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Monday, October 14, 2013

The mindfulness series: beginning with health

rthakrar, Flickr

I had walked into the library for a quick browse of the Children's French section, in hopes of finding something interesting for my students, and for my own kids by the same token.

A dozen books and a couple CDs later, as I was on my way out, a discrete book cover caught my eye. The title, The Path to Emancipation, intrigued me. Anxious to get my other errands done, I almost walked past it. But then it felt as if it was calling me. I can't explain. I had to stop and pick it up. And then I had to take it home. And then I had to read it. And then I discovered in it a myriad of treasures.

As I kept sticking post-it after post-it on the pages to mark my favorite findings, it became obvious that I would have to share them... and what better place than right here, on the blog?

Interestingly, even if this book is unquestionably spiritual, and also very "psychological", in nature, some of the quotes I extracted from it can directly relate to health, as in physical health. And that's where I want to begin today, as I feel that Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness might be less intimidating if we approach them from the physical point of view... for now.

While I was preparing this post I stumbled upon one on a similar topic, by my friend Dr. J, and the coincidence made me smile. The time is good, I thought. The blogosphere is ripe. Let's post it!

But first, to make sure we dissipate any unfounded skepticism about the Oriental approach to spirituality, this excerpt:

We have found that it is perfectly possible to practice mindfulness as a nonsectarian, nonreligious practice, without sacrificing anything.

Good! Now how does one apply the wonderful insights of mindfulness to "real life", and more precisely to a very common set of goals among this blogosphere and society in general, namely becoming and staying healthy?


I was not fully aware of it (still got some work to do on my mindfulness practice), but Buddhism is a wonderful place to start if you want to improve your relationship with food. First of all, it can teach you to actually focus on what is going on when you eat:

When you chew it, you are aware that you are chewing a piece of carrot. Don't put anything else in your mouth, like your projects, your worries, your fear, just put the carrot in. And when you chew, chew only the carrot, not your projects or your ideas. You are capable of living in the present moment, in the here and now. It is simple, but you need some training to just enjoy the piece of carrot.

How often do we really focus on what we put in our mouth, fully and exclusively? If you're anything like me... not very often. With the possible exception of a dinner out in a fancy restaurant, when the price of each bite is enough to justify giving it your whole attention. Nutritionists have been saying it for years though: eat slowly. Pay attention. You will eat less, and better, this way.

Speaking of eating less and better:

We look deeply at the object of our desire and craving, and, if we look deeply enough, find that it is not really the object of our desire.

A few seconds can make a great difference; a flash of awareness, one in-breath, is all that is needed for transformation to occur. 

How often do we feel like we "need", or at least really want, a food or drink that will obviously not be good for us? What happens if we pause for a few seconds and reflect on our true need? Is it hunger, or is it thirst, fatigue, stress, boredom? If it is hunger indeed, is junk really what we want to put in our body?

Mindfulness, real mindfulness, seems to be the way to recreate a healthy relationship with food:

To be worthy of the food, we only have to eat it mindfully. I like to remind myself to eat in moderation. I know food plays an important role in my well-being. That is why I vow to eat only foods that maintain my health and well-being. 

There is even a specific piece of reflection to achieve this healthy relationship with what we consume, be it food, drink, or anything else; it's called The Fifth Mindfulness Training:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations.

Fascinating, isn't it? I will come back to the "mental health" aspect of this in another post. But for now, let's move on to another side of physical health: disease.

Eating lunch at Le Caveau (Domaine de Grand Pré vineyard) commands taking your time.
Nova Scotia, 2013


Not only do we humans not know how to treat our body right to stay healthy - too often, we are also at a loss when it comes to looking after a body that has been invaded by disease... as it will, sooner or later. The first lesson could simply be to rest:

We know that when an animal is wounded, it looks for a quiet place to lie down. Wisdom is present in the animal's body. It knows that rest is the best way to heal. I does not do anything, not even eat or hunt; it just lies down. Some days later, it can get up. It is healed. Human beings have lost confidence in their body. We panic and try to do many different things. We worry too much about our body. We do not allow it to heal itself. We do not know how to rest.

