How To Eat

This topic is absurd. Such are the days.

Eating used to be easy. I didn’t think about eating except when I was hungry. I knew what to eat. I ate till I was full and then stopped. That’s it. And then I went about my day doing other things in life.

Nowadays, eating has become a hugely unsatisfying endeavour. At one point, I found myself eating stuff I didn’t recognize. More often than not, it didn’t hit the spot, either because the “chocolatey” taste was not chocolate enough, the texture was oilier than I like, or other, vague but real impressions that this so-called food didn’t quite do it. I was left feeling hungry and with a sense of incompleteness. I also found myself eating at all sorts of weird times as food appeared before me in different settings or was temptingly available in easy ways. I was eating for reasons other than hunger, oftentimes, boredom.

When did I forget how to eat? It’s one of the most basic functions of being alive, and yet I had screwed it up, losing sight of something that came naturally at one point. I don’t think I am alone in feeling this way. It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true: we don’t know how to eat anymore.

So, I thought, it’s time to relearn how to eat. I went back to how things were in my childhood, before body consciousness and body shaming registered in my nascent brain. I also reflected on pointers from Michael Pollan’s incredible book, In Defense of Food. I mulled over the gentle urgings of various religions to be aware and mindful. Here are the 5 guideposts that helped me get back to eating the right way.

  1. Eat food. This might sound silly, but it warrants stating explicitly. We have a lot of options these days to put stuff in our mouths and bellies, and much of it is not actually food. It simulates food in the way it looks, but it’s a weird concoction of chemicals that doesn’t resemble anything that Mother Nature could have come up with. Pollan brought my attention to this first when he notes, in his book, that we have fruits that don’t spoil for weeks and months and we have yoghurt and cheese that come in a tube. Is this normal? As he explains, read the ingredient list, and if you can’t recognize what’s on the list, it’s probably not food. The other way I look at it is, if my mum can’t make it, it’s not food.
  2. Eat fresh. Everything can be bought in a packet nowadays. We look at expiry dates that are months out. It used to be that we had to consume food the same day or the next at the latest, because it would spoil otherwise. It’s a good rule. Fresh means natural, and natural means we are getting the nutrients our body needs. Plus, and this isn’t a small thing, it tastes great. I don’t need to explain the difference in experience when we’re eating freshly made aloo parathas versus pre-packaged or frozen equivalents. In India, as in many other places, hot is also a proxy for fresh. Not re-heated, though. This is the original hotness, coming off a griddle or straight out of a pot. First time cooked is different from re-heated. It can’t be put into words, but we sense it in every bite.

Maybe you’re thinking this is not practical in today’s harried times. It’s far easier, and sometimes the only option, to pull a pre-made meal out of the freezer and warm it up. It is easier, yes, and I do it sometimes too. It’s just not good as a regular practice. I had someone once ask me, why do you bother cooking just for yourself? Amused, I responded, why, don’t I count? The most practical thing I could do is to take care of myself, and this means eating fresh and giving my body the best chance to keep functioning well.

3. Eat on time. In other words, eat when hungry. Not any other time. I trust my body to tell me when it needs energy. There is a rhythm to eating. This knowledge, which was intrinsic once upon a time, has now become a science to study. It’s why there are nutritionists and scientists putting forward theories of the optimal number of meals – 3, 5, 7, or more. Instead of eating when hungry, we’re eating whenever we see food. As we bounce from meeting to meeting, or we go out on social calls, we drink those cups of tea and consume the accompanying biscuits and snacks. Social norms are hugely guilty of perpetrating bad eating habits – we can’t refuse food offered because it is seen as rude and even hostile to the host.

This is one of the most difficult minefields to navigate. Over time, I’ve found a few tricks to preserve my health without totally offending someone. I take a bite and put the rest away “for later consumption”. I ask for a half cup of tea, and if a full cup is still brought out, I make a fuss about sharing it with the host and pour it into their cup (this fuss is socially acceptable). I also beg out by sharing my susceptibility to migraines if I eat and drink out of my schedule – when it comes to a health impact, I’ve found, people will quickly back off, they’re very considerate in this case. Of course, the health risk has to be real. Finally, I communicate my focus on health and fitness, which also takes the pressure off. People don’t want to get in the way of your laudable journey, even if they’re not too bothered themselves, and they’ll become your champions in fending off others that are imposing food and drinks on you.

4. Food is not a boredom filler. It used to be straightforward to answer the question, why do you eat? Because I’m hungry, I would say. Now, I eat for other reasons, emotionally-driven a lot of times. A common emotion seems to be boredom. It’s understandable. We don’t know what to do with ourselves because we’ve built machines to do a lot of our tasks. What’s more, I’m not living in a joint family set-up, or even in the same city as many of my near and dear ones. The social network is frayed, and food has become the solace. As attention has dwindled and we seek stimulation in quicker and quicker succession, we’re turning to food to keep us interested.

