An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Soul Food by Sadat Malik

In Food & Cooking on March 12, 2013 at 9:57 am

boy-with-strawberry2My father worked in the buses when I was a little boy.

I remember wintry evenings when we ate together after he returned home, tired from a hard day’s work in the years before power-assisted steering. We’d gather around the small wooden table, my father, mother, brother, and I. I can remember clearly the sound of the howling wind outside, the comforting warmth of the old gas fireplace, and a child’s fond sense of contentment and togetherness in sharing a simple meal with his family. 

The richness of these memories from decades ago seemed a far cry from the many long forgotten lunches I wolfed down years later as a twenty-something, young executive just starting out in an investment bank. Food, which had been such a memorable part of my childhood experience, in the fast pace of City life was reduced to mere fuel to be mechanically consumed at one’s desk. In this new world, as Gordon Gekko infamously quipped in the movie Wall Street; “Lunch was for wimps!”

What was it I wondered that differentiated these two eating experiences: one so deeply nourishing; the other hardly noticed. Why did the memories of one stand out so vividly while the other was lost in time?  And how might it be possible to have a more wholesome experience of a simple meal in the midst of the chaos of inner city life? It seemed apparent that these contrasting experiences of the outer world were directly related to my inner state–on the one hand gathered and aware; on the other fragmented with attention scattered. How could I cultivate that state of inner gatheredness which so enlivened my experience rather than deadening it I wondered? The answers had something to do with mindfulness.

Life in banking had its perks and I had the good fortune of living in Japan for several years. At first I was just another self-absorbed gaijin (foreigner) with poor manners and a loud mouth; but this strange land taught me many tough lessons about myself. Against the backdrop of a culture in which everyone seemed to observe careful attention in all activities I began to see how relatively careless and inattentive I was. At the office I’d simultaneously take a phone call, read an email, and jot some notes on a project plan, all while eating a miserable sandwich at my desk. Whereas my project team, to my initial irritation, seemed to focus only on one activity at a time and made a point of taking an hour out of the office for lunch with friends. How inefficient I thought!

Yet inwardly a part of me recognised the beauty in the simple, precise, and careful actions of the people of this land. I started to pay closer attention and adopted a single-task focus realising that it was in fact a far more efficient way of working; I got more done and was less stressed at the end of the day. Giving full attention to one thing at a time at work and in other experiences such as flower arranging, origami (paper folding), tea ceremonies, and caring for a bonsai tree gradually brought me to a point of deepening inner stillness. It would be a while before my abrupt western attitudes would soften and fall away. However I’d had my first taste of mindfulness without really knowing what it was.

Many Zen gardens later I stumbled upon the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, best-selling author and mindfulness teacher, who became a source of personal instruction and guidance for me. In years to come I would meet the greatest teachers I have known, the Sufis, but for now Kabat-Zinn was the perfect companion in my quest to be more mindful in my daily living.

Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as a means of paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. The mind left to its own devices wanders through all kinds of thoughts. When we indulge in thoughts that express negative emotions such as anger, self-pity, or craving, these emotions become reinforced in the heart and cause us to suffer. A suffering heart closes down and is no longer open to the fullness of experience. However, we can do various kinds of work to re-open our hearts such as purposefully directing and sustaining awareness towards some ‘anchor’ away from our thoughts. Gradually their hold and effect on our lives decreases.

In life after banking, I have shared the lessons and exercises I learned from Kabat-Zinn to positive effect with clients in my psychotherapy practice, helping to ease some of the strain of tumultuous and fragmented thinking patterns.

Amongst the many simple ways of practicing mindfulness in daily living is the practice of eating mindfully. That is to eat while consciously directing attention, without judgement, to the experience of eating. This sounds quite straightforward but it can be a challenge to direct attention at one thing for those of us who are used to multi-tasking, which has become commonplace in the modern world.  With mindfulness we are in a sense unlearning our tendency to be perpetually identified with our multitude of thoughts and relearning a childlike quality of paying attention which looks out upon the world and the richness of experience as if for the first time.

