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Mindful eating

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Mindful eating, excerpts from an article / course by Jan Chozen Bays, M.D., a Zen teacher and pediatrician.

Mindful eating is not reading about mindful eating. It is not reading while eating. It is doing the practice of mindful eating. Mindful eating is paying full attention to the events of the internal and external environment, without criticism or judgement, while eating and drinking. Because we are so used to multitasking and to going unconscious while we eat, it is difficult at first to pay full attention to what is happening, say, in the mouth, in a completely continuous manner.

Just like any other form of meditation, mindful eating involves bringing the mind’s attention to the sensations of eating, then discovering that the mind has wandered off. We find that we are eating while opening our e-mail or while fantasizing about the weekend. We notice this and once again bring the mind back to real time, to the actual sensations of eating. We practice this over and over, until it becomes a wholesome habit.

It helps to undertake mindful eating for a specific period of time. One important note. Please take on these practices with a sense of curiosity and good humor. Mindful eating is a meditation and an adventure (not a test). It can open a fascinating world that is hiding, quite literally, right under our noses.


This assessment is the foundation of mindful eating and will serve you the rest of the week. At least three times today, as you begin eating, practice assessing the seven hungers.

You begin with Stomach Hunger. How hungry is the stomach? Is it completely empty or partially full? How much food does the stomach want you to eat? Now turn to Body or Cellular Hunger. This is more subtle. If your cells could talk, what would they ask you to eat? Citrus? Starch? Soup? Protein? See if you can get any information about what the body is asking you to eat.

Then turn to Eye Hunger. Look at the food, taking it in with the eyes. Look at colors, shapes and textures, the play of light and dark. Next you assess Nose Hunger, by inhaling the aromas of the food a few times, as if assessing a fine wine. Then comes Mouth Hunger. Put a bite in the mouth and really savor it, fully aware of changing flavors and textures. Chew slowly, returning the mind’s attention, again and again, to the mouth.

Now we turn to Mind Hunger. What is the mind telling you about eating? See if you can catch the stream of thoughts about eating, perhaps about what you should or should not eat based upon the latest research on foods. Lastly we turn to Heart Hunger. How does the heart feel? Is there any emotional satisfaction in eating this meal? Are difficult feelings softened by eating? Or perhaps difficult emotions are created by eating.

After you’ve eaten some amount, turn your attention to Stomach Hunger again. How full is the stomach? One quarter, half, or already full?

Please practice assessing the Seven Hungers, Eye, Nose, Mouth, Stomach, Body/Cells, Mind and Heart, several times today. If you continue to do this practice at the start of each meal during this week, you’ll become skilled, and you’ll only need to pause for a few seconds.


You’re learning to pause before eating to assess the seven hungers. Now try deliberately pausing several times during a meal. You’re practicing a more relaxed, civilized way of eating, as in France, where lunch can take up to two hours. You could try pausing when you are one quarter done, one half, three quarters and finished with the meal. When you pause, turn the mind’s attention to the stomach. How full is it? When you pause, relax the body. Take three deep, slow breaths. Do this again at the end of the meal.


As you eat and pause to assess how full you are, stop when you reach four fifths full. Pause and take a drink of liquid, a fair amount of water, juice or tea.

You could say to yourself (as many Asians do), “The first four fifths were for me. The next fifth is for the doctor.” Try deliberately leaving (or taking home in a doggy bag) the remainder of the food, to eat tomorrow or give to a homeless person.

If you find that you are full but intend to eat more anyway, say out loud, “I’m completely full but I’m going to eat this anyway.”


Now we’re progressing to the advanced levels of pausing practice.

When you’ve eaten one bite of food, deliberately put down the fork (or spoon, or chopsticks, or sandwich or cookie) and turn your full attention to what is occurring in your mouth. Close your eyes if it helps you focus better on changing flavors and textures in the mouth. Only when that one bite is thoroughly chewed and swallowed do you pick up the utensil or item of food and take another bite.


In Japan it is very rude to walk and eat or drink. Today you will carry this a bit further and undertake the task of not eating or drinking when you are doing anything else. This means sitting down and giving “respect” both to the particular food or drink you are taking in and to the sacred and intimate act of taking the bodies of other living beings into your body. When we are mindful, eating is communion, a thrice daily honoring of the interdependence of all life.

Practically speaking, this means not eating or drinking while walking, driving, riding on a bus, reading, working on the computer, watching TV, listening to music or iPods, or even talking. When eating, just eat. “How will I converse with my family?” you ask? First, you can tell your friends and family that you are trying mindful eating and ask their support. They may want to try it, too. Next, you can practice alternating: eat, then do something else. Talk for a while without eating, then stop and eat one bite, tasting it fully. After you swallow, you can talk again. Read a page in your book or answer one e-mail, then stop and eat a bite or two with attention. Repeat as needed.


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