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Sunday, November 25, 2012
Remembering with Food
Several years ago I studied meditation in Korea. After my very first meditation class, my Korean friend and fellow meditation student, Jin-soon, led a small group of us 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.
Especially after this wonderful Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve been thinking that 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 and 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.
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 my small family 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.
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?")
I know this is the week after Thanksgiving, but if you had any sort of wonderful culinary extravagance as I did, you might be interested in continuing the feast of mindfulness with these simple practices.