You really can eat just one.

My friend Nancy just gave me The Complete Tassajara Cookbook a lovely book of “recipes, techniques and reflections” from the kitchen of Tassajara, a Zen monastery in the Santa Lucia mountains of California, which I visited some years ago for a yoga and meditation retreat.  A beautiful, serene and remote place, Tassarjara serves up absolutely delicious vegetarian fare in a huge family-style dining room for guests who come for retreats and classes — or just to get away from the world for a while. 

The author of The Complete Tassajara Cookbook, Edward Espe Brown, is an American Zen priest and teacher, and a founder of the famous Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.  I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this delightful and wise book — and not just for the recipes.  In fact, one of Brown’s essays so enchanted me that I felt I had to share it right away.

It’s called “Eating Just One Potato Chip,” and it’s about, well, eating just one potato chip.  But with complete mindfulness — that is, with complete attention to the experience of eating  a single potato chip, like it’s “the only chip in the universe.”

Why even do that?  After all, it’s just a potato chip.  And yet, what is it about potato chips, that once we have one, we have to have another … and another … and so on.  So much of what we do with regard to eating is completely mindless.  We don’t pay it any attention whatsoever.  We just do it, automatically.  Another potato chip, another cookie, another piece of cheese, another this or that.  No wonder we overeat!

One problem I’ve been having with my weight loss plan is my tendency, under certain circumstances, toward what’s called compulsive or emotional eating.  For me, it used to be depressive eating, but now that I’m no longer depressed it’s been replaced by something else.  An overwhelming craving for something at the end of the day, usually after I’ve had dinner and started to unwind with a couple of glasses of wine.  Hmmm, what else would I like?  What do I want? 

And that, of course, is where the trouble begins.

But here’s what I’ve learned:  Usually the things you crave are not the things you want.  They’re a weak substitute for things that are lacking in your life — or at least at a particular moment in your life — whether it’s companionship or excitement or love … whatever. 

For me, it’s boredom, simple lack of stimulation.  I spend an awful lot of time by myself, and at the end of the day, I want some diversion.  So, especially during the winter when it’s cold and not as amenable to socializing with actual people, I turn to wine and food.

Easy to understand but a difficult habit to break.  I’m going to really start trying by increasing my mindfulness — paying more attention to what I’m doing in the actual moment I’m doing it.

Edward Espe Brown in the kitchen

Back to Mr. Brown, and his inspiring essay.  He instructed the students in his meditation class to concentrate their full attention on the experience of eating a single potato chip.  In his own words, here’s what happened:

I laid out the whole deal at the start:  Pay attention — no, that’s give your attention, allow your attention to come to the potato chip and be as fully conscious as you can of the whole process of eating just one potato chip.  Just one!  So you had better pay attention.

When I announced our potato-chip-eating meditation, I was greeted with various gripes, taunts and complaints:  ‘I can’t eat just one.’  ‘That’s ridiculous.’  ‘You’re going to leave us hanging with unsatisfied desire.  How could you?’  Nonetheless I remained steadfast in my instructions and passed around a bowl of potato chips, urging each participant to take just one.  When everyone was ready we commenced.  ‘Instead of words,’ Rilke says in one of his sonnets, ‘discoveries flow out, astonished to be free.’  And so it was.

First the room was loud with crunching, then quiet with savoring and swallowing.  When all was fed and done, I invited comments.  Many people had been startled by their experience:  ‘I thought I would have trouble eating just one, but it really wasn’t very tastey.’  ‘There’s nothing to it.’  ‘There’s an instant of salt and grease, and then some tasteless pulpy stuff in your mouth.’  ‘I can see why you might have trouble eating just one, because you take another and another to try to find some satisfation where there is no satisfaction to be found.’  ‘If I was busy watching TV I would probably think these were great, but when I actually experience what’s in my mouth, it’s kind of distasteful.’

That one potato chip even surprised me, the experienced meditator, with its tastelessness.  Now I walk past the walls of chips in the supermarket rather easily without awakening insidious longings and the resultant thought that I really ought to deny myself.  I don’t feel deprived.  There’s nothing there worth having.  And this is not just book knowledge.  I know it.

When we give our attention to what we’re doing, what we’re experiencing and what we’re actually feeling — in the moment — we often learn things that surprise us.  We learn, for example, that we don’t need the things that we think we need, and that in fact they are useless and without meaning.  By approaching food and our experiences with food in a more mindful way, we can develop better, healthier eating habits — and bring greater enjoyment and appreciation to each experience.

Stay tuned for more on this subject …