Sunday, January 18, 2009

Plainness and mindfulness

During Lent, as a personal discipline, I go vegan.  That means, of course, that I can't have fried eggs, cereal and milk, yoghurt, fish, or pizza.  But this also means that I can't have anything that happens to have eggs, dairy, or meat in it.  Some brands of bread contain whey.  Some bagels are brushed with egg.  Many Japanese dishes are secretly flavored with fish.  I have to constantly scrutinize ingredient labels to make sure that I will not accidentally consume any animal products.  If I don't know what's in it, I don't eat it.

The effect this has on my eating habits is simply that I eat less randomness.  I ignore the bowl of candies at work, and also the free pastries when they have them.  When I go out to breakfast with friends, I can only order fruit.  Once, I couldn't even have any of my birthday cake because the friends who made it forgot about the vegan thing.  I definitely lose weight during Lent.  But vegan Lent isn't only about denial.  I find that it has another, more positive and constructive aspect.  During Lent, I become extremely conscious of the things I put in my body.  Because of this, I discover a wonderful mindfulness in the simple act of eating.

As I continue exploring Plain dress, I have come to see a similar effect on the simple act of dressing.  In the mornings, I used to have to think about what I would wear for the day.  I would have to take into consideration the things I would be doing, where I would be going, who I'd be seeing.  Sometimes what would be appropriate for one circumstance wouldn't be appropriate for another, and I'd find myself changing clothes during the day.  On more than one occasion, I've caught myself changing three or four times over the course of a single day.

I don't do this anymore.  In fact, I don't even really change clothes from day to day.  I have one pair of pants, one pair of suspenders, and two shirts.  I have a sweater and a coat for warmth.  Now, instead of pausing in the morning to consider how I will be dressing for the day, I pause to consider the simple fact that I am dressing.  Plain dress has been incredibly simplifying for me--even liberating.

I know this may seem to be the opposite of the kind of mindfulness I find in vegan Lent:  with veganism, I have to think about everything that I eat;  with Plain dress, I don't have to think at all.  But mindfulness is about more than just a dichotomy between thinking and not-thinking.  It's about acute awareness, about being present.

I see in Plain dress the same kind of wholesomeness, simplicity, and honesty that I find in much vegan food.  Dressing and eating with wholesomeness, simplicity, and honesty--not wearing or eating any old thing--allows me to be acutely aware of these acts, stripped of baggage.  Really, it centers me and frees me at the same time.  Now, I am putting things on my body.  They will cover my nakedness and give me warmth.  Now, I am putting things into my body.  They will give me nourishment and life. 

I think of what Jesus said about mindfulness:

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink;  or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air;  they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they?  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?  And why do you worry about clothes?  See how the lilies of the field grow.  They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own."  (Matthew 6:25-34)


Jay said...

Thank you for sharing this, brother. I find your reasons for plain dress very compelling and interesting. I look forward to learning more about your experience of it. How did your family take it, when you first began it?

Stephen Higa said...

Thanks for your question! It looks like The New Plain has many facets for each person, and everyone's experience of it can be so different. God is clearly up to something here, and I guess we'll see what soon enough. Well, my sister and uncle were intrigued and my dad was oblivious ;). I ended up in my mom's classroom (she's a high school English teacher) giving a little talk about Quakerism and plain dress. I had expected to talk to her students about college life, but they wanted to talk about the way I was dressed. They had many questions, and one of them was directed toward her: "how do you feel about your son dressing like this?" She was honest. Frankly, she was a little embarassed by people's stares (which I understand; I hadn't even noticed them, actually). But she said that she was very proud that I had rebelled in such a "wholesome and beautiful" way, while other people often do it in destructive or angry ways. I don't see plain dress as a rebellion (more like a submission), but I think that her students realized that there are ways to express themselves that don't involve the usual stuff the mainstream media and their inner-city environment tries to foist on them.

Also, my mom can't help thinking that it's just a phase I'm going through. :) Who knows?