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.

Why is it so difficult to embody love?

(Reading time 3 minutes)

I have a great friend whom I often have profoundly esoteric discussions with. Almost every conversation leads to a realisation of some sort, or at the very least leaves an unanswered question that simmers quietly in some obscure side-alley of the mind, until one day it emerges transformed, radiant, ready to shed light upon something else.

While I have always held that love (or some variant of it) is central to human existence, I have also always white-washed it somehow.

Let’s face it, love is not a “manly” term.

I don’t mean to suggest that it something that can not be related to, but rather that its full significance is elusive. I became aware of this after several conversations about the nature of the highest form of spiritual existence, which he always summarised as love, as does most of the literature on this subject. It noticed that this made me uncomfortable somehow, but I could never clearly work out why. It was as if that word was not the right descriptor, and in my mind I always sought to replace it with other words.

I have always been fascinated by the endless mutations of self-image and in particular self-doubt, and have always held this as one of the most fundamental areas where meaningful personal transformation begins. For a very large part of my life it is something that I didn’t even know was a problem, and it quietly left its trail of damage that I could attribute to so many other shortcomings. Once I figured it out, the only thing that changed was that I could attribute the damage to my self-image. The problem did not just go away, instead it revealed its true complexity. And this brings me back to the subject of love.

If you have any kind of trepidation about the word love – whatever your interpretation may be – and you begin to impose conditions and limitations to what and who it may or may not apply, I propose to you that you do not fully love yourself. By that I mean that we have gone beyond just accepting and forgiving whatever it is that needs to be accepted and forgiven about ourselves, and we actually have declared full and unconditional love for ourselves. We have signed that inner contract that formalises our irrefutable like-worthiness, our awesomeness and our flaws. We have vowed to care and nurture ourselves, to commit to doing what we love, enjoy, value and believe in, to put ourselves first. Above all, we have committed to treating ourselves as good and better than what we like others to treat us.

The reason for this is as simple as it is difficult. Before we can love ourselves fully, we have to confront and overcome a rather ominous entourage of demons. We have to address each of them, and defeat each of them. There is no way to your destination until every single one has been defeated, or perhaps the better term would be dissolved. And who are these demons? They are manifestation of our fears, our attachments, our guilts, our opinions, our vanities, the guardians of our comfort zone, and also the agents of suspicion, distrust, self-doubt, frustration and resentment. Sure we can claim that we do not hold a grudge, or that we are not materialistic, but somewhere deep within we know the truth. We are sh!tscared of loosing what we have, from our jobs to our loved ones. We buckle at the thought of forgiving someone we deem unworthy of forgiving. We mask intolerance with proclamations of personal values and principles that we know full-well we do not fully adhere to. We are daunted by social conventions that we neither fully understand nor agree with, and yet we comply. In that state it is hardly surprising that we can not fully love ourselves.

That last paragraph alone may raises the question – why bother?

The answer to this is personal.

Some may not think they should, or at least not at this time. You need to answer this for you only. But know that when we have faced and defeated each of these demons ourselves, the world appears different. Everything changes, in a good way. We can understand stuff. First of all, we can suddenly appreciate fully the severity and difficulty of the battles that others may be fighting, and the circle of what we consider worthy of love expands. We can recognise their journey in ours, and compassion becomes normality. When we finally reach that point where we love ourselves fully, the circle is infinitely large, dissolved, and we become also an infinite source of love. Sounds esoteric, perhaps you may even think it sounds un-manly. Loving yourself may seem difficult, but it is the foundation to truly love someone else. It is the foundation to forgiveness. It is the foundation to compassion. It is the foundation to tolerance. But most perhaps most powerful of all, loving oneself fully removes all fear, all self doubt. That is true freedom.

When we begin to truly love ourselves, we become the real deal, we are authentic and true to ourselves. We believe in the worthiness of our offering and contribution to the world, and are able to engage with that intention without hesitation, without apology. While our life’s circumstances may not start out as we wish for it is inevitable that they eventually become that. We are able to put one step calmly and confidently in front of the other, neither rushed nor hesitant. We may not know our life’s purpose, but we have a deep sence of confidence in our direction.

When I finally reached that point where I sighend that contract with myself, and declared this love fully, I understood, and the word made sense. And everything changed. While nothng around me physically changed, what I was able to see and recognise from thereon changed. Everyone is worthy of love, and no judgement, no opinion, no perception and no value can possibly challenge that.

Stop impressing your boss (do this instead!)

