Friday, November 5, 2010

MINDFULNESS, MINDFUL EATING AND EATING DISORDERS

I don’t know about you, but I have always been a fast eater ... not a fast food eater, except occasionally, but simply a fast eater. I gulp my food down, rather than savour and taste each morsel of food. I think this way of eating began when I was in high school, and my rigid study schedule only allowed for some 15 minutes for dinner ... at the most! Normally, I would gulp my evening meal down in under 5 minutes ... and not much has changed since then. I must do better!
There is a saying in Zen, “When you eat, eat, and when you walk, walk.” There are any number of variations of that saying. Insofar as eating is concerned, what is being called for is now widely referred to as “mindful eating”, and there can be found on the internet any number of articles, including some very scholarly journal articles, on the subject.
All of us eat ... some of us more than others. Sadly, there are some who eat far too little, even in countries where there is no shortage of food, but who suffer from eating disorders of various kinds. I will return to that subject shortly.
What is this think called “mindful eating”? Well, the Buddhist monk, writer and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh expressed it well when he wrote:
There is a meditation exercise in which you place a raisin in your mouth. You do not eat the raisin. You meditate and allow it to sit in your mouth unmolested. The raisin plumps up and becomes a juicy fruitiness in your mouth, tempting you to bite it. This is a powerful example of how eating is different when you are truly aware of each morsel.”
Eating then becomes a matter, not so much of what and how much we eat (although both of those things are extremely important for our overall health) but how we eat. Buddhists have a saying, “You are not what you eat, but how.”
Unmindful eating is habitual, unthinking, eating. Like all other forms of unmindfulness, it is not being present - physically, mentally and emotionally - in the moment.
There have been a couple of studies which have concluded that mindful eating can be of assistance in the treatment of certain types of eating disorders. Like everything else, mindfulness is no cure-all, and is certainly not a substitute for professional medical advice and treatment for conditions that can, and often do, prove to be deadly. However, it does look like the principles of mindful eating can be a useful adjunct therapy to the treatment of disorders such as binge eating.
For example, Jean L. Kristeller, PhD, a psychology professor at Indiana State University (and co-founder of the Center for Mindful Eating), and C. Brendan Hallett, a grad student, demonstrated in a 1999 pilot study that the practice of mindfulness increased feelings of self-acceptance and control concerning food and eating, resulting in a decrease in binge eating and also a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression in just 6 weeks. Kristeller, along with others, has conducted further research into the positive effects of mindful eating in more recent years.
You may also be interested in reading the Fall 2007 edition of The Digest which contains a number of interesting articles on mindful eating.
So, I have made a decision. I am going to start practising what I preach, and eat mindfully ... chewing each bite slowly, with both intention and attention, and slowing down the actual process of eating, so that I can become aware of the taste, feel, smell and texture, as well as the physical sensation of the biting, grinding, chewing and swallowing, of each morsel of food in my mouth.
This blog sets out a simple form of mindfulness sitting meditation.

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