I love to eat. But make it fast.
So, along with twenty-five of my colleagues at a recent clergy conference, I grumble when we are told that at lunch today we will begin with an exercise in mindful eating. We are to get our food from the buffet, sit and wait for everyone to begin eating. Oh—and be silent.
The quiet dining hall feels odd. It’s plain awkward. Mutely, I make a salad of greens, beets (my favorite) and eggs, and drizzle on blue cheese dressing. Then I ladle myself a bowl of seafood gumbo. I sit and wait. I cannot eat my food. I cannot even grouse about why I have to sit here gagged. Hey, I’m hungry here!
Eventually we are all seated and the woman leading the meditation begins. I think it’s finally time to eat, but no. “How hungry are you?” she asks. “On a scale of one to five, one being satiated and five ravenous, how hungry are you?” Well, I think, when you put it that way, I’m about a three. The act of sitting here for five minutes looking at my food, preparing to eat it—somehow the elbow-jerk reaction to grab and bolt is interrupted. I am, improbably, mindful.
Next I am to give thanks for workers who cultivated and harvested what I would prefer to gulp without a thought, and for living creatures who must die in order for me to live. Lunch does not usually rise to the level of life-and-death. But it feels good and right to pause, remember. It challenges my pell mell, witless pattern of eating.
Now I am to smell my food. I pick up the bowl and whiff the lovely mold in my tangy blue cheese. The spice-heat in my gumbo envelopes my nose. We look to the leader as if to say, Now? (Oh, let’s be honest: this is foreplay.)
Eat, she says. “Take one bite and chew it.” In goes the gumbo. “But do not swallow. Notice how it feels.” Usually I give my food a few good molar whacks and cram it down the hatch. I have to work to keep chewing, tasting now the oil of okra and the sea sweetness of shrimp. So this, I think, is what food really tastes like. Ordinary food.
“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,” Paul counsels, “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Benedict used to tell the monks who lived in his community that their life with God was found not merely in the chapel. If they washed the dishes with an open heart, it was prayer; if they hoed the garden, swept the steps, mended clothes.
These are the things I do as chores only, as quickly and mindlessly as I can. This is because my faith is mostly immature. I want the flashy experience (now!) or I have no time for this nonsense. My ego urges me to dispatch these idiot tasks the more quickly to get to “important” things. (The fact that I never seem to get to those latter glories changes nothing.) I wake up every morning hoping for the happiness which lies outside my normal life. And so a touch is numb, a kiss is perfunctory, a walk along the Sound is blind, and breakfast does not taste.
There is my happiness, hidden in plain sight.