In order to shift our patterns of consumption from a non-mindful state to a mindful state, we need a great deal of support. Part of that support can be engendered by an awareness of the consequences of our consumption, yet we also need the support of friends, family and sangha, so that a shift from meat eating to vegetarianism, from cooked food to raw food can be effected. It is helpful if pot luck vegetarian meals are organized on a regular basis with friends, that certain mealtimes with family are conducted in silence, while everyone contemplates the nature of the food consumed. For instance, when I am fully present with my food and look deeply into how it came to be on my plate, there are often wonderful surprises, especially in the summertime when I eat a bowl of raspberries. I slow down, breathing consciously in and out, and before eating these plump red berries I look deeply into how they came to be there. I see raspberry canes, the elements of sunshine, rain and good soil. I see the gardener looking after the raspberries with weeding and composting, people picking them and placing them in baskets, truck drivers taking them to market, people buying them. Above all else I see my grandmother.
As a little boy I believed that my grandmother had the biggest raspberry patch in the world! I would pick raspberries with her, some for bottling and jam, but mostly to sit down with my grandmother and enjoy eating them with her. My grandmother was very special. I would be sent to her house once a week by my parents to do gardening and chores for my grandmother, but she had other ideas. She wanted to spend time with me, her first grandson, and so she hired another little boy in the neighborhood to do the chores and paid him a shilling a week. This clever strategy was one I fully enjoyed. We would talk, have tea, and pick raspberries together. She used to make exquisite lace with a crochet needle, and one of my favorite memories is still that of curling up in her big armchair with a bowl of raspberries, while she sat in front of me making lace. I ate the raspberries very slowly, as I was so happy. She was my first teacher in mindfulness, though it was never called that, but that was its true name. She passed away many years ago, yet eating raspberries with deep looking reminds me that she is with me still, as I touch the elements and web of life that brings raspberries to my bowl. This kind of support is essential to bring about the shift in consciousness that enables us to consume mindfully with compassion.
To assist deep looking at mealtimes, or whenever we eat food, there is a simple exercise to do – the Five Contemplations. If we have a bell at home we can invite it twice before reciting it. If there is not a bell, a half filled glass of water and a spoon to tap it with will do just as well. Once the bell has been invited twice we recite the Five Contemplations:
THE FIVE CONTEMPLATIONS
THIS FOOD THIS DAY, AND THIS FAMILY ARE GIFTS OF THE WHOLE UNIVERSE – THE EARTH, THE SKY, THE STARS, NUMEROUS LIVING BEINGS AND MUCH HARD WORK
MAY WE RECEIVE THEM WITH STABILITY, JOY, AND FREEDOM, AND SO BE WORTHY OF THEM
MAY WE TRANSFORM OUR UNSKILLFUL STATES OF MIND, ESPECIALLY OUR GREED, AND LEARN TO EAT IN MODERATION, AND LOVE IN ABUNDANCE
MAY WE KEEP OUR COMPASSION ALIVE BY EATING IN SUCH A WAY THAT WE REDUCE THE SUFFERING OF LIVING BEINGS, STOPS CONTRIBUTING TO CLIMATE CHANGE, AND HEALS AND PRESERVES OUR PRECIOUS PLANET
WE ACCEPT THIS FOOD, THIS DAY, THESE FRIENDS, SO WE MAY NOURISH OUR SISTERHOOD AND BROTHERHOOD, STRENGTHEN OUR FAMILY AND NOURISH OUR IDEAL OF SERVING ALL BEINGS.
Then another sound of the bell is invited and we eat in silence for 10–12 minutes, looking deeply into our food, the consequences of its production and consumption, and connect to the web of life of the entire cosmos. Part of that connection is to be very aware of the millions around the world who are starving, and as we eat mindfully we may resolve to help alleviate the suffering of world hunger. After the period of silence, the bell is invited once again so that people can speak.
This is a wonderful exercise for families. Place the children in charge of the bell and the reading of the Five Contemplations. When the final bell is invited for speaking – adults talk about what is going right on this day, enquiring about their children’s good experiences. It is not the time to collar their offspring for misdemeanors. No wonder kids often absent themselves from family meals. Rather than intimidation, the children enjoy becoming empowered, as they are on the bell, reading and timing and enjoy exploring deeply what the food meant to them at this meal time. This nurtures family dynamics in a beautiful way.
At home when I am on my own, I make a special effort to prepare and consume meals mindfully. It is such a joy as I have two assistants – my dog Nikki and my cat Lady. As I set the table I tell them that this is a mindful meal and after the first two bells I cannot talk to them. I set a bowl of treats for each of them on the table and after I recite the Five Contemplations, I put their bowls down on the floor and I begin my meal. My two dharma pets always sit quietly after their treats until the bell is invited once again to bring the silence to an end. Then Nikki will want her ears scratched and Lady climbs up on to my lap. They bring such fun and joy to my mindful meals with them.
At Pine Gate Mindfulness Community we occasionally practice eating a formal meal together in the meditation hall. There are two rows facing one another and we sit in silence for a while before standing and slowly going upstairs to where the pot-luck supper is laid out. We file out with Carolyn leading followed by myself and then alternating between men and women. We prefer this form to the monastic style of men going first followed by the women. Quietly we place food on our plates and return to our sitting places in the meditation hall. The Five Contemplations are read out in English and in French by Sangha members. I then state: “The Buddha invites us to enjoy eating our meal in mindfulness,” at which point we begin to eat our food with the attention described above. Slowly, contemplatively, tasting the food and its source, we connect to all the beings that played a part in bringing such food to land on our plates.
When everybody is finished eating, the bell master invites the bell for us to stand. Another bell has Carolyn leading us upstairs as before. We now have dessert to look forward to and tea. We sit in small groups upstairs, or out on the deck and in the garden and talk to one another. Without fail everyone enjoyed the exquisite nature of the taste of food and silence. As much of the ingredients of the formal meal came from our organic garden, there is the natural investigation of the plants thriving in the garden. It is a wonderful way to eat together as a community. Mindful consumption nourishes our minds as well as our bodies.