Updated: Mar 11, 2020
How food controls us, makes us feel powerless &
How to take the power back into our own hands
Have you read Part 1 of the "Your Mind and Your Food" article? It's crucially important to understand the foundation and you can read it here. If you have read the 1st part, please continue reading...
You will have a positive influence over your own self and all others who come in contact with you. You are able to use your mind, as the tool it’s meant to be. Let it work for you, not against you. Be the guide, not the guided.
Imagine a toolbox.
Maybe you have one at home. What does it contain? Maybe a hammer, a saw, some screwdrivers,
measuring tape, pliers, sandpaper, high quality scissors, etc. We all know that these things, if used correctly, can be incredibly useful and we probably
all use these on occasion.
They are useful, because we give the tools a purpose. For example:
If we want to divide a wooden board, we get a saw and saw it into two pieces.
If we want to connect two wooden boards, we take some nails and use a hammer to drive the nails through both the boards.
If we want to smooth out the edges of that wood and remove any splinters sticking out, we take out some sandpaper and sand it properly until it’s smooth.
Now, imagine the tools do their own thing all the time without anybody guiding them. Imagine them doing the things they are supposed to do. The saw would find something to saw, whether it’s your front door or your dining table, it wouldn’t matter. The hammer would hit things, so you better get out of its way fast. And you wouldn’t want sandpaper to smooth out the edges of your face, even if you are covered in pimples. When you follow your mind blindly, instead of your mind following you, it can get quite messy. Ideally you want to use the tool for a specific purpose and put it back in the toolbox, once you’re done with it.
— Our mind can contribute to either great happiness or great misery. —
Although this article is going to cover the mind in relation to your food choices and establishing more control in regard to what you want and don’t want to eat, the principles we are going to discuss can be applied to other parts of your life as well. That’s because your mind is involved in every aspect of your life: in how you see yourself, in your relationships, and in your reactions to both pleasant and unpleasant situations. Whether you get what you want, you don’t get what you want or when you get what you don’t want at all. The mind is entrenched in the way we think, both consciously and unconsciously. Our mind can contribute to either great happiness or great misery. So, when you apply it in the right way, when you are able to give it direction yourself, it’s like wearing comfortable shoes that allow you to walk on any kind of surface.
They protect your feet from sharp pebbles on a pebbly road.
They keep you from burning your feet on hot asphalt.
They keep your feet warm when walking on ice or in snow.
How does this translate into your behavior towards food?
How can you improve or change that behavior?
How does food sometimes appear to have some kind of power over you?
How to take that power back into your own hands?
Make no mistake, all that we have covered so far is leading up to this very crucial information that will greatly, if understood properly, increase your rate of success and get you in the driver’s seat more smoothly and more comfortably.
There are many factors involved in our food choices:
Although these can give us great insights into why we make certain choices, they will not pointedly address the role our mind plays in all of this, and more specifically, how we can develop deeper awareness towards our own behavior at the root level.
Practice makes perfect
If you have gained a better intellectual understanding of the impact your own mind can have in the choices you make and how you experience life, then that is wonderful!
But intellectual stimulation is not the end goal here. It is only worthwhile if it leads to something practical. Looking at a signpost all day isn’t going to let you walk into the direction it’s pointing at. Only by adding in a practical element or action, you can actually move forward. In the case of the signpost, you can only move forward if you start walking. Walking on the path gives you direct experience, which in turn will bring you better results.
In the same way:
You get better at driving, once you get behind the wheel.
You can only get better at playing football by letting your feet make contact with the ball.
You can only get better at playing the piano by placing your fingers on the piano keys.
You can only get better at something by practicing whatever it is you want to get better at.
An intellectual understanding is helpful, only if you put it into practice. If you have a good game plan before going into a match, it might be of great help and it may even help you win. But the game plan alone can’t bring you victory. It needs the practical element to become successful.
The Food Awareness Exercise
Here is where we can start our practical journey. Let’s first go through the exercise briefly and then look at it in more detail. The actual food awareness exercise will take merely a minute of your time:
Look at your food while focusing on the sensations in your mouth for about 10 seconds
Look at your food while focusing on your stomach’s sensations for 10 seconds.
Smell your food by taking a deep breath, inhaling through your nose. While inhaling, focus again on the sensations in your mouth.
Exhale, and keep your focus on the sensations in the mouth. Do this sequence one more time for a total of two breaths.
Switch your focus to your stomach’s sensations. Again, Inhaling through the nose. Also take two deep breaths here.
The first food that enters the mouth should be an amount you can comfortably swallow in one time. While chewing, focus on the sensations within the mouth until you clearly notice the swallowing reflex kick in.
Stop chewing and wait for at least a second before you swallow the food. During the pause move your awareness to the back of your mouth and throat.
