In the comments to Dogen’s “Instruction for the Zen Cook” Uchiyama Roshi mentions frustration with his own inability to chase away “hungry ghosts” when he started serving as a tenzo in the end of 1940s. At the time food was scarce so I imagine talking of “hungry ghosts” was more than a figure of speech. In notes to his own comments he explains what it means in the Buddhist context,
“Hungry ghost” is a literal translation of the Japanese word gaki. Ga means to be famished or hungry, and ki means a demon or ghost. In the context of Zen Buddhism, gaki refers to that which arises which arises inside our us human beings, and which is never satisfied with what we are or what we have.” (p. 108)
Reading these lines and my own observation of being around the food made me think of the “hungry ghosts” that I’ve been having visits from. The days of food shortage are over (food coupons we had after the fall of the Soviet) but not the feeling of hunger, of not having enough of something. Staying with the issue of food alone, I can see how mindful eating (through engaging all sensory fields) can enrich my own experience of food.
In this post I’d like to share the exercise called “Who is hungry in there?” that I transcribed after the Tricycle magazine’s podcast episode called “Are you hungry inside?” . The instructions are about 7 min long but exercise itself can take longer.
Who is hungry in there?
In this exercise we access the seven different kinds of hunger.
Preparation: sit down with some food in front of you. The amount of food does not matter (it can be a whole meal, it could be one cracker). Start by doing it alone, so you don’t feel awkward. Do this exercise at least once a day until it become a second nature.
Each of the seven hungers is associated with different parts of the body. In ME (Mindful eating) before we eat or drink we look inward and we ask each of this body parts if they are hungry. If the answer is Yes then we ask that part how hungry it is on the scale of 0 (Not interested at all) to 10 (Famished). The parts of the body that we look at are the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the stomach, the body or the cells, the mind, and the heart.
Begin by sitting down with some food in front of you. Take a deep breath and relax a bit.
Before you begin eating we are going to access the seven types of hunger.
Take the food in with the eyes. Look at the colors and shapes of the food, notice surface textures, areas of light and dark. Now ask the eyes how hungry are they for this food. On the scale of 0 (Not interested) to 10 (I ma going to eat it right now) how would you rate your eyes’ hunger? Do you have a number?
Next you access Nose hunger:
Smell the fragrance of the food. You may have to lean down or pick up the plate. Don’t be embarrassed. Then move away to refresh your nose and then come back to the food to sniff it two or three times. Now access nose hunger on a scale 0 to 10. You have a number?
Before you eat this food can you tell how hungry the mouth is to taste it? Put your awareness in the mouth and rate moth hunger from 0 (Not interested) to 10 (I’ll eat it right now).
Try to put your awareness in the stomach and feel and rate how hungry your stomach is right now. Is it not interested (0) or is it telling you it is starving (10)?
As you look at this food can you investigate how hungry the cells of your body are just now?
Bring your awareness in the whole of your body and rate the body’s hungry from 0 to 10.
Can you hear what the mind is telling you about this food or this meal? Remember that the mind often speaks in “Should it”/”Should not eat” phrases. Can you rate the mind’s hunger on the scale from 0 (Should not eat it) to 10 (Must eat it!)?
Ask your hunger how hungry it is to eat this food. Heart hunger is related to feelings. Rate heart hunger from 0 to 10. For example 10 might be (“I may not feel happy if I eat this. I might even feel anxious if I eat it”). And 10 might be “This food will make me feel comfortable and at ease”.
Before you start eating you also might investigate thirst. On a scale from 0 to 10 how thirsty are you right now?
Ok, now that you’ve assessed the seven hungers and thirst you are ready to begin eating and drinking. Half way through the meal stop again and do a quick assessment of the seven hungers and assess thirst again. When you finished the meal pause for a moment and do the assessment of the seven hungers again.
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If some of the questions make no sense or if you don’t feel response when you ask about a certain hunger Don’t Worry! Just the questions and be open to any answers that might or might not arise. Once you learn to investigate who inside you is hungry and make it a regular routine to stop and ask the questions before you eat, then you can make a more informed decisions about whether to eat or not. Only food and drink will satisfy stomach and cellular hunger. However there are many alternatives to food for satisfying the other five types of hunger. If want to feel satisfied and eat the appropriate amount, we need to learn to take food in through all the sense doors, becoming awake to the color, the fragrance, the texture, the taste, the temperature, and even the sound of our food. And if we want to be content in this moment and to be nourished by whatever comes into our life, we also might find ways to feed not only our body but also our heart.