Thursday, 9 February 2017

Hermitcraft: Solitary Sesshin, Pt. 3: Food

(A sesshin schedule template is available in Part I. For general tips on sesshin planning, see Part II.)

For an activity that's all about putting sensual stimulus in context, sesshin is remarkably dependent on food. Right food equals good sesshin; the opposite can significantly compromise it.

I've had best luck when sesshin meals conform to three principles:

1. Simplicity.

When preparing dishes from scratch, this is holy writ; you just don't have time for feats of gastronomic splendour. But even with pre-cooked food, extravagance derails the mind of sesshin. Simple, straightforward meals work best.

On the other hand, spending a day looking deeply tends to lead you to taste deeply, too. You'll find that simple food becomes remarkably delicious during sesshin.

2. Diversity

But you do want a spectrum of flavours and textures. This supports the sesshin theme of discovery and gives freshly-honed senses something to chew on. (So to speak.) My favourite sesshin dishes (see "Lunch", below) fill this requirement nicely, as you can throw almost anything into them.

3. Mindful restraint

This means not eating more, or more often, than you need. In a culture that bombasts constantly about more! and choice! and luxury!, it can be easy to forget that true enjoyment comes from the opposite: mindful consumption of just-enough. So when you reach that point, stop. If it later turns out you didn't fuel up quite enough to stave off obstructive suffering, issue yourself a snack.

Better yet, if you consistently fall in a hole at a given point in the day, schedule tea meditation there next time. (This is were recordkeeping shows its stuff.) Sit comfortably in a chosen location and enjoy a good cup of tea while meditating for twenty minutes or so. This allows you to maintain the forms; gain a meditation period; and care for yourself and your practice – for a Zen grand slam.


Application of these principles looks like this:

First thing in the morning I make pot of good green – traditional, simpler than black, compatible with meals – for use all day, reheating as necessary. Since it's astringent (makes you thirsty), I serve water at meals as well.

Breakfast is a bowl of grain; fresh fruit; tea; and water.

I like a hot main course, typically brown rice with a blork of soy sauce and a little black pepper. That's it; no butter, vegetables, or other amendments. Porridge or other hot cereal are also good.

Lunch (see photo above) can be any leftover on hand; if none, then Bassho bowl or noodles. The first is a bowlful of brown rice with a protein source (beans, nuts, cheese, seaweed, cooked egg, leftover meat) and a vegetable. The second is the same again, but with ramen instead of rice. Because the soup is less consistent, I toss in more vegetables. I also use half or less of the very salty flavour packet.

For a side dish I prepare a flavour plate, an ancient Zen tradition designed to provide a sensory work-out. Traditionally it contains five flavours: sweet, tart, salty, bitter, and savoury. (Apparently the Ancestors didn't do spicy.) I don't obsess over these categories; just lay out a variety of colours, flavours, and textures. (This is one place where a good shelf of pickles pays off.)

And of course, tea and water.

Dinner is the same as lunch, except with ramen if I had rice before or vice-versa, and fruit on the side instead of the flavour plate.

Formal tea is my last meal of the day, taken with a snack during study period.

I don't observe oryoki at-table; when eating on the ground, I use my outdoor oryoki. If you find oryoki useful at-table, or you prefer to eat on the cushion, monastery-style, work up a solitary ceremony that fills your needs. Make sure to document it in detail. Not only does that allow you to share it with others, you'll forget many of the forms between sesshins and need a refresher course yourself.

Final hint: don't overthink things. Your food doesn't have to be Japanese or vegan or "Zen" or whatever. Just enjoy it. Experience it in depth, both preparing and eating. Be aware of every step and condition that brings food to your bowl, and the debt that implies.

Done properly, the ritual of eating will join meditation and work to become the third pillar of sesshin.

Congratulations; you're working the feed to feed the work.
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