Mindful Eating: Intimacy, Connection and Nourishment
In April, I will be guiding a six-week journey into the healing and transformative practices of Mindful Eating. I feel excited about this course because eating is so basic to the human experience. It is something we need to do everyday. It is something that bonds us to the more-than-human community, and life on earth. Eating is how we nourish our bodies and is one of the ways we nourish our families and communities. Bringing mindfulness and intention into this activity is powerful and transformational. It is healing. It opens up gratitude and insight into interconnectedness.
I know for myself and for a lot of people, food can be triggering. There is diet culture, food fads, mis-information about food. There is body-shaming, body-dysmorphia, scales and weight control. There is emotional eating and food addictions. Not to mention the on-going chore of needing to provide nurturing food for ourselves and our family. What is nurturing anyway? On leaving monastic life, I have been leaning into the practices and teachings of mindful eating. Transitions can be challenging, and having some stable practices keep me feeling connected and grateful.
I wanted to share one simple practice that has created the foundation of Mindful Eating and is really an invitation into deep interconnection with life. The more I practice and appreciate mindfulness, the more I see how this simple tool of paying attention is the key to living in deep communion with all beings. My life is made of moments of sacrament, moments of grace–it is always up to me to appreciate this. Mindful Eating helps and it extends, of course–beyond eating.
Before I share the exercise, I also want to share how eating is connected to our culture and sense of place. It also connects us to the world, the earth, the soils and the countless beings who are part of the food system. As eaters we all participate in this system. Mindful Eating invites authentic connection to our place in this interrelated web of food and resources through gratitude.
Ok. Now I will share the simple, yet humbling practice called the Nine Hungers.
THE NINE HUNGERS
We experience hunger/desire through the senses. We also experience satisfaction or fullness through the senses. It is through the senses that connection and intimacy happen. The nine hungers invite us to check in with the senses before, during and after eating.
The nine hungers are: eye hunger, nose hunger, ear hunger, touch hunger, mouth hunger, stomach hunger, cellular hunger, mind hunger and heart hunger. This is actually quite a deep practice because it invites total sensual involvement in your life.
What colors and shapes do you hunger for? How are the eyes nourished by your meal even before you eat? What do your eyes enjoy looking at? How can you connect with your eyes more for nourishment? What is it like to really look at something? To see without judgment? To look past the labels?
For example, I love colorful vegetables and plating my food. I like to think about making a meal as an art project. I consider what kind of bowl I want to use and what kinds of utensils. My eyes also love colors. I can be nourished by looking at abstract art on instagram or sitting in the natural world, painting and making art also satisfy my eye hunger.
What smells do you hunger for? How is your nose nourished by a meal, even before you eat it? What else do you enjoy smelling, that perhaps isn’t food related? How can you connect with scent as a sense of nourishment? What is it like to smell without judgment?
For example I love to smell food as I prepare it. The smell of grapefruit and raw mushrooms, the smell of curry and coconut milk simmering, the smell of melting cheese. I also like to walk around the city and take in the various smells of a food cart corner, a coffee shop, a dumpster, a donut shop, sometimes it is interesting to smell smells that my mind labels unpleasant. Smells are constantly changing–there is so much to inhale!
What sounds do you hunger for? How are your ears nourished by sounds? Are there particular food sounds that you enjoy (ie. sizzling of stir-fry, the crunch of a chip, snap of fresh veggies, the sound of water boiling, or the knife moving down a piece of celery)? How can listening be nourishing? What is it like to hear without judgment or labels?
Hearing or listening can be a deeply pleasurable experience. When I cook sometimes I like to listen to music. Other times I feel invited into the silence, or quiet that allows me to pick up all the subtle and intimate sounds of food preparation and eating. Eating in silence is really eating attuned to the ordinary sounds in one’s environment. So even if I am eating alone; the traffic, the crow, the heater, the spoon gently knocking against my teeth, the crunch of the carrot and the puppy’s snoring are all part of the soundscape of my meal–are all at the table so to speak!
What textures do you like to feel? How are you nourished by physical touch? Are there particular foods that you enjoy touching, holding, feeling? Touch hunger can be nourished while shopping, prepping foods and eating finger food. How else can you feel nourished by touch? Perhaps holding your own hand!
I love eating with my hands! As a potter and artist and a deeply physical person, paying attention to touch hunger is grounding and sensual. I love holding a sweet potato as if I were shaking hands with a new friend. Feeling the shell of an egg right after it is cracked–allowing parts of the white to run down my own hands. I love dipping my finger in a sauce, or picking a vegetable from a stir fry pan– to taste with both finger and lip. It feels to me, that I can absorb the nutrients of food into my skin when I eat with my hands or prepare food. And the feeling of satisfaction and nourishment is happening as I touch the various textures of food.
This is probably the hunger we are most familiar with. What tastes does the mouth like? How is it to eat a single bite of food, and truly savor the experience in the mouth? What textures and shapes of food does the mouth enjoy? How does texture and shape affect the tastes of the food?
The mouth loves tastes and textures. Salty, spicy, smooth & creamy, sweet, umami. How often I trade having more and more and more sensations in the mouth, with savoring a single bite. And yet, a single bite when savored is so much more enjoyable then the feeling of stuffing my mouth with food and bolting it down. To let a piece of dark chocolate melt in my mouth, to slowly sip a cup of coffee, to let a bite of sweet potato and chipotle mayo delight the tongue, teeth and mouth as the sweet potato breaks apart in a spicy, cream sauce.