As you swallow the food ‘follow’ it down as far as you can with your awareness. If you can, follow it down all the way to the stomach.
All the components of this exercise serve an important purpose. The senses need to be addressed first in respect to the role they play here.
Perhaps you noticed the exercise includes almost all of our senses: touch, sight, smell and taste, with the exception of hearing. We experience life through the senses and through our mind with its mental content. Since these senses are directly related to food and eating, they are vital objects that can help us improve our awareness and the way we react to food.
What normally happens when we see, smell or taste food.
When you see a very delectable or appetizing food, your mind reacts to that with a strong desire to consume that food. This desire or craving can influence you regarding the food choices you make and how quickly you ingest it.
On the other hand, if the food looks repulsive, your mind reacts with a strong disliking or aversion. Probably the only way you will eat that food is at gunpoint.
When you pass by some food stall and a heavenly smell enters your nostrils and caresses the ciliated lining of your nasal cavity, the increased production of saliva resulting in the arising of craving within the mind, affects your appetite as well. What also affects your appetite, albeit in an opposite manner, is a smell that remotes the aroma of unknown discharge, which leads to your mind reacting with aversion.
When you taste food that tastes as if angels are peeing liquid heaven straight into your mouth, your mind reacts with a strong urge to perhaps eat more quickly or eat more of said liquid heaven. When it tastes like demon’s excrements, the aversion with which your mind reacts might influence the speed with which the food exits the oral cavity.
Finally, the way the food feels in your mouth also influences how your mind is going to react.
Our mind reacts to pleasant things – attractive sights, delicious flavors, heavenly smells – with craving and likes to hold on to the feelings that come from these. It is not willing to let go of them without a fight. Unpleasant things on the other hand, the mind can’t let go of soon enough.
Why notice or become aware of sensations in the mouth and stomach?
When you see a delicious food, your body reacts in a certain way. You might start producing more saliva or your stomach might contract more. All these things produce physical sensations. And you can only feel your body with the aid of sensations. Without sensations you can’t feel anything. When you sit, you know you are sitting, because you feel sensations on the back of your legs, your bum and your back which are making contact with the chair. Whether you can see yourself sitting or not isn’t relevant. If somebody would blindfold you and makes you sit in a chair, you would still notice it, because you are experiencing those sensations.
It is right here where your mind comes into play more distinctively. Your mind reacts to these sensations. Not just any sensations. It reacts to ALL sensations.
What if you don’t feel any sensations?
That means you don’t have enough awareness to notice them. Let’s clarify this more as to leave out any possible confusion that may be left behind. Everybody can relate to the unpleasant itchy feeling caused by a mosquito bite.
Are you aware of how your mind reacts to the itchy sensations?
Probably you are, because there is an irresistible urge to scratch and relieve yourself of the itch.
The itch itself may be unpleasant, but a good scratch relieves you of that itch.
Not only does it relieve you of the itch, it creates pleasant sensations instead.
Since the mind’s habit pattern is to get rid of unpleasant sensations and pull in the pleasant ones, the itch and the scratch is a powerful double whammy because it’s hard to resist. These kinds of sensations are hard to ignore. Although it’s not hard to become aware of these, there is still a lack of deeper awareness, because you are blindly reacting without the deeper understanding why.
When you’re fast asleep and you are not consciously experiencing the sensations on your body, your mind still does.
One of two things happen when a mosquito bites you during your sleep:
You wake up and try to alleviate the itch by scratching.
You scratch while you are still sleeping.
In both examples your mind reacts strongly to the itchy sensations caused by our little mosquito friend. It reacts so strongly that you either wake up from them, or it activates the old and deeply ingrained habit pattern of ‘scratch that itch’, without your conscious consent.
— To become aware of these sensations and not react to them is the key to success. —
Is it a bad thing to scratch? How does this relate to food?
The act of scratching comes from your mind reacting to an unpleasant sensation. The mind does that (react) with all sensations and all things. That’s the reason why making conscious food choices can be sometimes so challenging and why we succumb to our primitive cravings and old habit patterns. To become aware of these sensations AND not react to them is the key to success.
That’s how we can change the old habit patterns of our mind. That’s what acting means. Acting is always accompanied by a deeper understanding or wisdom. And everybody, without exception, has the potential to develop in both awareness and wisdom.
We can relate this to our previous example of the mosquito and put it into practice.
The old habit pattern of the mind is to react with scratching. If you stop this reaction from occurring, it will be a big challenge at first. If you practice it regularly however, the mind will slowly feel less and less agitated over time, whenever itchy sensations arise. The mind becomes less reactive. You would not wake up so easily anymore from an itchy feeling. You would also not feel as agitated whenever a mosquito is around.
