The holidays are a great time to take up mindful eating, one of the practices I share in my recently published book, Secular Meditation. With so many goodies on the table, there is a temptation to eat until we burst. Mindful eating can be helpful in preventing overeating.
In a group, mindful eating can also serve as a sort of ceremony or ritual, taking the place that grace does in religious households. But I don’t consider it a ritual because it’s not an arbitrary convention. Mindfulness actually does something to the brain.
Some time ago I organized a “mindful brunch” for the Humanist Mindfulness Group at a taqueria in Harvard Square. The rule was that we could chat while the food was being prepared, but once it arrived, we would spend ten minutes in silence, focused on eating. I pulled out a timer and told people to start. We dug in. My burrito was nice and spicy, but my focused attention elevated it into something memorable. After the ten minutes were up, a fellow diner noted with surprise that he’d not completed his meal. Rather than gobbling it up, he ate slowly and, unusually for him, left some uneaten that he took home in a doggie bag. He also reported a growing sense of fullness in his stomach as he ate and a lessening desire to keep eating. If he hadn’t been eating mindfully, he would have blown past those subtle signals and kept eating until he was stuffed.
Though this is the season for good will, holiday shopping madness sometimes points people in another direction. Then there are the family gatherings that bring loved ones together to dredge up arguments about who said what in 1987. In such times, it’s good to have a tool that helps you cultivate good will.
One way to do this is through loving-kindness meditation, also knows as <em>metta</em>, from a word in the Pali language of ancient India that means friendliness or loving-kindness. This practice, derived from Buddhism, is something we do regularly at the Humanist Mindfulness Group, a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard.
We don’t see metta as a religious practice. It’s simply a way to trick your brain into caring about someone you didn’t care for before. Here in a nutshell is how it works. You generate feelings of love by thinking about someone who loves you. Then, while in the warm glow of love, you think about someone you dislike, and the love overflows, transforming your feelings about this person.
You first think about someone who has helped you in some way, visualizing them if you can. You then express your good will toward that person in words that stir your emotions. The traditional wording sounds a bit like a prayer, so in our remix, we use words such as:
I’d like her
to be safe,
to be healthy,
to be happy,
to be at ease in the world.
These words don’t have magical powers that reach across space, but they do have the power to change your brain. The first thing you notice when you think these words this is that it feels really good. Even though that person is not present, you begin to feel the warm glow of an emotional connection.
The next person you express warm wishes to is yourself. We can be self-conscious about this, but there’s nothing wrong with caring for yourself. You can say:
to be safe,
to be healthy,
to be happy,
to be at ease in the world.
Now here’s the trick. You turn your attention toward someone whom you do not love. You typically start with someone you barely give a second thought to—say the person at Peet’s who served you coffee this morning. You think about that person and repeat the metta phrases. Because of the “emotional momentum” from the prior steps, you may feel a surprising amount of warmth toward this person.
Now here comes the challenging part. You think of a difficult person—perhaps a relative you’ll be seeing in a few weeks—and repeat the metta phrases. This will likely soften your feelings toward this person.
This trick works most likely because of lingering effects of hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin that are released in the brain when people feel love and connection. These brain chemicals can persist in the brain for minutes after being released, so when you shift your thoughts from a loved one to an unloved one, they can bias your feelings in a positive direction. According to the neuroscientist Paul Zak, who gave a talk about the science of love to the Humanist Community at Harvard, oxytocin also has long-term effects on the brain. Thus, if you practice shifting your feelings toward the difficult person right now, they might not “push your buttons” when you next see them in person—perhaps at your next holiday meal.
Here is a video with instructions on how to do metta meditation:
I’ve been doing some radio and podcast interviews lately about my book, Secular Meditation. Here are a few that have been posted online. Note that the interviewers themselves are not necessary secular, but our conversations were focused on secular methods of meditation.
Here is my radio interview with Darien Marshall of It’s All about You. I was particularly taken by Darien’s observation that in listening to my actual voice, he was reminded of the literary voice of my book, which he said was friendly and conversational.
My Interview on the Spiritual Naturalist Society podcast.
Back in 2007, I interviewed Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, for an article I was writing for a journalist class at Boston University. The class was taught by Mitch Zuckoff, whose book 13 Hours, is considered, I believe, to be a fairly reported account about Benghazi, and is now being made into a movie.
