Editor’s Note: Below is an excerpt from Mindful Eating, a book written by Headspace’s co-founder and former monk Andy Puddicombe. If you’re like me and have ever found yourself at the bottom of a bag of chips with no idea where they all went, this excerpt might be the key to solving the mystery… and breaking the cycle, too.
Many people spend their entire lives lost in thought. A recent medical paper published by Harvard University reported that people’s minds were wandering nearly 50 percent of the time. Given that this was subjective feedback, it’s quite likely that the figure is higher than that. Take a moment to consider how much time you spend in your head, lost in thought: 20 percent of the day?; 50 per cent of the day?; 80 percent of the day? When it comes to mind-wandering, there are some important implications for eating. While it’s OK to daydream once in a while, if we’re busy gorging ourselves whilst lost in thought, unaware of how much we are eating, and sometimes even what we are eating, then it is reasonable to assume that eventually we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where we’re not entirely happy with the way we look.
It would be tempting to race ahead and start trying to apply mindfulness to eating right away. After all, if it’s mindlessness that causes us to make bad decisions, then clearly mindfulness is going to give us the awareness to make the right decisions. But there’s some important information to share with you first about practising mindfulness. Because, although it’s possible to learn mindfulness whilst eating, or during any other kind of activity for that matter, it’s in no way the easiest or most effective way of learning mindfulness. When it comes to being present, familiarity is everything, and the secret to that is doing a short 10-minute mindfulness-based meditation exercise each day, undisturbed and undistracted. At Headspace we call these meditations the Basics. It’s simple, easy-to-learn, and entirely manageable, even for those with the most demanding of lifestyles.
Oh, and in case you’re put off by the sound of meditation … you might just want to read this bit of information first. In 1994, the National Institute of Health began a research programme entitled ‘The National Weight Control Registry’ or ‘NWCR’. It was set up to investigate and identify the common characteristics of people who successfully lose weight and keep it off. According to published research on this group, the successful participants share many common behaviours. To begin with, they eat a low-calorie, low-fat diet, and have breakfast almost every day. They also have a high level of physical activity, exercising (often walking) for almost one hour a day. So far so normal. However, what may surprise you is that ‘almost everyone’ who successfully lost weight and kept it off, incorporated, and I quote, ‘a meditative element’ into their lives. This was typically to help control stress and cravings, to enhance mood, or to improve quality of sleep: all key factors in successful weight loss.
Although meditation traditions vary greatly, the one thing that can be said of pretty much all meditation techniques is that they are a subtle, yet deliberate, attempt to increase calm on the one hand and clarity on the other. Ask yourself, how much calm do you have in your life? And how much calm do you have around food? How much clarity do you have in your life? And how much clarity do you have about why you eat the way you eat? I’m assuming that you will almost certainly want to develop more of both – after all, who wouldn’t want more calm and clarity in their life? Especially if the absence of one or the other (or both) is causing you to make bad choices around food.
So, rather than think of meditation as some kind of religious journey or mystical experience (unless that’s your thing, of course), in this context it’s useful to think of meditation as a way of providing the most conducive conditions possible for learning the technique of mindfulness, and for getting some calm and clarity into your life.