Friday, July 10, 2009

Mindful Eating with Dr. Jan Chozen Bays

Jan Chozen Bays is a Zen teacher in the White Plum lineage (successors of Taizan Maezumi Roshi). She is a pediatrician specializing in child abuse, and author of numerous medical articles and two books, Jizo Bodhisattva: Guardian of Children, Travelers and Other Voyagers and Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering A Healthy and Joyful Relat.... She and her husband, Hogen Bays, serve as co-abbots of Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon.

Chozen writes:

Mindful eating is not reading about mindful eating. It is not reading while eating. It is doing the practice of mindful eating. Mindful eating is paying full attention to the events of the internal and external environment, without criticism or judgement, while eating and drinking. Because we are so used to multitasking and to going unconscious while we eat, it is difficult at first to pay full attention to what is happening, say, in the mouth, in a completely continuous manner.

Just like any other form of meditation, mindful eating involves bringing the mind’s attention to the sensations of eating, then discovering that the mind has wandered off. We find that we are eating while opening our e-mail or while fantasizing about the weekend. We notice this and once again bring the mind back to real time, to the actual sensations of eating. We practice this over and over, until it becomes a wholesome habit.

You might start modestly by undertaking a week or a month of mindful eating. Here are some suggested exercises.

One important note. Please take on these practices with a sense of curiosity and good humor. Mindful eating is a meditation and an adventure (not a test). It can open a fascinating world that is hiding, quite literally, right under our noses.


This assessment is the foundation of mindful eating and will serve you the rest of the week. At least three times today, as you begin eating, practice assessing the seven hungers.

You begin with Stomach Hunger. How hungry is the stomach? Is it completely empty or partially full? How much food does the stomach want you to eat? Now turn to Body or Cellular Hunger. This is more subtle. If your cells could talk, what would they ask you to eat? Citrus? Starch? Soup? Protein? See if you can get any information about what the body is asking you to eat.

Then turn to Eye Hunger. Look at the food, taking it in with the eyes. Look at colors, shapes and textures, the play of light and dark. Next you assess Nose Hunger, by inhaling the aromas of the food a few times, as if assessing a fine wine. Then comes Mouth Hunger. Put a bite in the mouth and really savor it, fully aware of changing flavors and textures. Chew slowly, returning the mind’s attention, again and again, to the mouth.

Now we turn to Mind Hunger. What is the mind telling you about eating? See if you can catch the stream of thoughts about eating, perhaps about what you should or should not eat based upon the latest research on foods. Lastly we turn to Heart Hunger. How does the heart feel? Is there any emotional satisfaction in eating this meal? Are difficult feelings softened by eating? Or perhaps difficult emotions are created by eating.

After you’ve eaten some amount, turn your attention to Stomach Hunger again. How full is the stomach? One quarter, half, or already full?

Please practice assessing the Seven Hungers, Eye, Nose, Mouth, Stomach, Body/Cells, Mind and Heart, several times today. If you continue to do this practice at the start of each meal during this week, you’ll become skilled, and you’ll only need to pause for a few seconds.


You’re learning to pause before eating to assess the seven hungers. Now try deliberately pausing several times during a meal. You’re practicing a more relaxed, civilized way of eating, as in France, where lunch can take up to two hours. You could try pausing when you are one quarter done, one half, three quarters and finished with the meal. When you pause, turn the mind’s attention to the stomach. How full is it? When you pause, relax the body. Take three deep, slow breaths. Do this again at the end of the meal.


As you eat and pause to assess how full you are, stop when you reach four fifths full. Pause and take a drink of liquid, a fair amount of water, juice or tea.

You could say to yourself (as many Asians do), “The first four fifths were for me. The next fifth is for the doctor.” Try deliberately leaving (or taking home in a doggy bag) the remainder of the food, to eat tomorrow or give to a homeless person.

If you find that you are full but intend to eat more anyway, say out loud, “I’m completely full but I’m going to eat this anyway.”


Now we’re progressing to the advanced levels of pausing practice.

When you’ve eaten one bite of food, deliberately put down the fork (or spoon, or chopsticks, or sandwich or cookie) and turn your full attention to what is occurring in your mouth. Close your eyes if it helps you focus better on changing flavors and textures in the mouth. Only when that one bite is thoroughly chewed and swallowed do you pick up the utensil or item of food and take another bite.


In Japan it is very rude to walk and eat or drink. Today you will carry this a bit further and undertake the task of not eating or drinking when you are doing anything else. This means sitting down and giving “respect” both to the particular food or drink you are taking in and to the sacred and intimate act of taking the bodies of other living beings into your body. When we are mindful, eating is communion, a thrice daily honoring of the interdependence of all life.

