With his round cheeks and ample belly, the Buddha may rank somewhere close to sumo wrestlers on most Americans’ list of go-to sources for healthful eating tips.
But the ever-present image of a fat and happy Buddha owes more to China’s ideal of prosperity and ability to mass-produce figurines than to historical accuracy. In Japan and India, the Buddha is depicted as trim and lithe, said the Rev. Jan Chozen Bays, a Zen priest and pediatrician, and his teachings may be key to overcoming Americans’ increasingly troubled eating habits.
Bays, who goes by the Dharma name Chozen (“clear meditation”), is a student and teacher of “mindful eating,” a practice that borrows liberally from Buddhist psychology and meditation techniques.
For calorie-counting Americans, mindful eating preaches an alert, moment-by-moment focus on emotions, food and fullness. Buddhism teaches that “right mindfulness” is a step on the path to nirvana; in mindful eating, it could be a step toward a smaller waistline, especially for people struggling to keep those New Year’s resolutions to shed a few pounds.
Bay says hunger is only one of several reasons people eat.
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Frustration, sadness, irritation, boredom, anxiety, anger and insecurity are all additional — if somewhat hidden — spurs to snacking.
“There’s no guarantee that mindful eating will help you lose weight,” said Bays, author of the 2009 book Mindful Eating. “But it will help you enter a balanced, helpful relationship with food again.”
Aside from the Buddha, mindful eating also draws lessons and inspiration from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program, which introduced the masses to a secularized form of meditation in 1979. Since then, studies have shown the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on everything from substance abuse to psoriasis, and hundreds of hospitals have established mindfulness clinics.
Dr. Jean Kristeller, a psychologist and director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion, and Spirituality at Indiana State University, has studied meditation for 30 years. As co-founder of the Center for Mindful Eating, Kristeller has also received two grants from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of mindful eating. Though the studies’ results have not yet been published, Kristeller said she has seen firsthand that mindful eating works.
Some, but not all, proponents of mindful eating are Buddhists, said Dr. Brian Shelley, who developed a mindful-eating program at the University of New Mexico. And though advocates are open about the Buddhist roots of mindfulness, they are not out to gain converts.
“It’s more like a cognitive therapy than a spiritual practice,” said Shelley, who meditates and studies the Buddha’s teachings but does not consider himself a Buddhist. “We are very clear that this is not a course in Buddhism or spirituality.”
Many nutritionists — including mindful-eating teachers — now think the problem with American diets is not only the food we eat — it’s also how we consume it.
The Buddha told monks to take meals silently, with no books or conversations to distract them, only an awareness of what their body needs to get through the day. When they felt full, they stopped eating, even if that meant leaving food in the bowl, Bays said.
Studies have shown that people tend to eat more when they are given larger portions and are distracted.
Bays begins mindful-eating retreats with a single raisin, asking practitioners to consider how hungry they are on a scale of one to 10 while they investigate the color, texture and taste of the raisin. The goal, she said, is to replace thinking with awareness.
“In Christian terms, it’s called communion,” Bays said, “coming into union with everything happening at that moment.”