Lessons from a Raisin
There are some moments in my life in which I realize time is just swooshing by. I start waking up wondering how an entire week just went by, how it could possibly be the holidays if we just had them, how in the blink of an eye the summer has come and gone, and in that second, I feel this huge sense of overwhelm. I feel overwhelmed because I quickly notice I’ve entered a slightly old but familiar territory. I’ve been going through my days, checking stuff off my to do lists, and I haven’t been present. It’s one thing to not be present during a busy run of the mill day, but it’s quite another when this starts becoming a pattern and it seeps into those good, simple day to day moments that bring joy to life, like noticing a bird singing away outside your window or sipping the most perfect cup of coffee while everything’s quiet and still. What about on those big, once in a lifetime moments that you’ll never have back like walking the streets of Rome during your first trip to Europe, getting married, standing at the top of the Grand Canyon for the first time? Our lives have become so busy, so dependent on schedules, technology, gadgets, the millions of tasks we have to do every day, that although our lives are filled with more things and activities, we feel we're in this state of not being anywhere.
Since I was a little girl I've been one of those people that finds so much joy in the small things. I've never been one for huge gestures. I love those little moments that make you smile throughout the day, and my fondest family memories always happen in the midst of the mundane, when we're eating popcorn on the couch and the dogs are performing their usual staring contest to see who can tip the bowl over with the power of their doggie minds. It's those moments that make me smile and find happiness every day. When I feel that sense that time is moving at warp speed and I'm feeling like it's taken over the reigns and I'm just being pushed through it, I know exactly what has happened. I've lost the little moments, and I've lost the little moments because I'm stuck in any other time and place that isn't the here and now.
There is nothing like the blissful feeling of being present, fully engaged, feeling that time is standing still while you take everything in. That you have all the time in the world and that the constant frenzy in your head has gone eerily quiet. There are so many moments in our life that I can remember as almost in slow motion and with perfect detail because of really being there, and this act of full presence is something that can be wonderful in every aspect of our lives, but since our blog and our podcast are all about food, and our relationship with it, I can tell you that the act of eating, is one of those things that can be completely turned around the moment you start paying attention and actually sitting there and being present. What's even better is that when we're looking to accomplish this in other parts of our life as well, the act of eating is the perfect opportunity to practice the art of being fully aware and mindful.
I've talked so much about being mindful while you eat, especially being very attuned to your hunger and fullness signals before, during and after eating, and that's certainly part of the process of improving your relationship with food, but we haven't taken the time to talk about the moment of eating itself.
What happens after you've noticed you're hungry, you've determined what you feel like eating, you've cooked and served a delicious plate of food, you grab the fork... then what?
What is usually happening in countless tables across the world is that this is the moment of Houdini-like escapism.
Food Houdini-like escapism can happen for a number of reasons:
- Although we've been looking forward to our meal, we still have tons of rules associated with eating. Especially if you've been dieting for a long time, those dieting rules can be so engrained in us that the mere moment of eating gets stressful, and we turn off instead of tuning into the flavors, textures, temperatures, colors, how filling or satisfying something is.
- If we're eating foods that we've previously labelled as "forbidden", "naughty", "bad", "fattening", "special occasion foods", we tend to flee the moment of eating. We sometimes gobble the food up quickly like a little kid who's afraid it will be taken away or he'll be punished for it. We don't want to listen to our inner banter about how we feel about this food, our bodies, or the pre-conceived notions of what we have to do later as penance. It's much easier to eat without awareness when these thoughts take over.
- If we're eating foods that we've previously labelled as "good", "all you can eat foods", "diet friendly", "waist friendly", we use the free pass opportunity to zone out. Believe me if there's one thing our society is currently suffering from it's an addiction to distraction. We grab our phone, turn on the tv, we made a decision that what we served on the plate is fine so we can go now. With this gadget friendly society we have nowadays, which has made it the norm to use up every free second of mental space with any activity that distracts us, the moment of eating can become another excuse to leave the present moment.
- Our minds are so trained to be on overdrive that any moment that could possibly relax us or make us sit down and quiet our minds, feels like the perfect moment to over-plan, over-obsess and over-think. We again leave the moment of eating even when our bodies are moving the fork right into our mouths.
There are so many reasons why we tend to zone out during meal times, and ironically, many of them actually come from a messy relationship with food and feelings of guilt, when in reality, the first and most important thing you can do if you want to leave food rules behind and improve your relationship with food and your body is be completely present in the moments before, during, and after meals. It's a surrendering of sorts, a relaxing moment in which you let the food you're enjoying guide the way.
Just as we try to get very present before eating to gauge how hungry we are and what we feel will satisfy and nourish us, and just how we try to get centered to gauge if we've reached that place in which we're comfortably full and we can stop eating, being really present during the meal will help us with relaxation, satisfaction and it will certainly help us understand how we are relating to food, and whether we've had enough.
Enter the raisin.
