Mindfulness training field report: mindful eating

Try to integrate Mindfulness into my eating habits. Stumbling in the molten chocolate mud. Sounds like trench warfare? Some days it feels that way

Mindful eating

Awareness in the mouth when eating, not on the computer, book, phone… © Laura Eades 2013

I’m not feeling that proud about writing this post, since it’s not a dazzling I Solved My Eating Habits And Here’s How advice list. It’s a field report, as I try to integrate some of the learning from my Mindfulness course into my eating habits – and it’s complete with stumbling in the molten chocolate mud, grazing my knees on the granola gravel, and trying to find a pathway across the steaming foggy field. If I make it sound like trench warfare – well, some days does feel that way.

I’m going to write about the parlous state of my eating habits later, in another post (ha ha bet you can’t wait!): perhaps it’s enough to say, at this point, that even aged 35, having recently lost a stone and half, and with several sustained years of teenage bulimia happily written into history, I am still nonetheless able to misbehave with almost any food there is. If it gives pleasure, I’m tempted to overeat it: from avocados to ham to icecream to bread to chocolate to pasta to cheese to plums to chips to scrapy bits welded onto roasting pans. The Urge is there.

The Urge is the enemy. I want to fight it. Mindfulness is one way of arming myself. A very pacifist weapon against a very conflict-inciting opponent.

Don’t mention the war

I should add a brief disclaimer at this point, too: some people really really don’t like other people talking about eating habits. There are, to my mind, two principle reasons for this: 1) Eating happens to us in tiny thoughts and actions hundreds of times a day, at the level of the unconscious mind (we have to automate it, otherwise it would just take up our whole brain purely with survival) and people who don’t want to talk about it would rather it stayed unconscious; and 2) Some people are dead lucky, or enlightened, and don’t have any problem regulating their eating and are therefore free to concentrate on less primitive topics. If either is you, be my guest to switch to a different blogpost. There’s a list of other topics that appears if you click on the grey dot under the main content on the homepage.

But I would also contradict people who think that dealing with habit change is navel-gazing trivia. A system malfunction of this level can totally spanner your every waking moment. So I’m writing about it in the hope that sharing this rather difficult thing that hardly gets spoken of much will be of use to others who might wrestle with the same giant spaghetti as I do. I’m writing in defiance of the level of shame associated with overeating. And I’m writing it because, on a bad day, it seems to rule my life – that’s the unpleasant reality of being literally enslaved by your habits.

Back to mindfulness. Back to consciousness

Let me just share a little bit of what I’ve learnt from my Mindfulness course so far, so that if you’re curious, or you don’t have time to check it out, you get the benefit of my potted version.

Well, I’m in – what? Week 4 of the Mindfulness course now, and I’ve also read most of Jan Chozen Bays’s Mindful Eating book too (which talks a lot of sense).

The course uses meditation – which, put simply, is gently exercising your ability to direct your attention. Meditation exercises on the mindfulness course use, mainly, concentrating on the breath, or doing a body scan meditation (putting your focus into each part of your body consecutively) – to try to create a habit of consciousness.

What’s ‘consciousness’ again?

Consciousness is the ability to stand aside and see that you have thoughts, rather than ‘being’ immersed in your thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness is a particularly groovy kind of consciousness that the course is trying to encourage: it’s awareness of the state of ‘being’ in the present moment, without judging it or trying to change it.

Mindfulness is applicable to many different aspects of life. Week 3 of the course, for example, is particularly about using that awareness to observe negative emotional experiences. It doesn’t, so far, really tell you how to do things differently – the awareness itself is, I think supposed to be a partial solution. Perhaps you’ve gone further down this road than me and have some thoughts to add on this.

Mindful eating so far

With respect to mindful eating, Jan Chozen Bays goes into some detail about where urges to eat rise up from. She breaks it down into seven types of hunger relating to different senses – nose, mouth, eye, and stomach hunger, as well as cellular hunger (when your body is literally begging to be nourished by a certain need – I have to say, I don’t tune into that one often except when I’m ill), as well as confusing hungers arising from yearnings of the heart (mainly unpleasant emotions) and directives of the mind (don’t eat that, you should eat more of that…) etc.

What does mindful eating actually entail?

