On every silent Insight Meditation retreat I’ve attended—at The Last Resort in Southern Utah, or at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California—meals have always been always been the most reliable source of daily pleasure. This is partially due to the expertise and caring of the people who plan and prepare the meals, which are always wholesome, flavorful and prepared with love.
Another reason retreat food brings such pleasure is that it’s not up to me to plan the menu, buy and assemble the ingredients, and prepare the food. I love to cook, but I also love to be surprised. It’s wonderful to walk into the dining hall not knowing what’s in store, but knowing it will be delicious and fortifying, because it always is.
Perhaps the most important element in the enjoyment of retreat food is that after days or weeks of practicing mindfulness, every activity—sitting, walking, showering, doing your yogi job and eating—becomes a part of the practice. Slowing down and being present with your daily activities makes everything you do more satisfying.
Here are some of the benefits I’ve noticed from eating mindfully:
- The Textures and flavors of food spring to life.
- Slowing down helps digestion.
- I tend to eat less because I'm more aware of when my body is full; I eat what I need rather than what I want.
Eating mindfully is really common sense. But most of us lead busy lives, juggling many responsibilities. We often eat on the fly, or multitask while we’re eating. I’m as guilty as anyone, but I do try to slow down and enjoy at least one meal every day. Here are some tips that might help you cultivate a mindful eating habit:
- Set a doable intention. Start with something easy, maybe eating one meal each day—or even each week—slowly and mindfully. Intentions are powerful. Deciding that you’re going to explore mindful eating is the first step.
- Invite a buddy. If you have a partner or family, encourage them to join you. It’s a lot easier to start a new practice when you and a friend can keep each other inspired. For example, you could commit to sitting down to one mindful family meal each day. If you can’t do it every day, then try three times a week, or once a week.
- Start with a moment of silence. Before digging in, take a few moments to savor the sights and smells emanating from your plate. Cultivate gratitude.
- Be mindful of the entire process. Here’s how this might look: Be aware of the movements and sensations in your arm and hands as you reach for your utensils. Feel the weight, texture, coolness or warmth of your fork, spoon or knife. Follow the movement of your hand and arm as you move it toward your plate. Feel the weight of the food on your fork or spoon as you lift it toward your mouth. Be mindful of the movements of your jaw and teeth, and the flavors and textures of the food you’re eating. Chew, with presence, until the food is completely broken down. Be present with swallowing.
- On one meditation retreat at Spirit Rock, Sally Armstrong talked about the practice of “putting down the fork.” Quite often we’ve already got our next bite on the fork, ready to shovel in, before we’ve finished the food we’re currently chewing. Instead, while you’re chewing your food, set your fork or spoon on your plate and refrain from picking it back up until you’re ready for another bite.
- If you like to journal, write down your experiences. Writing can help you clarify your intentions and the benefits of your practice.
- Mindful meals don’t have to be at home. You can follow all these steps when you enjoy restaurant fare
It’s not always easy to develop new habits, so go easy on yourself. Set your intention, but know that you may not always be able to make good on it. If you miss a day, it’s okay. You can begin again with your next meal.
Eating is essential. Consuming healthy, nourishing food replenishes our prana. We’re going to eat anyway, so why not pay attention?
CHARLOTTE BELL, founder of the Mindful Yoga Collective, has been practicing yoga since 1982, and began teaching in 1986. Certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989, she has established and taught regular classes along Utah's Wasatch Front, and in California and Hawaii. To read Charlotte's full bio, click here.