From the moment you put a piece of bread in your mouth you are part of the world. Who grew the wheat? Who made the bread? Where did it come from? You are in relationship with all who brought it to the table. We are least separate and most in common when we eat and drink. – Thomas Merton, Poet, Social Activist, Spiritual Mystic
Whether we live to eat or eat to live, many human beings on this planet consume an enormous amount of food in a lifetime.
Some estimates for the weight of food an American consumes over a lifetime range between 30 to 50 tons, which is equivalent to the weight of about six to ten elephants.
Most people realize the vast supply of solids and liquids we ingest on an ongoing basis is part of an interconnected and intricate web of life that keeps our bodies functioning and gets us through our active lives. It’s a high-energy, highly connected and highly creative process whether we take the time to notice or not.
And if we are fortunate to have an abundance to eat, how often do we pause to think about the air, the land mass and the waters of Earth that provide us food? Do we consider the many plants and animals that help bring us our wide range of edible foodstuffs? How much thought is given to the farmers who nourish the soil, plant the seeds, pull the weeds, water and harvest the crops? And what about the many individuals who package, distribute, market and sell the foods – not to mention the cooks who prepare them?
Becoming a conscientious and conscious eater isn’t always the first thing on one’s mind when the appetite strikes. The human focus quickly zeroes in on the stomach where feelings of hunger reside, followed by the mouth for sensations of texture, flavor and temperature.
Conscious eating versus non-conscious eating isn’t necessarily a simple concept to digest, but it is important to think about when devouring food.
Contemporary spiritual teacher and bestselling author Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now, A New Earth) has helped define what it means to lead a more conscious, aware and awake life. He encourages us to achieve this by becoming more observant and conscious of what we are literally doing moment-by-moment.
For example, when washing dishes Tolle says to focus one’s attention on the task and to observe aspects such as looking at the soapsuds and feeling the temperature of the water. Tolle directs us to observe sensations such as how it feels to scrape the food away and push the sponge over a dish and to notice the fragrance of the dish soap. This he says brings forth the power of “right now” by paying attention to what is currently happening versus daydreaming about the past or future.
Non-conscious eating would be eating food on autopilot with little recognition of what you are eating and little regard for what it is or how the morsels got to your mouth. Terms like “wolfing it down,” “gobbling it up,” “stuffing your face,” come to mind. Non-conscious eating would also include thinking that foods appear before us magically out of the blue with little recognition of everything that has been expended to create the food and bring it to one’s plate.
A good example of non-conscious eating would be devouring popcorn in a movie theater. Here’s how it might happen. You are watching a riveting movie and fully engrossed in the images and sounds. In the process of becoming “lost” in the movie, you may have become unaware of yourself, the people around you, or even the fact that you are popping popcorn into your mouth. At the end of the movie you look down at the empty box of popcorn and wonder, “Hey, who ate my popcorn?”
You are unconsciously eating popcorn.
Conscious eating would mean becoming more aware of the popcorn as well as the process of consuming it. Here’s how it might play out. You look at the box of popcorn sitting on your lap as you sit in the movie theater. You look at the various kernels of corn as well as their color, size and shape. You smell the popcorn and feel the weight of the box. You think about the popcorn and remember that at one time each kernel was a part of many kernels on an ear of corn. You wonder about the farm where it was grown and the farm’s locale. You wonder if the corn was grow organically or conventionally and if the farmer had a tough time with it during its growth. You wonder who harvested the corn and who turned it into the product of popcorn. You think about who packed it and how it was shipped. You might even wonder about the person who scooped it into your movie theater popcorn box. Naturally, you are aware of its taste and the sensations in your mouth and stomach.
Your five senses plus your awareness of the food and the eating of your food are on high alert. This is conscious eating and is a form of saying grace or having gratitude for the food you are consuming.
Sustainable food expert and bestselling author Michael Pollan (Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma) says that consuming food is one of the most profound ways humans engage with the natural world and with the other species we share this planet with. Pollan says that one of the traditional uses of food has been to remind us of our dependence on nature. He adds that when people say grace they are giving thanks to God as well as thanking the creatures that gave their lives and the land that brought forth abundance.
Due to their close connection with the land, many farmers have a special regard for the food they eat. A few years ago Boulderite Elaine Andrews and her husband, Rich Andrews, moved from their suburban home to a farm on the outskirts of Boulder County. They formed a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm and now grow a wide range of organic foods. Elaine says that she appreciates her food now in a different way and that many mornings she enjoys eating breakfast and watching the sunrise across her fields from her kitchen window.
Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh, from an essay he wrote titled Mindful Eating, says that “Mindful eating is very pleasant. We sit beautifully. We are aware of the people that are sitting around us. We are aware of the food on our plates. This is a deep practice. Each morsel of food is an ambassador from the cosmos.”