“When you eat your breakfast, even if it’s just a small bite early in the morning, eat in such a way that freedom is possible. You can chew every morsel of your breakfast in mindfulness, with joy and freedom. While eating, don’t think about what you have to do next or all the things you have to do that day… Your breakfast is there for you; you have to be there for your breakfast.”
A couple of years ago, desperate for a sense of balance, I read Zen priest Thich Nhất Hạnh’s book Work: How to find joy and meaning in each hour of the day. This passage about breakfast lodged in my memory. Sure, I always eat breakfast. It’s what we are supposed to do, and it’s an especially good idea if you plan on working through lunch and other breaks, but I was never there for my breakfast.
Most days, I would zoom into work before daybreak and eat breakfast out of a plastic container in a gloomy, empty staffroom while reviewing my to-do list for the day. Why bother eating out of a bowl at home? Much better to beat the traffic and get to work as early as possible. I would routinely work 10-hour days, get home, get dinner on the table fast, eat it fast, get my breakfast and lunch ready for the next day, and get to sleep. Sunday to Friday, it sometimes seemed that every waking moment was spent at work, preparing for work or commuting to and from work.
I kept going like this because it was normal in my workplace. I remember smugly informing my colleague that her lifestyle was unsustainable because she worked on her laptop in bed and didn’t even take a break on Saturdays. When I moved to a new school and was advised not to knock myself out preparing resources, I was amazed. I’d become used to the idea that if you weren’t knocking yourself out, you were lazy.
So much has changed, especially over this past year, as I’ve been writing my way back from burnout. I don’t have the laser-like, mindful focus of a Zen priest but, yes, I would say that I am generally there for my breakfast. I appreciate sitting in my own home, at my table, eating slowly out of a pretty blue and white bowl, using a spoon from a cutlery set gifted to my parents for their wedding 50 years ago. I appreciate a steaming bowl of porridge, especially if I’ve just been for a run. This means I leave the house later and occasionally get stuck in traffic. As far as I can tell, this has not had an adverse impact on my students’ learning. If anything, I am a more effective teacher because I am more relaxed and more engaged. I notice my ideas are better and I work more efficiently because my mind feels refreshed. And while I can’t exactly say I have found ‘joy and meaning in each hour of the day’, I no longer feel that almost every waking hour is devoted to work.