The Gift of Contemplative Meals
Contemplation is looking at life as it is in in the very here and now – Thich Nhat Hanh
Do you ever eat mindfully? Perhaps during your Thanksgiving feast, you took time to really enjoy the delightful culinary offerings on your plate? I know if you’re like me, you probably rush through a lot of meals, and barely consider the taste and experience of eating. But, I want to encourage you to consider eating mindfully. During this pandemic year when we eat alone and/or with just a few companions, we have an opportunity to experiment with this contemplative practice.
Choosing to eat mindfully involves eating slowly and savoring the food. Noticing the colors, the tastes and textures can be quite astounding. Suddenly, the table becomes a living sanctuary, full of the glory of creation.
A contemplative meal also provides a special time for gratitude. There is time to consider the long chain of growth and activity leading to the presence of food on your table. There is time to consider and give thanks for the people who planted and harvested, packaged and transported, prepared and presented the food. There is also time to consider and give thanks for the varieties of plants and animals that grew into fullness and now offer a gift of life at your table.
A contemplative meal provides a laboratory to practice mindfulness and dwelling in the present. Putting down the utensil between each bite can help foster slowing down. Really paying attention to each morsel provides more time for the digestive process. Your body benefits from this experience as slowing the consumption process enhances digestion. And your soul will gather delight.
Several years ago, I read a book about mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, a prolific Vietnamese Buddhist. That day, I read his directions on eating mindfully at my table. It’s amazing how delightful food tastes when you take time to savor slowly. You can really appreciate the varieties of fruits and vegetables, the textures, and then many flavors.
When I attended the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation program on leading contemplative small groups and retreats, we gathered for residencies. Always, there would be a silent retreat as part of this training, when for a day and a half or two, we entered into the silence. A silent retreat is a powerful experience, which I highly recommend, by the way. During these retreats, we received instructions for eating silently and mindfully during our shared meals.
The first time, I remember placards on the tables. On one side, it told us to give thanks for the people who prepared the food. On the other, it included sentence phrases about mindfully eating. When you let go of words, you focus on so much more. Suddenly, I began to think about the many people who bring food to my table. I imagined the wheat growing in the field, the beans on the plant, the fruit on the trees. I wondered about the animals who gave up their lives for my meal. I ate in awe of the food production process. And I ate slowly, giving thanks, and in prayer for those without enough food. I prayed for the people at the table with me. It’s really such an awe-inspiring experience. And I know I don’t need to go on a silent retreat to do this.
A popular weight-loss app (Noom) encourages mindfulness as one strategy to lose weight. Always in a quest to lose weight myself, I decided to eat one or two Hershey kisses, instead of four, and really savor them. I love sugar and chocolate, but I’ve found that the rush and enjoyment is possible with small quantities. I focus on the quality of the experience. Letting the kiss melt on my tongue, I enjoyed the soft texture of the chocolate, filling my taste buds with joy as the candy lingered in my mouth. Yes, I could get as much fulfillment from one, and perhaps more than eating a handful.
In creating space in our lives, we slow down and realize the miracles of the moment. And if you take time to consider the process of digestion, it’s quite mind-blowing. Beginning with the taste of food, our nose and taste buds on our tongue allow us to truly experience the food we eat. Continuing with the saliva which starts to break down the food. Then our throat and swallowing process, carrying the morsels down the esophagus, specially designed to move the food along with tiny hairs as it continues its journey to our stomach, where more chemical processes turn it into energy to be carried through our blood stream, then pushing the waste into our small intestines, where the food continues to move into the large intestines, all the cells working together to move the waste along, until our body calls us to eliminate what is not needed. And the process begins again. The liquid gathers in our bladder for elimination.
So this month, I encourage you to take time while eating to be mindful. Be aware of each living thing that contributes to your diet. Take time to savor each bite with your senses. Be grateful for those who harvested, packaged and developed your food. Be grateful for your body and the marvelous way it processes your food. And may you live just a little more mindfully in all you do, to fully experience this one precious life you’ve been given.
Suggestions for Mindful Eating Personal Practice
- Make a placard for your table.[i] On one side, write: In this food, may I see clearly and gratefully the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence. All living beings are struggling for life. May each one have enough food to eat today. I vow to live for the benefit of all living beings. On the other side, write: THE FOUR GREAT ACTIONS. With the first taste, I promise to practice loving kindness. With the second, I promise to relieve the suffering of others. With the third, I promise to see others’ joy as my own. With the fourth, I promise to learn the way of peace and presence.
- Next time you eat a snack, eat it mindfully. Savor each bite. Really chew your food, noticing the texture and the taste.
- If you tend to overeat, next time you approach something where you might eat 15-20 of, say, crackers or chips, select 4-5 and eat them slowly, enjoying the crunch and the taste and experience. Experiment and note if that fewer number is more satisfying than a large quantity.
- If you are eating a meal alone, choose to give yourself time to really savor your food. Perhaps decide in advance to spend 30 minutes eating. Take single bites and savor the food as it goes down. Imagine what happened to get that food to your table. Consider your loved ones not dining with you and pray for them. Let each bite be a time for thanksgiving and prayer. Pray for those without enough food. Be present in the experience. Consider your digestive process. Approach your meal as an experience of participating in a miracle. When you slow down and take time, you encounter the sacred.
For more information on mindful eating and other contemplative practices, check out my book: Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit (2020)
[i] These cards were designed by Ann Dean who directs contemplative leadership programs for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C.