I've recently started an MBSR course, which stands for mindfulness based stress reduction, one of the oldest and most scientifically studied approaches to mindfulness. One that has been clinically proven to help patients with a number of conditions, not to mention the average joe, like me, find a more balanced and blissful relationship with ourselves and our experiences. One that is truly about presence, quieting the mind and living your life being your true self. This approach to mindfulness and meditation is less about the "will-certainly-drive-you-insane-quest-to avoid-all-thoughts-while-you-sit-in-a-very-uncomfortable-position" style of meditation, and instead is a very approachable method of actually focusing on what is happening at that very moment, whether that is sensations in the body, a specific visualization, and yes, the tastes and textures in your mouth as you eat that vegan cupcake. It's less Buddhist monk on a mountain top and more Mr. Miyagi catching the fly between chopsticks. You have something to focus on, which to me made all the difference after years of failing miserably at meditation. What's interesting is, I went into this course thinking it would help me be present and slow down those special moments in my day, and of course help ease stress, but low and behold, the first exercise and almost all the reading materials of the first week had to do with food and eating.
It makes sense though! We eat three or more times per day, it's an activity that is supposed to bring us pleasure and excite the senses, and it's also 3 plus daily opportunities to practice the act of being present. Turns out that not only does eating mindfully help us eat mindfully, but it also helps us practice this act of being present and at ease, no matter what's going on around us, throughout the rest of our day. I knew eating mindfully rocked, after all it's about 50% of what I teach you through Brownble, but I didn't know it was also a big secret weapon in finding this state of calm and presence in other aspects of life. Win-win right?
The first time I did the raisin exercise I thought I knew the drill. I thought it would be like many of the mindful eating practices I've taught you. You put it in your mouth, chew it, taste it, focus on how it feels going down your throat, focus on how you're feeling and whether you're hungry for another one. Yes this was all a part of it, but then it took things one step further. It made us think, as we were eating this raisin and sensing the wrinkled exterior, it's brownish, golden color, and it's strong but sweet taste, about how it got from seed to the raisin rolling around on our tongue.
The exercise guides you from the sensory aspects of smelling, tasting, chewing, savoring and even listening to the raisin, to thinking of the farmer who prepared the soil, planted the seeds, watered and weeded the plants, looked after them. About how the water got to the farm in the first place, and how the sun hit those plants just right to grow the grapes that would then be dried, boxed, transported, labelled, taken to the store, placed on a shelf, bought by you, taken home. About how the conditions had to be just right for the plants to produce the perfect fruit. How someone had to manually pick the grapes and remove the stems. All for a little tiny raisin we never think twice about.
As you sit there imagining this and really focusing on that slightly chewy texture, almost hard but also soft, and you get hints of caramel, a little saltiness and lots of earthy notes, you realize you've just had a love affair with that raisin, but also with the present moment.
Imagine where this exercise would take you if it was a brownie that had chocolate that had been fermented and taken from the cacao pods, flour that was milled, sugar that was produced from a sugar cane. I can promise you the experience of eating it would greatly change. Instead of stuffing your mouth quickly with as much brownie goodness as you could muster before the guilt trip sinks in, you would probably notice what it actually tastes like, how just a little will go a long way into feeling satisfied and happy, how instead of guilt you're left with a sense of the utmost gratitude for having that food in front of you, that those ingredients were created and put together in such a way to produce such a treat. That you have the pleasure of eating it and can enjoy it to the max and then move on with your day until the next meal is in front of you.
A little tiny raisin, even after thinking I had all that mindfulness stuff down, taught me so much when it comes to mindful eating. Not only will you be able to enjoy every bite of food and truly experience the satisfaction that comes with it, but it's a great practical way to focus on something when your mind starts to naturally wander.
Of course I wasn't going to leave you without the raisin exercise? I want you to practice it today with the raisin itself and actually do it while watching the video, then try to practice this during your meals this week, focusing on where your food came from, the effort you or someone else took into growing it and preparing it, the feelings of hunger and fullness you're experiencing throughout the meal, the temperature, texture, flavor, whether it reminds you of something, whether you like it and why you like it. Let the rest of that moment get blurry, while you focus on the wonderful pleasure of eating delicious food, with no guilt or expectations following.
This is of course meant as a great exercise to practice eating mindfully, the main tool I've used to heal my relationship with food and step away from dieting, but if you're feeling adventurous, and could use a bit of that feeling through the rest of your day, take this act of being fully present into other activities that don't include eating. Going for a walk? Listen to the crunchy sound of your shoes on the trail or the pavement. Trying to fall asleep at night and want to quiet the mind? Focus on how the sheets are feeling against your skin or where your body is pressing against the bed and pillow. Engaging in conversation? Be fully present and listen without focusing on what you're going to say next. It can make a world of difference, and no matter how you practice, this act of being relaxed, present and centered will teach you so much about your daily habits, your eating, and your relationship with the world and yourself.
Are you ready? From one of the top experts of MBSR, here's the raisin exercise that might help you so much on this quest we're going through together to experiencing mindful eating and all its benefits. Have fun with it and remember that practice makes perfect! If your mind wanders while you're having a meal this week while you're trying to do this exercise, just bring it back and continue.