The word “savoring” crops up a lot in instructions for mindful eating, but why stop there? Inspired by the notion of taking more time to appreciate things, I recently decided to challenge myself to a week of savoring.
As I started out, I began to see that I was automatically leaving lots of things out—things that were, well, unsavory, less than pleasant—so the challenge had to undergo some immediate reengineering. It would have to become about savoring everything. Yikes.
That immediately led me to the understanding that if I was going to savor the unsavory I would have to be thankful somehow for whatever came my way. I would have to make “thankfulness” the default mode. And not just a “Yeah, thanks,” kind of thankfulness, but a fully welcoming kind of thanking, what I came to call “savory thankfulness.” A mouthful, yes, but it captures the spirit of the thing.
That immediately led me to the understanding that if I was going to savor the unsavory I would have to be thankful somehow for whatever came my way.
If I were to do this, I would have to embrace the artificially sweetened (but still valuable) “attitude of gratitude.” It was a bit of a revelation. What I was prepared for was taking time to really enjoy things, in the present moment. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much it would challenge underlying attitudes and assumptions. When the week was over, I came to some conclusions about how savoring can reach into every area of life. Here’s a little of what I learned about savory thankfulness (some of which may just spill over into life during weeks when I’m not explicitly challenging myself).
1. When things are good… Savor the Joy
This might seem like the most obvious. When things are good, it should be easy to savor them. In fact, that was not my experience. It took more effort to savor something I already appreciated than I would have imagined. Our office just moved from an old-fashioned downtown office building to a small, recycled building in a quasiresidential neighborhood, and now I can walk to work. I love it.
On my new walk, it was easy to savor the air and the light coming through the bare branches of trees and to imagine the pleasure of slowly seeing the seasons change. A friend had been coaching me in Alexander Technique, which is used by a lot of performers and teaches you to appreciate the feeling of your own body parts working in alignment, of inhabiting your body fully. It also taught me to walk with more spring in my step.
All right! I am savoring this. It’s delicious.
But then I started to notice just how focused I still was on getting there. The Carly Simon song “Anticipation” started going through my head. If I were driving, I would have pressed down on the accelerator, but when you’re walking and you push hard on the accelerator, you feel it. And that’s when the moment of joy came: in the sudden realization that the body is always in the present, no matter where my thoughts take me, and I can always return to that.
That’s worth savoring.
2 When it’s every kind of bad…Savor the Resilience
When we were married my wife and I joined a “crystal club” at a department store. That’s the kind of thing newlyweds did 35 years ago. We both had always admired crystal wine glasses, so we scrimped and saved until we had a complete set. One Saturday recently we came home from food shopping to discover the shattered remains of our crystal glasses scattered on the floor. The shelf holding them had collapsed. Only a few remained, as mementos.
It hurt, but they’re only things. We can get real attached to things, but usually the pain passes after a little while and our resilience bounces us back. On the other hand, I find that some of the hassles we encounter getting through the day can actually have a greater impact on our psyche than we realize. We feel one of our most precious possessions is being stolen from us: our time. The other day, my bank made me come back three times to try to resolve a problem with my debit card, and the last time I spent over an hour there while a manager was on the phone with someone from the head office in a faraway city. After four hours invested, the end result was “Your account is too old to allow that function.” WTF! I hate this bank. I hate all banks.
This taps into some deep well of irritation with impersonal institutions. I can get right snappy, and a whole day can be ruined, and in the retelling I work myself up again. In the end, though, irritation with hassles is just that, irritation and impatience. In the grand scheme of things, the hassles amount to next to nothing. Bouncing back from hassles becomes easier when we snap out of the fixed notion that things are just supposed to go our way, and if we’re lucky enough, we can even start to let that chip on our shoulder fall off, so we’re not sniping at innocent tellers for just trying their best to do their job. (By the way, this doesn’t mean you stop advocating for bank reform, if that’s your cause. I’m not talking about being a jelly-hearted pushover.)
The big challenge comes with the really hard stuff to bounce back from: ongoing pain and loss. The death of my father, my brother, my mother, the pains in various parts of my body that just won’t go away. These things do not respond to having a smiley face plastered on them. They want their due. They exact their toll. I find it hard to contemplate what to be thankful for on this score, what to savor. In a good moment, though, I can glimpse the fact that pain, whether physical or emotional, is something that lets us know we are alive. And as we try to manage it as best we can, we are humbled, we are vulnerable, we seek help. We find a way. We bounce back.
And, as we savor the equanimity, we learn to take the good and the bad whichever is emerging right now.
3. When it’s boring…Savor the Freedom
In my own hometown and when I’m traveling, I try as much as possible to use public transportation. It’s a good way to feel connected to other people, and when you’re above ground it’s a good way to see a place. But I will be the first to admit that throughout my life I have not been good at waiting. I can’t tell you how many times I have thought, “This bus is never coming; I should call someone to pick me up.” And then they came up with apps you can check and screens that tell you exactly when the next one will arrive. I am an avid user. I wish there was an app to tell me when I’m going to get done cleaning the kitchen, because it’s starting to bore me.
I’ve come to realize, though, that when I’m waiting or doing something mundane like washing dishes, I am quite simply trying to avoid being bored, having nothing in particular to occupy my mind and afraid that something is going to bubble up from in there to unsettle me. It’s extremely typical in meditation: You end up waiting for the session to end and trying to calculate how soon that ending’s going to come, because you’re having trouble handling the boredom.
So, savor the boredom?
