I consider being present with my food as one of the most important principles to live by. To miss out on fully experiencing the subtle nuances and various sensations of what you eat seems like missing out on the basic purpose of your existence. After all, at the most primal level, life is all about eating isn’t it? And yet, I still somehow find myself cramming spoonfuls of oatmeal down my throat as I drive down the road to work, simultaneously shuffling through radio stations and searching through my bag for a hair tie. Or consuming copious amounts of salted peanuts while staring at the computer screen in a sort of half conscious daze.
And how could it be otherwise? We live in a cultural climate that values productivity over enjoyment. We have long hours to work to be able to afford all the material goods we never have time to actually use – and who has time in this busy scheme to actually sit down and eat a meal? Why waste time when you can shove protein bars down your throat while doing something useful!
Well, I’m hear to say that there are some compelling reasons to re-learn the art of experiencing your food, and enjoyment is just the tip of the iceberg. Obesity, for starters, might not be such a cultural pandemic if we weren’t living in an environment of mindless eating. It’s easy to finish off that bowl of salted peanuts, after all, when you’re not really consciously aware of the act of eating them. When most of our conscious brain is preoccupied by television, staring at computer screens or worse yet, driving, it becomes far less likely that we’ll cue into signals of satiety from our body – making it far more likely that we’ll over eat. Considering it typically takes about 15 minutes for your brain to register the sensation of fullness – you can see the problem. Over time, we can become so disconnected from the feelings of hunger or fullness that we eat without reason or need – the hallmark of our obese, consumer driven culture.
Paired with the speed we typically eat at, our lack of consciousness also creates the perfect environment for the marketing of those pointless nutritionally devoid foods we call “junk food” or “processed foods” – foods laced with sugar, fat and salt to mask the shortcomings of their otherwise tasteless nature. It’s as though our tasting muscle has become puny and enfeebled after too long of not having to really work. Why bother to taste when our taste buds are already overwhelmed with the flavors we like best?
Long ago, people used to describe rice as sweet because they chewed it long enough to break down some of the polysaccharides into simple sugars – there was that vital short delay and some work required to experience the full flavor. I dare say most people never reach that point today – the rice has long since passed down the gullet. If you think about the foods that you tend to consume most quickly, I would bet that they tend to be highly sweet or salty “junk” type foods – foods that bombard your tongue with certain flavors and negate the need to search for more. We don’t realize these foods are terrible because our tongues are fooled by the sugars, salt or artificial flavors that keep us from discovering that what we are really eating is equivalent in flavor to a cardboard box. And then, we find the truly amazing flavors of real foods (vegetables and whole grains for example) boring – because we aren’t used to actually having to taste our food – to work a little to discover the subtle complexities locked away with each morsel.
And then there is of course enjoying what we eat. If you think back on all the meals you have eaten in your life, I would venture that the best ones we’re eaten slowly, savored if you will. You know these meals – the type of meal where conversation suddenly dies out, where the world drifts away until there is nothing but the experience of flavor and eating, the sound of the fork hitting your plate, eyes closed, emitting the mmmmm of primal contentment that can only come from a really good meal. Good food is not eaten quickly. It is savored. It does not bombard or overwhelm our tongues, but awakens our tongue, pulls our minds immediately and fully into the experience of taste.
Years ago, I experienced something called “an eating meditation” in a meditation course I was taking. Meditation is about focusing your mind, letting go of the constant barrage of thoughts that whirl round your consciousness, distracting you from the raw beauty of pure experience. This particular meditation involved focusing the mind entirely on the experience of food – blocking out all other thoughts, sensations or senses.
I have eaten thousands of grapes in my life, but never one as fantastically delicious and amazing as the one I savored during this class. For 15 minutes, we held one purple grape in our mouths, sensing its coldness on our tongues, feeling its shape and texture, moving it around, tasting, slowly biting it and releasing the first squeeze of sweet juice. Everything was slowed down to the millisecond – like a slow motion film where every frame can be analyzed and fully taken in.
Try the meditation yourself. Start with something small – a piece of very dark chocolate or a slice of fruit. Block out all other senses: put yourself in a quiet room, blindfold yourself if you’d like or simply close your eyes. Then, place the food into your mouth, and simply hold it there for a few moments. Before you even move it in your mouth, just hold it on your tongue, taste it, feel it. Slowly move it around your mouth, holding it under your tongue, against the roof of your mouth, against the sides of your cheeks. Taste it, sense it’s shape and texture. Then ever so slowly, bite down – not breaking it but just gently crushing it between your teeth. Observe how the taste changes, what it feels like, how your jaw feels holding it there. Continue on like this, very slowly breaking down the mechanics of eating into a thousand little steps. Observe at every moment, pulling your consciousness back to your experiencing.
Once you’ve practice this a time or two, start incorporating into your daily routine. Meditate on the first few bites of food you eat at every meal. I would bet that you might begin to find foods you previously loved somewhat boring, somewhat terrible even. Foods that you may have previously found blasé, might begin to become more interesting, revealing their hidden secrets to your patient tongue and open mind. You will begin to not just eat, but savor – experiencing the full potential and delight of taste.
Because in the end, life is about awareness. When we are aware, we provide ourselves with the objective space to make a clear decision about how will behave – we become the artists of our present moment. When we are mindless, we become slaves to our experience, completely abandoning our ability to have a conscious choice in our actions. Life is about awareness – and eating is the basis of life.