Sunday, November 14, 2010


Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life
By Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung
 HarperOne, $25.99 cloth
ISBN: 978-0-06-169769-2

Of all the world religions, Buddhism is unique in that it is both a philosophy and a religion. One can choose to follow the philosophy without adopting the faith. With that in mind, Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh and his student, Dr. Lilian Cheung have written a book that is of interest to westerners of all religious stripes who find themselves battling obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other medical conditions associated with an unhealthy lifestyle. Hanh and Cheung focus on how Eastern philosophical principles can be applied to mindful eating and a mindful life, creating a plan that veers away from a prescribed diet, and centers on the psychology and science of food choices, as well as the possible root causes of obesity. They call their plan Mindful Living, and it contains three strands: inEating, inMoving, and inBreathing. The in refers to living “in the moment,” and according to Hanh, that is the central philosophy of Buddhist tradition that people must adopt to change their lives.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a founder of Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery in the Dordogne region of France. He has written more than one hundred books on Buddhist philosophy, and is considered one of the foremost authors on Eastern thought and culture. Dr. Lilian Cheung is a lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health and the director of Health Promotion and Communication.

Their book is a structured, thorough examination of the current crisis in the West regarding obesity and related medical conditions, and the way Buddhist thought might be crucial to solving the unhealthy practices of so many people.

Part 1 discusses the Buddhist view of eating and weight control. The writers tell us that the central tenet of Buddhism can be applied to many areas of western life without the need to be a Buddhist. “To be mindful of something, we need to learn to be fully present for an instant and look deeply into that something.” The “something,” in this case, is eating. “Dealing with our overweight,” they continue, “or with any of our life’s difficulties…is not a battle to be fought. Instead, we must learn how to make friends with our hardships and challenges. They are there to help us; they are natural opportunities for deeper understanding and transformation, bringing us more joy and peace as we learn to work with them. With mindfulness practice, we gain insight into the roots of our difficulties.”

From there, the authors take us through the eating of an apple. Mindful eating of that apple, however, is a bit more intense than most people might think. “Most of the time,” they write, “we are eating on autopilot, eating on the run, eating our worries or anxieties from the day’s demands, anticipations, irritations, and ‘to do’ lists.” This leads to mindless eating. We stuff down the food without savoring the taste. Usually, we do this in front of the television, at our desks at work, or while rushing through traffic to get to appointments and t-ball games. Hanh and Cheung want us to slow down. They want us to smell the apple, appreciate the color, the texture, and finally, the taste. Eating this way becomes a sensual experience to be savored, not rushed through to get the consummation over and done.

To fight against this head-long rush into stuffing our faces, Hanh and Cheung suggest we must live in the moment. When emotions flood our psyche, we should not condemn them, but embrace them and try to understand their origins. “We must acknowledge and accept,” they write, “that we are embarrassed, angry, and filled with despair.”

People overeat, make bad food choices, and disregard their general health for a variety of reasons. Stress, of course, plays a major role. The writers tell us that “We need to compassionately realize that those problems are not separate from us: they are our own body, feelings, and mind, which are interconnected with everything else in our world.” They hit on this theme of the interconnectedness of all things frequently throughout the book. Poor eating choices, they tell us, damage the planet, and not only impact the obese or the sick. Healthy people can be made sick by our environmentally destructive farming and livestock practices. The book does not go into as much detail as Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent nonfiction book, Eating Animals, but the implications of a red meat-based diet and lack of sustainable farming are clear.

The second part of the book is a primer on how to develop a Mindful Action Plan. Mindful Eating breaks down the basics of nutrition and food. Dr. Cheung’s medical perspective is fully present here, with a thorough biology lesson on how our food breaks down into fuel for our bodies. The plan is detailed; specific foods are defined and organized, and the writers give us clear directions how to actualize the process of better eating.

Mindful Moving is a step-by-step plan for exercise, addressing all kinds of people, including those who can jog or engage in fast-paced, cardio exercise, as well as those for whom taking a walk around the block will be a torture test. Again, the specifics are clearly explained, and the directions are concrete and easily doable.

The final chapter in this section explains the overall Mindful Living Plan, breaking the process down to the three strands: inEating, inMoving, and inBreathing; they explain how living in the moment forces one to truly engage with life.

The authors include a nifty section on meditation during ordinary, everyday activities like brushing one’s teeth, turning on and off lights, and sitting in traffic. All are quick breathing activities that return one to mindful focus on the here and now.

Part 3 concludes the book with a meditation on the Mindful World. “Our body is the whole universe,” the writers tell us, “and the whole universe is our body.” Again, there is a specific focus on the interconnectedness of all things. Healthy eating means that we care about the environment as well as what we put in our bodies. “When we are looking deeply,” they write, “the moment we take a mindful step the world changes; everything changes.”

If we are to change the epidemic of obesity in this country, and somehow reverse the steeply climbing rates of diabetes and hypertension, Americans must change their entire life philosophies. We can learn much from the East, and this teachable moment does not mean we must all become Buddhists. (Really, would that be a bad thing? A subject for another essay, I guess.)

In Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung’s writing in Savor, we learn that better living through diet, exercise, and a heartfelt change in philosophy could extend our lives. We would have more time with those we love, we would be able to appreciate another day, another sunrise, another experience in this existence.

When I asked the book store clerk where I might find this book, he kept calling it Savior. At first I was annoyed and kept insisting on the correct title. Now, I don’t have a problem with his vocabulary deficiency at all. The writers tell us to savor our food, and by connection, our lives. And in that way, they might be saving us all from an early grave. Saviors, indeed.

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