Learning to Enjoy Food More With Son Buddhist Meditation

Learning to Enjoy Food More With Son Buddhist Meditation
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If you’re like me, then you like to eat and it’s hard to resist the urge to eat more than you should. In Korea, I’ve noticed that there are basically two types of Buddhist monks when it comes to the issue of food.

First, there are the monks who don’t seem to care much about what they eat. These guys are usually very skinny and have trouble keeping weight on. They often forget to eat and start losing too much weight if they’re not careful. Personality-wise, they tend to suppress public displays of emotion, even in their facial expressions. They’re inevitably polite, shy, uncomfortable with being the center of attention, and find it difficult to share their thoughts and feelings with others, even in one-on-one situations.

Then, there are the monks who like to eat. I’m definitely in this category. Monks like us tend to overeat and gain weight. We find it difficult not to display our emotions and we’re often embarrassingly transparent, meaning our thoughts and feelings are usually written all over our face. Though we try to appear humble, we usually like receiving attention and we like sharing our thoughts and feelings with others. We try to be nice, but we’re attached to our likes and dislikes and all of this shows in the way we behave, which can often be surprisingly impulsive.

As in society, there don’t seem to be too many monks in the middle ground between these two types. Now it’s said in the Korean Buddhist monasteries that “If you can control your eating, then you’re half-way to enlightenment!” Well, I guess that means I’m not even halfway to enlightenment.

At this point, nearly everyone knows that our relationship to food is enormously complicated, fraught with issues about self-image, body image, the ability to love, and the ability to process emotions. The first expression of love that all of us experience in our infancy is the experience of being fed. It’s also one of our earliest experiences of pleasure. And, of course, being fed regularly is tied to anxieties about our continued survival and the possibility of dying. So there you have it. In food, some of our most primordial feelings of love, joy, and fear are activated. Food is life and the absence of it is death. No wonder, then, that so many of us have trouble controlling our eating. We’re being asked to regulate some of the most powerful unconscious feelings that we have.

Now in the process of learning to meditate many years ago, I made what was to me a rather astonishing discovery. As much as I like to eat, I found that my mind was hardly present for the actual meal. I discovered that whenever I ate something, especially something that I really like, I immediately started thinking about something else. It’s like my mind went somewhere else while my body continued to eat.

Of all of our perceptual stimuli, odor and flavor are perhaps the most powerful triggers of memory. As soon as we smell or taste something, we begin to experience within our minds a flow of associated memories. I remember the first time I went to an ice cream parlor in Korea after becoming a monk. It was the first time I had tasted pistachio ice cream in years and the taste of it instantly sent me back in time to sweet, sad memories of high school, old friends whom I hadn’t talked with in years, the town that I had grown up in, the things we used to do as kids on a Saturday night, and so forth.

The truth is, the more we like to eat, the more we tend to miss out on our meals. As soon as our tongue makes contact with the food and the flavor spreads within our mouth, our mind takes off on a very chaotic journey of associated thoughts, memories, images, and voices in our head. We literally forget the flavor of the food that we love so much as soon as we begin to chew it.

This is why so many of us tend to overeat. We’re constantly trying to accumulate moments of flavorful, pleasurable sensation.

Now I’m not one of those Buddhist monks who’ll tell you “you shouldn’t be attached to pleasure.” I think when Buddhist teachers talk about pleasure in terms of attachment and “non-attachment,” they’re missing the point.

The point is that all forms of pleasure tend to scatter our mind and take us out of the present moment of living. This is precisely why so many social commentators complain about the dangers of “escapist entertainment” and “escapism” in general.

The real problem here isn’t the source of pleasure, whether it’s food, alcohol, or social media. It’s our complete inability to regulate our own minds. And our inability to self-regulate means that we’re constantly directing our attention at things that don’t deserve our attention. Meaningless thoughts, unneeded emotions. Our tendency to fixate on our internal stream of mental activity pulls us out of the experience of real life and keeps us imprisoned in a meaningless fantasy world in our heads.

So here’s what we can do about it. The next time you sit down to take a meal, assume correct posture and engage dantian or abdominal breathing. Direct your attention toward and anchor it in “Yi-mwot-go?”

Let time slow down. The more you enter into Son meditation, the more your attention returns to the experience of real life. The colors and forms in front of your eyes. The sounds that you hear. The sensations of your body. And, of course, the delicious aroma of the food.

Don’t let the smell of the food send your mind off into random associations. Stay present for each stage of the meal — before, during, and after.

Experience the full depth of your perceptual experiences.

Do not allow your thoughts and mental images to kidnap you from your own life.

When you do this, you’ll find yourself entering into a strange and wonderful new universe. This world is called “reality.” It is vibrant and mysterious beyond belief. It shimmers and dances with an uncanny perfection of harmony and balance. Every sound you hear seems part of a symphony. Every sight you see is a miracle of creation. Every sensation you feel is proof of an incredible truth: You are alive.

In gratitude, then, begin to eat. Don’t worry so much about perfect posture and breathing at this point. But chew slowly and keep your awareness calmly centered on the joy and mystery of eating.

Keep your mind present for all of the flavors and textures hidden within the food. Observe how the flavor of food changes even as you eat it. Starchy foods like rice and bread become sweet. Fresh vegetables tend to deliver a lovely balance of sweet and bitter. Observe and you’ll see how many flavors are present in even the simplest foods.

Experience the food with your entire body. Feel how your body becomes alive as it gratefully absorbs the nutrition you’re providing.

Go deeper and experience eating — and life itself — on the energetic level. Feel the infusion of the qi or prana contained within the food. Feel this life energy spread and circulate throughout your body. Experience the profound emotions that come with it, too. Experience living as an unending and symphonic flow of energy transformations.

Then, feel how your body resonates with energy and life after the meal. Feel the gratitude and give thanks for another day of life.

When you eat like this, you tend to enjoy the meal more and eat less. You also tend to begin making healthier food choices. Being totally present for a meal means that you notice — and cringe from — all of the artificial, unhealthy ingredients in fast food and junk food. It also means that you notice all of the life-giving properties of healthy, natural food.

Finally, you notice perhaps the most important truth contained in our relationship with food: An unhealthy mind chooses unhealthy foods. And, of course, a healthy mind chooses healthy foods.

Enjoy your next meal!

Palms together,

Hwansan Sunim

For more Son Buddhist teachings about food and eating, please watch the video above. This is an episode of “Son Meditation in English with Hwansan Sunim: Me and My Food.”

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