Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Zen of Eating

I have been quiet for the past few weeks.  It's not that I've stopped eating, or thinking about food, or enjoying it to the greatest extent possible.  It isn't even my general laziness about everything in life that's keeping me from writing on here.

It's really that I'm having difficulty articulating this next, and extremely important concept of the new mindset I am endeavoring to embrace for the rest of my life.  

The concept is the zen of eating.  

New-Age culture is full of yoga, meditation, tree-hugging, and Zen.  Zen is essentially a philosophy of living in the moment, focusing fully on the here and now, without attaching excessive significance to those things beyond our immediate reach, physically, temporally, or emotionally.  It is not about disregarding circumstances or consequences or living in a la-la-land where what is outside of what we are doing immediately doesn't exist.  But it is about devoting the greater part of our senses and mental energy into whatever we are doing immediately at any given time.  Focus.  Presence.  

In our fast-paced society, where we are doing three or four things at once, focus and presence are forgotten practices, quaint throwbacks to a time in the past when dividing our attention between the television, computer, conversation, and dinner was neither a temptation nor a requirement.  Heck, it wasn't even an option.  But these days, multitasking is the default setting for most of us.  Talking on the phone while driving, texting while out at lunch with a friend, browsing the Web while we run back and forth to the stove to stir the dinner stew, listening to audiobooks to double up "reading" with household chores, and eating in front of the television.  

I am not saying that all of these practices are in themselves bad.  I cannot emphasize the value that audiobooks have in my life, as they allow me to read AND clean at the same time, and they entertain me when I have to drive a long distance.  And, when you have five whole minutes of pure waiting while the stew simmers, connecting with your friends on Facebook or reading your favorite blog is a good use of time.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not likely to give up multitasking any more than I'm likely to give up eating meat.  But the truth is that dividing our attention does end up not allowing us to delve in full depth into any of the activities that we are attempting to combine into a single chunk of time.  

It is also an unfortunate reality of our time that eating has fallen so far below other "priorities" that many of us seldom do more than take a few minutes to put some food in front of us, and proceed to shove it in our faces to quell hunger pangs while we tend to other "more important" activities, such as driving to the office, working at our desk, checking kids' homework at suppertime, or catching up with our favorite TV shows.  Eating has been relegated to some place below putting on makeup or making sure that Bobby didn't forget his soccer cleats.  

Think of how dumb that is.  Aside from breathing, eating is the most important thing we do.  If you don't breathe, you die.  If you don't eat, you die.  It may take you longer to die from not eating than to die from not breathing, but the ultimate outcome is the same: you die.  

By relegating eating to the role of a background chore, we are downplaying the real importance it has to our lives, and to life in general.  I believe that this is one of the reasons our society is plagued with eating disorders (and overeating IS an eating disorder).  We are not allowing ourselves to notice when we are hungry, what or how much we are eating, and when we have had enough.  

In an effort to enjoy freedom from dieting while avoiding careening out of control like I did between 1995 and 2001 (during which period I gained 60 pounds), I am beginning to understand the importance of bringing eating into its proper place in my life.  I already discussed eating only when hungry in a previous blog entry.  But eating for hunger isn't enough.  I'm discovering how important it is to bring eating into the foreground of my consciousness, every single time.  And the best way I have found to accomplish this is to be Zen while I eat.  

What exactly does this mean?  To me, it means to focus all my senses into the activity of eating, as soon as I decide to do it.  Which usually is as soon as I feel hungry enough to interrupt what I am doing to prepare and consume a meal.  It means that I take a few moments before deciding WHAT to eat, to check in with my body and consult as to the nature and size of my upcoming meal, and sometimes that steak dinner I had thought I wanted actually gets pushed back in favor of the leftover soup.  It involves creating an environment that allows me to focus on my meal without other major impositions on my attention, such as the computer (not eating in front of the TV would require getting a divorce, so I modify that practice).  It means that, when a bite enters my mouth, my job is to pay my full attention to that bite, chewing, tasting, savoring, and swallowing it completely before I proceed to the next bite.  It means being fully present with my food, every time I eat. It means that I make sure that the moment is between me and my food.  Other things and other people fade into the background, other concerns become unimportant to the moment, and eating and enjoying my food is the only thing of any significance right then and there.

It is also a royal pain in the ass.

There are times when I seriously can't be bothered with paying attention to what my body wants, and I am all too ready to just grab what's in front of me, out of sheer laziness.  Separating myself from my laptop for the short time it takes to fuel my body often feels like a feat of superhuman willpower.  And why do I have to wait until I've swallowed this bite before I can put the next one in my mouth? Why can't I have a continuous flow of food from lips to gullet, like I have done my entire life?  

To be honest, there are times when I surrender to my baser impulses and lifelong habits, and I rebel against Zen eating.  But I am always reminded of why I pursue it.  Every single time.  The reminders take the form of indigestion, brain fog, headaches, bloating, and a host of other forms of physical as well as emotional discomfort.  And this form of retribution is much more immediately apparent, since I have been cultivating the habit of being present and aware with my body, when I am eating, and when I am not.

For anyone who has spent decades eating mindlessly, Zen eating takes practice.  One doesn't go from unconscious gobbling to full sensory focus in one day, or even one year.  It takes stumbling and getting back up.  It takes learning to negotiate the balance between a busy life and the need to take time to focus on nourishing yourself.  To someone like me, this is hard work.

But, oh, so worth it.


  1. Carolina,

    Very thoughtful and well written, I enjoyed reading your blog.

    Michele Saranovich

  2. I just found this blog, Carolina, and these words have impacted me tremendously. Thank you so much for writing them.