"The Broccoli Phenomenon, a classic illustration of the malleability of the mind, is reported to me regularly on retreats. Probably plenty of people who attend mindfulness retreats aren't crazy about broccoli. You might be one of them. The soup served for supper on the first evening is full of broccoli bits. 'Hmm,' you might think, 'I'm not sure I'll be happy here. I hope this is the last of the broccoli.' You begin to practice mindfulness, sitting still for certain periods, walking slowly for other periods, feeling your breath as you sit or your feet as you walk.
"You begin to calm down. Breakfast is no problem. No scrambled eggs, no sweet rolls, nothing very interesting, but nevertheless okay. Then lunch. A huge stew appears, full of assorted vegetables, including broccoli. And steamed rice. 'Uh-oh. How should I do this? Should I just eat rice? No, I'll be hungry. I guess I'll put the stew over the rice and pick out the broccoli. I hope they don’t do this to me again!'
"They do. The mind devotes an inordinate amount of air time to the dreaded broccoli:
" 'Where do they get these cookies?'
" 'When I get home, I'm sending them a collection of good cookbooks!'
" 'What if a person were allergic to broccoli?'
" 'Maybe I should leave a note for the cooks. They have no idea . . .'
" 'I bet if I saw their shopping list, broccoli would be the main item!'
" 'If they are determined to serve so much broccoli, they could at least cook it separately, as a side dish, and not mix it into everything else.'
"Days pass, meals pass, and between bouts of culinary criticism that temporarily cause mind storms, you continue to develop composure. Sitting, walking, breathing, stepping hour by hour, gradually, while you are busy concentrating, your mind smoothes itself out. It happens steadily, but usually unremarkably, so sometimes you don't realize it's happening.
"The Broccoli Phenomenon is how you can tell the practice is working. You enter the dining hall, broccoli is again prominently featured, and you experience nothing much in the way of a reaction. The mind accommodates. Maybe you even smile. Maybe you even have the thought, 'Now I hope they don't leave out the broccoli at any meal because, if they do, I won't have nearly as good a story to tell when I get home.'
"If mindfulness meditation worked only with broccoli, it wouldn't be as valuable as it is. Mindfulness meditation addresses the broccolis of life, the inevitable pains of the body and disappointments of mind that are continually and fundamentally our experience.
"The point of practice is not to be finished with pain forever, because we can't be. Nor is it to get over being pleased and then being displeased, liking and not liking, because these are natural responses to life. Mindfulness practice smoothes out the mind so that it sees clearly and responds wisely.
"I seem to myself wiser on some days than I do on other days. My level of wisdom is more a reflection of my degree of mindfulness than of external life circumstances. The mind, when it is relaxed, makes sounder judgment calls.
"Shanti, the head cook on many of the meditation retreats at which I teach, told me the advice she got from Mrs. Hammond, her third grade teacher, about overcoming aversion to arithmetic. 'Listen,' Mrs. Hammond said, 'You are going to have to do some sort of arithmetic every day for the rest of your life. You might as well enjoy it!'
"Joining the ranks of Mrs. Hammond, I add, 'We are going to experience some sort of broccoli every day for the rest of our lives.' Some will be trivial, minor unpleasantness, and some will be very, very hard.
"Shanti doesn't use too much broccoli in her cooking. Even if she did, that wouldn't be a problem for me. I rather like broccoli. It's celery that's my problem."