The Teacup Chronicles

Month: August, 2010

Eating Meditation and the Art of Savoring

I consider being present with my food as one of the most important principles to live by. To miss out on fully experiencing the subtle nuances and various sensations of what you eat seems like missing out on the basic purpose of your existence. After all, at the most primal level, life is all about eating isn’t it?   And yet, I still somehow find myself cramming spoonfuls of oatmeal down my throat as I drive down the road to work, simultaneously shuffling through radio stations and searching through my bag for a hair tie. Or consuming copious amounts of salted peanuts while staring at the computer screen in a sort of half conscious daze.

And how could it be otherwise? We live in a cultural climate that values productivity over enjoyment. We have long hours to work to be able to afford all the material goods we never have time to actually use – and who has time in this busy scheme to actually sit down and eat a meal? Why waste time when you can shove protein bars down your throat while doing something useful!

Well, I’m hear to say that  there are some compelling reasons to re-learn the art of experiencing your food, and enjoyment is just the tip of the iceberg. Obesity, for starters, might not be such a cultural pandemic if we weren’t living in an environment of mindless eating. It’s easy to finish off that bowl of salted peanuts, after all, when you’re not really consciously aware of the act of eating them. When most of our conscious brain is preoccupied by television, staring at computer screens or worse yet, driving, it becomes far less likely that we’ll cue into signals of satiety from our body – making it far more likely that we’ll over eat. Considering it typically takes about 15 minutes for your brain to register the sensation of fullness – you can see the problem. Over time, we can become so disconnected from the feelings of hunger or fullness that we eat without reason or need – the hallmark of our obese, consumer driven culture.

Paired with the speed we typically eat at, our lack of consciousness  also creates the perfect environment for the marketing of those pointless nutritionally devoid foods we call “junk food” or “processed foods” – foods laced with sugar, fat and salt to mask the shortcomings of their otherwise tasteless nature. It’s as though our tasting muscle has become puny and enfeebled after too long of not having to really work. Why bother to taste when our taste buds are already overwhelmed with the flavors we like best?

Long ago, people used to describe rice as sweet because they chewed it long enough to break down some of the polysaccharides into simple sugars – there was that vital short delay and some work required to experience the full flavor. I dare say most people never reach that point today – the rice has long since passed down the gullet. If you think about the foods that you tend to consume most quickly, I would bet that they tend to be highly sweet or salty “junk” type foods – foods that bombard your tongue with certain flavors and negate the need to search for more. We don’t realize these foods are terrible because our tongues are fooled by the sugars, salt or artificial flavors that keep us from discovering that what we are really eating is equivalent in flavor to a cardboard box. And then, we find the truly amazing flavors of real foods (vegetables and whole grains for example) boring – because we aren’t used to actually having to taste our food – to work a little to discover the subtle complexities locked away with each morsel.

And then there is of course enjoying what we eat. If you think back on all the meals you have eaten in your life, I would venture that the best ones we’re eaten slowly, savored if you will. You know these meals – the type of meal where conversation suddenly dies out, where the world drifts away until there is nothing but the experience of flavor and eating, the sound of the fork hitting your plate, eyes closed, emitting the mmmmm of primal contentment that can only come from a really good meal. Good food is not eaten quickly. It is savored. It does not bombard or overwhelm our tongues, but awakens our tongue, pulls our minds immediately and fully into the experience of taste.

Years ago, I experienced something called “an eating meditation” in a meditation course I was taking. Meditation is about focusing your mind, letting go of the constant barrage of thoughts that whirl round your consciousness, distracting  you from the raw beauty of pure experience. This particular meditation involved focusing the mind entirely on the experience of food – blocking out all other thoughts, sensations or senses.

I have eaten thousands of grapes in my life, but never one as fantastically delicious and amazing as the one I savored during this class. For 15 minutes, we held one purple grape in our mouths, sensing its coldness on our tongues, feeling its shape and texture, moving it around, tasting, slowly biting it and releasing the first squeeze of sweet juice. Everything was slowed down to the millisecond – like a slow motion film where every frame can be analyzed and fully taken in.

