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Eat Your Way To Enlightenment

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Most of us, when we hear about meditation, picture someone sitting calmly on a cushion, hands held just so. Well, that is one form of meditation, but there are many, many others -- some of which are a lot easier to fit into a busy schedule than the traditional forty five minutes on the cushion.

One of my favorites of these is eating meditation. Having taught it for many years, I find eating meditation to be one of the simplest, and most profound, of mindfulness practices. People seem to enjoy it right away, and "get" what meditation is meant to be about: not a special feeling, not a special state, but just waking up to whatever's happening right now. You don't need to believe anything, assume a certain posture, or even set aside an hour a day. In fact, if you've got some snacks next to your computer, you can do it right now.

Here is a very simple eating meditation practice, adopted from my book God in Your Body. I encourage you to give it a try. Begin by selecting a piece of food. A bit of fruit or vegetable is good, though I often teach this practice with a potato chip -- really, almost anything works: a raisin, a cookie, whatever. Once you've got the food in your hand, don't eat it just yet -- but follow these instructions.

1. First, just as a bare material phenomenon, feel the food with your fingers, or just gaze at it with focused attention. What does it feel like, or look like? If you like, allow yourself the pleasure of being entranced by this object -- most food is quite beautiful, in its detail, and it's okay to enjoy it. You might smell the food too, and notice what effects doing so has on your body. As thoughts arise (now and in the next steps), just "catch and release" - notice them, let them go, and come back to the meditation.

2. Next, "check in" with the heart. As you're about to eat this food, what desires do you have? Are you hungry? Nauseated? Thankful? Or, maybe, do you think this practice is maybe not for you? Whatever the "feeling-tone" of this experience is, just note it attentively, without judgment; stay with it for a couple of breaths, and see if it shifts, or intensifies, or ebbs. This non-reactive way of noticing and being with emotions is really at the heart of most meditation practices.

3. Now, moving from body to heart to mind, consider for a moment all of the people involved in bringing this food to you. Farmers, truck drivers, factory workers, storekeepers -- there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people whose labor created the simple occasion of this food arriving in this moment. Take a moment to consider them; imagine what they look like, how hard they are working to support themselves and their families. Maybe invent one of these people, and consider how his or her labor is present right in your hand, what his or her life is like.

4. Then widen your consideration even further. Consider all the conditions necessary to have created this food. Maybe it's the traditional framework of the four elements of fire (sun), water, Earth, and air; or a more modern conception of the genetic information in the plants (or animals), or energy from the sun. Allow the poetry of this simple piece of food to be felt, in your body. It's easy to be cynical or sarcastic. It's harder, and more rewarding, to cultivate a moment of sincerity.

5. Then -- finally! -- place the food in your mouth. Before chewing and swallowing, experience the tactile sensations of the food on your tongue, the tastes, the feeling of the mouth watering. What happens to your whole body when you put the food in? Calibrate your sensitivity as finely and exquisitely as possible. See if the food tastes different in different parts of the mouth. Really give yourself a juicy, rich experience of this bit of food. You might keep your eyes closed for the duration of this practice, simply to focus your attention on what's going on in your mouth, rather than on other things.

6. Then, bite into the food and chew, trying to omit any automatic movements. When chewing, know you are chewing. You probably know the joke about "walking and chewing gum at the same time" -- this is the opposite. Do only one thing at a time. That way, the mind slows down, focuses, experiences. Live life deliberately -- one potato chip at a time.

7. Chew thoroughly, probably twenty or thirty times (don't bother counting; it's not a quiz). See if the flavor changes -- some food really only comes alive after ten or more chews; some disappears. Then finally, when you do swallow, see how far down your esophagus you can still feel the food. Just relax in the physical sensations of eating.

8. As your tongue cleans your mouth after this mindful bite of food, try to maintain the attentiveness that you've cultivated; don't let it be automatic. We have a finite number of hours on this planet -- why not be as awake as possible for each of them?

This is a very simple practice, but in my experience, it's the prerequisite for real gratitude. I invite you to make eating meditation a regular part of your day, for forty days. See what five minutes a day, or one bite a meal, does for you, even if only for the duration of those five minutes. I don't want to promise too much, but I will say that in my years of teaching this practice, the results can be far out of proportion to the effort. Believe it or not, people report deep relaxation, delight, insights into their personalities and needs, and immense gratitude -- all from eating!

One time, on a meditation retreat, I was doing this practice with a single string bean, and had a sensory experience so intense and so beautiful that I was moved to tears. Obviously, it was just an ordinary string bean -- but my mind (and heart) was so exquisitely sensitive to the sensations of eating that it was a delightful experience. Michel Foucault said, "What we need to do, it seems to me, is not liberate our desires but become exquisitely sensitive to pleasure." Meditation is just that: the process of becoming exquisitely sensitive to all that life has to offer.

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