Mind the morsel: food, mindfulness and death.

(Reading time 8 minutes)

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.

Food is socializing.
Food is pleasure.
Food is communion.
Food is nourishment.
Food is social status.
Food is medicine.
Food is control.
Food is religious.
Food is priceless.

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.

Mindful Eating.

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.
This simple recognition places a whole new level of understanding upon what is served to us (or what we may have prepared ourselves for others) It raises our consciousness towards deep respect to what it is we are eating. We embody and feel gratitude towards the source of the food itself. This is no longer just consuming, it is mindfully recognizing and cherishing the life that transformed will become a part of ourselves.

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.

Food, besides your breath, it is the only other substance that ever becomes a part of you.

Who Killed “Time Is Money” – part 4: Dinosaurs in the Sun.

Reading time 5 minutes

In 1980 Sharp launched the first solar-powered commercial device: a calculator. Like most, my imagination went wild as I envisaged a world where our gadgets never ran out of power. The future was promising to be an exciting place.

What happened? We are still plugging our gadgets in.

Instead, the most evident change has been the increased use of re-chargeable batteries, their reduced size, and their capacity to provide a lot more power. But overall our power sources and industry has changed little, and not until the early 2000;s when the increasing smog problems in large cities due to coal-power toxic gas and CO2 pollution did serious investment in solar and other clean energy sources begin to contest the dominance of fossil-fuels in a meaningful way. So far the argument for not burning fossil origin fuels has been centered on the emission problem, and to a lesser degree on the extraordinarily damaging extraction. There is however another strong argument for saving it for more important uses (such as inert recyclable plastics necessary for sterile medical applications), or the use of coal (in far more conservative quantities) for nano-technology, electronics and industrial composite materials which has not yet entered the mainstream awareness.

While the rethoric surrounding energy industries and their importance to economies worldwide drowns out the real issues, the reality is extraordinarily simple.

The earth does not have an energy shortage. The shortage, and the inaccessibility is caused entirely by a legacy supply and business model that emerged with the industrial revolution, and being entirely dependent on that technology, it is obsolete and incapable of evolving along with innovation.

What we lack today is not better technology, but transitional models.

As a result the process is showing up to become deeply disruptive, as new technologies that have developed far enough to become overwhelming better propositions have begun to simply wipe out its predecessors, sidestep their systems and rendering them obsolete.

Besides having a considerable economic advantage (requiring little or no subsidies to be cost competitive) there is also the added benefit of speedy deployment, significantly reduced infrastructure, geographic independence, and a extraordinarily small environmental footprint. While this is often treated as an “externality” and not a factored cost within the industry, the overall economy still carries the burden of such damage in other sectors.

But that is today. What about the future?

First of all, I believe that the future will be primarily based on solar energy. Initially we will see this coupled with batteries, but in the long run we will see new technologies based on natural processes such as photosyntesis, organic substances and bacteria. processes, both for small-scale generation as well as storage. Some of the technologies currently in early stages of development include Sediment Microbial Fuel Cells (based on plants and soil) and a variety of bacteria-based systems that produce electricity while desalinating water or purifying wastewater. While these are currently still only a laboratory reality, it is easy to see the multiple benefits of such systems. Increased interest and investment and the prospect of commercially lucrative developments is certain to lead to some disruptive offering, and at the very least make a meaningful contribution to more specialised sectors of energy production.

Another aspect of solar that is non-visible light. Currently solar panels work predominantly with the visible light spectrum, but that is also changing. One of the side-plots to solar currently being developed in Canada is the use of light colours and electro-magentic radiation that is not visible to our human eyes, such as infra-red, ultraviolet and radio waves, which also hit the earth in abundance at night time. That means that while the output would not be the same as from direct sunlight, devices will still be able to generate some electricity at night.

Add to this photo-voltaic paints, films and flexible membranes. Houses, vehicles, and paved surfaces and gadgets would be painted with light sensitive paints (these already exist), or have surfaces covered with flexible transparent adhesive solar/radiation collecting films.

Combined with hyper-efficient batteries (think 100 x or more the current charge capacity) and wireless induction re-chargers, it is not hard to see that a power-points in your house will become obsolete. Most small devices will be nearly or totally energy-self sufficient. There will be no need to pay energy utilities for infrastructure costs – overland wiring will be obsolete and will at some point result in firms who will dismantle and reclaim tremendous amounts of increasingly scarce and precious copper for re-use elsewhere. No overland and streetside power-lines, and more importantly, an entire risk eliminated from the community: electrocution.

