In honor of spring, I decided to buy a new pair of pants. Usually, I head for St. Vincent de Paul for gently reused clothes, partly to keep the cloth out of landfills a bit longer and partly because St. Vinnie’s is so . . . well . . . cheap. This year, though, coupon in hand, I headed for Macy’s, where I found a perfect pair of black cotton pants. I took a pair in my usual size into the dressing room but found I couldn’t get them past my hips. Confused, I looked at my body in the full-length mirror, only to discover that someone or something had lobbed ten pounds of fat onto my butt over the course of the past year.
Not a little undone, I asked myself how that possibly could have happened. We are healthy eaters in my house. Fruits, nuts, oatmeal, rice, vegetables. A few cookies here and there. Not many. Thanks to years of Zen practice, where dharma “combat” with my teachers called for instant responses to their interview questions, the answer was right there: “You eat too much.”
Walking home from the store, a new pair of mega-pants under my arm, I thought of an old Zen story that has kept me company for years.
In China, there once was an old Zen master who spent his life wandering from temple to temple. He always had a handful of followers with him. Over time, they became deeply attached to this old fellow, finding him to be a thoughtful, compassionate, and unassuming teacher. One day when they were settling in near a river, they saw another Zen master with his disciples, camped on the other side. One of that Zen master’s disciples shouted across the river, wondering if the monks’ old teacher could do any special tricks. He was curious because their teacher apparently had all kinds of magical talents. For example, he could stand on one side of the river and deliver a dharma talk, and while he did, it would be written in the sky. Anyone who wanted to keep a record of it just had to hold up a piece of paper, and it would appear.
The Zen master and his followers were very impressed. After a while, the youngest follower shouted back across the river, “Our teacher is also able to do amazing things. For example, when he is hungry, he eats. When he is tired, he sleeps.” From the other side of the river came great clapping. “Your teacher,” they shouted in response, “is one for the history books!”
When he was hungry, he ate. I’d like to think that I am extremely mindful. As a student I cruised right through koans on this very subject — crazy questions, like “What is this?” or “What sound did this teaching stick make this morning?” I notice when the toilet paper needs to be replaced, and when the kitchen floor is sticky, and when the windows could use a good washing. I can tell when my neighbor is upset and could use some chatting time, and when the homeless guy I pass in the riverbank park is actually pretty happy with where he lives — fewer people, after all, and no traffic — and really just wants a better blanket. I know how to make him one.
The mega-pants tell a different story. There is work to be done. I decided simply to watch my own eating habits for a day. While I ate only when I was hungry, I didn’t stop when I was full. The next day, I simply halved all of my meals and waited for the cranky me that can surface when I’m hungry to appear. She never did. To see if this was simply a quirk, I watched again for a third day. Half portions. Smaller snacks. No hunger. More food to share with others. I’m telling you, it was a miracle.
Tracing the heavy eating pattern backwards, I can tell you when it started. For years, I had a habit of asking myself this question several times a day: “What is right in front of me that I am not paying attention to?” That question has helped me to pay tax bills on time, call my mother more regularly, tell my family how grateful I am for each one of them. It also protected the slender me from the “more food is more comfort” me. But life is life, and we are all busier than busy, and the question got lost in the shuffle of the one I call mine.
No more. I use it as a reminder: when I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m full, I stop. And while these pants look good now, in a couple of months, they’ll look even better. I’ll be the Vogue-iest monk in the park.