“You are what you eat” is a common refrain about food. And there’s truth in that. The food we take in becomes a building block and fuel for our bodies.
But in the Fifth Mindfulness Training, Thich Nhat Hanh introduces us to three additional forms of consumption through the so-called Four Nutriments, which are food, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. Once we take all forms of nutrition into account, I think the more accurate refrain is that “you are what you meet.” What does this mean?
When we experience eating edible food, we know it not only nourishes our body, but that it also deeply affects our perceptions. When I eat a heavy meal, I’m pretty likely in the near future to experience feeling leaden, less mentally clear, and groggy. So in some ways, when I meet a plate of pasta, I get to become that plate of pasta.
Our sense impressions have similar effects. The things that we experience through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch form our perceptions. If I bite a lemon, I experience “ZING!” And in Buddhism, thought is a sixth sense impression, such that when I think of biting a lemon, I can almost experience the same “ZING!” While we don’t become a lemon upon tasting it, it does shape our perceived reality and our experience. And if we spend time chewing on a lemon versus the same time smelling a sweet rose, many of us would have very different experiences depending on the situation we faced.
The third nutriment, volition, refers to our deep desire and what’s motivating us in the moment. When faced with rage and desire for revenge, we become vengeful if we do not protect ourselves with mindfulness. When faced with a deep gratitude and motivation to act from that place, we embody those desires. We are, in a way, the deepest desires we meet in ourselves.
For consciousness, we can think of it as our frame of mind, both individual and collective. For many of us, the past couple of years have been lived in a society riven by conflict, anger, doubt, and mistrust. There’s a constant vigilance and heightened awareness that take their toll. This miasma of unease comes to live deep in our consciousness, and we reflect it back to the world. I know I’ve noticed this in my desire to overconsume news and in a shorter fuse before frustration gets sparked that I carry with me.
How do these four ways of considering consumption inform our practice? While the Fifth Mindfulness Training is often framed as eating mindfully, it’s also about bringing our mindfulness to what experiences we take in, what desires stoke us, and the contexts into which we immerse ourselves. In the Fifth Training, we are being called to examine carefully the “diet” we practice as mindfulness practitioners: what are the mindful choices in each of these areas that allow us to better curate our experience? Also, each of us is contributing to our collective experience, and each of us helps form the various things our fellow beings consume. When I’m short with someone on the Metro, I’ve shaped their experience and who they are. They may go home and smack their kid. Thus, we also bear responsibility for the impact, whether intentional or not, we have on each other. So the Fifth Training asks us to consider the choices we make that cultivate the experience of others. I think it asks us to consider what it means to be what/whom we eat and what/whom we meet. And, at some level, it asks us to look deeply into our experiences and see if we can really find a “me” who is experiencing all of these happenings who is separate from and independent of the people and things we meet.
This Thursday, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings and then share our experiences with the Fifth Training. How do we engage the Four Nutriments in our practice? With what have you been nourishing yourself and with what do you aspire to nourish yourself? Have you looked at your volition as nourishment, and if you do, what do you see?
You can listen to a Dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh on the Fifth Mindfulness Training and the Four Nutriments (start at 1:17:00). A snippet from an article by Thay in Lion’s Roar is below as well.
I hope you can join us,
From Happiness in Every Breath by Thich Nhat Hanh, Lion’s Roar, Feb. 3, 2011
The Four Nutriments
The Buddha spoke of four kinds of nutriments, the four kinds of foods that we consume every day. Our happiness and suffering depend very much on whether what we consume is wholesome or unwholesome.
The First Nutriment: Edible Food
The first kind of nutriment is edible food—what we put into our mouth and chew, swallow, or drink. Most of us instinctively know what food is healthy for our bodies and what food isn’t, but we often choose not to think about it. Before eating, we can look at the food on the table and breathe in and out to see whether we are eating food that is making us healthy or making us sick. When we are away from home, whether we are eating a snack on the go, dining at an event, or grazing on something while at work, we can pause and decide to eat only the most nourishing food. This is mindful eating.
Mindful eating can begin with mindful shopping. When we go grocery shopping, we can choose to buy only food that feeds our well-being. We can use the cooking of this food as an occasion to practice mindfulness. At the table, we can be silent for a moment. We can practice breathing in and out and give thanks for the healthy food in front of us.
The Second Nutriment: Sensory Impressions
Sensory impressions are what we consume with our eyes, ears, nose, body, and mind. Television programs, books, movies, music, and topics of conversation are all items of consumption. They may be healthy or toxic. When we talk with a good friend or listen to a dharma talk, the seeds of compassion, understanding, and forgiveness are watered in us, and we are nourished. But an advertisement or film can touch the seed of craving in us and make us lose our peace and joy.
When we drive through the city, we consume, whether we want to or not. We are assaulted twenty-four hours a day by sensory impressions on billboards, on the radio, and all around us. Without mindfulness, we are vulnerable. With mindfulness, we can be aware of what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching. Our mindful awareness can help us change the focus of our attention and be nourished by the positive things around us. The blue sky, the sounds of birds, the presence of a friend—all of these things feed our compassion and joy.
The Third Nutriment: Volition
The third kind of nutriment, volition, is also called aspiration or desire. Every one of us has a deep desire, and we are nourished by that desire. Without desire, we wouldn’t have the energy to live. That deepest desire can be wholesome or unwholesome. When Siddhartha left the palace to follow a spiritual path, he had a desire to practice and to become enlightened in order to help people suffer less. That desire was wholesome, because it gave him the energy to practice, to overcome difficulties, and succeed. But the desire to punish another person, to acquire wealth, or to succeed at the expense of others, is an unwholesome desire that brings suffering to everyone.
Each of us can look deeply to recognize our deepest desire, to see whether it is wholesome. The desire to help fight pollution and preserve our planet is something wonderful. But our craving for money, power, sex, fame, or to punish others only leads to ill-being. That kind of desire pulls us in the direction of death. If we find this kind of volition rising up in us, we need to stop and look deeply. What is behind this desire? Is there a feeling of sadness or loneliness we are trying to cover up?
The Fourth Nutriment: Consciousness
Consciousness here means collective consciousness. We are influenced by the way of thinking and the views of other people in many ways. Individual consciousness is made of collective consciousness, and collective consciousness is made of individual consciousness.
It is our collective consciousness that determines how we live in the world. If we aren’t mindful and we live in an environment where people around us are very angry, violent, or cruel, then sooner or later we’ll become angry and cruel as well. Even if we intend to be compassionate and kind, we can’t help but be influenced by the collective consciousness. If everyone else around us is consuming material things and giving in to craving, it is more difficult to maintain our mindful awareness. This is especially true for our children. When we put our children in an environment, they may be as influenced by that environment as they are by our parenting.
Most of us don’t live in an environment where people are always peaceful, compassionate, and open. But we can be mindful of creating a community around us that fosters these qualities. Even if it is only our house or our block or our small community, we need to surround ourselves with compassionate people.
The Buddha said, “If you know how to look deeply into the nature of your craving and identify the source of nutriments that have brought it in to you, you are already at the beginning of transformation and healing.” Every kind of ill-being has been brought to us by one or more nutriments. Looking into the nature of ill-being in terms of the four nutriments can lead us onto the path of mindful consumption, which is the path to well-being.