THE TRADITIONAL BACKGROUND OF MINDFUL EATING

Mindful eating, though it may have become abstract in modern western culture, is not a new concept. The idea of body consciousness and bringing awareness to your food, eating habits, and digestion has been used for thousands of years in practices such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Buddhism, and Ayurveda. These three ancient belief systems differ in geographic origin, but hold striking similarities in how they practice mindfulness in food preparation and eating.

The Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation explains the relationship between food, digestion, and emotions:

Perhaps the most profound aspect of TCM’s perspective on overweight conditions is its perception of the role emotions play in overall health. TCM does not see and treat your body, mind, emotions, and spirit as separate, but rather as interrelated whole… When TCM looks at digestion, it takes the broadest view: digestion is the ingestion, absorption, and letting go of food, drink, and emotion as well as everything else you may take in—including what you read, watch, hear, and see. If you are in a constant state of stress or hold onto an emotion, it will stay “undigested” in your system.
— TCM World Foundation

In TCM, the proper functioning of the organs depends on appropriate flow of qi. The most common emotion that blocks or stagnates qi is stress. Therefore, when we are stressed our digestive organs aren’t able to digest, absorb and assimilate nutrients, and we run into health issues like indigestion, bloating or gas, malnutrition, weight gain, fatigue, allergies, inflammation and more.

Buddhism, like TCM, values the link between mindful eating and wellbeing. It practices conscious awareness of the moment-to-moment experiences of one’s life. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh describes mindful eating as something that is simple and innate. He explains mindfulness as recognizing what we are putting in our mouths and knowing what we are chewing;

Some of us, while looking at a piece of carrot, can see the whole cosmos in it, can see the sunshine in it, can see the earth in it. It has come from the whole cosmos for our nourishment… When you chew it, you are aware that you are chewing a piece of carrot. Don’t put anything else into your mouth, like your projects, your worries, your fear, just put the carrot in. And when you chew, chew only the carrot, not your projects or your ideas.
— Thich Nhat Hanh

Ayurveda is an ancient system of medicine and healing which originates from India, with similarities to both TCM and Buddhism. Deepak Chopra MD., a well-known author and an advocate of Ayurvedic philosophy, describes Ayurveda as two main guiding principles, “1) The mind and body are inextricably connected, and 2) Nothing has more power to heal and transform the body than the mind”. Recognizing this connection, we can appreciate the influence our thoughts and emotions have on eating habits and digestion. Mindfulness is an essential part of nourishing our bodies. This includes mindfulness in preparing, appreciating, tasting, chewing, as well as sharing and receiving your food. Maya Tiwari is an international teacher of Ayurveda, as well as a world peace leader and author. In her book, A Life of Balance; The Complete Guide to Ayurvedic Nutrition and Body Types, she asserts that we should “Never eat while upset. It is an insult to the food, to the giver of food, and to your body”, and adds that “sweet foods turn sour in our digestive tract when emotions present during the meal are negative.”

Giving appreciation for the food you will be consuming is common practice in many religions, such as the Christian tradition of giving grace before each meal. However, being gracious does not mean one must be religious.  Showing grace and being gracious can be displayed in many ways such as assisting with preparation or clean-up of the meal, giving thanks to those involved in your possession of the meal and its ingredients, as well as having appreciation and gratitude for the nourishment you will be receiving.

To learn more about Mindful Eating, read the many other posts within the Mindful Practice category.