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.
First the room was loud with crunching, then quiet with savoring and swallowing. When all was fed and done, I invited comments. Many people had been startled by their experience: "I thought I would have trouble eating just one, but it really wasn't very tasty." "There's nothing to it." "There's an instant of salt and grease, and then some tasteless pulpy stuff in your mouth." "I can see why you might have trouble eating just one, because you take another and another to try to find some satisfaction where there is no real satisfaction to be found." "If I was busy watching TV, I would probably think they were great, but when I actually experience what's in my mouth, it's kind of distasteful."
That one potato chip even surprised me, the experienced meditator, with its tastelessness. Now I walk past the walls of chips in the supermarket rather easily without awakening insidious longings and the resultant thought that I really ought to "deny" myself. I don't feel deprived. There's nothing there worth having. And this is not just book knowledge. I know it.
The oranges were fabulous, exquisite, satisfying. The reports were: "Juicy ... refreshing ... sweet ... succulent ... rapturous." About half the participants refused to finish the Hydrox cookie. One bite and newly awakened mouths simply bid the hands to set aside what remained: "This we know to be something we do not need, desire, want, wish for. Thanks anyway."
The ritual of eating attentively in silence put everything in order.
How to Eat Just One Potato Chip
Bets have been made. Challenges have been laid. You've been told you can't do it. You've never dared to try, but here's the secret. Taste. Taste what you put in your mouth. Experience it!
The potato chip is already manufactured and is always "ready for you" (waiting perhaps innumerable eons for this opportunity), so concentrate on preparing the other ingredients. To strengthen and focus the concentration, eliminate all the most obvious distractions: TV, radio, stereo, reading material (especially People magazine and the daily newspaper), talking, shopping, driving. Concentration is to be applied to the potato chip and only to the potato chip. No dip allowed. You are encouraged to be seated and not to have a drink in the other hand.
|Here's the secret: Taste. Taste what you put in your mouth.|
Attention is to be attuned to what is actually present moment after moment. "Attuned" because attention is often turned toward what is wished for or feared, and frequently glosses over the actual experience. Refine or focus the attention by pointing out what is to be attended to: how the chip feels in the hand, how the chip looks in the hand, the smell of the chip, the intention to place said object in the mouth, how the chip feels in the mouth, how the chip tastes (moment after moment!), how the chewing sounds, and, carefully now, the sensation of swallowing.
Mindfulness is to be "whipped up" or aroused, as it tends to save itself for things more important than chips. Remind yourself that eating a potato chip with mindfulness is vitally important. To be mindful means that the experiences attended to actually make an impression.
One way to arouse mindfulness is to practice making notes about what you are going to tell your grandchildren about this particular potato chip: "beige ... greasy between the fingers ... exquisite curve ... cute ruffles ... urge (like a fire flaming to life) to place in mouth ... feel with tongue ... powerful crunch..." and so forth. But please, don't take my word for it. Find your own words.
Got your ingredients together? Seated? Undistracted? Focused? When you are ready, you may pick up and eat (better yet, savor) that one potato chip. Get everything you can out of that chip, because it's the only chip in the entire universe.