“Eating Mindfully” by Susan Albers
This book landed on my doormat from Bodhipaksa at an extremely opportune moment: the holiday period between Christmas and the New Year. The clean fresh cover was enticing enough to encourage me to start reading straight away. I’m sure if I hadn’t started reading “Eating Mindfully” there and then a fair few more chocolate truffles would have found their way mindlessly into my tummy. With this book in hand when I did eat the odd chocolate truffle I found myself savouring its taste and texture. So nice timing — thanks Bodhipaksa and Susan Albers!
Susan Albers is a US-based psychologist specialising in mindful eating. This book explores ways to “end emotional eating and savor every bite” in cultivating mindful eating. It encourages us to put an end to mindless eating and to enjoy a balanced relationship with food. It is clearly and simply structured around the Buddha’s traditional formulation of the ‘four foundations of mindfulness’. Albers outlines these in non-traditional order as the mindfulness of the mind, body, feelings and thoughts. In the fifth and final section she explores mindful eating motivations. The book is easy to navigate and structured in ‘bite sized’ subsections. It ends with a comprehensive listing of useful organisations and websites.
Title: Eating Mindfully:How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food
Author: Susan Albers
Publisher: New Harbinger Publications
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.
This is a beautifully produced little book, hence my interest in reading it as soon as it had arrived. It has a clean, simple, attractive cover and immediately put me in mind of Susie Orbach’s “On Eating” — another book well worth reading on this theme. The book was a pleasure to read and to hold. Now I don’t normally make such a big deal about book covers — particularly bearing in mind the old adage that you can’t tell a book by its cover — but in the area of eating I think it’s very important that books are produced in a way which is both inviting, beautiful and practical, encouraging the reader to open and make use of the book again and again.
In my experience, and from my professional experience as a therapist working with people who have difficult associations with eating, the area of eating and nourishment can be highly charged. Very often food and diet books seem to fuel that charge with catchy titles, loud covers and/or promising subheadings. The simple, attractive cover reflects the contents of this book — you can tell this book from its cover. It is refreshing in offering a grounded approach to eating based upon wisdom which has spanned more than two millennia, avoiding the sometimes gimmicky feeling of the self-help book.
Albers’ tone is warm, clear, direct, and intelligent. She invites readers to learn the art of mindful eating. She points out how ‘mindful eating is radically different’ and how the book’s emphasis is about being healthy rather than being thin or losing weight — a refreshing departure from many books about food and diet. She points out how diets tend to cut us off from our experience, whereas mindful eating tunes us inwards in using our intuitive wisdom in re-learning a healthy relationship with food.
I celebrate this emphasis upon turning inwards and listening to and learning from our embodied experience in understanding our relationship with food and eating. The book goes on to explore this turning inwards in order to understanding how and why we eat what we do, based upon the four foundations of mindfulness. As a practising Buddhist, it’s great to see the four foundations applied to the everyday activity of eating.
What most struck me in reading this book is that Albers really ‘gets’ mindfulness, recounting the first time she encountered it in Japan. She gives the impression of living mindfully herself and of wishing to share that experience, rather than applying mindfulness purely as a technique. She makes the point that it can sound very easy to just “be more aware” of what you eat, when, in fact, mindfulness is complex and sophisticated.
I particularly valued this aspect of “Eating Mindfully”: the recognition that mindfulness is a lifelong practice which can be applied to any and every activity in parallel with her very helpful suggestions, examples, anecdotes and “skill builder” exercises. I found her tone enabling and helpful rather than using the blaming and shaming language which is often found in books on eating; sending readers deeper into a counter-productive cycle of shame and mindless eating.
I also respected Albers’ suggestion early on and throughout this book to find support in learning to eat mindfully — from a friend, co-worker or therapist.
I have to admit that if anything, there is just too much content in this book and it would be quite a long-haul to work though every chapter un-aided. But approached with patience, care and mutual support, this book has the potential for lasting transformation.
I have some minor criticisms of “Eating Mindfully”. I appreciate in her Foreword that Lilian Cheung acknowledges that many of us in post-industrial societies are living in a toxic food environment and a toxic media environment. Personally I would have liked to have seen Albers take that theme a little further in including in the Introduction or early in the book the societal, systemic dimension of mindless eating and, in fact, mindlessness in many things which characterise the status quo.
Of course we individually choose what we put in our mouths hour by hour, day by day, but this choosing and individual responsibility is shaped by the complex conditions in which we have been born and raised. Cheung is absolutely spot on in identifying our toxic media and food environments, so I would have appreciated from Albers a greater acknowledgment of the counterbalance between individual responsibility and healthy communities in understanding our relationship with food, living as we do with the hungry gravitational pull of our consumerist society.
Another criticism is the problem I encounter frequently. In presenting Buddhist teachings in a secular (“self-help”) context, the whole notion of Buddhism being a tool for enlightenment gets lost or at least severely obscured. The Dharma — the teachings of the Buddha — simply becomes a tool to help one become a bit happier, more contented, and in this case, healthier in eating more mindfully.
Personally, I would have appreciated Albers making clear the far-reaching nature of contemplating the four foundations. It’s also unclear as to why she decided to present the four foundations in a non-traditional order. This points to my periodic un-ease with the wave of popularity around mindfulness. Of course it’s great that mindfulness practice helps to ease depression, anxiety, pain and mindless eating. It’s also important that mindfulness is practised in its wholeness and that its context is not overlooked, with the danger of mindfulness becoming diluted or divorced from its origins, running the risk of taking the shape of another quick fix technique.
However, Albers is writing a book about mindful eating for popular appeal, not a book on Buddhist teachings, so I wouldn’t want this criticism to put off those who are interested in mindful eating. The great attraction of this book is that I have not doubt it will help many people eat more mindfully. I wouldn’t be surprised, given the skill and care with which Albers presents this material, if readers might become interested in other aspects of Buddhism which help us to live life fully and creatively.