Chew Before You Swallow, Erin – Thoughts on Contemplative Eating

SlowFoodThera06676It’s Wednesday.

That means it’s food bank day.

That means a half hour lunch break.

Once again I breathe in, I breathe out, and I say a prayer of gratitude for that half hour break. I know that within those 30 minutes I have to go to the post office, run to the grocery store, and then to the pharmacy all before returning to work, shoveling down a few mouthfuls of food and then unlocking the door again to people needing to see me.

But without those 30 minutes, I wouldn’t have the chance to make it to the post office, the grocery store, and the pharmacy at all. I’m grateful.

The morning is busy, but not overly so for a food bank day closer to the end of the month. Mid-month is usually the busiest time, before family allowance checks come out or mid-month advances. However, a single mom and her four children enter my office 10 minutes before my break. I silently hope I can create her new file, issue a food hamper, and… oh wait! She needs back-to-school supplies too.

I’m not getting out of here before 12:30. Not a chance.

That’s all right. Breathe. I can take a few extra minutes after 1pm to eat, even if that means someone has to wait a moment or two. But I can’t abuse those moments. Some people arrive by taxi, and by making them wait I run up their metres.

The new woman takes her time. She has four kids after all, and four kids in different grades all need different supplies. By the time I leave for lunch, it’s already 12:55. I race to the pharmacy first, because I need my prescription; I fly to the post office next because there’s office mail that MUST be mailed out today; and then I hop over to the store.

By the time I get back it’s already 1:10. I breathe a prayer of thanksgiving that I live in a small town where such whirlwind errands are feasible (if not still stressful), and sit down for a bite to eat. Sure enough, no sooner than the food touches my lips two people wander in looking for food hampers. Both are incredibly understanding about my need to ingest a bit of sustenance. It’s a beautiful day out, so they mosey on across the street to wait by the lake. God bless you both, I pray silently. Thank you!

But in deference to them, I begin to hurry. I have a marinated vegetable salad — tasty, but terribly difficult to eat quickly. Hard, fibrous veggies don’t go down in a pinch. I find myself choking once or twice, feeling a sore stomach coming on, and becoming more and more anxious as the clock ticks on.

I stop.

Remembering that I’ve been trying to be more conscious in my eating times, I put down my fork and take another breathe.

Food becomes a part of who we are. Sharing food is sacramental. It’s holy. It’s communal. It’s profound.

I can’t truly participate in this holy and mysterious connection with God and food if I’m wolfing down what’s in front of me. Do I even know what’s in front of me? I stop, I breathe, and decide that there are no emergencies to deal with. The people needing food already said they would come back later. I have time.

I feel the rough greenery of broccoli against my teeth.

I like how the small, button mushrooms burst in my mouth. The same goes for the cherry tomatoes.

I taste the tangy vinegar in the marinade.

The sweet peppers are crunchy, and echo in my ears.

The cauliflower crumbles more than it crunches.

And the baby corn is simply a treat to me. I don’t eat it very often, but I love it when I do.

I chew slowly. My jaw relaxes. I taste every bite, enjoying the salad’s zippy flavour, and I swallow carefully and deliberately. I don’t choke; the stomach pains ease; and I begin to breathe deeply between bites. Lunch suddenly becomes more of an entire prayer than it does a chore to get through before rushing back to work.

Once I’m finished, the two folks who had come in previously are back and waiting as are a few others. I kindly thank them for their patience, wash my hands, and begin the afternoon’s work with a refreshing centredness not present before lunch. There were too many things to do in too little of a time span then. I needed to consciously create my small break into a prayer.

Can I eating contemplatively all of the time? I’m not sure yet. Some spiritual directors claim it’s possible; yet real life tells me that this would be extremely difficult. What about parents of young children? Food spattering everywhere, voices pleading for more milk or how they hate brussel sprouts — how do families eat slowly? What about parents who have to ride 2 bus routes to drop one child off at daycare, another bus to drop other kids off at school, and then a train to get to work? What about critical first responders who are needed at a nanosecond’s notice? What about people who have the funds to purchase only rice or KD or canned beans, and eat the same thing day in and day out?

How do we all have the opportunity to engage in contemplative eating?

I don’t have the answer.

I know that by setting aside at least one meal per day — whether it’s a sit-down meal or a snack or a cup of water — I can begin to notice the properties of each food I’m eating. I notice texture, I notice taste, I notice how it feels when I swallow, I notice how my body changes after consuming food or drink, I notice how my emotions change, I notice how my breathing slows to accept these gifts, and I notice the little spaces of time where I can be alone with God by whispering words of gratitude.

Slow eating.

Contemplative eating.

It takes time.

Time to realize the work that went into producing the food; time to prepare the food; time to cook the food; and time to eat the food. It’s a long, holy, messy process. But when I slow myself down to ingest all of the gifts the go with eating, I become aware of the powerful relationship between myself and God, between humanity and food.

Friend, I know times are hurried and rushed; I know your children must be at school, daycare or home by a precise time; I know you’re needed on the job; I know sometimes the foods you eat are repeats of last week’s leftovers. Contemplative eating isn’t a magic bullet by any stretch. But I encourage you to start with a glass of water or coffee or tea; perhaps some crackers or an apple.

Notice the temperature of the water… how it quenches your thirst… how it cools your mouth.

Notice the flavour of the coffee… how it perks up the beginning of your day… how it sustains your afternoon slump.

Notice the crunchiness of your apple… how sweet-tart it is on your tongue… how seeds rattle in the middle.

Take a moment to breathe in. Breathe out.

Whether a little or a lot, you are sustained. You are nourished. Your are loved.

Create small spaces of time where food is the holy catalyst for you and God, you and community, community God. Crumbs of sustenance begin to become feasts, and we can learn how to practice intentional gratitude in tangible ways wherever we are, whoever we are.

Click here for a brief narrative on Contemplative Eating.

Click here for an introduction to the Slow Food Movement.

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