food

How mindfulness can help us appreciate food

wildmind meditation newsDerek Watson, Herald Scotland: When I was a wee girl my daddy used to cajole me and my brother and sisters into finishing our meals by playing a game in which we were to imagine each forkful going to a different part of our bodies. Beef and potato, for instance, would be mashed up and formed into a pie shape, which we took great delight in dividing into wedges. On dad’s instruction we’d scoop up each piece and as we swallowed we’d imagine it going to, say, our left knee or our right pinky toe or a bicep or an eye. We imagine …

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Walking my talk

cashew nuts coated wasabiI decided it was about time I make some more effort at walking my talk. So what better opportunity do I have but to work through the 8 steps that I co-founded to take me out of my misery? Although many of the teachings I speak about in the book, were inspirations for me to change my life. I’ve not surrendered to a mentor/sponsor to take me systematically through the set of 8 steps.

While writing the notes on 8 step meetings, which I should say I attended daily while working in India for the month of January, and also writing on how to mentor someone in the program, I thought wouldn’t it be great for somebody to mentor me. So I wrote to my sponsor a long time 12 stepper in several programs and asked: ‘Will you sponsor me?’

He emailed me back: ‘Hahaha, interesting, you know. The idea of taking the woman who wrote the book through them is just kind of topsy-turvy. Anyway, sure I’d be glad to do that. It would be good for me too. I’ve been looking forward to an opportunity to do something like this with someone, to explore the steps myself with someone,  and you’re the first person to turn up. And naturally I’m confident that you won’t give up or do it on a shallow level.’

Well it’s kinda topsy turvy for me too. Surrendering to my own work. But I realize more and more as I mentor people through this program, and read the emails sent to me, that I need to keep on walking my talk. Those of you who are familiar with food addiction will know, that it is non stop work, and if we are not mindful grey areas do arise.

So I thought I would work on my relationship to cashew nuts, You may laugh, everybody else does, or they tell me: ‘It’s healthy, you’re a vegan—eat away’. But I can’t kid myself, I know that I have a neurotic relationship with them. I know that, because if you told me today I could never eat cashews again, I would cry (metaphorically), and find it incredibly challenging. It’s not so much the behaviour it is the volition behind the behaviour. Still holding to a past that can drive a behaviour.

My trip to India put me in my uncomfortable zone, I was powerless over the foods I could eat. I had no choice but forced into renunciation of my green smoothies, my marmite and tahini, my rice cakes, for a diet of rice and oily vegetable curries three times a day. While I loved the food, I knew I could not keep such a diet. I was shocked to realize that I had a huge fear of becoming bigger. This fear was behind my neurotic eating of cashews, the only food I could cling onto, while away from my familiar environment.

While working with people who are struggling in their addictions, I often say: ‘You have to be abstinent’. I’ve forgotten how painful it is to let go and be abstinent, as there are so many things I have chosen to live without in my life. And I also remember that harm reduction can be a way to go, if abstinence is the place we truly want to land upon, and even that at times may not be perfect.

So I wanted to investigate, why is it so hard to let go of a habit, a behaviour that causes us stress, unsatisfactoriness and can never be permanent in our lives?

So I’m in the hot house. Join me in doing one meditation a day from the 21 meditations for recovery. Check in daily. Email for a copy of the 8 step book study, mentoring and meetings.

For a free sample of the book study and 21 meditations of Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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“No Ordinary Apple,” by Sara Marlowe and Philip Pascuzzo

no ordinary apple

Title: No Ordinary Apple: A Story About Eating Mindfully
Author: Sara Marlowe, Philip Pascuzzo (illus.)
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 1-61429-076-8
Available from: Wisdom Publications, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

No Ordinary Apple is a variation on the famous “raisin exercise” that’s so popular in meditation classes. (If you’re not familiar with the raisin exercise it’s where we mindfully eat a single raisin, thoroughly exploring it with our senses.) But No Ordinary Apple is, of course, a children’s book — and a very welcome addition to the growing body of meditation resources for children.

The fruit is question is an apple rather than a raisin and the mindful eater of this apple is a young boy called Elliot, who is waiting at his adult neighbor Carmen’s house between school and his parents getting home.

Elliot is hungry and asks for a snack. Carmen counters with an offer of an apple: a suggestion that is none too popular with Elliot, who wants candy.

Carmen is a good saleswoman, though. Or perhaps she teaches meditation. At any rate, she persuades Elliot that this is no ordinary apple, but tells him that he’ll have to find out for himself why this is the case.

