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In Buddhism You Are What (And How) You Eat

First Posted: 02/25/2011 4:15 pm Updated: 05/26/2011 4:04 pm

By Nancy Haught
Religion News Service

CLATSKANIE, Ore. (RNS) It's Friday night at Great Vow Zen Monastery. Supper's over and Noble Silence, the quiet that stretches from bedtime through breakfast, is still two hours away.

Two dozen people sit in a circle, explaining why they've come to a refurbished grade school sprawled on a hilltop for a retreat about eating mindfully.

"I've struggled with food all my life."

"I eat when I'm stressed."

"I want to make peace with food."

"I want to give food the respect it deserves."

"I eat to fill a hole in my heart."

When the Zen master finally speaks, her voice is softened with compassion.

"Something is out of balance," she says, "even here in a country where there is so much. There is a saying in Zen, 'When hungry, just eat."'

Dr. Jan Chozen Bays -- "Chozen," meaning "clear meditation," is her Dharma name -- is a physician and a Zen priest. In her work, she pairs science and spirituality, research and reflection, to approach a problem that threatens our deepest eating intentions.

Everybody eats, and many of us are frustrated because we do it mindlessly, without thinking about what our bodies need, what our emotions want or even what passes for food.

Bays comes to a table already laden with self-help books and nutrition makeovers. But she brings a bundle of Buddhist insights about quieting the mind, cultivating awareness, summoning and sending out loving-kindness. She is convinced that mindless eating is a symptom of spiritual hunger, a concrete example of the Buddha's First Noble Truth, that life is suffering.

"If we dig down to the bottom of difficulties with unbalanced eating, drinking, using painkillers, difficult relationships, any of the millions of forms of human suffering, you will find a spiritual issue," Bays said, "a longing for connection, for intimacy."

Mistaking these feelings for hunger, some people eat too much, using food to satisfy a craving for something else entirely.

In retreats on "The Sacred Art of Eating," Bays describes seven appetites longing to be fed: the hunger of the eye, nose, mouth, stomach, cellular, mind and heart. She does the same in her book, Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food.

"But there is a world of difference between reading about mindful eating, listening to a CD about mindful eating and actually experiencing mindful eating," she says.

At the monastery she helped found in 2002, Bays uses meditation and a formal mealtime ritual called oryoki -- Japanese for "just enough" -- to teach the principles of mindful eating: presence in the moment, taking time to check on the seven hungers and expressing gratitude for the food we eat.

"Mindful eating is deliberately directing our attention to our internal and external environments," she says. "Mindfulness is awareness without judgment or criticism. It takes practice."

The participants at the retreat are an ordinary lot -- mostly women, mostly middle-aged, mostly not Buddhist, representing a range of occupations. A few have attended previous mindful eating retreats.

"Sometimes," one woman says, "you need a booster shot."

Most attendees are new to meditation, and their minds wander far and fast. It can be a struggle to gently return them to the task at hand: following the breath, focusing on sounds or concentrating on a part of the body. Some join in the chanting, lowering their voices to follow the Zen prayers in English.

At meals, they follow the formal oryoki rituals, unwrapping their bundles of three bowls, a spoon, spatula and chopsticks. They pass the food down the table in silence, trying to take two-thirds the amount they think they can eat.

They set aside a morsel of food as an offering, eating in silence. They check their stomachs -- are they a quarter full, half full, three-quarters, full, over full? They set down their spoons between bites, chewing slowly and noticing how flavor is released, how long it lasts.

Back in the circle, they hold in their mouths, one at a time, a chocolate morsel, a corn chip and a Reese's Piece. They notice textures, tastes that are fleeting or linger. They imagine the chain of human beings behind the raisin in their mouths, the non-human beings involved in creating it, the invisible creatures living in and on their bodies who will be nourished when we eat it.

There is the shared laughter of recognition -- no one is alone in their struggles. There are tears of compassion as one woman describes being a girl, scraping frost from the freezer, flavoring it with vanilla and feeding it to her siblings because there was nothing else to eat. One mourns her mother, another grieves for a beloved dog named "Sugar."

By Sunday morning, the participants have grown closer, comparing notes on what they've learned over the weekend.

"I feel like I want to hold my stomach and say, 'I'm sorry that I haven't been listening to you,"' says one.

"I've learned that smaller bites mean more flavor and taking longer to enjoy it," says another.

"If I think about the people behind the food I'm eating," one adds, "maybe I won't feel so alone."

Bays offers some parting advice.

"There are many gates leading to a direct experience of the sacred," she says. "Mindful eating can make each meal sacred, an experience of communion."

Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.

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