It is ironic that in countries where food is abundant, disharmony with food and eating is most common. Americans appear to have a particularly unbalanced and often negative relationship with food. In the 1990s, a research team led by an American psychologist and a French sociologist teamed up to do a study of cross-cultural attitudes toward food. They surveyed people in the United States, France, Flemish Belgium, and Japan. They found that Americans associated food with health the most and pleasure the least. For example, when Americans were asked what comes to mind when they hear the words “chocolate cake,” they were more likely to say “guilt,” while the French said “celebration.” The words “heavy cream” elicited “unhealthy” from Americans and “whipped” from the French. The researchers found that Americans worry more about food and derive less pleasure than people in any other nation they surveyed.
Access to ever-increasing amounts of information about food and health seems to be making us feel even more fearful and fraught. A desperate patient once told me,
I’m obsessed with food because I know too much. I can’t eat swordfish because of high mercury levels. Tomatoes and potatoes might make my arthritis act up. I’ve heard that peanuts might be contaminated with a toxic fungus, and tofu and all soy products contain too many estrogens and might lower my sex drive. If I consider the impact of my eating habits on the environment and eat only what’s in season, I’m left with little to eat. I also worry that the few foods I might be able to eat have some hidden problem I don’t know about yet.
Such pervasive distress about food and eating is a disease only found in people living in an affluent society. It is not a disease of the body but of the mind. It is fueled by information overload, by listening to scientists and advertisers rather than learning to listen to our own bodies.
When I taught in a poor country in Africa, the staple food in homes and in our college cafeteria was thick cornmeal mush heaped in a little mountain on a plate with a dollop of peanut or vegetable sauce poured over the top. If you were well-off, you might have some bits of meat or fish added to the sauce. This is what people ate every day. If you could eat it twice or three times a day, you were affluent. I never encountered people with disturbed eating habits. They were cheerfully grateful just to have enough to eat that day. Somehow, when we have too much, something happens to our sense of gratitude, and when we lose touch with gratitude, we become increasingly dissatisfied with our lives. We can do several practices, however, that will uncover, at the center of our being, a humble and natural feeling of gratitude for our food and for our underappreciated bodies.
Most of us take our bodies and our good health for granted. In fact, we don’t actually experience ourselves as “healthy” until we fall ill. If we’ve been sick in bed with a bad cold or the flu, too weak to get up or too nauseated to eat, it seems like a miracle when we begin to recover. For a few days it feels wondrous just to walk, to have an appetite, and to enjoy the smells and tastes of food again. If we’ve been in severe pain, and it lifts, it can make us euphoric. Very soon, however, we go back to expecting our body to function well, to do what we ask it to do, efficiently and without discomfort.
When someone our own age becomes seriously ill or dies, it lifts the veil of denial, opening our eyes to the impermanence of health and life. We see clearly for a moment that health and life are temporary gifts, and then soon we forget it again. When we forget, we fall back into irritation at our body when it doesn’t function perfectly. Why is my hearing going bad? Why does my back hurt? Why do I have allergies when other people don’t? Why is my skin getting wrinkled so soon? How could I have gained weight?
Rationally we know that it is inevitable that our body will not function perfectly all the time and we will become ill. It is easy to fall into a critical, anxious attitude about the state of our body, or parts of it, when it fails to perform to our expectations.
When I catch a cold I often feel a sense of impatience, and there’s a voice inside me that whines about the stupidity of my own medical profession because it can’t come up with a treatment for this common affliction. Other voices desperately try to search out the reason I caught a cold this time. Sneezed on by a sick patient? Forgot to take my vitamins? Immune system compromised by stress? What is wrong with me, it asks, that I got sick?
The answer is, nothing is wrong. Your body being sick simply means that you are a being with a body. It is easy to become upset with our body when we have a cold, or indigestion, constipation, food sensitivities, gas pains, irritable bowel syndrome, anorexia, bulimia, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, acid reflux, or when we just gain weight. We feel that our body has betrayed us.
We may not be aware of our irritation or anger at our body, but the body is aware of it. If an illness or disability lasts or becomes chronic, then we can be bathing our body continually in the negative energy of our distress. An atmosphere of love and kindness is essential if living beings, including children, pets, plants, and our own bodies, are to thrive and reach their highest potential. When various parts of our body are in trouble, they need extra help and extra kindness, not extra criticism.
