Monday, November 22, 2010
Remembering with Food: A Mindful Approach to Thanksgiving
Several years ago, my wife, Celeste, and I studied meditation in Korea. Nearly every day we performed the same ritual: Around mid-morning, we’d walk the mile or so to the meditation center, don our blue martial-arts-style uniform tied with the lofty white belt (the first level), and take our seats on the padded floor with the other practitioners. We were the only Americans. We’d slowly move through martial-arts sequences, and then meditate while standing, sitting, and lying down. Often, at the end of practice, the master would pull out a small table, place a few tea cups, procure a thermos of hot water, and begin making tea without a word. With the tea now steeped, the master would ceremoniously pour a rivulet of tea into cups whose small veined cracks were stained by a thousand previous pours and a thousand previous conversations. We’d sit quietly and drink tea. I understand now the tea was part of the meditation.
After our very first meditation class, our Korean friend and fellow meditation student, Jin-soon, led us down the street to the most unsuspecting little concrete building containing a church on the top floor, a karaoke lounge on the bottom, and something called Purin Nuri (“green-blue world”) in the middle. We climbed the stairs, slipped off our shoes, and entered through the door into a different world, leaving the garish and abrasive city behind. Inside, we were embraced by the comforting smell of freshly baked bread, aromatic rice porridge, and steaming soup. Soft Korean music floated through the air as we followed Jin-soon to pick up a simple wooden bowl, spoon, and chopsticks, and began to sift contentedly through the Buddhist buffet, containing fresh lettuce leaves, glass noodles with mushrooms, tofu and veggie dishes, and a traditional cinnamon drink made with jujube berries and new pine needles. This style of food is called monk’s cuisine in Korea and attempts to be as close to the earth as possible. In fact, much of the food would be harvested from the wild that day by the owner, Moon-kyung, and her friend and helper, Sun-hee: bitter wild dandelion leaves, sharp-tasting new pine needles, and fragrant and edible flowers. These two were the only people running this intimate culinary temple. Once we filled our bowls, we sat on the floor on a cushion, our legs crossed under a low wooden table. We paused for a moment of gratitude for this feast and for our lives, and then began the long, happy process of mindfully eating. Like tea, our meditation extended through lunch. This, too, became part of our daily ritual.
Meditation is, in part, a method designed to help us understand better who and what we are through the process of mindfulness. Most of us eat three times a day, every day. No wonder it’s so easy to allow something as wonderful, sensual, and delicious as eating to become mundane or a chore. With the ease of consuming on the fly what I call edible non-food substances (read: energy bars), it’s easy to forget that eating is a sacred connection. Eating is a natural break in the day where we stop to eat the roses. We stop our work and our intellectual spinning, and fortify ourselves with something as simple and immediate as physical sensation that brings life to our bodies.
Eating is the sacred ritual of cycling life through our bodies as we ask the life of other beings, plants and animals, to become a sacred part of our own life. We re-member ourselves—as in to make ourselves whole from a dismembered state, by consuming other life and making it a part of us. Eating is like many of the old stories and myths from ancient cultures (stories like Isis and Osiris, Rama and Sita, Tristan and Isolde, even the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) where gods, creatures, and people are re-membered, are brought back together and made whole again, after the refining and learning process of death and dismemberment. And like these ancient stories, so are we re-membered, or placed back into a greater wholeness (the whole of creation), as we stop the process of hunger and death, and assimilate other life by eating. We are gathered and re-membered into an even greater whole during the sacred sacrament of sitting at supper with friends and family, laughing, sharing, eating, drinking. This reverential ritual deserves mindfulness.
The mindful approach to food invites us to pay close attention to what we eat, where our food comes from, and what impact this food has not only on us but on our environment and our economy and peoples. When considering food in this way, we may be tantalized by the panoply of flavors, colors, cultures, temperatures, textures, stories, and histories of the food we consume. With mindfulness, even a humble meal of rice and beans becomes a banquet. With mindfulness, we may sense the love that went into preparing the meal or envision the farm where the food was raised or grown. We may also sense the financial benefit to our community when we choose to support local sources. This heart and soul of eating can be gone in a flash: a fine nine-course French meal may as well be fast food if it’s mindlessly gulped down and barely chewed between commercial breaks, newspaper headlines, or text messages.
Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, a way of practicing mindfulness is to pause for a moment of gratitude before your meal. If you don’t pray, you may be creative in your expression of thankfulness by reading a poem about food or gratitude, offering thanks to the elements that are sustaining your life, or telling your dining partner(s) what you appreciate about them or the meal. I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving I spent in Zion National Park, under the afternoon shadows of the red cliffs of Angels Landing, where Celeste and I shared a meal with a wonderful friend and her daughters. For their gratitude for the meal, these friends sang a simple song together, smiling and giggling. After, we all clapped, laughed, expressed how we appreciated one another as well as the meal, and then dug into our cold turkey, green beans, and potatoes, lovingly hauled down to Southern Utah in a couple of giant coolers.
With the right mindfulness, there is no guilt in food. We may choose to eat what we feel is nourishing for us, body and heart. And we get to decide what that means on any given day. For my birthday this year, I went to the Beehive Tea Room (300 S. Main Street) and enjoyed my favorite pot of raspberry mint tea and the biggest piece of chocolate cake in the history of chocolate cake. I ate it without a shred of remorse, knowing that this is a way I celebrate my life, and chose to enjoy every decadent bite. It nourished something deeper than body. With mindful eating, we’ll know when to treat ourselves, when to nourish ourselves, and when those two happily intersect.
At the end of the day, ordinary or extravagant food becomes exquisite with mindfulness. Without mindfulness, anything can become as bland as a chalky protein bar. But with the right mindfulness, even a naked bowl of oatmeal could prove to be very provocative!
Here is a quote from one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry. Post it next to your dinner table, perhaps, as we have:
Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.
(from his essay “What Are People For?”)