Mindfulness reminds us to do everything with awareness. Our formal practice strengthens our ability to be mindful in everyday life. Bringing mindfulness to our life simply means coming out of automatic pilot and doing things with awareness. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, when you walk, just walk. When you eat, just eat. While mindfulness really is as simple as this, perhaps we can see that sometimes it is the opposite of our usual habits. How often do we grab a snack or a meal thinking only of what we are going to do next. Perhaps in the process we stuff down far more than we need, unaware of the signals from our body which are there to tell us when we have had enough.
When we are born we are able to self-regulate our appetite. Young children will generally only seek food when they are hungry and will often naturally choose foods which will give them the nutrients they need. Over time many of us learn bad habits and as adults we may be in the habit of turning to food to fulfill a range of needs that have nothing to do with nutrition. I know from experience that sometimes sensations that I experience as hunger can be emotionally based and that I have a tendency to crave sugar when it is not what my body needs nutritionally. I try to remain aware of this when snacking. I try to remember that just like my thoughts, my cravings can't be trusted to always be true or reasonable.
A key philosophy which is often introduced alongside mindfulness is that we should aim to do no harm, to ourselves or others. I know that my food choices could potentially be harmful both to myself and others. Regardless of what I think I want (my food cravings for example) I try to make a choice that is consistent with my long term aim of eating in a way that is healthy for me and sustainable for the world. Of course I am not perfect and I often am not successful in making this choice in my busy life. I am a work in progress. But I still keep the intention of eating in a healthy and sustainable way.
Today I am craving chocolate. I have enough experience with this feeling to know that this is a craving. It is, in a sense like a false thought. I have a strong feeling that I need chocolate and will be satisfied if I eat some. At the same time I am aware that many times in the past when I have had this feeling and have eaten chocolate I have not felt satisfied. I am also aware that eating chocolate would be harmful to my health. My body will not thank me for more of this particular combination of nutrients. I choose instead to eat a banana.
My aim will be to just eat. I choose to sit down in an area free of distractions and pause. While it is easy to remove distractions like the TV and computer I also try to focus my mind on the banana. This is a gentle focus. I am aware of feelings of disappointment and tension in my body. I do not need to stop having these feelings. In fact I don't need to do anything about them at all. I make space for them and continue to focus on the banana. When I bite into it I take my time. I really tune in to the taste, smell and texture of what I'm eating. My banana, eaten in this way tastes deliciously intense. The experience is very different from how it is on the occasions when I stuff down a banana without really paying attention. When I have finished I feel satisfied.
Mindful eating is as simple as that. The tricky part is not in the mindful eating, but in letting go of habits that are not mindful. These habits can feel at first utterly compelling. They may be harmful and they may have been strengthened by many years of practice. We can't expect to overcome them at once with a mindful snack. But by bringing mindful awareness to our choices and actions we can gradually undermine them and strengthen new and healthier habits.