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Buddhadharma : Fall 2007
fall 2007| 96 |buddhadharma A tAste of letting go By Kristin lemal mikeholmes Although I am in my thirties, I have the food preferences of a child. I like comfort foods: bread, cheese, pasta, unadorned turkey sandwiches, mayonnaise. It helps if my food is white and, like my five-year-old, I do not let my foods “mix.” My gourmet mother-in-law goes to great lengths to cook something I’ll eat, only to discover that she’s inad- vertently added some flavoring I eschew, and I politely decline her five-star meal to avoid public gagging. My infantile prefer- ences have not helped family relations. When I began doing long retreats in the 1990s, I was introduced to oryoki, a Zen practice of silently eating meals in the meditation hall as a form of meditation. The practitioner has four black bowls that are filled by a server and, after some long, highly choreographed preliminaries, she eats everything in her bowls in short order. She eats everything in her bowls. I, however, devised covert means to avoid eating the wholesome vegetarian fare served at retreats: I signaled the server to give me only a small amount; I sneaked cheese sandwiches from the kitchen dur- ing walking meditation; I carried a ziplock baggie in my sleeve to off-load unaccept- able bits; and yes, I admit that I sat next to my husband and switched bowls when he had cleaned his. I cannot overemphasize how gauche these behaviors are in such an austere Zen practice, the purpose of which is to reduce attachment and preferences. And so I gave myself to oryoki much as Odys- seus tied himself to the mast; I would eat everything in my bowls with no surrepti- tious snacking on the side. The first real test came on just the sec- ond day. I gazed into my middle bowl overflowing with half a dozen vegetables that I’d literally never consumed in my life and, though Buddhism is nontheistic, I prayed, “Dear Lord, do not let me hurl.” I worked with grim determination, alternat- ing bites of the slippery morass with bites of the inoffensive rice next to it. Because there was not much time before we would, en masse, clean our utensils, I had to be relentless in getting the food down and I finished not a moment too soon. Then, unbeknownst to my quiet companions, I did a mental jig to celebrate my victory. Although this proved to be, by some small margin, the most challenging meal I would face over the next twelve days, it set into motion an unraveling of con- trol patterns that had been invisible to me. I began to see how I compulsively coupled every morsel with another so as to distribute the yucky bits across their more palatable neighbors. I plotted which mouthfuls to leave for last, striving to end with a taste that I could stand lingering on my palate. Seeing this, I knew I had to commit to an even more radical act of surrender. I began to eat whatever mixture hap- pened to be scooped onto my chopsticks, without regard for the consequences. I refused to indulge in the ongoing mental dialogue about which vegetable, and how much of it, and with what, and I simply allowed the winds of my karma to dictate how my food would enter me. I became a mere witness to this small woman con- suming her lunch. Perhaps the final test came when I was one of the servers and realized with delight that I would be able to scoop just what I liked onto my plate. But as I reached for the tongs someone mimed, “Let me serve you,” and my crest fell as I realized that I’d never, never get what I wanted without having it all mixed up with what I didn’t want. Yet as the young man dished up reckless piles onto my plate, I felt gratitude arise in my heart. I realized that I cared so much more deeply about accepting his generosity than I did about whether I ate the best ratio of tofu to carrots. I mentally begged my mother- in-law’s forgiveness for my hitherto com- plete ignorance of the beauty of accepting a gift, and I felt the last vestiges of deep food neurosis slide off me like so much overcooked spinach from an oily knife. Then, as frequently happens on long meditation retreats, something unex- pected happened: I began enjoying my food. No longer managing my consump- tion, I found flavors and textures bliss- fully exploding in my mouth. I found I could just let go and see what unexpected miracle would occur next. And, what was more, I saw that all of the experiences of my life were the same. When the things I thought I didn’t want got all mixed up with the things I thought I did want, my life was still OK. At the end of the meal chants, there is a line that goes, “The prosperity of the bodhisattva is inexhaustible, filling the whole of space.” This suddenly rang true to me, as I saw that wanting what I get is infinitely more satisfying than getting what I want, even when it means having to eat my vegetables. Kristin Luce LemAL is A freeLAnce writer And hAs A privAte prActice in Buddhist And Body-BAsed psycho- therApy. she Lives in middLeBury, vermont. journeys