Every year I like to take a trip to China to expand my learning in Chinese Medicine and Martial Arts. One year I stayed in China’s oldest Chan Buddhist temple in Fangshan district – Tiankai Temple. Whilst living there I was introduced by the monks and nuns to some beautiful concepts, philosophies and ideas on life. One profound understanding came through our daily eating practices and rituals. Below I summarise what I learnt and hope you can gain some greater insight from it into a more mindful and compassionate appoach to nutrition and eating food.
Try to eat organic food which has been allowed to grow naturally, with little chemical intervention. Locally resourced and grown food is considered better for you and the environment – have you ever looked to see where your food has come from?
Try to eat seasonally and live in harmony with your environment; food comes at that time of the year for a reason. Remember you are a part of the natural world, you are not separate from the world in which you live but are linked intrinsically with it, and can flow with its natural rhythms.
Maybe consider this famous quote by one of the great thinkers of our time, Albert Einstein:
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Ours must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Eat a varied diet (different foods every day) and avoid extremes (too much of one type of food). Variety is the spice of life! Try to eat a wide range of foods rather than sticking to the same old foods again and again. Eating different coloured vegetables (red, orange, green, purple, yellow) with every meal will provide you with a variety of different nutrients.
If you are consuming meat try as best as you can to eat free range and organic, this will hopefully ensure that the animal that you are eating has been given a good quality of life, therefore sharing that quality with you.
Thinking positively about the food that you are eating is equally as important; this is very difficult to do if we are eating in front of the TV or whilst working. If we can mindfully develop a better attitude to our food our bodies will more readily absorb important vitamins and vital nutrients.
Sometimes we can be eating all the right food but not always in the right conditions or environment, Chinese Medicine Diet Therapy encourages us to eat our food in a relaxed, calm environment, stress free and not when over emotional or worried. It encourages us to chew our food slowly. Remember – your stomach doesn’t have teeth!
The Chinese believe that it is better to not mix work and food. The digestion works best when we are focused on the enjoyment of our meal and are not distracted by troubles or other influences, therefore it is best to try and not eat on the go but rather in a relaxed peaceful environment.
It is also not beneficial for the body to eat late at night. At this time the digestive system can not cope with large meals when the metabolism is already slowing down. The food will sit undigested in the system making you feel sluggish, groggy and slightly nauseous in the mornings. In the long term, this may weaken your digestive system and cause stomach and digestive issues later on. It was interesting to note that when we lived in the monastery we ate two times a day, once at 6am and then again at 11am, we didn’t eat again until the next morning.
There is a famous saying which can help us to gain a better understanding how best to balance the amount of food we consume. The saying goes:
“Eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch and a pauper at dinner.”
In the morning our stomach and digestive system are at its strongest, making digestion of food easier, at night-time it is at its weakest, so eating smaller portions or lighter foods like soup would be more beneficial.
In western culture especially in the UK we eat completely the opposite way around with very little for breakfast and very large and heavy dinners in the evenings. It is proven that over consumption of food is a prime cause of many modern ills, so try not eating to excess, eat just enough. The Chinese give this wonderful piece of advice:
“Eat till you are two thirds full”
I discovered at meal times in the monastery that eating can be a great time to reflect on the self, your personality and your inner qualities. Some questions you might like to ask yourself at this important time of the day are:
Where has your food come from (not just from the supermarket)?
What is its purpose and why are you eating it?
Finally it is good practice to give some thanks to the life that is sharing itself with you in order for you to be strong and healthy.
This is a small affirmation you may like to say before meal times.
“This food is a gift from the whole universe and so I am thankful.
Each morsel is sharing its life so I can be strong and healthy.
I am worthy to receive its life giving nourishment.
May its energy give me strength, make me healthy and help me to grow and develop as a caring, sharing and compassionate being.
May it help me on my journey through life and in turn help others to do the same.”