One of the things I notice whenever I spend time on retreat at a monastery (as I did a few weeks ago) is how much I enjoy the regular meal times, with some of the same food choices day after day. This is not the way I live my life. Which makes me wonder: Why don’t I do the same thing at home?
At the monastery, breakfast is one hour after I wake up — 1 hard-boiled egg, 2 slices of toast with orange marmalade. Lunch is four hours later; dinner, five hours after that. The food for lunch and dinner varies, but it is what it is. You eat what you are offered.
Here’s how I eat at home a lot of days: I’m running late in the morning, so I leave the house without breakfast. Sometimes I eat a fruit and nut bar on the way to work, sometimes not. I have lunch about four hours after I wake up, sometimes at my desk. I don’t eat dinner till after I get home, so that is six to eight hours after that. If it’s on the late side, I don’t want to spend another hour preparing something, so I get take-out on the way home. There are at least a dozen choices I can pick up easily, and each time, I debate which to get and usually go with what feels like the most fun in that moment.
There are a few different factors here — regularity of timing, simplicity, and a de-emphasis of food as entertainment.
If anyone knows about regularity, it’s monks. Their entire life is routinized to a level ours never will be, framed by the Divine Office, which breaks the day into three-hour chunks between prayer services. But even if we have no interest in a life so regular, we can learn something from their example. As I discussed in my column Freedom From Choice (which I wrote after another retreat), much of the clutter in our day and in our mind is the result of unnecessary choices. Replacing some of these with routines simplifies our life. At the monastery, meal times were not up to my whim, or up to competing priorities, perceived or real. Meal times were fixed. If I didn’t eat then, I missed that meal. (It’s not like they were being hard about it. There was always a bowl of fruit by the coffeemakers.)
There’s an indefinable comfort in this kind of routine. I can’t explain it, but our mind and body find the same thing happening at the same time each day to be calming. And conversely, lack of regularity can be unsettling. One of my most popular installments since I started this column was about HALT. HALT says that prior to noticing you feel agitated or irritated, often you will find you were in a state of being Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. In working with people, I find it’s not uncommon to be able to back up from the moment of some eruption of agitation to the fact that they had skipped a meal. (I’ve written before about how not getting enough sleep leads to irritability, and though I almost always get enough sleep, I struggle with having a regular bedtime myself.)
In recent years, science has confirmed ancient wisdom about eating regularly. They differ in the details, but newer diets from South Beach to the Zone recognize the value of giving your system a regular supply of food, avoiding the binge/crash cycle.
Simplicity or amuse-bouche?
Another aspect of freedom from choice is keeping the food choices simple, or eliminating them altogether. At the monastery, instead of deciding each morning what I “felt like” having that day, I simply collected a hard-boiled egg from the bowl, placed two pieces of toast in the toaster, added butter and marmalade, and ate breakfast. (There were a few other choices there. This was my routine.) Was I any worse off for not having yoghurt one morning, cereal the next, eggs and bacon another?
I’m not saying what you should eat or how much. Those are personal decisions and personal issues. I will say this, though. Our culture encourages us to seek entertainment value and instant gratification in food, and much as I strive to be on the spiritual path, that call is mighty strong. While concerns about gluttony have been with us for millennia, and we’ve always been attracted to fun and rich foods — “a land flowing with milk and honey” — much of the current insanity is less than a century old, the direct result of the rises of the food industry and advertising. We are bombarded with temptations and the reality today is that if we so choose, every single meal can be an all-out taste pleasure overload.
The point is not to eat food that is bland or unappealing. All the food choices at the monastery were enjoyable. (Though, believe me, I’ve been at some retreat houses where the food would lose a competition with hospital fare.) The point is that not every meal needs to be about entertainment.
The monks work in some fun by having waffles for breakfast on Sundays and by having both dessert and a more extravagant entr√©e on Sundays and feast days. (It was a running joke among the retreatants that there sure were a lot of feast days.) But the routine they fell back on more often than not was simple modestly portioned regular meals.
The question I must face in myself is why, after spending a week thoroughly enjoying this simple routine, once I returned to my everyday life, I also returned to missing meals, eating dinner late, and not having the same breakfast each day. Is the pull of competing schedules and fun choices just too strong?
What is your experience? Does your busy life lead you to favor productivity over personal health — running out the door without eating or working through lunch or going from one appointment to the next without thinking about your physical state? Do you make every dinner entertainment? Or have you found success with building routines in the timing and the content of your meals — some of them at least? This is an issue I still struggle with. I’m looking for answers, especially about why it’s so hard to stick with it. I welcome your comments below.