Part Three: We Are How We Eat
As mentioned previously in Part One and Part Two, this summer I found myself completely captivated by quite an unexpected page-turner: The Mindfulness Revolution published recently by Shambhala. It’s a collection of articles by eminent meditation teachers, thinkers, scientists, and academics who share their lifetime personal and professional experience with mindfulness: Jon Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, Daniel Siegel, Matthieu Ricard, Chogyam Trungpa, and Pema Chodron to name a few.
It’s an incredibly thought-provoking read; so much so that I’ve decided to use it to write a series of articles on mindfulness and its daily life applications this summer in Elephant Journal.
This week, it’s all about food. We can have a very complex relationship with food: it can become a passion, an aversion, a job, an escape, a chore, a punishment, a guilty pleasure, an addiction, a love story, an endless playground for creativity. Mindfulness can help us build a healthy relationship with the way we eat, one that is grounding, loving, caring, and nurturing. Preparing food makes a wonderful opportunity for mindfulness practice. Buying food is a great way to make small mindful choices and decisions that can have great repercussions on the world we live in.
How To Make Your Own Food Porn
In the UK, the M&S advertising campaign opportunistically rode the ‘foodie’ trend which ignited a few years ago. It was everywhere and nobody could ignore it. It was using food in a overtly and ridiculously sexy way. We all made fun of it but it was very efficient, even if incredibly irritating. M&S managed to sex-up food in a way that only Jamie Oliver had succeeded before. Here’s the video if you’re not familiar with it. The music invites us to awaken our senses, the descriptions are evocative, the breathy voice-over is ‘70s stewardess meets Emmanuelle’; ‘This is not just food, this is M&S food’, it was absolute ‘food porn’:
When I moved to England almost 7 years ago after 5 years in Spain, I was amazed by the number of food programs and the success of ‘celebrity chefs’. To Italians, Spanish and French this phenomenon, this food revolution seemed outlandish. Those programs where cooks would talk about a carrot with manic enthusiasm, and punctuate each food description with the word ‘flavour’, looked ever so slightly over-the-top. I would think to myself: ‘this is just food. Cook it, eat it, enjoy it’. In France, we have the expression ‘en faire tout un plat’ -literally to make a whole dish of it- which means to make a mountain of something.
In his article ‘Let Your Passion Cook’, Edward Espe Brown, a Zen and Yoga practitioner and an accomplished chef, explains how his teacher Suzuki Roshi’s wisdom puzzled him in many ways when he studied Zen in the 70s. But one piece of advice that he gave him about cooking did strike a cord instantly: ‘When you wash the rice, wash the rice. When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. When you stir the soup, stir the soup.’
Not a very sensual or appetizing narration for our home-made cooking program, we could argue, at least not at first sight. However if you play this sentence next time you’re standing in front of your cutting board, when slicing, let’s say, a celery stick, a whole new world might unfold. The crunchiness of the celery as it parts under the knife, the banging of the metallic blade on the wooden board, the fresh smell, the moisture that comes out of each sectioned chunk; now you’re in for your own food porn show. No need for warm and thick gravy sauces poured on fleshy chicken breasts to turn on our awareness on sensations when it comes to food. The thrill is all there and it doesn’t need fancy adjectives or exotic names.
In the kitchen, I try to bring the same values and qualities that I cultivate on my yoga mat: simplicity, humility, dedication, practice, confidence, focus, curiosity,relaxing into the motion, being present, etc. When cooking a new or complicated dish, that requires skill and precision, I face the same mental and physical challenges as when entering a tricky asana: I tense, I clench, I fear to fall/fail.
Edward Espe Brown suggests to bring energy to the kitchen:
‘Instead of tying yourself down so that nothing volatile arises, use what is vibrant and volatile -feelings- to energize your presence in the kitchen. Invite them to handle, stir, wash, touch, scrub, scour: invite them to see, smell, taste, and delight in the play. The cook’s temperament is a passion for life: give it a field in which to practice -put it to work.’
