Friday, December 28, 2012

The Sacrament of Food

          Maybe the most sacred space in your home is not the yoga room, or the altar with the candle, or the chair by the window where you meditate and pray. Maybe the most sacred room in your house is the kitchen.
          Food is a daily ritual, one that we mostly overlook. Caught in the grip of a modern world moving way too fast, many of us eat on the run, thoughtlessly shoving food into our mouths from fast food bags and microwave trays. The nutritional and environmental costs of these short cuts are well documented. But have we tallied up the spiritual cost?
          Some of us are making changes, trading in the Fast Food Nation for the Slow Food Movement, and voting with our forks for a world that better honors the earth and ourselves. We’ve learned that there are scores of local farms growing organic produce, employing sustainable agricultural practices, and treating animals humanely. And by eating locally produced food, we drastically cut down on the fossil fuel wasted to transport food over great distances.
          What exactly is food anyway, and how can we use it more mindfully?
          Food is energy embodied. Through photosynthesis, a plant turns the light of a nearby star into the cells of its own body. When we eat plants and animals, we are eating stored starlight. Then we use this energy to build the material of our own bodies. We are made of light.
          Food is a sacrament because all food comes from sacrifice. No matter where you are on the vegan to omnivore spectrum, all food is made of formerly living things. Each of us must decide for ourselves where to draw the line, mindful of the fact that all eating kills.
          Many of us are awakening to the moral impact of our food choices. We are no longer just shopping for the cheapest eggs. We want to know about the living conditions of the hens and how much fuel it takes to bring the eggs to market. We are willing to pay a little more for local, free range eggs, knowing that our consumer choices are the most powerful and direct way of affecting the food industry, and thereby, ourselves.
          But no matter what the source of our groceries, now comes the transformation of these raw materials into a ritual meal. When we feed ourselves, our families, our friends and neighbors, we share with each other a mystical communion that connects us to the very energies that animate the cosmos. Ancient people understood this. Even the Eucharist ritual in traditional Christianity echoes this archetypal truth. The energy of the universe is sacred. And when we partake of that energy consciously, mindfully and reverently, we become sacred too.
          One way to honor this process is to get organized. Before you begin cooking, clean your work space, gather your tools and pre-measure your ingredients. The French phrase for this is mise en place, or “putting in place.” If your process is chaotic, your results will be chaotic. All of the functions of our lives, including our spiritual practice, would improve if we took on this simple responsibility.
          Focus on one thing at a time. When you’re mincing shallots, mince shallots. When you’re filleting a salmon, filet a salmon. A divided mind is the enemy of awareness. That’s when you burn the butter, drop a glass or cut your finger. Be fully present in every task. Only then do pathways and solutions appear.
          Keep it simple and let the ingredients speak for themselves. Avoid needless flash and pointless ornamentation. When possible, eat in season, eat fresh, eat local, and let the natural flavors, aromas, textures and colors of your ingredients guide your hand. As in life, enhance what is given instead of imposing arbitrary plans. You don’t have to use every ingredient in your pantry. Less really is more. When in doubt, leave it out.
          Don’t put all your stock in the end result. Make every step of the journey a destination in itself. The process is the outcome. “Sometimes it’s better to travel than to arrive,” wrote Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Sometimes the meal you slaved over all day doesn’t turn out right. But you have most certainly not wasted your time. By fixating only on end results, we miss out on the joy of becoming. Let the path itself be your reward.
          Before you begin, take your emotional temperature. Don’t cook in the consciousness of resentment. Cultivate gratitude. Honor the plants and animals that gave their lives for your table. Respect the fishermen, ranchers and farmers whose tenacity and passion brought you the fruits of the earth from every corner and continent. A sacramental offering is placed before you upon the altar of your kitchen counter. Don’t poison it with self-pity. Preparing food is not a burden – it is a sacred ritual.
          Food is communion that erases all boundaries. When we gather around tables like spokes around a wheel, we draw each other into a sacred hoop that affirms us all in our humanity and deepens our awareness of the sacred nature of every breath, every word and every gesture. A chef is a shaman, a priest and an alchemist who uses fire to transform the base elements into the Elixir of Life. Cooking and eating binds us to ourselves, to each other, and to the sacred source from which all things come.
          Are we eating mindlessly or mindfully, randomly or deliberately, cruelly or compassionately? There is no line that separates our food habits from the rest of our lives. The way we eat is the way we live. How we eat is who we are. Let us affirm that which is best in us and in each other through the sacrament of food.

[An earlier version of this article called "Eat, Drink and Be Mindful" first appeared in the January/February 2013 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.  Both of these articles were based on my earlier piece called "Ten Truths From the Kitchen."]