— Persistence and repetition will however make the difference. —
To change a habit pattern, repetition is key. Habits have been formed by repetition so we can’t expect to change a habit pattern at once. Persistence and repetition will however make the difference. As mentioned before, a practical element is essential, but to understand it on an intellectual level is important for two reasons:
The exercise will be performed as accurately and successfully as possible to enjoy the most benefits.
A deeper understanding will be a deciding factor in how much dedication and motivation you can develop. Long-term success depends on these.
Blindly following somebody else’s words is not beneficial to anyone. If something aligns with your own ideas or views you will more easily make use of it, but only direct experience will make you persevere and succeed in the end.
You focus on sensations, because that is what the mind reacts to on a continuous basis and what forms the basis of your behavior. Not only in regard to your food choices but also in all other aspects of your life. When becoming aware of these sensations you should therefore not blindly react to them. That means you have to try to remain objective. By not reacting and staying objective you are training your mind to do just that; become less reactive. It is of the utmost importance to understand what objectivity means in this context. This cannot be understated. If you truly want to be able to guide your own mind, you must remain objective with its reactions.
What happens after the itch sets in from a mosquito bite yet again serves as a wonderful starting point. Maybe you’ve heard the following before from others. When you withstand the urge to scratch, the itch will dissipate much more quickly than when you would frequently scratch the bite mark.
Scratching will aggravate it to such an extent, that the itch will persist sometimes for days on end. “Stop scratching”, “Resist the urge” is easier said than done. It requires a lot of will power at first, but after you have experienced the results for yourself it becomes easier because you know it actually works. What makes things more challenging is the mind reacting strongly with a craving to scratch because it doesn’t like unpleasant sensations.
With practice this will become easier though, because the mind gets used to not reacting over time and will become more accepting of the unpleasant sensations. You also realize that this is just an old habit pattern. This is what objectivity means. It means acceptance of the sensations the way they are manifesting at this moment and every other moment. In turn, this brings more balance to the mind. This acceptance or objectivity could be described as equanimity. It means to accept unpleasant sensations arising (the mosquito just bit you) and persisting for some time (the itch persists for some time) within the framework of the body (you can only feel your own body). On the other hand, it also means to accept pleasant sensations in the exact same way. To accept their coming, but to also accept their passing. This coming and going, arising and passing of the sensations is an undeniable, essential and life-changing truth if you frequently experience this by your own direct experience.
Does it sound exaggerated? Perhaps.
Is it exaggerated? Absolutely not.
Once your mind calms down, it can be used so much more efficiently and with so much more purpose. It will be calmer, allowing space for deeper joy and happiness to develop.
Sometimes confusion and misunderstanding arise based on this equanimous approach remaining objective and non-reactive. Reactive means you react mindlessly, without awareness. ‘Reacting’ with awareness is called 'acting’.
Let’s say, you take a bite of some mashed potatoes and you realize it’s burning hot. What do you do? Observe the burning until your tongue disintegrates? No, you simply spit it out.
You then reach out for some water to sooth the burn. That’s an action.
A reaction would be to spit it out and get angry about it or take the mashed potatoes and turn the nearest wall into a potato mural. This reaction is nothing more than your mind reacting to the intensely hot and unpleasant sensations. It won’t help you resolve the issue or feel better about it. Equanimity here is accepting what is and what can’t be changed. It is not indifference or passivity by any means.
— A balanced mind can resolve issues in a much more efficient manner. —
A balanced mind can resolve issues in a much more efficient manner. Balance can only be created or generated, when we remain equanimous. As you remain equanimous with the sensations in your mouth or stomach, you do nothing but observe them. Whether they are pleasant or unpleasant is completely irrelevant. Just allow them to be. Whatever sensations you may feel, observe them all equanimously. All sensations are equal, no matter what they feel like: tingling, throbbing, pulsing, tickling, itchy, painful, cold or cool, warm or hot, light or heavy and so on. The list is endless...
You don’t have to name them, find out what they are or where they come from. That would distract from the actual goal you want to obtain.
If during the food awareness exercise you notice a strong craving to eat quickly and inhale the food as if you were part of an eating contest, observe it with equanimity. You simply notice the feeling and allow the feeling to be present (unless you are actually part of an eating contest).
Every time you do, you develop your awareness and your equanimity. This will result in a more balanced mind and, over time, in more control over your food choices and the way you eat. If you notice you do succumb to this feeling or you notice you are resisting this feeling, then realize these are reactions or old habit patterns of your mind. If you have succumbed to the cravings of your mind, then also notice this with awareness and equanimity. Next time you have an opportunity to try again. Change won’t happen suddenly, but it will happen gradually as long as you keep practicing.
