Finding serenity in a bowl of oatmeal
In the last year or so I have become very much aware, perhaps painfully aware, of the things that hinder my spiritual life. And, as I mentioned in my last post about my laundry stand-off, many of those things appear minor on the surface. Taken individually, any one of them would be considered fairly insignificant, but when I look at them all together, I start to get the feeling that maybe I’m overlooking something much bigger, something that lies at the heart of all those little obstacles I throw in my own way.
What kind of “minor” stuff am I talking about? Mindless eating, mindless chatter, mindless multi-tasking, mindless computer time, mindless busyness in general. I complain, complain, complain that I don’t have time to pray, don’t have time for God, don’t have time for myself, and then I proceed to fill up any free minute that does come along with time-wasting, energy-depleting activities that don’t really improve anyone’s life — mine or my family’s. Just looking at the time I spend checking email and Facebook alone is enough to make me cringe.
It really dawned on me in a big way yesterday morning, when I made myself my usual bowl of oatmeal and, as I set it on the table, immediately began looking for a newspaper or magazine or laptop or phone. No sense wasting valuable eating time not getting something else done, right? And then I stopped. And listened. Quiet. Something that is so rare at our house. I could hear the tap tapping of rain on the fallen leaves. I could hear the cats batting a toy around the basement. I could hear myself think. And I wondered, what exactly am I trying to drown out when I insist on multi-tasking even while eating a meal in peace. It’s one thing if the kids are home and I’ve got my mommy hat on. But when I have time to eat breakfast alone, why would I want to clutter it up with meaningless stuff? Because eating mindlessly is one of the ways I avoid thinking, one of the ways I avoid listening to God, one of the ways I get out of living in the moment. I’m much better at living in the next moment or the next year.
So I put away the newspapers. In fact, I removed them from sight. I cleared the space around my seat of any clutter. I put the phone in the other room. And I sat down and slowly and quietly ate my oatmeal with walnuts and dried cranberries, tasting every bite. I found, as I did on my silent retreat last year, that eating in silence is a lot like praying in silence. I had to keep bringing myself back to that spoon of oatmeal every time my mind wanted to work on an imaginary blog post or think about what’s up next on our family calendar.
Of course, the mindless eating is certainly not limited to those times when I’m home alone with my work. It’s everywhere. I often find myself standing at the counter simultaneously answering emails, helping with homework, prepping for dinner and scarfing down Cheez-It Party Mix without even tasting it. It’s no longer enough for me to do one or two things at a time; now I need all of the senses firing at once. It’s all just too much. And I firmly believe that for me it is a way to avoid the thing I most want to work on: my spiritual life.
I’ve been aware of the connection between mindless eating and mindless living for a while. Again, it goes back to my silent retreat where I ate all my meals in silence even as I sat across the table from someone else. There, peering into my soup bowl in silence, I began to realize the fact that the way to God is paved, at least in part, with more mindful eating, more mindful talking, more mindful living. Of course, that lovely idea didn’t last long after I returned to the real world and the insanity of home life where even Grace Before Meals is fit for a circus tent.
On and off I struggle with this desire to bring a sense of the spiritual to my daily meals, not just the ones eaten in silence but even the ones eaten in between jumping up and down for milk and paper towels and whatever else the kids need. When Dennis and Noah went away for a Scout weekend recently, I tried my hand at more mindful eating by making a big pot of “Hermit Soup” from the From a Monastery Kitchen cookbook. I tried to chop the vegetables mindfully. I tried to stir my soup and attend to my children with a monastic sense of serenity. But when all was said and done, the soup had nothing to do with my ability or inability to maintain my spiritual composure. Yes, eating simply can certainly aid the spiritual journey, but it’s not about the ingredients.
So, as you can see, I’m still struggling with this, the first of many minor obstacles we will explore in the coming days and weeks. My plan is to make myself much more aware of how I eat, when I eat, why I eat. Not because I want to lose weight but because I want to gain peace. I want to be come more aware of the connection between the fast-paced, non-thinking eating that I do and the fast-paced non-thinking living that I do — and the praying that I don’t do. If I want to pray, why not just stop and pray? Because it’s easier to do a dozen other things at once than sit down and just wait for God. Sure, a quiet mealtime could be a kind of meditation in and of itself, but it’s far less messy to battle the New York Times crossword puzzle than it is to battle my personal demons.
I’ll keep you posted on how my experiment goes and whether I am able to make any real change from mindless to mindful eating. I’m two days in and counting on the bowl of oatmeal with a side of peace and quiet.