In this two-part article, FCM Member Andrew Rock shares wisdom on how we can live happier and healthier (for ourselves and others) lives by consuming more mindfully.
Part 1: Mindful Eating & Mindful Gifting
Many of us feel anxious as the holiday season approaches.. And many of us begin the new year feeling that we over-did it during the holidays. Ate too much, drank too much, bought too much, received too much, and, afterwards, threw away too much uneaten food, too much gift-wrapping, too many unwanted presents. We resolve to go on a diet, do our gift shopping earlier and more thoughtfully next time, and be more loving and patient with our difficult family members the next time around.
Our mass consumer culture encourages the opposite of mindful consumption. Mindless consumption, conspicuous consumption, and, as I write this on “Black Friday,” frenzied consumption. We know that mindless over-consumption is not nhealthy for us individually, for our loved ones, for our society or for our planet and its myriad living beings. We can’t afford it, our families can’t afford it and our planet can’t afford it. But we get caught up in habit, in what we think are the expectations of our loved ones, and in the constant cues to buy, buy, buy.
So as December looms, with the new year close behind, let’s take a few minutes to reflect on each of the following questions, and jot down a short response:
- What are some challenges for me regarding consumption of food?
- What are some challenges for me regarding the gifts I give or the gifts I receive?
- What are some challenges for me regarding my consumption of our world’s resources?
At the end of this article we will revisit our challenges to see how increased mindfulness can help us.
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that what we consume creates our inner environment, physically, mentally and emotionally. The consumption of toxic items waters our negative seeds of anger, fear and desire. He encourages us to “consume in such a way that health, happiness and a future are possible.” At the recent retreat at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, Thay told us that “if we practice mindful consumption, we will be able to heal ourselves, heal our society and heal our planet.”
Many of the unhealthy foods and unnecessary things that are dangled for us contain a hidden hook buried within the appetizing bait. The hook of physical disease, mental unease and environmental pollution and degradation. If we look deeply, we can see the hook inside the bait, and we realize that we don’t want to bite that hook! The fleeting pleasure promised by the bait just isn’t worth it! A moment of awareness and insight can result in a permanent change in the choices we make.
This subject is very near to my heart. Long before I knew about the “M-word” I’ve been on a quest to bring awareness to my choices and to live simply. As a teenager I was fortunate to live overseas in a country where fruits and vegetables were plentiful and fresh, and where there was no television to amp up our supposed needs and wants. When I returned to the U.S. in my twenties, I lived without TV and kept my distance from pop culture, which over-stimulates us in order to hook us, reel us in and sell, sell, sell. I wanted to be a free human being on this earth, not a “consumer” driven by advertising and conditioning like a laboratory rat in a cage.
I became more-or-less vegetarian since 1972, and soon after spent a few years as an organic farmer and distributor of organic fruits and veges. But it wasn’t until many years later, as a member of Sweetwater Organic Community Farm in Tampa, that I learned what organic really means: nothing wasted. Nature recycles everything.
The name of the growing Slow Food movement says it all. We can slow down a bit, and see our food and our hunger as they really are. We can be mindful not only when we eat, but when we plan meals, when we shop, when we cook and when we digest our food after we’ve eaten. This is not about taking the pleasure out of eating; rather, it’s about experiencing a true enjoyment of healthy, nourishing food. Which, by the way, is usually tastier and much more pleasing than processed fast foods.
So here are ten tips, things to enhance mindfulness about our consumption of food:
- Food doesn’t come from the supermarket!
Sweetwater Organic Farm runs farm tours for schoolchildren, who visit the fields, see how the veges grow, and pull up a carrot or harvest a tomato, wash it & enjoy a tasty snack. One day a youngster asked: “How come you bought these carrots at the supermarket and stuck them out here in the dirt?” We laugh, but if you ask where our dinner comes from, we’ll usually name the store where we bought it. Our awareness of the “provenance” of our food is very limited: where it was grown or raised, how it was processed and packaged, how it got to the store and on to our plates. Is it local and in season, or from another region or hemisphere? Grown sustainably or by industrial agriculture? Fresh and ripe, or bred for its shelf life and preserved by refrigeration and chemicals? By looking more deeply into the roots and sources of our food we can enhance our mindfulness and make better choices.