As children we are very aware of our senses; we look, feel, smell, and taste our food before we eat.  The younger the child, the closer he or she is to mindful eating. Parents can encourage their children’s innate mindfulness with a few simple mealtime practices: no television or other distractions like toys during mealtimes; gathering together as a family for at least one meal a day; and getting children involved in meal preparation–children are experimenting with their senses and food is a perfect teaching tool that includes the sense of taste. It is with much gratitude that I recall my own childhood meals eaten together as a family, and my parents’ insistence on no television at meal times. My mother and father may have never heard of mindfulness but theirs was a natural wisdom deeply ingrained and absorbed from their own childhood experiences of relative poverty and communal living in post-partition Pakistan, where meals were shared and bread broken together.

A child’s keen awareness of his or her senses will normally diminish as the conceptual mind develops; we cannot force children to pay attention but with a few simple parental observances during mealtimes we can provide an environment that encourages attentiveness while eating. The kitchen offers another ideal occasion in which mindfulness and food can naturally come together in our daily lives.

Over the centuries, work in the kitchen has served an important function in spiritual training systems and is offered to this day on the “curriculum” of some Sufi schools. But we don’t have to find a Sufi kitchen to be mindful–any kitchen will suffice. What is important is the inner presence we bring to the kitchen as this will be the transforming element over time. I will never forget the sweet radiance and joyful contentment upon the face of a dear eighty-year-old oyagi-san (old man) who worked as a ramen (Japanese noodles) chef in his tiny shop underneath the railway bridge near my apartment in Tokyo. Years of loving and attentive service seemed to have softened him so much that his soul shone through his eyes and face.

In my own experiences of working in a Sufi kitchen I have learned that preparing a meal may be a time to consciously slow down, to be aware of our body and breathing, and to be with God. With gratitude we may contemplate where the food came from, how it grew and evolved out of the earth, what its journey has been into our kitchen and into our hands. Adults might pay attention to how food is transformed and be aware of the intelligence that will assimilate it into our bodies. Children can get involved too and they might be encouraged to pay attention to textures, shapes, fragrances, colours and the sensation of handling, washing, and preparing raw ingredients. My wife and I delighted in a recent trip to the supermarket with our four-year-old nephews, seeing their little faces light up as they explored the selection of fruits and vegetables in the grocery aisles. Forever curious and inquisitive, “What’s this Uncle Sadat?” they asked holding up a Chinese pear.

As adults it is possible to relearn what was known to us as children but forgotten. Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living is an excellent guide and introduction to mindfulness with many exercises and useful advice for both novice and experienced practitioners. There are chapters on conscious breathing, walking mindfully, and more. There’s even an exercise in how to eat a raisin using a mindful approach! For those interested in a Sufi approach to mindfulness the best guide in my experience is Kabir Helminski’s Living Presence.

Over the years mindfulness practice integrated into daily living may gradually awaken us into a deeper experience, connection, and sense of appreciation for the “simple things in life”–like eating a raisin–which may otherwise go unnoticed and unappreciated. With mindful awareness, preparing and eating a simple meal feeds not only our physical being but may also touch and nourish a much deeper part of us. Sitting here now, writing, I wonder if perhaps it was this deeper part of me that had been touched all those years ago in the soulful simplicity of a little boy enjoying a meal with his family.

(Image from http://longmontsouth.blog.healthsourcechiro.com/)

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  1. Beautiful Sadat, thank you for sharing. Just what I needed, a reminder of my anchor.

    Sx

  2. Thank you for this post Sadat. JKZ has written an excellent book called Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, in which he addresses the ‘inner work’ of parenting. I haven’t found anything similar in the Islamic spiritual tradition, which is unfortunate given its immense richness, wisdom and legacy- hence the reasons this blog came into being.

    It is a steep learning curve as we not only learn about children but also about ourselves. They mirror the best and worse in us. It also an inner work because our ‘center of gravity’ shifts from within us into the child.

    For me, as with other parents, it a creative process not only for the ‘exponential times’ we live in but also because how were raised may not work with our children or what works with one child may not work with another. It is, as JKZ right says at the outset “one of the most challenging, demanding, and stressful jobs on the planet. It is also one of the most important… “

    • Greetings,

      This is a very nice post. Thank you for it. I like your emphasis on mindfulness.

      All good wishes,

      robert

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