How many of us, when our health is "under attack", just want to keep going no matter what? We pop pills, we want all symptoms to disappear, we want to be ready to function optimally in the minute. Well, be it a common cold or something more serious, this is not possible. A body needs time to heal, time that for the most part should be dedicated to resting. Can we try that?

And while we're at it, why don't we also stop trying "many different things" to lose weight? Why don't we just become mindful, really mindful, of what our body feels like based on what we feed it? I trust our body knows what is good for it, if only we pay attention to the signals. Nobody feels good after a food or an alcohol binge, that's for sure.

The second lesson on how to restore our health could be to treat ourselves with the same love and compassion that a caring parent shows:

Remember when you were small and had a fever and felt so alone, your mother would suddenly appear like an angel. She touched your forehead with her hand, full of love and concern, and you felt wonderful. Even if your mother is no longer alive, if you know how to touch her, she will be born again within you. This is your hand, but it is also your mother's hand; your hand is a continuation of her hand. If you want to feel your mother's hand touch your forehead, go ahead. Your mother is alive within you.

Who takes the time to gently put a hand to their own forehead? If you can infuse it with the memory of parental love, even better.

Let's learn to rest... from the experts!
Domino, 2013


Just like life cannot be dissociated from death, and happiness cannot be dissociated from unhappiness, health and well-being cannot be dissociated from disease and pain. Feeling miserable from a physical point of view is not something we want for ourselves or others, but the truth is, it does help tremendously when comes time to appreciate our health:

Those of us with allergies suffer from blocked noses and other unpleasant symptoms. After it has rained, when the pollen is washed away, we can breathe more easily and have a vaguely pleasant feeling. If we are mindful, we know that the pleasant feeling comes from the fact that there is no pollen in the air causing our bodies to suffer. Because of awareness and mindfulness, that pleasant feeling is amplified. We smile at it, knowing how wonderful it is. It is like not having a toothache, which is actually a feeling of physical well-being.

On those matters, I am unfortunately too knowledgeable. I cannot express how the aftermath of an intense, debilitating migraine can make one realize how your "normal baseline", i.e. the simple absence of pain, is a wonderful, wonderful thing. After a bad migraine I feel so light, everything feels so soft, so quiet, and so pleasant, I always wonder how I could ever take health and well-being for granted.

What do you think?


  1. YES
    mindful LIVING and EATING and EXERCISING changed my life.

    1. So happy for you Miz! Sometimes the answer lies in something very simple. Like paying attention. :-)

  2. As always, thought provoking, intelligent, and appreciated. I will only add that I have come to believe that "mindfulness" is the most important trait for a prospering humanity. Than you.

    1. Oh, you are very right Roy. And the author of the book mentions that too. :-)

  3. I loved reading this - sadly, it makes me realize that I'm not very mindful about much these days. I eat because it is necessary but I rarely think about what I'm eating or why. And the resting part - I rest when my body forces me to because it is going into shut-down. I need to start being much more mindful!

    1. I'm glad you want to add mindfulness to your life, Kim! It's a work in progress; some days are better than others. :-)

  4. This is both beautiful and educational. It's not an easy pathway, though certainly worth the effort. Learning these skills if not naturally evolved takes commitment.

    Several years ago I went to buy a car. Most of us have experienced the pain of that endeavor! This salesman was different. He had an open yet focused way about him. We struck a deal in ten minutes! I later found out he was a practitioner of Buddhism. He was also salesman of the month at the dealership for the past ten months! We have been friends ever since. Had 122,000 wonderful miles in that car!

    1. There is a way about people who practice Buddhism, for sure. Before I enter the classroom, I always gather some calm, serenity, compassion, and a smile. I find it helps both my students and me. I guess it can help selling cars too! :-)

  5. Great stuff, so much echoes things I'm trying to do more of. Even though I kinda suck at it. I really admire those who can live their lives in mindful ways!

    1. One step at a time, Crabby! You're probably more mindful than you think. :-)

  6. I love exercise and I'm constantly working on getting mindful and grateful about many other aspects of life. Mindful living in general is my goal. :D