I’m usually a lunch-packing pro, but it took me a long time last week to pack my own bag lunch for a mindful eating seminar offered by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. I have a reputation as a lightning-fast eater: I figured this class would help me learn how to take a deep breath, slow down and pay attention to my food.
I’d been tipped off that it would be a good idea to pack food items that I could easily hold, smell and examine.
“You might not want to bring a pasta salad,” my source suggested with a gentle chuckle, reminding me of the raisin-eating exercise practiced in many mindfulness meditation classes. So I carefully selected grapes, almonds and dried mangos, plus a low-mess cheese sandwich. This would be the perfect mindful lunch, I figured.
The seminar, held in the meditation room at the University of Minnesota’s Mayo Memorial Building, was led by Jean Haley, LICSW, a mindfulness meditation teacher and therapist who has taught classes at the Center for Spirituality and Healing for a decade.
Haley came to mindfulness meditation in the second half of her life. In the late 1990s, she took a meditation course at St. Paul-based Clouds in Water Zen Center. For Haley, who had built a taxing career in higher education, the experience of bringing awareness to her breath, and then later to her thoughts, feelings and actions, was transformative.
“I was working what felt 80 hours a week,” she said. “I worked all the time. I was completely burned out. I realized that if I didn’t make a change I was going to get sick. It was like a flash of insight. I knew I had to do something. I remember getting out of bed in the middle of the night and thinking, ‘I need to make this change. I need to do it sooner rather than later.’ ”
Not long after that middle-of-the-night realization, Haley quit her job.
“As a result of my meditation practice, I realized that the work I was doing was not what I wanted to do any more. So I got a master’s degree in social work and started on a different career path. I was 55.”
Though the class was open to everyone, last week’s seminar was attended by a group of seven women of different ages. They sat in chairs arranged in a circle in the quiet meditation room, their lunches waiting nearby.
Haley said that was pretty typical. Her mindful eating workshops are generally popular with women — for good reason.
“As a therapist and as a woman I see the suffering that exists around food and how women often don’t have a joyful relationship with it,” she said. “When women are eating, they often do all sorts of things to distract themselves, things that take away from what should be a really enjoyable, wonderful thing.”
Haley explained that slowing down and allowing oneself to really appreciate food can be a healing experience for those who struggle with disordered eating.
“The Emily Program and some other programs in the Twin Cities incorporate mindfulness in their work with patients,” she said. “There is significant research that shows mindful eating can be helpful. It gets at all the shame messages we tell ourselves about our bodies and the food we put into them.”
Haley talked about different kinds of hungers, like mouth hunger, or the hunger for specific textures or flavors; stomach hunger, which can be conditioned by certain triggers or times of day; cellular or body hunger, which are cravings tied to actual physical needs like protein (“Most of us lose track of this sort of hunger as we age,” Haley said); mind hunger, which are the thoughts we have about food; and heart hunger, which is a yearning for intimacy or connections with other beings that cannot be satisfied with food.
All this talk about hunger got some participants’ stomachs rumbling. But it still wasn’t time to open up our lunches.
Haley talked to the class about recognizing the different types of hunger and how gaining greater awareness of the triggers that compel us to eat can help build a healthier relationship with food.
Participants talked about what brought them to the seminar and what they hoped to gain from their participation. I talked about my high-speed approach to eating and how I thought it might be good to learn how to take a deep breath and slow down during mealtimes.
Haley said that it is her goal to show people how a mindful approach to eating can bring a new awareness to something we do many times a day, often without thinking.
“If I can help people to connect to a little bit of that, to slow down and gain greater awareness, that’s a good thing,” she said. “Eating, nourishing ourselves, is something we all have to do. We all have to eat. Mindfulness makes eating pleasurable and something we can connect to our lives.”
It’s important not to dive blindly into a meal, Haley said. She encouraged participants to pause before eating and think about the sources of our food.
“Part of mindful eating is to reflect on the connection between what you’re eating to the universe, the soil, the sun, the rain, the people who planted the seeds and the people who harvested them,” she said. “There is a whole universe in what we’re eating.”
This pause may naturally lead to a moment of thankfulness, Haley said. “You can also reflect with gratitude on being connected to all the people whose labor brought this food to you.” This gratitude doesn’t always have to take the shape of a prayer, she added: “It’s a spiritual practice as well as a secular one.”
When it was finally time to eat our lunch, it actually felt anticlimactic. I was expecting a full-on mindfulness raisin moment, but instead, though Haley asked us to smell and really look at our food before eating it, we weren’t expected to pick it up and savor it for endless moments. No one got her hands dirty. Other people were even eating pasta salad.
I was a little disappointed, because I had packed my lunch so carefully. But still, the experience of being guided to truly savor a meal — even a cold, hand-packed one — was eye opening. And doing it in the presence of others helped build a feeling of community.
Later, Haley told me that this workshop is just a starter course, that she always uses the raisin exercise when she teaches a multisession mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) seminar. Last week’s two-hour seminar wasn’t long enough to include time with raisins.
“Mindful eating is part of the basic mindfulness stress reduction class I teach,” Haley said. “In the first class, you pass out raisins and I show people how to eat them mindfully. For many, that’s an enormous opening, an ‘A-ha’ moment.”
While my two hours spent pondering mindful eating didn’t exactly produce a powerful a-ha moment, it did get me thinking about the way I eat. I told myself that I would try to bring new awareness to my usually quiet, solitary free-lancer’s lunches.
Trying to bring a mindful approach to my evening meals — usually busy, conversation-filled dinners with family — would be a different story. When we spoke after class, I asked Haley, “Is it practical to think that I could truly slow down and savor my food in the middle of a busy family meal?”
Her answer was open and flexible. Like a yoga instructor, she made it all look easy.
“If you are eating in a group of people, you can occasionally remember, ‘I’m tasting this food. This is what I’m experiencing,” she said. “You can think, ‘I’m noticing the people around me. I am participating, but I am also paying attention to my own food.’ You can have moments of mindfulness if you choose to. It’s a choice. It’s all an experiment.”