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The repeated dry thud of the hammer striking the wooden block announces the meal time. The monks seat themselves upon their platforms, facing their bowls which are carefully wrapped in cloth. In a precise choreography of movements, they untie the knot, lift out the utensils and napkins, then the bowls, and calmly place these in front of them. The cloth is carefully folded and placed next to them. Then they wait in meditative silence. One by one, monks assigned to cooking duties move by them pouring and placing foods into the bowls, them move onto the next seated monk, raising a trail of fragrances and steam. A bell rings, and the monks begin a ritualised engagement with the food, inviting all their senses to participate. They smell , the look, they savour. Sometimes all food is served at once, sometimes many different dishes are served after one another. When the last morsel has been eaten, the monks clean their bowls with a napkin and hot water, and then arrange all items on the wrapping, and tie up the knot. They lift the bundle up again and return it to their respective storage compartment.
During all this time not a single word is spoken. The meal was entirely made from donated/gifted ingredients, and food grown on the temple grounds by the monks. This is meal-time at a zen monastery.
elsewhere, Mindless Morsels.
More often than not however, for most people in what is often referred to as the deloped world, food just happens.
It happens in between loud conversations both friendly and hostile. It is rushed in mouthfuls in between words in a meeting, or while getting children ready for school. It is consumed voraciously and washed down with drinks on a Friday evening. It is snacked obliviously while the eyes are entranced by the intense drama unfolding on a screen. It is mechanically ingested while your team forges ahead to score that decisive goal, the entertainment demanding our fullest attention. It is taken discretely in scoops and handfuls from the buffet for fear of missing out. It is piled down round after round in reply to a persistent craving. Thirst and hunger, fatigue, fragrances and aromas, the rustling of someone else’s sandwich bag, and virtually anywhere you look there is something that reminds us about food.
But can you actually remember subtle nuances of fragrance and flavour, aroma, even temperature of your last cup of coffee? Or what particular flavours and aromas were present this morning in your breakfast, or last night’s dinner?. That is, without checking Instagram to remind yourself what you ate.
Besides a general and obvious description, don’t be surprised if you struggle. You are not alone.
With the technological advancements of food production and distribution we have massively improved access to food and disperesd regional variety of ingredients across the globe, while on a local scale we have lost over 80% of our agricultural diversity including many native and indigenous food stocks, and with that we have also lost the knowledge about their cultivation and preparation.
As a byproduct of this convenience we have also lost our ability to comprehend the true significance of every morsel of food that we place in our mouths. And we paying for it dearly. Modern food production (both plant and animal based foods) make up over a third of all green-house-gas emissions, and the scale of soil degradation, and land and ecosystem destruction is threatening its very production. We also have a grave (and growing) health epidemic that is firmly founded on how and what we eat.
While the deeply considered and ritualized meals of a zen monk are perhaps an extreme manifestation that is neither practical nor necessary for most, it provides a useful framework towards grasping the true meaning of food.
The general perception of mindfulness is often misunderstoood as a passive thing, implying non-action. Mindfulness is not an action, it is a way to act. It is not constrained by what the activity is. It may be as fundamental and simple as simple breathing, or as laborious and physical as sowing crops.
And if we take this idea toward its most extreme application, it is also possible to kill mindfully.
The first of the ten grave precepts of Buddhism (and parallel principles exist in nearly every other faith or philosophical framework) proposes that we should endeavor to avoid or abstain from killing any other living being. Yet while the natural order may appear in direct conflict with this principle, it is actually a profoundly important – and evolutionarily essential – foundation to the propagation of life. The conflict is not in between nature and this foundational philosophical value, but in our understanding and our western relationship with life and death. Virtually every religious and spiritual teaching has undergone millennia of repeated translations and cultural shifts, and the languages and the concepts embodied within specific words can today only be assumed from what we know about their cultural context.
The teh common and underling fundamental premise is less about killing than it is about preserving and protecting life.
Vegan eating has long been associated and represented by many religions as the embodiment of this idea of not killing. While on the surface it may appear like a credible argument, the simple fact is that all complex living organisms exclusively rely on other living organisms for sustenance, either plant or animal. Besides certain bacteria, every living organism needs to eat other living-origin matter to stay alive. Humans are no exception. In order to eat the leaf of a cabbage we must dismember it, – remove it from its life-support system- to take advantage of its medicinal and nutritional potency. Even the most staunch vegetarian is inflicting death upon a living organism with every mouthful.
We can not survive without consuming – and thereby transforming – another living organism or a part of it into nutrients that we ourselves need to live. There seemingly is simply no way to escape the life-and-death duality. We either kill in order to eat and maintain ourselves alive, or we abstain from killing, and die of hunger, thus intentionally bringing about our own death.
