Spring takes me by surprise every year. It was mid-April and I was living inside my head again. I really enjoy thinking in general, evaluating the past and planning for the future. Learning from past experiences is good. Creative thoughts for future projects are also good. Sometimes I have a tendency to enjoy the thinking process almost too much though, and sometimes I am fortunate enough to get a very clear reminder of the value of balancing my inner life with the “real” life happening RIGHT NOW outside of my head. There are good reasons for our senses!
This particular time, my dogs were the catalysts for my “awakening of the senses.” I must admit to being initially annoyed by their interruption. “Why do they have to go for a walk now?” I wondered. “This is certainly inconvenient.” But there they were, barking through the window at every car driving by, every person with or without a dog, every noisy drop of water from the melting snow on the roof. “Nerds, get a life!” (Yes, I talk to my dogs.) So, out I went, somewhat begrudgingly, thinking only of the future and getting back to my projects. I was certainly not living in the moment, or even thinking about whether or not I should be.
Then out of the blue, literally (the sky was a bright and beautiful shade of blue), the world caught my attention. Everything seemed like a miracle. The sun was glistening off the grains of old snow, and what looked like dirty Wisconsin winter slop before seemed to shine like a million perfect tiny diamonds. The sounds hit me next, and I realized how rhythmic and soothing the melting snow was as it trickled into sewers, hardly anything I would have thought of as melodic before. And on and on I noticed things, small things like the beauty of 3 smooth rocks covered with melting snow that were finally visible and tiny flowers that were just visible if I took the time to look down at the roadside. The dogs had known this was all out there! That’s why they wanted to get out.
I am not telling you about my experience because I think of myself as a great example of how to live mindfully. I am telling you because I am so aware of how human it is to “check out” of the present and miss so much of the good stuff. The last time I remember being so keenly tuned into my surroundings was months ago. True, Wisconsin winters can be brutal, but they can also be incredibly beautiful, and I realize that it is not the best happiness strategy to wait for spring to give us a reason to marvel in the moment.
If it seems strange to hear a dietitian talking about living in the moment, let me explain why I think it is so related to eating. Relying on food for pleasure, stress relief, mood lifting, etc. can become a health problem if it is the only means of meeting these needs. By living with more awareness, there is more potential for pleasure in everything: music, nature, art, friendships, and yes, even food. I hold a strong belief that food is, and should be, a pleasure, and eating with more “in the moment” presence helps to get more out of the experience of eating, often making it possible to be satisfied with less. Have you ever eaten a whole bag of snacks while watching TV and were surprised when they were gone? How many did you really taste?! I think most of us know what that’s like!
It is helpful to acknowledge that human beings are pleasure seekers and discomfort avoiders. It is not helpful to deny this basic tendency, but it does help to make a continuous effort to look beyond food to find other ways of meeting needs for pleasure, stress relief, and emotional comfort. The goal is not to eat only when physically hungry. As long as we are human, that is not an attainable goal. But as we expand our choices for pleasure beyond food, not only will our health improve; life in general will feel more balanced. Dogs do have an easier time than we do. They always seem to live in the moment. They forget what happened a minute ago and could not care less about what lies ahead. I’m still glad I’m human, despite the more complex mental struggles that go along with it.