Practically speaking, this means not eating or drinking while walking, driving, riding on a bus, reading, working on the computer, watching TV, listening to music or iPods, or even talking. When eating, just eat. “How will I converse with my family?” you ask? First, you can tell your friends and family that you are trying mindful eating and ask their support. They may want to try it, too. Next, you can practice alternating: eat, then do something else. Talk for a while without eating, then stop and eat one bite, tasting it fully. After you swallow, you can talk again. Read a page in your book or answer one e-mail, then stop and eat a bite or two with attention. Repeat as needed.


Today you will be both guest and host. You will give yourself the extra attention you would give a guest at a meal. Keep this awareness as you approach eating or drinking, even making and serving a cup of coffee or tea. “How would I prepare this if the Dalai Lama suddenly dropped in? “ You can substitute any other honored guest, your guru, Jesus or Michelle Obama.

First you play the host. It could be as simple as using a nicer cup for tea and setting it down before your self with extra care. Then you play the guest, drinking it with appreciation. It could be putting a saucer under the tea and adding a cookie or two. It could be spreading out a napkin and laying your chips out in a nice pattern at lunch. Appreciate the pattern before you start munching. At dinner you might put out a place mat and some flowers and light a candle. Be creative. Just remember, each time you eat or drink, you are taking care of a special guest.


Each time you sit down to eat, please pick one item of food or drink and spend a few moments looking into where it came from and who brought it to you. It’s like running a video backwards. Use your imagination and keep asking, “ . . and before that, who held this?”

For example, if you are going to eat a piece of bread, you imagine the person who put the bread on your table, then back to the person who bought the bread at the store, the store clerk who rang it up at the checkout stand, the clerk who put the price on the loaf, another clerk who stocked the bread shelves, the driver of the delivery truck, and the people who baked and packaged the bread.

You continue to ask, “ . . . and before that?” You see the wheat fields, the farmer, the cows, chickens, sugar cane, all the workers on the farms, and so on. You can add in all the non-human beings who helped bring this bread to you, the earthworms, the pollenizing bees, the soil bacteria and fungus, and the millions of tiny yeast that helped the dough to rise.

As you imagine all the beings whose life energy contributed to bringing you this meal, you can silently say something like, “To all those beings who brought me this food, known and unknown, I thank you. May you be free from anxiety and fear. May you be at ease. May you become enlightened.”


I’ve saved two of my favorite exercises for the last. For this exercise you will use your non-dominant hand for eating.

Thus, if you are right handed, you will use the fork and spoon with your left hand.

And if you are usually left handed for eating you will use your right hand.

You may have to watch to see which hand you usually use for picking up glasses and mugs, and then switch.

If you want a real challenge, use chopsticks with the non-dominant hand!

This can be a hard task to remember. The dominant hand is quite bossy and likes to take over.

You could write a note “NON-DOMINANT HAND” and put it where you usually eat.

You could put something on your hand like a piece of tape, or a band aid, or a rubber band on your wrist to help you remember.

Have fun!


Today you will be paying attention to the tongue as you eat and drink. Here are some questions to answer.

How does the tongue get food off the spoon or fork and into your mouth? Does the tongue go under the spoon/fork or on top?

How does the tongue help get liquid into the mouth? How does it shape itself?
If you have trouble seeing these things, slow the tongue’s movements way down.

How does the tongue help with chewing? IF you have trouble seeing this, try chewing without moving the tongue. Then slowly let the tongue start its usual movements.

What is the tongue’s role in swallowing?

This is one of my favorite mindful eating exercise. I’ve been doing it for years and I still make discoveries.

This is our last task, since no new tasks are posted on the weekends.* Thank you very much for all your thoughtful comments.

I would like to save them for potential use in a second mindful eating book. I will disguise your names, of course.

If anyone does not want me to use their insights, please let me know.


At the end of the week, you can pick a few mindful eating practices to continue exploring.

You could try some of the other exercises in the Mindful Eating book.

You could form a mindful eating support group, meeting once a week to share what you learned from your week of attentive eating.

You could join The Center for Mindful Eating. See:

Whatever you do, please have a good time with mindful eating. Enjoy your meal!


Here are some suggestions:

(1) If you’d like to continue doing mindful eating exercises, you can repeat the exercises for day one through nine again.

You can take up each task for an entire week, instead of just a day.

Always start meals by assessing the Seven Hungers and take portions and eat accordingly.

Once you become 4/5th full, leave the rest. You can have it tomorrow when you are hungry again or compost it.

(2) You can read Mindful Eating and do the exercises on the CD in the back of the book.

(3) Some people have started mindful eating support or practice groups.
They meet once a week and report in on last week’s task, then take on a new task as “homework.”

This is an ongoing practice, one that continues to unfold and educate us about our body/heart and mind.

Remember: Mindfulness is the best seasoning, for your food and for your whole life.

Palms together in gratitude for this life and the opportunity to practice together,

Jan Chozen Bays