Carmen guides an excited Elliot through an exploration of the apple using all of his senses. He moves from having a stereotypical view of an apple as “red” to recognizing the many colors that it contains. He touches the apple and explores its textures. He smells it. He even listens to the “thwap” it makes as he tosses it from hand to hand. And of course he eventually bites into it, chews it, and swallows it — all the time exploring the apple mindfully.

Of course Elliot realizes that this is indeed no ordinary apple, but it has to be pointed out to him that it’s not the apple that’s special — it’s the attention that he gave to it that created a special experience. And Carmen helps him to see that anything he eats — even candy! and perhaps even food he doesn’t like — will be extra-special when eaten with mindfulness.

No Ordinary Apple is a lovely book. The illustrations are larger-thank life and they do in fact make the experience of eating an apple look special. The story is fun, and children will feel like they’re learning something rather than being preached at.

My daughter, who’s six, was very excited about the prospect of us doing this exercise together, and she even set aside some apples on top of the refrigerator, awaiting the perfect moment (the kids had to be in need of a snack, and we needed some uninterrupted time). When the right time arrived, both my kids (I also have a five-year-old son) enjoyed the exercise, although the youngest had some trouble restraining himself from eating the apple during the looking-feeling-smelling-listening stage, and once we were tasting our apples he couldn’t stop himself from swallowing it. But he had fun. My daughter, who’s almost two years older, really enjoyed the exercise and was old enough to restrain herself. Actually, when I’ve done the raisin exercise with adults there have been a few who’ve had no more discipline than my son!

The principles outlined in the story can very easily be translated into practice, both for encouraging children to eat mindfully, and for encouraging parents to do likewise! Trying to teach a child to eat mindfully is going to be more successful if the parents exemplify mindful eating.

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Professional Chef Geoffrey Cambal celebrates trends toward culinary mindfulness

Forbes recently released an article highlighting a Brooklyn-based start-up that is concerned with the psychology of well-being and a mindfulness approach to the culinary experience, an effort praised by chef and restaurateur Geoffrey Cambal. The article begins by discussing the project called Windowfarms, and how the start-up is interested in “making food choices that can help you flourish and thrive.”

The report defines culinary mindfulness as the eating, “cooking, shopping, sharing, remembering, and even talking about food. The purpose is to build awareness of increasing well-being in all the food choices one makes, to accrue mental wealth from every aspect of one’s calories.” The article mentions that the company sells what its name suggests: “hydroponic systems for growing food in windows, be they in small apartments, big houses, or even the lobby of the Museum of Natural History where an impressive Windowfarms display is exhibited as part of the ‘Our Global Kitchen: Food, Culture, Nature’ show.”

Renowned chef and gardener Geoffrey Cambal weighs in on the new window-farming project and the benefits of just-picked foods. “From the standpoint of a culinary professional and a personal gardener in my spare time, I completely agree that anyone who eats vegetables should consider growing them at home,” he said. “Even semi-successful vegetable gardens are better sources of produce than what you may find at the supermarket, not to mention it’s cost-efficient.”

The article highlights the pleasure and positive emotions that can come from growing your Windowfarms, making for mindfulness approach to the culinary experience. “Just picked – and I mean within moments – greens, lettuces, herbs, strawberries, and even cherry tomatoes have flavors and textures that you can astound, if you savor them…” Geoffrey earnestly responds to the contributing writer’s sentiments, noting that “a salad from your own garden has a plethora of experiential opportunities, unlike what you may find in processed systems.” The article adds that “the more you mindfully savor, the more satisfied you feel.”

Geoffrey Cambal aims to adopt this approach in his own restaurant as well as his home, creating a culinary experience for a diverse range of guests. He places high value on preparation when it comes to culinary success and mindfulness, noting that presentation is key.

“I enjoy watching the looks of delight on their faces when customers bite into freshly-cut vegetables and aesthetically pleasing food,” he said. The article continues on with the idea of presentation, mentioning that Windowfarms “takes the positive emotions generated one-step further: their system is gorgeous industrial design unlike any other, at least to my eye. Putting one in your window provides visual pleasure.” The highly-acclaimed chef comments on the concept of beauty in food. “My staff constantly strives to make our dining experience a meaningful activity. You can’t achieve a reputation of culinary mindfulness without paying close attention to the details,” said Geoffrey Cambal.

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“Eating Mindfully” by Susan Albers

eating mindfullyThis 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
ISBN: 978-1608823307
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.

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Coming back to “the big, loud, present, bright world”

100 day meditation challenge 045It’s Day 45 of our 100 Day Meditation Challenge.

After I’d asked one of my meditation students to try a mindful eating exercise, she wrote about how during the exercise the food became “her everything” and said that this reminded her “of how life looks when I am able to shut out the whirring thoughts and just pay attention to the now — the big, loud, present, bright world comes forth when before it was in the background.”

