When I was six years old, my lunch time at home meant sitting cross-legged (also known as Sukhasana or Easy Pose in Yoga) on the kitchen floor and eating with my hands. I was taught to not get up, talk or be distracted by anything until I finished my food. That was easy because I grew up in the pre-smartphone era where the only distraction I had, which made me get up in the middle of a meal and run into the balcony to look up at the sky, was the sudden roar of an airplane flying over our small-town house. Other than that, eating my meal in quiet was the norm in my early childhood. I was a messy eater, not unlike other children. Parts of my meal would drop before they reached my mouth, and were on full display when the plate was lifted off the floor once the meal was over.
As I grew older, the mess stopped, but sitting down to eat now meant watching cable TV. Popular shows aired around meal times, and so I ate my food along with whatever the TV was feeding me. I can’t remember when eating with the entire family in front of the TV turned into eating by myself in front of my smartphone. If earlier, there were shows planned around our meal times, then now there was something or the other to watch no matter what time we ate.
Eating has become lost in modern times. Whether it’s a residue of our upbringing or the by-product of a technologically advanced modern world, we have become accustomed to looking at the ‘black mirror’, accustomed to being unstoppably distracted and consistently informed. It’s so much so that the thought of sitting down to eat without looking at anything other than the food on our plate seems overwhelming. It feels like we’ll be bored to death by simply eating.
At our workplaces, we further go down the rabbit hole of mindless eating. We’re peer-pressured into talking about our weekend plans, or about the changes needed in the presentation instead of simply chewing our food. We feel compelled to eat as fast as others around us, especially if we are eating with our seniors at work. We’re politely urged by our bosses to take a mere five-minute lunch break and gulp down our food in order to join an unplanned client meeting.
While eating the right food nourishes our body, not eating the right way can create imbalance and a general feeling of unease which may hinder the effect of a nutritious meal.
Embracing screen-free and mindful eating has helped me understand my body’s cues, and honour the time it takes to nourish it.
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is about making eating an intentional activity rather than an automatic activity.
In the Zen Buddhism tradition, mindful eating is a form of meditation where one gives full attention to the eating experience – from noticing the hunger sensations to appreciating the colour and taste of the food in front of us.
Mindful eating can involve any and all of the following.
Eating without any distraction
Understanding the cues of the body – when you’re hungry, when you’re full, etc.
Noticing the difference between true hunger and false hunger or hunger triggers
Engaging and enjoying the taste, temperature, colours, flavours, smell and texture of the food
And finally, noticing how the food we’re eating makes us feel mentally and physically
Why Should You Try Mindful Eating?
Because food is no longer the primary object of our focus while eating. Our attention has moved away from our plates onto our smartphones, laptops, and televisions. We’re eating either too fast or too slow for our own good. Distracted eating or unmindful eating has disconnected us from our bodies, and so we miss to notice the cues our bodies are constantly giving us.
Do you know when your stomach is about to be full, or do you realise you’ve overeaten only later in the night when you have trouble breathing and sleeping because of indigestion or bloating? Do you truly know you’re eating a snack because of a mini hunger, or because you’re anxious about an upcoming assignment or meeting?
This becomes even more difficult when we’re in a society that has built a lot of anxiety or shame around food and human bodies. Questioning our habits doesn’t have to turn into bullying ourselves or shaming who we are at present. If done respectfully and sincerely, our questions can lead us to restore our lost connection with our bodies.
When we eat with a smartphone or a laptop screen in front of us, we miss appreciating the fulfilment of one of our most basic survival needs.
When we eat distracted, we chew less and swallow more, leading to gas, bloating, and other gastrointestinal problems. We also often overeat because, distracted, we miss our body’s natural and simple way of telling us “That’s enough for this meal. Thank you.” (More on that below. Keep reading!)
Benefits of Screen-Free and Mindful Eating
A sense of fulfilment after each meal
Ability to feel real hunger
Understanding bodily cues
Learning to make conscious, healthier choices
Appreciation for the food and everything that made it possible
How to Practice Mindful Eating?
