Adventures in Mindful Eating

2 Mar

I am the kind of person who, presented with a plate of food, immediately starts strategizing about what I’ll eat after I finish what’s just placed in front of me.  Will I want seconds?  What’s for dessert?  Is there a pot of coffee brewed so I can have a hot cup of joe after the meal?

Even as I eat, I’m always thinking ahead.  What’s on my fork doesn’t concern me.  What I’m going to put on my fork next, as soon as I shove this forkful in my mouth – that’s where my mind is.

If I had been one of the poor orphans in Oliver, I would have been saying, “Please, sir, I want some more,” while holding out a full bowl of porridge.

You might think, if you ever watched me eat, that I grew up in a poor sharecropping family, where dinner consisted of a pot of succotash split among twelve people, and only the single-minded pursuit of another bite of food – even if it meant stealing it off a sibling’s plate – was any guarantee of going to bed with a full belly.

I did not.  I had one sister, and for most of my childhood, she was not only much younger and much smaller than me but also an extremely picky eater.  I was not a picky eater.  I ate everything, except liverwurst and lima beans.

My mother likes to tell the story about the first time she let me decide for myself how much to eat.  I was perhaps two, and still in a high chair.  She gave me a cling peach, and I ate it, so she gave me another, which I also ate.  Then she gave me the rest of the can.  I ate the whole thing, Dear Reader.  An entire can of cling peaches.

Then I puked it up.

Even at two, I was out of touch with my body’s satiety signals.

All this goes to say that I am someone who could sorely use a little mindfulness training around food.  Which I intended to do, with Jon Kabat-Zinn and a raisin.

But before I had a chance to buy the raisins, my ever-thoughtful husband emailed me with a link to a New York Times article titled “Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.”   The article detailed the history and benefits of eating mindfully, and referenced several recent books on the topic.  It also directed readers to the Blue Cliff Monastery, a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York, where mindful eating is practiced, and where, twice a week, the public is invited to attend.  The article was illustrated with photos from Blue Cliff.

I eagerly clicked on the monastery’s link, and discovered that the mindfully eaten lunch was part of a package deal, so to speak, in the form of a full “Day of Mindfulness,” open to the public every Sunday and Thursday. The day would begin with a lecture, followed by a walking meditation, then lunch, then a discussion of practice, with the day ending around 4 p.m.

I Google-mapped the address; Blue Cliff was an hour and a half from my home.  Was I willing to drive an hour and half and spend entire day of mindfulness among Buddhist monks in order to experience the mindfully eaten meal?  You bet I was.

When I told my friend, Laura, who is on her own journey of exploration, about the monastery and the day, she was game to go with me.

So two weeks ago Thursday, we went, arriving at 9 a.m., so that we would be on time for the first event of the day – a lecture by the monastery’s founder.

A monk dressed in brown robes, his head shaved, greeted us in the vestibule of the meditation building.  He explained that everyone would be gathering in the hall to listen to a pre-recorded lecture.  He asked us to remove our coats and shoes before we entered meditation space, which we did.

At the front of the room, several rows of mats were lined up facing a projection screen.  Each mat had been furnished with a pill-shaped, butt-sized cushion and a set of headphones.  At the back of the rows of mats was a row of metal folding chairs.

I thought about sitting on a chair, but it seemed too westernized, not in keeping with the spirit of the place and of the day, so I selected a mat in the third row.  Laura took the mat next to me.

Slowly, the mats around us filled with people, who ranged from young twenty-somethings to gray-haired retirees.  Some of these people, I learned over the course of the day, were regulars who came once a week and stayed overnight, some were staying at the monastery for a longer stretch, and some, like Laura and me, were visitors for the day.

The first row of mats remained empty until the monks and nuns, dressed uniformly in brown, with shaved heads, began to arrive and fill it in.

One of the monks stood up and explained that we would be watching a pre-recorded lecture by the monastery‘s founder, Buddhist monk and Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh.  Hạnh would be speaking in Vietnamese, but we could listen to an English translation through the headphones.

The lecture lasted nearly two hours, and was divided into two parts: an interesting and accessible half-hour teaching on five mantras, which I found both inspirational and enlightening; and a really difficult-to-follow ninety minute analysis of two apparently contradictory Buddhist teachings about perception and the essential nature of things, during which I alternated between trying desperately not to doze off and trying desperately to get comfortable while cursing my short-sighted decision to sit on a mat rather than a chair.

