Eating as a Tool for Self-Cultivation

Conscious Consumption
9 min readJul 1, 2023

“Lately, I’ve been rethinking my relationship with food.”

A friend

Over the last several years, I’d devoted a good deal of consideration to food. As I lost balance in my life, more and more of the thoughts and impulses occupying my mind space would revolve around eating.

I’m extremely fortunate that these concerns are entirely first world — I’m talking worrying about when I’m eating and the macronutrient composition of my meals, not simply ensuring I have food to eat, period, like so many worldwide must grapple with.

Though I’ve long placed importance on the mental and physical optimization aspect of nutrition when selecting my dietary regiment, after partaking in more self-examination and rediscovery lately, I’ve come to the realization that eating should be used as a tool for internal self-improvement and avoiding physical discomfort instead of just the motivations of enjoyment or beautification.

(Re)considerations

With new insights (how difficult it is for the body to process protein, especially the amino acids in animal protein) I’m beginning to rethink my “protein, protein, protein!” approach. Not that I consumed excessive amounts, but it was the one macronutrient I would try to ensure I was getting enough of as much as I was preoccupied with limiting carbohydrates (especially refined carbs).

However, on half the days of the week (when I’m not practicing tai chi or gong fu) I don’t do much zone two cardio aerobic exercise.

Most of my daily qigong routines are anaerobic as is the half hour or so I spend walking, which usually amounts to two or two-and-a-half hours total. While walking for me is about exercise, it is equally about mindfulness and enjoying the present.

I like to make a meditation out of it, kinda like everything else I do — so I walk in a relaxed manner, bringing my awareness to the movement and the breath. Also, it’s worth noting that the lack of tension in your posture and movements exudes more friendliness and confidence to passersby on the street than an agitated, nervous anxiety-projecting brisk pace would.

On these off days, It’s not like I’ve exhausted my muscles to the degree I need excessive amounts of protein for their recovery.

The other thing is that my main workout of the day is generally mid-afternoon. And as mentioned, knowing now how long it takes the body to break down protein to the amino acids necessary for muscle maintenance means I would still likely be digesting my dinner well into the next day, messing with my sleep quality.

And that I can’t have. So I really only have a generous helping of protein, let’s say over 25g, with dinner on the days I work out intensely. I also try to finish eating at least several hours before bed, and go for protein-rich foods like yogurt that are easy for the body to digest.

I’ve started caring less about getting a sufficient amount, and more about the quality and timing of when I eat it, especially animal proteins. Most of my routines are more about sustained posture than load-bearing exercise, except when skateboarding. So I think I can get by with MSM for joint and muscle recovery in most instances instead of excessive protein.

My protein-heavy (if you can call it that) and carb-light meal is lunch, which is almost exclusively three eggs fried in ghee with sauteed onion and a small avocado on the side. I tend to go very low carb during my first meal of the day because I notice I am more clearheaded and have higher energy after eating.

Beyond this consideration, enough weighing what sequence to eat protein in versus carbs and fat for optimal bioavailability, or to prevent an insulin spike. Which, I’ve discovered may actually not a bad thing at dinner since a delayed insulin response from a lot of fiber slows down digestion, again causing sleep issues.

All this accounting for was mentally exhausting, and I’ve realized that my cognitive expenditure is better allocated elsewhere.

I think I’m eating enough to maintain myself, which is the most important and ultimately, the only necessary consideration.

Eating for Pleasure or Vanity vs. Sustenance

Wisely reflecting, I use this alms food not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification — only for the nourishment and maintenance of this body.

For keeping it healthy, for helping with the Holy life. Thinking thus, I shall destroy old feelings of hunger and not produce new feelings of overeating.

Thus, there will be freedom from physical discomfort and living at ease.

Theravada Meal Chant

This passage is a chant repeated by Thai Theravada Buddhists monks before each meal. Since it came onto my radar, it has profoundly reshaped my intention regarding food.

So many eat for the sole purposes of vanity (beautification) or pleasure. They will choose to only eat foods that taste good, or based on the intention of appearing a certain way, either in terms of radiance or physique.

I’m guilty on both accounts.

Though during the days when I would try to ensure I’d get enough protein, it was more about making sure I didn’t wither away than bulking up. But now that I’m skating regularly again and using different body mechanics, this isn’t much of a concern.

I’m getting my ass and thinning calves back, and burning the visceral fat that had grown around my liver, all conditions that resulted from chronically elevated cortisol. Something I believe would result regardless of my animal amino acid intake because I’m working my body again and doing something that boosts serotonin, thus mitigating cortisol.

Still, my preoccupation over intake and timing of protein and carbs was at least in part about not gaining weight, as much as it was about mental performance (through ketosis or a maintaining a stable blood sugar) or reducing inflammation.

And even though boosting my physical and mental wellness through nutrition is my primary concern, even to this day I try to select foods that I think taste good. And just at much, enjoy the flavor as I consume them.

These “eating” considerations are a far cry from the “nutritional” considerations made during meal proceedings practiced by the monks I mentioned.

