We consume food and drink for physical nourishment and replenishment. Duh, right? Seems pretty straightforward. But we also eat as a means of connection with others through shared experience. Each of us carry cherished memories of family and friends gathered joyfully around the dinner table. Enjoying the simple comfort of a hot meal and the warmth of familiar company. The malty smell of a fresh loaf of bread, or the rich flavor of a favored dish, can transport us back to such memories so quickly and with such vivid detail that it’s almost as if we were time traveling. We literally feel the emotional context in every bite. Like the food itself is a vessel suffused with nostalgic recollection.
Food, the act of eating, is about so much more than calories in/calories out. Much of what drives our choices is a matter of emotional energy rather than physical needs. This emotional energy, whether we are aware of it or not, engines the habit formation process. Especially when it comes to our relationships with food. Think of children. They’re conditioned so that good behavior is rewarded with ice cream and candy. How about when they misbehave? Taking these things away or withholding them is a typical punishment. Just as well-meaning but misguided parents use food as a tool of behavior modification or simple placation, so too do we reward, punish, and placate ourselves in the same way.
Boredom and loneliness, stress and anxiety, anger and sadness are just a few of the negative emotional states that compel us to eat poorly. But positive emotional states can, and often do, drive the same behaviors.
Reflect on the last barn-burner great time you had. How much did you have to drink? Did you eat too much? Be honest, of course you did! We all have. Were you feeling anxious, angry, or depressed at the time? Likely not. At that point you were probably filled with joyful energy. Excitement! Enthusiasm! The next morning when you woke up bloated, feeling like you fell asleep with a 40 pound bag of sand on your head, probably not so much. I’m sure at some point during that night out, your body signaled you to slow down. Yet you didn’t. None of this is to say that you shouldn’t have a good time and, on occasion, really indulge. But too much indulgence, too often, and without full consideration of your actions leads to bad outcomes.
In our daily lives we tend to mindlessly follow courses dictated by a series of conscious and unconscious emotional responses to stimulus. Often our responses solidify into habits before we even realize it. Habits that we can examine, make thoughtful discernments about, and ultimately embrace, control, or change. One of the best available tools for examination, discernment, and change is mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Simply put, mindfulness is sustained non-judgmental awareness in the present. The idea of mindfulness is, for me, most eloquently summarized in my favorite quotation:
In between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”Stephen R. Covey (1)
Mindfulness is the space between stimulus and response. Through practice we can learn to inhabit that space. Not to say that we should aim to become robotically analytical in our approach to life. Rather, we should aim to bring gradually more awareness to our own humanity by participating fully in moment to moment activity. Instead of sleepwalking mindlessly through our daily routine, we bring to it our full attentional focus. Because when we are mindless we bleach our experience of nuance and bleed it of depth and richness.
A Delicious Example
I love beef bourguignon served over sinfully creamy mashed potatoes. One smell sets my senses alight with tingling sparks of delightful sensation, spurring me to eat, and eat. . .and eat to my heart’s content. Many’s the time I’ve eaten so much so quickly that I’ve had to lay on the floor, supine, unmoving for over an hour at the end of the night. Grumbling and groaning in miserable, slothful discomfort. This, dear friends, is an example of mindlessness on a near pathological scale. In my defense, the stuff is delicious. The problem is that I tear into it so rapidly and with such ravenous abandon that I give myself barely a moment’s actual enjoyment. On top of that, while I’m sitting uncomfortably full in front of a thrice empty plate, my dinner companions are enjoying the moment as they relish in every flavorsome bite.
Imagine the opposite experience if, when eating my favorite dish, I take a mindful moment to occupy the space between stimulus and response. I open its full richness. Eating more slowly, I notice the silken luxurience of the gravy. I mark the signature earthiness of the crimini mushrooms. The subtle sweetness of the carrots. The herbaceous beauty of chianti-soaked ribeye permeating every delicious bite. I’m present. Fully aware of my body and my actions. Fully available to the opportunity for community, connection, and intimacy promised by a meal among friends. Importantly, I’m also more attuned to my body’s signals telling me when it’s time to slow down.
