Can you remember how your breakfast tasted this morning? I mean how it REALLY tasted: the texture, colour, flavour, aroma. What about the sound in your mouth as you chewed or maybe even slurped it? Meals and eating have, like so many other things, become something to fit in around work, children, friends, social media, TV; the list goes on…
Life can often be a rush and food has to fit around this. When was the last time you just sat in silence, even in the company of others, and truly focussed on the food in front of you? It’s a different – and tasty way – to explore meditation.
There are sometimes glimpses of this when, during an especially delicious dinner, everyone is chatting away until the food turns up. Silence then falls upon the table as people start to eat. The food is so good that it halts conversation. You really want to savour what you’re putting in your mouth.
This is a good starting point for tasting meditation, but it does go much further. It’s about really paying attention to the food in front of you. It can also be about considering and respecting the effort that has gone into putting that food on the plate, from the farmer who has grown it through to the hands of the person – and that may even be you – who has prepared it.
I’ve tried various forms of meditation over the years; I was fortunate enough to go to a forward-thinking Catholic school where as teenagers we experienced some guided meditation in Religious Education classes. I also practised tai chi and qi qong for quite some time, and more recently yoga, both of which integrate different types of meditation. Qi gong standing meditation is one of the more difficult but rewarding types of meditation. It involves holding a pose for many minutes and is only manageable by relaxing into it. It just looks like you’re standing still, but anyone that has ever done this type of meditation will tell you how challenging, and sometimes painful, it is. But it also gives an amazing sense of lightness on completion.
Even with all of this, I had a real wake up call a couple of years’ ago when I was hit by the very unpleasant effects of severe Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
It was an embarrassing and frustrating situation. I was in so much discomfort and occasionally full blown pain. I couldn’t fit into my trousers as my stomach was so swollen, which then left me feeling very upset. My mouth was regularly filled with ulcers and my tongue swelled up so that I wasn’t able to talk or eat. Some weekends I could barely get out of bed, and I experienced night after night of not being able to sleep, which was slowly sending me crazy. This is not really something I wanted to discuss with people, so my husband tried to understand as best he could and support me through things.
This was all a bit of a disaster for someone like me who loves food and, if I’m honest, I felt a bit hard done by. I’ve always eaten well and healthily – I don’t eat meat as it doesn’t make me feel good, I eat mostly organic and I eat with the seasons. I cook from scratch and avoid too much refined sugar. I’d known for a long time that certain things didn’t agree with my stomach, so I’d learned to avoid them, but things spiralled out of control.
At the worst points, I was pretty much only able to eat root vegetables and a bit of white rice. Everything else seemed to mess with my insides. It was frustrating trying to eat out and I hated having to explain what I couldn’t eat when we went to friends’ places for dinner. I also ended up on medication in the middle of it, which, while it relieved some of the symptoms, left me even more drowsy and numbed my mind. I felt like I was losing myself.
Fortunately as part of my treatment I was given access to a series of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) sessions. It helped me recognise the many different factors over the previous years which had come to a head and why my body was saying a firm, no. I needed to pause and reassess things; my diet, my career, my relationships. One of the things that we discussed almost from the beginning of the sessions was the importance of mindfulness meditation. I’d dabbled in this on and off, and had done a mindfulness retreat day so I knew the basics of what it was about. What became really clear was the need for me to stop dabbling and make it a habit.
My normal morning now starts with 10 minutes of mindful meditation. I mostly use guided YouTube meditations, though sometimes I just sit or lie in silence and let things flow. It has taken me a while to make it a genuine habit and some weeks I don’t do this every day. Fortunately one of the things I also learned from CBT was accepting that I can’t be perfect all the time and that was okay. I do now notice if I skip a couple of days and that in itself is enough to send me back into my practice.
But what’s all this preamble about? Well, one of the biggest areas I’ve addressed is not just what I eat, but how I eat. Fortunately I’m pretty much back to a normal healthy diet, bar a few things like eating too much wheat or chickpeas which I’ve known for a long time don’t agree with me. Actually, not eating chickpeas is the hardest one for me as I absolutely love them, but unfortunately my stomach doesn’t.
However what I’ve become much better at is really listening to my body and understanding what it needs to eat, as this changes across the week and year. Having the blip of 12 to 18 months of such a restricted diet has also made me really appreciate how delicious a varied diet is. It also helped me be really creative with how to add excitement and flavour to dishes which were sometimes otherwise similar.
