by Kathy Simpson
I stand in a 105-degree room with seven others, following the teacher’s instruction to stretch up and over while noticing the half-moon arch of my body as it leans to the right. I’ve heard these instructions countless times since I began the practice of Bikram Yoga (the original hot yoga) eight or nine years ago, but today they register in a new way. I feel the arc; indeed, I am the arc—the wholeness of its every inch, from my feet to my hips, waist and shoulders, and up through the tips of my fingers clasped high over my head. The experience is curiously exhilarating.
I’ve heard the saying, “the devil is in the details,” but my experience tells me that God lies there. I am a student of minutiae—of the discrete particulars of experience—and I’ve cultivated many intentional practices over the years so as to know life’s richness more deeply. Yoga is one of them. I love these practices, too: examining nature up close through the lens of a magnifier (how much we do not see), delighting in the birds at the feeders outside my window in winter—binoculars at the ready, watching the movement of mind in meditation, and seeking to know the subtleties of my senses by asking of experience: what it is to truly see, hear, taste, touch, smell?
While on a juice fast at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health several years ago, I experienced the sense of taste in a profound way. Our week of fasting was coming to a close, and the retreat leader led our return to solid food with an experience of mindful eating. We were served a warm, blended zucchini soup and guided to take small spoonfuls slowly and with awareness.
I don’t recall eating any food as savory as this simple soup. Its aroma was inviting and warmth soothing. As I took my first taste, I noticed subtle yet distinct flavors bursting at different places on my tongue. Swallowing, I was aware of nutrition entering my body. Taking another spoonful, I was aware of hunger or satiety, and whether it was my body or my mind that had the desire for more.
We were sipping in silence, but I wanted to exclaim, “What a symphony of sensation!” It was an experience I will never forget. I felt as though I had never really tasted food before.
Most of us eat mindlessly most of the time. Maybe we want to satisfy our hunger or quell some difficult emotion. Maybe we’re bored. Whatever the motivation, all too often we gulp our food down without thinking and in a rush to move on. But what are we missing in doing so? Perhaps the moment—and each sensory experience—holds the thing we’re looking for.
Every meal can become a simple and pleasurable way to cultivate mindfulness—and it’s so much easier than sitting in a meditative posture contending with a mind crowded by thought. If you’d like to give it a try, intentionally set aside a meal in your near future and follow these simple guidelines:
- Set the scene. Put aside your phone and turn off the TV so you can eat in silence.
- Arrange the food on the plate in a pleasing way, and take a moment to give thanks.
- Tune into the sight of your meal and its aroma.
- With each bite of food, chew slowly and notice the flavor, whether sweet, sour, salty, bitter or savory. You have taste buds on the surface of the tongue and all around the inside of your mouth. See if you can discern when they get triggered.
- Before each bite, tune into your sense of hunger or fullness. Let your awareness guide your decision to continue or stop eating, not the food remaining on your plate.
It was through my first mindful eating experience that I discovered how much of my sensory experience I had underestimated and taken for granted. In fact, our five senses are capable of delivering richness far beyond what we notice with our busy, every-day minds. What if we perceived more? How would our world open up and change? How would we open up and change? I’ve got the strong hunch that meditation and mindfulness are the tools to take us to these deeper places, and that can’t help but transform us—in the best of ways.