Like clockwork, my midlife crisis arrived when I turned 40. Watching all of my friends die from AIDS, I lived in a vortex of death and terror. At my therapist’s suggestion, I enrolled in a weekend workshop at the Atlanta Shambhala Meditation Center. There, I learned mindfulness meditation brings forward our “observer” consciousness, a part of the psyche that can step back from our constant, catastrophizing rumination. By stepping back, we watch our obsessive thoughts and feelings float away. Yes, they come back but, over time, they lose much of their captivating power. Soon after the workshop, I enrolled in grad school to get a master’s degree and a PhD in psychology. My particular interest was Buddhist psychology, in which the practice of mindfulness is rooted. It seemed evident to me that this skill could be of enormous help to people in psychotherapy.
As a food writer schooled in mindfulness, I quickly realized that food has come to signify the misery, illness, and classism that wracks our world. Our children have the highest rate of food insecurity in the developed world. Obesity has become the virtual norm. The “serious” restaurant scene has mainly turned into a playground for the elite, whose delusional return to Eden is signified by strolling through weekend farmers’ markets with an organic hot dog in hand. And everyone’s watching food TV.
So, any plate of food really is a personal and cultural mirror. The goal is to slow down the entire process of eating to glimpse the basic goodness and underlying beauty of reality. In many ways, it’s actually a return to our lost table manners. You turn off the TV. You unfold your napkin; you put it in your lap. You look at the food before you, noting its inherent and composed beauty. You pick up a forkful of food, you put it in your mouth, and you return the fork to your plate while you chew slowly, noting flavors. Are they balanced, or do they overwhelm you with disproportionate tastes of salt and sugar? You approach the food with a sense of adventure. You don’t scream and run to McDonald’s when a few bits of cilantro are scattered on your taco. If you want to speak, you swallow your food first. I don’t mean this won’t be difficult at first. But once you manage even a few minutes, a sense of presence and mystery will flash through you. Especially when combined with formal meditation, eating this way can help broadly change your perception of reality.
In Asian cultures, there are literally ceremonies intended for just this purpose. The best known is the Japanese tea ceremony, especially when preceded by kaiseki, which is essentially a multi-course menu of small dishes that studiously compare colors, styles of cooking, and flavors. I don’t know of any kaiseki restaurants in Atlanta these days, but Netflix foodie Ronald Hsu may do that when his restaurant, Lazy Betty, soon opens. Hsu is actually trained in preparing classic kaiseki. In the meantime, you can have a much similar experience at a restaurant like Staplehouse, where chef Ryan Smith offers a lengthy tasting menu of gorgeously presented small plates. It’s expensive, and you have to pay in advance, but it’s well worth splurging.
Amid the avalanche of books promoting mindfulness, quite a few concern food. One of the earliest is “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life” by legendary Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and nutritionist Lilian Cheung. The most recent is “How We Eat with Our Eyes and Think with Our Stomach” by Melanie Muhl and Diana von Kopp. These books annoy me a bit. They understandably are about employing mindfulness to lose weight, but they don’t say much about the beauty of food itself.
So, in short, shut up, don’t talk with your mouth full, and always remember you are how you eat as much as what you eat.
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