Mindful, but still not gravied with conviviality

An article in today’s New York Times examines yet another case of Americans taking a fundamentally sound idea — mindful eating — and driving it to extremes. Having just concluded a draft of my book with an epilogue in which I urged not only mindful eating but (especially) mindful cooking, it pains me to say this, but, seriously, people: lighten up.

The idea behind mindful eating, writes correspondent Jeff Gordiner, is to become “aware of that reflexive urge to plow through your meal like Cookie Monster on a shortbread bender” so that you can resist it:

Place a forkful of food in your mouth. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but make it something you love — let’s say it’s that first nibble from three hot, fragrant, perfectly cooked ravioli. Now comes the hard part. Put the fork down…. 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.

This seems to me perfectly good advice, as far as it goes. There is a certain common sense to the idea that people will not overeat if they enjoy what they do eat, and it’s backed by a bit of research, though research in these areas is always squishy and easily contradicted. But some of the “experts” cited in the article take mindfulness far beyond common sense. “I think the fundamental problem is that we go unconscious when we eat,” says a pediatrician and meditation teacher. But this is glib and facile. In fact, the obesity research I’ve read links Americans’ weight gain not to overeating at meals — a practice for which we tend to compensate by eating less at the next meal — but to eating between meals, or eating more meals overall. The problem, in other words, is not that we don’t eat mindfully enough at dinner but that we eat mindlessly at other times — in the car, at our desks, in front of the television. Not, in other words, that we “go unconscious when we eat,” but simply that we don’t consistently take time out from other activities for eating.

If you’re going to blame the obesity epidemic on some practice, moreover, it seems to me that you ought to demonstrate that the development of said practice coincided with the onset of the epidemic. Americans fifty or a hundred years ago did not eat mindfully, not in the serious Buddhist sense, anyway, and long before that European visitors wrote home of their horror at our manic eating habits. Charles Dickens colorfully described the scene on a canal boat in the 1840s: “Every man sits down, dull and languid; swallows his fare as if breakfasts, dinners, and suppers, were necessities of nature never to be coupled with recreation or enjoyment; and having bolted his food in gloomy silence, bolts himself in the same state.” The gentlemen, he added, never sat down until the ladies all were seated and treated them with perfect civility, yet once the feast began they “thrust the broad-bladed knives and the two-pronged forks further down their throats than I ever saw the same weapons go before, except in the hands of skilled jugglers.” Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, in The works of Charles Dickens, vol. 34 (Chapman and Hall, 1910), pp. 188 and 173.

Dickens was, like the author of today’s article, writing at least as much to entertain his audience as to edify them, and his exaggerations were no more outrageous than the image of “Cookie Monster on a shortbread bender.” The extreme practice of mindful eating, meanwhile, which Gordiner describes as “captivating and mysterious,” doesn’t strike me as necessarily any more attractive or pleasurable. Here’s the scene at a monastery:

Surrounded by a murmur of clinking forks, spoons and chopsticks, the Blue Cliff congregation, or sangha, spent the lunch hour contemplating the enjoyment of spice, crunch, saltiness, warmth, tenderness and like-minded company. Some were thinking, too, about the origins of the food: the thousands of farmers, truck drivers and laborers whose work had brought it here. As their jaws moved slowly, their faces took on expressions of deep focus. Every now and then came a pause within the pause: A chime would sound, and, according to the monastery’s custom, all would stop moving and chewing in order to breathe and explore an even deeper level of sensory awareness.

This sounds to me like a deeply self-centered meal, and I do not mean that in a good way. The scene is a monastery, of course, and one purpose of a monastery is to serve as a retreat from the world, a place to draw within oneself and be refreshed and renewed. But when the experts quoted in the article recommend that in the interest of mindfulness we eat in silence at home with our children (see the tail end of the article), we’ve crossed the line from self-awareness to self-centeredness. Not to mention that to chew eat bite of food twenty-five to thirty times sounds suspiciously like Fletcherizing, the goal of which was to sap food of its flavor, make it unappetizing, and thus deter gluttony — not mindfulness but the fetishization of blandness. Is moderation utterly dead?

There are other purposes to a meal besides personal sustenance and personal health. One of them traditionally has been conviviality and hospitality. It is possible to be mindful of and thankful for one’s food while still actively enjoying the company of others. If people are so busy that they rarely have time for dinner with their children (and according to polls, most American parents are), then it seems to me that the priority needs to be spending time together as a family, eating together — breaking bread together, a saying with connotations far richer than its literal meaning — not on achieving parallel experiences of dinner. The latter is, I expect, more easily achieved than good company in a culture used to interacting through iPhone apps, but it throws out an aspect of meals that has been central to the experience of practically every human culture that as ever existed — even, I believe, the Buddhist ones — that of eating in communion with our family, our friends, our neighbors. It is true that our society moves too fast and that we ought to slow down, but conversation is also a way to do that. We can, and should, be mindful of those with whom we share a meal — a mindfulness that deepens our appreciation of the meal as well as of our companions.

My point here is not to criticize Buddhist teachings but the ends to which they may be put and the extremes to which they may be taken. To be mindful of our food is good; to take an opportunity to slow down is good; to take time in a day to be deeply mindful of something — anything — is also good. To make monastic practice the model for dinner with friends or family is absurd and probably thoughtless. (Of course, it’s long been easy for too many American Christians to focus on their own salvation to the exclusion and detriment of their communities, so this is nothing new in American religious history, but that’s a matter for another evening.) Mindfulness means, in part, recognizing that it’s not all about you.

I wonder, too, why so many Americans are more willing to fill what they see as a hollowness in their culture by snatching an idea from a different culture rather than imbuing their own traditions with renewed meaning. Can you imagine a movement among foodies to say nonsectarian grace before meals? Can you imagine the New York Times finding three instances of such a thing and calling it a trend, as it probably did with mindful eating? Why don’t those who grew up in a Christian tradition revive that practice, do it mindfully as it’s meant to be done, and let its meaning evolve as needed? It’s possible to express gratitude without addressing it to a particular deity. One simply begins “We are thankful…” and then lists whatever one is thankful for and mindful of, which can certainly include the farmworkers. This isn’t inherently better than the way any one becomes mindful of a meal in any other tradition, but why the rush to borrow somebody else’s?

Why? Because, I think, we’re not really serious. An idea casually borrowed can just as casually be given back. The whole article reads like a report on a fad, which could as well be the hot new color of lipstick. Really changing our lives and our selves would be much harder. To report on religious practice as a fad may perhaps reflect the unseriousness of the practitioners; it certainly reflects the unseriousness of the reporter and of the publication. And, sadly, I suspect it does less than nothing at all to encourage any sort of mindfulness.

(The title of this post, by the way, is explained here.)