Buddhism has a practice of meditation that involves a mindfulness exercise while eating. During a meal, one is encouraged to contemplate the origins of each ingredient and think of all who participated in the creation of that meal, from field to table. In this practice, one thinks of the farmer, the trucker, the grocer, and the cook, imagining their lives and how they intersect with one’s own life in this meal. It is, I believe, a practice that focuses on the community aspect of agriculture, and reminds us of our social ties to each other.
We are never alone on an island. We need each other. We always have needed each other. From our foraging days as a species to the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, we have and will always be interdependent on each other for survival. It is true that we also share symbiotic relationships with the natural world, but for today, I want to focus on social communities.
In reflecting on a meal, we can see our community, and it is not a small one. My breakfast this morning consisted of so many stories. My coffee, for example, began its journey on a sustainable farm in South America where a small family collected and packaged the beans with their neighbors. Perhaps that family has been growing coffee for generations, and perhaps their daughter is attending college to return to their hometown as a doctor who will serve the community in which she was raised.
Later on its journey, a commercial shipping crew works 18 hours straight to load the cargo containers to ships destined for all over the world. One of those workers is sending money home to an aging parent who can no longer work on their own. The monthly checks are a lifeline in a country that has no social security or similar benefits. One of those ships may dock in Los Angeles where the container is loaded to a train to be transported to Chicago. A truck driver awaits to make the delivery to a distribution center. She can’t wait to get home to her family that night. Her daughter has a recital for the clarinet and she has been practicing for four weeks.
Eventually the beans are roasted and arrive on the shelf of my grocer. Many people were left out of this story so that I could get to the point in a short essay. The road builders, vehicle manufacturers, oil drillers, and warehouse workers all contributed to that one small element of my breakfast. Many of the ingredients from my breakfast, like my potatoes, are grown right here on our farm. I know the stories of the people who helped bring me my potatoes for breakfast. Their stories are rich too me because I know them personally.
While we may create artificial separations between ourselves and others, we are all interconnected through our community. Communities are complex entities, requiring all of its components to operate effectively. No one member is more important than others. It’s that understanding of social symbioses that results from taking the Buddhist exercise seriously that clarifies the importance of the roles we all play in our community. The contributions and collaborations of the human community and the personal stories of myriad community members is contained within a simple meal on Sunday morning. In effect, our lives intersect with all of humanity every time we sit down to eat.