- Is it even food?
Much of our food is processed. Try reading the food labels, not just for the amounts of fat and carbohydrates, but for the ingredients. Nutritionists and food activists have worked long and hard to require food labeling so that we are not totally at the mercy of the food industry. It’s amazing how many chemicals are in everything but fresh fruits and veges – and even there most are grown with chemical fertilizers, weeded with chemical herbicides and coated with chemical pesticides, all leaving some residue. Chemical preservatives, flavorings and coloring agents are the norm. And high fructose corn syrup is in everything, in surprisingly large quantities (the substances in our food are listed in decreasing order on the label; those listed first are there in the largest amounts).
The food writer Michael Pollan (“Omnivore’s Dilemma”; “Cooked”), when asked what is safe and healthy for people to eat, replied: “Eat things your grandmother would have recognized as food.” (Since the processed food revolution began in the 1950s, some of us will need to go back to our great-grandmothers). If it isn’t food, don’t eat it. It always seemed weird and dangerous to me to put a bunch of unnatural chemicals in my body, and I’ve tried to avoid it all my life, by steering clear of processed foods and looking for those without added chemicals. I haven’t looked for studies linking cancer and other diseases with chemicals in food, but common sense tells me to be mindful and vigilant about putting industrial chemicals in my body.
- Listen to your body.
If we are attentive to our bodies, they will let us know if they are hungry or full, happy or unhappy with what we have eaten. Of course, we must learn to tune out the mental static of our habitual cravings for junk food and comfort food.
At FCM we are training to be mindful of the body in the body. As we learn to put our attention on our breathing, on the tensed or relaxed feel of our muscles and joints, so too we can be more aware of our digestive organs and metabolism. Are we really that hungry when we sit down to pack away a heavy meal, or do we still feel full from the last meal? When we eat, we can check in with our bodies to know when we have had enough. Another food writer described an interview with an old and very healthy woman in the Philippines, a country where there is an unusually high concentration of people who live to a ripe old age. The old woman said that she and her family and friends follow the “80% rule”: they stop eating when they feel about 80% full, because by the time everything they have eaten is registered by the body, they’ve already had too much!
If we pay attention, our bodies will also let us know whether the food and drink we have consumed feels good to the body. Does it “sit well” with us after we have eaten? Does indigestion or discomfort keep us from a good night’s sleep, or weigh us down as we move about our day? How do we feel “the morning after”? Again, if we listen, our bodies can tell us what they want and need, much like a pregnant woman who craves certain foods. It might be a salad, it might be a starch or protein, or it might simply be resting from eating for a while to digest what we have already consumed. The body can tell us what it needs, and we would be wise to listen.
- Slow down and pay attention!
Slow down when you eat! Enjoy this bite, this plate, this meal, not the next one. So often we are already planning the next forkful even as we are putting this one in our mouths! Getting ready to help ourselves to seconds before the first plate is finished, so that we are not enjoying the food still on the plate in front of us, much less waiting to see if we really are still hungry once we finish that first plate. When we are on silent retreat, we find that our food is particularly pleasing and that we don’t eat as much as usual. Why? Because we are practicing mindfulness of our food, and we are not distracted from our enjoyment of each morsel by talking or by mental chatter. It helps that we also practice appreciation of our food, and gratitude for the many hands and energies that went into raising it and bringing it to our plates for our enjoyment and nourishment.
I’m on an anti-grabity campaign.” That’s right: “grabity,” not “gravity.” Notice how often we talk about “grabbing a bite,” or invite our friends to “grab lunch” with us. Food isn’t for grabbing – it’s for sharing, savoring and then calmly digesting. Grabbing food is the opposite of mindful eating. “Grab” is just a word, but the words we use condition the way we think and the way we act. We can watch for each time that we or our friends talk about grabbing something to eat or drink, and we can use that heightened awareness as a bell of mindfulness.
