|A few years ago, I was working on my laptop, developing a new workshop program, when one of my favorite series of all time came on TV — Pride and Prejudice (the one starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, although let’s be frank: Is there any other?). So I nestled into the couch, preparing to divide the next six hours between my work and Jane Austen’s most absorbing hero (the only man for whom I might consider giving up chocolate, if he asked me — but Darcy wouldn’t do that).Unfortunately, writing the outline turned out to be so hard, it grabbed all my attention. Instead of diving into the Regency saga that virtually invented sexual tension, I ended up slogging my way through reams of research. By the time Lizzy Bennet was riding off in her carriage as Mrs. Darcy, my workshop was as well planned as D-day, but I felt as if I’d been cheated. I’d had the world’s most romantic story right in front of me, and I’d missed it.
This is the way most of us eat every day. The food is right there, but because we’re busy doing other things, we miss it. We chew, we swallow, but we don’t experience the taste of the food, the delight of it. And then, because we missed the best parts, we go back for more. And more.People tell me all the time that they love food. They love the taste, the smell, the feeling in their mouths. But the truth is, when you love something, you pay attention to it. When you love something, you take time with it. And most of us don’t pay attention to our food.
Think about all the ways you miss the pleasures of food because you’re multitasking or otherwise distracting yourself: eating while you’re cooking, reading, watching TV or standing at the refrigerator door deciding what you want to have; sampling the kids’ leftovers, the interesting tidbits on your partner’s plate, the broken cookies on the counter at work (no, it is not true that once cookies are broken, all the calories escape). And then there’s eating while pretending to do something else. You walk by a cake. You see that some thoughtless person has taken a crooked slice. Now it’s up to you to even things out. You edge one side and eat the thin, leftover shaving. Then you see that the other side is crooked too. Conscious of your responsibility to cake aesthetics, you edge that side and eat the shaving. Before long, half the cake is gone. But you never really decided to cut yourself a slice, so it doesn’t count as eating.This is no way to treat cake. If you dearly love food, why do you rob yourself of all the delight and satisfaction it brings you by not paying attention to how it tastes and feels? Why do you doom yourself to want more, more, more of something when you could have been pleased with less, if only you’d been present for it?
In my workshops, we do an exercise on paying real attention to food. Everyone gets a small cup containing two raisins, a corn chip, and a small piece of chocolate. Everyone looks at the cup. They look at me. They look back at the cup. “One corn chip? Are you kidding? I ate more than this when I was 2 days old,” said a woman at one workshop.
Giggles and snickers.
“OK,” I say, “I know this is a very small amount of food, but let me ask you: Do you remember the last time you actually tasted one raisin?”
One woman says, “I’ve never eaten just one raisin. Raisins are meant to be eaten in bulk.”
Everyone nods their heads. Then we proceed with the exercise.
First they pick up the corn chip. They smell it. They look at it closely. They take a small bite and notice what the chip feels like in their mouths. Then I ask them to comment on their experiences.
Most of them say things like: “Oh my God, I’ve been eating corn chips for 20 years and I never ever realized I didn’t like them.” Or “Wow! What I really want is the salt. The rest tastes like cardboard.” We move on to the raisins, but we eat only one.
People say that they usually eat a hundred of them. A box of them. Several handfuls of them. But if you are eating raisins by the handful, how do you know when you have had enough? How do you even know what a raisin tastes like if you are eating 90 of them at once? At this point, it’s the bulk you are enjoying, not the taste of the raisin.
And then, oh then, comes the moment everyone has been waiting for: eating the Hershey’s Kiss. They unwrap it. Suspense builds. I ask how many of them are certain they are going to like it. Duh, they say, this is chocolate we’re talking about.
So they smell the Hershey’s Kiss and then they pop it in their mouths and chew for a minute or two. This is a radical act, taking time with a piece of chocolate. Usually the one in our mouths is just a prelude to the next one and the next.
One woman says, “I can’t believe this, but it tastes waxy. I don’t like it, even though I’ve been eating these things for years.”
Another woman says, “I’ve eaten many bags of these over the years, but I’ve never tasted just one. And when I taste one, I like it, and one is actually enough.”
Then we talk about translating this exercise into real life, and all at once everyone stops liking me. No one really wants to abandon her old habits. You probably don’t either. Right now I’m sure you’re thinking, There’s no way I am going to give up watching Grey’s Anatomy with my friend, ice cream. But could you be persuaded to try if I told you that there’s something better waiting for you if you give up the comfort of distracted eating?