Not only will kids be able to safely fly a kite in the neighbourhood, your footpath trees will grow lush and full canopies. This may sound utopian, but only to those unaware of the critical tipping points being passed by the ongoing transformation of the energy industry world-wide. So far two countries have already achieved a 100% clean energy supply, and the number is only going to increase over the coming years, in particular in those places where there is no or only limited existing infrastructure now, such as large parts of India and Africa.

With a few exceptions (cooking, heating and refrigeration are unavoidably energy-intensive) the high voltage grid is history. The most dangerous electrical thing a child may stick his fingers in will be a usb socket, but even that will be a rarity. Most devices will simply have an induction contact plate for recharging.

Again, it is easy to see the profound disruptive capacity of emerging innovations on just two aspects of our every-day lives. It is hard to accept that this is probable, but the reality is that it is in fact almost inevitable. As these technologies get better, and the increasing cost of externalities and problems associated with an altered climate (due to our modification of the atmosphere’s delicate chemical balance) are drawn from the purses of entire countries’ economies, the impetus for transformation will only increase.

Paid electricity suppliers, and the entire networks upon which they operate will become a thing of the past.

Why? Because as we inevitably advance towards the de-coupling of income from labour, the provision of energy for the population becomes a necessary investment by governments in order to keep a country operational. On the upside, those costs will be considerably lower than they currently are, primarily because there will be little or no infrastructure build and to maintain.

As mentioned in my previous posts, all the propositions here are based on already known and existing trends and technologies, and because of that it is inherently conservative. To expect less would be naive, and any business that is intending to survive through this period of intense disruption needs to position itself to service a vastly different, but in my opinion much better world.

While I have not directly addressed the elephant in the room – social and economic models – I believe every one of us have a role to play in accelerating these changes rather than resisting them. There will be enough resistance from businesses and industries that are destined to be annihilated in the process, as well as inherently change-averse and conservative public institutions and governments. But there is also a tremendous momentum from the sheer scale, profitability and social good of these emerging opportunities. When these profound transformations are impeded and forced to slow down unnaturally, the greater the cost and damage to economies and individuals becomes, and the risk for social conflict, instability and humanitarian crises increases.

I invite you to imagine with me the day when a vast part of the population can invest their time into passion projects, the wellbeing of others, creative and artistic endeavors and stuff that no-one has imagined yet. A world where poverty is eliminated because nobody needs to work for money, and where healthy, nutritious food, water and basic are abundant and accessible in every corner of the planet. You and I will experience this world. And I look forward to be inspired and amazed by the innovations and inventions of tomorrow as I was as a kid when reading sci-fi novels and looking a books about the future.

Where will you be? What is your part of the dream?

Next week we return to our regular topics around Mindful Living. If you have enjoyed this series I’d love top hear from you. Please share your thoughts in the comments and be part of the conversation.

>>If you missed the previous parts of this series you can read them here [Part 1]  [Part 2]  and  [Part 3].

Who Killed “Time Is Money” – Part 3

Reading time 4 minutes

As we continue our journey into the future and look at what is happening in a decade or two from now, the time around 2025-2035. We are surrounded by people who are working on passion-projects and moving around in self-driving smart vehicles. Even smarter devices that make your iWatch look like a stone-axe are keeping you connected to the internet of things, enabling communication with with your home, your transport devices, collaborators and retailers, enabling making payments and other transactions.

But while robots and smart devices don’t take lunch breaks, we will.

The challenge we face today is that food production in its current form is not able to be increased at the same rate as the world’s population with our current agricultural methods.

One of the first things that we will be confronted with is a very significant decrease in meat consumption.

Meat is by far the most resource-intensive and ecologically “expensive” food to produce.
Combined with the fact that the current consumption levels in the western diet are actually causing an increased in colon cancer and other ailments, and being a contributor towards obesity epidemic. This is not as a result of the meat itself, but as a result of the habitual over-eating and unnaturally large servings of food that are common today.

The second – and far more sinister problem with meats is that the antibiotics required to maintain the health of industrially farmed animals cycle through the food chain, primarily via water. It means we are eating – and accumulating vast uncontrolled quantities of antibiotics that not only mess with our immunity, but cause resistant mutations in pathogens. To make matters worse, the livestock industry requires 6 kg of plant protein to produce 1 kg of meat protein and as a result consumes about seven times as much plant based food than what humans consume (based on US figures – these vary between countries depending on the region’s respective primary source of food).

