I recently attended a workshop run by Sally Chaffer, in which she introduced us to the spiritual experience of eating strawberries. Now, this may seem more like recreation than spiritual development, but it was all about mindfully eating strawberries: being aware of their appearance and texture as we held them in our hands, smelling their fragrance, and then eating them slowly a bite at a time, giving ourselves a chance to enjoy their luxurious taste.
I have to confess that this is very different from the way I normally eat: gulping things down mindlessly as I focus my attention on something else entirely.
I'm not sure how I came to eat like this. Was it because I would get into trouble with the adults if I didn't eat up my dinner, so I learned to eat as quickly as possible lest my appetite dwindled away and left me stranded half way through the green beans? Or is it because some primitive survival instinct kicks in and prompts me to eat up my food before some competitor grabs it away and I starve to death?
Whatever the truth of it, Sally's approach to eating is much more fun. And as you might have guessed, she was using the strawberries as a practical exercise in being in the moment, illustrating the advantage of focusing your attention on what you're actually doing, instead of being somewhere away in the past or the future, missing the experience of actually living your life.
If you happen to live within traveling distance of Leeds, UK, you may be interested in attending one of these workshops of Sally's. The next one is scheduled for 19th July. She titles the workshops Inner Peace Now! and you can find some details about them here. (You may recognize Sally from the comments she leaves here at The Secret Of Life - I've written more about my experience of her workshop at Sue Ann Edwards' blog.)
That experience with the strawberries reminded me of something which happened to me several years ago. A friend offered me an organic tomato she had grown, inviting me to taste it and see what I thought. Biting into that tomato was a real revelation. There was a sweetness to it, a subtlety of flavor, which brought me very vividly back to my childhood. It was a long time since I had tasted a tomato like that.
"Wow!" I said. "That's what tomatoes used to taste like!"
My friend smiled, clearly pleased at my reaction.
But afterwards, something unexpected happened. The next time I ate a tomato, just an ordinary non-organic tomato I bought at the supermarket, I tried tasting that one as well. And you know what? That tasted pretty good too. Not as good as my friend's tomato perhaps, but I could still detect that same sweetness and subtlety of flavor. And gradually, as I tasted more and more tomatoes, I realized that tomatoes generally tasted pretty good now, a lot better than all the tomatoes I'd tasted for many years. And I soon realized that this had nothing to do with the tomatoes themselves. It was all to do with me. It was simply because I had started paying attention as I ate. Tomatoes had really always been this good. It was just that I hadn't been focusing on what I was eating. I had been biting into something which my mind had labeled 'tomato' and then dismissed from my attention. Why go to the bother of tasting those things, my mind had been saying, I know all about them already!
But now I knew better. Now I had experienced the benefit of actually tasting the tomatoes, of being present while I was eating them.
Of course, I had failed to extrapolate this fully and bring the same degree of attention to all my eating, but it's never too late to start. And there may be more benefit involved than simply enjoying the taste. Some people believe that eating mindfully improves our digestion and allows us to extract more nutrition from our food. This seems to make sense. Why shouldn't our digestive system operate more efficiently if we're paying attention while we're using it? So many other things do - why not our stomachs?
Mindfulness can also be helpful in losing weight. Compulsive eating doesn't tend to be mindful eating. It tends to be something we do while we're thinking of something else, perhaps focusing on whatever problems have led us to eat compulsively in the first place. Or perhaps what's happening is that we're focusing on what we're going to eat next: eating a biscuit while our mind is on the biscuits that are still in the packet. Or worse still, on the packets that are still in the shop, just waiting there to be bought...
If compulsive eating is a problem for you, you could try eating mindfully for a change. Focus on that biscuit. Enjoy its taste, its texture. You may then derive more pleasure from eating that single biscuit than you did from all those packets you slung mindlessly down your neck.
And then: who knows? That one biscuit may be all you really desire.
Postscript: My blogging platform, Typepad, has now introduced more flexibility in typefaces, so I've taken the opportunity to increase the font size. I find this a lot easier to read. Do you agree, or do you find it too large? Any feedback is welcome!
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