In school, we learnt that digestion begins in the mouth. Mindful eating, too, begins in the mouth. More specifically, the tongue. Our tongue helps us taste all the different cuisines we wish to try. So, taking good care of our tongue will make the eating process more than just a series of quick chews and swallows. We can do this by incorporating the Ayurvedic daily routine of tongue cleaning first thing in the morning before brushing our teeth. This is best done using a copper or a steel tongue cleaner. The white coating on our tongue when we wake up is a by-product of undigested or partially digested food or toxins in our body. Cleaning our tongue first thing in the morning wakes up our digestive system to prepare itself for a new day’s breakfast. So gently scraping the pasty residue or ama (toxic substance) offers us a cleaner tongue to start our day with.
Creating a Conscious, Supportive & Screen-Free Space
Seeing eating as an important activity in the day can inspire us to make space for it. What would we do if a guest were coming over for dinner? We would cook flavoursome food, clean up our space, and create a soothing environment for our guest to enjoy the meal. Treat yourself the way you would treat a dinner guest you lovingly invited. Give yourself the time and space to eat in peace, and to savour the meal. If you’re eating at home, settle down away from your laptop or television. Keep your smartphone out of reach and preferably on silent or switch it off during the meal time. As much as possible, avoid getting up from your seated position until your meal is finished.
Saying Grace Before You Start Eating
You don’t need to chant a mantra or say a prayer necessarily. Especially if you have grown up with mixed feelings about religion, or negative experiences with religion. However, taking a moment, before we fill our mouths with food, to simply be grateful for the food being abundant, convenient and affordable could truly add value to our eating experience.
These brief seconds of grace help us to turn eating from a mere everyday activity to a sacred experience. So take a moment to quietly express gratitude for the food on our plates, and for the people who grew it, transported it, cooked it, and served it.
Once we begin eating, our body gets alerted to the incoming feed to prepare for digestion. By chewing our food properly before swallowing, we do our body a huge favour. You may have read or heard Ayurvedic practitioners saying different versions of the idea – Drink food and eat water. What this means is we should chew our food till we feel it turn gooey or liquid and only then swallow it. Similarly, while sipping any drink or plain water, we can make a few chewing motions before swallowing in order to bring up the saliva in our mouth and activate the digestive enzymes.
Chewing our food properly is perhaps the easiest action we can take to soothe our digestive problems. But when we’re distracted by our screens, we skip several chews and go immediately to swallowing. Without a screen to look at, eating can seem boring, but focusing on how the food tastes, and how your teeth help break it down could be something to draw your attention to.
Now that we have cleaned our tongue, settled in a comfortable, distraction-free space and are chewing our food nicely, how do we know we have eaten sufficiently?
Noticing the First True Burp
Our body lets us know when we’re full.
One of the best outcomes of a screen-free meal time is that you can start reconnecting with your body. After some time, during your distraction-free, mindful eating, you will notice a small, gentle burp. It may or may not be similar to your regular burps. Most often, it’s subtle and not nasty. If you’ve been practising mindful eating for some time now, you may also be able to tell when the burp bubble is about to come up, carrying with it your body’s message. This way you learn to understand the quantity of food you require in one meal.
People who burp often due to digestive or anxiety issues need to particularly ensure that they follow the other processes for mindful eating. It’s also important to avoid movements (getting up to answer a phone call, for instance.) while eating because your movement may cause your stomach to release a burp way before it intended to. Therefore, eating sitting down, distraction-free, and in peace are important to tell the first true burp from a regular one. Some people may also let out a little sigh once their bodies have had sufficient food.
Mindful eating can give us the gift of truly enjoying food, and opening ourselves to its medicinal and healing properties.
If you’re new to the idea, start small with any one or combination of these steps.
Sitting down to eat (instead of on the go)
Sitting down to eat without any technological distractions such as smartphones
Sitting down to eat without any non-technological distractions such as books, magazines, or newspapers
Chewing properly before swallowing
Recognizing the first burp, and stop eating after the second burp
Stop eating after the first burp
Sitting in Vajrasana or Thunderbolt Pose for 5 minutes without any distractions to help settle your stomach
Hopefully this article inspires you to begin or continue the practice of screen-free, distraction-free, mindful eating. It’s important to remember that healthier habits are easier to sustain when built from a place of love.
The subject of food can bring up complex emotions for people with bulimia, anorexia, binge eating disorders, and other food addictions. If you’re struggling with these, we hope you get the support you need.
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