Recently, I went on a 10-day meditation retreat to learn Vipassana meditation. Vipassana means insight and the whole ten days were spent in silence, with no distractions of phones, reading, writing or conversations. No exchanges with the external world, not even through glances or gestures. The idea was to sharpen the mind to become keenly aware of one’s self. Through this awareness would come liberation from unhappiness.
At meal times, the absence of distraction was strongly felt. It was just me, the food in front of me, and my experience of eating. No meal partner to discuss all and sundry observations and happenings, no commentary on the quality of the food or the overall retreat, no pontificating about irrelevant, unrelated topics. No mindless chatter, in other words.
The experience was stark. As the spoonful of dal hit my palate, sensations flowered throughout my mouth. Tastes of cumin, hing (asafoetida), and turmeric bloomed. The soft texture of cooked green lentils rolled around my tongue. I took a bite of ladies finger curry and the particular flavour of the vegetable released itself. The sliced cucumbers were very fresh, as if they had been picked from the farm and brought right to the table. So fresh did they feel that it took me aback, in fact. I savoured each crunch, feeling a connection to the earth. I am pretty sure I would have missed 95% of these sensations if I wasn’t under an oath of silence.
There was nothing else to do except to focus on the act of eating. My mind was free of any other absorptions. Initially by compulsion, I soon found it comforting to be able to only engage with the food and nothing else. It was a relief, I realised, not to have to think of the next thing to say to a meal companion or to formulate a coherent response in return to something said to me. I felt calmed not to be accosted by things occurring around me, which would have ordinarily required a reaction. No, here, my only occupation was to eat.
Eating became a joyful experience. Mind you, the food was of the simplest kind. No heavy spices, minimal oil, and even the salt was used sparingly. The vegetables were traditional to the land and delicate in flavour – different types of gourds, usually. Nothing exciting, in fact. Perhaps that was by design, to allow the mind to be able to pick up the subtle sensations, instead of being inundated with overpowering flavours. After the meal, I did not feel heavy. Perhaps that was also the intent, to ensure food did not interfere with the effort to meditate for the next several hours.
I enjoyed this mindful way of eating. It revealed the delight that exists in the mundane, which we often overlook because our minds are numbed through sensory overload. I used to read while I ate, comics, my twitter feed, the back of the cereal box. I haven’t felt the urge to do so since I came back from my retreat. I feel like paying attention to what’s in front of me, listening, tasting, feeling. If you think about it, that’s a lot of stuff already going on to engage the mind.
The other thing about mindful eating is that it has slowed me down. I take longer to finish my meal now. This is good. It allows my brain to tell me I’m full before I’ve shoveled excessive food into my tummy. I’m chewing more. This is also good. In a way, these feel like acts of friendliness towards my body. I like that. Of course, it can get a bit socially awkward when I’m the last person to finish, with the others watching me as I take my time cleaning up my plate. I think they don’t mind. In any case, it’s worth it. Mindful eating unveils the little packets of happiness that are bound within the experience. Isn’t happiness what we’re after?