A Simple Formula
Mindful living does not require ardent moralism or sage-like puritanism, despite the sanctimonious whisperings of its many new-agey advocates. This practice meets us where we are, without addition or subtraction. So come as you are, take what you please, and become a light unto yourself.
Mindfulness is also not about asceticism and deprivation. Rather, it’s about noticing and connecting fully with what actually is. Opening us up to more, not less, happiness and enjoyment. This mode of being does, however, require patience, effort, and understanding. It is a trainable skill. But where is one to start? Luckily there’s a simple guide for cultivating our awareness called the four foundations of mindfulness.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
The Satipatthana Sutta is a foundational text familiar to all sects of Buddhism. Satipatthana is an ancient Pali word for a kind of meditative technique(2). A sutta is simply an aphorism or set of teachings. Compiled more than 2,300 years ago, the text lays out The Buddha’s (Siddhartha Gautama) foundational instruction on meditation–the four foundations of mindfulness. While Buddhists did not invent mindfulness, or even meditation itself, they have done more than any other tradition to codify the ideas into a systematic series of teachings, tools, and strategies. Each teaching building upon the other in stepwise fashion.
You might be thinking, what could a more than 2,000-year-old text cobbled together by pre-modern cultists have to teach us about eating better and forming constructive habits? Actually, much more than one might initially suspect. Let’s take a look at each of the four foundations and see if we can’t make some connections to our modern daily habits. I think we’ll agree that the connections are many and clear.
1.) Awareness of the Body
How often during the day do we fully notice the experience of being in our body? Outside of our reactions to gross sensations as they happen, presumably not that often. When was the last time you took a moment, on purpose, to simply notice your body position and posture? The subtleness or heaviness of your breathing? Your action in motion? Your spatial and tactile awareness of individual parts of the body? Of course, the body is not a continuous thing. Instead it’s an agglomeration of various parts and particles. Each changing from moment to moment. Taking a second to bring full attention to this experience is, in these terms, awareness of the body(3).
Modern life, now more than ever, is filled with distraction. With devices calling upon us to click, tap, and consume every second of the day. Leaving us with very little time for self-examination and self-care. Even less to fully consider what we put onto and into our bodies. This self-analysis is a very important practice, as we tend to ignore or misinterpret the signals our body sends us. Causing us to react inappropriately and forms habits we may be unaware of.
The Breath, The Anchor. . .
Bringing awareness to the body is simple. We use the breath as our starting point. For this exercise you’ll need about 10-minutes undisturbed. Try this:
Sit comfortably with your feet firmly on the floor. You can also lay down in a comfortable, but alert position. Allow your hands to lightly fall into your lap or settle onto your knees. If lying down, lightly fold your hands below the navel. Now, not straining to do so, allow your eyes to close.
Without forcing anything, notice the weight of your body. Allow gravity to set you into position. Feel the heaviness in your sit bones and in your thighs. Take a few deep breaths. Relaxed but alert.
As you begin to relax into position, notice your muscles. Anywhere there’s some feeling. Maybe your lower back or your shoulders. Gently, again without forcing anything, try to focus on that area. Just notice the sensation.
Take another deep breath. Guide your attention to the next area of sensation. Allow it to settle there for a moment. Again, just noticing whatever is there without trying to change anything. Breath. Allowing the natural pace of the breath to run its course.
Gradually, part by part, notice as some areas of your body gradually relax and loosen and others remain tense or tight. Breath naturally, not trying to control or constrain anything.
Slowly, very gently, shift your attention to the area just below your clavicles, at the top of your chest. Notice the subtle rhythm–chest and shoulders rising as your breath in. Falling as you breath out.
As you breath you might get lost in thought. That’s okay. Let’s leave a breadcrumb trail so you can find your way back to the breath. Silently, begin to repeat:
As you breath in, “I fill myself”
As you breath out, “I empty myself”
“I fill myself. . . “
“I empty myself. . .”
