“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” (Annie Dillard)
Do you have just 10 minutes a day to be mindfully present? Or you’ll go through life being in your thoughts of past and future. Never noticing what is here now.
Cultivating mental presence or receptive awareness has tremendous benefits. One of them is that it slows down the aging process, says Dr Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry, in his book Aware. Underpinned by a large amount of research evidence, he argues that time spent in the receptive state positively impacts health and well-being. Aging is just the tip of the iceberg. Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2009 for discovering what contributes to our chromosomes to age slower or stay healthier for longer.
From ‘mind-wandering’ to mental presence
What’s the difference? ‘Mind-wandering’ or being ‘swept away by one’s thoughts’ often leads to unhappiness. Pleasant or hard-to-bear thoughts could both be challenging and the root cause of anxiety and depression.
Pleasant ones because they won’t last, no matter how much we try to hold on to them. Or if they go on for a while, we may become disillusioned that they’re mere thoughts, wide apart from our reality. Unpleasant mental images, the worries of life, real or perceived threats leave us drained and stressed.
Being mindfully present, on the other hand, is a mentally receptive state of mind. Allowing ourselves to notice and focus on sensations, picked up by our five senses, noticeably quiets a busy mind. This calming effect is fundamentally good for our health. How can we start making the shift from ‘mind wandering’ to being present in the moment?
Cultivating mental presence: eating a mandarin – mindfully
Find a comfortable chair to eat your mandarin. Sit down, so your feet are resting flat on the floor. Have your back comfortably straight. Have your mandarin with you but don’t hold it just yet. Try to direct your focus on sensory stimuli or what your senses register during this experience. Allow yourself to fully engage with your body without judgement, labelling or evaluating.
There is no right or wrong way to eat a mandarin.
Take a moment to feel your body sitting. Shift your attention on to your back body from shoulder to legs making contact with the chair. Now take a full breath. Let it out. Repeat it twice or more, and notice how you’ve settled into the experience of getting ready to eat.
Pick up and hold the mandarin in one hand. If you’re comfortable with it, you could briefly close your eyes now. Feel the temperature of the mandarin skin on yours. Feel it’s weight in your palm. Don’t try to judge how much it weighs, experience the heaviness/lightness.
Open your eyes now and take a curious look. Observe the colour and how the light is thrown off by the indentations. Notice the sheen and dimples.
Smell the burst of fragrance when your fingernail tears through the skin the first time. Stay with this smell for a second or two. Then slowly peel away. Can you feel the slight resistance as the white, thin membranes give way?
Have a look through the skin holding it against the light. Have you broken into the flesh? Are your fingers wet or sticky now? Just notice how it feels if this is the case.
Start separating the mandarin segments. The fluid might burst; there might be a few white membranes to clean away. Is there still fragrance in the air? Has your tummy rumbled yet? Did saliva collect in your mouth? Stay with these sensations for a moment.
Lift the first segment into your mouth then chew it slowly. Notice the first burst of juices. Taste the orangey-citrusy aromas. Is it sweet? Is it slightly tart? Did the tartness pull your eyebrows and facial muscles? Swallow mindfully.
Eat the rest of the mandarin, be mentally present, the best you can. If you notice your thoughts have wandered into directions where your current external or internal experiences pulled them, let them be. Once you’ve realised this, you can gently return your attention to eating.
Present awareness in everyday life
Whether we are listening to a friend, stroking our cat, enjoying a cup of tea or coffee, or sitting on the bus to work, we can cultivate present awareness. A few minutes every day can slowly ‘undo’ our reactive, default patterns of thinking. It can pause the habitual and constant labelling, judging, criticising, liking-disliking, commenting or comparing.
We start seeing more clearly what is arising from moment to moment and make wiser choices as a response in our life.
How did this mindful eating experience work for you? Share in a comment below.