The short audio clip is noisy, because it was just meant for my private use at the time, but with Hemant’s permission, I’m publishing it here. In it, Hemant discusses his deconversion from the Jain religion, one of the religions that came about in India in the same milieu as Buddhism.
Hemant credits his family’s move from Tennessee to Chicago when he was in eighth grade for disrupting his belief in religion. The move was initially painful and it caused him to question heavenly justice. Now that I know about how our habits system work, I wonder is something else may also have been at work.
In chapter 34 of my book, I write about how to break bad habits using mindfulness and I interviewed the psychologist Wendy Wood, then at Duke University. In the interview, she mentioned a study she and her colleagues did about students transferring schools and how it disrupted some of their habits.
Because habitual behavior is something we do without paying attention, it has to be triggered by something. It’s cued by our environment, including the people we’re with and the locations themselves. When we move locations, the habits that were triggered by the old location (e.g. stopping at the donut shop on the way to work) are disrupted. This gives us an opportunity to mindfully choose new habits. I asked Wood for advice on how to change habits, and she told me:
Take advantage of naturally occurring changes in your everyday context. When you move. When you change a job. You’re faced with new options and you may not have old habits for them.
This obviously applies to the habit of going to religious services. People grow up in a religious community and may have a habit of going to their church or temple, say, even if their faith has weakened. But if they move to a new community, they have to make a conscious choice to re-engage or not with a religious community. I was told by MIT researcher Ann Graybiel that habits don’t just apply to our physical behaviors but to our thoughts. We have habits of thought and being in a new location can help us look at things differently. That is one reason why travel is broadening.
This may also account for why students often lose their faith when they go to college. It may not solely be the intellectual challenge they encounter, but simply the loss of a familiar environment that triggers habitual attitudes.
Loving-kindness meditation is a practice done regularly at the Humanist Community at Harvard. Although derived from Buddhism, we have secularized it so that the meditation is suitable for people of no religion or any religion. From the humanist perspective, loving-kindness practice is simply a technique to trick your brain into caring about someone you may not have cared for before.
The video above will lead you through a loving-kindness meditation. Below is a script you can use.
In this interview with Gena Bean, we talk about the programs that Gena is developing at Mindful Boston, which include and go beyond Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I was especially taken with Gena’s description of learning “mindful vacuuming” at the Kripalu Center (about 2 minutes in).
As yoga practice, we were cleaning bathrooms, we were vacuuming and it was a form of yoga because we were integrating present moment awareness. I was literally trained on how to mindfully vacuum and it was one of the most profound spiritual lessons of my life.
Mindful vacuuming is a form of mindful manual labor, which I present in chapter 16 of my book, Secular Meditation. This time of year, the need to gather up leaves provides an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness. If you use a rake (emits less carbon than a leaf blower), you can hear the crunch of the leaves, the scratching of the rake’s tines, and observe the colors, shapes and aroma of the leaves. What a pleasure!
Sunday, November 22
1:30pm The Humanist Hub
30 JFK St
The Humanist Hub is accessible through an elevator.
Parking is difficult in Harvard Square, though on Sundays, parking is allowed in residential areas. There is a parking garage two blocks away at 65 JFK St.
The book arose out of the Humanist Hub’s Mindfulness Group (aka Cambridge Secular Buddhists), and presents meditations we’ve done in the group and reflects our discussions after the meditations. It includes the personal stories of several members of the group who agreed to interviews. I have led many of the meditations at the group over the last five years.
The book has been endorsed by a number of meditation teachers, including Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach and Rick Hanson. From the book’s description on Amazon:
Meditation is a form of mental exercise with numerous scientifically verified physical and psychological benefits. As meditation teacher Rick Heller shows, meditation’s benefits extend beyond the personal to enrich relationships with others, with one’s community, and with the world. In Secular Meditation, step-by-step instructions, personal stories, and provocative questions teach empathy for others, stress reduction, and the kind of in-the-moment living that fosters appreciation for life and resilience in the face of adversity. Heller simplifies what is often found mysterious, describing and providing detailed instructions for 32 different practices, ensuring that anyone can find the right one.Heller simplifies what is often found mysterious — “If you have ever loved or even liked another person, you have the prerequisites for learning kindness meditation” — and invites all to partake in “awe and wonder at the rich experience of being alive.”