As we were just talking about overthinking, this seems like a great time to talk about managing the downsides of what I maintain can otherwise be a superpower. This post is for those of you who think you just can’t meditate (which is almost everyone I’ve ever talked to about the subject, especially overthinkers) and who like sweets (which is also almost everyone).
Now, I’m not a mindfulness instructor, and I don’t know whether Jon Kabat-Zinn would endorse what I’m about to suggest. In Full Catastrophe Living, see, he talks about the cravings and addictions that we use to soothe our stress in a maladaptive manner, including alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. (I happened to have a spoonful of chocolate peanut butter ice cream in my mouth as my eyes fell on that very sentence, which rather drove home the point.)
Well, I do like to have dessert every now and then. But I strive to consume sweets with intentionality, even if I wouldn’t have used that term before signing up for a mindfulness meditation course. That means that when someone puts a plate of cookies out in the break room, I try not to eat one just because they’re there.
But tell me if you’ve ever been here: you decide, with intentionality, that you’re going to have dessert, but you’re so preoccupied with some unrelated thought that you consume it mindlessly and it’s gone before you actually think to taste it.
This has definitely happened to me before, and based on the number of you who have told me that you just can’t turn off those thoughts in your head, I doubt I’m alone in this.
So this is a trick for all you people who think you can’t meditate and would also like an excuse to eat some sweets with intentionality. I hereby give you official sanction, if that’s what you need: Go buy yourself a cupcake. Or some ice cream. Or a pastry, if that’s your thing.
But here’s the catch: when you eat it, you have to focus on it.
That means you’ve got to keep your phone out of sight, turn off the TV or ignore it if you’re in a public space where one’s blaring, step away from your computer, and don’t even allow yourself a magazine or a cereal box to stare at.
Eat it slowly. Pay attention to the colors. To the textures. To the flavors. To the temperature. Keep your attention on your treat. It’s going to wander—yes, that happens to everyone, repeatedly—so when it does, just gently bring your attention back to what you’re eating.
So, was it hard? Unless you have a rare gift for this or an unusually serene life, the answer is probably yes. But did you manage to keep your attention a bit more centered than you otherwise would have?
If so, congratulations. You’ve just meditated.
Strengthening control over your mind is what meditation is all about. Your ability to do this will improve with practice, but you don’t have to totally empty your mind to claim success. And though ideally you’ll learn to do it without a cupcake crutch, there’s no harm in starting off with such a tool. Indeed, though I’ve never heard anyone at a mindfulness class or workshop expressly tell me to eat sweets, mindful eating is a real practice. I tried it a few weeks back with an entrée salad when I was at one of those fast casual restaurants by myself. I resolved not to take out my phone, nor the book I had with me. Just me, by myself, with my salad, with nothing to read or watch or observe.
Nothing, that is, except either the salad or my surroundings. And both of those can be mindfulness props, too. (The latter would be something called open awareness, which is another really good way to practice mindfulness for those who think they can’t clear their mind.) In the end, it all comes back to being in the present.
So I focused on my salad. And while I would have told you that I like this particular salad after having eaten it rather mindlessly several times before, I never had such a tasty salad as the one I ate mindfully.
This is a legitimate first step to all those benefits you hear everyone linking to mindfulness meditation. I’ll repeat: you don’t have to empty your brain of thoughts. You just practice paying attention to the present. And that’s how, by enjoying your food—whether a cupcake or a salad—you’ll be simultaneously strengthening your mind and building a sense of calm.
So how about you? Have you tried this before? I’d love to hear your thoughts, whether on this or on other practices that beginners can use to get their first experience of mindfulness.