The stomach experiences volume. The stomach has the ability to expand and contract. When contracted it is about the size of a fist. We are often not so used to tuning into the stomach. So this one takes some learning. How full is your stomach right now? Empty? ¼ full? ½ full? Over-full? Stuffed? How much more volume would your stomach like to experience right now? Can the stomach be satisfied when feeling empty? Feeling full? Feeling ½ full? Whatever experience the stomach is having, can we accept these sensations, and learn to eat in a way that lets the stomach feel fullness, without being overfull. And to also experience emptiness and being stuffed, from time to time as we learn what enough means for our stomachs.
Learning about stomach hunger may have saved my life. Learning to check-in with the stomach has become a regular habit. When I eat slow, my stomach is happier. I stop eating when I am close to full. And savor the satisfaction of having finished a meal. I always leave room for a sweet!
This is hunger experienced at a bodily level. Is the body hungry for a particular nutrient or food or drink? What is it like to ask the body if it is hungry? What else might the body hunger for? Touch, sun, exercise, movement, stretching, water, etc. How can you practice asking the body what it hungers for, and listening to its messages?
This hunger sometimes feels strange to some people. Since I moved to Portland, I have been craving sauerkraut. New city, different foods, the microbiome is hungry and wants support. As a vegetarian I have also experienced a cellular hunger for greens and high protein foods. Sometimes it is my cells that ask for water or more salt. I also find that asking the body what it wants to eat, is a generous way of connecting with the wisdom of the body. We tend to over-ride the information that we get from our bodies, because it is often subtle. Asking the body what it wants, is a way of healing this split.
The mind likes facts. There is a lot of information about food. What information is nourishing to take in? What brings up anxiety or fear? The mind sometimes holds on to rules from childhood, or times of dieting. The mind tends to believe there is a “right” way to eat. Being aware of how the mind is controlling our food choices is important in mindful eating. Learning to assess what the information coming from the mind is skillful and what is unskillful is the first step in coming into a healing relationship with our minds.
Over the years my mind has been pretty obsessed with food. Counting calories, making rules, reading about new diets, learning about the environmental impact and ethical issues surrounding foods. At some point, I needed to “fast” from reading about diets and food nutrition and the ethics of my food choices, and learn to just eat. Now I can read an article once in a while and take it in and decide, does this new information impact the way that I want to eat, my food choices, etc. Just this past week I read an article on brain health and was reminded that eating colorful foods, leafy greens, nuts/beans, dark chocolate and fish are natural ways to keep the brain healthy. It was a good reminder, I haven’t been eating a very diverse selection of nuts and beans. And so, I diversified my nut and bean intake this week by adding flax, hemp seeds and tofu to my weekly menu.
How do you feel nourished? What foods, activities, ways of being– nourish the heart? Sometimes we eat to fill an emotional need for connection or love. Sometimes we eat foods from childhood, “comfort foods” in order to feed the heart. Eating rarely satisfies heart hunger, unless we eat in ways that nourish our wholeness. Like eating mindfully and practicing gratitude.
Yet, heart hunger invites us into a deeper relationship with ourselves. What, does make your heart sing? Where do you feel nourished in your life? What activities bring you fulfillment? Usually these activities involve being in the present moment, fully engaged with the senses. Being present is engaging. It is connective, it is what we most long for.
For me it's painting, meditating, walking in nature, having an intimate conversation, putting my hands in the dirt, making a meal, writing poetry, doing spiritual counseling with others, sharing dreams, playing! How do you nourish your life? What do you enjoy doing? What replenishes you? It can also be having unstructured time, time to just be!
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The more I practice mindful eating, the more I appreciate how it permeates into all the fields of my life. That connection is always found right here, through the senses. That the imagination and creative realms also come to life through presence and attention. As we pay attention, the deep source of life is lived through us.
I am not saying that mindful eating is simple or easy. The heart feels deeply and sometimes what it feels is hard to feel. Like anxiety, fear, loneliness, despair, heartbreak. Mindfulness is a way of companioning ourselves and our experiences, it opens us to the magic of life, right below the surface, and gives us a bigger frame of reference to hold these shifting moods and emotions that are part of the human experience.
I want to celebrate mindfulness for offering us a choice in how we participate in life, and granting that open door to the mystery and possibility of who we are – should we choose to step through it, there are new peaks and valleys to embrace!
Happy eating, my friends.
Learn more about the upcoming 6-week Mindful Eating & Joyful Embodiment Program!
Amy Kisei is an authorized Zen teacher, spiritual counselor and mindfulness instructor. She has been practicing meditation for almost 20 years. Kisei has 12 years of monastic training and teaching experience from Great Vow Zen Monastery, and holds a BS in Earth Science and Gender Studies. She is trained in Mindful Eating through the University of California San Diego. In her spiritual counseling practice Kisei utilizes the tools of meditation/mindfulness, dream-work, process art and ceremony to help people in their healing & awakening process. She is passionate about bringing the practices of meditation/mindfulness into environmental justice & climate grief work.
Learn more about Amy Kisei!
Visit her website www.amykisei.org