Local experts share the latest information and resources on all things mental health.
Posted: February 10, 2014 by Carolyn Knutson LPC, LMT
Mindfulness can be described as knowing what you're doing while you're doing it. It teaches us that every moment is a fresh opportunity to know ourselves. When we have awareness of why and how we do things, we become more empowered, and when we become more empowered, great things begin to happen.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, "our notions about happiness entrap us. We forget that they are just ideas...We fail to see the opportunity for joy that is right in front of us when we are caught in a belief that happiness should take a particular form."
What I take from this is that everything we need, we already have, but habits of thought and our addictions (which come in so many forms) are keeping us from the wisdom and gift of our true potential.
Many people have a complicated relationship with food. It is required to nourish our bodies and to maintain good physical and mental health. So often, though, food is used as a diversion from our feelings, as an escape from being with ourselves in this moment, right now. It is such a human habit to look outside of ourselves for things to make us happy. And there is often harsh self-judgement when we don't live up to impossible and constricting expectations.
Our personal relationship with food can tell us a lot about ourselves. Does food bring our body, mind, and spirit into harmony? Or does it make us fearful and anxious, allowing us to be consumed in self-doubt. Some use food as a weapon against themselves...withholding it can be a means to be deprived of nourishment and, in essence, deprived of the great gift that is life. Some compulsively eat, pleading with the universe for something to fill the void. No amount of food fills the void. Food does not have to be a source of pain, or a means to punish oneself. Food can be used to heal and to celebrate the human spirit, to celebrate life and all its gifts.
Food is not only nourishment for our bodies, it is one very important way we build community and share with others. Food celebrates the inter-dependence of us all and our connection to nature. From the farmer that plants a seed of grain in the spring and harvests it in late summer, to the loaf of bread we share as a family, food shows that we are all part of one system. Some of our strongest and fondest memories are of the smell of food cooking and the food eaten during feasts and celebrations. Food is often associated with warmth, of feeling safe and protected. Most of us can remember holiday dinners, the comforting experience of walking into a house filled with the aroma of dinner deliciously in progress. These can be assurances of love, of family, and of home.
In every culture across the globe, food is one of the essential ways a community expresses its creativity, its ecosystem, its people and its identity. People use food not only to nourish themselves and their families, but also as a way to connect to the earth and to that which they view as divine. Every culture has its own way of celebrating the joy of being alive. Each changing season brings a bounty of food and festivals that celebrate the human spirit and the gifts that life has to offer us.
Sadly, many of us have lost the connection to this purpose of food and community and instead feel isolated and alone. Often we are alone with a self that we are afraid of knowing, and we crave comfort and something to fill the void. The relationship with food becomes an obsession filled with anxiety and fear. The very thing that we depend on to comfort us causes us overwhelming stress. What would we have if this "food static" didn't occupy our minds? Would we be able to discover who are and accept ourselves with compassion?
"Right now, today, could you make an unconditional relationship with yourself? Just at the height you are, the weight you are, the amount of intelligence you have, the burden of pain that you have?" —Pema Chodron
Loving-kindness is the act of having compassion for all beings. This includes oneself. The process of gentle change begins with acceptance and extending loving-kindness, not only to ourselves, but to those around us, to everything we see. It is a softening, and as we soften we will find the veil of self-criticism to slowly lift and make way for the emergence of our radiant selves.
To quote Pema Chodron again, "When we've seen ourselves completely, there's a stillness of body that is like a mountain...a thoroughly good relationship with ourselves results in being still, which doesn't mean we don't jump and dance about. It means we don't overwork, overeat, oversmoke, overseduce. In short, we begin to stop causing harm."
Nourishing and caring for our bodies is an important way to extend loving-kindness to ourselves. Our bodies are our vehicle for action and consciousness.
Breathe in.....breathe out.....This simple process is something we do continuously often without even being aware of it. Our breath is our anchor to the present, it connects us to our bodies moment to moment. Simply being aware of our breathing is one effective way of centering ourselves when we are consumed with craving, compulsion, and negative thoughts. Mindful breathing takes us back to our bodies and our power, allowing us to remember that we are something else more powerful than these distractions and destructive habits of thinking.
When feeling out of control, stop and breathe.
Breathe in through you nose, letting air not only fill your chest, but also your belly. Place one hand on your tummy, feeling it rise gently as you inhale. Breathe out through your mouth, making your exhale a letting go, the more you exhale the more you let go of thoughts, of tension, of emotions.
Putting more emphasis on the exhale, the letting go, is more relaxing to our nervous system. More emphasis on the inhale makes us more stimulated. This can also be useful (if we are sluggish or tired), but for calming anxiety the exhale is longer and with more energy, even adding a sigh if that feels comfortable for you.
Taking this time to be with oneself can be very insightful as we are curious about our thoughts, discover where we are holding tension, and notice how our breath is a mirror for the activity of the mind. When our thoughts settle down and aren't so frenzied, our breath becomes a smooth and steady stream calming our whole being.
Eating mindfully requires us to slow down, feel our breath, notice our thoughts, even to experience the meal in silence. Eating at a slower pace allows us to focus our intention on each bite of food as we chew it, to relish the textures, flavors, and aromas of the experience. Finish chewing and swallowing each bite before picking up the next one. Notice how the food travels down your esophagus to your stomach and then imagine it moving through the intestines, nourishing every cell in your body. As you notice these things, what sensations arise? What feelings are present? Do you feel pleasure, guilt, contentment, craving? Are you mindful of your breath as you eat? There are so many things in one moment to pay attention to. Is there tension in your stomach or is it relaxed and accepting of the food you are giving it? If you feel anxiety, stop and breathe, focus on softening the belly. After you are done with your plate, do you feel satisfied? Are you hungry for something that food can't soothe? Recognize this and accept it as part of yourself and your experience. Connecting with it does not mean acting on it. Notice, be curious.
Another aspect of mindful eating is to be aware of what and how much food our bodies need. Often people need help with this because of so much misinformation that has been fed to us through advertising, the diet industry, and often our families. We fall into eating habits that are often harmful when we are misinformed and don't know what we need. Some people have foods they cannot eat without binging; these foods are frightening and cause much anxiety. Often we don't have time to eat mindfully or even eat healthy foods because of our busy lifestyles. This is a symptom of our self-neglect. How we nourish ourselves physically usually coincides with how we nourish ourselves mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
A food journal may be helpful in gaining a better and more realistic understanding of how much food is being eaten and when. It also allows us to focus on what types of foods we eat and thoughts and feelings that arise while eating. We will begin to notice if we are eating out of stress or fear or loneliness and that our bodies are giving us a lot of cues if we were to pay attention. Proper nutrition can be a crucial way to stabilize mood swings and to provide better mental clarity. Another essential way to
make our bodies feel more alive and connected to us is through exercise. Simply taking a couple deep breaths and a few stretches that feel good to us can make a big impact when we are feeling tense and bound with anxiety. Walking, or any aerobic exercise, is also a wonderful way to get oxygen and
new energy moving throughout our bodies.
To care for ourselves, we must care for our whole being. Being mindful of our habits can put us on a path to health, a path to freedom, a path of power.