The Aware Egg

Can a hard-boiled egg be a source of insight? Journalist Ira Rifkin reveals the yolk of his thought process vis-a-vis some especially difficult-to-peel shells.

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I recently attended a three-day whisper-only meditation retreat (billed as silent, of course, but you know how these things trend) at a well-known East Coast center. The teachers were superb, the setting appropriately bucolic, the granite retreat building evocatively imposing. The food was also pitch perfect, striking just the right balance between austere sustainability and trendy TriBeCa lacto-ovo vegetarian.

The only discordant note (setting aside, for the moment, my mind) was the hard-boiled eggs. Served each morning, they appeared antagonistic toward the peeling process, perhaps in opposition to having had their incubation aborted. The problem was the membranes. They stuck to the white rather than separating with the shell, making the eggs hard to peel.

I normally eat hard-boiled eggs several times a week (despite my cholesterol count) and consider myself sufficiently skilled at peeling. My technique begins with tapping the egg on the table or other handy hard surface and then rolling the egg between my palms to fully shatter the shell, which generally results in an easy peel.

That didn’t work with my first retreat egg. True to form, I immediately experienced annoyance. Perhaps a third of the white—the egg’s most nutritious part—remained attached to the shell, making it tedious to eat. The same failure occurred with my second egg that breakfast.

I looked around and noticed that virtually everyone else near me eating eggs appeared to be having similar problems. Nor did it seem to matter how they approached the process. Some rolled their eggs between their palms as I did. Others started chipping away at the small end, hoping to undress their egg fragment by fragment until the fullness of its ivory nakedness lay bare. It didn’t matter. No one seemed successful. I wondered if they also were annoyed.  

The point of social silence during retreat meals is to eat with heightened mindfulness. Pay attention to each morsel. Pay attention to your teeth chewing. Pay attention to the food sliding down your throat, to the digestive process, to the smells and textures, the cessation of hunger. Pay attention to the sound of clinking silverware, the dining hall temperature, the presence of those around you; to the awareness that in the moment this experience is all there is.

And, in particular, how the mind continually seeks to shape the experience to align with memory and fantasy.

Keeping with my mind’s default posture, I conjured up the possibility of this all being the kitchen’s fault. A memory of having read that fresh eggs peel easiest came to mind and I wondered—how easily my fantasies metastasize!—whether we were being served old, perhaps even marginally stale, eggs as a blow against the mindless wastefulness so prevalent in our society or perhaps just as a cost-cutting measure during this difficult economic stretch. Could a retreat center rooted in mindfulness act so mindlessly? No one’s perfect, I graciously conceded.

The next morning brought a similar encounter, which served to firmly and consciously incorporate the eggs into my retreat learning experience. My wandering mind concocted another fantasy: Might the center purposely have served hard-to-peel eggs as a practice aid? Eggs as hands-on dharma talks? An echo of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching about a string bean or an orange or a carrot representing the interconnectedness of all phenomena? Probably not, but wouldn’t that make for a nice touch, I thought. 

None of my ramblings made the peeling any easier, of course, but it did give my hyper-active mind a quasi-meditative focus that put a self-satisfied aha! smile on my face. This small annoyance became a benign stand in for the much bigger annoyances in my life that were far more consequential and difficult to handle skillfully. How much easier to process my reaction to hard-boiled eggs than to cope with aging, relationship, money and parenting challenges.

Blessed are the baby step insights.

At the retreat’s end I asked friends who attended with me about their breakfast egg experiences. All reported similar problems. I also asked one of my teachers, a frequent visitor to this center. Yes, she said, she had noticed that the eggs here were always difficult to peel. But she had no idea, or real curiosity, as to why that was the case.

Next I took my now nascent obsession to the kitchen staff. The two women I approached were aware of the situation. The reason for it, they explained, was that the eggs were super fresh and the fresher the egg the harder—not easier—it is to peel. It seems that as eggs age their membranes loose their elasticity, thereby detaching them from the white and allowing for an easier peel. (The eggs we generally purchase in markets are only relatively fresh; shipping them from farm to consumer is enough time for the detaching process to take hold.) Moreover, because the center serves so many eggs it has to cook them in large batches and keep them refrigerated until they are served. That contributes to the peeling problem because cold eggs are more difficult to peel than room temperature or slightly warm eggs.

So much for my retreat diversionary tactic. The incredible edible egg—an alliteration perfected by some nameless Mad Man—appears not only to be a wonderful protein source but a pretty fair koan as well.

But wouldn’t you know it? My fantasies about peeling hardboiled eggs were just that—illusions of the mind at odds with the reality of the chemistry of hard-boiled eggs. Which in a nutshell—or, if you’ll indulge me, eggshell—is why I attend retreats.  

Ira Rifkin is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval (SkyLight Paths).