During the second session of my Meditation for Health course, we passed around a bottle of hand sanitizer and a stack of napkins. From under her chair the leader pulled a plastic bag full of kiddie-sized raisin boxes. Over the course of the next thirty minutes, she talked us through a mindfulness practice centered on the eating of a single raisin.
Here’s what I was thinking, when I was meant to be merely observing the information filtering in from my senses: I am not entirely certain whether being mindful about raisins is actually such a good idea. I mean, they’re shriveled. They’re gummier the longer they sit in your mouth. They often feature a bit of grit inside—an abortive grape seed, I assume—that’s much worse on the tongue if you’ve been actively contemplating, before biting down, whether you’ll encounter it. And they make you thirsty rather than refreshing you—I think you could actually die of thirst, eating raisins for a long enough period of time.
When I came back from visiting the water fountain and firing off a quick tweet complaining about the exercise, we’d moved on to observing the raisin box, turning it side to side between our fingertips and gazing at the Sun-Maid maiden (Why is she carrying a basket of green grapes? Raisins are made from red grapes. Wait: are raisins made from red grapes, or do they all turn brown when they dry out? Have they subtly updated this brand-girl over the years the way they keep making over Aunt Jemima: slimming her breasts, tweezing her eyebrows into a flatter arch, changing 1950s orange lipstick to a post-millennial pink?).
Our assignment for the week was to eat one meal mindfully. By the end of class I’d heard enough evidence about lowered cholesterol and blissful sleep that I was committed to trusting the process, but over the next six days I reverted wholly to holding the Thai takeout carton under my chin while scanning emails and scarfing the kids’ leftover scrambled eggs at the kitchen counter. I did think about mindful eating, but not at the same times I was actually eating.
Mindfulness is unnatural. It may be true that babies have no problem with it—you often wonder what a four-month-old is staring at, and why his fingers are so endlessly amusing to him—but I think mindfulness goes against one of our key evolutionary traits. Homo sapiens’ extreme adaptability has allowed the species to dominate to the point of planetary obliteration, and we have adapted to the stresses of high-tension urban lifestyles by tuning out most everything out.
Say you were barreling down the street on your lunch hour to meet an ex-colleague for sushi, and you suddenly decided to be mindful. First, you’d stop walking, because you’re dead tired and your new boots have already rubbed your right ankle raw and it hurts like a mothersucker. You’d stand there amid the earsplitting sirens and the drone of construction and the sad bleating of the homeless guy, and you’d stare at the dried-up gum and Styrofoam cups, the newspaper boxes speckled with bird shit and vomit, the unremitting backdrop of concrete and steel, and here is what would happen: you would puddle to the sidewalk like an egg suddenly deprived of its shell.
I understand that mindfulness needn’t become a way of life. The idea is to practice it in small increments, therapeutically, as a counter-balance to all the heedless rushing. And I’m told that the anxiety and irritation sometimes accompanying meditation is the mind’s defense against being unseated, however temporarily, from Command Central.
“Just think of it as playing with your food,” was the advice in the raisin lesson. And so, on the way home that day, I lined up all the rest of the raisins on the window ledge of the subway car. They reminded me of ants–insects that, I recalled, are also members of highly evolved, industrious communities and probably aren’t mindful whatsoever. At the dog park the next day I pulled the little red box out of my pocket and blew into it, the unthinking gesture and the resulting whine-whistle taking me right back to the playgrounds of my childhood. Not meditation per se, but a moment of fond reverie, at least.