Her mentioning how “the big, loud, present, bright world comes forth when before it was in the background” reminds me of times that I’ve been reading outdoors, and after a period of complete immersion in the world of words I’ll come back to sensory reality and find myself astonished by how bright, and vivid, and rich, and fascinating everything is.

Now I love reading, and I consider myself to have a rich inner world, but there’s just a huge difference in sensory bandwidth between the world of thought and the world of sensory experience.

I notice this as well when I’m moving from distracted thought to being present. I’ll be driving, say, and realize that I’ve drifted into rumination, and when I come back the real world just seems so vivid. I also have a strong sense of the thought-world involving qualities of heaviness and tightness, compared to a relative lightness and open relaxation in the sensory realm.

I notice the same thing when I’m walking, and I switch from thinking to being aware of my body and the world through which it’s moving.

I think it’s worth noticing these contrasts and allowing ourselves to be fascinated by them. It’s also worth valuing and rejoicing in the richness and fullness of the sensory world, and developing the intention to keep revisiting it as often as possible. Often we get so caught up in thinking for so long that we almost forget how to be aware of our sensory experience.

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Becoming a vegan again: Day 1

vegan-1I’ve been a vegetarian for over 30 years now, ever since I visited a slaughterhouse as part of my veterinary studies and saw an animal being slaughtered. I didn’t consciously decide to become vegetarian. It was as if the decision was made for me, deep down, and I just had to go along with it. And in 30 years I’ve never once been tempted to lapse.

And I’ve tried being vegan several times, sometimes lasting for a few years. It’s a natural and logical extension of vegetarianism. Really, there isn’t a lot of different between eating eggs and eating a chicken. In both cases a chicken dies, but in one case the chicken lays lots of eggs first. But I’ve found it harder to sustain.

There was the usual tussle between ethics on the one hand, and convenience and laziness and craving on the other. So ethics was outnumbered.

Anyway, we were discussing the Buddhist first precept (not causing harm) in an online Dharma study group that I lead, and mentioned my unease about eating eggs and dairy, and my faltering desire to be vegan again. Someone in the groups connected veganism with my “getting myself on the cushion mantra.” This is an affirmation that I’ve been using to make sure I meditate every day: “I meditate every day; it’s what I do; it’s just part of who I am.” This has really worked for me. And when someone connected that mantra with veganism, I realized I had the tool I needed to give ethics the upper hand over the other three.

So this Wednesday, the day after the study group, was the first day I had an opportunity to put my vegan “mantra” into practice. It went well until dinnertime, when I discovered that some cornbread that my six-year-old daughter had made (all by herself!) contained an egg. It was my bad: I hadn’t had a chance to talk to my wife about the vegan thing. So I’m counting that as Day Zero:

Day One went well. I’d talked to my wife — who also wants to be vegan — and since I was cooking that evening there were no problems anyway. When I was our for a coffee with a friend, I became aware that my local cafe has nothing vegetarian (apart from oatmeal!) but I’ve suggested to them that they make a vegan carrot cake. And an online friend suggested that I carry around snacks. He takes some emergency Clif Bars with him for times he can’t get a vegan snack.

So it’s been sinking in that this is just what I do now, and from now on. There will be slips. My father-in-law invites us round for dinner from time to time, and his culinary skills are very limited. Basically he can make pizza. So every couple of months I’ll have some pizza. I’m not going to ask him to change his ways. In the past that’s tripped me up, because I’ve gotten caught up in all-or-nothing thinking, where I’ll regard eating Lou’s pizza as me having crossed back from veganism to non-veganism, and then I think there’s no point carrying on with it. I’m not going to do that this time.

For protein this week, in the three meals I’ll be cooking at home, I’ll be having tofu, seitan, and tempeh. I’ve also ordered a book, Artisan Vegan Cheese, by Miyoko Schinner. I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Anyway, this is the start of Day Two. Going public about this will help me stay on track, as will counting the days (although don’t worry — I’m not going to do a daily post on the subject).

I’m looking forward to my first anniversary as a vegan!

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Mindful eating helps with lowering weight and reducing blood sugar

Eating mindfully is just as effective as adhering to nutrition-based guidelines in reducing weight and blood sugar levels in adults with Type 2 diabetes, a new study at Ohio State University suggests.

In a comparison study of the effectiveness of the two types of behavioral interventions, participants lost about the same amount of weight – an average of between 3 1/2 and 6 pounds – and lowered their long-term blood sugar levels significantly after three months.

