HOW WE EAT
Our relationship with food is complex. Bound by societal pressures and internal anxieties, our conversations about food usually revolve on what we eat rather than how we eat it. We each build our own relationship with food that stems from our unique, personal experience of the world. These associations trace a line back to the memories of our childhood and the traditions of our culture that help us to define our identity. However, research has shown that changing our attitudes towards eating and mealtimes is as important as developing a healthy diet.
In this article, we invite Brother Phap Lai, a resident monastic at Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Plum Village community, to speak about the practice of mindful eating. In his discussions, he emphasises the intrinsic connection between the way we eat and our wider experience of the world. By offering presence and attention to the table, we explore how the practice of mindful eating highlights the interdependent nature of all things.
Brother Phap Lai
Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.
To eat mindfully is to guide your full attention to the sensation and purpose of every bite. Through this act of intentional consciousness we begin to learn that the food on our plate is part of a larger picture, or whole. A simple meal on our plate becomes the sum of the seasons, elements and the labour of many hands. This simple contemplation transforms the act of physical nourishment into a greater spiritual communion.
In his teachings, Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches that living in awareness is the most important precept of Buddhism. Through the practice of mindful eating, he calls us to be awake to the present moment and conscious of our interconnected state of being.
CONTEMPLATING THE WHOLE
A script hanging above the wooden dining tables in the monastery reads:
The bread in your hand is the body of the cosmos.
The process of mindful or ‘wholesome eating’, as explained by Br. Phap Lai, is one that extends compassion, togetherness and respect towards all living beings. This contemplation invites the monks at Plum Village to consider the food on their plates and recognise the journey it has taken to arrive before them. Before every meal, this reflection is affirmed with the recitation, ‘in this food I see clearly the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence’. In this way, the act of eating becomes imbued with appreciation for the interconnected nature all living things.
‘Mindlessness’, or the absence of attention, can create a dissonance between ourselves and the food before us. Accessibility to ‘fast’ food and the psychology of efficient eating often favours convenience over thoughtful attention to what we eat. When we eat without presence of mind, we diminish the true value of our food and reduce it to an afterthought. Eating without thinking, obstructs the relationship between our body, mind and the world around us.
THE ABSENCE OF MINDFULNESS
In his book ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’, Thích Nhất Hạnh recounts watching a friend absentmindedly eating a fruit, absorbed in thoughts about his future. Unconsciously placing one segment in his mouth before the last one was chewed, he was hardly aware of what he was eating. Thích Nhất Hạnh observes that he wasn’t eating the fruit, he was ‘eating’ his future plans.
Instead, the spiritual leader guided his friend to eat each section thoughtfully, savouring every morsel with respectful awareness and intention. By treating daily practices as rites, he teaches us to cultivate honour and reverence for every moment.
Thích Nhất Hạnh, 'The Miracle of Mindfulness'
Your being there is like the tangerine. eat it and be one with it, tomorrow it will be no more.
Brother Phap Lai
If you take what you need, nature agrees to give.
When we eat, we actively forge a connection with ourselves, our environment and community. As a holistic and spiritual practice, mindful eating inspires a more compassionate relationship with our environment.
Eating consciously can inspire a new way of perceiving ourselves and our way of relating to the wider world. Nurturing awareness for our food invites us to appreciate our relationship to all of life and existence. When we eat with mindful attention, a tangerine becomes a micro-expression of all nature contained in a single form. Similarly, our body is not an individual entity isolated from the world and its ‘complete wholeness’.
For Br. Phap Lai, it is important to understand that all beings share a universal responsibility to nature as our source of food. In Plum Village, all monastics follow a solely plant-based diet to reduce human and animal suffering. This is an everyday example of turning the practice of mindful eating into compassionate action.
We don’t have to wait a lifetime to enjoy the peace that comes from contemplative eating. In a world noisy with the talk of food, taking mindful pause can guide us towards greater peace and connection. Contrary to popular belief, mindful eating practices can be easily integrated into our daily practices. During mealtimes, take some moments to unplug from distractions and bring your full attention to the present. By incorporating these practices occasionally, we start making room in our lives for mindful connection and meaningful change. This in turn can awaken in us a greater reverence for ourselves and the interconnectedness of life.
Take a moment to reflect. Think about the food you are about to eat, take in your surroundings and recognise your hunger. This short moment will open up your awareness and help you to become fully present in the act of eating. By reflecting upon the provenance of the ingredients and hard work that went into the making of each meal we are cultivating gratitude. In our discussions with therapists/psychologists and yoga practitioners, the concept of gratitude is often cited as one of the most transformational and powerful practices we have access to.
Move away from television sets, computers or any other distractions. This deliberate action marks the beginning of a meal and a new experience, bringing your full attention to eating.
Acknowledge how your body feels and what you are thinking as you slowly begin to satiate your hunger. By paying more attention to your body, you become less likely to over-eat and encourages us to eat more nourishing meals. Don’t feel obliged to finishing everything on the plate, instead get into the habit of incorporating any leftovers into your next meal.
Try eating in silence once in a while. This meditative act gives us a break from the noise of the day and brings us back to ourselves. Silence is very nourishing and necessary.
In Buddhist practice, the simple contemplation of a tangerine provides a practical exercise to illustrate this philosophy. Monastics are encouraged to carefully consider the tangerine- its sweet scent, tastes and textures. This act of mindfulness is a means of acknowledging that each segment is ripe with life- radiating the sunshine, rain and clouds that delivered it into being. By being present in our experience of a meal, we recognise the gift of the food we have received and offer our attention as a token of our respect. In our daily lives, people often talk about feeling the love that has gone into making a meal. There is little doubt that a food is made more delicious for the amount of intention and care offered to our experience of it.
Brother Phap Lai is a resident monastic at Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Plum Village Community. Exiled from his native Vietnam, Thích Nhất Hạnh founded this Buddhist community in the rural French village of Thénac creating a healthy, nourishing environment where people can learn the art of living in harmony with one another and with the Earth. Caught between joining the Vietnamese war and continuing a contemplative life in the monastery, Thich Nhat Hahn developed ‘Engaged Buddhism’ as a grassroots peace organization. Bringing the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassionate action to the Western world, he was pivotal in the shaping of the peace movement of the 1960’s.