We lined up outside the special dining room, 21 in total.
Rumors about the silent dinner were circulating, but none of us knew exactly what to expect. I chose to be there because I collect experiences. Besides, I had come to Rancho La Puerta to turn inward and find answers—so I welcomed silence whenever possible.
Phyllis, our spiritual teacher, led the way to Los Olivos, which sat above the main dining room. Once everybody entered, she pointed to the night’s menu perched on a table at the entryway. “We all get soup, salad and dessert,” she said in her perfect British accent. “You have a choice between two dishes for the main entrée followed by tea or coffee. If you want tea, choose the paper labeled hot water.”
I smiled when she showed us how to order our entrée: with a sprig of rosemary, the symbol of remembrance and love. A whole sprig indicated the vegetarian option, no sprig was non-vegetarian, and a broken one denoted the combination dinner.
Tables were arranged in a large square, each side hosting five of us. Phyllis invited all to stand, hold hands, and seal the silence before we took our seats. We connected skin to skin, felt each other’s warmth, and let go.
Finding stillness in a group proved a challenging task for most. One could feel the restlessness amongst the attendees. We are a culture of communication. Food is community and relationship. How do we relate without words? Gazes moved up and down. Some playfully winked or smiled at others. Then slowly, my eyes started to fall upon the details: faces glowing in the dim lights, paper decorations hanging from the ceiling with Feliz Navidad cut inside them, the painting of a mother figure making tortillas.
I noticed the wait staff. Both had been serving in the main dining room since day one, yet I had failed to see them. Tonight, I didn’t know how to thank them. When Miriam placed a bottle of water with mint floating inside on our table, a strong sense of appreciation overwhelmed me.
The mystic Persian poet Hafiz always speaks of saqi, a feminine wine pourer. When we studied his poetry in Iran, I used to think of her as just a woman. Now it all made sense. He meant the divine giver, the Beloved, the one who fills us when we are ready to receive. Miriam’s hand had become a vessel for the divine. She was our saqi, offering up an essence of life.
Meanwhile, bread, salt and pepper quietly rotated around the table, no words or gestures necessary.
I imagined depriving me of one sense would heighten my sense of taste since we were eating after all. But distinguishing the hidden flavor of cauliflower in a white soup became miniscule compared to what happened next.
The servers brought out our salad plates. Cubes of root vegetables blood red, sunny yellow, and rosy pink rested on arugula leaves with bits of snow-white feta peeking through. All sparkled in salad dressing. Nothing fancy. I brought a forkful of salad to my mouth and something flashed before my eyes. All of a sudden, I could see the arugula in a field fluttering in the breeze while the sun danced on its surface. I could see the root vegetables receiving sustenance from the earth and offering it to me. I could imagine the animal whose milk led to the making of the feta. My field of vision expanded to the farmers who had cared for the vegetables. Mother Nature was presenting her bounty and beauty in one bite.
Tears streamed down my eyes in gratitude and honor for being nourished, body and soul, by her. I felt gratitude for the farmers who cultivated the vegetables, the chef who created this delightful meal, the people who served us. I felt grateful for having access to food and for such an incredible experience. Phyllis held us with her presence throughout dinner, much like the mother figure in the painting.
After dessert came green tea, which Jose brewed on a table behind us. We watched as the flowering tea bloomed petal-by-petal in hot water. With that vision I was in my aunt’s garden in Iran, hands on knees, leering at the laleh abbasi (marvel of Peru, four o’clock flower) a devotee in anticipation for the alabaster beauties to disrobe before my eyes and reveal their amethyst stripes. I’d wait until the end when the laleh exhaled its luscious honeyed fragrance.
The flower’s blooming never lost its splendor because youth kept me in the moment. Just like then, I refused to take my eyes off the teapot until all the petals had opened, for on this day I had found a glimpse of presence again. Away from the technological interruptions, I had slowed down enough to actually see the glory that surrounds us and go deeper with the help of our meal.
By the time dinner ended, the whole room felt more expanded. We held hands again to break the silence. What was it like?
“Like spirits communing.”
“Bigger than all of us, truth revealing, transcendent.”
“My whole life flashed before me. I’m grateful to be alive,” one attendee exclaimed in tears.
I embraced Phyllis for showing me what’s possible and left the dining room realizing how much passes us by—how much bliss is lost on us as we rush through life with one eye on the cellphone, the other on the computer screen. Distanced from the natural elements, which are part of us, we hurry through meals and eat while standing or walking.
Lost in our heads, we deprive our bodies of the sensuous experiences it deserves and is capable of.
Volunteer Editor: Melissa Horton / Editor: Renée Picard
Author: Bahar Anooshahr