Show up, not just for meals, but for your life. Taste the food. Sit down. Focus on what you’re doing. What’s the point of eating chocolate if you’re not going to have a fabulous time doing it? You’re missing your whole life, because you never let yourself have it. – Geneen Roth
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting my family in Michigan. While I’m there, I always try to have a sandwich at Olga’s Kitchen restaurant. I grew up eating Olga’s delicious pita bread sandwiches when there was just one location in downtown Birmingham. They then spread throughout the state, and when I moved to DC in the mid-80’s, there were even two locations in the DC area, and we ate there as often as we could. I was even eating an Olga’s when my water broke for my last child!
So while I was Michigan this February, my nephews and I decided to get Olga’s for lunch. I got my favorite — the veggie Olga with cheese that is topped with a yummy yogurt sauce and wrapped in sweet Olga pita bread. We picked the food up from Olga’s and carried it home. We were all very happy… for about 60 seconds. I literally ate my sandwich in five bites while talking to my sister. And then I sat there wondering where my Olga went, and where my happiness went. And I thought, “Why in the world did I eat my Olga so quickly? I won’t get another one for at least a year!”
Two weeks ago, I undertook a solo retreat in the mountains, mostly doing sitting and walking meditation, with a short amount of time to work, and listening to recorded talks on my ipod in the evenings. The silence allows me to see what feels harmonious and disharmonious in me at this time.
And what kept coming up for me during that week was that Olga sandwich, and why I wasn’t able to enjoy it. This is not a new area of practice for me. I first learned about mindful eating at least 15 years ago, and yet I still find it one of the most challenging practices for me to actually manifest. My habit is to eat very quickly, while doing something else, like email, reading, talking, and mostly not noticing what I am eating. I take large bites, don’t chew much, finish eating, and move on. This happens even when I am eating something that I love, like Olga’s.
From my practice, I have discovered that I carry around a lot of conditioning about food and eating. For one thing, I imagine that certain foods (e.g., Olga’s) are so amazing that having them will make me happy and that happiness will last forever. I will never have to suffer again if I eat this Olga’s, or this chocolate, or this bagel. Life will be perfect if I eat this food, and all my problems will be gone. I may not think this consciously, but part of me believes it. And even though I know that this belief is there, it still can hook me, and cause me to eat unmindfully, especially if I am distracted and my practice is not strong.
But what I am discovering is that I also carry around the flip side of this habitual thinking. I also believe that if I stop and taste and enjoy this food, if I give it my full attention, this would be a waste of time that would be better spent doing some “important” work. This habitual thought says that really “good” people don’t need to enjoy food, and they certainly never waste time savoring food or indulge in fully experiencing a meal that might leave Olga sauce dribbling down their chins! So when I am being fully mindful of my chewing and the texture and flavor of my meal, that can trigger discomfort in me. There’s a fear of being less than perfect, of being fully human. Eating delicious food can be very sensual, and to allow myself to really indulge in the pleasure of eating can feel somehow dirty or wrong. So I’m sending myself opposing messages–delicious food is all powerful and will save me–and yet enjoying that delicious food is wrong. It’s enough to make me feel a little crazy.
And I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. I have talked to dozens if not hundreds of people, many of whom are women, who have a similar struggle. In some ways, the Buddha struggled with the same thing. He grew up as a prince in a palace, surrounded by sensual pleasures, including delicious food, and he found that even with all of these sensual pleasures, he was still subject to old age, sickness and eventually death. So he gave up food, living on one grain of rice a day (something some of us may have aspired to at one time.) And just before he almost died of starvation, he saw that preventing himself from enjoying food wasn’t helping him reach enlightenment either. And so he realized that food and sensual pleasures were themselves not the problem, but what creates our suffering is both our craving for the sensual pleasures– thinking that they will make us happy forever, and our self-denial– thinking we shouldn’t have them. In order to wake up, we need to find a middle way.
So how do we follow a middle way with regard to food and eating? Eating disorders seem to be epidemic in our culture, especially for women. If we believe what society is telling us, we will continue to get caught in the cycles of food as savior… food as enemy… over and over again. To break out of the cycle, mindfulness shows us how to be present for all of our conditioning, and not to get hooked by it. We can respect and pay attention to each bite the same way we pay attention to a beautiful sunset, or listen to a dear friend. We can fully enjoy the experience of this food without expecting it to end all future suffering, and without judging ourselves for enjoying it. This moment, this bite, this breath, is all we really have.
For those of us conditioned by families, society, and friends, it may require lots of diligent practice and joining with others who are practicing mindful eating in order to transform our habits and return to our natural ability to eat with ease and joy. I am here to practice mindful eating with you, and I need your support in relearning how to eat, too. This is the deepest purpose of our sangha, or community of practice, to water each others’ seeds of mindfulness. We are relearning how to eat, not what to eat.
Thich Nhat Hanh describes mindful eating as learning to eat with our bodies and not just our minds:
There is a way of eating an orange that will increase your happiness one thousand times… The way you hold the orange, the way you peel it, the way you smell it, the way you visualize the orange tree, the way you take each section of the orange and put it into your mouth, the way you feel it with your mindfulness, the orange juice coming slowly onto your tongue–these things are to be learned, and that is learning how to be happy.
I love to sit and eat quietly and enjoy each bite, aware of the presence of my community, aware of all the hard and loving work that has gone into my food. When I eat in this way, not only am I physically nourished, I am also spiritually nourished. The way I eat influences everything else that I do during the day. If I can look deeply into my food and take this time as a meditation–just as important as my sitting or walking meditation time–I receive the many gifts of the cosmos that I would not otherwise profit from if my mind were elsewhere.
And when we learn how to eat like this, we can truly enjoy an Olga’s sandwich for what it is — nothing more, and nothing less.