Monday, April 21, 2014

Mindful Eating, One Mouthful at a Time

Judith Toy

Photo by Jamain
It takes some practice. Mindful eating feels forced at first, although you have to admit that the food tastes better than it ever has, as you lay your fork aside and chew each mouthful thirty times or so, or until the food is “mooshy,” thinking of what you are chewing, naming it—say, green beans.

You imagine the bean as once a seed buried in warm soil, then the coiling stem and leaves, then a tiny, four-fingered orchid-like flower, or a five-star white-petaled bloom with a yellow center, depending on the variety of bean. You summon up a mental image of the sun shining on the flower, how it turns its small face to the light, peeks from out of its own lush greenery. Then the slow and miraculous transformation from flower to a tiny white legume that turns green as it swells and grows in the warm sunlight and quenching rain. In this bean, the cosmos.

You are still chewing that first mouthful. You imagine that some suffering has gone into getting this bean to your mouth. The farmer may not have made enough to pay his mortgage this year because of unexpected flooding. There may have been pickers who were paid less than minimum wage, straw bosses who took advantage of the pickers' families, forcing them to work inhumanly fast during long brutal hours to make money enough to barely survive.

In each mouthful of green bean, you taste Mother Earth and the heat of the sun. You feel the light touch of the picker's fingers wrapped around the bean, her joy and anguish, and the sound of the beans she tosses into the basket strapped like a baby on her shoulder. Many insects die in the process. Perhaps a praying mantis is crushed in the onslaught of this bean crowded into the basket with hundreds of others. As each basket is tossed onto the assembly line, workers cull and wash the beans. Some of them must hold down three jobs to make ends meet. Some suffer from arthritis as they repeatedly move their fingers in the same ways again and again to pluck out the unripe or the less-than-beautiful beans.

Because you realize you feel happy eating this bean, you begin to wonder. Are there happy bean cullers on the line? Does their happiness enter the beans they touch, and is it transformed to your mouth? You think of that scene in the story Like Water for Chocolate—the wedding scene, when all the guests begin to cry because the cooks were crying as they mixed the wedding food.

Photo by Shanoor Habib Munmun
This bean has gone far and touched many lives. Perhaps the sluffed-off cells of human bodies—a packer or trucker or loader or grocer or stocker—have fallen onto the beans you are chewing. If you are kissed by fortune, the tasty bean in your mouth was grown locally, less than fifty miles from where you sit at table. In most cases, though, your bean has had a long and winding road from vine to table. It may have been sprayed with a noxious chemical or had its DNA tweaked to make plumper, greener more uniform beans. You wonder what this does to your body.

Not to mention the cooks. You think of the hours sweating over a hot kitchen stove—probably not gladly or grudgingly but some ordinary mood in between—and you give thanks to all the people, every one of them, who has brought this bean to your mouth—this bean which is not just a bean, but is full of star stuff, made of some of the same elements as us Homo sapiens.

The flavor of the bean pops in your mouth as you think of our planet and the place of the common green bean upon it. Even if you don't know that there are 130 varieties of Haricots verts, as the French call them, and that the Chinese grow more green beans than any country on Earth, you have learned that intensely green vegetables provide our systems iron, calcium, magnesium, protein, fiber, and trace minerals that are essential to good health.

You notice your breath, watch your belly expand with each in-breath and contract with each out-breath. In, out, chew chew chew . . . in, out, chew chew chew. Your whole world becomes the bean you enjoy in all of its aspects. You realize in a profound way that the bean is becoming part of your body as you break down its very fibers with your teeth and saliva and prepare to swallow.

Through the arbor at Cloud Cottage
Once again you think of the bean as a bud, nascent and fresh, and you realize you are consuming the flower that the bean once was. You summon up an image of the shining bean fields, perhaps in a valley with distant mountains embracing the flatlands. You feel as if you have been transported there, as the pungent flavor of the bean penetrates your tongue and your gums. This mouthful of bean is a mini-vacation. You feel calmed and nourished. You sense your spine against the back of the chair, your feet placed squarely on the floor which is supported by Mother Earth, and gratitude begins to well up in your heart.

You stop thinking. Now the edges between you and the table, you and the fork, you and the bean, become blurred. Your body has entered a state of bliss. All because of this bean which is so much more than a bean. You never want to stop chewing. You are aware of all that is going on around you, and you know you're an integral part of all that is. You actually feel your ancestors within you enjoying this mouthful of green bean, its flavor of earth and sky. You feel them encouraging you to nourish yourself in this way. And as you nourish yourself with this bean, you nourish your blood and spiritual descendants as well. When you are healthy and happy, you transform your parents and grandparents, your children and grandchildren.

You swallow. Life is good.

This essay originally appeared in Judith’s column “Mindfully Yours” on the WNC Women website. Our thanks to them for allowing us to reprint.

Judith Toy

Judith Toy devotes her life to the Dharma. She has led retreats nationwide, in Ireland, Romania, and at Findhorn in Scotland. With her late husband, R. Philip Toy, she founded three sanghas in the US in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition, including one in a medium-security prison. Judith has studied with Soto and Rinzai Zen teachers and was ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh as a core lay member of his order, Tiep Hien. Since 1993 she has hosted mindfulness practice centers, first at Old Path Zendo in Pennsylvania, and for the last fourteen years at Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where she lives. Judith is the author of Murder as a Call to Love: A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness, published in 2011.

Photo credit:
Photo one: by Jamain via Wikimedia CC 
Photo two: by Shahnoor Habib Munmum via Wikimedia CC
Photo three: courtesy of Judith Toy
Bio photo courtesy of Judith Toy

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