Experiencing cooking mindfully also allows us to listen to our little quirks, our high-standards, our self-criticism, our anxiety and to become more aware of how we relate to ourselves. When cooking it’s easy to compare the result with our expectations; it doesn’t look as good as on the picture, my grandmother made it better, and to project; next time I’ll nail it. A dish or an asana are as good as they can get now, and contentment is definitely one of the best dishes on the menu.
On my wedding day, my Basque friend Inigo made his wonderful tortilla -Spanish omelette. Although the ingredients are simple; potatoes, onions, eggs,olive oil, it is probably one of the trickiest dishes to achieve in Spanish cuisine and hence the most stressful. He always gets nervous when making a tortilla in a new environment, because success depends on so many variables, pan, heat, time. When you mess up your tortilla, there’s not much to do to recover it. He pulled it off as always, and all our friends were delighted by such a treat. Eric, our New Jersey Italian American friend, was in heaven, he loves food and is a wonderful cook as well, and he said: ‘Tortilla, man, that’s a labour of love.’
Cooking is precisely that, a labour of love. Love for the ones you cook for and for yourself. You give your attention, time, skills, patience, energy, passion, you pour your heart into it. Preparing a tasty meal is caring. When you are aware of this, you see how what is in your plate reflects how you feel.
M&S sells pricey ready meals for people with large disposable incomes who have no time to cook. M&S sells the sex but where’s the love?
I Can Get Some Satisfaction
Jan Chozen Bays, also the author of the book Mindful Eating: A Guide To Rediscovering A Healthy And Joyful Relationship With Food, explains in her article ‘Mindful Eating’:
‘In the process of learning to eat mindfully, you replace self-criticism with self-nurturing, anxiety with curiosity, and shame with respect for your own inner wisdom.’
How many times have you tucked into a scrumptious dish, a glorious dessert, a mind-blowing chocolate bar, and made this instant promise to yourself: ‘I should savour this to the very last spoonful’. You stay present for the second bite, and maybe the third, and when it comes to the fourth the explosion of taste is no longer keeping your interest awake. Your mind wanders until you realise that there is only one bite left. You grieve a little as you have to part with this unique and pleasurable experience. That’s when you can enter ‘greedy mode’ and, anxious to prolong the magic, eat another serving, slice, or chocolate bar without hunger.
Eating mindfully is not as easy as it seems and Jan Chozen Bays explains very clearly why it can be so challenging:
‘Why can’t I think, walk, and be fully aware of the taste of the tart at the same time? I can’t do all these things at once because the mind has two distinct functions: thinking and awareness. When the thinking function is turned up, the awareness function is turned down. When the thinking function is going full throttle, we can eat a entire meal, an entire cake, an entire carton of ice cream, and not taste more than a bite or two. When we don‘t taste what we eat, we can end up stuffed to the gills but feeling completely unsatisfied.’
Eating The Raisin, Eating Within Reason
Mindfulness started making sense to me the day I ate the raisin. At the time, I was depressed, heavily medicated and I was going through my 20 sessions of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) like a zombie. My medication made me hungry and craving sugar constantly and I gained 12 kilos (24 pounds). I was broke, single, living with my cat -who was so bored of it all that he overate as well- and every night in front of TV, I ate a whole bag of chocolate raisins.
One day I went to my MBCT session and my therapist placed a raisin in the palm of my hand, just one, not a whole bag. She read the raisin exercise to me, and something in me awakened, a spark lit in my brain. It didn’t magically cure me, but it started something new, a small and slow personal revolution. A year and a half later, now medication free, I went back to yoga classes, started cooking and eating well again, lost all the weight and I gradually and finally found my way to happiness.
In my experience, depression is the ‘never enough’ disease, the illness of constant dissatisfaction and ingratitude. When depressed, I didn’t appreciate what I had and who I was, because I had become temporarily blind to it. Mindfulness slowly helped me gently opening my eyes inwards and outwards and cultivating contentment through simple everyday actions.
Jan Chosen Bays writes:
‘If we eat and stay connected with our own experience and with the people who grew and cooked the food, and who served the food and who eat alongside us, we will feel most satisfied, even with a meagre meal. This is the gift of mindful eating, to restore our sense of satisfaction no matter what we are, or are not eating.’
