eat your way to enlightenment

the art of eating meditation

Eating meditation is among the simplest, and most profound, of mindfulness practices. I've taught it at synagogues, schools, and community centers, to children, adults, and seniors -- and everyone seems both to enjoy it right away, and to finally "get" what meditation is meant to be about: not a special feeling, not a special state, but just waking up to the miracles of ordinary life. It's a Buddhist practice, adopted by Jewish Buddhists in the West, and now widely taught among the people who gave the world the bagel & shmear. But more than almost any other practice I teach, it works for people of any or no religious background, and with a lot or no meditation experience. Admittedly, it's not quite instant enlightenment -- but it is a taste of the World to Come.

Here is a very simple eating meditation practice, adopted from my book God in Your Body. I encourage you to give it a try.

Begin by selecting a piece of food. A bit of fruit or vegetable is good, though I often teach this practice with a potato chip -- really, almost anything works. Take a moment to focus on the object before putting it in your mouth. Use the Kabbalistic map of the four worlds to help you, as described here.

1. First, on the level of the body, you might feel the food with your fingers, or just gaze at it with focused attention. What does it feel like, or look like? Allow yourself the pleasure of being entranced by this object -- most food is quite beautiful, in its detail -- as if you're giving yourself a miniature spiritual retreat, right now, at your lunch table. You might smell the food too, and notice what effects doing so has on your body.

2. "Check in" next with the heart. What desires do you have? Are you hungry? Nauseated? Thankful? Or, maybe, do you think this practice is maybe not for you? Whatever the "feeling-tone" of this experience is, just note it attentively, without judgment; stay with it for a couple of breaths, and see if it shifts, or intensifies, or ebbs.

3. On the plane of the mind, consider for a moment all of the people involved in bringing this food to you. Farmers, truck drivers, factory workers, storekeepers -- there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people whose labor created the simple occasion of this food arriving in this moment. Take a moment to consider them; imagine what they look like, how hard they are working to support themselves and their families, the economic system that creates the conditions for their labor.

4. And, on the level of the soul, consider all the conditions necessary to have created this food. The four elements of fire (sun), water, Earth, and air; the genetic information in the plants (or animals), which I see as part of the Divine wisdom (chochmah). Consider, in Thich Nhat Hanh's words, all of the aspects of the universe which "inter-are" with this food. You are holding a small storehouse of the sun's energy, and water from a cloud. Allow the poetry of this simple piece of food to be felt, in your body. It's easy to be cynical or sarcastic. It's harder, and more rewarding, to cultivate a moment of sincerity.

5. Then -- finally! -- place the food in your mouth. Before chewing and swallowing, experience the tactile sensations of the food on your tongue, the tastes, the feeling of the mouth watering. What happens to your whole body when you put the food in? Calibrate your sensitivity as finely and exquisitely as possible. See if the food tastes different in different parts of the mouth. Really give yourself a juicy, rich experience of this bit of food. You might keep your eyes closed for the duration of this practice, simply to focus your attention on what's going on in your mouth, rather than on other things.

6. Then, bite into the food and chew, trying to omit any automatic movements. When chewing, know you are chewing. You probably know the joke about "walking and chewing gum at the same time" -- this is the opposite. Do only one thing at a time. That way, the mind slows down, focuses, experiences. You are fulfilling the act of v'achalta, eating.

7. Swallow after the food has been thoroughly chewed, probably twenty or thirty times (don't bother counting; it's not a quiz). See if the flavor changes -- some food really only comes alive after ten or more chews; some disappears. Finally, when you do swallow, see how far down your esophagus you can still feel the food. Just relax in the physical sensations of eating.

8. As your tongue cleans your mouth after this mindful bite of food, try to maintain the attentiveness that you've cultivated; don't let it be automatic. We have a finite number of hours on this planet -- why not be as awake as possible for each of them?

Very simple practice -- not much Kabbalah, not many moving parts; just waking up to the body, to fulfill the injunction of v'achalta, v'savata, u'verachta (you will eat, you'll be satisfied, and you'll bless) with the same intensity our ancestors might have had. I like to think of it as the prerequisite for authentic blessing.

I invite you to make eating meditation a regular part of your day, for forty days. See what five minutes a day, or one bite a meal, does for you, even if only for the duration of those five minutes. I don't want to promise too many results, but I will say that in my years of teaching this practice, the results can be far out of proportion to the effort. Believe it or not, people report deep relaxation, delight, insights into their personalities and needs, and immense gratitude to God -- all from eating!

One time, on a meditation retreat, I was doing this practice with a single string bean, and had a sensory experience so intense and so beautiful that I was moved to tears. Obviously, it was just an ordinary string bean -- but my mind (and heart) was so exquisitely sensitive to the sensations of eating that it was a delightful experience. Michel Foucault said, "What we need to do, it seems to me, is not liberate our desires but become exquisitely sensitive to pleasure."

Meditation is just that: the process of becoming exquisitely sensitive. Then you can proceed to bless God.

- Jay Michaelson

If you'd like to have Jay teach this practice to your group or organization, click here to send him an email.

For more information on God in Your Body, click here.

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Incidentally, Eat Your Way to Enlightenment™ is a trademark of Jay Michaelson. After all, people don't live on mindful bread alone.