Mindful Eating and Fast-Food Buddhism

"Mindful eating" has officially entered the memosphere. An article about it reached the very top of The New York Times most-emailed list this week, and two days later it's still hanging in there at number three.

What is mindful eating? The Times piece gives step-by-step instructions. "Chew slowly. Stop talking. Tune in to the texture of the pasta, the flavor of the cheese, the bright color of the sauce in the bowl, the aroma of the rising steam."

And what is the point of the exercise? For one thing, it's a kind of fast-food form of Buddhism. If you don't have time to go off to a monastery and sit in silence for a week, you can still get little tastes, here and there, of what such a retreat might be like.

And when I say little tastes, I mean little tastes. The Times story says of Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and meditation teacher:

Sometimes, even she is too busy to contemplate a chickpea. So there are days when Dr. Bays will take three mindful sips of tea, "and then, O.K., I've got to go do my work," she said. "Anybody can do that. Anywhere."

Even scarfing down a burrito in the car offers an opportunity for insight. "Mindful eating includes mindless eating," she said. " 'I am aware that I am eating and driving.' "

It may sound like I'm about to make fun of the mindful eating movement--and that last quote is certainly a tempting springboard--but instead I'm going to spring to its defense. First, though, I have to disclose something about myself.

Three times over the last nine years I've gone on one-week silent meditation retreats at a Buddhist retreat center. Seven days of no talking, no reading, no phone calls, no email, no news whatsoever from the outside world. Five and a half hours of sitting meditation each day, five and a half hours of walking walking meditation each day. And, more to the point, three meals a day.

But the term "meals" doesn't do justice to these experiences. When I got to my first meditation retreat, I didn't understand why so many people in the dining hall were eating with their eyes closed. Three days later I was just like them--eyes closed, eating in slow motion, totally absorbed in the taste and texture of foods that, a few days earlier, I would have dismissed as offputtingly wholesome and lacking in sex appeal. (None of the food was even made of dead animals!)

Now that I've established my credentials, I just want to make two points:

(1) If you dabble in mindful eating as prescribed in the Times piece, do not be under the mistaken impression that this is anything like the real thing. The level of sensual emergence in food that I reached would not have been possible without getting totally off the grid and using intense meditation to fundamentally alter my frame of mind.

(2) Do not be under the impression that this sensual indulgence is the ultimate point of the exercise. Because meditation can involve a lot of inward focus, it is sometimes belittled as egotistical or solipsistic. But the overall effect is supposed to be roughly the opposite, and that held true for me. The retreats made me way more open to other people and less judgmental of them. I felt a true kinship even with non-human animals (even non-canine non-human animals!). That this was intertwined with a much deeper sense of aesthetic appreciation--of both food and non-food items--certainly made the whole experience gratifying, but it was a paradoxically selfless kind of gratification.

The transforming effect that a silent meditation retreat can have doesn't magically last forever, though you can hang on to an appreciable part of it if you practice daily meditation and mindfulness in a disciplined fashion after the retreat is over (which is way easier said than done). So I'm not the wonderful human being I so briefly was at the end of my first meditation retreat. But I think I'm better than I was before I went on it (leaving aside the question of how high that's setting the bar).

Anyway: Yes, by all means, read the Times piece and experiment with mindful eating. But don't think that, amid the hubbub of your daily life, you're going to get more than a taste of what mindful eating can be like. And don't think that even full-fledged, mind-blowing mindful eating is more than a taste of what Buddhism can be about.

[Postscript: Judging by early commenter reaction, I've written this in a way that makes it seem like I'm denigrating everyday mindful eating, or looking down on people who haven't been on meditation retreats. I plead innocent! Here's my alibi.]