Research tells us that we are present about half of the time. However, my personal inventory of people over many years tells me it is much less than that. And the cost of living without being fully aware ranges from overeating/drinking to checking your social media whenever there is a moment without activity. Or how many of you have walked around the house with your phone in your hand (sometimes even talking into it) and wondering where your phone is?
The Unconscious Habit Path
In a recent Eat for Life support group, the recurring theme was that people were concerned they often found themselves standing in the kitchen without realizing what they were doing. They would become aware that they were looking in the cabinets or the refrigerator. “Why am I here when I’m not even hungry?” The answer would be a combination of (1) there was a pause in the day’s activity, (2) they just got home from work or an activity, (3) they were bored, (4) they were having an uncomfortable feeling, (5) or they were looking for something to do. The answer was not “I was physically hungry.”
Finding yourself in the kitchen when you’re not hungry is one of the common things that people do when they don’t know how to “just be.” This inability to be in the present moment without constant distraction or activity is culturally epidemic. We are on the go, finishing our never-ending to-do list, and looking for sensory input from all directions. This forward-moving energy has a sense of discomfort in it and often leads to our doing something that we think will bring comfort. Food is one quick, easy fix that fits the bill, at least temporarily, and so we find ourselves in the kitchen.
While the occasional trip to the kitchen for comfort isn’t going to have serious consequences, when it becomes a regular unconscious habit, it can lead to significant overeating and even more emotional distress. So, what started to relieve suffering becomes a suffering itself. This is a textbook unconscious habit pattern—there is a trigger, there is a behavior, and there is a result. These come together to create a habit loop and around and around you go.
Mindfulness to the Rescue
Mindfulness, defined as being present, on purpose and without judgement, is quite the opposite of habit, which is characterized by diminished awareness of what is happening in the present. In fact, mindfulness indicates an enhanced awareness of the present reality. Mindfulness, therefore, can lead to behavioral regulation that is intentional and controllable.
Growing research suggests that enhanced awareness to present experiences and events, found in more mindful individuals, may influence habit behavior by strengthening their ability to use self-control. Heightened awareness of environmental cues and inner experiences appears to help mindful individuals carry out their intentions to act or not act in particular ways (Chatzisarantis & Hagger, 2007).
In other words, becoming aware of the discomfort of “just being” can help you engage in a more mindful response than reacting by walking blindly into the kitchen. You can directly experience the bodily sensations of tension, agitation, or restlessness. You can identify the emotions like boredom, anxiety, stress, and sadness. You can identify the thoughts (previously unconscious) that lead you to the kitchen like “Let’s find some comfort” or “Let’s do something to avoid feeling this unpleasantness.” Instead, you feel and sit in the feelings as they arise, exist, and pass away, often much quicker than you might think. Indeed, when we push down the feelings by avoiding them, they are still there and will last longer—waiting until another pause in the day to resurface until you finally decide to acknowledge them.
Learning to Practice Mindfulness
Here is a list of resources for learning how to practice mindfulness or strengthen your current mindfulness skills. If you are just beginning to learn mindfulness, I do recommend finding a teacher that can work with you in a “live” setting—either in person or online. If that isn’t currently possible, do what you can with apps and recordings. They will also help you start to cultivate your awareness.
- Take my Eat for Life class – I have two classes starting in September. While the class is focused on mindfulness as it relates to eating, the main skill is mindfulness. The foundation of the course is based on the four foundations of mindfulness from Buddhist teachings. You learn mindfulness of the body, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. These core mindfulness teachings could benefit anyone! Read more here.
- Join the 30 Day Mindfulness Challenge – Mindful Magazine is holding a 30 day mindfulness challenge that can help you jumpstart your practice. I am one of the meditation teachers that are offering practices like “Listening to Your Body” and “Body Lovingkindness.” Read more here.
- Use the meditations on my website. There are free meditations from all of my classes ready for you to use.
- Sit, breathe, and feel. Set aside five minutes a day to “just be.” While this might not be comfortable at first, make a commitment to sit with yourself like you would a good friend. Self-awareness, without judgment, is one of the greatest skills you will ever learn.
- Take a mindful pause. Instead of reaching for the phone or walking to the kitchen when you have a break in your day, stop and notice how your body feels, what emotions are present, and what thoughts are going through your mind. This will take even less time than the five minutes mentioned previously but can give you a touchstone to the present.
- Read my book Savor Every Bite for many more suggestions on mindful eating, moving, and living.
If you have any questions about how to get started in a mindful eating, meditation, or yoga practice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. Starting a practice can feel a little challenging and it’s good to have a friend along the path. You can use my contact link on my webpage.
Lastly, the next time you find yourself in the kitchen wondering how you got there, stop and breathe. Do nothing. Check to see if you’re hungry. If you are, eat. If you’re not, walk out of the room and decide what would serve you best in this moment. You might want to “just be,” take a short walk, do a yoga pose, pick a weed out of your garden, or just watch the flowers grow.