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Sustainability and Mindfulness

Thursday, September 12, 2019 12:23 PM | Anonymous

Food, Sustainability and the Role of Mindfulness

By Caroline Baerten, MA, RD

The skill of ecological perception

“The ecological crisis may be the result of a collective perceptual disorder in our species, a unique form of myopia which it now forces us to correct.” – David Abram

I take Abram’s statement quite literally. Our “collective myopia” is one manifestation of psychic numbing – a psychological defense against witnessing the pain of the Earth.

Full awareness can hurt. In response we build defenses, or we choose among a variety of convenient distractions. We become numb to our feelings, to what we might hear and see, and our myopic defense blinds us to the severity of current Earth conditions.

In his book “The Voice of the Earth,” Theodore Roszak presents a theory in which he explains that the roots of our collective behavior toward the Earth can be found in the split between “in-here” and “out-there.” This thinking creates a large gap we feel between ourselves and the nonhuman nature (animals, plants, minerals). If we would experience ourselves as interconnected and with fluidity of boundaries, this would manifest in more empathy with family, friend, community, humanity and similarly with the whole of the nonhuman world.

It is a shift of perspective from attention of my suffering (I, mine) toward more environmental, contextual awareness.

Our sensory capacities – taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch – are the fundamental avenues of connection between self and the world. The deadening of our senses is at the heart of the environmental crisis and reawakening them through mindfulness is an integral step toward renewing our bond with the Earth and all living beings.

Slowing down and learning to attend

Attending is the flip side of psychic numbing. Focused attention produces a richness of color, a depth of sensory experience. The ability to fully use our attentional capacity is a learned skill, requiring the practice of mindfulness and awareness. When we slow down and eat quietly, we can really enjoy our food on a sensual level.

We make behavioral (and subjective) choices based on what we see, smell, hear...

In the context of our ecological situation and the need for sustainable choices, it would be wise to become more mindful of where we place our attention.

According to Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, the first step is learning to attend, the cultivation of a “wakeful presence.” When the mind isn’t present in the body, we look, but we don’t see; we listen, but we don’t hear; we eat, but we don’t know the flavor of the food; we breathe, but we don’t feel alive.

Cherish all life on Earth – cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect our people and the planet.

In love with the Earth

When fueled by beauty and sensuality, our relationship with the visual world may move our hearts. As what we see and perceive becomes meaningful and vital, we feel it in every cell of our bodies. Participation is felt by sensations in our bodies and shifts in our hearts. Participation in this way is essential if we are to care enough for the Earth; we need to take time to look and to view her through “love eyes.”

The bread in my hand contains the universe

While we eat we can be mindful of the food and mindful of the community. It is a chance to receive the many gifts of the Earth from which we would not otherwise benefit if the mind is elsewhere. Nothing comes from nothing. Bread comes from the wheat fields, which need rain and sunshine. So every slice of bread also contains sunshine, the clouds, the Earth, time, space, and the hard work of the farmer, supplier and the baker. The whole universe has come together in the piece of bread. Eating mindfully is a way of showing appreciation for all the hard and loving work that has gone into creating this meal.

Interconnectivity and compassion

Having the opportunity to sit with our family and enjoy wonderful food is something precious, something not everybody has because many people in the world are hungry

Realizing this makes us aware of the unique eating moment, and care and gratitude naturally arise.

This awakening through the energy of mindfulness and compassion is what we need to live in a sustainable way.

It is only through clear understanding of the impact of our actions that we can see how unwholesome food patterns create suffering for the body and mind. Insight into what the short- and long-term impact will be for the body will bring a shift in awareness: Becoming aware of the negative tendencies, especially greed and the feeling of “not enough,” and learning to eat the right amount of food. In our Western society, a lot of food waste is often based on ignorance about what the effect may be on our food production system.

Thanks to the correct view of our consumption, we will see more clearly the effect of eating behavior on:


      Our human body and emotional and mental states.

      Our production methods (industrial scale, methods, food supplies, forests, grain prices, global emission).

Eating in a sustainable way is about the quality of our food and the determination to ingest only food that keeps the body healthy and compassion alive. It is eating in a way that doesn’t cover up the stressful feelings but acknowledges them and helps to transform them.

Mindful consumption and eating involve recognizing exactly what we need to consume (in all senses of the word) and what not to consume to keep our bodies, minds and the Earth healthy.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Food for Thought

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Caroline Baerten (Belgium) is a mindfulness-based dietitian/RD, qualified chef and integrative psychotherapist (i.t) specializing in work with disturbed eating behavior, weight issues and sustainability. Her passion is urban gardening in the heart of Brussels and organizing farm-to-table dinners in collaboration with local farmers. Comments on this article are welcome and can be reached at

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