Taste has a privileged place among the senses. It is a sense that we seem to be prepared to pay a lot of money to indulge. Think of how many gourmet food stores there are, how many restaurants, how many wineries, cafes and cookbooks … There is so much about modern life that is dedicated to the sense of taste.
Why does taste hold a place so close to our hearts? Part of the reason is that taste is very important for making eating such an attractive thing to do, and eating is vital for survival. Things that are so intimately linked with survival will be closely related to the brain’s pleasure centre, thus compelling us to do the things that help us to survive. If the things that help us to live — like eating and sex — were unpleasant then we would not do them, we would not survive very long and we would be very unhappy for as long as we did survive. Historically, while food was hard to get and we had to expend a lot of energy getting it, there was not much danger of eating in excess of our requirements.
Just as with most other things in life, we generally eat on automatic pilot. We rush in, stuff some food down the gullet and rush out again. We sit in front of a plate full of food, only to look down a few minutes later and notice that the plate is empty. Did we really taste any of the food in between? We might be vaguely aware that the food was hot or cold, fatty or sweet, soft or crunchy, but we generally won’t have given it much attention.
Is this a problem? Well, yes, perhaps more than we know. Firstly, we don’t get the same emotional satisfaction from the food if we are not really tasting it. Secondly, we won’t be likely to pick up the body’s satiety messages — the body telling us when it has had enough. We might be way out of tune with what our body actually needs and totally unaware of how fatty, sweet or salty the food is that we are eating. We might also be missing out on the other thing that taking time to eat offers: the chance to eat with the family, to connect and enjoy time together in conversation. Even if a family sits at the table together for a meal these days the children, and increasingly the adults, are likely to be on their mobile devices at the same time. Increasingly, the family meal either doesn’t happen at all or it is just treated as a ‘pit stop’ on the way to somewhere else. Sharing a family meal is not just about nourishing the body, it’s about the soul. Interestingly, studies suggest that, from the perspective of child and adolescent wellbeing, the most important time in the day is the evening mealtime.
In mindfulness-based weight management interventions, participants have showed significant improvement in being able to restrain excessive eating, along with decreases in weight, eating disinhibition, binge eating, depression, perceived stress, physical symptoms, negative affect, and markers of inflammation.3 People developed healthier eating and felt better as they did it. The key to changing eating patterns in a mindful way was not so much a matter of suppressing or trying to control the urge to eat, which is tiring and stressful, but rather in learning to observe the urge with non-attachment and without being controlled by it. Learning ‘urge surfing’, as it is called, takes a little practice but is useful no matter what lifestyle change we wish to implement.
Mindfully ‘urge surfing’
As you go about your day-to-day life notice the urge to eat when it arises, such as when you pass a cake shop, get home from work, open the fridge, are having the evening meal or when sitting in front of the television at night. If you catch the urge in the moment, you don’t need to suppress it, but just notice it. Perhaps you might also notice what is behind it. Is there boredom, a need for comfort, a feeling of habit or some other motivation? Just pause for a moment. Get in touch with the body. See if the body is actually thirsty or hungry. Notice if the mind starts having an internal debate with itself about being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘I want to’ or ‘I shouldn’t’. There is no need to judge what you are noticing, just stand back and observe. Connect with a slow breath or two. Then, based on what you have noticed, consciously and positively decide whether to eat. If you eat then do so with attention, taste the food and eat it slowly. If you decide not to eat, then simply engage your attention with whatever it is you decide to do.
Here is a mindfulness experiment with eating. It is a meditative exercise known as the ‘raisin exercise’ and was made famous by Jon Kabat- Zinn. The exercise is best done slowly and deliberately; particular attention will be given to the sense of taste, but all the senses will be involved. You will need sultanas, grapes or some other kind of food such as chocolate or fresh fruit. The whole exercise should go for about 5 minutes. Spend as long as you like on each part, and try to experience as fully as you can each of the senses and the act of eating the sultana. You may want to do it alone or as a family.
First, set aside anything that you think you know about this food. Simply let go of any concepts or ideas you have and, as best you can, bring a fresh, curious awareness to it, as if you were eating it for the first time. It might even help to imagine you are from another planet and have never seen this particular food before in your life.
Take the food and hold it in the palm of your hand, or between your finger and thumb. Pay attention to seeing it. Look at it carefully, as if you have never seen such a thing before. Turn it over between your fingers, exploring its texture … noticing the edges and how they catch the light … noticing its shape, and whether the light can pass through it or not. Notice the colour/s. And if any thoughts come to mind like ‘What is the point of this?’ or ‘I don’t like this food’, then just note these as thoughts and bring your awareness back to the object.
And now smell the object, taking it and holding it under your nose. Notice what happens in your mind as you do this. If you notice any associations or memories, just acknowledge these and then come back to the actual smell of the object.
And now take another look at it … consciously make the decision to, in a moment, place the object in your mouth. Tune into your body and notice what happens as you start to think about doing this. Pay particular attention to your mouth and your stomach. Notice how your body has already connected mentally with the experience of eating this object, and has already started to prepare itself physically. Perhaps you notice saliva being released. And now slowly bring the object to your mouth, noticing how your hand knows exactly where to put it, without any conscious thought. Then gently place the object in the mouth, noticing how it is ‘received’, without biting it, just explore the sensations of having it in your mouth. Perhaps notice the automatic pilot of the urge to start chewing — but just sit with this urge for a moment longer, without indulging it, perhaps learning something about how to ride it as you do so. When you are ready, very consciously and deliberately bite into the object and start to chew it. Notice the release of flavour, and see if you can tune in to where on your tongue you taste the tastes. Notice which teeth are doing the chewing. Feel the activation of the jaw muscles and tune right in to the experience of chewing. Notice the urge to swallow coming up and again just sit with this urge without immediately indulging it. Notice the automaticity of swallowing, and perhaps reflect for a moment on how often you would just eat without much conscious awareness.
Then, when you feel ready to swallow, do this with as much awareness as possible. Notice the movement of the tongue and see if you can stay in touch with the object as it moves down your throat and right down into your stomach. Become aware that the object is now becoming part of your body.
Extracted from The Mindful Home, by Dr Craig Hassed and Deirdre Hassed (Exisle Publishing 2015). Available from www.exislepublishing.com.au and wherever good books are sold. RRP $34.99.