For the larger part of the adult population, the single biggest share of time is spent almost exclusively in the company of work colleagues, clients, and bosses. And because of this idea that our relationship with them is pivotal to our life, these are the people who we are most likely to make efforts to impress, or at least, not get unnecessarily off-side. The majority of them are people who we have never deliberately sought to share time with, they come into our life as part of a career (and usually leave with it when we change direction). In many cases they may even people who we are in direct competition with, who perhaps may even be a threat, requiring us to be even more impressive.

The relevance or lack of relevance of these relationships has a profound effect on our lives, but even more so on the lives of the next generation. When they look at you do they see substance in your purpose, in your relationships and your actions?

It is easy to jump to answer this and say “Of course!” – but the perspective from which this must be answered is not our own, it is from theirs.

That changes everything.

One very current example is this: As parents we naturally expose kids at an early age to natural icons. Rhinos, Giraffes, Elephants, Gorillas, Polar Bears, Whales. Bees. There are adventures of journeys through untouched wilderness. For most kids in primary school now, these icons are becoming increasingly likely to be extinct when they become adults. And they know that. They also know that we are somehow responsible. Perhaps not directly, but indirectly the finger points squarely at us.

This is why it changes everything:

We have inadvertently sent a very clear warning to the next generation to not follow us, to ignore our advice. We have inadvertently sent a clear message to the next generation that we don’t really care what happens to them. We have created a role-model vacuum. We have created an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, of defeat before they even begin their race. We have created a toxic environment (real and figuratively) into which they have no choice but to walk into.

But we can also change everything.

While the role-model vacuum is being filled by escapes into digital worlds where battles can still be won and where heroes still exist (for better or worse) I believe we have a moral obligation to reclaim this space. It is simpler than you think, although it requires some work – possibly difficult work because it is mostly work within ourselves.

It is simply this: Begin to shift your focus away from trying to impress your colleagues, and towards impressing your kids, whatever their age. It does not mean that you take up extreme downhill cycling, or mask up at night to become a vigilante. Here are some suggestions that won’t put you in hospital or jail.

  • Do stuff that matters. Not just to them but also to you. By spending every “free” hour entranced by a TV with a drink in hand you are declaring that you have given up yourself. Failure and defeat does not inspire, it robs others of hope, it kills possibility.
  • Show the value of life by valuing yours, and everyone else’s that you come in contact with.
  • Show respect for the natural world that they are heirs to by treating it as if it was theirs.
  • Invest ethically, into ventures that are not in conflict with their inheritance.
  • Consider who you work for. Perhaps it is time to work in an industry that is not engaged in socially or ecologically destructive practice.
  • Be kind and compassionate, not just in their presence.

There is no measure to the respect that these simple things will earn you.
There is no measure to the outlook and hope you will give them.
There is no measure to how much greater your life will become as a result.
There is no measure of how great a change is possible when many people do simple little things that matter.

And that will change everything.

Can you get as good as you give?

Giving.
Compassion.
Generosity.

The list of words that describe this simple gesture pervades all kinds of teachings, from spiritual and religious to conscientious entrepreneurship to success stories and life habits of extraordinary people.

For most people this concept, even if not necessarily executed in daily life to its full potential, at the very least rings true, and is something that is unanimously understood to be central to good character.

But giving has another side, and it is one that most people are profoundly uncomfortable about – if not completely averse to.

That other side is getting. Receiving.

Sure, when we are grateful when we receive gifts and more formal offerings, but how comfortable are you really with receiving?

The problem is deeply ingrained in most cultures, where the receiver is often plunged into a deep sense of unworthiness, entitlement, guilt, even haunted by resentment and jelaousy from others. We are trained from an early age to feel bad about receiving. It is the barter of good behaviour, it is the currency of appreciation, or more sinisterly, the emotional burden of a debt that expects to be repaid.

But for humanity to function on a simple basis around the principles of giving, compassion and generosity, for each gesture carried out someone necessarily must be a willing and grateful recipient. And sometime we must be that recipient. In fact the more frequently we show generosity and compassion to others, the more we must be prepared to receive it in return.

By refusing someone’s offering, we also do these three things:

  •  We short-cut the entire process of generosity – we effectively neutralise the other persons right and joy of such kind gesture. If we are not receiving, they are unable to give.
  •  We show disrespect towards the giver: we inadvertedly tell them what a poor judge of our character they are, what a looser they are for considering us.
  • We declare ourselves unworthy recipients, and are unable to immerse ourselves fully in the joy of the offering. We can not possibly feel gratitude or respect towards the giver. We make it clear to all that we think as little of ourselves, as we do of the giver.