It is highly likely that plant based foods will form the most significant part of our food intake.

But before you decide to jump the curve and become a vegetarian, it is important to aknowledge that a very similar problem exists with our current methods of industrial agriculture.

While antibiotics are the trojan horse of meat and dairy, pesticides are the equivalent problem in the plant-foods. Our current industrial agriculture methods for plant-based foods are as unsustainable as the ones for animal products. While GMO’s are contentious and are blamed for all sorts of ailments, the reality is that all food we eat today is GMO. The fashionable idea of Paleo diets (derived from “Paleolithic”, the period of very early human life from about 2.6 million years to approximately 10,000 years ago) ignore two important factors: none of the foods that have been agriculturally developed (through selective breeding and domestication, and blending of plant varieties) existed in the paleolithic. Secondly their diets varied greatly between regions and seasons. The early humans were hunter-gatherers, and significant agriculture did not emerge until the very end of the paleolithic. Today we do not (and would not) eat any of the foods they ate, most of those pre-agricultural varietes no longer exist.

One of the greatest indicators is a resurgence of lower-yield organic farming. And while these are producing smaller crop volumes, peripheral problems such as soil depletion and water-table problems are also significantly reduced. One of the most successful technological innovations of recent years is salt-water farming. This is industrial scale greenhouse farming for vegetables that is extraordinarily water-efficient. Already a commercial reality in arid countries including UAE and Australia, methods like these show tremendous promise for sustainable food production.

But besides organic grains, fruit and veggies, what will be on your plate?

Chances are that a significant part of your animal protein intake will come from farmed fish, seaweed, algae- and mushroom-derived “vege-meat” products, and “grown meat”. While still in early development, growing meat in the lab is a reality, and one that holds promise to provide meat proteins and nutrients without the enormous overhead of farming animals. But as mentioned earlier, it is likely that those will be a significantly smaller share of you overall food intake, which will be primarily plant-based, using moderate-yield organic methods. Given that a significant portion of the population will have a far greater availability of free time while robots do the boring, dangerous and repetitive work, it is not unimaginable that seasonal community and home gardens will make an important and sustainable contribution to the food mix.

Another area that will change profoundly is food-related waste, and food waste.

Disposable protective packaging will no longer be polluting – as Architect William McDonough proposed in 2002 in his book “Cradle to Cradle”, it will serve secondary purposes such as decompose an release nutrients or act as a composting enhancer. All food waste will be collected for composting either by local or by community level collection, and utilised to regenerate and enhance the soil for agriculture.

Overall food will simply become healthier again, by the simple necessity of an ecologically sustainable and sufficient supply.

This has a profound effect on health and leisure industries. Not only does healthier food mean generally less lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes, it means longer active lifespans, more energetic people with lots of free time eager to engage in meaningful experiences. The demand for experience-based entertainment will be a significant industry, that will in turn require salvaging, restoring and protecting many endangered natural ecosystems. And again, with that comes yet another industry: ecological regeneration and ecosystem restoration, this time driven by a strong economic motivator.

So now we know how we are fed the humans (and started living longer, working less, travelling more, and repairing ecosystems), but what powers the machines, the internet of things?

Last week I promised you the food and the energy of the next two decades. I have decided however to keep things brief, and so I have split this episode into two. I will explore energy next week. This is another area that is overflowing with innovative changes and possibilities worthy of the best science fiction. Except that it is not sci-fi.

The purpose of these posts is to encourage you to imagine a different future.

It is to create a context for you, so that you may wake up tomorrow exited about the future, and eager to be a part of it instead of afraid of it, to contribute and help shape it rather than to be unexpectedly derailed by it.

It’s purpose is to fight the dark and distorted reality portrayed by mainstream media, and reveal one far more certain, and far more exciting: the future as is being created right under our noses, sometimes quietly and sometimes with great fanfare, by innovators, visionaries and entrepreneurs.

Here is a link to Saltwater Farming.

Cradle to Cradle Book, Amazon (no, I am not affiliated in any way – it is still a great book!)

Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

Please share your thoughts. Agree, add to, disagree or challenge. The share and comments links below are yours to use… I look forward to hearing from you.