Let the words attach themselves to every breath. Guiding all of your attention toward respiration. Fully aware of the rising. Fully aware of the falling.
Let your attention come to rest at the area just around and inside your nostrils. Notice the air lightly passing in and around your nostrils and down into your lungs. Allow any distracting thoughts or feelings to flow. Simply notice them and allow them to pass. Gently refocus your attention on the breath. Use the words as your guide. Your Breadcrumb trail.
As you breath in, “I fill myself”
As you breath out, “I empty myself”
Take one last deep breath. When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes.
Noticing and Returning
We find that this is a simple practice, although not easy. Distracting thoughts that move us further and further away from the breath are bound to crop up. This is good. This is natural. It is unavoidable. When this happens, simply notice and refocus your attention on the breath. Mindfulness is in the noticing. Mindfulness is in the returning. As we maintain our focus, the boundary between body and breath begins to dissolve. We give the full length of the breath our total awareness. The body and breath are one. This is called “Awareness of the body within the body”.
When we follow our breath in this way, it tends to stabilize us. It allows us to be more open and receptive to the signals our body might be sending us. Developing this kind of awareness will help us view these signals for what they are: passing, impermanent phenomena. While we can’t directly control the phenomena themselves, we can shape our actions. The next time you’re confronted with feelings of anger or anxiety, pay attention to the body’s physiological response. Observe the rapidness, raggedness, or shallowness of the breath. Remember that much of our behavior is directly tied to this physical stimulus. We can use this practice to identify those times when anger, anxiety, boredom, or depression beget mindless cravings driving our desire to eat.
2.) Awareness of Sensation
We are reactionary creatures, often driven by desire and aversion. Craving and clinging to pleasant sensations. Desperately trying to avoid unpleasant sensations. For good reason: pleasant things are, well, pleasant. And unpleasant things could lead to sickness, Injury, and death. The problem is that much of the time we mistake what is merely unpleasant with what is truly dangerous, and we perceive as pleasant things that have some long-term negative consequences. When we allow this reactionary behavior to become habitual, bad outcomes follow. Addiction, obesity, compulsiveness, anger and violence. All too often these are driven by vicious cycles of unchecked and unconscious desire and aversion.
Pleasant, Unpleasant, or Neutral
All sensations can be divided into three categories: those that are pleasant, those that are unpleasant, and those that are neutral(4). When we are presented with pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings we should learn to observe them mindfully. This practice is concerned with our physiological sensation, not our emotional response to it. Where we feel things and what we feel. Not how we feel about what we feel. An example illustrates the subtle but important difference:
What, Not How
You’re at home alone. Bored. You head to the fridge in search of something to satisfy your unnamable craving for stimulus. You open the freezer door. A blast of frigid air tingles against your skin. You reach for a frost-ringed pint of your favorite ice cream. You open the container slowly, its fatty contents clinging stubbornly to the lid. As you take your first bite waves of cold contrast with the heat of your mouth, releasing a melty torrent of creamy sweetness. Icy tendrils trace their path to your stomach as you swallow, raising your blood sugar and releasing cascades of pleasure throughout your body. Your feelings of ease and comfort rise with each billowy bite.
Up to this point everything you’ve felt has been the body’s physiological response to pleasurable experience. The joy you feel, that “just one more bite” voice, is the emotional story that accompanies your physiological response. We often confuse our emotional response to stimulus with the cause itself. Or we associate our emotional response so closely with the physiological one that in our minds they become indistinguishable. Bad habits follow.
In observing sensation as just sensation we cultivate non-judgmental awareness of our present experience. We experience directly the impermanent nature of all sensations, be they pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Seeing sensation this way, it gradually loses its power to dictate our emotional state. According to this paradigm this is called “awareness of sensation within sensation”.