We think we don’t have enough time to eat mindfully and well, but we do. How often do we grab our fast foods and then sit and watch TV? Or check our cell phones for messages for the umpteenth time? Or use the time we think we’ve saved to rush out and buy something? Or grab a meal and get back to work; might we not work smarter, calmer, better, after we take the time to enjoy our food and nourish ourselves? Really, what better way to use our time than to eat good food and share it with friends or family, or savor it by ourselves, mindfully enjoying each bite and knowing we are doing something good for ourselves?
- You don’t have to clean your plate!
Nor does your child or grandchild. How much misery has this misconception caused, how many family fights and lifelong traumas? It is not wasteful to stop eating once you’ve had enough.
Sure, it’s better not to take more food than we plan to eat, but sometimes we just don’t know, and sometimes the food is too tempting, so we take too much. Or we want to be generous, so we serve too much to those we are feeding. If we really don’t want to waste food, we can manage our shopping and meal planning better, or dish up less. But don’t force your body - or your child’s body - to force down more food than it wants, or than it can healthily digest.
We’ll look at the other five tips for mindful eating in Part 2 of this article next week, as well as the topic of mindfulness of the environmental impact of our consumption. But now, before the holiday shopping season is almost over, let’s talk about mindful gifting.
Presents … and Presence
Let’s start by asking ourselves a few questions. Why do we give gifts? What are the most meaningful gifts we give, and receive? What really means the most to us over the holiday season?
Most likely, your answers have to do with letting our family and friends know that we love them, that we care about them, that we think about them, and that we want to do something special for them. We tell our children, when they worry about what they’ll get us for Christmas or Hanukkah, “Please don’t think you need to spend a lot of money on us. It’s the thought and the love that counts.” And that’s pretty true across the board for most of our relationships.
Yes, there are people who do need material things: young people setting up their households, those who can’t afford to buy themselves those few simple things that would bring extra joy, and the growing number of Americans who can’t afford the bare necessities : a roof over their heads, adequate clothing and enough to eat. These folks do need our support, and the holiday season is a particularly good time to practice generosity for those in need.
But when you get right down to it, so many of our holiday gifts amount to more stuff for people who already have too much. The new stuff may be bigger, or newer, or have more capabilities than the old stuff, but is it really necessary and does it lead to more than a brief gratification of our materialist desires? And in many cases we spend more than we can afford, and those to whom we give feel that they must us give back gifts that are equally expensive, more than they can afford or we even want, and we get caught up in an escalating arms race of presents.
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that the greatest gift we can give to anyone is our presence. We all want to be loved, and we want to be understood. When we suffer, we want someone to listen deeply, and when we are happy, we want someone to share our joy. We know that caring for others brings us deep and lasting happiness, and we also know how many of our family and friends are stressed, lonely, angry or depressed, feelings which are often exacerbated during the holiday season.
How many times have we gotten together with our loved ones at Christmas, and after the brief frenzy of gift-giving and opening has subsided, and too much food and drink has quickly been consumed, we lapse into an uneasy silence or resume feuds and arguments from last year’s holiday get togethers? We feel that we have been generous because we’ve given and received lots of presents, but have we really shared our presence with our loved ones? Have we really been there for one another? Do we all go away from the holiday celebrations feeling loved and understood? Perhaps we can focus more on being present for one another, and less on giving presents to one another. Instead of sending the children off to watch Disney movies after dinner, while the men watch football and the women gather in the kitchen - pardon the stereotypes, but they still see to apply - how about we let the electronic screens and devices rest, and we talk. Even better, how about we listen deeply, and when we do speak, it is in such a way that our loved ones feel that they have been heard, understood and supported?
