the next few days I noticed during meditation that a new window had appeared on the screen of my mind. The window was full of . . . a very enticing KRISPY KREME DONUT! When the thought arose, “But I don’t even like doughnuts!” the Krispy Kreme window would grow larger. “But you DO like Krispy Kremes!” it broadcast. I watched to see what caused the window to appear. I found that it opened when I was feeling anxious, tired, or hungry.
Because I have never liked doughnuts, and because daily meditation created a certain spaciousness of mind, I had a measure of objectivity. I could even be amused by this window winking open in my mind. Fortunately I live at a rural monastery, an hour and a half from the nearest Krispy Kreme outlet, so I didn’t reinforce the sudden appearance of desire by running out to get a doughnut. I just noted the window as it opened and closed. It took about three weeks for the window to shut and never open again. It helped that I heard a rumor (untrue) that Krispy Kremes derived their creamy texture from glycerin. If the desire for a doughnut arose, I could counteract it by imagining a doughnut being injected with mineral oil.
The practice of out-of-sight, out-of-mind works because anything we do not reinforce will lose its strength. It is a principle of conditioning. If we do not think, speak, or initiate action around something, the force of that thing will eventually wither. This involves active substitution, not forceful resistance, for what we resist can become perversely persistent. For example, when my mind began to conjure up Krispy Kremes, I substituted a more beneficial and interesting mental activity such as a breath meditation, a body scan, or lovingkindness practice. When I did not think or talk with others about these doughnuts, did not run out to buy them, and did not smell or eat them, eventually they lost their hold on me.
All of us want to move toward greater freedom, but the experience of freedom does not occur overnight. Often we overchallenge ourselves, as when making New Year’s resolutions. This results in frustration and more critical inner voices. We can get off to a good start by lowering our standards and initiating our mindful eating by having one conscious sip of tea in the morning. Take a moment to become aware of the color of the tea, its fragrance. Feel the liquid in your mouth and throat. Open your awareness to the presence of the warm sunlight, cool rain, and dark earth in this one sip of tea. Everything will unfold from this simple act. Just being aware for a few moments seems like a small event. Don’t underestimate the power of mindfulness. It is through these small moments of mindfulness that we reverse old habits and initiate an inner movement toward health.
Small Changes, Big Results
Consider this list of small lifestyle changes aimed at changing the energy equation to lose weight. If this is a goal of yours, pick one and try it for a month. Or create a small change of your own in the energy equation, and try that diligently for a month. Enlist the support of family and friends to remind you of your project or to join you in the task.
At the end of the month, tell someone what you learned from the task. It could be a mindful eating partner, folks in a mindful eating group on community.tricycle.com, or just a friend.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.