Thursday, 30 October 2014

"Meditation" on a mug of hot chocolate

One of the participants in my online mindful eating course inspired me to try a fascinating exercise.  She described how she took a small plate of PC chocolate chip cookies (the drug of the nation*) and took the time to deliberately apply all that we've been learning in the course to eating them.  She ended up feeling full after only 2 cookies, and only ate a total of 4 cookies in the space of 40 minutes.  I was impressed.

I tried a similar approach with a cup of hot chocolate.  I had been thinking about having a hot chocolate all evening.  I do love a hot chocolate - as much as I love a chocolate chip cookie (or 100 chocolate chip cookies).  Hot chocolate can quickly transition from a rare treat to a can-a-week habit for me.

Here's what I did. I treated the mug and its contents as an object of meditation, much like you would use a candle, or a sound, or your breath. I even turned off the music, sat on my meditation cushion, and lit the candles on my little meditation table (Hey, I'm a yoga teacher.  Having such items hanging around the living room is part of the job description).

Much like any other meditation practice, a series of impressions floated in and out of my mind:
  • The swirls of bubbles in the surface of the hot chocolate mirror those in the mug pottery.  I love this mug.  I'm so glad I bought one like it for my friend.  What's the name of this potter again? I better find out when the potter's guild sale is.  Oops.  Thinking.
  • A sudden very strong and happy image of drinking cheap hot chocolate from a styrofoam cup while skating on the frozen lake in the centre of my hometown on a cold and bright blue day.
  • The liquid is surprisingly viscous.  That might be gross.
  • The heat coming from the mug is very pleasant on my hands.  Where should I place my hands for the optimal level of warmth?
  • How come this is so ridiculously sweet?  Why have I never noticed that before?
Like any other meditation practice, I also got distracted and forgot what I was doing.  I stopped for a bit I took a bunch of blurry underexposed pictures of the mug.  I looked at all the little doodads on my meditation table.  I wrote this whole blog post in my head.  I wondered about the lady who shared the idea of this exercise with me.  I thought about going to bed.

Sometimes, on very special occasions, insight or inspiration may arise during meditation-like activities. Tonight was my lucky night!  I was able to detach myself from pure desire and all the other non-stomach forms of hunger for the hot chocolate.  It was very much like when you say your name, or any other word, out loud or in your head too many times.  It stops sounding like a word and you start to question whether it really is a real word, or your name.  (C'mon.  Every kid has done that at some point, haven't they?)  It's a disconcerting experience.  The mug of hot chocolate became a neutral object that I could observe with curiosity, but I lost my interest in ingesting it.  In fact, the thought of pouring it in my mouth and swallowing it seemed faintly absurd. 

Now kids, be careful if you try this at home.  This is not for the newbie mindful eater. I'd call this an intermediate level act of liberation.  Liberation it truly was though, because I usually down a cup of hot chocolate fast enough to poach my stomach lining.  Tonight it took me a good 20 minutes to drink 3/4 of it, and I let the rest go cold because I lost my interest in it.  That has NEVER happened in my entire life.  Doing this exercise with a bowl of canned fruit cocktail or "wax" beans or sardines with entrails intact would not be nearly as powerful, if you want to ease into it.

*Fans of Michael Franti should check out this thought-provoking video he made in the days before he did yoga and got all joyful.  Hmm.  I just realized this man has been influencing my thoughts since 1992...

Friday, 24 October 2014

My life as a dog

Humans, with our enormous, complex brains, are excellent test subjects for conditioning. Conditioning is the formation of unconscious habit patterns of behaviour based on events that happen in our lives.  You know, like Pavlov's infamous dog.

I first learned about applying the concept of conditioning to PEOPLE from one of the wisest sparks of light I know, Shayla.  In my online mindful eating course we've been looking at how this concept applies to our eating habits.  It's not easy to step outside yourself and try to tease these things out.  This is also known as the "fish in the water doesn't know that it's wet" effect.

So my faithful companion (I'll call him FC to protect his identity) is giving me a paw with this exercise, since he's a dog and they know all about conditioning.

FC conditioning example: In my city many downtown businesses welcome your dog inside, and even give out treats.  There is one particular store that FC got a treat in ONCE, years ago.  We've been in many times since, but they don't give out treats anymore. And yet, every time we walk by this store, he really wants to go in.
Human application:  Many years ago, I actually enjoyed the taste of Diet Dr. Pepper, and felt great after drinking one.  I now feel sick after drinking it.  It actually makes my back hurt, which is confusing and troubling.  I know it's poison.  And yet, when I happen to encounter a Dr. Pepper opportunity in the afternoon, I really want one.  It's time to recognize that craving Dr. Pepper is pointless.