When lecture finally ended, I rejoiced that I had made it through without toppling over from a muscle cramp, snoring, drooling, or otherwise embarrassing myself.  We all headed to the dining hall for a cup of tea.  Laura and I would have been happy to stay there, mindfully sipping our hot tea, but the nuns persisted, in a very Buddhist way, until we joined the walking meditation group.

Once everyone was gathered, one of the nuns gave a brief overview of  walking meditation.  She explained that the purpose was to walk deliberately yet calmly, with a focus on ourselves and the world around us.  She suggested that we focus on our feet as we walked, noticing how they touched the ground, and that we time our breath to our steps.  She suggested that we say to ourselves “I have arrived” while breathing in and taking a step or two, then “I am home” with the out-breath and another step or two.  Alternately, we might want to say “I am here” and “In the now.”  We would walk as a sangha, or community, aware of others, but without talking, so that we could concentrate on being purposeful and present as we walked.

During the lecture, it had begun to snow outside, and by this time the snow was already sticking to the grass and trees.  I’d brought a pair of gloves, but no hat.  Fortunately, there were spare umbrellas for those of us without a head covering.  I popped open my borrowed umbrella and listened to the shushing sound of snowflakes hitting the fabric above me.  The snow softened and quieted the world.  We walked slowly, in a sort of clump, and I tried to stay present in the moment.  Breathe in, take a step, think “I am here,” notice the small bushes, branches frosted with snow.  Breathe out, take a step, think “In the now.”

The monastery grounds are bisected by a road, with the dining and meditation halls and monks’ quarters on one side, and a building that houses offices and a gift store, the nuns’ quarters, and guest quarters on the other side.  We crossed the road, walked around the main building, and entered the woods.  I listened to the crunch of dry leaves beneath my feet, kept my steps slow and steady and tied to my breath, and tried to quiet the incessant chatter in my brain.  I settled on a chant of “I have arrived” on an inbreath and “I am here” on an outbreath, focusing on the idea that is life is a journey but the meaning of that journey is found in the now, not in the destination.  I pause, tipped my head back and looked up at the tops of the trees, gray-blue sky above them, and felt snowflakes hit my face.  Other walkers stepped off the path and paused, taking in the snowy natural world around them.  We walked on, each at our own pace, pausing when the mood struck, so that the clump became looser and more dispersed, until we arrived at a stream.  We stopped there for several minutes, each person finding a place to be where we could pause and reflect.  I’d lost track of Laura, but it didn’t matter; I was my own company on this walk.  I noticed the clear, icy water skating over rocks and pebbles.  Here and there in the stream, bits of dried leaves and twigs had clumped together and were being blanketed with snow.  I listened to the rushing, bubbling sound the water made as it tumbled over and around stream-bed obstacles.  I felt the cold air at my nostrils, felt my lungs expand, felt my belly tighten as I exhaled.

And then we began moving again, walking slowly, purposefully, out of the woods, along the road, and back towards the dining hall.

I had come to this day focused on the chance to learn and practice mindful eating, but the quiet, slow walk through snowy woods felt like an unexpected and special gift.

And then we were back in the steamy warmth of the dining hall, a vegetarian lunch laid out on the serving table before us.

Like mindful walking, mindful eating, at least as it is practiced at Blue Cliff, asks people to slow down and be deliberate about what they are doing – in this case, eating.  One of the monks explained that we would each get our plate of food, and choose a seat, then we would wait until everyone had filled their plate and found a seat. We would be called to attention with a bell, after which one person would read a series of meditations intended to remind us to be grateful for the food before us.  Then we would eat, placing our fork or chopsticks down between each bite, so that we could concentrate on the food in our mouth.  We would eat silently for twenty minutes, not getting up for any reason.  (At this point, Laura and I looked at each other and headed for the bathroom to pee.)  Also, any time the clock chimed, which is would do every fifteen minutes, or the telephone rang, which it could do whenever, we would stop what we were doing and be still until the chiming or ringing ended.  After twenty minutes, a bell would be sounded, and we could return to conversation or get seconds.

I filled my plate, taking a bit of everything – brown rice, something that looked like sautéed shredded tofu in a sauce, sautéed greens with chunks of tofu, herbed roasted potatoes, and some raw vegetables.  I also served myself a bowl of what looked to be miso soup.  As I walked to a seat, I observed that most people had less food on their plates than I did.  Many of the monks and nuns had put their vegetables and tofu into a bowl – larger than the bowl I had my soup in, but smaller than my plate – and poured soup over that.   I briefly worried that people would point and snicker at my plate, but comforted myself that pointing and snickering did not seem very Buddhist, or mindful.