Try the meditation yourself.  Start with something small – a piece of very dark chocolate or  a slice of fruit. Block out all other senses: put yourself in a quiet room, blindfold yourself if you’d like or simply close your eyes. Then, place the food into your mouth, and simply hold it there for a few moments. Before you even move it in your mouth, just hold it on your tongue, taste it, feel it. Slowly move it around your mouth, holding it under your tongue, against the roof of your mouth, against the sides of your cheeks. Taste it, sense it’s shape and texture. Then ever so slowly, bite down – not breaking it but just gently crushing it between your teeth. Observe how the taste changes, what it feels like, how your jaw feels holding it there. Continue on like this, very slowly breaking down the mechanics of eating into a thousand little steps. Observe at every moment, pulling your consciousness back to your experiencing.

Once you’ve practice this a time or two, start incorporating into your daily routine. Meditate on the first few bites of food you eat at every meal. I would bet that you might begin to find foods you previously loved somewhat boring, somewhat terrible even. Foods that you may have previously found blasé, might begin to become more interesting, revealing their hidden secrets to your patient tongue and open mind. You will begin to not just eat, but savor – experiencing the full potential and delight of taste.

Because in the end, life is about awareness. When we are aware, we provide ourselves with the objective space to make a clear decision about how will behave – we become the artists of our present moment. When we are mindless, we become slaves to our experience, completely abandoning our ability to have a conscious choice in our actions. Life is about awareness – and eating is the basis of life.

Inspiration Short #3: Dine by candlelight

The darkness of autumn  has begun to creep it’s way into our long summer evenings, coloring the sky with night long before I quite feel ready for it.  But as a consolation for our loss of light, the merging of our precious summer into autumn creates the most spectacular lavender twilight, and paired with a table full of flickering candlelight, helps to befriend and welcome the darkness into our lives.

I often forget about the candles scattered throughout the house, until a heavy snow or thunderstorm knocks the power out and forces me to light them from necessity. I always marvel at their beautiful flickering light, and wonder why I shouldn’t light them just for pure enjoyment. How silly that they sit there collecting dust on shelves and tables, rather than getting used for their true and beautiful purpose.

So this week, as the light diminishes into dusky twilight and you sit down to dine – whether alone, with a sweetheart or at a table full of familiar and loved faces – turn off the harshness of the overhead light and fill the room with the flickering glow of candles. There is something so intimate, so gentle about the way a candle lights a room – casting a warm glow that is completely transformative to our perception of the world.

I could try and attempt to describe that feel, the way that candlelight seems to bring out the complex and shadowy beauty in the face, brings a new level of intimacy to our vision , but John O’donohue does it best:

Before electricity, people used candlelight at night. The ideal light to befriend the darkness, it gently opens up caverns in the darkness and prompts the imagination into activity. The candle allows the darkness to keep its secrets. There is shadow and color within every candle flame. Candlelight perception is the most respectful and appropriate form of light with which to approach the inner world. It does not force our tormented transparency upon the mystery. The glimpse is sufficient. Candelight perception has the finesse and reverence appropriate to the mystery and autonomy of the soul. Such perception is at home at the threshold. It neither needs or desires to invade the temenos where the divine lives.

So, befriend the darkness this week and explore the shadowy and flickering beauty of candlelight perception. Your eyes will adjust just fine.

Six essential herbs for your first aid kit

When I first began my studies of medicinal plants many years ago, my greatest teacher became the humble little kit of herbs I carried with me. As one teacher told me, the best way to become an herbalist is to start being one. By always having some first aid remedies on hand, I came across lots of opportunities to practice and actually experience the effects of the plants I was studying. The contents of my herb kit changed often in those first few years, as I experimented with different plants and began to get an idea of which we’re most effective. And as I refined my skill and got to know my plants a little better, my kit shrunk from a rather large and cumbersome bag – full of remedies for just about everything –  to a small and compact pouch with just a handful of essentials that could cover all the bases.

