I began to practice meditation several years ago after quitting drinking and as I was (re)starting a relationship. Since then, the effects of meditation have extended into nearly every aspect of my life: becoming more compassionate toward myself and others, becoming more patient, less reactive, and being more willing to tolerate the discomfort inherent in being human (especially when living in close proximity with another human and not using the reliable anesthesia of alcohol).
Meditation’s benefits have also extended to my relationship with food. Here’s how:
1. Meditation fosters a strong connection with our bodies
The type of meditation I practice is called Shamatha, which translates to ‘peacefully abiding.’ The object of Shamatha practice is the breath, meaning that attention is placed gently and precisely on the breath coming in and going out through the nose. The practice is not about trying to stop thinking but rather choosing where to place attention. As thoughts arise (and they always do), I choose to redirect my attention to the breath.
Consequently, my mind and my body are in the same place, as opposed to the millions of moments in which my body is in one place (always the present) and my mind is off somewhere else (in the past or future). This synchronicity fosters a receptive relationship with the body such that I am more aware of physical hunger or satiety or the physical manifestations of strong emotions. And better poised to respond to my body’s specific needs in the moment.
2. Meditation slows things down
By sitting quietly and placing attention on the breath, meditation slows things down. This is due to meditation’s physiologic effects on the body and brain and to the development of patience and resilience. As a result, meditation introduces space between our rapid-fire thoughts, actions, and reactions.
When it comes to food, this can mean the difference between automatic emotional eating and the ability to notice whatever distressing emotion precipitates this urge to react. With an increasing ability to notice what the body is feeling and the mind is thinking comes the ability to make skillful choices, whether that means eating or doing something else.
3. Meditation allows us to deal with the nature of reality
Many people have heard the quote “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.” Greeting card fodder aside, there is real wisdom here in the sense that the only true thing is this moment: NOW. As we develop the ability to stay in the moment, we see the nature of reality. Rather than habitually obsessing about the past or fantasizing about the future, we rest in the present moment as it unfolds.
When it comes to food and the body, this ability to deal with the nature of reality allows us to see that there is no moral difference between the carrot and the carrot cake, between the chocolate fudge sundae and the kale. That food is not the enemy and the body is not something to do battle with and try to overcome. That our bodies and minds have varied needs and desires that change with day, hour, minute, and second. We can also objectively notice without judgment when our bodies are feeling hunger or satisfaction or when we feel driven to use food for some other purpose than to nourish ourselves.
4. Meditation allows us to tolerate discomfort
Food is such an easy thing to reach for when we feel strong emotions such as anxiety, fear, sadness, or loneliness. And we are all but encouraged by the media to use food to comfort ourselves. Finding comfort in food is not a problem unless it becomes the only way to manage discomfort.
Meditation allows us to observe ourselves experiencing a variety of strong emotions and to skillfully make decisions as to whether we truly need food or some other thing. In addition, the heightened sensitivity to the body that comes along with meditation allows us to notice ourselves becoming full during an eating experience and to deal with the inevitable discomfort of bringing a pleasurable eating experience to a close.
5. Meditation is a process of remembering the wisdom you already have
More than anything, meditation has put me in touch with what I would call inner wisdom. Practicing meditation has felt like a process of remembering things I had forgotten:
- That life is about more than non-stop pleasure and always being happy
- That perhaps the greatest skill we can develop is the ability to become more comfortable with discomfort
- That there is inestimable value in the ability to sit still with ourselves without filling in every moment with smart phones, entertainment, and pop tarts
Meditation reminds us who we are: wonderful, capable, multifaceted, and imperfect.