It also gave me a renewed pleasure in really tasting food. It’s like the times that you eat when you are extremely hungry; food is delicious in a way that it isn’t when you eat because you think you should, rather than genuinely being hungry.
This is really the basis for the meditation and tasting workshops I run. It’s about taking the time to pause and taste, and to use all your senses in fostering a sense of calm and awareness. It’s about rediscovering the pleasure of small moments and how these can help you feel more connected.
I therefore wanted to share a few principles that you can adopt in your own eating and cooking. It really is worth taking the time to be mindful in this area of your life. Food and cooking is essential to our wellbeing, which is why you also find mindful eating practices in Zen traditions. But it really shouldn’t be a chore; it’s something that should be pleasurable. Find out what works for you and your lifestyle, and even if it’s just for 30 seconds to start with, I really encourage you to stop and pay attention to what is in front of you.
A 5 step focus on taste and flavour
Creating silence around food and eating helps you concentrate on what’s on your plate. This can be a hard one, with everything going on around us and the inherently social nature of eating. However even if just for one snack in a day or for 30 seconds before you eat your meal, quiet yourself and your mind. Put away your mobile, turn off your laptop or TV, and just give yourself some space to appreciate the meal ahead. It’s very hard to concentrate with lots of noise and other technology distractions within eye or earshot, so just remove them when you’re able to.
2. Using other senses to taste
What we taste involves much more than what happens when we put something in our mouths. What we see, hear and feel all has an impact. And it’s not just the food – even the weight of our cutlery can affect our taste. However for the purposes of focus, it’s also about using different senses to really appreciate the food in front of you.
Before you put anything in your mouth, spend 30 seconds to 1 minute really looking at what you’re about to eat. What do you observe about the colour and texture? What about the sound? Is it sizzling or crackling? If appropriate, you may also want to pick a bit up and feel it with your fingers. Try this with a dried apricot and you may discover a whole new side of a seemingly simple food.
3. Smell & taste
What we often call taste is really a combination of smell and taste. And we even have 2 types of smell. There’s orthonasal, which is the regular type that happens when we breathe in through our nose and is how we detect odours. But there’s also retronasal smell, which is what happens when we chew and breathe out, and this is how we detect aromas. That’s why when you have a blocked up nose food doesn’t ‘taste’ of much.
Our tongue looks after detecting actual taste, like sweet and salty, but the full wack of flavours is down to our smell. Take the time to breathe in the aromas of your food, and maybe have a gentle sniff of what’s on the end of your fork before you put it in your mouth.
4. Chew slowly
Everything seems to go at hyper speed these days. My husband is well known for breathing in his food. I’d really encourage you to slow down and eat small mouthfuls. Consider the different textures of the food as it breaks down, and the different aromas and flavours being released. You may even decide to let something melt, rather than chewing. This all comes back to retronasal smell, and allowing enough time and awareness to detect aromas of food.
I’ve been amazed at the new sensations and features of food I’ve discovered when doing this in my workshops. If you’re looking for a great food to test this on, start with some good quality chocolate (check out my chocolate mindfulness podcast).
5. Completely finish what’s in your mouth
How often do you shovel food on to your fork before you’ve finished what you’re already eating? Are you already thinking 1, 2, maybe even 3 bites ahead? Try putting down your cutlery between mouthfuls and don’t pick it up until you’ve completely finished your mouthful. Really take the time to enjoy what’s in your mouth at that moment and the flavours it leaves behind. As a side benefit, your digestion will thank you for it and you should hopefully be more aware of when you are genuinely full.
Some of these things may all feel a little strange to start with, but once you do them a few times it feels more natural. You may want to incorporate just one or two elements, or try everything at a meal. You might discover whole new textures in food you’ve been eating for years. You may even find foods you thought you liked, particularly processed ones, actually don’t taste all that great. Others may suddenly reveal a whole new layer of excitement.
Slowing down will help you truly appreciate flavour and may even be a launch pad to wanting to explore, and cook, more. Without stopping to taste you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to discover and understand interesting flavours and ingredients that can make food delicious. So next time you go to grab that apple or bar of chocolate, pause for a few moments before you pop it in your mouth, and chew slowly with focus.