Friday, 20 May 2016

Mindful Eating at a Sicilian Carnival

Sicily is teaching me a lot about mindful eating. How to mindfully stuff my face is very important… As in every family in the world, giving and receiving food is an expression of love. The way that a person prepares food shows so much about how they feel about the people they are cooking for. The way that a person eats food, shows so much about how they feel about the people who prepared it for them, and how they feel about themselves in that moment. To refuse food in Sicily, a culture of great affection - I can't go through a single day without exchanging kisses on the cheek or hugging, or squeezing someone's hand - is to refuse their kindness, to deny their natural expression of a need to love.

One of the reasons I began teaching mindful eating was an article I read about one man's realisation about his obsession with "healthy eating". He wrote that he had diligently studied his body's needs… he had tested what he needed to eat, and what he didn't need. He was careful about the time of day that he ate, and the times he should avoid eating. He usually ate a little less than he wanted… Reading the article, I recognised many of my own techniques, and remembered countless others that I had tried, kept up or discarded over the decades since being a teenager, while I worked at improving my body and my health.

I realise now the sadness in this. The denial and restriction on my eating, treating myself like a machine that needed tuning. But at the time, this article was just a wake-up call for my way of thinking (rather than feeling) about food. The writer told the story of meeting a monk, and sharing lunch with him… the monk reminded the writer, as he left food on his plate, of how good it tasted and what a shame it was to leave it considering all the care that had gone into making it. And then while the writer felt uncomfortable with his full stomach and they were ready to leave the restaurant, the monk suggested they have a large serving of ice-cream, as it was so delicious and the chef had gone to so much trouble to make it… The writer already knew at this point that the monk was teaching him something, so he accepted the ice-cream, then went on his way to process the lesson.

My move to Sicily in early February happened at the same time as carnival, and it couldn't have been better timing. I arrived just in time to begin the dancing, the eating and the shouting… the drinking homemade grappa and so many things I really can't remember.

How can this be mindful eating?

For me, meditation is a gift… whether it's a spontaneous mindfulness while walking along a beach, or sitting on cushions with a straight spine and a clear intention… Mindful eating for the last few years has taught me about the love I give to myself and that I am able to receive. I no longer have a restricted diet. I don't calculate the qualities in the food I eat, the type of fat, the protein, the vitamins… In fact, I try not to think at all while I'm eating, but just experience it.

When I was "improving" my body in all of those years, I believe I was actually creating discomfort in my body, intolerances and a lack of ease with myself… a lack of trust in myself. As if, without the studying and the thinking, I would not eat properly and my body would suffer, and then my mind would follow. I believed that I shouldn't eat dairy, wheat, sugar… and when I ate them I had a physical and emotional reaction, sometimes immediately… I had stomach pains, tiredness, I was bloated and I reproached myself for doing myself damage.

Life is so different in Sicily. Not eating pasta at lunch is just not possible… as long as I spend time with Sicilians. Not eating cannoli pastries stuffed with ricotta or chocolate at carnival (and any other occasion… any excuse is good for a party) is not allowed… One of the words I most frequently hear is: "mangia!" "eat!" and they mean it… If I don't eat, I see unhappy expressions and realise that there is no way out, other than to eat my way through. But it's not an unkind threat… it is a loving insistence that this is the way things are done.

And the food is different to the UK… almost everything I eat here is homemade or handmade. Most of my fruit and vegetables are grown in gardens with volcanic earth and natural sunlight, the wheat is Italian, not from North America or Australia (where I have had violent reactions to wheat) and the dairy is often sheep's milk, goat's milk or buffalo milk. The wine and chocolate are made with ancient methods, so you don't know how a bottle of wine will taste, even though you know the vintage, until you open it… and the chocolate is so rich in cacao and so roughly processed, that it is an amazing stimulus for meditation (more about my September yoga and chocolate retreat soon).

Mindful eating, for me, is not about eating properly… it is about eating with kindness and as much awareness as I can… not just of the food… but much more importantly, my emotional and physical response to the food in each moment. For some people, alcohol helps increase awareness… for others, the greatest kindness is to avoid alcohol. It also depends on the circumstances, the people we are with and how we feel in their company, in that place, in that moment.

Mindful eating is not easy, as being kind to ourselves and being aware of how we are feeling in our body and emotions is not easy. But it can be learnt… or re-learnt… as we knew perfectly well how to do this as young children, when we played with our food, ate with our hands, threw our food when we didn't want it and ate happily when we did… As adults, we can use our intellect to help us… to remind ourselves to listen, to feel, and to say no when we don't want something… and allow ourselves to say yes when we do… even when our thinking tells us we shouldn't, but we can feel that our body is capable and willing to process all of that love and attention - not just from the maker of the food, but from ourselves.