A couple of hours after I heard that the Buddhist monk, peace activist and poet Thich Nhat Hanh (aka Thay) had died in January, I received mail in the post with the words “Mindful eating changes everything“ emblazoned across its front. There was something marvellous about the synchronicity of these two events. As I scooped the mail from the letterbox on that cold winter’s morning, still absorbing the news of Thay’s death, the world of mindfulness split neatly in two.
It didn’t feel like a moment of insight. Its quality was more “naked lunch”, a term coined by the writer William Burroughs to describe “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Laid bare for me was the stark contrast between the boundless heart, courage and wisdom of authentic mindfulness, as exemplified by Thay, and corrupted forms of mindfulness that seek to weasel their way into our lives by means such as junk mail.
The offending item fished from my letterbox was a circular from Noom, a subscription-based app for tracking one’s eating and exercise habits. The company’s mission is “to help as many people as possible to live healthier lives” using evidence-based psychological approaches such as mindfulness and CBT, which “build sustainable habits that last a lifetime.” It sounds noble until you take a deeper look.
Noom is a weight-loss company. It deploys the language of wellness, psychotherapy and body positivity in the service of dieting. Not that any of its promotional materials use the word “diet”, which is substituted for the term “mindful eating”. Noom guides its customers in calorie-counting, self-weighing and restricted eating with the assistance of “trained coaches”. The coaches, it turns out, are not certified therapists or mindfulness instructors. If they were, they would know that the practises they recommend run high risks of encouraging or maintaining eating disorders in some people.
Any semi-serious mindfulness practitioner will know that Noom’s interpretation of “mindful eating” as a means to losing weight and developing healthier eating habits is bogus. The clue is found in the intention behind the action that shapes the mind. Mindful eating is about arousing an appreciation of the causes and conditions that give rise to the gift of food and a penetrating investigation into the direct experience of ingesting it. Noom’s version does neither. Rather it encourages the kinds of mental fixating that take the mind away from freedom and contentment.
Is there, in fact, anything truly mindful about what Noom offers? Well, no. This is despite it proclaiming inspiration from such seminal teachings as the Buddha’s Kayagatasati Sutta (‘Discourse on Mindfulness Immersed in the Body’). This discourse instructs practitioners in how to develop jhanas (states of profound mental absorption) via traditional reflections on the repulsive nature of bodily parts. But such practices are not employed in any of Noom’s programmes. This is actually a good thing because, from a psychotherapeutic point of view, they would be contraindicated for many people struggling with body image. Noom’s reference to one of the Buddha’s foundational teachings on mindfulness is, therefore, witless. It is also a glorious example of saffron-washing.
Mindful eating was a bedrock practice for Thich Nhat Hanh, something he never tired of encouraging the rest of us to do. But look into his extensive teaching archive and you won’t find dubious dieting tips or the encouraging of a preoccupation with one’s physical appearance. He offered subtler flavours, ones that refine and expand far beyond the confines of food consumption. Here, mindful eating is steeped in an appreciation for all that makes a meal possible in the first place. The practice extends into a deep contemplation of food containing “sunshine, clouds, the sky, the Earth, the farmer, everything” and continues once the plate is empty, even throughout the washing-up.
In this way, Thay conveyed how eating mindfully is rooted in a clear and sensitive awareness of the interdependent and selfless nature of this phenomenal world. The natural expression of this realisation is to care – not just for our bodies but for those who made our meal possible, and for a world that we are inextricably a part of. What organically arises is an active wish to protect and preserve our environment. As Thay put it: “What we buy and eat can contribute to climate change, or it can help stop it. Eating is a chance to nourish our own body with the wonders of the cosmos, knowing that we are not destroying the earth by doing so.” This is a far cry from the cold, starved, self-absorbed world of Noom.
Soft Heart, Strong Back
In the therapy/wellness world, where artifice and hype are commonplace, it can be hard to know what has real value. This is true for mindfulness, a concept now so exploited that its meaning has almost been eviscerated. For this reason, my naked lunch moment was refreshing in how it cleanly separated the wheat from the chaff. The latter, of course, is the diet company with a CEO who thinks listening to heavy metal in the bath counts as meditation.
The golden grain is Thay, an exemplar of mindfulness fully fledged. Here was a humble monk and spiritual adept whose life was in the service of peace and kindness and who touched the lives of thousands, if not millions of people. He taught and practised tirelessly, wrote books, set up monasteries, a university and a publishing house. Nor can his legacy be confined to even these extensive projects. An ethical imperative thrust him further into the world to campaign against war and injustice on many fronts. He marched in war zones, dodged bullets, survived assassination attempts and rescued refugees on open seas.
If you look at certain pictures of Thay, such as the one (above) taken at a press conference in 1966 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr., you can see the steel in his eyes. He was a tough guy. He had a soft, open heart and a strong back. It takes both qualities to make mindfulness meaningful. I once had the honour of being in his company. About 50 of us were sitting in rows, awaiting his arrival, when he entered quietly from the back of the room. I felt his presence before I saw him. A benevolent energy radiated from him like clear light. Its power was extraordinary. Although quietly amazed at the time, I didn’t think to mention it until after the meeting when I heard two friends, who had been seated separately from me and each other, both divulge they had spontaneously burst into tears when he had walked in.
Thay’s profound presence and principled life are of a very different order to listening to music in a bathtub in the name of mindfulness. I hear Noom is branching out from dodgy diet plans into the fields of stress- and anxiety-management. Thay’s recommendation to practise wise discernment in what we engage with seems all the more vital these days. McMindfulness (read all about it in this important book) is proliferating and the real thing becoming more obscured. But we can learn from the masters and keep calling things by their true names.