"It is possible to live happily in the here and now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don't have to run into the future in order to get more." - Thich Nhat Hanh
I had been thinking about lunch all day. And, as I had been sitting and staring at a wall for three hours, I had a lot of time to think.
I was at a day-long meditation retreat with my friend’s Zen Buddhist group, struggling to keep both my mind and legs still. Despite the fact that I had barely moved, I was incredibly hungry and tired. Lunch was the only break of the day, and I looked forward to being able to stretch my legs, eat and commiserate with friends about the difficulty of sitting for hours.
Finally, the lunch bell rang, and the head monk led us to a table laden with “Trader Joe’s” grocery bags. As we gathered around the table, however, everyone was still completely silent. After a couple minutes of quietly placing the food around the table, the monk explained to us that we were to practice a Buddhist form of eating called Oryoki. This too is done in complete silence. But beyond that, the defining feature of this practice centers around the asking for food. As a server comes around the table, one is expected to watch the food come onto their plate and quietly raise their hand when they believe they have enough.
When the server came to me, I watched as he slowly scooped out the fruit salad onto my plate. While I wanted him to keep going, I realized that people were behind me and raised my hand sooner than I would have liked. Yet, as I began to eat, I realized that I actually did have enough – perhaps even too much. As the meal closed, my fellow practitioners waited quietly as I struggled to finish the remains of my dish.
After our meal ended, we asked for water to clean our plates and began to methodically pour the dishwater into each bowl and wipe it clean. In the silence, I contemplated how different the hunger I felt was to my actual need. Had we not asked for the food, I would likely have taken twice as much – either wasting the excess or scarfing it down mindlessly. I love to cook and eat good food, but I began to understand that the way I ate most days wasn’t focused on the flavors or textures, but rather on just filling my stomach.
The tempering of our appetites is critically important to our physical and spiritual health, and it can make an important contribution to healing our environment. In many Buddhist philosophies, desire is seen as the major obstacle to enlightenment. It consumes our thoughts, drives our worst actions and interferes with our happiness in the present moment. Oryoki is a ritual that aims to expose our desires around food. The silence that surrounds the asking for, and eating of, the food allows us to critically think about what we want and what our bodies need.
This is not to say that Oryoki is about denial. Commonly translated as “just the right amount,” the ritual is about recognizing the fact that all we need is right in front of us. Like so many other pieces of wisdom in our lives, we already know this and yet we don’t. We can recognize intellectually that we are lucky to have food and a place to sleep, but can rarely shake the feeling that we must continually work and strive to have enough and be fulfilled. It’s hard to release our appetites and desires, but it’s a necessary part of cultivating gratefulness and eventually happiness.
While my thoughts wandered during the last hours of the meditation retreat, I thought about how applying the principles of Oryoki to our society could not only make us happier, but also create a more sustainable world. Our constant urge to consume not only harms our mental state, but also our environment. Mountains of waste, toxic pollutants and an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels are all consequences of our modern lives and desires. Worst of all, through climate change and pollution, they slowly eat away at those things that we know to be truly precious – our health, our planet and the future of our children.
On an individual level, unfettered pursuit of our desires can eclipse values like love and kindness, and strain relationships with our family and friends. On a collective level, a similar phenomenon occurs. Our society’s obsession with economic growth has crowded out other values, harming our relationships with the natural world and eroding our sense of community. Raising the values of sustainability, moderation and responsibility above materialism – and uniting to enshrine those values in public policy – can help to restore the damage our desire for material goods has caused to our environment and communities.
Calls to environmental action too often center around the apocalypse. Maybe this is to be expected. Islands disappearing and wildfires spreading are the headlines that catch our eyes and sink our guts, but they miss that living sustainably can positively change how we interact with the environment, our neighbors, our families and ourselves. Maybe, just like in Oryoki, it’s about recognizing that everything we need to be happy is already here. Creating a sustainable society is, therefore, not just something that we should only undertake due to necessity, but also as part of a larger journey to develop a better world.
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