Doi Suthep- Part III: Being Hungry
Trip Start Dec 29, 2007
33Trip End Mar 10, 2008
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Once a week, for no apparent reason, the kitchen whips up some french fries for lunch, with a bowl of ketchup (Homer: "Mmmmm.....french fries with ketchup. Sound of drooling....")
We eat outside on the front porch of the meditation hall, overlooking the garden and the morning sunrise. Eating, like everything else, is done in silence, with the exception of the Pali prayer for alms food that we chant at lunchtime.
While the meals are tasty, food here is for the sole purpose of fulfilling the holy life. We eat not for enjoyment or for distraction or to flatter form, but simply to provide us with the caloric intake necessary to sustain a vigorous day of meditation. As such, no solid food is consumed after noon on any day. If you're counting, that means we go nineteen hours between meals. You can have water and hot tea to your heart's content, and they even have a small stash of hot chocolate that becomes a pre-bedtime ritual for me.
Given the paucity of solid food, one develops certain strategies designed to keep hunger at bay.
1) Eat Small Portions- This advice goes against your stomach's conventional wisdom, and your first instinct is to cram three meals worth of food into two. The food is served buffet-style, so there's nothing to stop you from getting seconds or thirds. But eating big meals only makes you feel full and bloated, and tells your stomach to expect a big dinner, which just makes it worse later in the day.
2) Linger Around Meals- Get to meals a few minutes early, chew as slowly and deliberatively as possible, pause between bites, and stay seated for five or ten minutes after you eat
3) Give Thanks- We chant before lunch, and while I'm not sure why breakfast isn't prayer-worthy, I pause to express my gratitude nonetheless. It's common sense to be grateful for something that's doesn't happen very often. Kind of like sex in high school. Or so I hear. So I give thanks and give thanks again.
4) No Strenuous Exercise- During my first few days, I entertained the idea that my time at Doi Suthep could also be a bit of a diet bootcamp, so I took long hikes and did sit-ups and push-ups. Big mistake! Because you're not actually taking in enough calories (about 1,200 a day, I estimate) to sustain a real workout regime. So exercise consists of slow, meandering walks and stretching.
5) Drink Lots of Fluids- I've always been a big water drinker, but H20 is now my best friend. I drink five or six liters a day, plus several cups of lemongrass and other assorted herbal teas. It's always available, makes you feel full when you're not, and has the added benefit of extra trips to the bathroom, which creates another "activity" in a long day. And I've got nothing but time.
Despite my best efforts to delay it, to slake it, to pacify it, hunger eventually shows up. And he's pretty pissed. I have the kind of hunger that comes on in an instant and completely overwhelms me. In a way, it's a natural biological instinct, since we need food for survival, but over the years, we've perverted the meaning of hunger (those of you who've visited a third-world country know what I mean).
Usually, when I'm hungry, I'm close enough to my refrigerator or a Royal Farms to make it go away. The first time that hunger hit me at Doi Suthep, I was a little panicked. There are a bunch of food stands for the tourists located just below the temple. A week into my meditation, we all took a "field trip" there to get food for the monks to give them the next morning during their alms round. We went during what would be dinnertime, which I thought was particularly cruel. "Hey," I thought, "as long as we're at it, why don't we go to a strip club, order a beer we can't drink, and watch other guys get lap dances!" Even though I knew salvation in the form of fried bananas and coconut shakes was just a few hundred meters away, I knew I wasn't going to break a meditation precept.
I mulled over other options. In my weakened condition, there was no way I was going to be able to shimmy my way up the mango tree in the garden. I scoured through my backpack to see if I might have overlooked a stray granola bar. Natch. I thought about threatening a monk by strangling him with his saffron robe. Double natch.
So, finally, it occurred to me that I wasn't going to die. It was just hunger, and I had enough body fat and then some to miss more than a few meals. So, I sat down on a bench in the middle of the meditation garden - a public place was better, I thought, just in case I passed out or had some sort of grease-withdrawal seizure - and just sat with my hunger.
It starts with my stomach growling, but quickly spreads to the rest of my body in what feels like spasmodic shaking. The sweat begins to form on my brow and back and the panic sinks in again. A sharp headache comes on from behind my right eye. I stay still, allowing myself to feel the hunger in my body, and accepting how my mind is interpreting the feelings. I breathe mindfully. I wait.
And in about twenty minutes (seems like years), the hunger realizes I'm not paying attention to it anymore, so it slowly slinks away. The sweating stops, the shaking subsides, and I'm left sitting on the bench with a dull ache in my head and slow churn in my stomach.
And that's what it's like - for me, at least - to be with hunger. I suppose that's what it's like with all cravings, even those that aren't biologically-based. Everything in life comes and goes, passes and changes, and hunger is no different. By inviting hunger in and experiencing it fully, it wasn't scary anymore and I could deal with it, rather than fighting or succumbing to it. This is the core of mindfulness, I thought to myself. A friendly acknowledgment of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that are constantly cycling through our existence.
Still, I could really go for an Attman's hot corned beef sandwich on rye with mustard and some Berger's cookies.
Coming Soon: Part IV: Silence