It also applies to how we conduct ourselves in business, this simple reluctance to be open to receiving has a terrible price: it naturally causes us to undervalue ourselves and what we offer.

Refusing an gift is not a gesture of humility, it is a sign of arrogance, ungratefulness, disrespect and insecurity. To make our world better we must teach oursleves and our kids to be great receivers as well as great givers. We need to teach, and practice receiving with deep gratitude, understanding fully the depth and significance of the offering, emapthising with the giver, and allowing ourselves to feel the true value of what has been offered. We need to teach that with that gratitude and willingness to accept, we are affirming the giver’s right to generosity and compassion.

Give, and get. Yin and Yang. When we are able to receive with reverence, gratitude and respect, we give something profoundly meaningful back to the giver, and allow the entire transaction to become whole. Without it, generosity too is stopped.

Be whole, be wholesome. Get as good as you give.

Why you must change the rules to advance.

Several years ago I was in a very unpleasant situation that had become a protracted problem with no practical end in sight. I was extremely frustrated, and stood to loose significant assets. I could see no way forward, I was stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

On afternoon, as I was reviewing the situation with one of my closest friends who has a penchant for disruptive suggestions, he of course put forward the unthinkable proposition. 

I was furious, but he was right, and somehow I knew it.

First I collated all the reasons why that option was absolutely not viable. But little by little I stumbled over small gaps in my arguments, Instead of refuting the original proposition, I had inadvertently begun looking for ways around some of these secondary obstacles. Before I knew it I was making plans and soon the entire situation was resolved. What was more important was that I did so at complete peace with myself, and in absolute control of the process!

My friend’s precise words ring in my head to this day: “Have you thought about walking away from it all?”

The proposition itself is not that radical, but it forced me to rethink my priorities at the time. It forced me to challenge all the values that I had held on to during the conflict. Once I had literally freed myself from some of these constraints, a whole new set of possible solutions appeared.

When you are stuck or your options are so limited you can’t make progress, stop yourself and be that disruptive friend to yourself.

Ask “what is the most ridiculous, unimaginable proposition that you absolutely don’t want to consider ever under any circumstance?”

But wait, before you try to figure that out, ask why. Why is that proposition so unimaginably ridiculous?

I am certain you will discover at least one priority, one value that is not serving you, that is hindering you. I am not suggesting that you let go of ethical principles and integrity. Look for things like desire to own, control or influence situations, of gaining upper hand, of monetary gains. Look for things that you can afford to loose (even if it hurts!) but that will leave your integrity intact.

When you make the choice to omit that criteria from your problem-solving process, you will discover a vast menu of possible new ways forward.

Sure, there may be some pain, some loss, but like in my situation, the benefits far outweighed the temporary loses. And the whole process came with an unexpected benefit: it made me mentally stronger and gave me an incredible sense of achievement. It was not the result I was after, it was not even a result I had imagined. It was far better than anything I had thought possible. All because someone suggested I walk away from it all.

What is possible for you if you change the rules?

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The power of a meaningful friend.

I recently caught up with a very dear friend whom I had not seen for a long time, we worked out it had been at least six years!.

It prompted me to think about how we often allow ourselves to be immersed in business or work relationships, and as our time is increasingly consumed more vicariously by these activities (largely a byproduct of mobile technology) we can easily drift into maintaining relationships mostly for professional gain.

Our work colleagues are rarely the people whose influence, mentorship and life guidance in life we value the most. In fact, in most cases these are the people who stand in direct conflict with our true selves, and somewhere on the fringes are the people who matter.

These special people on the fringe are our compass, they point us to our true north.

They are the people we respect deeply, we look up to them. Sometimes we idolise them.

They inspire us, they are role models in some form.

They are often appear in our imagination, and participate in our inner conversations.

When we can, we ask for their opinions on the really profound stuff. When we hear it from them, we know it will be the truth no matter how beautiful, ugly or inconvenient.

These are not necessarily our closest friends. Sadly these are often our most neglected friendships. They take a greater effort to nurture because they also expect more of us. They challenge us. They are the relationships that grow us the most.

Who are the two, three, perhaps even five people who have made a significant difference in your life (besides your family)? When was the last time you made contact? Write down their names, then next to it write one word that describes why they matter. Do not let the sun set on this day without having made an arrangement to connect with them, and to thank them. Avoid email. Do it in person if you can, the phone or a handwritten card if they are cities away.

I am deeply grateful for this friend, and a handful of friends like her, even if I rarely see them. She reminded me that there are people we spend time with, and people we invest time in.

We need to do less of the first, and a lot more of the latter.