Mindful eating is a practice that I learned from my time at Plum Village on a meditation retreat. If you have never heard of it before, Plum Village is well-known Buddhist Zen-Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation center in France. I was fortunate enough to spend a week there on a meditation retreat and learned so much about various meditation practices. Mindful eating is one of those practices.
Prior to going to Plum Village, I would have never considered a habitual ritual like eating as a meditation. The first night of the retreat we were to have dinner with our assigned families for the week and each group had 1 or 2 monks to lead us in our activities. The monks in our family announced that we would be eating in silence and gratitude that evening, practicing mindful eating.
I honestly felt like a little kid who catches a case of the giggles in an inappropriate moment and can’t stop. It felt so uncomfortable for me to sit in a group of 20-25 people and not look at or speak to anyone. I wanted to laugh; I wanted to cry; and most of all, I wanted to get up and go sit far away from this strange silent group of eaters.
As the many meals of the retreat progressed, this process got easier and I started to understand what the monks meant by mindful eating. Most of us are used to eating while in conversation with others, or in front of the TV, or on the run between work, school, and soccer practice. No one that I had ever seen really ever just ate (except for my maternal grandfather, who I now recall used to eat all of his meals before we did and alone at the table, solely focused on his eating).
The beautiful thing about eating meditation is that the goal is not to eat without thinking about anything at all, you can think about anything you want related to the food. One evening the monks asked us to chew every bite up to 30 times and really think about what we were tasting. Another evening we were asked to think about where this food came from- the soil it was pulled from, the farmers that cared for the vegetables, etc. and find a deep sense of gratitude for the process that this food went through before making it onto our plates and into our bellies. After a while, eating this way became enjoyable. And, because I was focusing all of my thoughts and energy on the food itself, I didn’t even notice that I was sitting in a group not speaking to anyone.
I noticed 2 really beautiful things happen as a result of this practice. 1) My mind began to quiet down, both while eating and not. And, 2) I enjoyed better digestion. My mind quieting down was a result of simply practicing mindfulness. When we are completely mindful, in any situation, anxious or negative thoughts don’t have room to poke their way in to our consciousness. I enjoyed better digestion because our bodies are much happier and willing to digest food when we are calm and at ease. I also enjoyed better digestion because I wasn’t over-indulging, as one tends to do when eating in front of the TV or in a restaurant with friends.
The 2 years prior to going to Plum Village were the 2 years I spent studying my Master’s in New York. My eating habits were atrocious during this time. I was eating when I was rushed, eating when I was studying, eating while I was on the subway platform, not eating all day and then eating a massive meal in front of the TV before bed. It was a very unhealthy way of eating, and one that many of us can relate to because we are so busy that the ritual of eating is always a multi-tasked event. Mindful eating is a really simple and easy way to reverse that habit, at least some of the time. It might not always fit in your busy schedule, but even if you can spend 1 meal a week eating mindfully, either alone or in the company of someone who would like to practice this as well, you will begin to see a difference and you will find a new-found appreciation for the process of eating.
Have you ever practiced mindful eating? I would love to hear about your experiences!