Because, as we all keep discovering time and time again in meditation (eventually we will learn, I guess), we don’t really need to keep ourselves occupied with a lot of extra thoughts. It’s peaceful to take a break from that.
My savoring challenge helped me learn (once again) to savor the freedom from the need to entertain myself every minute of the day. I can just let my mind be.
4. When it’s crazy…Savor the Laughter
Sometimes things just get totally out of hand. One fall weekend some friends were visiting and the weather reports were saying that a hurricane was going to come through. I said to them, “Don’t worry, they always say that, but hurricanes don’t really come this far north with any real force.”
We woke up the next morning to find three-story-high trees uprooted, power lines down, water everywhere… And once I could make my way out of my neighborhood, after a day or two, I went to check on my office. The hurricane had ripped the roof off the building where my top-floor office was. After gazing through the former ceiling at the sky, I looked at a dripping wet computer and a collection of waterlogged books, carpets, and furniture. All my work was now to be disrupted for months of recovery.
When things go haywire, the same tendency we have with hassles—to indulge in a huge dose of self-pity—can easily take over. But I’m starting to really appreciate that the antidote lies in the age-old advice my friends keep giving me: “Get over yourself.”
And then you can have a good laugh at the absurdity of trying so hard to keep it together in a world that is beyond your control. Have a chuckle or a nice deep belly laugh about that. And, naturally…
5. When you complete something… Savor the Reward
My work, like so many people’s work, involves creating one thing after another after another. It’s unending. You’re in the middle of one thing and you can’t help but think about the next thing that’s looming (there’s that anticipation thing again). It works this way with just about anything from building a bridge to cleaning house. It’s so easy when one thing is finished to immediately plow into the next thing, or to just collapse in exhaustion.
So, in my work, when a piece of writing is finished, when an issue is finished, when a book sees the light of day, I always make sure to have a moment to pause, to celebrate with teammates and friends and family, to raise a toast, to wear the laurel wreath, to take in the accolades—just for a little while—and then move on, not dwelling there.
A next thing will come along, but that pause to refresh ensures that your work doesn’t simply become one damn thing after another.
6. When you’re with others… Savor the Companionship
I have twin granddaughters who are eight years old and live far away, and one of our favorite topics of conversation—during the precious times I have an opportunity to visit them—is their friends. They each can easily name three friends from their class, with relish. It’s such a delight to watch how children make friends. They sort of sniff each other out and start tentatively to do a little something together, and then before too long they want to spend every day together. Few things are more poignant than that moment when one child asks another, “Do you want to be my friend?”
Neuroscientists in recent years have been talking about something called “brain coupling,” whereby two people become so in sync while communicating with each other that they are like one brain. I’m sure we have all felt that with a friend. The sheer joy of a shared laugh. The moments of listening when you need to be heard. The shoulder to cry on. Someone to share ups and downs, without caring which it is.
I’m blessed with friends all over the world, people I can connect with within minutes no matter how long it’s been. Other human beings… What’s not to savor?
7. When you’re alone…Savor the Space
As wonderful as friends and companions and lovers can be, in some sense, no one can really know what goes on in your mind, who you are, and how you are. You can tell them. You can leave hints. They can intuit. But complete knowledge of our inner workings is just something that is off limits to others. And that can make us very lonely sometimes. No one gets me. No one feels what I feel. No one is in here with me.
We all know how scary that can be, and when lonesome gives way to deeply lonely, and when that gives way to cut off and disengaged, we have real problems, which is why in the UK they recently created a minister for loneliness: to address the problem of people, often elderly people, becoming cut off and disengaged. We need community and companionship to live.
And yet, in the right doses, being by ourselves can be deeply restorative. It can help us discover a deep reservoir of contentment that does not need to be chased after. We can find a vast inner space where we are free from the need to talk, where poetry and creativity and compassion come from. It’s a place where the emotion of awe resides.
That kind of space—a space of awe and wonder and simplicity—is well worth savoring. It may be the most savory treat of all.
What often keeps us from savoring is speedy thinking. We’ve barely started drinking our tea or coffee before we’re on to the next thing. Here are three simple ways to interrupt that habit and slow down.
When you drink, drink more slowly
A lot of beverages cross our lips during the day. Perhaps when we first take a sip, we notice how refreshing it is, but before long we’re drinking on autopilot and our mind is elsewhere entirely. No need for a big radical shift; just tweak your attention slightly so you still experience heat or coolness, thickness or thinness, and the taste of the drink. You can still pay attention to what else is going on—even something weighing on your mind—but the very act of placing a little more attention on the liquid passing through your mouth can ground you and exhilarate you.
When you open a door, feel the handle
It’s easy to barge into a room without taking much notice of the shifting landscape. Touching and grasping a doorknob can become a small stimulus that can signal us to slow down as we transition from one place to another. It can also help when we enter a room or step out of a car to take a moment to have both feet on the ground and take a breath. The same goes for elevators. Stand to the side and let others out first. These little pauses may seem silly and contrived, but in reality, using the transitions of everyday life to return to the present is a key to savoring life.
When you get up in the morning, look out the window
Our speedy mind can jump into gear just as soon as we wake up. We’re off to the races, figuring out and fretting about the day ahead. As we go through our morning ablutions, we may do so mindlessly—barely there as we plot and scheme about how to conquer the day. Thinking prospectively is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s helpful. Taking a moment or two, though, to gaze into the distance, and maybe admire a tree or a bird or a cloud in the sky, may add a dash of perspective and help us build more slowly to the day ahead.