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 near Clatskanie 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.'"
If only it were that simple.
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, whether they involve healthy, local, vegetarian, vegan, elaborately prepared or strictly raw diets.
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 what passes these days as 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," she says, "a longing for connection, for intimacy."
Mistaking these feelings for hunger, we eat too much, using food to satisfy a craving for something else entirely.
In retreats on "The Sacred Art of Eating," Bays describes the hunger of the eye, nose, mouth, stomach, cellular, mind and heart, seven appetites longing to be fed. She does the same in her book, "Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food," which includes a CD of guided exercises.
"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."
We participants in the February retreat are an ordinary lot -- mostly women, mostly middle-aged, mostly not Buddhist. We include four men and represent a range of occupations: health workers, a county planner, a school counselor and a teacher, a massage therapist, a second-career student at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, an amateur chef, a poet, an advertising sales representative and a newspaper reporter.
A few have attended previous mindful eating retreats.
"Sometimes," one woman says, "you need a booster shot."
Most of us are new to meditation. Our minds wander far and fast. We try to gently return them to the task at hand: following our breath, focusing on sounds arising around us or concentrating on a part of our body. Some of us join in the chanting, lowering our voices to follow the Zen prayers in English:
Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
At meals, we watch the monastery residents and follow the formal oryoki rituals, unwrapping our bundles of three bowls, a spoon, spatula and chopsticks. We pass the food down the table in silence, trying to take two-thirds the amount we think we can eat.
We set aside a morsel of food as an offering. We eat in silence, savoring the beauty of thick white yogurt atop dark blueberry sauce, a handful of pine nuts scattered over pesto and polenta.
We check in with our stomachs -- are they a quarter full, half full, three-quarters, full, over full? We set down our spoons between bites. We chew slowly and notice how flavor is released, how long it lasts.
When we finish, we pour warm water into our largest bowls and scrape them clean. We pour the water into our second bowl and wash our utensils. We pour the water into our third bowl and drink a little before we pour it into a bamboo tube as a second offering. When our bowls are wiped dry, stacked beneath our utensils and bundled up again, we raise them to our foreheads and another meal is over.
Back in our circle, we hold in our mouths, one at a time, a chocolate morsel, a corn chip and a Reese's Piece. We notice textures, tastes that are fleeting or linger. We close our eyes and summon painful experiences before we touch our tongues to a few grains of sugar to see how they affect our emotions. We do the same with salt. We imagine the chain of human beings behind the raisin in our mouths, the non-human beings involved in creating it, the invisible creatures living in and on our bodies who will be nourished when we eat it.
There is the shared laughter of recognition -- we're not alone in our 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 of us mourns her mother, another grieves for a beloved dog named "Sugar." We are told to clean our plates and save room for dessert. To remember the starving children in China and the hunger our grandparents knew in the Depression.
By Sunday morning, we've grown closer, though many of us probably won't see each other again. We compare notes on what we'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.'"
"I've learned that smaller bites mean more flavor and taking longer to enjoy it."
"I may be a closet Buddhist. I am a real spiritual person."
"If I think about the people behind the food I'm eating, maybe I won't feel so alone."
"I said at the beginning that I wanted to feel connected. This morning I do."
Bays offers last advice for us to take home. "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."
She reminds us to fill our own containers with loving-kindness before we try sending it to others.
"Start with small steps, the first sip of tea, the first few bites of fruit. Keep cultivating mindful eating, and let it benefit your body, mind and especially your heart."
- YouTube Video:
Oryoki Basic Instructions with a Zen Master Jan Chozen Bays, Roshi
(Mindful Eating Workshop)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdZk2IGVUPE