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Mindfulness of Meals During Retreats

By Gil Fronsdal

On retreat, “mealtime is meditation time.” This little slogan speaks to the great value of practicing mindfulness during meals. The emotional and psychological nourishment of food is enhanced with mindfulness, and eating can be a significant activity for developing further mindfulness. Mindfulness of our desires, beliefs, and reactions before, during and after meals can reveal areas in which the path of freedom can open further. Careful attention to eating can also help us regulate our food intake so that overeating or undereating don’t hinder our meditation practice. And when we wait in line and eat together with others, mealtime can be a time to experience the benefits and challenges of practicing in community.

Using mealtime to continue developing a thoroughgoing mindfulness can be a powerful support for our retreat practice. The physical activity of eating can provide an engaging focus for staying mindful and concentrated. Mindfulness can be quite detailed as we stay attentive to picking up the fork, putting food on it, bringing the food into the mouth, chewing, swallowing and then picking up the next forkful. Some people find it easier to maintain undistracted mindfulness while eating than during sitting meditation. Eating mindfully in the calm and silence of a retreat can be an occasion for a heightened enjoyment of meals that encourages continuity of mindfulness. The activity of eating and the mindfulness can become mutually supportive joys.

Our relationship with food and eating is seldom simple. Retreats are an effective environment in which to become better aware of this relationship. In addition to noticing the act of eating, the silence and slowness of retreat life create opportunities to notice desires, emotions and beliefs that operate at mealtime. What are we thinking as we serve ourselves from the buffet line? What tensions or concerns appear at mealtimes? Are there multiple, perhaps conflicting, motivations around eating? Which motivations do we tend to act on? How do we respond when our preferences are not met? Can we learn something about ourselves from the amount of food we put on our plates – is it too much or not enough?

Mindfulness of meals includes the thoughts and feelings we have before and after eating. We may start thinking about an upcoming meal well before the mealtime itself.  What thoughts, feelings, and concerns fuel this thinking? We may judge ourselves after a meal for eating too much or the wrong food. What motivates us to take our eating so personally that we get upset with ourselves?  What beliefs do we have about how we are supposed to be? What beliefs bring stress and lead to self-condemnation?

Time-honored Buddhist practices associated with food can support investigating these questions and greatly enhance retreat practice. They can also be effective ways to get the most out of mindfulness of eating. Discovering how to be free in relationship to food, eating, and all that happens around meals is an important area of the Buddhist path.

Accepting What is Given
First, we can practice “accepting what is given.” This means to eat the food that is offered unless there is a health reason. Limiting oneself to the food provided simplifies eating by putting preferences and desires aside. We can also learn about the ease that can come when we are not preoccupied with food choices. We simply eat what is offered and learn how to be content. Not acting on strong preferences and desires highlights them so we can study them. That can give us a chance to better notice the beliefs and fears we have surrounding food and eating. We can learn how strongly we hold ideas around what we need to eat or not eat, about what we want and don’t want. These understandings can greatly support our practice of becoming free.

The practice of eating what is offered can include putting aside efforts to optimize one’s diet. For the days of the retreat it may not matter too much if we don’t get our exact nutritional preferences met. By not focusing on nutritional optimization, a person may discover a more relaxed attitude around food, an attitude that is sometimes foreign to the many media messages we are exposed to. Inner peace is a nutrient at least as important as food.

Eating to Support Meditation Practice
A second practice of eating is to “not eat for entertainment, distraction, pleasure-seeking or conceit.” Instead, eat in order to maintain and nourish the body to support the meditation practice on retreat. Don’t eat too much or too little. Notice when hunger has been satisfied and consider eating only a couple of bites more. Limiting oneself this way may reveal the many desires and impulses that keep us eating after we are no longer hungry. Especially interesting is to study the motivation for taking second helpings during a meal. And noticing after the fact that we have served ourselves too much food provides physical evidence of desires that can otherwise operate unnoticed.

Mindfulness of the Body    
The third practice useful on retreat is to be mindful of the body while eating. When sitting down to eat, first take the time to get centered in your chair and in your body. As you eat, stay aware of the many bodily sensations that come into play. Be mindful of what happens in your mouth as you chew. What happens in your throat and stomach when you swallow? After you have put a bite of food in your mouth, wait to fill your fork or spoon until you have chewed and swallowed. Periodically pause in your eating to explore the shifts in sensations and feelings found in the body.

Mindfulness of the body while eating leads to better choices. We can notice when we are full and so become less likely to overeat. We may also become sensitive to the subtle physical signals about what to eat–e.g. more protein, more fruit or vegetables.

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During retreats, mindfulness at mealtime includes more than attention to food and eating. Because we are eating in community, mealtime can be an important time to notice our relationships to other retreatants. Do we have a heightened concern about others during meals? Do we watch and judge others for what or how they eat? Are we worried others are watching and judging us?  Or perhaps in order to avoid all these concerns we come late to meals and eat removed from others.

Sometimes people benefit from using mealtime as a break from the meditation schedule of a retreat, which can be wise if it provides needed relaxation or rest. It can relieve tensions that may occur with the schedule of ongoing sitting and walking meditation, and allow us to feel refreshed for the next meditation session. Relaxing and enjoying the meal can be a time to appreciate the gift of the food, the work of many people in the food preparation and cleanup, and being part of a community with fellow practitioners.

Practicing in Community
When we are part of a line of people at the serving table we can learn to support the community by having a relaxed, friendly attention to others who are also serving themselves food. We can give a bit of space to the people in front of us so they don’t feel crowded or rushed. When a dish is running low, we can consider how much food to take so those after us can have some. Aware of the next person in line, we can return the serving utensil to a position where it is easiest for them to pick it up.

People new to retreats may find the silence during mealtime disconcerting. In ordinary life if we sit down at a table with other people and they are silent, don’t acknowledge our arrival, and continue to look down at their food, this would probably be considered unfriendly. It can take a few meals on one’s first silent meditation retreat to realize that fellow retreatants are not being unfriendly. Rather, as recommended, they are simply dedicated to staying mindful of their eating without being pulled into social interactions. After a few days new retreatants generally not only become comfortable with the silence and lack of social interaction at meals, they come to appreciate the relaxed way of being together with others that retreat meals provide.

Over time, bringing mindfulness to all aspects of mealtime, including our underlying beliefs, can lead to greater and greater ease around food. We can learn to simplify our desires around food so that eating can become a simple pleasure harmonious with a settled, peaceful mind, rather than a source of either excitement or agitation. We can discover the joy of renunciation in relation to food. We can learn how a healthy, mindful attitude around food can be an important component on the path of freedom.