3.) Awareness of Mind
When we think of “mind” we tend to think of essence or “soul”. We might picture a little woman or man sitting behind our eyes, seeing our sights and thinking our thoughts. A continuous “self” making rational decisions on our behalf and carrying our actions based on logical intent. Science tells us this just isn’t so. Instead, in the words of Walt Whitman, we “contain multitudes.”(5) In her excellent book on habits, Good Habits, Bad Habits, Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, further sums up this idea:
[O]ur minds are composed of multiple separate but interconnected mechanisms that guide behavior.”Wendy Wood(6)
Mindfulness practitioners call individually sustained, direct, observational awareness of this fact “awareness of mind within the mind.” When we quietly observe the contents of consciousness–our thoughts and emotions–we see that mental states arise, remain for a time, and pass away in rapid succession and of their own accord. Sometimes we are able to identify internal and external conditions that drive their appearance. Other times they seem to billow up and dissipate like wisps of smoke.
Awareness, Not Suppression
When we achieve critical distance through silent observation, we learn that we don’t have to react to every thought or emotion as soon as it crops up. We are not our thoughts, so we can allow them to run their natural course free of craving, clinging, attachment, or aversion. This doesn’t mean that we should try to suppress or otherwise control our thoughts. This would be impossible and counterproductive. Take the case of the white bear.
In the 1980’s Daniel M. Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard University, and his colleagues performed an experiment showing the paradoxical effects of suppression of desire(7). Participants were told not to think of a white bear. They were then left alone in a room for five minutes and told to ring a bell every time they failed not to think of a white bear. Five times. That’s how many times, on average, each participant rang the bell. Once every minute. Immediately afterward, in the same room and within the same five minute interval, the group was instructed to think of a white bear. They rang the bell more than eight times. During this part of the experiment another set of participants given no suppressive instructions rang the bell fewer than five times. Less than the participants given suppressive instructions even in the first half of the experiment(8).
Suppression doesn’t work. In fact, it seems to make our impulses stronger. For us, as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it:
The challenge. . .is to be present for [our] experience as it is.”(9)
This is the beginning of the path to true peace and true freedom.
4.) Awareness of Mental Objects
In the totality of our experience sensations lead to thoughts, emotions, and judgments with which we come to identify. These mental formations, or mental objects, in turn form our subjective experience. Driving our actions and creating new sensations. The process repeats itself. Cause begets effect. Conditions lead to new causes(10).
Here an Object, There an Object, Everywhere an Object. . .
We tend to attach ourselves to external (or internal) objects, labeling them as sources of our pleasure and suffering. The reality is that there is no such thing as an object that has a permanent, independent self with which we can truly identify. We construct coherence from a series of mental phenomena, giving ourselves the illusion that our perceptions of reality are the same as reality itself.
We imagine that our current situation is the way things will always be. Or we imagine that if we could only change our external circumstances our internal circumstances would change also. But things are always changing. This is their nature. Allowing ourselves the critical distance to examine the totality of phenomena, just as they are, enables us to be more discerning of this fact. This is called “understanding the impermanent nature of existence.” In this way our incorrect judgments and misperceptions no longer bind us.
We have been trained to react to our mental formations by repressing them. Feelings of anger, terror, despair, and poor self-regard left unexamined and buried fester and deteriorate our health. When observed mindfully they can be transformed into insight and compassion.
With the four foundations as a starting point we can begin the processes of self-discovery and healthy habit formation that are essential to human flourishing. But habit formation requires more than mere awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. It takes proper context, repetition, and reward(11). Take my situation as a lesson. I love ice cream. I. Love. Ice cream. I love it. However, I tend to overeat it and I know that its high fat content is bad for my cholesterol. Diabetes and hypertension run in my family. Let’s review my personal recipe for change.
To curb my habit I determined to remove all ice cream from my house. . .by eating it. I kid. But, seriously, I ate all of it. I then found a healthier replacement that was just as satisfying as ice cream, frozen yogurt. This is important. The replacement has to be at least as satisfying as the original thing or you’ll just go back to it. Next I established that the only time I would eat frozen yogurt was after a one-hour yoga class with my wife, Chef Ngoc, on a night we’ve dubbed “FroYoga” night. These steps make up the context for my new habit.
