To cultivate mindfulness, we can do the same things we always do—walking, sitting, working, eating, and so on—with mindful awareness of what we are doing. When we’re eating, we know that we are eating. When we open a door, we know that we’re opening a door. Our mind is with our actions.
When you put a piece of fruit into your mouth, all you need is a little bit of mindfulness to be aware: “I am putting a piece of apple in my mouth.” Your mind doesn’t need to be somewhere else. If you’re thinking of work while you chew, that’s not eating mindfully. When you pay attention to the apple, that is mindfulness. Then you can look more deeply and in just a very short time you will see the apple seed, the beautiful orchard and the sky, the farmer, the picker, and so on. A lot of work is in that apple!
Nothing comes from nothing
With just a little bit of mindfulness, you can truly see where your bread comes from. It has not come from nothing. Bread comes from the wheat fields, from hard work, and from the baker, the supplier, and the seller. But the bread is more than that. The wheat field needs clouds and sunshine. So in this slice of bread there is sunshine, there is cloud, there is the labor of the farmer, the joy of having flour, and the skill of the baker and then—miraculously!—there is the bread. The whole cosmos has come together so that this piece of bread can be in your hand. You don’t need to do a lot of hard work to get this insight. You only need to stop letting your mind carry you away with worrying, thinking, and planning.
Your body belongs to the Earth
In modern life, people tend to think their bodies belong to them, that they can do anything they want to themselves. But your body is not only yours. Your body belongs to your ancestors, your parents, and future generations. It also belongs to society and to all the other living beings. The trees, the clouds, the soil, and every living thing brought about the presence of your body. We can eat with care, knowing we are caretakers of our bodies, rather than their owners.
We don’t need to eat a lot to feel nourished. When we are fully there and alive for every morsel of food, we eat in a way that each bite fills us with peace and happiness. If we are full of this joy, we may find that we naturally feel satisfied with less food.
Eating without thinking
When we eat we usually think. We can enjoy our eating a lot more if we practice not thinking when we eat. We can just be aware of the food. Sometimes we eat and we’re not aware that we’re eating. Our mind isn’t there. When our mind isn’t present, we look but we don’t see, we listen but we don’t hear, we eat but we don’t know the flavor of the food. This is a state of forgetfulness, the lack of mindfulness. To be truly present we have to stop our thinking. This is the secret of success.
When we can slow down and really enjoy our food, our life takes on a much deeper quality. I love to sit and eat quietly and enjoy each bite, aware of the presence of my community, aware of all the hard and loving work that has gone into my food. When I eat in this way, not only am I physically nourished, I am also spiritually nourished. The way I eat influences everything else that I do during the day.
Eating is as important a time for meditation as sitting or walking meditation time. It’s a chance to receive the many gifts of the Earth that I would not otherwise benefit from if my mind were elsewhere. Here is a verse I like to recite when I eat:
In the dimension of space and time,
We chew as rhythmically as we breathe.
Maintaining the lives of all our ancestors,
Opening an upward path for descendants.
We can use the time of eating to nourish the best things our relatives have passed onto us and to transmit what is most precious to future generations.
Paying attention to just two things
While we eat, we can try to pay attention to just two things: the food that we’re eating and our friends who are sitting around us and eating with us. This is called mindfulness of food and mindfulness of community. Eating mindfully, we become aware of all the work and energy that has gone into bringing the food to us. If we are eating with others, we can notice how wonderful it is that during this sometimes hectic life we can find the time to sit together in a relaxed way like this to enjoy a meal. When you can breathe, sit, and eat together with your family or friends in mindfulness, this is called true community-building.
Each spoonful contains the universe
Pay attention to each spoonful of food. As you bring it up to your mouth, use your mindfulness to be aware that this food is the gift of the whole universe. The Earth and the sky have collaborated to bring this poonful of food to you. While breathing in and out, you only need a second or two to recognize this. We eat in such a way that every morsel of food, every moment of eating has mindfulness in it. It takes only a few seconds to see that the food we’re holding in our spoon is the gift of the whole cosmos. While we chew, we maintain that awareness. When we chew, we know that the whole universe is there in that bite of food.
Sometimes we are rushing so much in our day that we eat only as we’re running from one place to another. We eat in our car or as we walk. Please sit when you eat. When you sit, that is a reminder to stop. You have nothing to do, nowhere to go.
One mindful breath
It takes only one moment to take a mindful in-breath and out-breath before you eat. Bring the mind back to the body. Your body is always available for you. You can bring your attention out of your head and into your body. Before you focus on the food, focus on being present with your body: “Breathing in, I am aware that my body is still there. Breathing out, I smile to my body.” This body has been given to us by our parents and those before them. When this body was just born, it was very light. As we grow, we tend to get weighed
down by worries and lose our freshness and beauty. Mindful eating helps us regain this freshness, nourishing our spirits as well as our bodies. Eating with appreciation of our own bodies, we eat with more relaxation and joy.
Arranging a meal
You can arrange your schedule so you have enough time to eat. The place and the food should be appropriate. What we eat is very important. Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are. Tell me where you eat, and I will tell you who you are. We are what we consume. If we look deeply into what and how much we consume every day, we’ll come to know our own nature very well. We have to eat, drink, and consume, but if we do it unmindfully, we may destroy our body and our consciousness. A meal is an opportunity to show gratitude to those that came before us and those that will come after we are gone.
➛ Part of a series of how-to titles by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh that introduce beginners to and remind seasoned practitioners of the essentials of mindfulness practice, How to Eat was first published in 2014 by Parallax Press. It provides practical advice on becoming truly nourished by food through mindful preparation, serving, eating, and cleaning up. The post above is a selection of excerpts.