“Just a small piece…”
“A little taste won’t hurt…”
That’s all it takes.
The door has opened. Gooey cake hits lips. The next bite is anticipated before the first bite is swallowed. Seconds later, we’re licking chocolate remnants from tin and fingertips, too enraptured to have bothered with a plate.
What happened? The realization sets in. Smeared frosting remains as evidence, like blood-stained hands. The cake is gone.
Binge-eating happens in a fury. Like any addiction, sugar taps the gluttonous reward centre of the brain, making resistance futile.
On occasion, over-indulging is nothing to fret about. The body is amazingly adaptive. It will care for and, much to our chagrin, store the extra calories. We’ll use them later when exercising or running errands. Eventually, the scale will recalibrate and body weight will normalize.
But what if this over-indulgence happens more often than not? What if regret is more commonly felt than pleasure?
Aside from trained competitive eaters who’ve monetized overstretched stomachs, the majority of binge-eating sufferers seek a cure. They wish for a meal without anxiety. They care about their health, managing their weight and enjoying delicious food without the fear of spiralling out of control. They deserve this.
So, what is to be done when, time and time again, willpower fails?
Pour a cup of tea
Let’s compare scenes: A small door leads to a clean, sparsely filled room. One must bend to enter, showing humility. The few decorations present are intently chosen and perhaps include a seasonal flower.
A geisha approaches, poised and in formal attire. Each movement is calculated as she prepares the tea, bringing one’s attention to the sounds, sights and smells: the scratch of a bamboo whisk, the delicate bowl’s design, the steaming matcha.
Her purpose is to serve with heart. When ready, the cup is presented to the guests. Sips are taken and gratitude is expressed as the bowl is shared.
What I’ve briefly described is the ritualized, highly refined Japanese Tea Ceremony. Rooted in Chinese Zen philosophy, a full-length formal event can lasts four hours. Guests are encouraged to soak in the moment, understanding that once they pass it, they can never return. The time has passed.
Though both episodes started with good intent, the cake fiasco was a whirlwind while the tea ceremony was an experience. The difference was the hot buzzword of the decade: mindfulness.
Before brushing it off as a concept for granola-chewing, Birkenstock-wearing, New Age hippies, consider that mindfulness has been around for thousands of years. The therapeutic approach encourages the acknowledgement and acceptance of present emotions to ease anxieties about future events that have not yet occurred. Recently, some savvy monks have adapted this technique to modern times.
As the rise in binge-eating diagnoses continues, so do the consequences, like obesity, eating disorders and depression.
Enter Thich Nhat Hahn and his simply titled book, How to Eat.
In his work, Hahn explains the benefits of eating mindfully: “When I eat this way, not only am I physically nourished, I am also spiritually nourished.” The meal begins before the food is served, when the eater is seated. A moment should be taken to prepare the soul for the nourishment ahead.
This is hardly just a Buddhist concept. Do the words, “God is great, God is good, God we thank you for our food,” or perhaps, “Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates various forms of sustenance,” ring a bell?
Hahn recommends that all distractions be removed and that all five senses remain intact. The first four bites hold high importance. The first bite brings joy, the second may relieve the pain of hunger, the third reminds us of the wonders of life and the fourth reminds us to be inclusive with our love. When finished, the experience gives us insight into food’s deep connection to nature, the nature that supplies our human form.
Over the years, mindful eating went from a fringe to a mainstream idea, and for good reason. Though the amount of accumulated research is small, the results are exciting. In a 2011 study, Jean Kristeller and other colleagues from Duke University demonstrated how guided mindfulness practices helped a group of participants recognize hunger-satiety cues, decrease their number of binge-eating episodes, improve their sense of self-control while eating, and experience diminished depressive symptoms.
Various psychotherapies and medications exist to treat Binge-Eating Disorder, and I by no means am claiming that recovery is possible without them.
For example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy may help sufferers regulate their harmful eating patterns by identifying triggers and improving their coping mechanisms. Anti-depressants may treat underlying issues that lead to feelings of helplessness, and therefore, abuse-by-food.
But considering that the only side effect of mindful eating practice is confiscating a few moments from a busy day, this technique certainly deserves a place in the binge-eating treatment conversation.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony is an elaborate, meticulously conducted example of mindful eating. There is more to the captivating theatrics than what meets the eye. True practitioners train for years to keep the tradition alive, and dedicate hours to perfecting the ceremony.
You likely don’t have four hours to sip tea, or maybe you don’t even like tea, but there are aspects of this ritual that can be applied to modern culture. Here are three opportunities for application that I’ve come up with (if they don’t directly relate, perhaps they’ll inspire!).
Preparing your morning brew
A 2018 survey found that 64 percent of Americans drink at least one cup of coffee each day. I fall into this category. Tea is OK, but coffee is my first love.
If your routine includes setting the pot’s timer at night, only to chug the first mug while hurrying out the door the following morning, I challenge you to change this habit. Preparing morning coffee is where the connection between the ancient tea ceremony and everyday life came to the surface for me. While observing the last droplets splash into a steaming pool of brew, I was jarred by the earthy, slightly sweet aroma of my Colombian blend.
Next, fully in-tune, I took my first highly anticipated sip. The tension in my shoulders released. I breathed more deeply. This commercial-worthy cinema moment was real life.
Everything was better after that: my egg sandwich tasted better, the workday wasn’t as daunting and even my dog was cuter while waiting for me to finish so she could do her business. All of this because I paid attention!
Did you see this one coming? Mindful eating can be practiced with any food, but I won’t tell you to suck on a raisin until it disintegrates on your tongue. Instead, choose the best, carefully crafted tiramisu or triple-chocolate lava bomb you can find, and then find a quiet corner to indulge in every … single … bite.
Again, choose wisely. This isn’t the day-old leftover slice of boxed Duncan Hines from your nephew’s birthday party. No, this is a sought-after treat. After savouring the smoothness of a properly prepared buttercream layered atop a spongy base with just the right crumble, the old boxed Swiss Rolls will become a pathetic joke.
Unlike drinking coffee, this ritual should be less frequent, but just like your dessert of choice, it’s all about quality over quantity. As Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet and philosopher said in his poem, “The Tobacco Shop,” “Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth like chocolates!”
Anything that good deserves our full attention.
Saying a prayer
Saying ‘thanks’ before indulging is like envisioning the free-throw before taking the shot. As for the prayer’s recipient, that’s not important. The act is.
Expressing gratitude for a meal transcends cultures and religions.
Expressing gratitude for a meal transcends cultures and religions. If speaking to an esoteric higher power is uncomfortable, acknowledge your puppy for being a foot-warmer as she waits under the table for scraps. The benefits are plentiful, one of which is a better overall sense of well-being.
Author and activist Anne Lamott writes, “We’re acknowledging that this food didn’t just magically appear: someone grew it, ground it, bought it, baked it.”
For argument’s sake, prayer has another underlying perk: It buys us time. Those few seconds connect our intentions with our bodies. We are given an opportunity to align our cravings with our physical hunger (in other words, the eyes can equal the size of the stomach without surpassing it).
Like any endeavour worth taking, mindfulness takes practice. Changing one’s habits rarely happens overnight. Diligently incorporating these practices into a routine may be uncomfortable at first, especially in a fast-paced world, but soon they will be the new norm, and maybe, just maybe, that chocolate cake will last another day.