"People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black curious eyes of a child--our own two eyes. All is a miracle." - Thich Nhat Hanh
We often take the little things for granted--heartbeats, breathing, chewing. Yet, the small things form the bedrock of our day-to-day lives. We forget about the banal until something goes wrong with it, then we can't think about anything else. Let's look at mastication as a case study.
I remember a time when I couldn't chew anything. The year was 2013 and for a period of eight weeks after I broke my jaw in a climbing accident I could only eat liquids. After the initial shock and frustration wore off, my reaction to the change in circumstance was determination above all else. I wanted to figure out a way to get adequate nutrition to heal my body while simultaneously regulating my blood sugar (I have Type 1 Diabetes.). The hospital's nutrition recommendations were abysmal, relying on meal replacement formulas and sugar-based fluids. In my world, this would not stand.
I started blending vegetables and ground meat in my cheap blender. When I grew tired of the partially macerated food getting stuck in my teeth, I decided to buy a Vitamix. This was a game-changer. The Vitamix made eating diversely a breeze. I blended just about everything I ate before--beans, eggs, kale, onions, sweet potatoes, sardines, and Salisbury steak (I wouldn't do that one again.). The upgrade was bittersweet, however.
Unfortunately, there were really only two classes of flavors. Sweet things all tasted like smoothies (or juices) while savory things all tasted like soups. Even worse, my average meal time was 15 minutes, from the start of preparations to the time I got done eating. I truly felt shorted. I missed out on the process involved in cooking foods, the aromas that waft up as you are sautéing things, and the little tastes here and there to get the flavoring right. I missed the feel of the food in my mouth and on my tongue. During this time, eating resembled filling up a car with gas more than it resembled nourishing a living being.
When I finally did get the use of my jaw, I was ecstatic and couldn't wait to get back to chewing my food. My enthusiasm was premature, though. The first day after the metal braces were removed from my teeth, I could open my mouth less than one centimeter. A strange thing happens when a joint stays locked in one position too long. It can get stuck like a rusted hinge. Every day, several times a day I would shove an increasing number of popsicle sticks between my teeth to pry my jaw further open. It hurt like hell, but the eventual outcome was well worth the pain. I have had zero jaw problems since and actively avoid anything resembling a smoothie to this day.
As a result of being unable to chew for a period of 2 months, my appreciation for mastication is higher than most people you will meet. I do my absolute best to not rush when I eat and to chew each bite thoroughly and consciously. I'm not perfect in this dedication, but when I get distracted I know it. Have you ever bitten your tongue or lips while chewing? Have you ever gotten indigestion after a meal? Do you have chronic constipation or loose stools? It may be related to going too fast while eating. Slow down and see what happens.
This advice can apply to more than just eating, of course. So much energy is wasted when we spread our attention too thinly. In a world that is moving as fast as ours, taking our eyes off the road for even a short time can have disastrous results. While most of us consider texting and driving to be a literal deadly sin, almost everyone I know gets distracted behind the wheel from time to time. Rushing through conversations, classes, appointments, books, movies, gatherings, etc. in order to just get to the other side of the event (or check a box) is the same as throwing away time.
Chewing is a common metaphor for contemplation. When we seek out difficult things and make an effort to chew on them more thoroughly, we change for the better. Not only do we extract more essential nutrients from them, but we also make downstream digestion easier. Our muscles and teeth grow stronger, so we can take on tougher problems in the future. Next time you feel rushed, slow down and remember to chew.