Zen and the Art of the Buffet Table
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Despite the high price of food, I hear that people are becoming overweight in most parts of the world. It's not just two-thirds of Americans anymore, but folks in Mumbai and Moscow, Stockholm and Shanghai. Me, I figure you can't blame mere TV or processed foods: There must be some deeper explanation. Something Freudian or Jungian or perhaps...Eastern.
The other day, a newly fat colleague asked for my advice. We were at a tedious event set in some local corporate landscaping. A willow offered the only shade, but of course, an enormous quantity of food had been laid out: Pastas red and pastas white, meatballs shiny with a sticky sauce, a pyramid of buffalo wings and bowls of colorful, chopped-up things wallowing in oil. Only the usual plenty: no harm intended.
I would not be so rude as to mention anyone's changing body type if my friend hadn't called himself fat.
"But you," he asked suspiciously, "haven't you lost some weight?"
"Yes," I admitted, with a glance of fear at the buffet, "I did recently drop a few pounds."
"Tell me how," he demands. "I've tried everything: Weight Watchers. Atkins."
"Well," I say with a whisper: "I've been trying to eat less food."
For a moment he pauses. Then he shrugs: "That would never work for me. Lately, I'm hungry all the time."
It's a strange comment, and as he turns toward the table, I ask again, "Why is everyone hungry all the time?" Seizing an opportunity to advance the interests of science, I surreptitiously watch my friend as he fills his plate with sticky wings and chopped-up things and messy do-it-yourself tacos.
And lo, as he settles on the grass beneath the shade of a willow and balances his plate upon his knee, I observe a kind of magic occur. As each bite enters his mouth, I see a kind of grace descend upon his brow like a distinct and glowing Buddha-hood. I see him enter a brief, but alternate state of consciousness, achieve a Zen-like release, and quiet his chug-chugging train of thought.
And I think, of course: In a world of ceaseless noise and expectation, food offers an important meditation technique: each bite a mini-vacation from this reality, each swallow a momentary release. Zen masters spend whole lifetimes achieving an empty mind: how much quicker to whip up a nice béarnaise.
Now I wonder if the Zen qualities of food could actually be quantified. And as I watch my friend eat, I carefully note how each buffalo wing offers 18 seconds of forgetfulness. Each fork of slaw 5 seconds of transcendence. Each chocolate-covered strawberry 14 ticks of purposelessness. One could even do a cost-benefit analysis: Suppose the average potato chip provides 3.2 seconds of distraction: How much is that per second? If a $7.99 grilled foccacia sandwich gives eight minutes of escape, that's about a dollar a minute—the same as a $30 meal consumed in half an hour.
And if, every time we rise from the table or finish a jelly donut, this brief trance falls away, and we are forced to remark, "I never meant to eat so much," maybe it has actually been worth it. Maybe it makes economic sense. I mean, every modern person seems to require some weird balance between the desire for health and achievement and a desire to escape the burden of health and achievement.
Why not do it with guacamole?
Glancing back at the piles of food, I feel a Zen moment of my own about to overtake me. But eager to stay on my diet, I go sit on the other side of the willow and do a few deep breathing exercises. It becomes a competition between the Urban Man and his friend the Buddha: each of us trying to achieve a calm heart before the buffet gets cleared away.
Copyright © 2008. Marc Porter Zasada
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