FC conditioning example: FC was afraid of having his collar put on him when I first got him.  He's a quirky guy.  So now he gets a little treat every morning when I put his collar on him.  This routine is a BIG DEAL with much excitement involved, because it precedes his morning walk. The second he hears the click of the buckle he's snuffling around looking for his cookie.  We both know it's not really about the cookie.
Human application: I've mentioned my fondness for fancy coffees before.  I get them decaf, so it's not like I have a physiological NEED for them.  I just love the routine of going into one of my favourite coffee shops, flipping through the newspaper, and enjoying the atmosphere.  It's not really about the coffee after all, but the peaceful break in my day.  I'm trying to acknowledge this and fully enjoy my fancy coffee break, instead of getting them to go.  Or, if I'm tempted to go drop almost 5 bucks at Coffeeco, maybe I just need a moment to sit in a sunny window and read the Globe and Mail.  I can do that for free at the public library if I really want to.  Their chairs are more comfy, anyway.

FC conditioning example: Since FC is part Labrador Retriever, I try to be careful with the amount of food he gets.  Sometimes he'll leave a few little kibbles behind in his bowl, and I always find this so odd.  I guess he's full.  No room for 5 kibbles.
Human application: This is an example of what it looks like to eat purely out of hunger, and to stop eating when the hunger is gone.  No conditioning - just straight up eating. Leaving food on my plate is a new phenomenon for me.

FC conditioning example: FC is showing signs of developing a new eating habit that I need to quash immediately. Recently while we have been enjoying relaxing weekend breakfasts, he has lurked past the plate of food that we have left at his nose height and large items have disappeared into his mouth.  He's like a magician.  Or a black hole.  First the full slice of peameal bacon, then the cinnamon bun.  This is new - he used to just take sneaky little licks of food when we left it at his nose height.  We are going to ensure that he does not succeed at this again, or else this will become a serious problem.
Human application: I made some very delicious homemade granola* (links to recipe below) a few weeks ago and brought a jar to work as an "emergency" snack.  I discovered that it is even more delicious with chocolate milk, and what do you know?  The next day I somehow had another snack "emergency".  I recognized the warning signs of a bad habit forming, and divested myself of the chocolate milk in the work fridge.  Looking after myself = making colleagues happy. 

FC conditioning example: FC came into my life as a 1 year old.  I don't know what his early eating experiences were.  I was determined not to have a dog that begs at the table, so I have NEVER fed him from the table, and nobody else is allowed to, either.  FC begs at the table anyway.  He is part Lab, after all.
Human application: I don't really know how all my early experiences may have shaped my beliefs and habits around food.  Some of them may go way, way back.  I might not be able to change all of them because they're deeply ingrained.  There are no skinny women in my family.  Recognize, accept, adapt.

*I found 2 new food-related blogs while searching out my granola recipe online.  These blogs are nicely written and aesthetically pleasing.  This is a popular recipe, and these two ladies explain why:

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Live to eat, or eat to live

Well, I know which camp I fall into.  My sweetheart falls into the other.  I recently asked him to do one of my mindful eating exercises with me.  Here's how it went:

Him: I'm not chewing 15 to 20 times.
Me: Just try it!  You should do it so you can notice mouth hunger.
Him:  I don't have mouth hunger - I have belly hunger!!  I want to get it down there!  Give me that!!

This is the same man who suggested that if I felt upset about eating too many brownies, I should just stop putting them in my mouth.

APPARENTLY he doesn't experience mouth hunger (ie: a craving to put food into his mouth for the sake of enjoying its flavours and textures, rather than to satisfy physical hunger).  He said he eats when his belly is hungry.  Maybe he'll chew on a blade of grass sometimes.

I couldn't let such an audacious declaration, which I assumed must be a flagrant lack of self-awareness, rest.  I thought of examples to prove him wrong.  I reminded him of his stash of "Chicago Mix" flavoured popcorn in his vehicle, or his habit of getting a McDonald's muffin (the absolute epitome of a "food-like substance") on every road-trip.  But he had clear awareness of the motivations behind eating these things.  Interestingly, he said he enjoys the surprise of the different flavours that you get with each handful of Chicago Mix.  Hmm.  Sure sounds like "mouth hunger" to me.  