Life and death.
Linguistically, we define death as the opposite of life. Other definitions include the absence of conscious self-awareness, or even absence of self-regulating biological processes. We have no difficulty in recognising life and death, even a child has an intuitive understanding of these modes of existence. And while science accurately predict and define the presence of life through specific measures and observable processes, a comprehensive definition of what it is remains elusive.
The concept becomes even more intimidating if we take the definition beyond the individual organism. Think ant vs ant colony.
If we consider life as a function that is not intrinsically tied to single individual organisms, but that the organism is part of a larger living system, the the “transfer” of life-supporting matter for one organism to another acquires a whole new level of meaning: we are now ensuring that life is sustained, that such matter (i.e. the nutrients) are being utilised to nourish, heal and sustain another living organism. Life and death are evolutionary pre-requisites, and at this level, both have essential life-preserving purposes. In the concept of killing is no longer true in the strictest sense of the word, eating and all activities invested in the harvesting of food -be it animal or plant origin- becomes an act of transfer of life, of transformation. And transformation underpins all forms of existence.
Let us return again to the very ritualized meal of a Zen monk.
Before the food is eaten, it, and its origins, are acknowledged.
It rises our conciseness towards the healing and nourishing power of the dish. It is also useful in bringing to our attention when such food may be unhealthy, reducing our wellness, robbing us of vitality, or simply being sourced from a nearly endless chain of processing that leaves little or no trace of its true origin.
Then we see the dish, we contemplate it. We rise our conciseness yet again to the presentation. The colors, the size and form of the ingredients. Our attention now centers our respect on the cook, of the offering itself, and the effort made by either ourselves or so someone else in bringing that regenerating nourishment and healing to us. We recognize the offering as a a gesture of generosity, and we can delight in the craftsmanship and be thankful for it.
Then we allow ourselves to inhale the aromas. As before, our conscious appreciation continues to be elevated – and yet we have not had a single mouthful of it! It is impossible at this point not to sense a profound reverence and gratitude for what we are about to eat. Our show of such respect is to do justice to the offering, by devoting our full attention to the meal, taking the time to appreciate and recognize the subtle and the bold flavours, the fragrances and the textures that constitue our meal.
Most good foods are full of lush and complex favors. From a simple piece of apple to a mouthful of plain steamed rice, all have layers of delight that are only revealed to us whe we allow ourselves to be fully present, to mindfully eat. And while it is not necessary to eat austere and minimalistic dishes, doing so from time to time will only help you have an even more fulfilling experience when you eat a complex dish.
All along this process our awareness to how this food makes us feel naturally also increases, resulting in a very clear sense of when we have had enough to eat. It is impossible to over-eat when we are eating mindfully, even if our plate is stashed high. A well known Japanese saying sums this up: “Hara Hachi Bu” or “eat until you are eight parts (or eighty percent) full”. Only when you are fully aware and present while eating is it possible to sense when’s our have eaten just enough.
I invite you to apply this level of attention to your next meal, regardless of where or what it is. Leave your desk if you can. Stop and sit down, somewhere you can calmly eat. Away from screens, magazines, book and mobile devices, including your mobile phone.
One by one invite every one of your senses to participate and share the meal with you. Even the simplest food will appear sublime, extraordinary. It is not something that anyone can describe for you, as that can not easily be put into words. I can only encourage you to practice it, and feel it. A deep sense of fulfillment from a meal is only possible when we have appreciated in full all its qualities, experienced the flavours and aromas, and reached the point where we have eaten enough to feel contented and satisfied, but not so much that later on our satisfaction is diminished by a feeling of bloated fullness.
This is a simple practice that when cultivated will change your life.
Receive your meal with genuine gratitude, and consume it with respect and your full attention, embodying such gratitude, honouring all the life that now becomes part of you. Not only will your enjoyment of food increase, but your will naturally be drawn to the pleasure of wholesome foods. And just imagine what powerful effect this will have on your overall health, your stamina, your mental clarity and ultimately your life-expectancy. Teach this to your fiends, your spouse, your children no matter what their age, perhaps even teach it to your parents.
Over-consumption and mindless eating are becoming a tragic generation-defining habit, augmented by the disastrous medical and the social ailments that these foster. Meals are consumed from disposable containers while reading social media feeds. The food itself has become secondary – a nearly forgotten mechanic activity, devoid of purpose, and devoid of the profound delight and communion that is inherently and naturally part of it. While there is a trend emerging in reclaiming our knowledge of not just preparing foods, but also understanding and mastering its production, for most people simply giving each meal the attention it deserves is all that is needed.