When we break for lunch at my Saturday meditation retreats, I often tell people, “Please enjoy your food.” All morning I have been offering various instructions in sitting and walking meditation, and by lunchtime we have also had an hour of yoga with further directives, so I may leave it at that. I don’t want eating to be another chore, or yet another place to worry about whether or not you are doing it “right.” We do enough of that already, so I invite people to simply “please enjoy your food.”
On some occasions I might say a bit more, although I don’t want people trying too hard to “have fun.” I explain that enjoying your food is very important, because to enjoy something is how we connect to the world, to one another, to our inner being. When you enjoy your food, you will be happy and well-nourished by what you eat.
Sometimes I might also explain to people that by enjoying their food, they will naturally find themselves practicing meditation. They will be paying attention to what they are eating—noticing flavors and textures and nuances of taste—because to enjoy something you need to experience it. Also, they will have to stay present, because if they get carried away by greed, they will be thinking about the future possibility and miss what they are eating in the present. Entering into full enjoyment, they will be relaxing and opening their hearts to the food, not worrying about good and bad, right and wrong, or “how well am I doing in my meditation?”
Mostly I think it’s better to say as little as possible. Then “enjoying your food” may be the best meditation you do all day. It all takes care of itself without your having to try too hard. Following the path of pleasure is deep and profound, and richly rewarding. Sometimes people complain that it doesn’t work that way, and one needs discipline and austerity and restraint. That’s nonsense, implying that one’s inherent being lacks wisdom or any sense of beauty, and consequently needs to be kept in line and retrained, tamed, subdued. Give your body some credit.
Most problems which arise in the pursuit of pleasure are due to lack of devotion—one is not fully enough committed to pleasure. Which bite of chocolate cake is no longer pleasurable? Which swallow of wine is bringing one down instead of up? Sure, restraint is needed, but it comes after pleasure or along with pleasure, not before and in place of pleasure. “Please enjoy your food.”
When pleasure or enjoyment is forbidden, then one looks for stupor, for unconsciousness, which is the closest one can get to relief from the inane drive to discipline and restrain.
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. How hokey can you get? I rather 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 time for the aromas to register, we were permitted to put the raisins in our mouths, “But don’t chew them yet!”
By now I was also aware of an urge to smash something, and further, when I looked into this, a sense of annoyance. “Leave me alone,” I complained (loudly to myself). “Let me eat, for goodness sake.” To have one’s 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 note saliva flowing and the impulse to chew.
At last we were permitted to culminate 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, by golly, doesn’t leave much opportunity for joyful abandonment, but I’ll always remember those raisins.
When I led my own eating meditation, I decided to get real. Skip the raisins. Let’s meditate on just one potato chip. So I bought a bag of Ruffles. Then I thought we could go on to oranges—my concession to wholesomeness—and conclude with Hydrox cookies. I picked Hydrox because I had heard they were the kosher Oreos (no pig fat or beef fat, I guess). Also I had heard (or maybe just made it up) that there was a secret society that met surreptitiously in semi-darkness to eat Oreo cookies and drink milk with complete awareness, and I aspired to join.
Since I didn’t want to parcel out the instructions as they had been given to me, I laid out the whole deal at the start: Pay attention. Give your 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 better pay attention! Observe, smell, taste, feel, swallow.
When I announced our potato chip eating meditation, I was naturally 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 instruction 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 them 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 these were great; but when I actually experience what’s in my mouth, it’s kind of distasteful.”
That potato chip was pretty surprising even to me, the “experienced meditator.” 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 that.
The oranges were fabulous, exquisite, satisfying, “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 or wish for. Thanks anyway.”