There isn’t much to do here except to recognize why I’m eating. If it’s because I’m bored, that’s a red flag. It’s also a good signal to find a hobby. After all, if I’ve got time on my hands, I should do something productive with it, isn’t it?

5. Eat, only. This brings me to my last point. Many times, I am guilty of eating with the TV on or while scrolling on my mobile. I don’t just eat; it is no longer the only activity I do when I am doing it. It’s like the mind’s hunger for stimulation requires top-ups to what food can offer; flavours are no longer enough.

So, I started an experiment, to see if I could just eat. I started paying attention to the food on my plate – what it looked like, the different textures, the way I mixed and matched food items to create my favored taste profile. And then I observed my chewing – how much I chewed before swallowing, what were the sensations releasing in my mouth. It is actually an interesting and engaging activity. It’s amazing how many different things are going on if only we pay attention. I’m doing nothing new, actually. Mindful eating is a new thing now, but it used to be the only thing we did once upon a time. Regardless, it’s a good thing. I enjoy each bite, I eat more slowly, and as a result, I allow my body to tell me when it is full, stopping just in time.

Eating is not so simple anymore. It is almost like a maze, trying to steer away from the plethora of unhealthy yet easy-to-find options and balancing when and how much to eat so that we reach the golden destination of healthful, sufficient food. For some, it is a science, calculating calories and macro-nutrients; for others, it’s an art to be indulged in. We are in a world of too much and too little at the same time. Eating is now something about which we need to be conscious and choiceful.

Like all things in life, if we pay attention, we will know how to eat once again.

 

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How to do compassion

“Dad, could you turn a light on?” she asked.

“Monsters?”

“Yes.”

“Ok.”

“Still scared?” she whispered.

“No, thank you,” the monster said.

credits: A Small Fiction (Twitter handle: @ASmallFiction)

 

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Homage to a gentle soul

This blog is about life, in big and small ways. An undeniable part of life is when we lose our loved ones. Instead of looking at it as a loss, however, perhaps it is the way to remember them forever.

Recently, my grand-aunt, Pramila Kaku, passed away. She was one of the gentlest souls that tread this earth, the kind that the world seems to be in need of more than ever. I can’t think of doing a better service to the world than to share with you what she was like.

I wrote the following small homage to her soon after she passed on.

 

She lay there, sleeping her final sleep even as family from near and far streamed in to pay their last respects to her. There she was, prostrate on a deep crimson cotton rug, a single oil lamp burning brightly by the side of her head. Incense sticks wafted their scents, infusing the air around her with sweet sandalwood. She had a thin cover pulled up to her chin, covering her petite body. A dim glow spread around her.

We sat, next to her, as if waiting for her to sit up in acknowledgement of our presence. She didn’t turn. Her slumber was deep. Not an eyelid batted. Her chest did not rise and fall. Nearby, my grand-uncle sat in a stupor. Nearly 90 years old, he seemed puzzled. How, he wondered, was she not turning to him? Perched on a cot, he looked down at her, a fond gaze on the woman that was his partner of 60 years. Not attuned to emotional expression, especially not in public, nevertheless, he still managed to convey his concern for her.

“Where are the other kids, why have they not arrived yet? What is taking them so long?” he enquired from time to time, each time his voice revealing a growing anxiety. “How long can she wait?” He frantically asked, to no one in particular.

I went and sat near him, wordlessly. He turned to me, despair in his aged, soft, brown eyes. “What has happened, Archana?” he mouthed. “Why has this happened?” I felt my heart break. The simple, childlike questions went right to the heart of it. His wife, friend, and companion was no longer in this world and he could not grasp this.

None of us could. As we looked over her serene figure, it was hard to comprehend that Pramila Kaku would no longer break into her bashful smile. She would no longer ask if we were hungry or wanted anything. She would no longer linger on the edges of the living room, just on the other side of the threshold on the kitchen’s side, even as she shared in the conversations happening among visitors, family, and students of her husband.

Pramila Kaku was a gentle soul. I never heard her complain, not even about the weather. She only looked to make others’ lives more comfortable from what they were. I did not have the good fortune to spend a lot of time with her, and it is telling that even in the few moments that we did share, she left a searing impression on me as a kind soul.

The most ordinary activities took on throbbing tenderness when they came from her. I still remember when I had visited them in their old home, in Kaij, when I was still a young girl. Kaij was unfamiliar to me, a tiny town that I had never been to and to which I had no connection. Disoriented, I went into my shell and became very shy. My aunts cajoled me, trying to put me at ease. Pramila Kaku simply asked me if I wanted a cup of tea, and when I nodded, she went towards the kitchen, beckoning me to come after her. I sat quietly on a wooden platform in her warm kitchen while she went about her business. She didn’t force me into conversation, she just let me be. The wood embers in the mud oven crackled, dust smotes danced in the stream of morning light streaming in from a small window. Maybe it was the way in which she diffused the glare of extra attention – that one act put me at ease and I felt grateful. More than twenty years later, I still feel the glow of that moment.

