I haven’t paused to taste and savor my food for at least 1.2 million minutes since 1975. That is a sobering stretch of tasteless time, which I calculated last week. I hope to use that number as a prod to remind myself to slow down and pay full attention to what I’m eating, instead of being distracted by the dream carnival inside of my mind.
When mindfulness—focused attention on the present moment—is applied to eating, there is evidence that it can reduce portion sizes and help people with diabetes to control blood sugar. Mindfulness is also an essential tool in the quest to understand the self and reality, my Buddhist teachers tell me. I believe they’re right, but an equally important motivation for focused attention is the singular delight of feta cheese omelets with scallions rolling around the tongue.
Having returned to a regular meditation practice after letting it lapse for too long, I’ve eaten much more mindfully during the past year. It’s still insanely difficult, though. Why? No one had to tell our ancestors, “Idiots! Take the time to enjoy the gristle on that fire-roasted bear meat! Harry’s guarding the cave and there’s no need to worry about the snarling hyenas or anything else!” Yet I need to remind myself to remember to taste my food.
My diabetes might have something to do with that, according to Megrette Fletcher, nutritionist, certified diabetes educator and co-founder of the Center for Mindful Eating. “People with diabetes tend to think about food in terms of numbers and nutrients. They forget to get pleasure from it. They forget to ask themselves, `What does this piece of toast taste like’?” she told me. She tries to help her diabetic patients to “restore pleasure to the eating experience.”
Apparently, I’m not the only person with a useless pancreas who needs that help. In an email response to an earlier version of this post, Karol Breitholle, who has had Type 1 diabetes since 1961, noted: “I can relate. My husband is amazed that I look at food as a means of survival, not enjoyment.”
Of course, in an age that swarms with distractions, mindful eating is hard for everyone, not just insulin junkies like Karol and me. If anyone should know how to eat mindfully, it is my friend Richard Kahn, a longtime practitioner of Zen Buddhist meditation and a nutritionist with a PhD who helps kids with eating disorders. He recently told me, “I tried to eat lunch without reading a magazine, but I literally watched my arm move across the table and grab the magazine as if it had a mind of its own. “
That was reassuring, because here is what happened to me at breakfast a week ago:
After measuring and injecting insulin, I instinctively turned to my laptop before I remembered to taste my Scottish oatmeal, string cheese, and coffee with milk and stevia. Although I tried to focus on eating, the dream carnival went on for most of the meal: a recurring snippet of “Stage Fright” by The Band, a call to a client that I needed to make, bouts of primal anguish about nothing in particular, a fierce compulsion to look at email and texts, the happy realization that pitchers and catchers would be reporting to spring training soon, and what must have been thirty other topics, including ideas and phrases for a blog post on how to eat mindfully.
Meditation has provided me with one key to mindfulness, which is to not make judgments on the thoughts and emotions that well up. Just note them (and feel them) and turn back to the designated object of attention (food, breath, the feel of the ground while walking, etc.).
Nevertheless, I think I was aware of my food for no more than 5 out of the 20 minutes spent on breakfast (that includes the seconds when there were only flickers of awareness of what I was eating, while I primarily focused on something else). I paused to mindfully taste and relish the food for, at most, one minute. Just one minute! 5% of the time! And that result is great news, because I am tasting and relishing more often lately. So I would estimate that, over the years, I have paid full attention to the food in my mouth for, at most, 2.5% of the time devoted to meals.
When I realized that, I took out a calculator and tried to assess how much I’d neglected one of life’s essential pleasures. I discounted my first 20 years, as who knows what was happening in my addled, whacked-out brain back then? That left 39 adult years of eating and drinking. Figuring that I took an average of 30 minutes per meal, here is what I calculated: 39 (years) X 365 (days) x 3 (meals) x 30 (minutes) x .975 (dream carnivals) = 1, 249, 121 minutes when I ignored my food.
That probably gives my taste buds and psyche much more credit than they deserve, as there was no way to measure the time spent unmindfully chomping on snacks between meals.
Some very wise advice about depression from Andrew Solomon also applies to eating. In The Noonday Demon, he tells us: “The most important thing to remember about depression is this: you do not get the time back. It is not tacked on at the end of your life to make up for the disaster years…The minutes that are ticking by as you experience the illness are minutes you will not know again.”
The minutes that are ticking by while you disregard that garlic roasted summer squash between your teeth are minutes you will not know again.
Some advice from a man still learning, after six decades, to be here now: don’t make excuses for ignoring what you’re chewing and sipping (and don’t beat yourself up when you do ignore it). Although I still need to work on all of this, I am enjoying food more than ever before. That’s a delicious feeling. Trust me: if I can manage to do that, you can too. I just wish I had done it for a million other minutes that were available to me, if I’d only noticed.
This is revised from a post originally published on 2/21/2014, entitled “Why Mindful Eating is So Hard and Why You Should Do it Anyway.”