This is what I say before I eat:
As I eat and drink I accept and appreciate the present moment, and acknowledge, awaken to, and act upon what life is teaching me.
Most people would call it a prayer. I like to consider it a moment of mindfulness before I eat.
My moment of mindfulness is a variation of the chant we recited at the Cedar Rapids Zen Center and which is chanted in most Zen Centers. I wanted to remove some of the Buddhist words, I'm interested in “Americanizing” Zen, in particular by changing Sanskrit, Chinese, or Japanese words into their English counterparts.
Here is what the original meal chant is:
As we take food and drink I vow with all sentient beings to rejoice in zazen being filled with delight in the Dharma.
Zazen is the form of sitting meditation in Japanese Zen. Zen is a Japanese word which means meditation, derived from the Chinese word chan which was derived from the Indian source, the Sanskrit word dyhana, which means meditation. In its simplest form zen means meditation. In its complexity, it means taking what we learn in meditation into our everyday life. The infamous saying “chop wood, carry water” captures this idea of doing what we are doing, whatever it is, even and especially those fundamental activities that sustain us. Beyond that, there is nothing else. It is nothing special as American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Bend reminds us.
To rejoice in zazen means to rejoice in meditation. The “za” in zazen means “just”. Zazen is just meditation. The emphasis means that when we are meditating we are only meditating. We are doing nothing else. We are just sitting there. If only it were this easy though! Just sitting can me physically difficult when we feel restless and fidget and adjust and attempt to get comfortable. Just sitting can also be mentally difficult because we are left alone with our thoughts and our effort to not think However, we are going to think. That is our nature as human beings. Our minds will race to past events. We will wonder and worry about the future. We will become increasingly aware of the present moment. This is good. This is the goal of mediation: to become aware of and appreciate the present moment, the moment right there on the cushion as we are meditating.
I like to think of zazen or meditation as just sitting mindfully. You don't do anything for a while. You slow down. No, more than slow down. You stop. You get very still. Whether it's 10 minutes or 15 or 25 or 35 minutes, you carved out time from your day and you just stopped and sat still and developed mindfulness. You mindfully sat.
This is where Zen kicks in. We take that awareness and appreciation of the present moment we gained in meditation into every moment of our lives. This is our practice over and again with each new moment.
“Rejoicing in zazen” always surprised me because “rejoice” is not a word I ever encountered in the dozens of books I've read by Japanese or American Zen teachers. Rejoice reminds me of songs sung in Lutheran churches and Christmas carols. It sounds so pentecostal and exuberant. My idea of Japanese Zen was one of quiet contentment and at times austerity and stoicism. Perhaps this is the lesson of spiritual surprise and dissonance. So instead of “I rejoice in zazen” I played with the words and after several attempts landed on and like “I accept and appreciate the present moment”. It's something I know I need to remind myself of daily and so including it in my before meal thought strengthens me. It is, I believe, the essence of Zen.
The next part of the traditional chant is “delight in the Dharma.” Dharma is the teaching of Buddhism. It is the books, the teachers, the tradition, the rituals. Dharma is also life itself as our teacher when we realize that if we are willing to learn life itself is the greatest teacher on how to live a good life. Therefore in my prayer I substituted “what life is teaching me” for Dharma. I like the implication that life is an active teacher and that it is teaching me. I might not always know this. I might not always like what it is teaching me. I might feel like it's teaching me the same things over and over again in different ways because I haven't learned it yet. But, as I say in my prayer, if I acknowledge, awaken to, and act up on what life is teaching me, then I will learn.
Again, the word “delight” in the original Zen prayer surprised me. Similar to “rejoice” I didn't read or hear “delight” used often by Zen teachers. It conjures up chocolate desserts and close friends who tell you they're going to visit you. What a delight! “The Dharma: what a delight!” doesn't ring a Zen bell for me. “Acknowledging, awakening to, and acting upon” does. Again, I played with the words over several months and settled into this. It asks me to act upon what I have acknowledged and awakened to. Life is acting upon what we intuit we must do. Life is doing it. I like the reminder.
So there it is. My moment of mindfulness before eating: As I eat and drink I accept and appreciate the present moment, and acknowledge, awaken to, and act upon what life is teaching me.
But why have a moment of mindfulness before I eat?
I have a moment of mindfulness, because it's a mental reminder three or more times a day to practice the essence of my spirituality: accept and appreciate the present moment and acknowledge, awaken to, and act upon what life is teaching me. I have a moment of mindfulness, because I want to take a few seconds before I eat and offer thanks for this moment of eating. I have a moment of mindfulness because I want to be grateful for a meal I prepared for myself or someone prepared for me, and that I could afford this meal. I have a moment of mindfulness because I want to be aware of the interconnectedness of existence that placed this food on my plate. I have a moment of mindfulness because I want to mindfully engage my six senses when I eat—mindful tasting, mindful seeing, mindful touching, mindful hearing, mindful smelling, and mindful thinking-feeling.
And what is a moment of mindfulness?
A moment of mindfulness is that which we think or say over and over again. A moment of mindfulness thought or said before we eat meals reminds us to take heed of the moment: we are about to eat. Be thankful. Food and liquid sustain us. Not all people in the world are so fortunate to have it so easily and in such amble abundance. A moment of mindfulness said at other times, such as before we go to bed, is typically a triage of thankfulness for the day, bequest for the best, and compassionate extension of well being to people we love and ideally even those we don't.
At this time I don't have a moment of mindfulness at the end of the day. Perhaps it will emerge.
I do, however, have my moment of mindfulness before meals and I think or say it at virtually every meal now. If I'm in public or eating with friends I can usually just sit there for a few seconds and most of them don't know I've even thought it. A few observant people have and have simply asked if I just prayed. I usually say, “I'm just having a moment of mindfulness. My moment of mindfulness grounds me. It places me firmly and yet tenderly in the moment.
And like I take what I've learned while meditating--mindfully sitting—into the other moments throughout my day, so too I take what I've learned while mindfully eating into the other moment of my day. My goal is to become more mindful in all of them. .
May you also.