04 Jun What a Mobile Phone Fast Can do for Your Weight
Mindful eating might be boring, but can you afford to skip it?
Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Mindfulness. The mere word makes me feel like crawling out of my skin and run for the woods. Despite this, I chose to spend nine days at a silent retreat in the English countryside a few weeks ago.
Trust me that I had no romantic fantasies about turning into Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love during my stay. The only reason why I booked the retreat in the first place, is because my coach is a mindfulness teacher and had recommended it to me.
I adore my coach and what attracted me to him was his incredible presence and peacefulness. I’m a strong believer in “if you want what someone’s got, you’ve got to do what they do” — so I decided to suck it up and say goodbye to civilisation for a while.
This goodbye included:
1. No talking (except a couple of times with the teachers).
2. No mobile phones or any other screens. (It was the longest time that I’ve been without a mobile phone in the fifteen years since I’ve owned one.)
3. No reading.
4. Slow walking. (Painfully slow.)
5. Avoiding eye contact and viewing the surroundings.
The days commenced with wake-up at 4 AM and silent meditation sessions running between 4.30 AM and 9.45 PM, pretty much only with eating breaks and volunteering work once a day.
A silent retreat in rural England might sound peaceful, but it was nothing but — at least not in my mind. There, all hell broke lose as soon as the silence started. I despised practically every single second of the nine days and desperately wanted it to end. Because my mental experience was pure torture: I was overwhelmed with the darkest thoughts. All of my mistakes in life, relationships I’d screwed up, embarrassing things I’d said and done.
I feel pain like this in my everyday life too, but then I can do something to comfort myself: call a friend, read a blog, watch a TV show. At this retreat, none of this was available. I had to just sit there in silence and try my best to meditate while the one painful memory after the other kept popping up in my head. I felt like the loneliest and most failed person in the world. I cried (silently, of course) and just wanted to run away from it all.
But I didn’t. I was playing with the thought of giving up, but I didn’t want to tell my coach that I hadn’t followed through. So I carried on — but with the obsession of comfort eating.
Food became my main source of consolation in my teens, and the overeating that followed had devastating effects on my life. I’ve wholeheartedly worked over the last few years to liberate myself from this destructive relationship with food. It was therefore disappointing and painful to find myself at this retreat, half a lifetime later, feeling just as vulnerable and empty as I’d been at age fifteen. So not only did I feel utter loneliness and misery, but I also felt like a failure for wanting to comfort eat.
Because indulging in food was not really on the silent retreat’s agenda. The opposite: we were practising “mindful eating” by eating slowly in silence. I became painfully aware of how I usually eat with little attention to the food — quickly, preferably while reading some gossip blog. Without my computer or phone next to me at the table at the retreat, I felt almost handicapped. And then there was my urge to eat for consolation…
So did I practice “mindfulness” by noting my feelings with curiosity and detachment without acting on them? Not really. I must admit that I had a few slices of bread, which is the pinnacle of rock’n’roll when you’re acting out at a silent retreat. I felt awful: I was both practising old behaviour and disrespecting the mindful eating policy. And although bread munching is certainly no crime, I’m terrified of going back to my binge eating days with my health in ruins.
An exception to the rule of silence was a couple of talks with the monk and his assistant, who were teaching the meditation, to make sure that we were on track. I shared my struggle with them: that I had joined the retreat because I needed mindfulness in my life, but that I felt so far from it.
The monk’s assistant was encouraging. He said that it was wonderful that at least I knew in what area I needed to improve. I wouldn’t achieve it overnight, and who knew how long it would take. But the important thing was to stick to a daily practice and keep moving in that direction.
The monk smiled and said that it was ok. If I happened to overindulge with bread yet another time, he told me to just pick myself up and start again.
On my healing journey over the years, I’ve come across the concept that it’s “when the chips are down” that you know how well you’re really doing. My silent retreat experience was a painful — but necessary — realisation that I need to up my ante to stay on track with my healthy eating. I can’t afford to rest on my laurels by being lazy or complacent when I’m feeling “fine”. I must put in the work every single day, to create the buffer that I will need on the days when I won’t be faring well.
That’s why every single day since the retreat, I’ve started my days with 40 minutes of meditation and mindful drinking of my Bulletproof Coffee. Ideally, I would eat my other meals mindfully too. But it’s more important that I’m setting a realistic goal for myself and build on that. I’m keeping myself accountable to my coach, by telling him every few weeks the status of my practice.
Here are the tips for mindful eating that the monk taught us at the silent retreat. Read and please consider the torture that I’ve been through to bring you this wisdom.
How to Eat Mindfully:
1. Give thanks for the food. Think about the labour and the journey behind the food now on your plate. Feel gratitude for being fed and nurtured, and wish the same to others.
2. No distractions. Focus only on your food. No talking, computer, mobile phone or anything else.
3. Eat slowly. Do all movements (cutting the food, moving it to your mouth, chewing and so on) slowly. Stay mindful through noting the activities in your head “cutting”, “chewing” etc.
4. Say goodbye to the food. This can be especially useful if you struggle with snacking. Prepare yourself mentally that the eating is over for this time, by saying goodbye to it.
I’m not sure if I feel more mindful or patient after the retreat, but at least I feel more comfortable with the way things are. And I remember something that the monk said: it might take us several lifetimes to learn something. It’s a great win simply that we’ve started learning.
I will try to find consolation in my next lifetime the next time mindfulness makes me feel like crawling out of my skin and run for the woods…