Repetition and Reward
Next we decided that every Tuesday at 7pm we would have “FroYoga” night together, regardless of whatever else might be going on–repetition. The reward? First, I get to spend time with my best friend. Second, my body and mind feel refreshed and alert after our one-hour yoga session. Third, frozen yogurt smothered in my favorite toppings is extremely satisfying. I don’t miss having ice cream in my freezer and now I have an enjoyable couple’s activity to look forward to each week. Rather than mindlessly gorging on an entire pint of ice cream and feeling like crap after, I savor each little bite and remain fully present in the company of my partner. Mindful and aware. Very satisfying.
The Serious Pursuit of Pleasure
We’ve discussed quite a bit about the basic formulation of mindfulness and touched on how it can aid in healthy habit formation. I’ve loved these teachings for their practicality and simplicity of structure. These past years I’ve used them to guide and organize my own life, and I hope that you will find them just as beneficial. There’s another thinker to whom I look when contemplating the course of my life, and when considering the people whose company I choose to share: Epicurus, Ancient Greek Philosopher and founder of Epicureanism.
Four Foundations Plus Four Remedies. . .
For me, the philosophy of Epicurus represents the mindful life in deeply humanistic terms. His words, aimed at understanding and alleviating life’s anxieties, are as down to earth as they are enlightening. As we’ve learned, much of what pushes us to fall back on habits is anxiety and stress in one form or another(12). Since Epicurean philosophy is primarily concerned with eliminating anxiety and increasing our openness to what is truly pleasurable, I thought it appropriate for us to discuss it in some detail.
The core teachings of Epicurean philosophy are presented in The Four Remedies, or the Tetrapharmakos, expressed as four simple maxims. It is through these maxims that Epicurus urges us to think naturalistically as a way to quell our tendency toward irrational fear and anxiety. Even today, some 2,300 years later, these maxims undergird our modern scientific rationalism. They’ve given me comfort in times of uncertainty. Here they are summarized in my own terms, according to my own understanding.
The Tetrapharmakos of Epicurus
1.) God is Nothing to Fear
When we renounce superstition and abandon the notion that life is guided by divine hands we’re able to appreciate the genuine beauty of existence as it is. Not as we would like it to be. Because life is devoid of intrinsic meaning or pre-determined fates, we are free to create and choose our own. We’re content that the storm that knocks out our power or destroys our possessions is not an act of divine retribution, but an act of nature. Water vapor and atmospheric pressure. Knowing this, what have we to fear? It’s futile to worry over natural phenomena which we cannot control, so our anxiety is unwarranted.
2.) Death is Nothing to Worry About
We are limited beings trapped upon a grain of sand suspended in limitless darkness. Our lives, finite and fragile, are as lights in the void, born of a star and flickering for only a moment in time. Does life’s impermanence render its brightness less beautiful? No. We are here now–breathing, bleeding, and loving. If we make the most of ourselves in the present the future is no concern to us. Since when we die we have lived, and living we have not died, what is there to worry over? This is all there is of you, so use it well.
3.) It Is Easy to Acquire the Good Things In Life
Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”Epicurus
Meditate on this for a moment. Simple foods abate our hunger. Simple water quenches our thirst. Fine wines and fancy foods are nice to have, but their richness lies in moderation. Friendship, companionship, and community are all available to us if we seek them out. Power, wealth, and fame on the other hand are vain and empty desires which lead to endless craving, clinging, and attachment. They are perpetual, possessing no natural limit, and are therefore distressing to us. Once we have them we must have something else. But when we appreciate what nature proffers, joy follows.
4.) It Is Easy to Endure the Terrible Things
Acute unpleasantness is sharp but short-lived. Chronic unpleasantness is long-lived but dull. For sickness there is medicine. Loneliness, friendship. For anger and hatred, compassion and love. Life’s vicissitudes are unavoidable. All phenomena, even the worst of them, pass in time.
Mindful Eating. . .Epicurean Style
The third point in the Tetrapharmakos is of special importance to us as we contemplate mindful eating.
It is easy to acquire the good things in life.”
