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  • Writer's pictureGreg Graber

My Silent Lunch with Jon Kabat-Zinn

A few years ago I was presenting on the subject of mindfulness in schools at Rhodes College in my hometown of Memphis. The night before I was slated to speak, I sat in the crowded audience to hear the keynote by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Chances are that you have heard his name before. Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is widely recognized as the individual who introduced the West to mindfulness. His best selling books and popular speeches around the world have played such a pivotal role in the revolutionary rise of mindfulness to the mainstream he is often hailed as the "godfather of mindfulness." For someone like me who teaches mindfulness, it was a real treat to see him speak in person. I consider him to be a major influence on my life on both the personal and professional levels. As expected, he did not disappoint. His presentation was outstanding.

The next morning before I gave my presentation, one of the conference's organizers introduced me and a colleague to Zinn as we were getting some coffee. We exchanged small talk over our coffee, and I was struck by just how down to earth and nice he was. I mustered up the nerve to ask for a picture with him, and went off to get ready for my presentation. About a half our later as I am giving my presentation, I look up and Kabat-Zinn is sitting in the front row, nodding in agreement as I am speaking. I'm not sure if he was doing this because he agreed with what I was saying, or he was just being nice. I'll take it either way! I thought to myself that this is the equivalent to a musician performing with Elvis sitting in the front row and digging it. It did not suck.

After the morning presentation sessions, we were all escorted into the college's dining hall. Once we went through the buffet-style serving lines, we made it to our seats, and were given some instructions, "The first fifteen minutes of our lunch will be silent, so we can focus on mindful eating. We will ring a bell when the time has elapsed. We humbly request that we all refrain from talking until then. Thank You. Enjoy your lunch."

Despite that I have practiced mindfulness and meditation for years, up until that point, I had never given much thought to the practice of mindful eating. Every meditation course I have ever taken always started with Kabat-Zinn's "raisin eating mediation," which essentially is a mindful eating activity that demystifies the concept of mindfulness. To be honest, I always found this practice to be a little hokey. I understood the object of this activity, but I always found it over the top: taking an inordinate amount of time to touch the raisin- feel it, smell it, listen to it, before FINALLY putting it in your mouth for a while before eating it. The point of this activity is to demonstrate through eating that we typically mindlessly rush through our lives without giving much thought to our present moment activities.

As I start digging into my lunch, I come to the conclusion that we are most likely engaging in this fifteen minutes of silent eating out of respect to Kabat-Zinn, the originator of the raisin eating meditation. After processing this thought, I am brought back to the present moment when I hear someone plopping down in the chair to my left. It's Jon Kabat-Zinn. This is just my luck! It is an once in a lifetime opportunity to have lunch with the one and only Jon Kabat-Zinn, and I am not allowed to speak to him (at least for fifteen minutes). I pray to God that he is a slow eater. There is so much I want to talk with him about.

As I sit there, my mind is all over the place. I am pretty sure this is not the way a mindful eating exercise is supposed to be! My mind is stuck somewhere between trying to impress Kabat-Zinn with my mindful chewing and racing with questions I want to ask him once the bell sounds.

Sitting there, I have to laugh to myself, as I think back to elementary school to the times when we were in trouble for taking too loudly in the cafeteria and were forced to have the dreaded "silent lunch" as a punishment. As soon a my mind finally settles down a bit, the bell sounds, and we are all permitted to talk. I am happy to report that Kabat-Zinn is indeed a slow eater. We spent a good amount of time talking at the table. He was kind, wise, and engaging. The time I spent eating lunch and talking with Jon Kabat-Zinn will be one of the highlights of my lifetime. It also served as a paradigm shift for me in terms of the way I view the concept of mindful eating and its benefits.

I love food. In fact, there are very few types of food I don't enjoy. Like most Americans in our accelerated culture, there are times that I don't give much thought to what I am eating or how I am eating it. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy fine food as much as anyone, but sometimes I fall into the trap as seeing meals as just "fuel" for my busy life. This is something I have worked on the past few years. On a basic metacognitive level, just trying to be mindful of what I eat and how I eat has helped.

One of the best gifts we can give ourselves and the children in our lives is a mindful eating mindset. Eating mindfully, as opposed to mindlessly, benefits our health in the physical, emotional, and mental domains. A 2017 study published in the journal of Nutrition Research Reviews found that mindful eating interventions were most effective at successfully addressing binge-eating, emotional eating, and eating in response to external cues.

We have all heard the old saying, "You are what you eat." In terms of our physical health, we all know that much disease and health risks are preventable with a healthy diet. The practice of mindful eating slows us down, where we can give thought to what we are eating. Therefore, it helps us maintain better physical health. From an emotional perspective, mindful eating teaches us that not only "we are what we eat," but also "we are HOW we eat." The practice of mindful eating uses eating to show us how often we mindlessly rush around in our lives without giving much thought to our seemingly robotic actions.

Some tips for mindful eating:

1. Don't rush your meals. Eat and chew slowly.

2. Turn off the TV and electronic devices during mealtime. No phones or gadgets at the table.

3. Eat in silence.

4. Focus on how the food makes you feel. Also focus on your senses while you are eating: What the food looks like, what it feels like in your mouth, what it smells like, its texture, etc.

5. Think about where your food came from.

6. Give gratitude for the nourishment your body and mind is receiving from the food.

7. Stop eating when you are full. This is easier to do when you eat slowly.

8. Try to eat with others if possible.

9. When eating, just eat. Don't multitask during meals.

I enjoy conversation with loved ones during meals. You probably do as well, so it is important to note that a mindful eating practice does not have to include an entire meal in silence. If you are interested in exploring the practice, I encourage you to experiment with it, and see what works best for you. Perhaps start with five minutes of silence at the beginning of the meal. Get feedback from your children and other family members. Tinker with it.

As for me, my mindful eating practice continues to be a work in progress. I try to employ a growth mindset with it, as when I strive for perfection, I am fraught for disappointment. I may even give that raisin eating meditation another shot one day.

Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL & Mindfulness at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website:

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