Even on what turned out to be her last meal, she interrupted it to make fresh bhakri (bread) for Shankar Kaka because he was not enjoying the ones served to him. Always thinking of others, never about herself. Grace, personified. She looked gently at life, for all the troubles, pains, suffering it brought to her feet, and she bowed gracefully as she accepted them all.

Perhaps this is why life, in the end, gave her the highest compliment. She died on a Friday, considered to be an auspicious day among Hindus to depart from this world. It was during a sacred month, during a particularly holy stretch of days. She died a married woman, a great privilege according to old beliefs. She was at home, not in a hospital, among her family. She had the chance to serve her nearest and dearest even till her last breath. And her last breath was completed by a sip of water given to her by her own caring husband.

As she left her home for the last time, Shankar Kaka gave a big sigh. He stared at the ground beneath his feet, dazed, tired, resigned. He looked up and asked, “Can I go to sleep now?”

 

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Are we different or similar?

Are we different or similar? These days, it feels like everyone wants to highlight our differences: you are not the same colour as me, you are not the same caste as me, you are not the same class as me. It’s brought down to even the banal aspects: you don’t talk like me, you don’t dress like me, you don’t even eat like me. And then it gets more sinister: you don’t love like me, you don’t believe like me, you don’t pray like me.

Why are we so keen to focus on the difference? Difference in itself is harmless. After all, an apple is not an orange. However, we seem too eager to treat difference as danger and as ready to forget that difference is actually another name for variety, and variety is the spice of life.

Besides the differences between us, we also have similarities. No one wants to look at them, though. I don’t care if you love your family the same way that I do; I don’t want to know that you have the same urge to express your individuality as I do; I am not interested in the fact that we both are struggling to make our way through the world.

The world, these days, seems to be consumed by the desire to cleave itself. It is not a world in which I grew up as a kid. It is not a world that I wish to leave for future kids.

So, I focus on what I share with others. I am trying to lose weight too. I worry about my aging parents too. I hate traffic too.

Probably the biggest source of sharing right now is the FIFA World Cup. People across nations are cheering for the same teams, regardless of where they originate. There is neither a Canadian nor an Indian team playing, but I am still rooting like a fanatic. (I want my favourite team, Brazil, to win.) Whenever I’m watching a match, I cheer for whichever team I feel is the underdog or playing well. Past prejudices fall away; the reigning commentary on racial supremacy fades. I see black, brown and white players helping each other up when they’ve been tackled to the ground.

It’s a relief to watch the World Cup, against the backdrop of horrible news across the world of people being separated, harmed, and discriminated against. Instead of differences, the World Cup is bringing people together out of what they share: a love of football. Think about it, all it takes is one ball, 2 goal posts, and 22 players to bring billions of people together.

We need more World Cups. Maybe they should do it every 2 years, instead of 4. The world is urgently in need of coming together, even as it is being pulled apart at the seams.

 

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Fitness: It’s not about motivation.

It’s June, the middle point of the year. 6 months have passed since we rang in the new year, full of energy, hope and optimism. This year, we promised ourselves, is going to be The Year Of A Better Me. Remember the motivation?

If you’re like me, I have a vague recollection of that high-spirited enthusiasm for revamping myself. As I’m writing this, I’m struggling to recreate that passion that was overflowing on 1 January.

Motivation is fleeting. It doesn’t last. It is a fickle, unreliable companion for the journey towards lasting change.

The humble habit, on the other hand, doesn’t leave your side. Once formed, it sticks around, through thick and thin (no pun intended). Even when I’m sick, it keeps me mostly on track, whether it’s about clean eating, exercising, or meditating.

I have been sick lately, and I’ve not been able to exercise for many days because I’ve been laid up in bed and too weak. It’s okay. For the past 6 months, I’ve been teaching myself to listen to my body, to push myself when I am up to it, and to slow down when I need to. On the eating front, I’ve been eating a lot of fruits, drinking a lot of water, and consuming soupy lentils and lightly seasoned fresh vegetables.

All of these acts are learned – I actually don’t like fruits (I don’t like anything sweet, even Mother Nature’s bounty), I used to forget about water for hours at end, and I was a big carbs consumer, with rice comprising 70% of my plate. But, because I focused on incorporating them more and more into my lifestyle, painstakingly each day, the habit has taken shape. So, when I’ve fallen sick and am at the mercy of my whimsical brain, the habits have formed the guardrails, preventing me from falling off the cliff even at my most vulnerable point.

I’ve lost some ground on my fitness, yes. However, I would have lost a lot more if I didn’t have these good habits in place. When I pick up my routine in the next day or so, I will have have lesser ground to recover, all thanks to my habits.