Can this be eaten mindfully?
Everyone eats mindlessly sometimes.  What's interesting to me is that some people have an innate wisdom that prevents them from doing it EVERY time they eat.  There are so many possible reasons for this, some of which might go all the way back to childhood.  In my sweetheart's case, I suspect he has a diminished sense of smell.  He doesn't seem to get as much pleasure from really good food as I do, and I think it's because he can't taste the subtle flavours in it.  This can work in my favour when I'm being experimental with my cooking, but it's a little frustrating when I make something amazing.  He likes it all, unless it's too spicy.

He summed up our different approaches to food pretty succinctly: "You eat to make your mouth happy, and I do it to feed myself".

I have another friend who is much more like me - we often discuss our food-related frustrations. I don't think she'd be offended if I said she's in the "live to eat" camp too. Not long ago, after a lovely healthy lunch from a local deli, she declared: "I'm full!  I don't know if I want to eat the rest of this."

Think about that for a moment.

I laughed, because I recognized myself in her comment.  I'm full, but I keep eating anyway.  I'm full, but I'm thinking about a treat.  I'm full, but I want to polish something off.  I'm full, but I can't stop.  

She took her leftovers home.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

This is mindfulness

I typed the word "mindful" into Google.  I got 15 million results.  Mindful money, mindful families, mindful nosepicking, mindful leadership, mindful blabbidy blah blah...

And I thought the word "random" was both misused and over-used.

There was even a link to mindful meditation.  I'm curious to know what's involved in mindless meditation.  I bet it's a lot easier than the mindful kind.  I might even be an expert at it already.

There are plenty of definitions of mindful eating - a few orders of magnitude less than 15 million, but enough.  A really good set of principles of mindful eating are here.

My definition is this:

This is easy to apply to eating.  Be fully and purely in the moment of eating.  Marvel at the processes that brought the food to your plate. Appreciate the effect of the food on your senses. Don't distract yourself while eating or rush to the next moment.

And, for pete's sake, don't take a selfie with your food or tweet about it.

(Writing a mindful eating blog about the food you eat is OK.)

Thursday, 2 October 2014

It's not about weight - part 2

Don't judge my posture - I'm not
focused because I am in paradise.
Go ahead and judge my bathing suit
though - it totally deserves it.
But it kind of is. 

You see, while we were in Nicaragua last winter we spent several days at Rise Up Surf Camp, with really fit people in revealing bathing suits.  I was not a member of The Beautiful Bikini Body Club.  I had my own very exclusive club - the I Just Turned 40 So I Thought I Should Buy a Modest Two-Piece At Walmart For This Trip Club.

I had no choice but to face my feelings about my weight head-on.  I was happy I hadn't tried to willpower myself into reaching some arbitrary number before the trip.   I was not happy knowing that I was not at my healthiest or most comfortable weight.  But "I was what I was", as everyone loves to say.  So I accepted that as best I could.  My sweetheart could give a more honest appraisal of how well I did at that.

The mindful eating resources that I like (for example, this one) speak directly to weight loss, and how you shouldn't get all hung up about it.  One practitioner advocates a "weight-neutral" approach.  This concept appeals to me, but I keep stepping on the scale to see if my mindful eating practice is "working".

Now, 6 months after I started writing this post, I FINALLY get it!  Mindful eating is really just about developing a truly healthy relationship with food.  Like, say, eating something nourishing to your body and soul when you are hungry, and not eating when you are not physically hungry.  You know, obvious stuff like that, that's much easier to read about than to do.  

Weight management has so much baggage wrapped up in it - physiology, genetics, cooking habits, lifestyle, unrealistic expectations, etc. etc. etc.  Mindful eating deals with the fundamentals - what you put in your mouth, and how much you enjoy that.  

In my field of work there's a lot of talk of the 3-legged stool of sustainability.  Without one of the legs your stool just becomes a tripping hazard.  The 3-legged stool of a healthy and happy body (for me), is mindful eating, healthy food habits (like making lunch the night before and having a fridge well-stocked with vegetables), and adequate physical activity.  Mindful eating on its own probably won't have a major effect on what my body looks like, and that's fine.  But I can't make positive changes to my physical health without mindful eating.  

Uh-oh - now I have one of my least favourite Michael Jackson's songs trying to sneak into my head...