She also shares her script for the ‘Eating the raisin’ exercise which is best practiced if someone reads it to you.
This Article Might Contain Lead
A question we have come to ask ourselves lately is: what is there in our plates? quite literally. When I stayed in San Francisco last year with some friends, I was quite shocked to see small posters in shops that sold crockery made in China saying: this article might contain lead: alarming stuff. We don’t have these warnings in Europe, we are generally quite oblivious that our food is in contact every day with heavy metals, that our digestive system can’t flush. Since my Californian trip, I look at the flipside of every bit of crockery I buy to check the manufacturing country. Overcautious? My thinking is better safe than heavily sorry.
When it comes to food itself some unsettling stories have been coming out over the last few years, which has broken the bond of trust we had with the food industry. We knew and lived with the vague knowledge of the odd pesticide but we were unaware of other major misdemeanours; e-coli, hormones in meat, GMs, trans-fats, etc. Also on a nutritional level information has been flooding us, and so many contradictary research papers have been published in the press that serve to confuse rather than inform.
Shopping for food is a great opportunity to train our mindful eye. It entails a lot of choices. When you buy a bag of red peppers you make a financial, a culinary, a nutritional, an ecological, and an ethical decision at same time. Can I afford it, what will it taste like, what’s the nutritional benefits, where, how and by whom was it grown?
Daniel Goleman in his article A Mindful Consumer Can Help Change The World explains:
‘The moment you realize the bigger picture surrounding your purchase, the moment you find your preference for a brand turning to disgust, you are led to a more mindful decision.’
Vote With Your Beet
When shopping we have now learned to read the labels and read through the marketing, ‘Natural’ for example at Whole Foods means conventional and soon, -as they have reached an agreement with Monsanto– it will mean, in some cases, genetically modified. Because a lot of activists have been lobbying efficiently, we are better informed about what is in our food and its origin. Let’s not see this good work go to waste and let’s keep on making the informed choices. There is still a lot of work to be done when we see that ‘local’, for example, can sometimes mean, as Daniel Goleman explains in the case of the Montreal tomatoes: ‘seeds developed in France, grown in China, then flown into Ontario, where the seeds are sprouted.’
Local, farmer’s markets and organic food is generally more expensive. I heard an excellent radio show on the BBC the other day, which invited us back to common sense. Food was not cheap in the first place, it became a priority to have cheap food after the war and that was when our mentality changed, leading us to the excesses and disfunctions we experience now. Meat which was a luxury for most households before WWII, suddenly was produced on a large scale and it became quickly embedded in the collective unconscious that we should eat meat for every meal.
Re-thinking the way we eat means also re-thinking our budget priorities, easier said than done during recession time. But the more we buy local and organic, the more it will be produced. What Food Inc. taught us is that we vote at the cashier, and our simple everyday choices don’t go unnoticed on a global scale, as Daniel Goleman explains:
‘To the extent that more people shop mindfully, it will have a telling impact on the market. Market share will shift toward more ecologically virtuous products. Brand managers will pay attention, creating a virtuous cycle whereby our choices based on sound, transparent information influence the market. It will pay for companies to innovate, to change their practices, to go after our dollar by upgrading the ecological impacts of what they’re trying to sell us.’
Next time, I will write about digital mindfulness and our relationship with the internet.
With nutritionally-depleted foods, chemical additives and our tendency to rely upon pharmaceutical drugs to treat what’s wrong with our malnourished bodies, it’s no wonder that modern society is getting sicker.
Food Matters sets about uncovering the trillion dollar worldwide sickness industry and gives people some scientifically verifiable solutions for overcoming illness naturally.
Food Inc Trailer on Youtube:
Finally, I couldn’t recommend enough Bernie Clark’s speaking about Mindful Buying on MyYogaOnline
The Mindfulness Revolution – www.shambhala.com
Chocolate square – stevendepolo on Flickr
Raisin – Lara 604 on Flickr
Beetroots – Annie Mole on Flickr