being present at the table
Not so long ago, I asked my students to think about how they would treat themselves differently if they really believed that they were divine. After class one student gave me her answer, wistfully smiling: “I wouldn’t eat standing up anymore.” We both laughed, with me knowing that I too eat standing up, behind the wheel of my car, while answering email, reading the paper, doing anything but concentrating on the long-anticipated meal in front of me.
Nowadays when I sit watching the steam rising from a bowl of soup in front of me, I know that my first lesson about eating is to push my notebook aside and simply eat. My journey in exploring my relationship with food began in earnest just a few years ago when, while talking to some friends over dinner, I discovered that not everyone in the world felt hungry all the time. You’re kidding, I thought, you mean not everyone walks around strategizing about their next meal, feeling that whatever they’ve just eaten isn’t nearly enough? I rarely felt full, or even more rarely, not hungry. What is that like, I wondered. Could I figure out how to live without being hungry all the time?
I looked at my life and found that all the other parts””home, work, family, spiritual life””were each satisfying in their own way, leaving the question of why my relationship with food was so dissatisfying. I decided to use what I’d learned about compassionately observing my body, my thoughts, my emotions in my yoga practice to search for how to find and experience fullness with food. I consulted a nutritionist, who told me what I already knew. My mostly vegetarian, mostly organic diet was good, aside from occasional forays of bread and chocolate. I had my blood tested for thyroid and glucose problems, all of which came out normal.
Every morning I woke up hungry and ate various whole food meals and snacks on and off right until bedtime. I felt like I was eating a ton. How could I still be so hungry all the time? As a teenager I was anorexic””never diagnosed, but actively starving myself nonetheless. I told myself that I wasn’t hungry, that hunger was a weakness only those folks who had to eat food succumbed to. Now it seemed my hunger had returned with a vengeance, coupled with a determination never to be ignored again. I was stuck in a cycle of feeling hungry, hating that feeling, and doing everything I could to avoid that feeling by eating continuously.
Moreover, despite my apparently constant focus on food, when I had food in front of me I ate quite mindlessly, oblivious to the tastes, textures, colors, smells of what I was putting in my mouth. I ate while doing almost anything, even just letting my mind drift off into some stream of thought, to keep myself from paying attention to what I was moving from my plate into my mouth. After finishing what I’d eaten, having really only tasted the first bite (mmm, this is good) and the last bite (I can’t believe it’s all gone!), I would look up and want the same thing all over again, feeling as hungry as ever. Trying to concentrate on what I’d been planning to do and looking forward to eating was enormously difficult!
Focusing my attention, bite by bite, on the food before me was like learning to meditate all over again. There was nothing my mind wanted to escape more than paying attention to what was going into my mouth. Slowly and with great persistence I improved my ability to be present with my food at each meal, honoring the act of feeding myself with my whole attention. Every time I sit down to eat a meal I have to renew that commitment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I successfully consume a meal with ordinary mindfulness, I not only feel full, but I even feel full before I finish, and therefore can push the plate away rather than heading for seconds.
With that greater mindfulness has also come a commitment to remind myself of where my food comes from, all the hands who have touched it, the insects, the soil, the sun that nourished it. Even as a devoted cook who knows the farmers I get my vegetables from, I still had the tendency to treat my food as if it had magically appeared out of thin air. Being grateful helps me bring that extra bit of centeredness to each meal, a reminder that if it’s worth putting in my body, it’s worth being grateful for. The food is worth it; the meal is worth it; I am worth this extra bit of care and attention. And having more respect for my food has led me to be more careful about what I put into my body””nurturing a deeper understanding that what I feed myself becomes not just my body, but my thoughts, my emotions, my actions, affecting all those around me.
I’ve heard many explanations about why I could be hungry all the time: not enough micronutrients, not enough protein, not enough food, not enough cooked food, not enough heavy food, all of which contribute to a sense of scarcity. Instead, I needed to change my mindset as well as my behavior, to say, “I have enough here; let me sit and enjoy what’s right here in front of me, to relish the fullness of the present moment.” It’s not a diet pill. It’s not the way to lose ten pounds in a week. It’s not the way to improve muscle tone. It’s treating my relationship with food as that, a relationship that changes and grows and allows me to understand the world and myself more deeply. Now a bowl of soup offers an invitation to dive into the tastes, smells and textures right in front of me, an opportunity to savor every bite and emerge from the experience fully satisfied.