“Thus the one absolutely essential requirement for the art of cooking is a love for its raw materials: the shape and feel of eggs, the sniff of flour, or mint, or garlic, the marvelous form and shimmer of a mackerel, the marbled red texture of a cut of beef, the pale green translucence of fresh lettuce, the concentric ellipses of a sliced onion, the weight, warmth, and resilience of flour-dusted dough under your fingers. The spiritual attitude of the cook will be all the more enriched if there is a familiarity with barns and vineyards, fishing wharves and dairies, orchards and kitchen gardens…With this attitude it is practically impossible to chuck food carelessly into boiling water or to roast, distractedly, by the clock, without eager peeks into the oven to sniff and baste. A good cook broods over the range like a doting mother, or like an alchemist distilling the elixir of immortality from rare herbs. The preparation must be as delightful for its own sake as the feast, if the feast is to be worth eating. For the cook is, after all, a priest offering sacrifice, and the stove is an altar,”
-Alan Watts, Does It Matter? p37-38
While I understand the potential in a sitting meditation practice, the practices that resonate the most with me are those in which we cultivate a clearer perception in everyday life. Regardless of the activity, every moment is an opportunity to be present and aware. I also believe that the way we eat is important. We are all well aware of the obesity epidemic that is astonishing the masses right now, but despite all the diets on the market it is clear there is a component missing from the proposed solutions. Merely changing the ingredients in meals and walking on a treadmill five days a week is not enough to transform people. Instead the way people approach food needs to change.
If a meal is eaten, and, when time permits, prepared mindfully, the food will be more thoroughly enjoyed, digestion will be easier, and the individuals will be present to hear their bodies telling them to stop when they have had enough and will even improve physiological processes to help digest more efficiently. I am going to narrate the experience of making and eating a salad mindfully to demonstrate how one might incorporate this practice into situations that are already present in our lives.
First I go to the market to choose my ingredients. I am aware of my belly rumbling in response to the bright colors and subtle scents of the mountains of vegetables being misted with cool water in the produce section. Already my body is preparing its digestive juices.
I start with the lettuce and find a beautiful head that fades green to purple. It is wet and crisp under my fingertips. My eye is then drawn to bundles of young tri-color carrots a couple rows down and I walk over slowly, feeling how the weight of the lettuce in the basket has slightly shifted the way I hold my hips as my feet roll on and off the linoleum floor. The smell around the carrots is more pungent than by the lettuce, and I take my time admiring the shapes and colors before I choose which bunch I will buy. I turn back as I remember the cucumber I’d like to add that is on the other side of the lettuce. I notice how different the experience is of picking an ingredient that is pre-packed in plastic. I notice that I don’t want to spend as much time choosing my cucumber as I did choosing the unwrapped carrots. I then go to the check-out line, and feel another shift as I leave the solitude of my selection process to the bustle of a beeping line and find my mouth automatically stretching into a polite smile as my final choices slide down toward the cashier.
When I get home I pull out the ingredients one and place them on a cutting board next to a bowl. I take the lettuce first, tearing a leaf off and listening to its crispness as I tear it into four smaller pieces. I take another leaf and notice the resistance as I tear it off the head. As I take the third leaf I observe its weight in my hand, and how that weight shifts as I hold its two halves in opposite palms and become aware of their texture and temperature. My stomach urging me on, I take three leaves at once now, and notice the water droplettes jumping as I tear the leaves into smaller pieces as well.
The bowl approaching its capacity, I move on to cutting the cucumber. Its skin feels waxy underneath my fingers. I take a very sharp knife and start cutting the thinnest slices I can in time with my breath. On the exhale I cut down, on the inhale I place the slice in the bowl, slowly creating a circular floral-like pattern on top of the lettuce. It is as though my hands are dancing with the knife and cucumber. I sprinkle salt on the pattern in my bowl and feel its grittiness between my fingers.
I then turn back to the cutting board and select four carrots: one purple, one orange, and two white. I place them next to each other and chop them quickly, noticing the rhythm of the knife on the chopping-board, and how it changes as the carrots thicken toward their tops. I then gather the pieces in both hands and admire the different patterns, particularly in the purple carrot, whose center has been revealed as white. Slowly letting the pieces fall from my hands onto the cucumbers, I feel the weight leave my hands and watch the new pattern forming in my salad bowl. As I add oil and vinegar I am aware of distributing it as evenly as possible across the vegetables, inhaling the strong smell of the vinegar as it compliments the subtle salted vegetables and mixes with the earthy oil.
I sit down in front of my meal and contemplate the fact that I am sitting in front of material that will be a part of my body in a few moments, and therefore, by definition, the building blocks to who I will become. I then contemplate how much more work went into this meal than the half hour I have spent putting the ingredients together. I give thanks to the farmers who grew the food and tended it lovingly so I might have a meal. I give thanks to the vegetables themselves for processing the sunlight and water so effectively that I may be nourished. I give thanks to the sunlight and water for nourishing the vegetables and the people who tended them, and therefore, me.
I take a carrot and cucumber between my chopsticks and place them in my mouth. I notice the water already on my tongue eagerly anticipating the burst of flavor as I bite into the two pieces, cuing my digestive juices to flow. The two textures are entirely different but blend perfectly as I chew and swallow. And so I continue for the rest of the meal. Noticing any sensation I can as I mindfully take each bite. If my mind wanders I gently bring it back to my body, my senses, and my movements.
I have noticed in this practice that as I approach the last bite or two my mind wanders. I often find myself standing over the sink running water over a sponge while there is still food in my mouth. Of an exercise in which a raisin is eaten very slowly and as mindfully as possible, Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “…what we experience with the raisin can and often does reveal important elements of our relationship with the entire world,” (Coming to Our Senses,232). According to this I need to be more mindful during transitions, finishing things completely before starting whatever comes next. If we can observe our habits mindfully, we have an easier time giving more attention where it is needed, and sometimes find solutions to problems we previously saw no way out of. Food is a great place to start.