A Conversation with Thich Nhat Hanh
March 09, 2010
World-renowned Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh has teamed up with nutritionist Dr. Lilian Cheung to change the way we eat with their book Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Living. Get his take on the root of our weight problems, what he eats every day and how to change your own eating habits forever.
Why did you choose to write a book on eating and mindfulness now?
This is an unprecedented time in history. Globally, there are more people who are overweight than who are hungry and underweight. Scientists have already warned us that if the overweight and obesity trend is not turned around, this generation of youth will have a lifespan shorter than their parents.
Moreover, being overweight increases the risk of many serious health problems. These problems cause much suffering, affecting the individuals who have these diseases as well as their family members. On a large scale, such suffering affects the well-being of our societies and our world as a whole. The root of our problem lies in what we consume—not just food, but other elements that contribute to who and what we are. There is much to draw from the Buddha's teachings on mindfulness to gain insight on this contemporary obesity epidemic. Mindfulness practices enhance the connection between our body, our mind and everything else that is around us. Mindful living is the key to understanding our struggles with weight and to empowering us to control our weight. The opportunity to engage more people to learn about mindful living, to achieve joy and peace, is now.
What role does mindful eating play in your everyday life?
When we can slow down and really enjoy our food, our life and our health, we take on a much deeper quality. I love to sit and eat quietly and enjoy each bite, aware of the presence of my community, aware of all the hard and loving work that has gone into my food. When I eat in this way, not only am I physically nourished, I am also spiritually nourished. The way I eat influences everything else that I do during the day. If I can look deeply into my food and take this time as a meditation—just as important as my sitting or walking meditation time—I receive the many gifts of the cosmos that I would not otherwise profit from if my mind were elsewhere. Because if I eat and am consumed by my worries and projects, I am eating a lot of stress and fear and this is harmful to my body and mind. We have a gatha, or verse, that we recite while eating:
In the dimension of space and time,
We chew as rhythmically as we breathe.
Maintaining the lives of all our ancestors,
opening an upward path for descendants.
So when we eat mindfully we can be in direct contact with our ancestors as well as our descendants and use the time of eating to see how we can nourish the best things our ancestors have passed onto us and how to continue to transmit what is most precious to future generations.
What does the daily menu at Plum Village look like?
We enjoy a delicious vegan diet, and many of our grains are organic. For breakfast we eat oatmeal, homemade bread, homemade nut or bean spreads, fruit, nuts and sometimes Vietnamese noodle soup or sticky rice. For lunch we have rice, a stir-fry vegetable dish, a tofu or bean dish, a soup, steamed vegetables or salad and occasionally dessert. The Vietnamese desserts are usually a sweet soup with beans or grains, and the Western desserts are vegan pies, cakes or cookies. For dinner we eat a light and simple meal of rice or noodle soup and vegetables.
How do our feelings affect our eating behavior?
We discuss the nature of feelings in Savor in great length. Basically, when we respond to a certain stimulus, feelings or emotions will manifest in our mind. We human beings have many feelings. They can be positive or negative. Examples of positive emotions include love, joy and hope; and examples of negative emotions include fear, anger, anxiety and grief. For many people, emotions are closely tied to food, although the precise nature of this relationship varies from person to person. Some people tend to eat more when they are joyful, while others tend to eat less. If we do not attempt to look deeply to understand our craving, it will grow and we will form unhealthy habits. In maintaining our well-being, we need to use mindfulness to help us be fully aware of how these various emotions affect how we eat and to cultivate a healthy and positive relationship to food.
Why do you think Americans in particular struggle with their weight?
Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. is a land of abundance. There is easy access to foods and drinks that are not good for us and that are served in big portions. Persuasive advertising for unhealthy choices bombard our senses and people get conditioned to crave these unhealthy foods and drinks, such as sugar sweetened beverages and desserts loaded with saturated fat and sugar. With all the mechanization of modern technology and a very car-centered culture, (unlike other places like Europe where public transportation is much more accessible), people in the U.S. are moving less and burning fewer calories every day. This is responsible for Americans' struggle with weight. Furthermore, the fast pace of life is now the norm. Between their cell phones, computers and televisions, young people are trying to manage as many as seven tasks at one time. This way of life is the opposite of mindful living. No wonder people are not really living in the moment and are not fully aware of what they are eating or of what they are doing, which is essential for maintaining a healthy weight.
Can you share with us how mindfulness plays a role in your everyday life?
Mindfulness makes life beautiful and meaningful. When I am mindful of my in-and-out breath and relax my whole body, I am in touch with how good it is to be alive. I am in touch with my state of health and feel grateful for everything that is going well in my body. Then with mindfulness I can be aware of the beauty of the sky, the smile of the flower, the singing of the birds. I can be deeply in touch with my own suffering and hold it with love and tenderness, rather than suppressing it or running from it. Because I can be truly present for myself, I can be truly present for those I live with, listening deeply to them and speaking words that inspire hope and self-confidence. In this way, I can bring joy to someone each morning and relieve the pain of someone each afternoon.
If you could only choose one mindful activity a day, what would that be?
Mindful breathing. My breath is with me all the time as long as I am alive. I can breathe mindfully anywhere, any time and in any position. Even when I am sick, I can still lay in bed nurturing my body and mind, helping my body to heal with mindful breathing. It is very nourishing!
In your opinion, how do science and mindfulness come together to have an impact on the subject of eating?
Science and mindfulness complement each other in helping people to eat well and maintain their health and well-being. First, we need to be mindful about what to eat. We need to follow science-based advice for healthy eating, not just eat what a celebrity is eating or follow the latest diet fad. Once we know what to eat, we need to eat mindfully so that it helps us not only to adhere to the healthy eating routine, but also to appreciate the interconnectedness of all that is around us. Eating mindfully is a practice that will help us understand who we are. Without mindfulness in our daily life, we may not be able to discover the peace and happiness that is already in us.
Can you explain how mindfulness benefits both the individual and the world at large?
We are all connected. When you touch one thing, you are touching everything. Whatever we do has an effect on others. Therefore, we must learn to live mindfully to touch the peace inside each of us. Peace in the world starts with peace in oneself. If everyone lives mindfully, everyone will be more healthy, feel more fulfilled in their daily lives and there will be more peace. This collective mindfulness can bring positive change to our families, organizations, communities, nations and future generations.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, poet, scholar and peace activist. His courageous efforts to generate peace in Vietnam moved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. Thich Nhat Hanh is the author of many books including such important classics as Peace is Every Step, The Art of Power and his most recent,Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Living. He lives in Plum Village, his meditation center in France, and travels worldwide.
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