By Jennifer Mazzoni
Mindful eating has become a popular term in food culture recently.
There is a growing interest overall in mindfulness and how to practice it in daily life including at mealtime. Mindful eating can sometimes be associated with eating healthier or a method to deal with food cravings, but there is much more behind the term, especially when it comes to a spiritual practice.
The Venerable Thubten Chodron’s book, The Compassionate Kitchen, delves deeper than the physical nourishment food provides by also examining spirituality with mealtime practices.
Chodron’s book is an accessible and straightforward read that provides helpful insight into mindfulness and the act of eating. She takes time to describe Buddhist practices regarding meals, including preparation, the offering made prior to the meal, what to eat and how to conclude the meal. Thoughtful discussion regarding the Buddhist precepts and customs regarding food is also presented.
Chodron does not preach about becoming vegetarian or vegan, a topic I’ve seen fiercely debated in Buddhist groups online. She acknowledges that people’s diets depend on their spiritual practice, but also on health requirements, affordability and what is available or offered to them. When it comes to food, she advises avoiding harm to other sentient beings as much as possible.
Chodron believes that vegetarianism is good for the environment and protects life, but that “harping about it to others does not create harmony.” I appreciated her balance of explaining the benefits of eating vegetarian without making it a mandatory requirement to study the Dharma.
There is great detail about The Five Contemplations Chodron and her fellow monastics reflect on prior to meals, but there are also several chapters adapted for family life and for laypeople.
I found her chapter on how to introduce mindful eating to children especially helpful as I raise two young daughters. She emphasizes the importance of sharing a meal as a family at home without the interruption of electronic devices so that there can be a chance to discuss daily events and topics in real time.
Dinner can be the perfect opportunity for people to bond and communicate. Meals have a much greater power than we may give them credit. Chodron sees family meals as a way to instill ethics, build trust, and to communicate.
Children can also provide assistance with meal preparation and/or cleanup, which allows time for learning a valuable life skill and working together as a family. Even a child as young as three, such as my daughter, can help with stirring, pouring, and other meal prep tasks. It can be an enjoyable way to interact with food before mealtime without any pressure, to become familiar with the ingredients and their textures, which is beneficial for many children, including picky eaters.
Chodron explores positive motivation while eating, stating that the act of eating gives us “the possibility to be vividly alive and present, free from the three poisons of confusion, attachment, and anger.”
What I found particularly interesting is that Chodron proposed that we can pay attention to our experience whether eating quickly or slowly. Most of the mindful eating literature I have read emphasized the importance of eating slowly, but Chodron points out that depending on one’s Buddhist practice a meal may be slow or quick.
As for the poison of attachment, Chodron explains that our attachment to food can be easily replaced by gratitude toward sentient beings if we consider The Five Contemplations. We also should take the time to notice the difference between “expectations and experience.” We may expect a meal to taste a certain way based on how it looks or how it has been plated, yet it may taste dry or lack flavor and we are disappointed because of our attachment to pleasure. We tend to exaggerate the good qualities of an object when we are attached to it.
By focusing on the experience rather than the expectation, we can appreciate our meal more fully.
Reflecting on the causes and conditions of the meal is helpful, due to “the kindness and efforts of others.” I love that Chodron emphasizes kindness when it comes to meals because cooking and all that leads up to it (whether it be farming, transportation of goods, and so on) can be thought of as a labor of love. A few people work very hard to feed many. This can increase overall gratitude and appreciation of a meal, even if it’s not a favorite or to one’s liking.
People, many of whom we will never meet, took time to care for their crops, to transport produce, to sell the items, and to prepare and cook a meal. Now that I cook on a daily basis for my family, I deeply appreciate when someone else cooks for me or when I dine out because I know the work that is involved to provide a meal. I also enjoy visiting local farmer’s markets to meet and interact with the wide variety of people responsible for providing the ingredients I use when cooking.
The final portion of the book includes three perspectives on mindful eating from laypeople, including a woman who had an eating disorder and a nurse practitioner. Each section offers wisdom from their life experiences and relates to Buddhist practice. For the woman with the eating disorder, by practicing the Dharma she learned how to alter her feelings of self-esteem when it came to body image and food. She no longer bases her self-worth on how she looks or if people like her.
The nurse practitioner discusses how eating healthy can become complicated because of the meanings we associate with food and body size. She points out that people who go on a diet may end up overeating or become preoccupied with food. She emphasizes the middle path and that a balanced diet involves moderation. Research-based mindful eating habits are also provided.
I have a great interest in cooking and food, so I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to review The Compassionate Kitchen. Chodron’s book exceeded my expectations, and I consider it a valuable resource from a spiritual perspective and for its practical advice on mindful eating.
Photo: Shambhala Publications
Editor: Dana Gornall
Jennifer Mazzoni M.S. CCC-SLP, is a full-time mom, part-time Speech Language Pathologist, and she works part-time in a rehabilitation setting. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in the Chicago area. Follow her blog, Help Mama Meditate, and catch her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest!
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