Food can offer healing and strength, but it can also conjure mixed emotions depending on the eater. LionsRoar.com’s Lilly Greenblatt explores the practice of eating.
When the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, left his family’s palace to begin his spiritual journey, he thought, as some of his peers then did, that punishing his body with ascetic practices could help elevate his mind. He engaged in long periods of extreme fasting that left him emaciated and frail, no closer to the enlightenment he sought.
As Andrea Miller writes in “Buddhism Began with a Good Meal,” when he sat beneath the bodhi tree, Sujata, the daughter of the local village headman, brought him an offering of sweet milk-rice. “It was this meal that gave Siddhartha the strength to sit under the Bodhi tree and awaken,” writes Andrea. “It was this meal that made the whole Buddhist tradition possible.”
Like the Buddha’s milk-rice, a good meal can offer great healing and strength. There are many that stand out for me in my own memory: A bowl of creamy porridge topped with fresh apples, homemade caramel, and roasted almonds, eaten while weary from travel and alone in Copenhagen. A plate of toasted farro and steamed vegetables drizzled with velvety tahini — my first real meal after many days of illness. The delicately poached fish and buttery mashed sweet potatoes that offered their comfort just hours after my grandfather’s funeral. None of these are among the best meals I’ve ever eaten. Their memorability lies in the restoration and moment of mindfulness they provided, each propelling me forward from a dark, tired place.
As healing as it can be, food can also offer its own challenges. We might find ourselves obsessing over what we should and shouldn’t eat, seeing some foods as “junk,” and others as so “super” that they could save us from suffering with just one bite. Some days, we might lament our need and cravings for sustenance as we find ourselves unable to ignore a grumbling stomach in meditation, or daydreaming about the lavender ice cream we ate last summer. There are likely equal memories of healing meals as there are of those that were eaten in the midst of an argument, flavoring each bite with bitterness.
Ultimately, eating is what sustains us. It’s what gives us the energy to laugh, cry, heal, practice, take action, make change, and live. Whether sour, salty, bitter, or sweet, the taste of food both new and familiar can invite us into a moment of mindfulness, offering the perfect opportunity to be truly present with what is. These three pieces look at the practice of eating, and the healing power of the food we eat. May they each invite you to take your next bite with attention and joy.
—Lilly Greenblatt, associate editor, LionsRoar.com
Jan Chozen Bays teaches us how to make every meal a celebration of gratitude, enjoyment, and true nourishment.
In mindful eating, we deliberately direct our full awareness to that liveliness, in the form of the bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise and disappear as we eat. Most important, we do this without criticism or judgement. We bring clear attention and curiosity to the colors and shapes of our food (as if appreciating a work of art), to the changing fragrances and flavors, to the textures and even the sounds of our food.
Eating can be a dharma gate, because when we are truly present with anything we open the gate to Great Presence, which is an inexhaustible source of true nourishment.
Her parents’ divorce meant angry mealtimes, but Elissa Altman found her way back to a nurturing table. She shares her tips on preparing and enjoying meals that heal yourself and others.
Twenty years after I last ate one of my mother’s angry eggs, I was fed breakfast by someone I was beginning to love. One morning, she quietly slipped into the kitchen, tenderly cracked two fresh, locally-laid eggs into a small pan of gently simmering water, and swirled them around until their whites grew firm. Three minutes later, she lifted each egg out of the water with an old, worn, slotted wooden spoon and set them down, one by one, on a slice of plain buttered toast. She sprinkled each serving with flakes of Maldon sea salt.
When I sliced into the egg set in front of me, it ruptured into a dark golden river — perfectly cooked and mindfully prepared. I closed my eyes as I ate, slowly smelling, tasting, and swallowing. I waited for the familiar flavor of fury to return to my mouth, but it never came. In its place, pure sweetness; in my heart, pure gratitude.
Forced to overeat as a child, Sharon Suh finally learns for herself what is enough.
In the dining hall of this silent retreat, I’m working to introduce myself to the feeling of being satisfied. I’m learning to say yes to more food without anxiety or shame, and to say no without fear of disappointing someone else.
We are encouraged not to make direct eye contact with other practitioners as we eat in silence so we can focus on our own experiences. That privacy also makes me feel safe from the gaze of others on my plate. As a young girl, silence sometimes protected me from my mother’s rage, but it was detrimental to my ability to feel and express my body’s needs. Here in the meditation hall, though, silence has given me the space I need to check in with my body and begin to ask it what it wants.
“Are you hungry? Do you have physical hunger or emotional hunger? Do you feel full? Have you had enough?”