Being peace in every bite: getting friendly with food and how I eat

Calligraphy, Thich Nhat Hanh
I was on retreat at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi with about 900 others with Thich Nhat Hanh (Thây) and a monastic community. This is the second in a series of posts about my experience. The first post is here. (Posted in October 2013)

I’m in one of six lines for dinner the first night. 

A gentle breeze wafts the fragrance of coconut sautéed peppers, yellow and orange squash, broccoli, onion, and eggplant. Bowls hold nuts, tofu, quartered apples and oranges, mounds of torn kale, brown rice, mesclun greens mixed with peppers, carrots, and tomatoes, and bean mixes. Sauces are available to drizzle. Hot spice-infused bitter melon offers a first-time taste adventure. I don’t know its name until I Google it when I get home:  goya or karavella from the plant Momordica Charantia.

This meal is vegan.

A person in front of me picks a vegetable from a bowl, puts it in her hand and then into her mouth. I think, “That’s not how we’re supposed to do it.”

She chews, looks at me and asks, “What is it?” I shrug my shoulders and smile. She slaps a spoonful on her plate. A man in front of her bows his head slightly at the food while making lotus flower hands (eight fingers up touching each other with thumbs crossed as a gesture of giving appreciation).

People stand around two waist high pots big enough to hold, well—a person, filled with a luscious thick purple and white potato soup swirled with greens.

Within hours, I’ll learn that my work meditation is kitchen clean-up after dinner. I’ll see first-hand how three meals a day for 900 happens with such deliciousness and efficiency. (I’m still flabbergasted about witnessing one monastic brother using a hand immersion mixer to make hummus from fresh garbanzo, enough for all to enjoy.)

In a brief meeting earlier, we’re reminded that we’ll practice eating in noble silence.

“Silence heals. We allow it to penetrate our flesh and bones.”

Noble silence means that I breathe deeply and enjoy the stillness and the freshness of quiet. I don’t talk to the person by my side. I do not have to wait for anyone after I serve myself.

I practice eating awake to its spiritual and physical benefit.

That means chewing well (every mouthful at least thirty times) so saliva has a chance to aid the digestive process. (I hear my stomach thanking me in advance for such kindness.) It also means eating with reverence for life.

“Consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in your body, the collective body of your family, our society, and earth.” I feel myself open to consider the interdependence of such an intention.

I recall my husband’s annual diligence to grow vegetables for us. I transfer this effort to what it takes to feed 900 of us tonight.

“Eat with your whole being.”

I take a bowl and fill it with tastes of everything, carefully considering portion.

I sit on a ledge near a garden, take out my turquoise polka-dot cotton cloth and open each corner as if unfolding an origami. I spread it on my lap.

I look into my bowl.

I focus on a kale leaf and see the rain, sun, and earth. I see seeds sown, pollinators, farmers, transporters and cooks who bring it to my plate. I tell myself, “Be gentle with yourself. Really try not to gulp, Susan.”

I close my eyes as if understanding for the first time the grace of such a nourishing gift.

I take a bite and put my fork down.

Quietly to myself I say,  “Kale, kale, kale” as a way to stay aware of what I’m chewing and to not occupy my mind with anything else. 

I feel fortunate to have nutritious food to eat and even more fortunate to have a community to slow my pace.

From time to time I look at the people sitting nearby, stop chewing and smile. A bell sounds and I take three breaths.

I take another bite. But my teeth quicken the pace.

They connect with my habit of a few chews and push the food to my tongue. My stomach growls its way into the scenario. But I know what’s going on. I think, “No swallowing yet.” My tongue pushes the food back over to my teeth.  I take a breath.

My teeth chew.

I think I have a little Thay story in the making. I remember a lesson he shares about how he was hammering a nail to the wall to hang a picture. He admits he’s not skilled with the hammer and instead of hitting the nail, he hits his finger. And what happens? Immediately, the right-hand put down the hammer and takes care of the left hand. In a hand-hugging gesture.

The right hand never says in a blaming way, “Left hand, I’m taking good care of you, you should remember that. Hold the nail steady.” And the left-hand doesn’t say critically, judgmentally, and with revenge, “Right hand, you hurt me and made me suffer. What lousy work. I want justice, give me that hammer.”

I transfer that story to my current plight: my tongue doesn’t say, “Hey, teeth! You’re slackers. Get with the program.” My teeth don’t say, “Lazy tongue, get busy.” My stomach doesn’t yell up to my teeth and tongue, “You’re bad at this.”

No. Tongue gently pushes food back over to teeth. And teeth keep chewing and when they’re done, the tongue takes the food and signals a swallow, no questions asked. Stomach does its job as it always has.

I think, “Hey, I’m awake to eating in this moment.”

I notice that my spoon holds a macadamia nut. Even though I know that this dense circular nut needs 60 – 120 inches of rainfall a year and the sunshine of Hawaii, it’s not the first nut on my favorite list. I think, “Susan, no discrimination,” and chew it with appreciation. It’s a tastier nut than I remember.

I pause every once in a while to gaze at the garden and woods in the distance.

After dinner, I carry my bowl to the dish-wash lines.

I wait my turn breathing in and out. I can already feel myself slowing down.

The soapy water invites completion to my dinner. I gently move the sponge back and forth over my bowl and spoon before rinses in multiple tubs. I turn and place my dishes in a rack for sanitizing and smile at the person overseeing that task.

My steps are deliberate and soft as I head back to my cabin.

I see that I’m doing very much the same things as I do at home: walking, eating, working, washing hands and dishes, making my bed, except now I’m learning to do them with an awareness that I am doing it. 100% with the present activity, moment.

At the end of the week, I weigh six pounds less and feel better than I have in years.