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Year of Living Gratefully

It began as an experiment and ended as a conviction. I wanted to know if a simple daily ritual could create real and lasting transformation. I wanted to know if willfully choosing and shaping my thoughts could change my attitude. I wanted to know if emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being was simply a matter of pointing my attention in the right direction. The answers? Yes, yes, and yes.
             Last January I began keeping a gratitude journal. 
            The idea is not new. In ancient times wise people understood the unbreakable link between thought and action. It’s obvious that every action begins as a thought, but what is less clear is how actions shape consciousness. Buddha taught that we become what we think about. The Bhagavad Gita says that we become what we love. Aristotle taught that repeated actions become habits and habits construct character. We become what we do.
            I wanted to test these ancient claims in as simple a fashion as possible. I wanted to know if a simple daily ritual could really make a difference. I wanted to know if gratitude was the key that would unlock the door to a happier, more joyful, more positive, more compassionate, and more creative life. All I needed was willingness, a pencil, a blank book, and a little discipline. 
            At first I was skeptical. Like most people, my default, baseline state of mind was restless anxiety, worry, craving, and dissatisfaction. No matter how hard I slaved on my to-do lists, they were never completed. There was always something broken that needed fixing, a problem unsolved or a need unmet. Like a constant, steady background hum, dissatisfaction was a continual presence, punctuated briefly by fleeting moments of joy and well-being.
            This was no way to live. I was ready to try something different, even if it sounded a little weird.
            Last January 1st I began. I wrote two sentences in my blank book that began with the words, “I’m grateful for…” The pattern was set. Every morning this year without fail, I dutifully performed my ritual. 
            It wasn’t always easy. In fact, there were many mornings when I struggled to come up with something new. Did I always feel grateful? No. But that didn’t matter. I was determined to earnestly complete my daily task. Often I would write the words, “I’m grateful for…”, then sit back and wait for something to occur to me, casting the searchlight of awareness across the furthest reaches of my life. But it was usually something right in front of me that caught my mind’s eye and made it to the page – the soft breathing of my thirteen year old dog Boone asleep at my feet, or the half moon descending through the pines in the pale morning sky. 
            Already in my second month I began to notice a shift. Having to come up with new gratitude material every morning changed the way I looked at my day. Knowing that every dawn brought a writing assignment, I paid more attention to the bounty of my life. I began to awaken to the abundance – the generosity of my colleagues, the warmth of my marriage, the joy of my work, the love of my family, the acceptance of my friends, the fleeting beauty of the world.
            I should have known this would happen. The same thing happens when I keep a travel journal – I begin to look at the journey through the eyes of a writer, selecting, storing and framing the events of the day and getting them ready for the next morning’s writing session. And when I travel with a camera around my neck, I’m constantly checking the angle of the light and scanning for the next shot. A gratitude journal is no different.
            Then the second shift happened. What you think about expands. By simply looking for gratitude, I found it. And the more I found, the more I felt – the consciousness of gratitude began to be a state of mind, a starting point that had little to do with what was going on around me. Gratitude became the lens through which I saw the world.
            This was a surprise. I had always thought gratitude was an end-point, a sense of well-being experienced at the end of a process of acquisition. What if the consciousness of gratitude is a starting point, a freely chosen state of mind unhinged from the ego’s incessant demands and default dissatisfaction?
            More research was required. I kept journaling.
            As the months rolled on I began to look forward to my morning ritual. It was getting easier. I began to notice that instead of skittering across the surface of my mind the daily ritual of gratitude had worn a groove, a groove I found myself falling into more often than not. Being grateful began to feel normal. I was constructing a new default baseline one journal entry at a time. Aristotle was right. We become what we do.
            The more time I spent in gratitude, the more I realized how little I understood about gratitude. There was still more to discover. But I was willing to learn.
            It turns out that gratitude is not just one thing, it’s many things. It’s a doorway to a whole new a way of being in the world. Maybe the simplest way to say it is this: gratitude is freedom. When you train yourself into the consciousness of gratitude, you are set free from the relentless craving and fear of the ego mind. Most unexamined consciousness, what Buddha called conditioned thinking, is simply the endless repetition of two fundamental energies, craving and aversion. There’s one list of all the things we want, and another list of all the things we don’t want. Life as it is normally lived is little more than the laborious maintenance of these two lists. But when we shift into gratitude, we realize that we have everything we need and there is nothing to fear.
            Then comes an even deeper shift. 
            By reducing our anxiety about what we have not yet received or achieved, we tap into a richer and more vibrant creativity, a state of being that anxiety and fear cuts out. When you experientially know that you live in an infinitely abundant universe, and that you receive everything you need, you soften, you open, you see, you hear, and you feel more. And because your hands are no longer clenched in a death-grip on the things you mistakenly call “yours,” you are open and available to receive the next gifts the universe is trying to give you. Your intentions will more readily become your creations as you move out of the consciousness of scarcity and into the consciousness of gratitude and allowance. You will struggle less and co-create more.
            Who knew that just a few minutes of writing in the morning could have such a profound impact? And if I fall out of the groove of gratitude, I have in my hand a whole book, a year’s worth of tangible evidence that I really am awash in abundance. But the real proof is within me.
            As the New Year begins, we have an opportunity. It isn’t hard to change. All it takes is willingness, a pencil, a blank book, and a little discipline. What will you be doing in the early morning hours of January 1st?  Will 2013 be a year of craving and fear or a year of living gratefully?