One treatment group followed an established diabetes self-management education program, with a strong emphasis on nutrition information. The other group was trained in mindful meditation and a mindful approach to food selection and eating. Both interventions, involving weekly group meetings, also recommended physical activity.

“The more traditional education program includes general information about diabetes, but with more emphasis on nutrition and food choice: What are different types of carbohydrates and fats and how many am I supposed to have? What should I look for when I read a food label? What are healthy options when dining out? That was the traditional diabetes education program,” said Carla Miller, associate professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

“We compared it to an intervention where mindful meditation was applied specifically to eating and food choices. This intervention group did not receive specific nutrition goals. We said we want you to really tune into your body before you eat. Take a few minutes to assess how hungry you are and make conscious choices about how much you’re eating. Stop eating when you’re full.

“We studied two very different approaches, and we found they both worked. This means people with diabetes have choices when it comes to eating a healthy diet,” Miller said.

The research is published in the November issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Participants were adults between age 35 and 65 years and had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes for at least one year. To be eligible, they had to have a body mass index, a measure of weight relative to height, of 27 or more, indicating they were overweight, and a hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) reading of at least 7 percent. HbA1c measures blood glucose levels in the previous two to three months; normal HbA1c is 5.6 percent or lower.

Study participants were randomly assigned to a treatment group. Twenty-seven completed the mindful eating program, and 25 completed the traditional diabetes self-management program called “Smart Choices.” Each intervention involved eight weekly and two biweekly 2 ½-hour sessions with trained facilitators.

Trainers of the mindfulness program encouraged participants to cultivate “inner wisdom,” or mindful awareness related to eating, and “outer wisdom,” which referred to personal knowledge of optimal nutrition choices for people with diabetes. Each session included guided meditation oriented toward participants’ experiences and emotions associated with food. Participants received CDs for help with home meditation practice.

“We have so many environmental cues to eat in America that we’ve tuned out our normal physiological signals to eat. Being mindful means stopping long enough to become aware of these physiological cues,” Miller said. “We also tried to generate awareness, staying in the moment, and living and eating in response to hunger instead of habits and unconscious eating.”

The mindful intervention also included basic information about what is known as medical nutrition therapy: the relationships among calories consumed, carbohydrate and fat intake, weight regulation and high blood sugar.

In contrast, the Smart Choices program focused specifically on the condition of diabetes itself, including factors that can lead to the diagnosis, common complications (which include heart disease, kidney and nerve damage, eye problems and stroke), the importance of blood sugar control, and appropriate food choices when blood sugar levels spike. Every session included a medical nutrition therapy discussion such as calorie-intake goals, percentages of carbohydrates and fats in an ideal diet, and portion control. Many sessions included a 15- to 20-minute walk to further emphasize the recommendation for regular physical activity. Problem-solving regarding choosing healthy foods in high-risk situations, such as the holidays, were a focus of the program.

The interventions took place over three months. Researchers assessed participants’ health measures and dietary habits immediately after the programs concluded and then again three months later at the study’s end.

Miller said that because nutrition education is particularly important to people with a new diabetes diagnosis, she sees the mindful meditation and eating option as a potential supplement to basic diabetes education that patients need.

She also said that participants adapted well to the concept of mindfulness even though it is generally considered an alternative health practice.

“One of the things we were evaluating was how well this was accepted by people who had no experience with it. It was very well accepted by participants in that group,” she said. “And this tells us that people with diabetes have choices.

“The fact that both interventions were equally effective suggests that we should let people choose. If mindful meditation is appealing and people think that approach is effective, then it very well could be the best choice for them.”

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Stepping out of obsessive thinking

I’d gone into therapy during my sophomore year in college, and remember the day I brought up my current prime-time fixation: how to stop binge eating. No matter how committed I felt to my newest diet plan, I kept blowing it each day, and mercilessly judged myself for being out of control. When I wasn’t obsessing on how I might concoct a stricter, more dramatic weight-loss program, I was getting caught up in food cravings.

My therapist listened quietly for a while, and then asked a question that has stayed with me ever since: “When you are obsessing about eating, what are you feeling in your body?” As my attention shifted, I immediately noticed the painful, squeezing feeling in my chest. While my mind was saying “something is wrong with me,” my body was squeezing my heart and throat in the hard grip of fear.

In an instant I realized that when I was obsessing about food—craving it, wanting to avoid it—I was trying to escape from these feelings. Obsessing was my way of being in control. Then I realized something else. “It’s not just food” I told her. “I’m obsessing about everything.”

