north of neutral dialog

01/13/2011

by anne lueneburger

Lilian Cheung, Lecturer, Harvard University School of Public Health, Boston

Our daughter Liv is eight years old. We adore her. To the chagrin of her parents, however, she likes to eat slowly – with dinner taking up to 45 minutes to get through. This stands in stark contrast to our habits created over decades of eating quickly (unless at a celebratory event where this would be inappropriate!), and then moving on to the next thing on the agenda… So we have been encouraging her to speed up her chewing. But, it turns out, studies on nutrition and health show that it is in fact us who need to slow down and we should be learning from our eight year old.

To find out more I picked up ‘Savor’, by Harvard lecturer Dr. Lilian Cheung and Thich Nhat Hanh (whom the New York Times calls ‘second to the Dalai Lama’). ‘Savor’ is a dense and extremely informative read. But what differentiates it from many books on healthy nutrition is that it introduces practical elements of ‘mindfulness’ into the mix – based both on Buddhist inspiration and on scientific evidence. Being in the here and now not only promotes optimal weight and health, but also more general well-being. I spoke with Cheung to find out more about her research, her personal journey and what her ethos can do for us.

The role

Lilian Cheung is director of health promotion and communication at the Harvard School of Public Health. She also serves as editorial director for the school’s Nutrition’s Source website, The Nutrition Source, and has been teaching at Harvard since 1985. Her role is to translate nutrition science into multimedia resources and community programs that promote healthy lifestyles for children, adults and families. Moderator, author and researcher, she was also pivotal in the launch of ‘Eat Well & Keep Moving’, a nutrition and physical education program for elementary school children. In addition, she regularly blogs on her own website on mindful eating and living.

Planting the seeds

Born in Hong Kong, Cheung was raised in a traditional Chinese family. As a teenager she wanted to be a doctor. Her mother did not think this was advisable for a woman though, as to have a demanding career would interfere with having a family. Her mother’s influence was significant in other areas too, “She introduced me to the field of nutrition as food is very important in Chinese culture, it is considered a form of preventive medicine.” Raised in Confucianism, which encourages children to show respect for the wishes and demands of parents, Lilian Cheung agreed and pursued this as her career.

At 16 Cheung finished her final year of high school in Canada and then went on to get her bachelor’s degree from the University of Guelph, Canada, and a master’s degree and a doctorate in nutrition from Harvard University.

Ironically, Cheung found herself gaining close to 25 pounds over this period – primarily due to eating in the school’s dining halls. Moving off campus and going back to the basics of Chinese cuisine, however, allowed her to lose all the weight quickly and without too much difficulty. This experience set her on a path of emphasizing the importance of wholesome, unprocessed food and healthy lifestyles in the educational sector.

She led a collaboration with prime-time Nickleodeon Television on nutrition and fitness, co-moderated with a health columnist for the New York Times, and co-hosted forums and national conferences with the U.S. Surgeon General to address children obesity. Cheung also created, together with well-known children’s writer Mavis Jukes, a book for adolescent girls: ‘Be Healthy! It’s a Girl Thing: Food, Fitness, and Feeling Great!’, and she then went on to write ‘Savor’, with the focus on mindful eating. Cheung also writes her own blog where she discusses a range of topics, including meditation practices, mindfulness for busy executives, or just focuses on what is in her own kitchen for that day.

Touching ‘peace’

In Confucian terms, the highest purpose of living is self-perfection.  Adding to the high expectations she had for herself, Cheung was juggling being the mother of three and building a career at one of the premier institutions in the US and, as time went on, she explains that, “I felt like I was losing myself in my early forties. I was totally spent, and felt unable to refuel myself. I was numb with life. I knew I had to stop, but the question was how?”

This was when a flyer about a retreat in Key West with Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, arrived in the mail. Cheung was intrigued by this Buddhist monk, who had been nominated for the Nobel Prize by Martin Luther King for his contributions to Peace in the World, and signed up. “I arrived in Florida with the desire to be able to ‘touch’ peace.”

The majority of the 900 or so participants were psychotherapists there to get their continuing educational credits and during the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh (aka Thay) taught participants how to breathe, walk, and eat mindfully. What Cheung learnt was that what sounds simple is in fact a deceptively complex task which runs counter to one of the core lessons we have learned in the course of evolution. Every moment of life we are bombarded by an overwhelming plethora of information – think about your field of vision as you read these words… What else do your eyes see (a crease on the paper or an errant pixel on the screen, objects in the background), and what do you hear or smell or think while you read these lines?

Being mindful means selecting a thing to be mindful about and then absorbing all the sensations it offers. A breath, a step, a cherry – they all hold richly textured experiences if we are prepared to meet them mindfully.

Cheung remembers telling her husband on her return:”I believe I have touched nirvana, I don’t think I need anything more.” The experience of having four days entirely stress-free touched Cheung and profoundly influenced the course of her work and life.

Practise squared

Thirteen years later and Cheung is still highly committed to living a mindful life and enjoying the ‘here and now’: “I remember Thay at the end of our retreat saying that if we go home and do not practice, we will lose it all. That touched me – I went home and realized I didn’t have to be absolute, but could still go in the right direction.” She laughs as she describes herself as being a ‘part time Bhudda’.

This is an intriguing concept – being able to use (often short) breathing meditations throughout one’s day to promote a calmer and clearer perspective:”I did not find it hard at all to practice, it started with a little breathing meditation here and there,” Cheung shares.

Savor: Mindful eating, mindful existence

Princeton educated Thay had authored a number of books and publications but rarely co-authors with anyone. Cheung approached him in 2005 and presented the outline of ’Savor’ to him, “I asked him to write it with me. To my surprise (and after a long pause) he said ‘yes’.” As with Cheung, Thay recognized the obesity epidemic as a genuine and destructive suffering in the world.

According to ‘Savor’, the practice of being mindful and fully aware of the present moment is a crucial tool in ending weight struggles effectively: “As nutritionists we can talk all we want about the best diet, but until people become aware of the emotional, physical, and environmental influences that cause us to overeat, they will struggle to overcome their impulses.”

‘Savor’ is a rich mix of nutritional research, Buddhist philosophy and practical tips on how to create a mindful living plan. Cheung’s objective with the book was to ensure that “more people in our world will practice mindfulness as a way of life. A way of life that will help them maintain their wellness in the body and mind for as long as they can.”

Reflecting Cheung’s lessons on the importance of practicing, the book also offers sample meditations that readers can integrate into their busy schedules, helping them to become more centered, and more calm in general. Meditations on multitasking, stability, email, elevator and traffic jam are all too familiar in our busy lives. People can personalize these meditations to whatever resonates with them and their particular situation.  Cheung encourages: “It should be something that inspires. We need to water our ‘positive seeds’ in our consciousness.”

In essence: only people who pay attention and perceive ‘what is’ can effect sustainable change.

What’s next?

Cheung is currently designing her own ‘mindful eating, mindful living’ workshops:”There is a lot of work to be done with corporations. It is unsustainable to have employees overweight, sick and less productive than they could be.”

And unsurprisingly, her definition of success is not focused on wealth, position, or recognition. “Success to me is the ability to manifest my intentions for the highest good of all…”

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