Some Alternative gifting strategies:
- Donations to favorite charities and organizations
Instead of buying more stuff, we can make charitable donations to our family and friends’ favorite “causes.” If we don’t already know the kinds of organizations and initiatives they would like to support, we can ask them. In and of itself, this lets them know we are interested in them, and want to know them better. It gives us something meaningful to talk about on an ongoing basis, and takes us out of ourselves.
For our part, we can tell those who normally give us holiday gifts that this year, if they intend to get us something, would they kindly make a donation to …(you can have fun filling in the blank). You might choose an organization that provides food for the homeless and undernourished, or a civil rights organization, or disaster relief for the Philippines or another afflicted area, an environmental group or a religious or community organization like FCM. There is no need for the giver to say or for the receiver to know how much was given, so the “gift arms race” can be ended. But whatever the amount, such a gift is something that you and your generous friends can both feel good about, and know that their generosity doesn’t translate into just more stuff the day after the holiday is over, more wrapping paper and cardboard boxes to fill the overflowing garbage containers after the holidays are over.
- Give consumables or other small everyday items
A jar of jam or some other food that you know your family member likes, or something you really enjoy and want to share with your friend. These are thoughtful, and will not go to waste If the recipients don’t like it, they can easily “regift” to someone else.
As much as I hated being given clothes for presents as a boy, now I love it if my wife gives me a pair or two of socks, or boxer shorts to replace my worn out ones. It’s funny how sometimes we don’t lack for the big things, but we might need and really appreciate the small day to day items that we often do not buy for ourselves.
- Accumulate small personalized gifts through the year
My wife Nancy is wonderful at this. She travels a lot, and she likes to shop. Not necessarily to buy, but to look and see what’s there. And she keeps her many friends and family members in mind, so when she sees something that she thinks will appeal to a particular person, she buys it, though she might hold it until the holidays or a birthday rolls around. It might be a book someone would like, or a craft item from another country that she thinks will appeal, or a household knickknack like a bowl with a cat on it for someone who loves cats, or a special garlic press for someone who uses garlic. When she gives presents like this, not only does the recipient usually enjoy the item, but she is warmed by knowing that Nancy was thinking about her as she went about her travels, not just at Christmas time but as she went about her everyday life.
- Gift certificates or money
Nancy and I used to think that giving money was somehow not in good taste, but we’ve come around on that. A check or a bit of cash can be very welcome to help enliven a holiday for someone who is on a tight budget, or to tuck away until they have time to go out and have some fun picking something out for themselves. If you know their tastes and interests, a gift certificate to a favorite store or online service allows them to pick out something they really want or need.
You get the idea. Gifts can be modest, yet if they are personal and there is some thought behind them, those gifts can be very enjoyable and let our dear ones know that we care. It’s the caring, not the stuff, that is the real point. Above all, we can give the gift of our true and focused presence to our loved ones. Telling people we love them on a gift card that accompanies a big fancily-wrapped gift is nice and well-intentioned, but the gift of being there for someone, in the happy times and the hard ones, is the gift that keeps giving.
Part 2: Mindful Eating (continued)
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that “if we practice mindful consumption, we will be able to heal ourselves, heal our society and heal our planet.” In Part 1 of this article we asked ourselves about our challenges regarding mindful consumption of food, and about mindful gifts. We talked about why we give gifts – to show our love and to do something special for our family and friends – and about how our true presence may be more deeply meaningful to our loved ones than our material presents.
We also looked at the first five of ten “tips” that may help us with mindful eating: (1) Food doesn’t come from the supermarket! (2) Is what we are about to buy and eat really food? (3) Listen to your body. (4) Slow down and pay attention! (5) You don’t have to clean your plate!
Now, many of us are preparing for the Christmas and New Year holidays, a time of heightened emotions, material over-abundance (for many but not for all in our society), and – let’s be honest – over-eating and over-drinking, followed by remorse and resolutions to handle it all better next time round. The premise of this article is that with greater mindfulness we can handle it better this time round. In the present moment – which is all that there ever is for us - we can bring a clearer awareness to our actions of body, speech and mind so that we can make choices about our consumption that are more in line with our deeper aspirations for health and happiness.