Let’s illustrate this with an example. Imagine a child that is used to getting sweets whenever it wants. Now imagine the parents having come to the conclusion that sweets aren’t the proper nutrition for a child and they want to limit their child's intake of sweets.
Next time their child asks for sweets, the parents are going to deny them altogether.
Guess what will happen?
The child can’t get what it wants, so its mind will react to this unpleasant situation. And because the habit pattern of getting what it wants has been formed over a long period of time, the reaction will most likely be a strong and an intense one.
Maybe the child will shout, scream and cry for half an hour.
But as long as the parents persist, with a balanced mind of course, the child will become calmer and more accepting over time and eventually adjust. Perhaps the second time the child will only scream and cry for 25 minutes. The third time, maybe only for 20 minutes. The fourth time it might not even scream but only throw an orange across the room.
Eventually the child learns to accept it. Just as the child's mind will adjust and become more balanced over time, so will yours if you are consistent in your practice. Progress is inevitable.
To sum it up:
Your mind reacts to all sensations, whether they are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
Habits are nothing more than your mind reacting to these sensations.
Not reacting to sensations starts the process of changing the old habit patterns such as cravings.
With the help of the Food Awareness Exercise:
You start to diminish cravings that affect your food choices.
You start to diminish cravings that affect the amount of food you eat.
You start to develop more calmness and patience around mealtimes.
You start training your mind to not react blindly to food stimuli.
You start to establish more control over your mind.
What if you don’t feel any sensations?
If you don’t experience any sensations, your mind is either not sensitive enough, restless or agitated. This is very common and it’s nothing to worry about. You simply keep focusing and keep developing your concentration. Just continue with the exercise as best as you can at this moment. If you feel agitated because the exercise doesn't go as you intend it, then use it as an extra opportunity to practice equanimity; Allow the feeling to be.
Why can I only feel some parts, but not others?
Since sensations are always changing, you will experience different feelings at different times. If the sensations are very subtle at some places, you may feel that there aren’t any. They may feel like ‘blind spots’. Just feel whatever you can feel at this moment. If you have a harder time feeling your stomach, place your hands on the stomach area. If that doesn’t seem to help, focus on the place where your hands make contact with your body. Over time do try to move your attention inward towards the stomach.
Should I practice before every meal?
If out of enthusiasm you want to practice before every meal, it takes a lot of motivation and will power to keep going. Your old habit pattern is to be (much) less mindful about it, so your mind will at some point resist and chances are you will give up altogether. To prevent this from happening, go slowly. Slowly means, you pick 1 meal out of the day where you have enough time. It’s generally easier if your surroundings aren’t a big source of distraction, but that depends on your concentration. It works best if you set a goal for yourself to do it at least once daily.
What if I’m surrounded by other people?
If you feel less comfortable having (too many) people around you or you find it difficult waiting while others have already started to dig in to their food, that’s totally understandable. To omit the exercise completely however is not necessary.
You have a few options:
You could cut the time in half for the looking and smelling parts.
You could leave out either the visual part or the smelling part. Whatever you choose to do, don’t remove the last part.
If you only include the taste part, you could extend it. For instance, you could apply it on several bites you take or even on every bite you take. Anything that you feel comfortable with will work but whatever you choose to do, try and do it as consistently as you can.
You could start the food awareness exercise while everyone starts eating their food and if someone asks you what you are doing, simply tell them that you are doing FAE (Food Awareness Exercise) and if they are interested in FAE, tell them that you will share the information after you have completed FAE.
You could announce to everyone that you are going to be doing FAE before everyone sits down to eat food and request not to be interrupted during FAE. Such as: "Guys gimme a minute!" or "I gotta do my thang".
Extra practicing opportunities
We all know those moments when we feel like we just want to eat something that is really bad for us. We usually justify it to ourselves by saying something like:
“But it tastes so good”
“I deserve it, because I had a rough day”
“It’s a special occasion”
“They do it, so why not me”
“If I don’t eat it, others will think this or that of me”
“I don’t really have it that often”
“I don’t feel like cooking”
”I'm so tired, I just want something quick and easy”
There can be many reasons. During these moments we are generally less aware. Therefore, these moments can serve as a great opportunity to put in some extra practice. Not only that, these moments are probably the best times to practice because of that lack of awareness. Don't be surprised if the mindfulness exercise (FAE) affects the way you experience food. You may feel that the junk food you liked so much is actually not as good as you thought it was. You may feel that food you previously regarded as dull and flavorless is actually better as you thought it was.
If you feel bad or guilty after having eaten junk food of some sort, know that this is also another old habit pattern. It’s not the core of your being, it’s not ‘you’.
We will explore this and more in upcoming blogs.
References: (1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4988401/