Minimalism – Food, Mindfulness & The Dalai Lama’s Cat
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about food.
I love food. I like the way it looks, tastes and smells. It has always formed a rather significant part of my life. Unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found that food, or in particular some types of food don’t love me back.
If I eat too much food with processed sugar, I end up with a ‘food hangover’ combined with pretty horrible sugar cravings to follow.
If I eat too many processed carbs, I blow up like a balloon for days. And let’s not even talk about what happens when too much sodium is consumed.
Unfortunately, I’m really fond of foods that contain lots of sugar, processed carbs and salt. They taste pretty good, at least for the first few bites. Inevitably, they are also the first foods I turn to when I’m tired, stressed, or even relaxing. Like a lot of people, food can be a form of entertainment for me and is closely linked to things I enjoy, like family celebrations and chilling out.
Over time however, it’s become pretty clear that whenever I do consume these foods, I start feeling physically bad. It’s so obvious that I cannot continue to ignore the very strong signals my body is giving me.
When I eat a more plant based diet, with small amounts of meat thrown in for protein and iron, I feel great physically. My mind is clear, my body feels light and its all great. Right up until I feel the need to eat something that will bring comfort and relaxation. Then off we go again. Food hangover.
So what drives me to constantly seek out something that is ultimately going to make me feel physically awful? How do I overcome this in the long term so that I’m not forever a slave to the next chocolate biscuit (or five) that crosses my path.
In some ways I am the product of a life of food excess, at least since I left home and controlled my own intake and finances. I have been lucky enough to never want for food, have never suffered from a scarcity of food through drought or poverty. As such, my attitude to food is almost irresponsible. It has never been a precious commodity to me as it is for so many. Excess or unconsidered consumption of anything is wholly a symptom of a life where resources far exceed those that are required for survival.
Recently I have been reading an excellent little book called the Dalai Lama’s Cat by David Michie. In the book, the cat observes the juxtaposition of the attitude to the consumption of food between the monks in a monastery at the top of a hill versus cafe patrons at the bottom. At the monastery, food is simple and the monks apply themselves to the task of eating with great mindfulness and enjoyment. In the cafe, patrons order elaborate food from an array of choices and consume it, barely noticing the eating process while absorbed in smart phones and other modern distractions. We would all aspire to be as mindful as those Tibetan monks as they contemplate a simple bowl of noodles and vegetables. In my case I fear I am much closer to a distracted and indifferent cafe patron trying to decide between a croissant and pain au chocolat and ultimately choosing both.
It has been relatively simple, although challenging, for me to clear my life of material clutter. I merely applied a philosophy I have been committed to for years in my work life to my home and possessions. I am yet to significantly apply the same mindset to my mental clutter let alone my food related clutter.
I think the answer lies in a more minimalist and mindful approach to food like the monks in the Dalai Lama’s Cat. If I begin to consider food as something that should fit in with my values and beliefs, my mindset starts to change. Why would I put anything into my body that doesn’t contribute to my priority of health? According to Buddhist teachings happiness ultimately comes from within and is not intrinsically linked to the presence of chocolate biscuits after a tough day.
Some would argue that consuming a significant number of chocolate biscuits will contribute positively to my mental health if the indulgence is occasional. In some ways I agree with this. On the other hand, I’m beginning to think that the dopamine hit that comes in the instant of consuming something we crave is no longer worth the consequences, both physical and mental, that come afterwards. The other disadvantage of self soothing with food is that it tends to be a self perpetuating issue. The occasional biscuit leads to regular biscuits which ultimately leads to a pack or two a week habit and before you know it you’ve got two packets going at once while you indulge in your favourite Netflix series.
Ultimately, I’m a little disappointed in my current attitude to food. I know what to do to give my body the best sources of nutrition. I really want to live a healthier and more mindful life when it comes to food. Only the siren call of the chocolate biscuit and the late night cheese roll is in my way. Only I can choose not to listen.