Each one is allotted just one oversized bowl per meal, and one opportunity to fill it. It is impossible to keep all the foods in the bowl separated, and I can only imagine that soup is one of the meal staples.

Filling one bowl only once results in much less attachment to how things taste, and more consideration for how much to eat.

As monks fast from after lunch to sunrise, they must estimate their expected physical and mental energy expenditure for the day when deciding how full to fill their bowl. Too much and you end up in a food coma; too little and you won’t make it through the last alms round.

I mentioned this type of consideration is something I’m trying to get away from, and I fast during the early part of the day so it strategically isn’t really a necessary one for me to make. Maybe that’s part of the reason I rarely overeat.

Still, it is evident the process helps develop the skill of careful consideration, and helps ingrain the belief of food for sustenance over everything else. Eating to maintain for one more day, not to improve your looks or indulge yourself.

And this indulgence or attachment to taste, on the other hand, is certainly one area I could further develop.

I prided myself for a long while on steering clear of sugar and refined carbs in general, artificial colors and flavors, and excitotoxins (like MSG, yeast extract “natural” flavors, and aspartame), which are amino acids that overstimulate neurons in the brain.

My go-tos are eggs, avocado, sauerkraut, yogurt, pistachios and cacao (dark chocolate). Though the foods I generally consume don’t pack quite the flavor punch and salivary stimulation as those I mentioned earlier, when envisioning a meal often I’m fantasizing about the taste, however bland — not mulling the sustenance it will provide my body.

I’m the type of person who cuts a slice of avocado for each bite of egg, lol. So you can understand how much importance I place on taste. Just the thought of all the courses of a meal — like soup, bread and dessert — blending together in a bowl is pretty unappealing. Especially after getting cold and all the components changing texture.

I was consumed by the taste (forgive the pun). However, that at least in some ways helped me bring my mind into a meditative state, concentrating solely on the eating process. Being mindful of each bite and savoring the flavor as I chewed carefully.

However, it’s hard to remain in a meditative state when you’re doing other things like watching tv, in conversation, or even reading while eating.

Mindful Eating

I mentioned earlier that I enjoy walking at a leisurely pace when out and about, and that I try to make it a meditation.

Well, as a Qigong and mindfulness “apprentice,” it’s becoming apparent that I should try to conduct all my activities as a meditation in order to really embody the philosophy of mindfulness practice, and foster stillness and non-attachment even more.

Everyone should aim to be practitioners themselves in whatever their chosen field or role is, embodying the philosophy of the discipline in all their tasks.

And as someone on the path towards fine-tuning my interoception skills, my goal should be to carry the internal awareness being cultivating with me as I transition between activities going about my day.

Nick Keomahavong – the publisher of the YouTube video I took the Theravada Meal Chant from – suggests in the video:

Don’t just have meditation in a meditation session, but carry this feeling, your progress and hard work, this inner-peace you’ve been cultivating into the next activity — don’t lose it. When you’re eating, be so mindful that the continuity of this peace carries through seamlessly…

…Use your meals as another tool. The way we eat, how we eat, how we behave continues that continuity. If possible, try to not have a gap.

This is definitely the reminder I had been needing.

Though I’m generally solely-focused on the primary task when doing the dishes, shaving, etc., one activity where my actions are inconsistent with this belief/ideal is eating.

Nevermind seamlessly flowing between activities, there was a stretch where I had difficulty even making the meditation itself a meditation, and focusing my Shen as I transitioned between exercises. Thoughts (worries) and impulses would enter my mind during practice, and I wouldn’t be able to easily shake these distractions.

Sometimes was tough to not lose the feeling, or even “get it” to begin with. However, deploying mindful eating has helped me get back on track with my practice.

The intention of devoting your sole awareness to the activity — whether eating, walking down stair, or any other task — improves concentration. Like most things, the more you practice, the better you develop that ability.

For a long while I’ve viewed meal time as break time — a brief stint for unwinding between working hours or after the day’s most demanding tasks have been accomplished. Therefore, I’m open to distraction during this window.

Historically, it had been watching (informative) YouTube videos during lunch, and maybe an episode of the Sopranos at night with dinner. But, as I became more aware of how exposure to multiple sensory stimulations (especially visual ones) while trying to concentrate works against the cultivation of mental stillness and the relaxation response, I stopped viewing content while engaged with a meal altogether.

Early on it was challenging. Especially considering where I’m coming from, with meals as an escape from life’s daily complexities, as I mentioned.

At first, I stuck strictly to listening to lectures or podcasts. Then I moved on to reading, exclusively. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to just “sitting” with my food, but it’s a work in progress.

Trying to engage all five senses (yes, even hearing) in the task is a feat in itself, not even accounting for the array of distractions we have at our disposal.

It may be a bit much for a lot of people to handle, myself included in this camp during the early going. But this is how you truly embody a mindfulness “practitioner” during the eating process, and how to foster your self-development, emotional awareness/intelligence, and cognitive growth.

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