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Soul Food: Nourishing Your Essence

January 19, 2022

"May winter's darkness activate your soul's strength and imagination"

Do you sometimes feel that the demands of everyday life - the emails, cooking, cleaning, etc. - leave you exhausted without energy for your hearts true longing? Do you sometimes feel that your attention is being hijacked by insignificant information and a lot of blah, blah, blah?

Recently, I companioned a student who was complaining that there was just not enough time in the day to meditate, take nourishing walks, have deep connection with friends or "feed his soul" in almost any way.

Between paying the bills, responding to work demands, doing the laundry, shopping - many necessary, often unfulfilling tasks - his inner life felt depleted. When he had a little "free time", he surfed the internet which, like a sugar high, gave him a momentary lift, leaving him feeling drained and vacant. He knew the kind of actions that might give more sustenance yet rarely had the energy to follow through. This sense of being overwhelmed by a "successful life" permeates many folks I talk with.

Other people, rather than feeling overwhelmed, report feeling bored and uninspired, with few truly fulfilling moments. Non-nourishing responsibilities and mindless habits dominate their moments. Even conversations with friends feel repetitive, uninspired, often filled with complaints. Deep listening and heart sharing is the exception rather than the norm. Humor is more often dark or sarcastic rather than uplifting.

If you resonate with any of this, there are reliable antidotes: 1) taking care of ordinary moments and 2) finding time for soul-nourishment.

(Note: These issues primarily concern those of us with social and economic security. If one is working three jobs and taking care of children or parents, questions about time usage are different).

Taking Care of the Moment: Every Moment is a Moment

When on a path of awareness, dividing the day into the ordinary and the truly soul-fulfilling actions is a false dichotomy.

Everyday Life,
Our ordinary moments
Are never truly separate
From essential moments

A great gift of Zen practice is seeing everyday tasks as inseparable from the most important. Samu - work practice - a core part of Zen training, imparts this attitude. From a counterintuitive view, cleaning the toilet is not of less value than a meeting with one's teacher or sitting in meditation. A moment of Being is a moment of Being.

Presencing any task, when not judging its importance, brings a quiet fulfillment. Naturally, some urgent demands do have greater importance in certain moments. Still, how often do we rush through the dishes or other tasks out of the habit of undervaluing the ordinary? Rather than just getting onto the more important things, we can learn to bring our presence/awareness to the ordinary. Presence is the key to cultivating more satisfying moments.

Noticing body sensation, especially breathing - am I holding breath?, are my shoulders contracted?, am I rushing?, etc. IS my practice, just as much as sitting on the meditation cushion or having an intimate conversation. Gently awakening to my habits of absencing, invites a return to presence. "Gently" is very important, if an attitude of judgment and self-criticism pervades, the path is too painful and unappealing to maintain.

When on a path of awareness ordinary tasks are great teachers. "Taking care of the moment" revolves around engaging in these with less time pressure and more joy. Though bringing awareness into everyday activities is essential, it NOT enough, more is needed.

Enjoying Soul-food: Nourishing your Inner Life

As important as this attitude is, most of us require more for our spiritual batteries to be recharged. We need to find, name and devote time to the deeply meaningful moments and interactions that feed our soul. What are the activities that feed your soul? Plato's focus on Goodness, Truth and Beauty offer a helpful framework.

Goodness relates to meeting the world with care, it is another name for love. Connecting heartfully with others, taking care of the authentic needs in others, in the world and in self are expressions of goodness.

Truth is not the pursuit of knowledge to win arguments but the great joy of learning and discovery. Seeing into the essence of things requires a quieting of mental chatter, discerning the essential from the superficial. Looking deeply into anything, Truth asks, "What is it really"?

Beauty is rarely about adorning oneself; rather it is the appreciation of clouds, flowers, poetry, music, etc. The arts are doorways to soul-satisfying beauty.

These descriptions might sound too big or far away. Actually, they are part of everyday life. Opportunities to care, to see clearly and to appreciate life's beauty abound.

The Importance of Wasting Time!

We live in a world that values efficiency and productivity very highly. Wasting time is frowned upon with great moral judgment. Just taking a walk becomes "good for the heart"; choosing to meditate or looking out the window with a quiet cup of tea becomes "good for one's blood pressure". When we take a walk in nature because it is healthy, something fundamental is lost.

Essential to soul-food is giving time to activities that are not intentionally productive. The arts and nature feed us, enjoying beauty for its own sake enlivens. When the productive overwhelms the essential, our inner life withers. The primary impulse is satisfying the deep longing in our hearts, any other benefit is extra.

Playfulness and Humor

Finally, let's remember the importance of playfulness and humor. As children, our work was our play. We learned, socialized and enjoyed life through play. Good-natured humor, an attitude of playfulness and light-heartedness seems essential for soulful living.

Dancing, singing, celebrating, laughing are deeply nourishing and empowering for our souls. To paraphrase Moshe Feldenkrais: "the path of awareness is too important to be done seriously"! Meaning, we don't need to add an attitude of solemnity. As a serious Zen student, meeting Thich Nhat Hahn in 1975 changed my life when he said, "Why are you so serious, encountering the Dharma is the greatest joy in life"!

It is essential that we learn to identify and honor the various forms of soul food that can be eaten each day. A few days without soul food makes for a very unhealthy diet.

(An important distinction: we all have some enjoyable ways of "spacing out" - maybe television, internet surfing, reading the newspaper, games, daydreaming or just light reading. In my view, these can also have a valuable place in a well-rounded diet, though they are not the same as soul food. Listen for any sense of obsessiveness when choosing these, as well as the state you are in following the activity).

Essential Points:

-Awareness as a life path is a game changer! Presencing ordinary moments creates many opportunities for fulfillment.
-Finding our personal Soul Food and committing to a diet of these is essential!
-In addition to valuing productivity, wasting time, with care, can be a gift!

Nourish your essence with Soul Food - Eat Well!


AND a story from an unknown source:

When things in your life seem almost too much to handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough, remember the mayonaise jar and coffee...

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very large and empty mayonaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was...

The professor next picked upl a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous "yes".

The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

"Now, said the professor, as the laughter subsided, I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things - your God, family, your children, your health, your friends, and your favorite passions - things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, you life would still be full".

"The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, and your car. The sand is everything else - the small stuff".

"If you put the sand into the jar first", he continued, "there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you."

"Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Take care of the golf balls first, the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.".

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented. The professor smiled. "I'm glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple cups of coffee with a friend".

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