I’ve you’ve never used herbs before for yourself or your family, including a few herbal remedies in your first aid kit is just the place to start. What a wonderful thing it is to see the remarkable healing power of plants in action – to feel competent to rely on the plants and yourself for addressing many of the ailments you and your family will experience. For it is only quite recently that people have begun to feel so powerless in taking care of themselves, so unsure of how to address simple health concerns. In the past, if an injury or illness could be addressed at home, it was – using simple time tested folk remedies handed down through the generations. As herbalist Rosemary Gladstar says, “If your grandmother would have treated the problem at home, you probably can to.”

So, with the hopes of inspiring you to begin keeping your own herbal first aid kit, I’d like to share with you the herbs that I have found most useful and practical over the years, the ones that I include in my very own kit that I carry just about everywhere. I think you’ll find them quite useful.

Chamomile – Chamomile is such a wonderfully soothing plant – whether used topically to soothe rashes, burns or inflammations, or taken internally to soothe an upset belly or calm an irritable child. The plant contains an essential oil known as chamazulene that is strongly anti-inflammatory, quiets the nervous system and relaxes spasming muscle in the digestive tract. It also contains mucilage, a slimy type of polysaccharide that coats irritated membranes and cools and soothes. I keep a handful of teabags in my kit to use for any kind of digestive upset – from gas and bloating to diarrhea, finding it especially effective for children (even big children like husbands) who tend to get stomach upsets when they are irritable and tired. The soothing action can also help to slip you into dreamland, and hot tea bags can be applied topically to any sort of skin irritation, being especially nice to place over itchy, red or tired eyes.

Echinacea – Echinacea is an immune stimulant, helping to boost the activity of our immune system as well as providing its own anti-viral and anti-microbial properties. Taken at the first sign of illness, echinacea can often completely prevent a cold or flu, and used frequently throughout an illness,  has been found to dramatically decrease the length of infection. It’s anti-inflammatory and tissue strengthening properties make it wonderful for soothing sore throats. The tincture can also be applied topically to enhance local immune response in the skin and prevent the spread of infection – making it well suited for applying to cuts and scrapes, bites and stings or rashes. For colds and flus, take 1 tsp at the first sign of illness, and 2 dropperfuls every 2 hours after until symptoms subside.

Lavender – If you have just one herbal remedy in your home, it would have to be lavender essential oil – almost a first aid kit in itself. The essential oil is incredibly soothing to the skin, reducing inflammation and has antibacterial and antifungal properties. It is one of the best remedies for burns, and dramatically speeds the healing of cuts, scrapes and insect bites and stings. Applied to the temples, it helps to reduce headaches and nervous tension, and can be applied to a pillowcase to promote sleep.  When traveling on planes during cold and flu season, inhaling the oil can help protect one from the spread of infection.

Yarrow – Any herbalist would list yarrow in their list of essential herbs they couldn’t live without. It is simply the best remedy there is for stopping blood flow and promoting wound healing. While the fresh plant material is the best choice, I carry a small pouch of dried yarrow leaf for quenching blood flow from a wound. The leaf is simply crushed or chewed up slightly to release the active constituents, and then applied directly onto the wound, held in place with a little gauze or a band-aid. It works every time. It is similarly useful for slowing heavy menstrual bleeding or quenching blood flow in the digestive tract. Yarrow is also an excellent anti-viral, taken as a hot tea during a cold or flu to reduce fever by promoting diaphoresis. An infused oil of the fresh leaf can be applied to wounds and bruises to speed their healing time.

Arnica– Arnica homeopathic gel and tablets are another must have. Taken at the first sign of trauma, the tablets help to speed healing and reduce inflammation – especially useful before surgery. The gel can be applied to any injury or trauma, helping to reduce swelling and bruising, and speed recovery.

Crampbark – My last herb might be a different choice had I been a man, but being a woman who has experienced menstrual cramps, my first aid kit would not be complete without a uterine anti-spasmodic! Crampbark can work magic for painful menstrual cramps, taken internally  and applied externally on the lower abdomen. It also relaxes spasming in the digestive tract – useful for gas, bloating and diarrhea, as well as in the respiratory tract, helping to quiet a cough. I also apply it externally to relax tense muscles.

May these plants serve you and your family as well as they have served me. For more information on herbal first aide, please refer to The Healthy Traveler by Susan Kramer, Natural First Aide by Brigitte Mars, or Herbal First Aide by Rosemary Gladstar.