Here are the remaining five suggestions for mindful consumption of food and drink:
6. Eating doesn’t end after the last bite
After we have swallowed our last mouthful and left the table, our minds may move on to the next activity, but our bodies know that their part has really just begun. Digestion takes time and energy, especially after we have eaten rich or heavy foods, and if we have mixed together a lot of different kinds of food and drink. Our appetite has been satisfied, but now our bodies must deal with what we’ve consumed!
We eat for enjoyment – nature has designed us to be motivated to eat – but most of all we eat for nourishment. As the saying goes, “we are what we eat” – do we really want to be a cheeseburger? - and our energy level is determined in part by how effectively we convert food energy into body energy. Some foods, like meats, fried food and dense combinations of fats, processed starch and sugars, may take more energy from the body to attempt to digest than they provide to the body! They may have good “mouth-feel,” but be a net loss to our metabolisms.
Obviously over-eating causes indigestion and discomfort, but so can poor food combinations. I’m not a nutritionist, but it seems only common sense that if we mix together too many foods that are acid and alkaline, hot and cold, solids and liquids we may make it difficult for our digestive systems to do their work properly. And in fact naturopaths have suggested for many years that poor eating habits create a toxic internal environment that makes us prone to colds and diseases.
If, as we plan and consume our meals and snacks, we are mindful that eating doesn’t end after the last bite, we can allow our bodies to digest our food easily, as designed, and help to keep ourselves and those we feed nourished and happy.
7. Every day is a special occasion!
Truly it is, another 24 hours to be alive and awake on this amazing planet! So often, though, this expression is used like a ritual incantation to allow us to overeat and to overdose on particularly sweet and rich foods, and often on alcohol too. Then after the special occasion is over, we try to diet and vow to do better hereafter… until the next special occasion turns up. That’s a stressful roller coaster to be on, when in reality every day really is special, and we want to feel good every day. It’s an unhealthy cycle for our metabolisms, which find it much easier to settle into a regular routine, so everything can stabilize, rather than lurching between extremes of binging and fasting without a chance to recover.
Holidays should really be a time to treat our bodies especially well, and to encourage – by example – our loved ones to do the same. We really do all want to be as healthy as we can, for many more special occasions to come.
8. Sugar does not = love
We think we are being kind to our family and friends when we provide them with heavy, rich food, or, as is often the case, with very good food but too much of it. And in particular, we think we are being “sweet” to ourselves and our guests when we provide them with lots of sugar. Especially on birthdays and throughout the holiday season.
Our comfort foods are often sugar-based. No doubt we associate them with happy interludes in our childhoods. I can remember many depressive binges on ice cream or chocolate or donuts, or some combination thereof. Fun for a very brief time, then uncomfortable for a much longer time. Is that really the best we can for do for ourselves when we what want is to feel “comforted”? Maybe if we called them “discomfort foods” it would help us be more mindful the next time our strong attachment to sweets kicks in.
Then there are those of us who are mindful of our own consumption, so we don’t eat the cake and ice cream and so on ourselves, but we urge them on our family and guests because we want them to have what they like. That’s totally understandable, but more applied mindfulness may lead us to realize that the most loving thing we can do is to provide healthy food, and to use our own understanding and example to support and encourage our loved ones to be mindful of what they consume.
This is not to suggest that we become food Nazis about sugar. I love chocolate, and nothing quite does it for me like a pistachio ice cream cone on a hot summer afternoon. As a friend of mine likes to say, quoting Oscar Wilde: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.” A little sugar now and then, sure. Too much sugar on a regular basis, bad news for our metabolism, our bodies and our emotions.
9. Excessive drinking does not = fun
“Drinking to excess equals fun” is another equation that needs to be rewritten. In the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us not to use alcohol, drugs or other products which contain toxins. Some practitioners totally refrain from drinking alcohol at all, and others may enjoy the occasional glass of wine or beer, but our aspiration and our practice is not to cloud our minds and damage our bodies by drinking too much.
