'How to Eat,' an instruction manual

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We have lost our collective ability to eat, and it took me a meal of wretched excess to realize this. It was like waking up from an alcoholic bender, only to contemplate the excruciating events of the night before in hazy, hungover memory. Except I was completely sober.

Like many of you, eating has become an afterthought and another event to multi-task. Who has time to eat anymore? I grab my lunch and take it to my desk. I shovel food across my keyboard while working, and shake out the crumbs afterwards. Every so often I use compressed “air in a can” to blast out a stubborn key jammed with a decaying ort of food, and wipe down my sticky mouse pad. I do these not out of any sense of propriety, but only when my computer becomes too balky to efficiently use.

After one early afternoon appointment with a new client, I went to the men’s room and happened to catch myself in the mirror. There were multiple streaks and blobs of hot sauce on my white shirt. I had several thoughts competing in my head: “I wonder if the client noticed?” “Will I be able to clean this shirt?” and “Boy, I really like that new habañero sauce.”

Mainly, though, I just felt embarrassment. Was I that mindless about eating my lunch that I didn’t notice what I was doing? I concluded that I was not only eating poorly, but was probably only half-paying attention to the work I was doing at the same time. Where I thought I was efficiently multitasking, I was doing a lousy job of both.

“In our daily activities, we often rush from one thing to another. In between tasks we spend our time planning how we’ll accomplish future tasks. In all that hurrying and strategizing, we become isolated from the present moment. Eating is a chance to return to the present moment and stop the rushing and planning.”

I have tried to be better. I did, many years ago, successfully stop eating in my car. (This was more out of vanity for my car’s interior than out of any sense of dignity.) I avoid takeout whenever possible and pack my own food. I try to remember to sit when I am eating, except at strolling appetizer parties, when I grab all the food I can upon first arriving, eat half-hidden in a corner, and only mingle when I am done stuffing myself, so I don’t find myself chatting up somebody with sauce on my chin.

Perhaps it was kismet that the title caught my eye in the bookstore. “How to Eat” was a pocket-sized paperback with a simple, arresting cover. It is part of the “How To” trilogy by Zen teacher and author Thich Nhat Hanh (others in the series include “How to Sit,” which I also bought, and “How to Love,” which I will read later; I figure I’d better learn the basics before moving on to the tricky stuff.) Hanh is all about mindfulness, or simply acting with awareness of what we are doing. He starts with the fundamentals:

“The first thing to do is to stop whatever else you are doing. Now sit down somewhere comfortable. Anywhere is fine. Notice your breathing. As you breathe in, notice that you are breathing in. As you breathe out, notice that you are breathing out.”

At this point you may either be dismissive of this seemingly simple absurdity, or you may wonder what sitting and breathing has to do with a heavy workload or constant deadlines. Counter-intuitively, I have found that these reminders help me be better at what I do. I stop bouncing my leg or checking my phone. I listen. I am calm and able to make better decisions.

As for eating, “Sometimes we eat and we’re not aware that we’re eating. Our mind isn’t there. When our mind isn’t present, we look but we don’t see, we listen but we don’t hear, we eat but we don’t know the flavor or food. This is a state of forgetfulness, the lack of mindfulness… If you’re thinking of work while you chew, that’s not eating mindfully. When you pay attention to [your food], that is mindfulness.”

I love preparing and eating a great meal. I look forward to those times when I can choose the ingredients I want in a store, chop vegetables while listening to music, and assemble an appetizing dinner. But the reality of our lives is that such instances are few and far between. Instead, we hurry from one event to the next, trying to squeeze in a meal without actually setting aside the time, eating in our cars or at our desks.

Take a step back and reflect on what this eating-on-the-run really accomplishes. Does it make us healthier? Better at our jobs? You don’t have to take it from me, or even a Zen master. Just look at yourself in the mirror, and as soon as you see the habañero stains, you’ll know.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at nroumel@yahoo.com.  His blog is http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.