As I sat and waited for everyone to be seated, I relaxed in the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to make small talk. There was something so comforting about not having to worry about the people around me, and what they thought of me, and whether they were being entertained.  I sat, and waited, and contemplated the colorful, aromatic food in front of me.  I sat some more, peacefully and patiently, studying the strangers with whom I would share this mindfully eaten meal.  Many people smiled at their table partners as they sat, but then turned to their food, waiting in stillness.

And then the bell was sounded.  The woman sitting next to me read the meditations.  In silence, we began eating.  I enjoyed everything.  Every bite of food tasted fresh and full of flavor.  It felt incredibly decadent to do nothing but focus on myself and my eating experience, but that was what I was expected to do.  I ate slowly, placing my chopsticks down on the table between each bite, and fully tasting the food in my mouth – the slightly smoky yet sweet sauce on the shredded tofu, the bitter intensity of the sautéed greens, the crisp, sweet freshness of raw carrots, rosemary on the roasted potatoes.  I had nothing to think about other than the food in front of me, and I loved it.

When twenty minutes had passed, and a bell was sounded to end the period of silence, I was sorry.  Yes, I could now get seconds, or make myself a cup of tea, but the bell also released me from that wonderful cocoon of contemplative aloneness that I’d found myself reveling in.

I chatted with the woman sitting to my right, who told me that she comes once a week to the monastery.  Laura and I compared thoughts about the morning.   The room still felt calm and safe, and I was relaxed and satisfied.

Because the snow was still falling, and now sticking to the roads, Laura and I left the afternoon discussion session early.   We were in the middle of nowhere in the Catskills, after all, and had to drive for miles on winding country roads in my little Toyota Corolla in order to get back to civilization.

From the vantage point of two weeks later, my day of mindfulness feels like an iridescent bubble of calm that I can recall in great detail, but that I haven’t been able to reach out, grasp, and bring forward into my life.  I have not eaten another mindful meal or taken another mindful walk in the two weeks since.  Some of that is because I opt to spend my time other ways; given the choice between picking my daughter up at school and hearing about her day, or walking mindfully but alone, I’ll choose the time with my daughter.  Similarly, dinnertime is family time, when we sit together for a meal.  I shovel food mindlessly into my mouth, but that’s because I’m focused on the people I love who are sitting at the table with me.  I wouldn’t trade those even one minute of those dinnertimes for the most perfect mindfully eaten meal.

However, as I sit with my bowl of oatmeal each morning, after everyone has left the house, The New York Times open on the table next to me, I do make sure to notice what’s on my spoon as I bring it to my mouth.  I focus for just a second on the tastes of the bite.  And then I turn my attention to the paper, to see what’s happening in the world.


8 Responses to “Adventures in Mindful Eating”

  1. Laura March 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    Cathleen- a beautiful recounting of a beautiful experience!

  2. Jennifer Lang March 8, 2012 at 5:22 am #

    I so wish I could have joined you two! Sounds utterly amazing.

  3. John March 8, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    Great piece! Eating mindfully is an elusive goal of mine, too. Thanks for sharing and inspiring.

  4. Louis Greenzweig March 8, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    Stopping to smell the roses is so often neglected in our fast paced communicative world. It is a wonderful experience to smell the roses and I try do it as often as I can. From the rear deck of my home I have seen hundreds of sunsets. I often golf at sunrise and the sky is an incredible canvas most of the time.Life is really amazing when you take the time to enjoy the moment, wherever you are.

    Eating mindfully sounds really great. Do you eat to live or live to eat? I will try it but only after the reduction sauce is made to perfection!

  5. Dhru Silencieux March 8, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    Wonderful writing! I felt like I was right there with you in all ways. Keep up the great work….

  6. bronxboy55 March 14, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    This is beautifully written, Cathleen. You’ve re-created the experience for your readers, and that’s never easy to do. I’ve often found myself wondering what my food would taste like if I’d had to go without eating for several days, or had to resort to eating only bland and uninteresting things. This post is a reminder of how much of the world passes us by unnoticed. Thank you for that, because I want to notice, and remember.

    • Cathleen Barnhart March 15, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

      Thanks so much, Charles. Your comment means a lot to me yours is one of my very favorite blogs to read. I am continually impressed by the things you think of to write about, your humor, and the overall wonderfulness of your prose.


  1. Suan Mokkh | A travel journal - March 19, 2012

    […] Adventures in Mindful Eating ( […]

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