We have been conditioned to believe that intoxication is fun, and that feeling bad during and after is just part of this enjoyable experience. Many of our friends and family are overdoing it, especially over the holidays, and if we don’t use mindfulness to create an opportunity to choose moderation or abstinence, we tend to go along with the crowd. We needn’t make a big point of not drinking or of drinking moderately, we simply stop after we have enjoyed one or two drinks and switch to water, tea or juice.
The unexamined assumption behind drinking for fun is that we need to be intoxicated to really enjoy ourselves. That we have to escape from reality into a happier state of mind. It is the antithesis of our mindfulness practice, which seeks to wake up to reality as it is, knowing that true happiness is always available to us in the present moment if we are alive to that moment. Seeking escape just perpetuates our suffering, and the things we think, say and do when we are drunk only compound our problems. As with over-eating, we can do ourselves and our friends and loved ones a favor by opening up alternatives. “Hey, I’m having a wonderful time just being here with you, and I don’t need to become intoxicated to enjoy our time together.”
10. Adopting a vegetarian diet is not a sacrifice, it’s a pleasure!
Our teacher Fred has encouraged us to strongly consider adopting a vegetarian diet - please read his wonderful Nov. 2012 letter “On Eating Meat” in the Resources section of the FCM website.
Eating a vegetarian diet is delicious, varied and satisfying. Fruits and vegetables are much tastier than meat by, especially when they are fresh. You’ll enjoy it, and your friends will enjoy it too when they visit you. Most good restaurants have tasty and satisfying vegetarian appetizers and salads and entrees, and even those that don’t have vegetarian entrees have vegetable side dishes that can be put together for a delicious dinner. Same thing at family holiday dinners: without making any fuss about it you can pass on the meat and have a great meal of side dishes.
Certainly, our bodies and our cooking techniques need time to adjust, and it isn’t necessary to go “cold turkey” on meat all at once. Listen to your body (see Tip 3 from Part One of this article) and see if you feel a lack of energy. On the other hand, you may quickly find that an all or mostly vegetarian diet is very satisfying from the get-go, that you feel lighter and more energetic, and that you miss ‘meat and potatoes” meals much less than you expected. Once you start to experience the alternatives, which are endless, the traditional meal of meat, starch and a side of overcooked vegetables begins to seem boring and rather unappetizing.
Yes, vegetarian cuisine may require more time for food preparation, but it’s enjoyable and rewarding. Many of us say we don’t have time to make vegetarian meals or snacks, but then we sit down and watch TV for hours while we eat our fast food!
We all know the primary reasons for not eating meat, and they are all true. It’s not good for our health, it’s not good for the animals and it’s not good for the environment.
When humans were living off the land and doing very hard physical labor in adverse conditions, we may have needed the concentrated fats and proteins meat could provide, but today we live pretty sedentary lives and we do better with lighter foods and less of them. Further, the meat we are sold today was generally raised on inferior foods laced with antibiotics and chemicals - you are what what you eat has eaten - in unsanitary and incredibly inhumane conditions. It is almost certainly true that if we knew more about how the animals that we eat were raised and treated, most of us would stop eating meat on the spot.
The meat industry is a major cause of environmental problems. The land used for grazing livestock and growing animal feed takes about up 30% of the earth’s entire land mass, land that is not available for more efficient forms of agriculture. Animal agriculture is also a significant contributor to the greenhouse gases causing global warming.
I want to make one final and very important point about being vegetarian, and about all the mindful food tips discussed in this article: Eating well and healthily is not a sacrifice, it is a pleasure! As long as we have the attitude that “I know I should eat better but I want to enjoy my food,” we won’t change, and why should we? The reality for me and for many millions of others is that good food is more fun to purchase and prepare, more appetizing on the plate, tastier and more interesting to eat, and easier to digest. We feel better nourished, more energized and happier.
Mindful eating is a delight, and I wish you all a mindful “bon appetit” over the holidays and into the new year.