Saying it out loud unlocked something inside of me. I talked about how I obsessed about what was wrong with my boyfriend, about exams, about what to do for spring break, about when to fit in a run. I obsessed about what I’d tell her at our next therapy session. And most of all, my tireless inner critic obsessed about my own failings: I’d never change; I’d never like myself; others wouldn’t want to be close to me.

After pouring all this out, my mind started scratching around again—this time for a new strategy for changing my obsessive self. When I started down that track, my therapist simply smiled and said kindly: “If you can notice when you’re obsessing and then feel what’s going on in your body, you’ll eventually find peace of mind.”

During the weeks that followed, I kept track of my obsessing. When I caught myself planning and judging and managing, I would note that I was obsessing, try to stop, and then ask how I was feeling in my body. Whatever the particular focus of my thoughts, I’d find a restless, anxious feeling—the same squeezing grip I had felt in my therapist’s office.

While I didn’t like my obsessing, I really didn’t like this feeling. Without being conscious of pulling away, I’d start distancing myself from the pain almost as soon as I’d contacted it, and the relentless voice in my head would take over again. Then, after a month or soof this, I had an experience that really caught my attention.

One Saturday night, after my friends and I had spent hours dancing to the music of a favorite band, I stepped outside to get some fresh air. Inspired by the full moon and the scent of spring blossoms, I sat down on a bench for a few moments alone. Suddenly the world was deliciously quiet. Sweaty and tired, my body was vibrating from all that dancing. But my mind was still. It was big and open, like the night sky. And filling it was a sense of peace—I didn’t want anything or fear anything. Everything was okay.

By Sunday morning, the mood had vanished. Worried about a paper due midweek, I sat down to work at noon, armed with Diet Coke, cheese, and crackers. I was going to overeat, I just knew it. My mind started ricocheting between wanting to eat and not wanting to gain weight. My agitation grew. For a moment I flashed on the evening before; that quiet, happy space was like a distant dream. A great wave of helplessness and sorrow filled my heart. I began whispering a prayer: “Please … may I stop obsessing … Please, please.” I wanted to be free from the prison of my fear-thinking.

The taste of a quiet, peaceful mind I’d experienced the night before had felt like home, and it motivated me not long after to begin spiritual practice. In the years since, I’ve become increasingly free from the grip of obsessive thinking, but awakening from this mental trance has been slower than I initially imagined.

Obsessive thinking is a tenacious addiction, a way of running from our restlessness and fears. Yet, like all false refuges, it responds to mindful awareness—to an interested and caring attention. We can listen to the energies behind our obsessive thinking, respond to what needs attention, and spend less and less time removed from the presence that nurtures our lives.

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Mindfulness of hunger

We all know about mindful eating: Don’t do anything else, like reading or watching TV. Take your time, really experience the sensations of lifting food to your mouth, putting it inside, chewing, swallowing. Notice the thoughts and feelings you have.

I have to confess I don’t do it very often. Last week I only really ate mindfully twice, and that’s because we undertook to eat mindfully at least twice as part of a meditation class. And it was actually quite hard to restrain myself from reading while eating. It’s quite a powerful habit!

But an interesting thing I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks is being mindful of hunger.

I’ve noticed some things.

I find it easier to practice mindfulness of hunger than mindfulness of eating — perhaps because mindfulness of hunger is a new thing?

Sometimes when I think I’m hungry, I’m not. It’s just craving.

Television is a trigger for fake hunger. (I don’t actually have a TV, but I watch shows on Netflix on my laptop.) In particular, the theme tunes of TV programs induce craving — that desire to rush to the fridge to see if there’s something I can snack on.

If I simply pay attention to this craving, it’s manageable, and I can resist eating unnecessarily.

When it’s real hunger, I can mindfully pay attention to the sensations in the body.

When I’m mindful of my hunger, the sensations change. It’s less localized in the stomach and becomes a more general sensation throughout the abdomen.

When I feel real hunger, I tell myself, “This is how my body feels when it’s losing weight.” This also helps change the feeling-tone of the hunger. It ceases to be an unpleasant sensation. It’s just a sensation.

When I’m mindful of hunger, I don’t feel that I have to jump up immediately and eat something. It stops being a signal that something is “wrong” and needs immediate attention. It’s a bit more like the fuel gauge on a car pointing to 1/4 full — it’s a sign that I’m going to have to find fuel soon, but not necessarily right now. When I’m mindful of hunger in this way, I can comfortably be with the hunger for an hour or so.

When I’m mindful of my hunger, my hunger ceases to be unpleasant in any way, and just feels like another sensation. If I tell myself, “This is the sensation of my body burning off fat,” I feel happy.

I’ve lost about 4 pounds (1.8 kg) in the last couple of weeks.

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