Clearing the mind beautifully

Clearing the mind beautifully

When I first stopped eating meat (which was back in the mid-1980s), most people in my native US had heard the term “vegetarian.” However, they didn’t necessarily fully grasp the concept – as evidenced by the number of times I was asked if I could just pull the chicken out of the soup or would be okay with fish. Eating at restaurants was often a real challenge, and my meals frequently ended up being a combination of side dishes or the result of some creative deletions. My emergency option was to go to McDonald’s and order a cheeseburger hold the burger (hey, no judgment – I was a teenager!), which definitely led to some interesting interactions. It’s gotten easier for vegetarians in many countries over the years, but now that I’m a vegan I feel like I’m often in the same situation that I was 30+ years ago.

However, along the way a few nice developments have also occurred. The first is that I started being grateful just to have food, period. One of my funniest experiences was a work trip to Siberia, during which the cafeteria at the university where I was staying served me some variation of carrots at every meal. After a week, I was nearly orange – but I was also never hungry (or short on vitamin D, for that matter). Another positive turn is that I’ve started to realize how great it is to not waste brainpower on deciding what to eat. I just order whatever is available to me or select from a handful of options, and that’s that. In fact, I’ve gotten so used to this situation that I find I’m rather overwhelmed when I’m faced with many choices. Instead of reveling in the ability to decide, I start to fret. What exactly is it that I want? What do I really feel like eating? Are there any specialties that I really shouldn’t miss? Hmm, what’s that person over there digging into…?

These days I don’t actually eat out very often; I prefer to prepare my own food for a number of reasons and as a result almost always stay in flats with kitchens. Nonetheless, I do enjoy trying vegan restaurants if I’m in a city that has them. It can be a good way to taste some national dishes and flavors and enjoy some pleasant encounters (having veganism in common certainly doesn’t guarantee that two people will have many other similarities, but vegan-related topics are usually good for at least a bit of small talk). I also like to support vegan establishments as much as I can, simply because I want them to do well and survive. However, ordering paralysis is always a real threat for me, and it can take several minutes of agonizing for me to select what I want (and this from a person who is far from being on the foodie train!).

I was therefore delighted to find my ideal restaurant – in Novi Sad, Serbia, of all places. The somewhat hipster boho décor of the Ananda Vegan Restaurant is quite pleasant, and the staff is both helpful and friendly. The fare is also truly delicious, with a focus on seasonal, fresh ingredients and dishes that I can best describe as fusion Balkan comfort food. But none of that is what made me fall in love with the place. To me, the magic is in the fact that the only question the waiter asks is “With or without soup?” The way it works is simple: the restaurant offers a set daily meal, which generally consists of soup, salad, homemade bread, and a main plate full of whatever the chef’s dreamt up for that day. The soup is included in the price (which is about €4), but not everyone takes it – I assume because the meal is more than filling even without it. The menu for the week is published on Ananda’s Facebook page, for those who wish to check it in advance.

A former supervisor of mine used to love dropping the expression “absence of choice clears the mind beautifully,” which he claimed was an ancient Chinese proverb (like every other wise saying out there, apparently). I later found out that it’s actually a paraphrasing of Henry Kissinger, who noted that “the absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously” (although I must admit that I actually prefer the bastardized – or is it Chinese? – version). Psychologist Barry Schwartz has taken it much deeper with his concept of the “paradox of choice,” which asserts that confronting consumers with too many options actually creates anxiety. According to Sheena Iyengar, an amazing researcher on choice, people in societies that value individualism (such as the US) do find it important to have some options but feel overwhelmed and stressed when faced with choice overload. The problem is compounded by the fact that we make many of our day-to-day decisions based on imperfect information. In other words, there is really no way for me to determine in advance whether ordering the waffle or the lasagna will ultimately make me happier; I can sweat over the matter all I want, but I will be none the wiser.

I think that’s why the set-up at Ananda feels so ideal to me. I know I’m going to get flavorful, nourishing vegan food, generally different from what I’ve had the last time – without having to choose anything (to me, the soup question is a no-brainer; I’ll pretty much always say yes). The pressure of making the “right” decision is thus eliminated, and I’m not in a position to blame myself for choosing poorly or incorrectly if for some reason the meal isn’t up to par. I also get to conserve my cognitive capacity for decisions with results that matter more to me than what I eat for lunch, which is in alignment with my general minimalist and “simple life” philosophies.

To explore this issue a bit further yourself, I recommend that you try pondering your choice parameters the next time you’re at a restaurant. How do the length of the menu and variety of options available make you feel about your ordering decision? How many items would it make you happiest to choose from? If you want to take things a step further, you could try what Barry Dolan suggests in his book Happiness by Design, which is to let someone else choose for you (after clarifying any specific guidelines, of course). Personally I’d suggest not even looking at the menu, as well as assuring your dining partner that you won’t hold him or her accountable for your meal or satisfaction level (after all, no friendship is worth risking over a bad taco). If you like to gamify things, you could also let something random like a roll of the dice decide, à la the main character in the cult classic novel The Dice Man (which George Cockcraft, AKA Luke Rhinehart, wrote based on dice experiments he undertook during his psychology studies).

You may discover that you really do prefer to luxuriate in seemingly endless possibilities. However, you may also find that the absence of options does clear your mind beautifully – or at least pleasingly. If the latter, you might find it helpful to try exposing yourself to fewer options in other consumer situations as well. For example, you could start shopping at a smaller grocery store with a more limited range of options (in relation not only to brands but also to flavor, size, and so forth). Having fewer choices might seem limiting at first, especially if you come from an individualistic, consumer-driven country such as the US – but you just might find that the time, energy, and stress that you save are an effective counterbalance. In other words, you may discover that when it comes to making decisions, less is indeed sometimes more.

(@Budva, Montenegro)

Reading suggestions:

  • Paul Dolan’s Happiness by Design (2014)
  • Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing (2010)
  • Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man (1971)
  • Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice (2004)

7 thoughts on “Clearing the mind beautifully

    1. Thanks so much, dear Joyce! I’m glad that you enjoyed it and hope that you are keeping well in your new digs. 🙂

    1. Thanks heaps for the lovely feedback, my friend! I hope that our paths are going to cross again soon, on one continent or another — it would be great to get caught up again! In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying your own adventures. 🙂

  1. Reading this reminds me of those restaurants with long, long menus which make choosing your meal nearly impossible. Simple meals make life so much easier, but then they don’t always allow for family preferences.

    How well I recall one day when you were home, and we were shopping. Suddenly you turned and went back to the car, “Too many choices. I can’t stand it.”

    I plan to read at least a couple of the recommended books. Thanks for the suggestions! And thank you for this excellent essay.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Betsy — I’m really glad that you enjoyed the post! I agree that a longer menu can make it easier for people with diverse tastes and parameters to eat together…perhaps that’s one of the reasons why so many restaurants in the US tend to favor them. They do do my head in, though! I look forward to more talks on these issues soon. 🙂 xo P.S. I remember that day in the store oh so well…

  2. Thanks for sharing that, Bill! I agree that putting yourself into the chef’s hands is generally a great strategy for many reasons…and I think you’re lucky to live in a country where it’s not too difficult to do. ¡Viva la España! Hugs to you and Ms. C. 🙂

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