If you’re trying to eat better, get more active, get more sleep, be less stressed, you will achieve all of those goals if you’re patient with yourself. Bite-sized changes, not big leaps backed by frenzied motivation, are the key. What’s worked for me: Eat one bite of rice less every week and one more of veggies. Before you know it, your plate will look different – more veggies, lentils and healthier meats, lesser carbs (don’t cut out the carbs completely, though. We need them too). Do one additional exercise or set for 2 weeks, then add another. Sleep 15 minutes earlier, to start with, then another 15 minutes earlier for another week or two, and so on. Change happens incrementally, lasting change that is. That’s what counts.

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Do nothing

Do nothing: the two most pleasing words on some days.

On a regular basis, I love giving myself the permission to not act, to not react, to not do. I give myself space, lots and lots of empty space. There are no words, thoughts or deeds trying to fill it. Simply, a spacious room with the sun streaming in, where I can meander aimlessly, guiltlessly, savouring the feeling of nothingness.

On these days, I just am. Incoherent, if need be. Poetic, if that’s what chooses to form. Shapeless, fluid, whimsical. There is a relief in these moments, to occupy space in an unplanned manner. It’s a sort of freedom, to see what form I do take, prepared to reject if I don’t like what I see, ready to accept if that’s what juices the senses. Trusting something outside of me because I have suspended all of my faculties.

Do nothing. I want a tee-shirt with this emblazoned on it boldly. It’s a revolutionary call in this day and age, where the urge is to squeeze in more than is desirable or even possible. Instead of the overstuffing, I recommend deflating. Let the air out. Quieten the noise around. See what reveals in the space. It’s a good life practice.

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How to spend less

Ever since the 2000 rupee note came out, my spending behaviour has changed. Now, when I’m considering buying something, the first thought that goes through my head is, Will the vendor accept my 2000 rupee note? It’s almost a parallel process: as I’m browsing through the goods on display, I’m worrying if I’m going to have to argue with the vendor about accepting my note because I don’t have change. The longer I browse, the more nervous I get. Many times, I walk away because I just don’t have the energy to engage in the impending argument. This alone dissuades me from even browsing.

No doubt, the 2000 rupee note has made a dent in my spending. I spend less. This is, in good measure, because of the above marketplace concern, where nobody is willing to accept the large note happily and the buying-selling interaction has become an unpleasant, sticky experience.

The other significant reason behind my reduced spending behaviour is the “bigness” of the note. It is so high in value that I want to hold on to it. It gives me a sense of security to see it in my wallet; I feel rich. In fact, it feels like a serious endeavour to break the note, akin to a major life decision that must be taken. Is it worthy? Does it uphold my values? Will I be a better person because of it?

By contrast, with smaller notes, say 100 rupees, it doesn’t feel so monumental. Yes, 100 rupees also carry a good value, but it feels more amenable to being used. The value is small enough to be friendly to use. It feels made to be spent. These days, it is the go-to currency note if you have to travel any reasonable distance by auto rickshaw, buy vegetables for the evening meal, or pick up a decent book to read.

There is an in-between note that has been introduced, the 200 rupee note, but I haven’t made up my mind about it yet. It’s like an awkward adolescent: it doesn’t really know who it wants to be yet, but it feels like it’s a big boy and should be sitting with the adults. Most of the times, I overlook it as I scrounge up small denominations even as I try to leave the 2000 rupee note untouched.

This kind of mental accounting of cash is not weird, just in case you think there’s something wrong with me. It’s a very real human phenomenon, which has been researched and documented. It’s called the denomination effect. Most likely, you recognized yourself in the scenarios I described above.

So what’s the takeout? If I want to spend less, I’m better off holding a 2000 rupee note in my wallet instead of 20 notes of 100 rupees. I will hesitate. I will defer the purchase. I will do something else (like maybe call up my mom and cheer her up with a nice, long chat).

Of course, all of this goes out the window if you’re the kind to whip out a credit card. Then, the gods be with you. I have noticed this about myself, that without the pinch of separation generated when spending cash, I am able to spend on large ticket items much more readily. It just doesn’t feel as big a deal as when I’m counting out the cash notes. In fact, it feels painless. (That is, until the month’s credit card bill arrives. Then the swearing and the regret kick in in full form.)

Avoiding spending is hard. Everywhere we turn, there are enticements that keep pushing us to buy things we didn’t know we needed or that promise us they will turn us into the person we secretly yearn to be. It takes a lot of discipline and willpower to resist, to be responsible.

That’s why, these little tricks help me. A big note. A single credit card. Low balance in the digital wallet. These things make me think twice about spending, because I’ve made it harder for myself. Where the world is paving a smooth road to spendthriftness, I’m putting in the speedbreakers.

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