Have I Ever Enjoyed a Meal??

Over the last few months I have tried to analyze my relationship with food. Why is it so troubled? Ever since I was around 11 or 12, I can remember being driven by food. Food. Food. And More Food. In 5th grade I took a great field trip all over the area, visiting steamboats and historical sites. I even got to drive a steamboat for a minute. However, I barely remember caring about any of that. All I cared about was where we were eating on the trip. My brother and I went over the itinerary in our minds before, during, and after the trip, and all that continued to come up was the food. I can still remember where we ate: Western Sizzlin Steak House, and the John Henry Restaurant (both long-closed).  This was the same year the cafeteria cooks knew me on a first name basis, because I was such a great customer. In 8th grade the process continued. We took a school trip to Florida, and all that seemed to matter was that I had 30 (yes, 30) packets of sprees for the trip. I certainly wasn’t “packing light” for that trip!

You would think that all this obsession with food, which I admit continues to this day, would mean I actually appreciate food. Those who overeat know this isn’t true. In fact, the opposite is true. Most of the time when I eat, I go into an altered state, a kind of food trance. I do not savor anything. Rather, I scarf down food as quickly as possible, with as little enjoyment as possible, and I can literally feel my body tensing up as I eat. When I finish, the tension gets relieved somewhat, and I feel bloated and my mind becomes foggy. This is not enjoying food. So, what  is the answer? Well, I think one possible answer is mindfulness.

I have been reading about mindfulness lately, after I picked up Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are. Mindfulness is simply being present and aware, non-judgmentally, in the moment. It is, basically, living in the present to the fullest extent. This got me thinking about the whole idea of mindfulness and eating. Why do I go into a narrow-focused trance state every time I eat? Why do I scarf down meals but don’t really enjoy them? Why can’t I appreciate the whole experience of food?

I decided to buy a book called Mindful Eating. I highly recommend it. I am working my way through it and the result has been pretty much revolutionary. It has made me realize I probably haven’t really enjoyed a meal in a long, long, time. According to the author, Jan Bays, mindful eating is basically being aware of the experience we have while eating. It is being attuned to our own hunger and experience of food. Mindful eating has us asking questions such “why am I hungry” and “how am I hungry.” It has us paying attention to the tastes, textures, flavors, colors, smells, and experience of a meal. In essence, mindful eating has taught me to slow down and actually enjoy a meal, and to live in the experience of eating a great piece of food or glass of liquid. Yes, we can even savor water! According to Bays, mindfulness is the best seasoning!

I have been using the techniques and I am very excited about it. Lately I have been saddened that I just don’t enjoy coffee like I used to. I grab a cup in the morning, at work, and in the evening. I gulp it down while I surf the net, talk to my wife, or drive. Even though we use good Arabica bean coffees (such as Starbucks Pike’s Place and Thanksgiving Blend), all the coffees were tasting the same to me. Recently, I decided to be aware of the experience of drinking coffee. Just aware. No thinking, no judging, and no rushing. I was amazed. I hadn’t enjoyed coffee like this in a long time! I have said how much I love coffee a lot over the last 3 years, but honestly, I haven’t really meant it, until now that is.

Last night I decided to eat dinner the same way. Bays mentions that it is okay to play with your food, so instead of eating at the table or in front of the TV, we decided to “have a picnic” in front of the fireplace. We put a blanket down and faced each other. The cat sat in between us, while the flames kept us warm. My wife made spare ribs with a tomato sauce, over whole wheat noodles. We enjoyed our meal slowly, and became aware of the experience. We talked some, but left plenty of time for just being aware. The flavors and experience came alive! Each bite was a little different, and the blend of spices and texture made it a great experience. While doing this, I became attuned to my stomach, and realized that I was full fairly quickly; I even left some food for later. As I looked up out the window during the meal, I noticed a strong orange and blue hue shining in, as the sun was setting outside our house. I realized that THIS is the way a meal was meant to be. The alternative, staring at a TV screen while inhaling the meal, now strikes me as a virtual waste of time.

I am planning on eating at Chipotle on Friday, and I literally cannot fathom how I will eat the whole thing (even though I usually scarf it down). The thought of eating that quickly makes me a little sad actually, looking back at how many meals I mindlessly ran through. Instead, I will mindfully enjoy it, and whatever is left, I (or someone else) will eat later.

I also think this will help my battle with weight gain. One principle of Mindful Eating is to recognize different types of hunger, and satisfy them. Some types of hunger can be satisfied with things other than food. For example, eye hunger (desiring a food because it looks appetizing) can be satisfied by looking at something beautiful. Who would have thought that if a piece of nicely decorated cheesecake on a dessert tray at a restaurant is calling your name, a simple glance at the sunset outside might satisfy your hunger? As someone who has struggled with food for years, I am starting to think that this mindfulness thing might be the answer. And I can tell you that living mindfully in other areas of life has transformed me as well.