Silent Dining

stir fryAt Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, breakfast is silent. During a discussion of savoring pleasures at a yoga retreat there last week, I began to wonder if breakfast was my favorite meal at Kripalu because it was silent. It was a strange thought at first. Not that I disliked the silent breakfasts, which were a peaceful start to the Kripalu day. Those mornings I reminded myself, these quiet meals were good practice in mindfulness. On the other hand, I usually think of meals as times to share food with others, socialize, talk.

Since I got divorced I’ve had plenty of meals alone. I still make a gigantic production of cooking the food (and an epic mess to clean up afterward, of course.) In fact, I’ve gone more elaborate and start from scratch with more fresh veggies now that I’m close to our local farmer’s market.

Yet when I finally get the food to the table, I find myself doing everything I can to distract myself while eating. When NPR, podcasts, audio books, and reading didn’t seem like enough company, I started watching television, which I’d given up, on my laptop. Then I’d plow through the healthy and complicated dinner I’d spent two hours preparing, already thinking about the next task on my to do list, usually cleaning up and preparing my lunch for the next day.

Some evenings, the few per week that my boyfriend can join me for dinner,  I prepare something special and he is excellent at slowing down and relishing the combinations of flavors. Meanwhile, I find myself scarfing it down, falling right back into habit.

At the retreat I asked myself if I loved Kripalu breakfast so much because I was paying attention to what I was eating. Lunch and dinner, even in the atmosphere of slowing down and practicing mindfulness, I caught myself mindlessly gobbling and gabbing with my new friends over heaping portions of salads and a colorful array of vegetarian fare. At breakfast, only the clinking of glasses onto trays and utensils against plates filled the room. People tend to sit every other chair and face an empty seat so there isn’t the awkwardness of not looking at the person across the table.

I smelled cinnamon and savory spices as I wandered down the long buffet line of new favorites each day, but I liked to start my Kripalu breakfast with “breakfast vegetable soup,” something I never eat at home, and haven’t felt compelled to try recreating. My ritual there is to start with the warm, slightly bland broth with a few carrots, celery, and greens floating in it. After drinking it out of my bowl, I feel like I’ve given my tummy the same kind of soothing wake up that the 6:30 a.m. gentle yoga has provided the rest of my body.

Of course, my love of breakfast could also be traced to my hankering for sugar. Sweet treats appeared at breakfast like stewed prunes in my yogurt with homemade granola or on one day, maple walnut scones. Lunch and dinner tended to be mostly savory and dessert is served only a couple times a week.

When I returned home I intended to be more mindful about my eating, though the idea of silent dining by myself didn’t cross my mind until I was about to eat my first breakfast of my return. What if I don’t turn on the radio or read? I asked myself. What if I just eat? I could just enjoy this interesting combination of leftover quinoa reheated with soymilk, dried fruits and nuts, which I’d concocted after being inspired by the offerings at Kripalu.

The first surprise was that the quinoa cereal I’d made up tasted really good.

The second surprise was how tempted I was to put on NPR. Then to jump up and grab my cell phone. Then to hop up and write something on my to do list. Then to run mid-bite to get started on some other task on my to do list. I hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to stay in my seat in the utter quiet, stillness, and alone-ness of my own home. Never mind staying focused on the food. But I persisted. It was only breakfast and I was still on spring break and didn’t have to rush anywhere.

Third surprise: it was actually kind of nice to focus on my food. As I relaxed into the idea that I wasn’t allowed to get up and do anything else and I didn’t have to search for distraction, I noticed that I stopped feeling so restless. Maybe there was something to this mindful eating.

Dinner was way harder. When I sat down to my first purposeful silent dinner at home, my bowl of stir fry looked impossible. I was hungry, and it tasted good, but could I sit still long enough to eat it? My monkey brain resisted. Couldn’t I just do this some other time? Or just read something spiritual? Or listen and pay attention to eating at the same time? Wasn’t it enough to sit still and not watch television?

I forgot to begin by taking some breaths and feeling gratitude for the freshly prepared food in front of me. I kept looking out the window and getting distracted by thoughts. I even had to keep reminding myself not to put more food into my mouth while I was still chewing the previous bite. Yet I felt something good was happening. The practice of mindfulness, the yoga instructor had told us, is not to be perfectly focused, but when the mind wanders, bring it back. Bringing the mind back, over and over, is the practice.

Of course I prefer to share dinner with friends and loved ones. When I’m by myself, however, rather than forget about what I’m eating as I share dinner time with all the distractions available to me, I think I’ll sometimes practice eating silently and mindfully.

Tofu Vegetable Stir Fry

(2-4 servings)

Veggies: (Use whatever you’ve got or enjoy. Here are suggestions)

  • one large or two small crowns broccoli, cut into bite sized pieces
  • small zucchini, sliced medium
  • one to two cups mung bean sprouts
  • half block tofu, cut into small cubes
  • large handful shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • peapods or snowpea pods
  • several green onions, minced
  • giant clove of garlic, minced
  • peanut oil, or other high temperature oil for cooking

Sauce: Mix the following to taste

  • soy sauce or tamari
  • rice or brown rice vinegar
  • sake
  • toasted sesame oil
  • chili garlic sauce (optional)
  • fresh minced garlic
  • fresh minced ginger

Directions 1: The easy way

  1. Heat the peanut oil on high in a wok if you’ve got one. Otherwise a big frying pan will work just fine.
  2. Stir fry the broccoli (and any other longer cooking items) in peanut oil until just beginning to get tender. Broccoli can take a while. Sometimes I add water (carefully!) to the pan to steam it before moving on.
  3. Add the mushrooms and cook until tender.
  4. Add the garlic and just let it get fragrant.
  5. Slowly add the tofu and the rest of the quick cooking ingredients, and add the sauce. Quit cooking as soon as the veggies are tender-crisp. Ta-da!

Directions 2: A More Complicated Version

  1. Steam the broccoli until bright green and just beginning to get tender. Get the broccoli out of the steamer so it stops cooking.
  2. Meanwhile, marinate the tofu in the sauce. If you want to go all out, make extra sauce and puree it, using extra garlic and ginger. Add some olive oil as well. Coat the tofu blocks in the sauce and stick ’em in the oven on 375 degrees or so until the begin to get a little crispy.
  3. Continue with the recipe as described above. The broccoli will only need a few moments in the pan before the rest of the veggies go in.

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