This precept encourages us to show gratitude for the simple things nature provides us, and to appreciate the nourishment we receive from life’s bounty (however small our portion). At the same time we’re cautioned against a purely utilitarian, calories in/ calories out view of eating. Instead, we should take time to savor life’s simple indulgences and delight in the company of friends and family. To do so responsibly requires tranquility through the cultivation of proper perspective. Bringing us full circle to the four foundations of mindfulness.
Life is often unfair, difficult, and painful. Mindfulness will not change that. Through mindfulness we can change ourselves for the better. Because, as Epicurus teaches us, nothing is written in stone by the disembodied hand of destiny, we can change the course of things too. The systems we’ve inherited, this attitude of insatiable consumption, can be influenced in an entirely different direction. One of personal happiness that flows from abundance in simplicity. Through mindfulness, the present is open to us.
The Struggle and the Stream
I’ll admit mindfulness is a struggle for me. I am beset daily by some such anger, anxiety, sadness, unmet expectation, or unexpected event which urges me to eat poorly and speak or act without thinking. Because I am imperfect I often fail to live up to my own values. But perfection is not the point. In those moments of weakness, and in each failure, there is opportunity.
So too for you in your struggles, whatever they may be, will opportunities lie. Nirvana, Ataraxia, eudaimonia. . .take heed that these are ideals to aspire to, not attainments to be unlocked. Flawless mindfulness? Perfect equanimity? Unsurpassed bliss? Not possible. The eye of the storm is large and our vessels are easily tossed in its winds. Therefore we take effort itself, the winding stream strewn with all its obstacles, as the goal. I wish you safe travels.
- Understanding how our emotional energy influences our relationship to food helps us to make better choices.
- Mindfulness is a gateway to deeper understanding of ourselves. Non-judgmental self-examination helps us to make clearer distinctions between our physiological vs. emotional responses to stimulus.
- Establishing mindful eating habits requires that we build a proper context, create easy opportunity for repetition, and make the experience rewarding in some way.
- An Epicurean mindset can help to alleviate anxieties that lead to poor health outcomes. When we learn to appreciate abundance in simplicity we make better discernments between those things that are necessary, nice to have, and not worth our time.
- Bad habits are influenced by both negative and positive emotions.
- Mindfulness is not about being robotic, it’s about slowing down.
- Mindfulness is a trainable skill rooted in four foundations.
- Choices(Presence + Gratitude) = Personal Happiness
- Mindfulness will not make life’s problems disappear. Perfection isn’t the point.
Notes – Limited Bibliography
- 1.To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy. In: First Things First: To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy. New York: Free Press: Simon & Schuster; 2003. p. 59.
- 2.Bhikkhu T. Maha-satipatthana Sutta: The Great Frames of Reference [Internet]. Access to Insight. 2008 [cited 2020 May 4]. Available from: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.than.html
- 3.Stop and Look: The Present Moment. In: Savor. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins; 2010. p. 70–1.
- 4.The Development of Mindfulness. In: Manual of Insight. 1st ed. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications; 2016. p. 149–50.
- 5.Whitman W. Leaves of Grass. 1st ed. MetroBooks; 2001.
- 6.Persistence and Change. In: Good Habits, Bad Habits. 1st ed. New York: Fararr, Straus and Giroux; 2019. p. 8–9.
- 7.Danile M. W. Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1987;53(1):5–14.
- 8.Persistence and Change. In: Good Habits, Bad Habits. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2019. p. 16–7.
- 9.Kabat-Zinn J. Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–And Your Life. 1st ed. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc.; 2012. 26 p.
- 10.Bhikkhu T. Maha-nidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse [Internet]. Access to Insight. 1997 [cited 2020 May 4]. Available from: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.15.0.than.html
- 11.Wood W. The Three Bases of Habit Formation. In: Good Habits, Bad Habits. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2019. p. 83–158.
- 12.Wood W. Habit in Personality and Social Psychology. Pers Soc Psychol Rev [Internet]. 2017 Jul 24;389–403. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1088868317720362