Essay Mindfulness

Breakfast Table Revelation

In the year following my mom’s death there were times I was flooded by panic and the image of a child inside me screaming, “I’m an orphan! How will I survive?” My dad had died when I was eight so I was an orphan but I was thirty-three years-old and my brain thought it was absurd. Trying to rationalize my way through the attacks, however, could not soothe me when my chest filled with fire and my heart threatened to beat its way through my sternum. When these attacks came all I could do was to lay low and wait it out.

This changed one day while I stood in line for breakfast at Plum Village, the monastery founded by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. The sun’s first rays poked through the dining hall, tinting the sky cream, peach, and periwinkle.

Photo courtesy Plum Village in France

I let the beauty of the morning fill me and then made my way to the serving table. Picking up a clear, glass bowl I bowed my head and silently recited, “In this bowl I see how fortunate I am to have food to eat in order to practice.”  At the time I was an Aspirant, preparing to ordain as a Buddhist nun. Part of my training involved gatha practicepausing to silently recite short verses, usually accompanied by a bow, while doing simple activities like cutting vegetables, washing dishes, or driving a car and there were six gathas for mealtime alone.

When I arrived at the steaming pot of porridge I bowed my head again and silently recited the next gatha, “In this food, I see the entire universe supporting my existence.” Before I could reach for the long-handled, metal spoon a jolt ran through my body.

My mind flashed to see the entire universe, stars and planets, gases and black holes, all inside of me.  The atoms in my food, the air that I breathed, and the ground beneath me were part of me, and my parents too were part of me too. They hadn’t gone anywhere.

The vision lasted only a few seconds but it left me dizzy and I held the table to steady myself.  Glancing around, the dining hall still looked the same but it felt new. I felt new. The shine of the serving spoon amazed me as I scooped my oatmeal. I added raisins, sunflower seeds, and sliced apples that dazzled like gemstones. “What just happened?” I wondered.

I made my way to a table and sat down, pausing to recite the next gatha, “This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, many living beings, and much hard and loving work…” The words never felt so real before. I chewed each mouthful slowly to receive the gift fully. The experience only lasted a few minutes but afterwards my grief diminished dramatically and the screaming orphan never returned.


A few months after the breakfast revelation, I was ordained and the gathas followed me into my new life. The bowing became my mirror, reflecting whatever heart quality I offered to the world right back to me.  If I tried to avoid feeling sad or angry, then the bowing made me more saddened or angered. If I felt prideful, then the bowing made me feel even more arrogant. It showed me the parts of myself I preferred to ignore yet even fake bowing was a gift because there was no way to free my heart when I didn’t know that it was trapped.

I only experienced that one, blinding flash of the cosmos but over the years the gatha pauses naturally filled with awe, then gratitude, and then reverence. They didn’t require me to fake anything, just to be honest with myself. The practice became an ongoing recognition of the reciprocity animating life itself. Reverence relieved me of the burden of self-preoccupation and taught me instead to look for the good wherever it could be found, a necessary counterbalance to the brain’s ingrained negativity bias.

I needed the training because I didn’t learn it growing up. Raised in a white, mainline Protestant family in Canada, my only training in gratitude was saying grace before dinner. Any culture of reverence and reciprocity that my ancestors may have known was wiped by the colonial project of Canada where my French and Scottish ancestors gave up their languages and cultures to become “white,” and their payoff was a house in the suburbs on stolen land. The comfort of my middle-class childhood and the disconnect from my history made it easy to take all that I had for granted, often feeling deprived even when I had plenty.

Reverence was a revolution for me. There was always something to greet with appreciation, whether I joined my palms together or not. I could thank the ground I stood on and the air that I breathed. It didn’t matter if I believed these things were given by a creator, were the product of evolution, or both. Feeling the sense of reverence in my body was what mattered most, for in that state there was no space for greed, hatred, or confusion to arise. I lacked nothing and my heart was at ease.


I haven’t shared the story of the breakfast table revelation before. I imagine that some readers have had similar experiences, while others may find it sounds too “woo-woo” to be taken seriously. It’s even a little too “woo-woo” for me but I’ve learned that distrust for the woo-woo-ness of life is part of what blocks us from what matters most – awe, gratitude, and reverence. And I know, reverence isn’t a hip word.  It’s too religious, too meek for a selfie world. At least gratitude has some flash to it. You can buy a gratitude journal or go on a gratitude retreat.

Yet reverence goes further, reminding us that we’re humble as the dirt and noble as the stars, all at once. It just requires an acknowledgment that everything, in some way, is received, and that we are not in charge of anything here.

It’s no surprise that that reverence hasn’t gone mainstream. Most people search for security and happiness in material objects and social status because our nervous systems only wants us to survive and pass down our genes. Happiness is not the goal of our biology. Then there is the advertising industry, mass media, social pressure, and even good-intentioned career counsellors who have guided generations of people to look for happiness in all the wrong places. But once the basic needs for food, shelter, education, and health care are met, more income does not produce more happiness. This is why the saints and sages of all the ages agree that true happiness cannot be found in the material world. For that matter, true wealth isn’t even found there. Though today the word “wealth” refers to an abundance of possessions, money, or resources, it comes from the Middle English word wele, as in “well-being.”

Though most of us in modern, industrialized societies were trained to ignore our interdependence, or interbeing, this mindset is one of denial that too easily leaves people numbed by entitlement or exhausted by exploitation. A life of reverence, on the other hand, can energize us to act in the world with compassion. Knowing that we are part of the living earth we can respond to the distress of climate change and the oppression of our kin, just as one hand comforts another when it’s injured – naturally.


After six years I left the monastery to pursue monastic life in the world.  Some of the monastic form has dropped away but gatha practice remains my constant companion. Before editing this article one last time, I paused to have some tea. I took a distracted sip and by the time I swallowed it I noticed that something was off. Then I remembered – I hadn’t bowed. Taking the tea without offering gratitude left me feeling diminished so I paused, held the cup with both hands, and lowered my head to get in touch with an inner sense of reverence. My body relaxed as my mind brightened, taking a whole six seconds. When I finished my tea I returned to the computer with a little more energy and a lot more joy.

Breakfast table revelations are rare but little moments like these happen all the time now. Even the breath I take as I write this last sentence and the breath you take as you read this – they are gifts too, just waiting to be recognized. It doesn’t matter which object receives our attention. Reverence is what matters most.

About Hai-An (Sister Ocean)

Hai-An (Sister Ocean) is a Buddhist monastic based in Toronto, Ontario.  She received her ordination from Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village Monastery in France and is now a member of Dharma Pathways.

Read more