Far from failing us, the body actually does an astounding job. Millions of cells in dozens of organs work continually, night and day, without pausing or taking a rest for the entirety of our life. Thought is energy, and negative thought (“I hate my pudgy thighs,” “I hate having a sore throat,” “I hate my crooked teeth”) has a negative effect. All living things wither under the energy of irritation and anger. All living things prosper under the energy of loving-kindness.
There are tools to help us develop mindfulness with our body, to feel and hear its messages
from the inside, and then to direct the positive energy of gratitude and loving-kindness toward it. These meditations have the added benefit of helping us tune in to the signals of cellular hunger and also to the body’s signals of satiation and satisfaction.
The Buddha taught mindfulness of the body as a fundamental practice, one that would yield good results for our entire lifetime. He called it meditating “on the body as a body.” In Western Buddhist practice, we often meditate this way by doing a “body scan.”
At our Zen monastery we begin each day with this meditation. Why? During the night the body and mind become disconnected. Our body is lying in bed asleep, breathing and moving on its own. Our mind is off in its own worlds, dreaming and moving about in other places and times. When we first arise the body is not fully inhabited by our mind, and we stumble about clumsily for a while, until these two can get together. To bring the body and mind together for the work of the day, each morning we use the awareness function of the mind to do a body scan meditation.
When food and drink are abundant, it is easy to take them for granted. When we take them for granted, it is easy to stop paying attention to what is on our plate or in our mouth. When we stop paying attention, we stop smelling and tasting. We might as well be eating cardboard. Cardboard is not very satisfying to eat, so we try eating more. When eating more doesn’t make us feel satisfied, we try turning up the intensity of taste sensations. We begin with plain potato chips and end up with one hundred varieties calling out to us from the supermarket shelves. We can’t decide: Should we have the thin-cut, the thick-cut, the crinkle-cut chips? Should we have the cracked pepper and lime flavor, the sea salt and vinegar, the jalapeno and cheese, or the salsa and sour cream? The bottled drink aisle raises the same anxiety of too many choices. Should we buy spring water from artesian wells or glacial springs, from Colorado, California, or Switzerland? Should it be fruit flavored? Sweetened? If so, with what? Sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, chemical sweeteners, or Stevia?
What happened to the taste of plain water? When we are really thirsty, the taste of plain water is heavenly. As it flows into our dry mouth, it fills us with a simple happiness. This happiness is the opposite of the anxiety of endlessly seeking and never being satisfied. Imagine you haven’t had anything to drink for a few days. How grateful would you be to the person who gives you a glass of water? Or imagine how grateful you would feel for a cup of plain water if you were the one who had to dig the well, line it with stones, and pull the water up hand over hand, one bucket at a time? How grateful would you be for a slice of bread if you had to weed and plow the field, sow and raise the grain, grind and sift the flour, and cut and burn the wood in order to bake one loaf?
We have all known the warmth of this kind of simple gratitude for food and drink. When it is lost to us, how can we reclaim it? These days we don’t have to perform these many labors before we can eat a piece of bread, but someone does. When we cultivate a remembrance of these innumerable someones, our natural sense of gratitude begins to reawaken.
At our Zen monastery, we chant short verses, or gathas, before meals. One of them is, “Seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.” This reminds us, no matter how hungry we are, to pause before eating and reflect upon the life energy that went into bringing the food to the table before us. (Traditionally there are seventy-two jobs that must be done to maintain a monastery, to keep it open and accessible.)
Through mindfulness, we can look more deeply into everyday things. It is an aspect of wisdom not to be fooled by superficial aspects of things, even of the most ordinary things, things that we encounter many times a day. Food is one of these.
When doing mindful eating we can take time to really look at our food. We can appreciate the colors, shapes, and play of light and shadow. This is the way we nourish ourselves through the eyes. However, there is another way of looking while eating. We call it looking deeply into our food.
For most people in our workshops, their introduction to mindful eating comes when they are instructed, step by step, in how to eat just one raisin. Later we do a different exercise with just one raisin. We look into the life of that single raisin and try to see all the life that has touched it. We call this looking deeply into our food. This looking involves a different sense than our ordinary eyes. It involves seeing with the inner eye.
At Plum Village, the Zen practice center founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, before meals they say, “In this food I see clearly the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence.” How could it be that the whole universe is actually present and supporting us in our food?
Jan Chozen Bays, Roshi is the co-founder of Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, OR where she is co-abbot with Hogen Bays Roshi. A pediatrician and author, Chozen Roshi also teaches internationally.
From Mindful Eating: Rediscovering a Joyful Relationship with Food, Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc., Copyright ©2009 by Jan Chozen Bays.