In practice, mindful eating could involve various little tricks to try to insert a little ‘consciousness gap’ into the process between feeling peckish and standing in front of the fridge with the remains a gherkin wrapped in a presliced piece of emmental in your hand. But the main trick that I’ve been concentrating on is to try to ‘check in’ with these kinds of hunger before I begin eating, in that six deep breaths gap I created at the start of meals.

Jan Chozen Bays suggests that mind hunger (confusing directives and should and shouldn’ts), heart hunger (emotional eating), and mouth hunger (which is very hard to satisfy) are the really problematic ones.

Mindful eating has not, to this point, involved eating or cooking different foods, or shopping differently. Practically speaking, it has been easier to eat a mindful breakfast before everyone else gets up, than it has been to eat a mindful supper with my two-year-old’s dinnertime gymnastics distracting us.

What has my experience been so far?

Consciousness – being aware that something needs to shift, before you have a clue how to solve it – is a pretty uncomfortable thing, it has to be said.

  • I notice that when I eat mindfully, food tastes really amazing.
  • I notice when I check in with my mind before eating, that 98% of the time it tells me I should not to eat. My mind has a lot of rules, a lot of injunctions. I’m aware that I’m almost always eating in conflict with myself, in defiance of myself. I’m curious to find a situation where my mind says: “Sure, go ahead and have that”.
  • I notice how trying to begin a stint on my novel again, and the responsibility of structuring my own large expanse of free time, brings a lot of unexpected negative emotion. For something that is an absolute privilege to have the opportunity to do, I know this comes across as the ultimate in self-indulgent anguish – but this is mindfulness, remember, and we told ourselves we’d notice it, not judge it.
  • I notice that negative emotions – feelings that are mildly unpleasant that I’d rather ‘vanish’ by creating and demolishing a colourful and weird new sandwich – take more delicate and detailed forms than I’d previously given credit. Frost flowers. It’s not primitive, primary colours of emotion like fear or guilt that are fuelling the urge to eat. Well, not only. I have consciousness of hitherto unacknowledged feelings – slight disinterest, being daunted by rather high targets, a heaviness of responsibility as the only author of the novel as well as the responsibility of being the only one who can choose what goes in my mouth… I notice slight panic about the deadlines I’ve set myself, and the hard time I give myself for not hitting little targets.
  • I notice that some negative emotions I have do not yet have a name
  • I notice that I want to blank out, literally, to go to sleep (to avoid whatever my day holds); and that I overeat specifically with half a plan to numb out and sleep. It’s a very effective self-sabotage. Sounds like a heroin user or something.
  • I notice that my mind’s instructions not to eat in the face of consciousness of these negative emotions have become louder (It shouts, “You can SEE that’s emotional eating, so DON’T DO IT”), but I’m still doing the same thing. In fact, I’m perversely and habitually rebellious against my mind, since my mind always says no, of course I don’t obey it, or I’d never eat anything.

What can I do today to call a truce in my battlefield? 

I’m hanging in there by a thread. Yoga is a thread. Meditation is a welcome relief from the internal debate. I’m grateful that I haven’t lost the habit of exercise from my life, since exercising makes me less defiantly hungry and makes cellular hunger speak louder.

  1. I’m going to try to eat 3 mindful meals today. That’s a really big feat, but I’m going to try.
  2. Planning what I’ll have for lunch in advance helps quiet the mind. I know I’m ‘allowed’ something if the decision was made in advance, not in the moment of standing in front of the fridge. It helps sidestep that little self-argument.
  3. I’m going to set my writing target lower – just 3 hours. More achievable= less daunting
  4. I’m going to try to use mindfulness when an urge comes to raid the kitchen. What this means in practice is concentrating on breathing and being curious about what the feelings of hunger are, what they really feel like in the body and as emotions, just as one might let consciousness go into a painful feeling to try to breathe through pain. I’m likening this to labour! Let you know how it works
  5. I’m going to try to really congratulate myself on noticing so that I’m not just depressed by the unwelcome news that consciousness brings. I’m going to try to big myself up for the responsibility I’m trying to take today.
  6. I’m going to try to enjoy writing and let absorption prevent me from getting distracted.

Wish me luck

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Read more posts about Mindfulness on Illustrated Guide to Life here

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If you want to share any experiences, or offer any thoughts, I’d be glad to hear from you. Click on the pale grey dot with a ‘plus’ sign to open up the comments section