Eating with Mindfulness

Recently while waiting for my wife at a doctor’s office, I flipped through a “wellness” magazine. In it was an article entitled, “Are You Aware of What You Eat?” True to the title, the article suggested knowing what we are eating. We should also know where our food comes from, we should chew slowly, and we should notice how satisfied our stomach feels. This is called “eating with mindfulness.”

The idea of being aware of what we eat reminded me of my second cousin Ben, who was a farmer. He not only knew where his food came from, he actually named all of his farm animals. Sometimes this could be upsetting for members of the family. Ben would point to the pork chops and say, “Remember Elsie the pig? We are having her for dinner.”

The television series “Portlandia” once had a memorable skit about just this kind of thing. A young couple goes into the restaurant and looks over the menu. When the waiter appears, they decide on chicken alfredo—but they want to know how the chicken was raised. “Did he have friends?” they ask. The skit ends with the couple joining a religious cult in which all the farm animals are raised with meditation, music and health-foods.

In the magazine article, however, the point was not so much where our food came from but how we eat it. We should eat without having too many negative opinions. We should eat “without judgment.” To do so helps digestion and our overall health.

This advice is sound. However, the writer concluded that “There are no good or bad foods and therefore, no right or wrong food choices.” Nevertheless, we should “Eat food that nourishes your body, while knowing that there are no forbidden foods.” I found this part confusing.

If there are no good or bad foods, why write an article about it? Just indulge in ice-cream without feeling guilty. On the other hand, it is no doubt true that having bad thoughts about brothers-in-law while eating breakfast is unhealthy. It is not good for the stomach.

Historically, the idea of eating with mindfulness has been advocated by many great sages, including LaoTze, his disciple KongTze (Confucius), Epicurus, and the Buddha. Even St. Paul reminded his followers to eat without judgment: those who were not-eaters (i.e., those who were fasting from meats offered to idols) should not condemn the not-not-eaters, and vice versa (see 1 Corinthians 8).

Although the magazine article did not mention Buddhism, I suspect that the writer was inspired, not by Epicurus or LaoTze or St. Paul, but by contemporary Buddhist teaching in America. (She may have come from Portland, but it could have been anywhere on the West Coast.) Evidence for this was her emphasis upon not judging, which is often a special hallmark of Buddhist teaching.

Modern Buddhist teachers, such as the Venerable Thíc Nhất Hạnh (who was a friend of my late spiritual father), advocate eating—or doing anything—fully “in the present.” This means being fully aware of ourselves and what we are doing at this moment, but without judging—exactly what the “wellness” article was advocating.

Now I must confess that on a superficial level, I cannot do this very well. Given a plate of brussel sprouts, I immediately plunge into judgment. On the other hand, I suspect that, if offered french-fries, the wellness author might fall into judgment too. It may be that “all foods are lawful,” but not all foods are helpful.

On a deeper level, the phrase, “without judgment” is misleading. In the English language there is a confusion between the ideas of doing something without condemnation, and doing it without discernment. Both Buddhists and Orthodox Christians are taught to do everything without condemning others (cf. Luke 6:37). It is not true, however, that we should not use discernment.

Both traditions recognize that a certain amount of discernment is helpful and necessary. Discernment (Greek, diakrisis; Latin, discretio) is important in the Christian tradition. It is precisely what “mindfulness” is about. Mindfulness (which Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition refers to as nipsis—a kind of alert awareness) implies being fully aware of what is happening at this moment, both within and outside myself, but without forming opinions about it and without acting on it.

Perhaps a better way to understand “not judging” might be “neither thinking nor not-thinking.” Rather, the mind is doing something else altogether. It is in a different state of awareness, a state which is both alert and active, and yet passive and not concerned to act upon what passes through it. For the Christian, this means a state of complete trust in God, rather than deciding that we, ourselves, can solve things or even understand them very well.

