I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Monday at the Garrison Institute in Putnam County. I am neither Buddhist nor particularly spiritual lately, but the invitation had been so unexpected and generous that I accepted.
Late Sunday night I Googled "what to wear when meeting the Dalai Lama."
What to say, what to wear and there was mention of bringing a white scarf, which His Holiness would bless and return. I ransacked every accessory drawer in the apartment, which yielded a single white woolen scarf. I took it. Why a white scarf?
The morning was brilliant as I sped up the Taconic. I would surely have been stopped had not every local state trooper been at the Institute on security detail.
His Holiness was there to address a group of young professional Tibetans who were embarking on careers in the secular world. We would be greeted and blessed before this speech -- and long white silk scarves were distributed to each of us. We were instructed on how to drape it over extended our arms; His Holiness would hold it, bless it and return it to us each to keep.
That he did along with a brief visual and verbal exchange and a clasping of our clasped hands. I experienced a deep feeling of awe. I was wondering if anything spiritual would stir inside of me. Grateful nonetheless, I headed back to the city.
The rest of the week was hectic with lots of events and pressure, and then into the weekend with the New York Wine and Food Festival. For a second year, we worked with the organizers to provide service personnel and coordinate food and rental equipment in dozens of locations.
The Grand Tasting Tent, which spanned every inch of Pier 54, brought together the best of the wine and spirit world, restaurateurs and manufacturers of prepared foods and culinary experiences. The beneficiary of the 3-day event's profits was the Food Bank and Share our Strength. Foodies descended by the thousands, to this and dozens of other festival locations, to drink, taste and experience. Celebrity chefs were everywhere. The selections of food were brilliant and the wines and spirits overwhelming.
What is it about the sight of hundreds upon hundreds of people eating and drinking for hours day after day that got to me? Was it the irony behind the sign "Your attendance today is helping end hunger in America"? To see the endless consumption in the aisles -- were these the hungry of America? No, merely decent people, enjoying the day while supporting a great cause.
Against this backdrop of plenty, the images from Food, Inc. lingered in my mind. This week's New York Times Magazine featured America's diet; an excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer's upcoming book, Eating Animals; Jamie Oliver on trying to reverse American eating habits; a story on a California Food Banks quest for fresh produce for food pantry clients; and of course, Michael Pollan, with a collection of personal food policy suggestions.
Eating is so basic. And it is a common bond that unites all creatures. But how we satisfy this physical need is where all the controversy begins. Do we just care about ourselves and our families or friends? Does it matter what other people eat -- say, our neighbors or our fellow Americans. What about people in India, or Africa, or other places in the world?
And how about the way we grow our food? Does it matter if we poison the soil (and our bodies) or pollute the air as long as we maximize crop yield and create profits for giant agribusiness? Or if we don't see where our food is coming from, and its true costs (to our health and our environment) as long as the price is cheap, then it's okay?
What about our livestock -- are we aware of how over 95% of our meat and chicken is raised, slaughtered, processed and brought to our table? But it tastes so good -- and we really don't want to know the 'inconvenient' truth.
Celebrating life with and through food is a glorious. It is how I have made a living for over 25 years with family celebrations, business milestones, dozens of reasons and ways to gather over food and drink. It is life affirming, be it joyful or solemn occasions.
What has changed is the stakes. When we eat without thinking about our social responsibilities -- to the health and well-being of the earth, of the animals and most critically, of other people, then the joy and flavor is altered.
My thoughts returned to the significance of the white silk scarf, the one I received on Monday. It is a symbol, our actions determine whether or not it stays white -- our actions in our lives and in the universe of food.
This was the lesson from the Dalai Lama. It took me a week to figure out and will take a lifetime to implement.