Recently I was running a workshop on the MB-EAT program for therapists experienced in mindfulness meditation. We started with a mindfulness eating practice that focused on making choices by passing around a bowl filled with a gourmet mix of dried fruit and nuts. The instructions were simple. You can do this yourself.
- Place an assortment of dried fruits and nuts in a bowl.
- Mindfully consider your choices and then pick three different pieces.
- Mindfully observe how you made this choice.
- Observe any other thoughts, feelings, or other types of reactions.
- Choose one of the three pieces to eat mindfully.
- Observe how you made this choice.
- Eat this piece slowly and mindfully.
- Choose a second piece.
- How did you make this choice?
- Was it affected by your experience of the first piece? Observe any self-judgment?
- Eat mindfully.
- Continue with the third piece, if you wish.
What was surprising is how these therapists responded. One woman, who was not overweight, noted how judgmental she was about her choices — that half a pecan was fattening, that a raisin was a better choice, even though she didn't like them, and that the large dried date was not an option because it would be really indulgent. She laughed and said that she hadn't realized how caught up she still was in a "dieting" mentality. Another woman was surprised how angry she got when the person who had the bowl before her — her husband — took the last dried apricot, which she had been eyeing. She realized that if it had been a stranger, she would still have been disappointed, but not angry. They both laughed and she said that she realized she often felt angry at him for taking food from the refrigerator that she had been thinking of eating.
Three Meditations for Joyful Eating
Many of us overeat because we've forgotten how to listen to our bodies and truly enjoy what we put into our mouths. These simple yet profound meditations can dramatically improve our experiences with food.
The Experience of Hunger
Shortly before a meal or snack, stop, focus your attention on slowing your breath for about a minute, and let yourself relax as much as possible. When your mind is pulled to other feelings or thoughts (as it will be), gently return it to your breath. Then let your attention and awareness refocus fully on your body and as much as possible on your experiences of hunger. What are they? On a scale of 1-7, with 7 being as hungry as possible, and 1 being not at all hungry, what number is your hunger? How do you know?
Now mindfully consider how you want to use this awareness. Do you still want to eat? If so, about how much? What type of food would bring the greatest satisfaction? Are there any parts of the meal that will be challenging to eating the amount you want? Think about how you will handle these foods — and still enjoy your meal. As you begin eating, stop every few moments and reassess your experience of hunger. Is it increasing? Decreasing? Again, how do you know?
The Experience of Enough
As you are eating a meal or large snack, become aware of feelings in your stomach. It helps to stop eating completely for a few moments, to watch your breath and relax. First bring your attention mindfully to how the signals from your stomach that indicate hunger shift and then disappear. Then as you continue to eat, focus your awareness as much as possible on your experiences of your stomach becoming full. What are they? On a scale of 1-7, with 7 being as full as possible, and 1 being not at all full, what number is your experience of fullness at different points in the meal? How do you know? Now mindfully consider how you want to use this awareness. Do you want to eat more? If so, about how much? Is there anything that you need to do to help yourself eat only that much more? Think about how you will best do this — and still enjoy your meal. As you continue eating, stop every few moments and reassess your experience of fullness. What number is it? Again, how do you know? What level of fullness on your scale of 1-7 is "just right" for this meal or snack? Also, watch the thoughts that arise about stopping eating at each point. Are they judgmental? Accepting? Parental? Indulging?
Choose a time when you are moderately hungry — if you are too hungry, this may override the process. Choose a food that you like and that is fairly intense in flavor (later you can apply this to different foods in a full meal). We use a variety of foods in our program including cheese, crackers, and chocolate cake. It should be a food that you can easily eat small bites of, and you should have available more than you think you would want to eat — or at least a full serving. With the food prepared and in front of you, close your eyes, takes several slow focused breathes, rate your hunger level (as in Side Bar One) and then, opening your eyes, pick up a piece of the food. Place it in your mouth and chew it slowly. Appreciate and savor it as much as possible, experiencing all the enjoyment and pleasure from it that you can before swallowing. Then take another piece and do the same. Notice first if your hunger level changes at all (it may not — or may increase or decrease!). Then chew slowly again, savoring the flavor and texture, and noting the level of satisfaction you're experiencing. Particularly note any changes in flavor and satisfaction. Continue to eat small pieces slowly and mindfully. It generally takes three to six bites before you will notice a decrease in flavor and satisfaction, depending on the food and how hungry you are. As you become more aware of this process, you may even notice that the food stops tasting good at all — and that continuing to eat becomes somewhat unpleasant. This may not happen with all foods or all of the time. Also watch the thoughts that are occurring. Does this shift in experience feel upsetting in any way? Powerful? While all food does not have to be eaten this way, begin experimenting with using it with different types of food, in different situations.