The Nobility of Silence

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This was taken during our Art of Joyfulness-Mindful Living Excellence Retreat. It's a view of paddy fields and what I was told is Pulau Dayang Bunting.

This was taken during our Art of Joyfulness-Mindful Living Excellence Retreat. It’s a view of paddy fields and what I was told is Pulau Dayang Bunting.

In today’s papers, in an article called Listen. Think. Eat, Addie Broyles writes about mindful eating. Broyles refers to Michelle May (a family-physician-turned-wellness-coach) who says that there are three types of eaters: restrictive eaters, overeaters and instinctive eaters. Most of us oscillate between the first two. What we should aim for is instinctive eating. May is also quoted as saying this: “Mindful eating means you eat with intention and attention.”

I had reason to experience this ‘mindful eating’ recently during our Art of Joyfulness-Mindful Living Excellence Retreat Jan 3-5, 2014. Throughout the retreat, we were often reminded to observe ‘Noble Silence’. Indeed, in the manual, it’s clearly stated as follows:

  • Refrain from talking, using sign language and making noise. If you really need to communicate, do so quickly and only urgent matters.
  • As much as possible, we try to allow others their space, and let go of the need to smile or communicate. … Remember that this is a rare time for you to let yourself take off your social mask, which takes so much energy to maintain.

This included mealtimes and even when we were in the bedroom. Two incidents, in particular, stayed with me.

The first was a lesson called ‘Experiencing Mindfulness with the Raisin-Conscious Observation’. We were all given a banana (there were no raisins that day at the resort) and asked to observe it closely. We had to touch and hold this banana. For the first time in my life, I held a banana and counted the number of black spots on the fruit – there were 6.

At one point, we were asked to be aware of what thoughts flowed through out mind and the first one that came to me was that bananas were Ladoo’s favourite fruit. I knew the end was near for her when she stopped eating bananas. I also thought of uperi. I am guessing that the Anglicised version of uperi is banana fries. When I was a child, I could finish a whole tin of uperi. Now, with this mindful eating embedded in my subconscious, I wonder how much uperi I can eat.

I then brought the banana close to my ears and squeezed it, hoping to hear something. Nothing. Not even a squish. When I was asked to smell the banana I was aware enough to describe it as the smell of a ripe banana. It was when I peeled the banana that I heard the soft tear of its skin. We were asked to place the banana on the tip of our tongue and note the taste. Finally, after all this hard work, we were allowed to take one bite.

At this point, having waited for so long to take a bite, I thought I would eat the whole thing in one go. Strangely, I could manage to bite into half that banana. True enough, as the manual stated, the banana tasted richer, stronger and I felt I’d truly tasted it. I struggled to finish eating the whole banana.

Eating this banana was a solitary exercise. What came next was eating in company. Some of the people I attended the retreat with were family friends and I found it a challenge to ignore customary norms like ‘Hello Aunty’ and ‘Would you like some water, Uncle?’ I also observed that many family members made it a point to sit separately and avoid all contact with each other. The other curious thing was that all of us seemed to take much lesser food and there was always food left behind at the buffet table once the meals ended.

During dinner the next day, it occurred to me that eating in such silence was much like what it was in boarding school. While our teachers didn’t impose absolute silence during our meals in boarding school, most of the time, we didn’t speak to each other. This was because we were so hungry that if we ‘wasted’ time talking, we wouldn’t be able to finish the food. No extra time was ever given to finish food and everyone wanted to avoid going to bed hungry. In other words, we either ate or starved. Coming to think of it, save for one girl who suffered from endocrine problems, I don’t remember any of us being obese or overweight.

And what happened when the period of Noble Silence ended during our retreat? The dining room was ultra-noisy with people sharing all their news (I wonder how much of it was mindful sharing) and all the food at the buffet table finished.

The question I have is this: what happens now? I am having a dinner party soon. Do I serve loads of food and allow people to talk non-stop during the meal? This would be in the guise of ‘enjoying themselves’. Or, do I hold court and teach them about mindful eating and how they are to observe every morsel of food they ingest? What would you do?

By Aneeta Sundararaj


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