This fall I attended my very first silent meditation retreat at Spirit rock in northern California. The retreat was set in the beautiful and majestic Marin County. The entire camp was surrounded by rolling hills, trees as far as the eye could see, and incredible wildlife like wild turkeys! Yes you read that right; we had wild turkeys at our meditation retreat which by itself, was worth the price of admission!!
The retreat started on a Thursday and ended on a Sunday. During the appropriately named 4 day event, participants were asked to remain silent and avoid eye contact with others but were invited to participate in as many activities as desired. These activities included: 45 minute sitting meditations, 45 minute walking meditations, yoga, and a small group discussion held on only one of the days during the retreat. In between activities participants were allowed free time and encouraged to grub at the dining hall at 8am, noon, and 6pm.
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 utilized most of the space towards the front entrance where participants gathered to get their food. To be honest, the dining hall was somewhat of a weird place but a place where I had an intense moment of presence nonetheless...
Imagine around 80 people crammed into this small room, coordinating with one another in silence as silverware and bowls chattered in the background. No one talks, eye contact is discouraged, and we have no access to the outside world. So, what do you do? Well, you don’t really have much of a choice but to eat in silence and to focus your attention on your food as much as possible.
I can remember our first silent meal during the retreat. It was a breakfast following the evening of our arrival the night before. After some short instructions from the staff, we huddled together in a line that seemed to go on forever as it wrapped almost entirely around the room. Eventually, we slowly began to navigate awkwardly through the vegetarian buffet and towards our seats.
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 most of the campgrounds. I knew I wasn’t supposed to look at others during the chow time, but I couldn’t help but notice that a few individuals seem to REALLY enjoy their meal.
At first I thought it was a bit strange. These people clearly seemed to be having a different experience with food than me. Personally, food has always been more of a source of fuel than a source of pleasure and I usually stuff my food down my face without thinking twice about it.
For a split second I imagined the only way a person could enjoy their food that much was if they somehow snagged a secret batch of food that was hidden from us “common folk”. What else would explain the faces of ecstasy as the people took one agonizingly slow bite after another? Obviously, I was wrong here and right after I realized my mind had wondered, another member of the staff began to speak.
The man speaking in front of us this time happened to be the head chef. To my surprise he was roughly the same age as me—maybe 28 or 29. He spoke with a soft and gentle voice and I could tell this wasn’t his time speaking in front of a large audience. Before we knew it, all of us had stopped eating and started listening to the head chef as he spoke about the sacredness of food.
Over the next few minutes the young chef explained how to perform a traditional eating meditation. After all, we were about to endure four days of silence so what better way to kick off a silent retreat than with a mindful eating exercise?
The mechanics of the eating mediation were actually very simple. First, the chef encouraged us to think about where the food came from. Even though we were eating a simple meal of oatmeal and fruit, there were still so many helping hands that were needed to get the food to our tables. Then, he simply asked us to be with our meal; to experience each bite and all the flavors as they were happening; to observe our food instead of just shoving it into our mouths.
Eating meditation was that simple. Step 1: think about all the people involved in planting, harvesting, transporting and preparing your meal. Step 2: be present with your food and try to hone in on all the wonderful sensations that eating a healthy and delicious meal can provide.
I figured it didn’t sounds too hard so I thought I would give it a try. On my plate was a small bowl of oat meal topped with sliced bananas and dried raisins. I began by think about all the people involved with my oatmeal. There were the people who planted the oats, the people who nurtured the oats, the people who harvested the oats, and the people who packaged and shipped the oats to a local store where someone then stocked the oats which were later purchased, cooked, and prepared 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! That’s incredible.” 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. I was now ready to eat.
At first, I ate like I normally do and began to pile the food in my mouth. But then I remembered all of the people who I just thanked for preparing this food and thought it would be a disservice to them if I simply inhaled a meal per usual. So, I slowed down. And I mean waaaay down.
As I slowed down I tried to take in the food with all of my sensations. I observed each precious bite intently before beginning to eat the next. I pondered the sensations in my mouth—was the food sour, sweet, salty? With each bite I took, I tried to focus on the texture and taste of the bite so as to savor and enjoy it as much as possible. As I swallowed the food I set my spoon down and enjoyed the feeling of the warm and tasty oatmeal nourishing my body.
To this day, that little bowl of simple oatmeal was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. I finally understood why so many people at the retreat were enjoying their meals so intently. They were experiencing the same thing I had on that day—love and appreciation.
When you take time to thank the people who helped cultivate and prepare your food you realize that you can never truly be independent. None of us can survive in this world without the help and kindness of others. When you feel this in your heart, you can see a bigger picture and you can’t help but feel a tremendous amount of appreciation for your food and all those involved.
By taking time to slow down and experience your food, you give yourself space and show yourself love; space to appreciate the delicious meal in front of you and love through the sacred nourishment of your body.
Ultimately, by the end of my first meal on that the 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 mediation, 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!
Until next time, many many blessings.