The direction of satipaṭṭhāna practice is towards the ability to have a loose, open, clear awareness that is able to wisely float around and include all aspects of our human experience. Awareness can include the body, the feelings, mind states, mental processes, experiences of the world, our thoughts. Ultimately, it is not a matter of limiting it to some particular domain of our life, but of being able to take it all in, as awareness starts to become free, loose, relaxed, open, and receptive. In different circumstances, the mind will sometimes be aware of thinking, sometimes the body, sometimes feeling, sometimes emotion, sometimes sounds – whatever is around us.
To some degree, awareness goes along with the call of whatever is happening, and to some degree, we have some choice about where it is important to bring our attention and orientation. An aspiration may be based on compassion, on healing, on what is beneficial, or what is fun – anything that we might choose. The play between choice and non-choice with awareness is something we become wise with, and begin enjoying.
In the beginning of satipaṭṭhāna practice, there is a strong emphasis on the body – breathing in the body – and limiting the orientation to that. If we go too quickly to the full range of all the different things we can pay attention to, floating through them, then most likely the mind will get hijacked and held hostage by the thinking mind and thoughts.
We are cultivating the ability of the mind to relax its thinking – the grip of thoughts and preoccupation – by coming back to the breathing. It is very important to realize that this is what we are doing. It is not so much that we are developing the muscle of concentration – which to some degree we are – but that can be overemphasized, and people can get tense and tight.
A big part of what we are doing is decreasing the impulse, the attachment – sometimes the addiction, the strong orientation, and fixation on certain limited parts of our human experience. This attachment can often be to thoughts, ideas, memories and planning. It can be to our emotions and feelings. Sometimes it can even be the body that we are stuck on. But we are learning to relax that. As we relax the body more and more, it becomes a whole different game to be able to settle in and be with the breathing and the body.
This loosening of attachment is part of the field in which we are practicing satipaṭṭhāna. The reason I brought it up today is that I want to talk about a particular activity we can bring full awareness to, which is mentioned in the text. This is mindful eating, where meal time is meditation time. Meal time is mindfulness time. Mindful eating is one of the really wonderful places to cultivate mindfulness. We will use it as a kind of case study for bringing mindfulness into daily life.
Many people eat on automatic pilot. They eat without a lot of careful attention as they are eating. Maybe they are eating alone, listening to a podcast, watching the news, watching something on a screen, or listening to the radio. In the old days they would read the newspaper. Maybe, while eating with other people, they are absorbed in the conversation and hardly notice that they are eating or what they are eating. Sometimes eating is done quickly. I am a fast eater, so I know that well. We can eat so quickly that we are not really taking in the experience of eating.
When eating is automatic in this way, this often gives free rein to the mind to do whatever it wants to do. The mind has a strong tendency to be fixated or preoccupied by things. If it is given too much freedom to travel down its highways and byways, then we actually live a truncated, limited life. Even though it might seem as if our options are unlimited, because we can think about an unlimited number of things, thinking is really a small domain of our life.
When sitting down to eat, from time to time it is really wonderful to have a chance to eat alone or to eat quietly without speaking – so that you can just be eating, and nothing else. If you are just with the eating, and you are really floating your attention with the experience, this means that you are not in a hurry. You are there just to be with the experience – with all the different parts of the experience and with full awareness of the body. You include all the physical things that come into play as you're eating.
One of the things I have found really nice to do around eating – especially when I am eating alone or quietly in meditative way, is to notice the first moment when I feel the hunger is no longer there and I feel the simplest form of satiation. I am not full. In my situation, there might be a desire for more in the mouth or the tongue. I do not know if this may be the pull of pleasure, or that the mouth and tongue get the news that I'm full last, so there is still a drive to want to eat. But I try to pay attention to the first time when I am basically no longer hungry and can feel the simplest satiation. I stop eating then and I notice what happens. I notice there might still be a desire to eat – a desire for pleasure – that pull or impulse.
It is fascinating to sit and watch it. To see how it morphs and changes when we don't give into it and don't reinforce it, but instead make room to feel it. This is not quite the same as denying ourselves. It is actually more like allowing an impulse or desire to be there in its pristine glory, without giving into it. To allow and just feel it, "Oh, there it is." Practicing mindfulness with that desire.
One of the things to learn from mindful eating is how mindlessly we eat. This is fascinating to notice. Are we eating in a hurry? Are we eating too much? Are we afraid? Is there anxiety around food? Is there greed? Is there confusion around food when we're eating it? Then, take time to feel and be with that. Give a second, third, and fourth look at those feelings that are connected to eating. Some of those feelings do not inherently have to be present as we eat. Some limit our natural capacity to be attuned to the body's own intuition about what to eat, how to eat, and how much to eat.
As I became more sensitive, I appreciated seeing that the body had its own intuition about how to eat, when to eat, and what to pick up at different times from the plate. The body has a deeper knowing, which we can tune into if we develop this deeper sensitivity of mindfulness.
It is also a great pleasure to eat mindfully – to eat in silence and be absorbed in the pleasure of eating, just taking it all in and enjoying it. Being so fully mindful that the thinking mind gets quieter, because it is not such a big part of the experience. It is possible to eat a meal – especially if you eat in silence – and to feel clearer, more relaxed, and more open by the time you finish.
I have known some people who really enjoy eating mindfully, and will spend quite a long period of time just eating. Generally, it is best to do this alone, rather than when eating socially, because other people will be finished long before you are done. But take your time to eat.
I have done this in a lot of different ways – taking my time to eat – and sometimes the sense of pleasure and meditative absorption has been quite strong. Because I have been a fast eater ever since I was a child, in order to cultivate greater mindfulness, sometimes I would eat with my non-dominant hand. Doing this brought more attention to what I was doing. When I have really gotten into it – really enjoying eating slowly, I would actually put my utensil down between bites. I would put a forkful of food in my mouth, put the fork down, and then just be with the chewing. After I had swallowed, then I would pick up the fork again. For me this would be a little antidote to the habit of putting food in my mouth and then, while I'm chewing, digging in for the next bite. That habit seems innocent enough. But instead, to really be present for the experience, to put the fork down.
The activity of eating is a mirror for our attitudes and approaches towards what is going on for us. This is part of mindfulness practice – to really see that. If some of those attitudes are not so helpful for you, an important part of mindfulness practice is the degree to which you're able to shift that and let go of it in a relaxed way. The degree to which you begin to have some choice about the attitudes of your mind – you want to exercise that choice. But don't be worried if you can't. Do not force it.
You are also becoming aware of how you are aware. Is there a fixation in the mind and awareness? Can the awareness be soft and loose? If this metaphor works for you, can awareness be floating around the whole experience of sitting there eating? Being with the experience of the food, the arm lifting up to put the bite in your mouth, the food being taken into the mouth, the movements of the tongue, the taste, and chewing. Just really be there for it.
Then over time, as mindfulness gets stronger, our attention can float between all these different areas. Awareness is not fixated. It is not necessarily centered only on the physical experience of eating, but on the wholeness of who we are as we eat, which includes the eating.
This will be the last talk on mindfulness of activities. I offer it to you as a case study to explore and maybe to use over this weekend. Maybe you can take a couple of meals and sit quietly by yourself. If you are with someone who is a meditator, you could ask to eat the meal in silence together, and explore the benefits the richness, and the challenges in eating mindfully without hurry. Just eating.
I hope you enjoy your mindfulness and enjoy mindful eating. Thank you.