Years ago at a meditation retreat, we had an eating meditation. Raisins were passed out. We were encouraged to help ourselves to a small handful, "But don't eat them yet!" I sighed. I am not thrilled with this kind of exercise. I prefer to have these experiences on my own, instead of having them spoon-fed to me.
We were instructed to look at the raisins, to observe their appearance, to note their color and texture--"But don't eat them yet!" I supposed it could be worse, like "Ready now, one, two, three, open your heart to the raisins." Next we were invited to smell the raisins, and finally, after a suitable interval allowing for the aromas to register, we were permitted to put the raisins in our mouths, "But don't chew them yet!"
|In cultures where eating rituals were widespread, people experienced few eating disorders.|
By now I was feeling annoyed and increasingly aware of an urge to smash something. "Leave me alone," I complained (loudly to myself.). "Let me eat, for goodness' sake." To have your act of eating abruptly arrested is upsetting and disturbing. Get something tasty in your mouth, and your teeth want to close on it. But WAIT! We were then instructed to simply feel the raisins in our mouth, their texture, their presence. We were obliged to restrain saliva flow and the impulse to chew.
At last, we were permitted to complete the act of eating. The raisins could be chewed. More juices flowed. The sweet and the sticky were liberated from their packets--"But don't swallow yet!"
"Be aware of your swallowing. See if you can make your swallowing conscious." Some people, I guess, just have a knack for knowing how to take all the fun out of things. This noting and observing, attending and awakening, certainly doesn't leave much opportunity for joyful abandon, but I'll always remember those raisins.
Indeed, I thought of them when I taught a workshop on Zen and psychoanalysis with Andre Patsalides, a Lacanian psychoanalyst. We called the event "Eating Orders and Disorders." Andre explained that in cultures where eating rituals were widespread, people experienced few eating disorders. Conversely, we see that ours is a culture with few eating rituals and numerous disorders. Many families, perhaps 25% to 30%, almost never eat together, according to many reports. The refrigerator, freezer, and cupboard are full of each family member's favorites, which can be microwaved when each one wishes, maybe between TV shows.
It's the American dream, the American way: freedom, disconnection, food as product, food as fuel, never having to interact. The basic rule, of course, is to pay very little attention to the stuff--food, sitcom, people, or game show--coming in and then to be just a bit baffled as to why you feel so undernourished in the midst of all this plenitude.
I wanted to lead our workshop in an eating meditation, but hey, I thought, let's get real. Let's skip the raisins and meditate on eating just one potato chip. Then I thought we could go to oranges, my concession to wholesome, and conclude with Hydrox cookies. I picked Hydrox because I had heard they were the "kosher Oreos" (no pig fat, I guess).
Since I didn't want to parcel out the instructions as they had been given to me, I laid out the whole deal to start: Pay attention. Allow your attention to come to the potato chip and be as fully conscious as you can of the whole process of eating just one potato chip. Just one! So you had better pay attention.
|"Instead of words," Rilke says in one of his sonnets, "discoveries flow out astonished to be free."|
When I announced our potato-chip-eating meditation, I was greeted with various gripes, taunts, and complaints: "I can't eat just one." "That's ridiculous." "You're going to leave us hanging with unsatisfied desire. How could you?" Nonetheless, I remained steadfast in my instructions and passed around a bowl of potato chips, urging each participant to take just one. When everyone was ready, we commenced. "Instead of words," Rilke says in one of his sonnets, "discoveries flow out astonished to be free." And so it was.