Eating with Intention

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[The following is an excerpt from a draft of my new book, Self-Care for Social Change: A Holistic Approach for Changemakers, Oxford Press]

Eating with Intention

Mindful eating offers an antidote to the suffering that mindless eating causes, creating an opportunity for us to reclaim our basic wisdom about food. Zen Buddhist teacher, Jan Chozen Bays (2009), explains mindful eating in the following way:

Mindful eating is an experience that engages all parts of us, our body, our heart, and our mind, in choosing, preparing, and eating food. Mindful eating involves all the senses. It immerses us in the colors, textures, scents, tastes, and even sounds of drinking and eating. It allows us to be curious and even playful as we investigate our responses to food and our inner cues to hunger and satisfaction (p. 3).

We can choose to eat more mindfully by setting a new intention for ourselves. When considering eating as a form of transformative self-care, there are a few principles to keep in mind. First, bring the six self-care capabilities to your relationship with food - observe yourself without judgment and with compassion, get curious and use your critical thinking skills, and bring discipline and effort, but do it without attachment to outcomes. As noted above, Bays invites us to be “curious and even playful as we investigate.” So, just notice your eating patterns, e.g. what times of day do you like to eat particular types of foods? Warm, creamy and sweet in the morning? Salty in the afternoon? What is happening with you and your environment when you forget to eat, or overeat? What role do history, economics, culture, and family play in all of this for you? Remember too, that at some level, you have already been taking care of yourself and trying to create balance in your system. Intentional and mindful eating is an invitation to refine your practices so that you can feel more whole, and better able to offer your best self to your community and/or clients.

Also, notice what foods make you feel in balance and what foods make you feel out of balance. This requires mindfulness and refinement of the skill of interoception, asking you to feel into your internal processes such as your mood, digestion, and even your bowel movements in relation to the food you eat and how you eat. You may find it helpful to keep a food journal and track your daily intake of food and beverages, including the time of day, noting your thoughts and feelings before and after you eat. Some people may find enlisting the help of a friend or partner, support group, holistic nutritionist, or other medical professional necessary or helpful. You may want to create a mindful or healthy eating community in your social services or social action organization that you work or volunteer in. Remember to cultivate curiosity and non-judgment, as opposed to domination and deprivation.

Second, focus on adding in rather than cutting out. Our initial temptation in changing our relationship to food tends to be prohibitive. “I will stop eating x, y and z starting tomorrow!” This may be a little bit heavy on the side of effort. If you plan to make some changes in what or how you eat, you might find it helpful to add new foods or new behaviors rather than focusing on cutting out or eliminating certain foods or behaviors. For example, rather than setting an intention to never eat while watching television shows, consider setting an intention to eat one meal a day mindfully without any distractions. Or, rather than cutting out refined flours like white breads from your diet, consider eating one meal a day that includes whole grains, such as rice, quinoa, barley, or oats. As you sow seeds of wholesomeness, you may find that you want more of that which is wholesome, and, if you continue to investigate and be mindful, you may find that your desires for that which is unwholesome will diminish.

Third, make subtle changes with replacement foods. Imagine that you have a habit of eating an ice cream sundae at night after dinner and you are finding that this ritual is not serving you well. Drawing from the first principle above, you can begin to notice what need or desire that this ritual is fulfilling for you. What feeling or thoughts are present when you decide to move towards the freezer? Perhaps you feel like you need to be nurtured at that time of the evening and having something sweet and creamy is soothing for you. Consider if there is a subtle change you could make to this ritual. First, ask yourself if you are even hungry. If only a little hungry, see if rather than having this high sugar food before bed you could have something that would have a little more nutritional value, e.g. a smoothie made of unsweetened almond milk, a banana, and vanilla extract. At first, you may miss the sugar rush, but you may find that there are similar tastes and textures that can soothe you equally as well. This is the teaching of what Buddha called, the Middle Way. You are not depriving yourself completely but you are not over-indulging either. It is also what medical professionals call harm reduction. At some point, you may find that even the smoothie is not serving you well, and you may want to look into whether you might find the soothing and nurturing you are looking for in some other outlet. This may include snuggling with a pet or loved one, or listening to or making music. In Ayurvedic medicine, this time of night (6 pm – 10 pm) is associated with earth and mothering energy, so connecting with loved ones or a warm blanket can be a nice form of soothing. Or, perhaps watching a cooking show would be fulfilling, where someone is cooking for you, giving you a feeling of being cared for. The invitation is to practice being present with any uncomfortable feelings that might trigger unwholesome cravings in the first place and see what it’s like to be with them, learning about your own patterns, and then see what kind of antidote, if any, is skillful.

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