Peeling back the layers
Eating a tangerine very slowly is a prompt that I've developed and used in a range of classrooms over the past two years—one that allows us to examine our patterns of interacting with, listening to, and directing the world around us. It is inspired by a writing by the Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hanh: “I remember a number of years ago, when Jim and I were first traveling together in the United States, we sat under a tree and shared a tangerine. He began to talk about what we would be doing in the future. Whenever we thought about a project that seemed attractive or inspiring, Jim became so immersed in it that he literally forgot about what he was doing in the present. He popped a section of tangerine into his mouth and, before he had begun chewing it, had another slice ready to pop into his mouth again. He was hardly aware he was eating a tangerine. All I had to say was, ‘You ought to eat the tangerine section you've already taken.’ Jim was startled into realizing what he was doing. It was as if he hadn't been eating the tangerine at all. If he had been eating anything, he was ‘eating’
his future plans. A tangerine has sections. If you can eat just one section, you can probably eat the entire tangerine. But if you can't eat a single section, you cannot eat the tangerine. Jim understood. He slowly put his hand down and focused on the presence of the slice already in his mouth. He chewed it thoughtfully before reaching down and taking another section.” 1 What Thich Naht Hanh is trying to tell us is that unless we can be more present to the simple things, like eating a tangerine, we can not be present to the more persistent conditions in our lives—or I would add, to our practice as designers. If we aren’t willing to look closely at each section, or to the particulars of our practice, we will inevitably miss the whole. Eating a tangerine very slowly turns out to be a revelatory activity—one that grounds people in questions of discourse, power, listening and mindfulness. After fifteen minutes of quiet meditation, and two simple questions—What did you notice about a tangerine that you've never noticed before? What was it like to eat a tangerine very slowly in this collective space?—we’re deep into conversation. Documenting the remnants of these sessions is like reading tea leaves. Each leaves a trace—a reflection of, or prediction on, our practice as designers. Sit. Pick up a tangerine. Hold it in your hands. See what there is to see—to hear, to taste, to feel. Take your time. Notice something you’ve never noticed before. Listen—to your own thoughts and wanderings and to the other people in the room who are doing the same as you. Describe this space you’ve created together. 1 Nhãt Hanh, Thích. 1987. The miracle of mindfullness: A manual on meditation. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press.