Beware of Mental Junk Food–You Are What You Eat

We all want emotional and mental well-being. But are we practicing conscious mental consumption?

The other day I gave in to a junk food craving. After a day of clean eating—kale smoothies, quinoa vegetarian chili, fresh fruit—a little voice said “come on, you know you want to” and I was seduced. Before I knew it I was munching on balsamic and pepper kettle chips and nuclear-orange cheesies. The next morning I woke up feeling bloated and unpleasant. Hmm, no kidding. Like my Granny often said, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

So how does my lapse in compassionate eating relate to mindfulness? Well, for both mind and body, you are what you eat. What we consume mentally influences how the mind feels—pleasant and happy or roiling with indigestion. Imagine you are facing a difficult work problem. If you focus on unpleasant “what-if” scenarios, anxiety arises. If you dwell instead on possible solves for the difficult issue, you feel calm and empowered. We all want to be happy. We all want emotional and mental well-being. But are we practicing conscious mental consumption?

Try it right now. Think for a moment about what you are feeding your mind right now. Are you worrying about a future event? Chewing on a bone of contention from the past? Watching a celebrity gossip show? Perhaps you are watching an iridescent juvenile hummingbird feed on the newly opened purple iris in your back yard. Maybe you are musing about what to have for lunch. Once you have brought awareness to what the mind is currently munching on, gently notice how your mind is reacting. Is your current mind-snack wholesome or unwholesome?

It is important to protect the mind from distressing input. We can deliberately seek nourishing mind food instead. That’s what I try to do on Saturday mornings, when my sweetie drives me to the town where I teach a meditation class. On the trip, I have a choice about how I take care of my mind—I can feed it junk food or wholesome fuel. If I spend that hour chatting about trivial or negative things, or playing on my iPhone, I will arrive with my mind busy and distracted. Instead, I can sow seeds of the very calm and compassion that I wish to share with the gathered students. So I’ve developed a pre-class ritual, sort of a healthy diet for a growing mind.

On the hour-long drive, I first sit quietly, my hand on my sweetheart’s knee, and collect my thoughts. I consider the meditation class topic for today. After this appetizer of companionable solitude, it is time for some mind nourishment. I reach across and click on the radio, tuning in to the Vinyl Café. But I am very careful to tune in at 5 minutes past the hour. Why? Because at the top of the hour public radio has world news, with a grave announcer intoning natural and man-made disasters. If the news is still in progress, I whip the volume off as fast as I can. This is not because I want to avoid reality. I, like you, am all too aware of the vast suffering in the world. I, like you, sometimes despair that the small drops we trickle into the “save the world” bucket will never quench the vast thirst of our planet and the creatures that share it. But I also know that in order to nourish wholesome thoughts and feed positive emotions I need to protect my mind from harmful input. And so I do. I am not avoiding the dark; instead I am deliberately cultivating the light.

Some of you may not know what the Vinyl Café is. It is storytelling and music hour written and voiced by Stuart McLean, a gangly golden retriever of a man who is a Canadian institution. (If Jimmy Stewart and Garrison Keeler had a love child with the writers of Everybody Loves Raymond, Stuart McLean would pop out). His sweet tales feature the hapless protagonist Dave, his family, and their dog. Each heart-tugging story has an almost mystical ability to make us laugh and cry with a poignancy that connects us to the simple sweetness of being alive. Food for the soul, indeed. When we pull up to the door of the meditation hall, my sweet man and I both have tears in our eyes. My mind is well fed and calm, my heart is full and open, and it is time for meditation to begin. Yum.

Mindful Loving Tip

This week, say no to mental junk food, and dine on meaningful fare, mindfully.