An Awkward Silence
Last fall I attended my very first silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California. The retreat was set in the beautiful and majestic Marin County.
The entire camp was nestled in the middle of a deep valley surrounded by rolling hills, luscious trees and abundant wild life– including wild turkeys!
Yeah, we had wild turkeys on our retreat. No big deal…
Anyways, the retreat started on a Thursday and ended on a Sunday. During the appropriately named 4-day silent retreat, participants were asked to remain completely silent the full duration of the event which meant we weren’t even allowed to make eye-contact with other students.
Each day consisted of a series of meditation practices that culminated, if done entirely, in about 9 hours of solid meditation.
Most of our meditations rotated through a succession of exercises including: 45-minute sitting meditations, 45-minute walking meditations, yoga, and finally, a few hours of personal time where we were encouraged to practice on our own or go on a mindful walk in the woods.
In between activities however, there was a strange phenomenon that took place about three times a day.
After doing silent sitting meditations in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings participants we’re escorted to the dining hall for what would seemingly be an awkward 45-minute silent meal.
The dining hall was a little undersized to say the least. Rows of tables filled the back sections of an old and stuffy room while a buffet line occupied most of the space where us students were crammed in the doorway waiting for our meal to be served.
The funniest thing about this while experience was that there were a lot of moving parts at each meal…Imagine around 80 people shoved into a little room, trying to coordinate with one another, without making eye contact, in complete silence, as silverware and bowls chattered in the background.
No one talks, eye contact is a big “no-no”, and we have to somehow sit in silence with each other as we eat a full meal 3 times a day!
The First Meal
I can remember our first silent meal during the retreat. It was a breakfast following the evening of our arrival the night before. After grabbing some oatmeal and inching my way through the buffet line, I headed towards a few open seats at the back of the room near several large windows that overlooked the entire campground.
Given the uniqueness of the situation I couldn’t help but sneak a few glances at the other students in the room even though I knew it was against the rules. To my surprise, there were a few individuals that REALLY seemed to enjoy their meal.
These people were clearly having a different experience with the boring oatmeal than I was having…
For a split second I even considered that these people were on something because what else would explain the peculiar faces of ecstasy as they took one agonizingly slow bite after another?
As my mind raced to try and make sense of the weirdness unfolding in front of me, my train of thought was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a bell.
How to Eat Mindfully
As I looked up I saw a young man standing at the front of the room waiting to address us students.
It was the resident chef and after ringing the bell a second time, he had captured the entire rooms attention.
“Welcome,” he said.
“Tonight, we as a community will participate in our very first silent eating meditation. I encourage each and every one of you to really use this time to be with the meditation as opposed to just zoning out.”
“The first step in an eating meditation is to slow down. See if you can sense all the different sensory information you receive from each bite. Experience each new spoonful as a new one and bring your full attention to the nourishing and friendly sensation as the delicious food fills your body and gives it the nutrients it needs.”
“Then, as you take each bite, see if you can concentrate for a minute on all the people that were involved in getting it to your table.”
He finished the instruction by stating,
“If you do this, I promise you will experience your food in a new way and have a completely different appreciation for what it is and where it comes from.”
My Slow Dance with Oatmeal
At that point I was intrigued so I thought “Cool, let’s give it a shot!”
On my plate was a small bowl of oatmeal topped with sliced bananas and dried raisins.
At first, I ate like I normally do and began to pile the oatmeal into my mouth with little thought or regard at all for my food. Quickly though, I snapped out of it and decided to slow things down. And I mean waaaaay down.
As I eased off the gas a bit and slowed down my breath, I started to take in the food with all of my sensations like the chef instructed. I observed each precious bite intently before beginning to eat the next. As I chewed each bite I tried to name the sensations in my mouth– Id ask, “Am I tasting sourness, sweetness, saltiness, or bitterness?”
As I continued to focus my attention to the experience of eating I noticed that every bite had its own unique texture and set of interdependent flavors. Each mouthful had a nuance to it that I had never paid attention to before. Every bite was intense, vibrant and full of sensory information!
After really diving into the experience of my oatmeal I then went on to the appreciation phase of the eating mediation practice.
First, I began by thinking about all the people involved with just the oatmeal itself.
There were the people who planted the oats. The people who nurtured the oats. The people who harvested the oats. The people who packaged and shipped the oats. The people at the local grocery store where the oats were sold. The person who bought those oats and finally, the multiple cooks at the retreat who prepared the oats for me to enjoy right now in this precise moment.
“Wow!” I remember thinking. “That’s like, at least a hundred people that were responsible for getting this simple bowl of oatmeal to my table!”
But it didn’t stop there!
Then, there were the bananas and raisins for which the same principle held true. There were the people who planted the banana tree, the people who nurtured the tree, the people who harvested the bananas, packaged them, and shipped them to a store and so on and so on.
By now I had a completely different level of appreciation and perspective for my food. By taking the time to be mindful of all who helped to make this meal possible, I was paying homage to people involved and to the food itself.
Ultimately, by the end of my first meal on that silent retreat my relationship with food had changed forever. To my amazement it took me almost 45 minutes to eat only half a bowl of oatmeal. I suppose by slowing down and thanking the people responsible for my food I took only what I needed.
Today, I still sometimes eat too much or forget to appreciate my food. But just as with meditation, once I know the practice it will always be there for me.
I encourage you all to try an eating meditation for yourselves; maybe not during every meal but for one meal a week. Slow down and appreciate where the food came from and how it is nourishing your body. If you do this long enough, you might begin to notice that food can even nourish your soul!
Thank you as always for reading. If you have any other mindful eating tips be sure to drop us a quick note. We would love to hear them!