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Eat, eat, chew, chew, swallow

Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life from Harvard SPH on Vimeo.


If you have any contact with psychotherapy these days, you’ve heard about mindfulness training. Adapted from Buddhist psychology, it’s a method of staying fully conscious in the present moment.

My own decision to study psychology for an MA and PhD was very much motivated by my interest in transpersonal psychology, which incorporates meditation and mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition.  At the time of my initial interest,  most psychologists still regarded the idea that mindfulness training could be therapeutic as New Age blather.

But now mindfulness practice  is the latest fad,  treated as akin to cognitive-behavioral therapy. And, believe me, it’s a lot more effective than the happily waning fad of “positive psychology.”

This book on bringing a mindful approach to eating, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, is authored by nutritionist Lilian Cheung and zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has written many books and conducted many workshops over the years. I did a walking meditation workshop with him years ago in California and found it remarkably enlivening.

Cheung, who is with Harvard’s School of Public Health, summarizes the book’s approach to mindful eating in the video above. If you’ve had any training in meditation or mindfulness, you’ll undoubtedly have the experience I did reading the book. It’s nothing very new at all and, I’m sorry to say, is highly redundant.

In its review of the book, Publisher’s Weekly, acknowledges as much:

If Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Nhat Hanh says the same thing over and over, it could be because not enough people have heard him, and those who have need a reminder.

I found myself very annoyed reading the same-old-same-old. Plenty has been written about mindful eating, which, as my friend Andrew said, boils down to “eat, eat, chew, chew, swallow.” The idea is that bringing mindfulness to eating — and any other behavior — enhances our presence in the moment. And that means we don’t eat out of control on auto-pilot. Generally, it means a considerable reduction in the rumination that takes us out of immediate experience. When we are fully present, we have much more power over our choices, rather than behaving by force of habit.

The book offers a good many exercises to develop mindfulness and goals pertinent to eating healthily. But, generally, it reads more like a guide to overall mindfulness than a reflection on eating itself.  I expected some discussion of psychology and taste, for example, but there is none, except to say we are more conscious of flavors when we pay close attention to what we are eating.

If you have no experience with mindfulness, Savor may be a good read, but, honestly, there are far better books on the subject. Then again, few consider the context of eating itself. I just wish the authors had done a better job.

UPDATE: Right after I wrote this, I opened my mail and found that the new issue of The Shambhala Sun is devoted to mindfulness. It was also accompanied by a new supplementary publication, Mindful, which includes two articles on mindful eating.

I wrote a post on CL’s “Omnivore” blog, referring people to this post and describing the magazine material. I noted that by definition mindfulness is usually regarded as a technique of developing full awareness in the moment. It’s not about “fixing” things per se. I quoted Jon Kabat-Zinn in that respect.

As I was browsing the Net about the subject, I came across this incident of mindfulness that, while compassionately motivated, definitely demonstrates the fix-it mindset. The writer is blogging after a lecture on the subject (although he doesn’t specifically call it mindfulness):

She spoke about the importance of listening, opening our ears, indeed the whole body, to awareness of what’s going on around us. Listening is the first step towards being mindful about the present. Tara’s words struck a cord with me because my father is increasingly impaired in hearing and I’ve experienced how this isolation is walling him off from his family, his community, the world around him. I came away from the session with a commitment to find a way to break through to my father so that he gives in to buying a new hearing aid.

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