In this sense, both Buddhists and Orthodox Christians practice ways of achieving a state of mindfulness or non-judgment. Practice might involve sitting still for long periods of time (although the posture is usually different); walking or running to clear the mind (Orthodox monastics sometimes do this in the middle of the night); standing still; gazing at a thangka or at an icon; reading with attention; gardening, writing icons, doing hand-work, and even eating with mindfulness (Orthodox monastics eat while listening to readings from the Scriptures or the Church Fathers). These activities, or non-activities as the case may be, are not limited to monastics in either tradition.

A central question, however, is exactly what we mean by “mindfulness.” How do we understand what we are doing? Why we are doing it? As mentioned already, both Buddhists and Christians are taught not to condemn or to act as a judge over others. On this subject, St. Paul says, “Who am I to judge another man’s servant?” (Romans 14:4). However, in this sentence we see an important difference between the two traditions.

Orthodox Christians see themselves as servants of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Eternal God, one of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Christian practice of not-judging is directly linked to Jesus Christ: He is the Judge, the “other man” to whom all creation must answer—not ourselves. He is the one who said, “Judge not.”

It is also important to add that the Orthodox Christian way of Mindfulness is not a technique for anything. It is not a way to eat more healthfully; it is not a way of relaxation; it is not a way to avoid the bad fruit of Karma or to be more “integrated.” If it has a purpose, it is to render us capable of receiving God through repentance, humility and silence before the eternal Word.

To put this another way, the Orthodox practice of nipsis is prayer. Prayer is not simply asking God for things. Rather, it has to do with listening intently and receiving God. We quiet the mind, so that it is not trying to figure things out (here Orthodox have something in common with Buddhism). Then the mind—that is, the dianoia, the active, logical reasoning capacity—becomes subject to the Heart—the nous or center of spiritual activity, the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. In this state, all mental activity becomes caught up in prayer, which begins in silence before the Awesome God.

We can say, therefore, that Orthodox mindfulness is not simply an awareness of myself, or of “suchness,” or even of my not-Self (as one of my Buddhist friends might put it). It is, rather, a deep awareness of the presence of Christ, both within us and outside of us. The mind “descends into the heart” precisely to encounter Christ. There is a cosmic “other”—the Author and Savior of the universe—who is the object of our contemplation; and in the Christian understanding, it is the Holy Spirit of God who prays within us.

When an Orthodox Christian hears about “eating with mindfulness,” something else also comes to mind. We are to be mindful when we consume the Body of Christ at the Holy Eucharist (the “Lord’s Supper”). We are to examine ourselves, and also discern the presence of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 11, especially verse 29). Then, this moment of awareness in the Eucharist is extended into all the rest of life. Everything is done in the presence of God and in awareness of the divine presence. “Pray without ceasing,” counselled St. Paul. For the person who practices Christian mindfulness, everything becomes prayer, an opportunity to encounter Christ and to serve Him.

From our saints and monastics who practice mindfulness continually, especially the so-called “neptic” saints or hesychasts, we further learn that there can be a deep experience of awareness which few people achieve. It is described, for example, by the 14th century abbot St. Gregory Palamas. When his detractors accused his monks of practicing some kind of eastern meditation, he pointed out that in the end, “mindfulness” and the Orthodox practice of prayer are quite different.

St. Gregory argued that the purpose of practicing silence in the monasteries is not to eat with awareness, but to experience God, who is beyond our ability to understand. To encounter God in this way is life-changing. One is filled with divine love, taking on the likeness of Christ. It is to have the experience of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, in which Peter, James and John saw the divine and uncreated Light (cf. Matthew 17).

In America today, we are constantly being taught to focus on ourselves in a kind of superficial way. But we are taught very little about how to encounter God. Perhaps we are suffering from cultural narcissism. Recently, I saw a poster in the window of a local restaurant which advertised a workshop on “mindfulness.” In very large letters across the top, the poster read, “It is all about yourself.” The point of the workshop, the poster said below the headline, was to teach us how to have self-esteem and to make life work for us.

I beg to differ. True mindfulness is not ultimately about ourselves; it is about encountering Truth. It involves repentance. It leads to enlightenment, in which a person begins to experience everlasting life and eternal Light. There is an Orthodox hymn which invites eating with mindfulness. The hymn says,

Draw near and taste
of the fountain
of immortal life. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

To me, that is eating with mindfulness.

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