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Monday, May 31, 2010

On the Subject of (god help us ) Mindful Eating

May 31, 2010

I'm eager to post news of a really delightful and helpful read. It was a present actually, which is the best incentive to read anything. Sally Ling, a master chef who owns and operates Sally Ling's Gourmet Chinese Restaurant in Fort Lee, gave me Savor, Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, written by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung, who is a friend of Sally's and a lecturer on the subject of healthy eating and director of health promotion and communication at the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Nutrition.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a famous Zen Buddhist monk who has authored many books on the subject of creating peace within and in the world, and runs Plum Village in France, dedicated to mindful living.

I'm a Buddhist, and I've read most of Thich Nhat Hanh's works over the years. I once saw a video of him that ran about 20 minutes and focussed entirely on his mindful eating of an orange. The master spoke slowly, peeling the orange with grace, teaching the viewer not only how to savor and appreciate every bite, but how to be aware of how this gift from the earth that feeds us and keeps us alive relates to all other living things and processes. The video and lesson in mindfulness so impressed me that a few years later I tried his experiment with a group of middle school aged students at an afterschool center. Shocked with the way the kids would throw food at one another at snacktime and treat it essentially like garbage, I hoped to shift their attitudes about eating just a little. I had built up a strong relationship with them by then, and I'm sure that helped to create the spirit of respect and quiet in which about 20 children who had selected their own fruit out of a basket, peeled a banana or an orange, appraised and appreciated their snacks as they ate them. It was a lesson unlike any other these kids, who came from largely poor backgrounds, had experienced on the subject, and whatever success I had in teaching it I owe to Zen Master Hanh.

To a large extent, Savor, like many other good books out there on the subject of mindful eating, appeals to common sense. But it goes further. Sometimes you have to back up common sense with science. Research now shows how the body and mind are interrelated, and the book is based on the notion, now scientifically supported, that it's not only what we eat and drink but the way we eat and drink that "profoundly affects our physical and mental well-being." The authors follow a Buddhist-based approach to nutrition, suggesting essentially that individuals take time and put thought into eating, and experience the process with all their senses.

In order to look honestly at what we eat, how much and why, the authors suggest starting a food journal. It's not a bad idea. So many of us become totally unconscious around the process of eating either because we're on the run, watching TV or paying attention to everything but what we're ingesting.

Some of the common sense advice, supported by studies, Cheung and Hanh:

* Eat three to four reasonable meals a day.
* Avoid skipping breakfast.
* Go to bed at a reasonable hour and try to get a good night's rest.
* Eat healthy carbs such as fruits, legumes, vegetables and whole grains as these are full of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
* Practice mindful breathing and meditation to reduce stress in your life and supplement a healthy diet.

An Appendix is chock full of resources, and the numerous notes in back attest to the fact that this is both a richly insightful and well researched book. Timely and important, it presents a model of right thinking and right eating for our age.


  1. This reminds me of macrobiotics and its emphasis on how and what we eat and how we cook it. The Kushi Intitute is not too far away in Becket, Mass., founded by Michio Kushi. I consider it to be the macrobiotic capital of the world.

  2. I'm not sure how to fit into one of the required categories. So, I picked "anonymous" and it seems to work. I forgot to put my name on the comment above about macrobiotics.
    - Sid Albertsen