… but I really wanted some cake!

As unlikely as this sounds (coming from someone who is a mindfulness enthusiast and a chef) I’ve never really wanted to explore mindful eating as a stand-alone practise. My predominant experience, being on the receiving end of this exercise, is to feel increasing frustration as I watch my meal getting cold. Meanwhile, the teacher talks reverently (and very slowly) about how mindfulness can enhance our enjoyment of the food we are about to eat. Rather than be encouraged to stay mindful of my feelings (which may have something to teach me) I am directed to delight in the food’s visual magnificence, and to contemplate all the people involved in preparing our breakfast and to feel gratitude. All I can think about is how much more grateful I would feel if the porridge was hot. And as a chef I can promise you, the best compliment is when guests tuck in with gusto.

It can be easy to lampoon ‘McMindfulness’ at times. When you’ve had a taste of the profound potential of mindfulness, being subjected to a “I know, let’s add on a mindful eating exercise to today’s lunch!” is as disappointing as limp salad that’s sat around for 20 unnecessary minutes. But I’m willing to re-think this and it’s been a very fruitful investigation.

Last month, in preparation for a mindfulness retreat I was about to lead, I dug out one of the many diaries I’ve kept whilst on silent meditation retreats, curious to remind myself of the countless and universal ups & downs we all go through. On one retreat more than a decade ago, I journaled daily about the meals. How delicious the food was, how much I was hoping for one type of food and how disappointed I was to be served another, how I’d over eaten, how I’d decided to skip supper but then eaten cake anyway. One day (I can remember this well) I contemplated writing a note to the kitchen staff telling them that they should put out more cinnamon & blueberry bagels for breakfast, and less of the wholemeal ones because EVIDENTLY the cinnamon ones were the most popular. Slowly as the retreat continued, the emphasis in my journal changed from the food itself, to how I was feeling. I entered a process of discovery, investigating my experiences while participating in them.

I became more and more curious about the interplay between my happiness and my mindfulness, with food playing a role somewhere in the middle. My mindfulness became strong and consistent on that retreat, and I was eventually able to experience the delicious tastes but no longer experience the obsession and clinging to the tastes. At one point I wrote; “had a light breakfast – I’m convinced now that the happiness derived from eating, which is real and still present, is an inferior happiness to the one that arises from non-greed, non-craving and non-addiction / renunciation.” Later on that retreat, I stopped journalling about food altogether.

This understanding – that mindfulness doesn’t take away the real pleasure of food – is here in this story that meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg shares. She was at a conference at Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky where the Dalai Lama was talking. At the conference, the Dalai Lama was speaking about how impressed he was with the monastery’s ability to support itself through the manufacturing of cheese and fruitcakes. Suddenly, in the middle of his presentation, the Dalai Lama made a confession:

“I was presented with a piece of the homemade cheese, which was very good, but really I wanted some cake.”

He proceeded to laugh uproariously and repeated his regret: “It was so unfortunate! I was really hoping someone would offer me cake, but no one did!”

There’s no denying that the Dalai Lama was publicly admitting his own enjoyment of food. Yet while he might have been expressing his preference for the fruitcake, his deepest sense of happiness didn’t in any way seem to depend on it. Getting or not getting the piece of cake didn’t seem to be the ultimate determinant in his happiness; it was his ability to speak unabashedly about his own desires in front of dignitaries and a television audience, as well as his ability to laugh at his own desire.

I also love this story as it highlights that denying yourself cake, or even pretending you don’t have desire for cake, is not the answer. The Buddha teaches that it is full understanding and experiential wisdom, through applied mindfulness, that unhooks us from unwholesome and unconscious habits, not will-power and not asceticism. Desires will still arise, but with mindfulness of our changing feelings we understand the limits of these ‘worldly pleasures’ and become less under their spell; whilst still enjoying our food.

Mindful eating as taught in clinical and therapeutic settings for weight-loss and eating disorders understands the mechanics of this very well.

Judson Brewer, an internationally known expert in mindfulness training for addictions, uses this knowledge in his hugely successful programmes. He talks about the role of curiosity with the same passion that my dharma teachers talk about investigation being a factor of awakening. Brewer says of curiosity, “It puts people right in that sweet spot of openness and engagement.” He also concurs that our human brains, wired for reward, will update old programming given the opportunity. Once we are truly aware, in our own refutable experience, that the (temporary) pleasure that binge eating brings is comparatively less than abstaining, our habits change seemingly of their own accord.

I was interviewed recently on my views on mindful & intuitive eating, and as part of that, I was asked if I would like to contribute some recipes to the publication. The editor and I talked back and forth for a while, but we were both in agreement that recipes could detract or subvert the message. The potential for a deep realisation around an unwholesome eating habit such as bingeing is greatest when you are in the midst of the binge and the aftermath. Explore those feelings, suck the marrow out of them!

These days I like to think of my relationship to food more as a flowing conversation rather than a set of conclusions. The way I eat has changed a lot over the years and this is not because I have a studied the ever changing advice of the nutritional scientists, but because I am a human-being in flux, living in a world of ever-changing circumstances. The more I enter into the conversation – with awareness and an open-mind – the healthier my relationship to food becomes and the better I feel in body and mind. I actually eat a little less now than I did a decade ago, but I don’t ever feel like I’m denying myself food or that I enjoy food any less. Rather I feel like I’ve let go of greed and I’ve let go of guilt – I feel lighter in more ways than one.

Lastly, I would like to share a short teaching on mindful eating that comes directly from the discourses of the Buddha:

Once when the Buddha was living at Savatthi, King Pasenadi of Kosala ate a whole bucketful of food, and then approached the Buddha, engorged and panting, and sat down to one side. The Buddha, discerning that King Pasenadi was engorged and panting, took the occasion to utter this verse:

“When a person is constantly mindful, And knows when enough food has been taken, All their afflictions become more slender — They age more gradually, protecting their lives.”

[The commentaries on this discourse highlight the word-play on the term ‘afflictions’ – it’s not just a person’s body that becomes more slender, but all our unpleasant and unwholesome feelings. The discourse continues:]

Now at that time the brahman youth Sudassana was standing nearby, and King Pasenadi of Kosala addressed him: “Come now, my dear Sudassana, and having thoroughly mastered this verse in the presence of the Buddha, recite it whenever food is brought to me. And I will set up for you a permanent offering of a hundred coins every day.” “So be it, your majesty,” the brahman youth Sudassana replied to the king.

Then King Pasenadi of Kosala gradually settled down to [eating] no more than a cup-full of rice. At a later time, when his body had become quite slim, King Pasenadi stroked his limbs with his hand and took the occasion to utter this utterance: “Indeed the Buddha has shown me Compassion in two different ways: For my welfare right here and now, and also for in the future.”

Donapaka Sutta: King Pasenadi Goes on a Diet, SN 3.13

Mindful eating can be a very powerful practise, for our health today and for our potential for full awakening. We spend a lot of time eating, so it can be an easy and accessible way to develop and maintain our mindfulness through each day. Also because for many of us it’s an occasion when desire and craving is strong and mindfulness is weak, the results can be powerful. Bringing mindfulness in lessens our obsession and also connects us to the potential joy, as summed up by Cory Muscara:

When you have good moments in your life, really make sure you are there. It’s not enough for good things to just exist. You have to be able to experience them. You have to let them in, let them saturate you down to your core. This is how you get filled up. You may not get many of them, you may be in a season of your life that is difficult, but the good moments that you do get, let them be worth it. Really take them in. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Cory Muscara, former monk and mindfulness teacher, writer and speaker

Thanks for reading! Would love to hear your thoughts.


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