By Peter Schaller
Last Tuesday was a long, exhausting day.
I spent the entire day in the field, working with small farmers to identify areas on their dusty properties for reforestation.
The day was full of climbing and descending the mountains in this arid region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. At lunchtime, I had managed to sneak back to the truck to eat a couple of warm bananas that had been roasting since morning. I will not even venture to say that I was “hungry” or “famished.” There are more than 800 million people in this world who suffer from hunger, but I am not one of them.
We have come to use the word hunger much too flippantly.
However, I can say that my stomach was empty. Having started the day with a breakfast of fruit, prior to the roasted bananas, the calories I had consumed had long ago been converted into energy and burned into oblivion. I could feel the fatigue in just about every organ of my body, so rather than attempting to round up a hearty supper with my own hands and creativity, I decided to go to my favorite Italian joint, where I knew that I could get a wholesome, energizing meal for only a few dollars.
I went straight to the restaurant, dirty, sweaty and grateful from a day mountain air.
I didn’t even need to look at the menu, just ordered a large salad and pasta with red sauce and broccoli. I sipped on a tall glass of water while I was waiting and decided that it would be a great time to practice eating meditation.With an empty stomach, I knew there would be a temptation to fill it quickly, which would mean that I would not begin to enjoy or appreciate what I was eating. That would be an unfitting way to end a productive and satisfying day, especially since I work with people who often don’t have enough to eat. I was determined to eat as slowly as possible, in honor of the food that would soon be in front of me and everything that had happened in the world to get it there.
I have learned to take food very seriously.
One of the greatest problems that the human race faces today is food. In some places the problem is that there is plenty of food available, though it has become mostly toxic from production and process, laden with chemicals and unnecessary ingredients. In other places (like Nicaragua and most countries that are lumbering through the complex process of development) food shortages are increasing, as the impact of climate change causes more extreme weather conditions. Drought, crop loss and malnutrition are rampant in developing nations, while gluttony, illness and waste prevail in others. We often take food for granted, though it should truly be revered—after all, our lives depend on what we eat.
About the same time my salad was being served, I noticed a couple in my line of sight, who were also beginning their meal. In all honesty, I should not have paid them any attention, since I had decided to eat my meal as mindfully as possible. But I had also decided to eat without a book, notebook or other distractions, so my mind, eyes and imagination began to wander. The man was large—probably 100 pounds overweight. He was drinking a beer and eating a plate of what looked like chicken, rice and salad. His bites were so large and fast that before I was halfway done with my salad, he was pushing his empty plate aside.
He summoned the waiter and, instead of requesting for the check, asked for a menu. He ordered something else and I decided to mind my own business and get back to my salad meditation. I did feel badly, though, that he was probably not getting much pleasure out of his meal. Learning to fully honor food is a challenge for me, every time I sit down to eat.
Eating meditation is, to me, more than just eating slowly.
It is a process of full gratitude, of recognizing everything that has transpired in the world, for the food to end up on my plate. First, I start by simply appreciating the colors and shapes on my plate, the esthetic value of a mindful meal. So much creation and creativity is needed to feed the world. Then, I take a minute to let the smells seep through my nose and down into my mouth to activate my taste buds.
The first bite is always the most illuminating. The secret is to chew slowly, letting each flavor arrive in your mouth with the ceremony of waves crashing onto shore. I try to isolate and appreciate each taste independently and also to savor the combinations and compliments of the different flavors, in ensemble.
Another aspect of eating meditation is exploring the elements that came together to make it possible for me to eat salad, pasta, bread or any other food- this does not happen by chance. In order for us to eat, it takes sun, rain, soil, hands that grow, hands that cook, hands that serve. All of these elements, are in our food, nourishing our bodies. For me, a successful eating meditation is when I am able to taste the sun.
The large man was served a plate of ravioli while I was eating my pasta and it went down quickly. The purpose of this writing is not to say “look who cool I am eating like a monk while he wolfs it down,” but rather to reflect on how often we disregard the food that gives us the energy to walk upon this earth. I am often guilty of ignoring my food, though I am continually training myself to show reverence and to truly appreciate the colors, shapes, flavors and textures that go into my mouth and keep me alive.
We also know that, in very practical terms, eating more slowly is better for our health.
Our stomachs have sensors that let the brain know when they’re full. But, those sensors work on a delay of some fifteen minutes. If we keep eating until we actually feel full, that means we passed the finish line a good while back. When we eat past full, we gain weight, digestion is complicated and our organs are burdened with excessive waste and work. The best formula that I have learned is to fill your stomach 25% with water before eating, fill it 50% with food during the meal and leave the remaining 25% empty to facilitate digestion. It’s vital to always stop eating before feeling full.
So much pure joy can be obtained through food. We are truly blessed to live on a planet with such a wealth of food to nourish body, mind and spirit.
Photo: Peter Schaller