12/30/2010 06:15 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mindful Munching: Is Eating Quickly Really So Bad?

There we were, delving exuberantly into that luscious box of Belgian chocolates when someone brought up the topic of mindfulness.

Here's the exchange that followed:

As one colleague savored her first and reached for the second delectable bite, another colleague teased, "Slow down, eat mindfully!"

The retort: "What's speed got to do with it? I'm eating more so I can continue practicing mindfulness."

Later, I realized that there was much, much more to that interchange than munching on gorgeous, fragrant chocolates.

Generally, people define mindfulness as staying present with current-moment experience. The present might be pleasant or not, and the point is to notice what's happening, as it's happening, in and around you. There's no morality to this level of mindfulness, and with practice, we can even become more mindful of our own experience while making judgments. That's constructive.

Even more constructive is a slightly expanded definition, one in which mindfulness means noticing the "now" while maintaining an ethical orientation. This means that we dedicate the effort, practice and outcomes of mindfulness to doing good in and for the world. So we notice and we serve humankind; we pay attention and protect the planet; we develop awareness and extend compassion.

And although you may be doubting the connection, this expanded definition has a whole lot to do with mindful eating, along with mindful action and any other application of mindfulness you can find.

But, for now, let's get back to the chocolates.

The first colleague's comment equated mindfulness with slowness. This is a common connection, and helpful especially as we begin to develop mindfulness. The idea is to decrease the pace of regular activities in order to focus more closely on experiencing the experience.

Once we gain some skill with applying mindfulness, it's no problem to maintain present-moment awareness in real time. As to what defines "real time," well, that depends on the circumstances. I tend to think it's whatever pace is appropriate for the situation. Some things happen more smoothly at a rapid pace, whereas others are more natural taken slowly.

With chocolates, and I do mean really good chocolates, the pace of consumption should simply be what's most pleasurable. It's a personal matter. Indeed, from the conventional perspective of mindfulness practice, all that matters is that noticing the experience directly, as it unfolds. And if that means noticing the ensuing stomachache, so be it.

From the expanded definition of mindfulness, it means noticing that experience within an ethical framework. If the chocolate is sweet and special, then a sense of gratitude will only enhance the experience. Gratitude can encompass taste buds, chocolates, colleagues who come to staff meetings bearing edible gifts, and, in this case, the Belgians who manufacture those delectable little candies.

Generosity adds even more sweetness to the experience. We can share chocolates, and wish that we had enough for everyone -- and I do mean everyone, every hungry child, every starving parent and every emaciated elder. We're in the midst of our season of plenty, and while we cannot end global hunger, we can cultivate the aspiration to end all suffering.

Compassion is another enhancement, if not the most potent, and it comes in many levels and many forms. There's compassion for people whose bellies are empty, of course. There's also compassion for people whose days are full of loneliness, pain, confusion, anger, ignorance and any number of other mental, physical and emotional burdens. And, then, on a lighter note, there's compassion for each other even as we share the bounty of the season.

Working ethically with mindfulness is what keeps us kind and aware rather than coldly attentive. Mindfulness is a skill. Naturally neutral, its added focus and awareness can be used for good or for ill. That's where personal choice comes in, and the responsibility to use this skill for good.

Consider a tiny example: teasing someone about slowing down while eating is not necessarily sweet. If there's a hidden judgment about eating too much or too fast, then such high-sounding words lack wisdom. There's nothing good to be gained, for anyone, from such sour comments.

In sum, the more mindful we become, the more sensitive we are to our own as well as other people's experiences. It's only logical to parlay that sensitivity into treating others, and ourselves, with greater caring. This applies to mindful eating as much as anything. And where better to start than with chocolates?