For one thing, you’ll rediscover the pleasure of food itself. You’ll learn whether you actually like the food you’ve been eating in quantity for years. You may find that whatever food is in front of you might actually make you happy. (And that’s the only reason to pay attention to what’s on your plate — that it might help make you happy. That’s all.)
When we take time with food, it has a chance to give something back — the flavor, the sensual feeling, a satisfaction we can savor. But if we are busy doing something else, we miss the whole experience. It is like being glued to your laptop while the sexiest story ever told is unfolding right before you on TV.
The truth is, you don’t have to choose between watching Pride and Prejudice and eating. You can have both. You can watch and then you can eat. That gives you two chances for pleasure, not just one.
Why not act on your own behalf? Why not live as if you deserve all the pleasure? Because — and of this I am certain — you do.
You can learn a whole new way to relate to food – and explore the foundation upon which you build your life and your relationships – at my next retreat, this coming November. Six days of immersion in constant support, endless kindness and ever present awareness. Such a blessing. Once you know those things are possible for you, you can never go back to believing that they're not. If this resonates with you, you can find out more here: http://retreats.geneenroth.com/fall/.
When I was younger (well, really, until a few years ago), the ordinary sounded boring. Just the word “ordinary” made me feel cranky, as if I was being sentenced to a lifetime of wearing faded brown muumuus that could fit my aunt Lucy, my cousin Poppy, and me. I wanted big success, big love, big highs and couldn’t understand anyone who didn’t. When my friend Maria told me that she had no desire to stand out and preferred raising her children and growing dahlias instead, I felt sorry for her. I secretly believed that she’d given up on having an extraordinary life and was now settling for a dull-brown-muumuu existence. And that in doing so, she was missing the point – the exhilaration – of being alive.
After decades of pushing the proverbial boulder up the mountain, I reached (what I’d imagined as) the top. Or, at least, a very tall mountainette. The place where the extraordinary was supposed to live. Where I could finally have The Big Life.
And here’s what the top felt like: Immense satisfaction and gratitude at reaching so many people; relief and more gratitude at making money after losing almost every cent; exhaustion as big as the gratitude; and being so busy responding to requests for various things that I forgot (or was too busy to notice, which is the same thing) that I had a husband, family, dog, garden, an exaltation of hummingbirds outside my window. I forgot to listen to the whistle of the wind in the redwood trees. And although I live in a forest, I forgot the trees themselves. I forgot about anything that wasn’t supporting or contributing to the extraordinary life I was too tired to enjoy. By trying to have, and then keep up, the life I dreamed about, I was missing the life I already had.
In Into Thin Air, Jon Kraukauer writes that when he reached the top of Mt. Everest he realized (this is a paraphrase) it was just a square piece of earth with colored flags flapping in the wind. He stopped there for a few minutes and then, exhausted and depleted from climbing 57 hours, he immediately began the descent. After he returned home, he said that what he most appreciated was “being able to get up in the middle of the night, barefoot, and walk to the bathroom.”
Walking. Being barefoot. The fact of night. Stars. Salamanders. A sip of tea. A bite of chocolate. My husband’s face. The ordinary things we pass by on the way to wherever it is we think we will finally be able to relax — and enjoy the ordinary things.
Like many of us, I believed that there was a destination where the extraordinary (with no down sides) lived. And part of my fuel to get there was the conviction that if I worked hard enough, lived big enough, my Life dues would be paid and I would be allowed to stop. To be.
I was passionate (and still am) about my work, but I began to understand that working eighteen-hour days did not automatically give me permission to stop working eighteen-hour days. And splashy success didn’t automatically translate to allowing myself to rest. They often led to being worried that if I stopped pushing, success would escape me and I’d fall behind. The Big Get kept eluding me, kept being one step ahead of me. If only I could catch it by trying harder, living bigger and running faster. After banging my head against the wall of “it’s out there, it has to be out there” thousands of times, I realized I’d spent my life trying to earn something that was already mine.
It turns out that the true extraordinary isn’t reserved for special people or big achievements or red-carpet-moments. It’s extraordinary to write a book, and it’s extraordinary to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes and mustard. It’s extraordinary to meet a famous person, and it’s extraordinary to meet the eyes of a grocery store cashier. When I pay attention to what is in front of me, the seemingly ordinary things are backlit with the extraordinary: the hum of the refrigerator, the yellow sponge, the trill of a finch.
Now, instead of lurching forward, I step back. Instead of looking for the extraordinary, I look at it. If I get breathless or anxious that I am falling behind and that everyone else will get there before me, I remind myself that the top is just a square of earth you pass on your way down. And that no moment, no place, is better than this breath, this foot touching the cool floor in the middle of the night.