The Five Reflections and Mealtime Gratitude

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After graduation, I was fortunate to spend time interning and studying at a Zen Buddhist monastery in the Catskills. The experience was filled with reflection, exhaustion, frustration and, eventually, profound joy as we spent hours each day in meditation, engaging in “samu” or work practice and soaking in the beautiful scenery created by the lake and the mountains.

As a nutritionist, I love learning about others’ eating habits, and I was downright fascinated by the relationship to food the monastery residents exhibited. Upon my first meal, I was struck by the awareness with which food is consumed. Formal meals are a ritualistic process that took me a few days to get comfortable with—serving yourself, passing the tea water, cleaning your bowls and even setting your chopsticks to the side were all part of a choreographed ritual.  Although kneeling on the floor and being completely silent while I eat may not stick, the attitude with which meals were approached is something I intend to keep a part of my daily life away from the monastery.

Prior to each meal, we touched our palms together in front of our hearts and chanted a short reflection in unison, which I included below. I found this reflection meaningful on a variety of levels and have been eager to share it.

The Five Reflections

First, let us reflect on our own work and the effort of those who brought us this food.

Secondly, let us be aware of the quality of our deeds, as we receive this meal.

Thirdly, what is most essential is the practice of attention, which helps us cut through greed, anger and delusion.

Fourthly, we appreciate this food, which sustains the good health of our body and mind.

Fifthly, in order to continue our practice for all beings we accept this offering.

I fell completely in love with this reflection and its implications. It’s pretty awesome, right? I was so impressed by the amount of meaning present in so few words. Here’s what I take away from the reflections above when I consider them one at a time…

First, let us reflect on our own work and the effort of those who brought us this food. 

Before even allowing themselves to enjoy even a bite of food, everyone is encouraged to take a moment of self-reflection on their “work.” The “work” being referred to is, of course, not work in the sense of an occupation, although that may play a role, but work in the sense of one’s individual practice of Buddhism.  It applies to how we live our lives broadly, including how we spend our time, how we react to our situations and how our choices impact others, so your work is your personal development, whether you prefer to look at it from a spiritual standpoint or not.

Next, they acknowledge the “effort of those who brought us this food.” I love this because, it encompasses the work of all beings who played a role in the creation of the meal—from the worms in the dirt where the lettuce was grown to the cook, who took the care to chop it up and thoughtfully prepare it for us to enjoy. It doesn’t take the effort of anything or anyone involved for granted and each meal is an opportunity to reflect on all the work that went in to producing a meal from farm to table. With so much readily available to us at all times, I found this reflection particularly powerful as a reminder to stay connected to where my food is coming from and to consider what had to happen for it to even make its way to my kitchen. This reflection allows us to begin each meal with a feeling of gratitude for both our own work and all the work that went in to the meal.

Secondly, let us be aware of the quality of our deeds, as we receive this meal. 

At least twice a day, everyone is asked to reflect on the quality of his or her deeds. Sure, we’re doing our work, but how thoughtfully are we actually doing it? I used to have a yoga instructor who would always say, “how you do anything, is how you do everything” and I feel the same sentiment is present here.  Approaching everything you do mindfully won’t happen overnight, but taking a few moments to think about how you’re going about your daily tasks is a step in the right direction.

Further, I think this reflection asks us to take a moment to be humble and recognize that each meal we’re lucky enough to consume is an opportunity to demonstrate our gratitude and, in a non-attached way, notice how our earlier actions fit in (or fail to fit in) to our practice. Once again, it’s an opportunity to step back and self-reflect.

Thirdly, what is most essential is the practice of attention, which helps us cut through greed, anger and delusion.

This reflection is a reminder to keep our awareness, or attention, on the present moment, which can help us avoid negative emotions like those mentioned above. Greed and anger, for example, are often indicative of thinking or worrying about the future or past. Focusing on the present can help to release us from these emotions. Our constant attention also helps us to limit our misunderstandings and the hope is that we become aware of our delusions being able to eventually overcome them.

Fourthly, we appreciate this food, which sustains the good health of our body and mind.

This is my favorite of the Five Reflections. It asks us to pause and appreciate the purpose of the meal in its simplest sense—to sustain us mind, body and soul. Food does so much more than just satisfy our hunger; it helps to keep us healthy and vibrant. In a way, I feel this reflection even encourages healthier food choices, because it recognizes the connection between our diet and our state of wellness.

Fifthly, in order to continue our practice for all beings we accept this offering.

In this light, the meal is considered almost a contract in which the meal is only accepted on the grounds that we use the energy and nourishment it gives us to help others. For me, this does two things. First, it recognizes that the meal is the fuel to keep us going in our practice of trying to make the world a better place. Next, it emphasizes the ongoing nature of our practice and the opportunity for continued growth and good work.

Together, these reflections allow us to begin each meal with a sense of gratitude and awareness of self and others. Since returning from the monastery, I’ve kept these reflections in my thoughts and have enjoyed adding them to my mealtime ritual.

Gassho!

-Shauna