“To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint,
all things are friendly and sacred,
all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
It has lately occurred to me that food, and one’s approach to food, even the enjoyment of it, would be greatly enhanced by looking at the whole affair from a sacred, spiritual standpoint. It’s hardly a new idea. Religions the world over have historically had rituals regarding the consumption of food. From the Holy Communion of Catholicism to the Kosher Laws of Judaism to the spiritual fasting observed by many religions, food and the consumption of food have played a pivotal role in the development of the soul.
I have struggled with food my whole life. I’ve either seriously dieted and lived in grumpy privation, or I’ve emotionally eaten and found myself in food stupors, blocking out some deep pain body, or I’ve thrown hands up, not cared, and gotten real depraved with it. Actually “not cared” isn’t exactly accurate. I’ve always cared, always been preoccupied, always been obsessed, always felt the pressure from society, boyfriends, even colleagues (because I happen to be in a business where what I look like matters greatly), to look a certain way and to maintain that, in no uncertain terms. I was pretty successful at maintaining a look and a weight for most of my adult life, but not without the help of a lot of compulsive behaviors. When menopause hit and I gained nearly 50 pounds, and then kept that on for the better part of the last ten years, making the new weight my body’s new set point, efforts to get back to where I’d mainly been my whole life were proving insurmountable, and really only succeeded in enhancing what was already a fairly dysfunctional relationship with food. I’ve never starved myself, or binged/purged; my issues surrounding food have been a lot subtler than that, making the whole panorama of eating and body dysmorphic issues much more complex and nuanced than popular media ever gives us to understand.
That’s my eating background, in a brief nutshell. Nothing devastating, just the nuanced struggles of a middle-class American girl pressured by a quintessentially middle-class American pastime – dieting. And so now to this recent dawning. I’ve been on a spiritual road for some time now, some of it documented on this blog, some of it hinted at in the various memoir I’ve put out there, some of it, as well, remaining deeply private, and all in the service of bettering who I am, healing what has ailed me, and coming closer to the divine and to an internal peace in the realm of higher consciousness. I made a recent decision to start approaching the ritual of eating from a sacred standpoint. So now, what exactly does that mean?
To begin with, the world is filled with far too many people who are without food, who would give their right arm for a bowl of porridge, and would consider that bowl sacred, because it is so rare. How can I possibly continue to live in this life where I have never once had to go without, and not value the privilege that I have been given? And so, a new commitment is beginning for me. It is my effort to heal what is sore between food and me.
I want to rise above my animal self, the hungers, the desires, that root chakra governance that is primal and is all about brute survival by any means, and instead appeal to that higher seventh chakra state of grace that is beyond the limited senses. I wonder if that isn’t what’s behind the spiritual practice of fasting. The idea of denying those base urges in us, in order to push through a veil to experience what’s on the other side. When we’re stripped of our animal nature, what’s left? What are we? What are we capable of? What are our limitations? Our possibilities? Fasting is not an easy thing to do, and this essay isn’t about that, but I think we can make that same journey by deeming the act of feeding ourselves a sacred one, like baptism or the Eucharist. It’s a wacky thought perhaps; this largely social covenant (think of the countless meals portrayed on Sex and the City) reduced to a stodgy sacramental rite. Yuck, you may be thinking. “Taking the joy right out of eating, Angela . . . gee thanks!” Well, maybe. Bear with me for a minute. Because for me, the way things have been for awhile now is that there are far more meals I consume than the number of them that I actually enjoy and have a wonderfully epicurean experience with. I am moved by this idea that the experience can be so much more, and consistently so, and at the same time achieve a transcendence in consciousness. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. And, for better or for worse, I am moved by it just as compellingly as it is also my belief that this will be incredibly difficult for me to adopt. But I’m giving it a go. Have already begun so, in fact. And I’ll let you know how it works out. Here’s the basic game plan.
- Blessing each meal. It’s such an old-fashioned notion. My childhood always involved grace at the dinner table, usually done by my father, or my grandfather if the meal included extended family. But once adulthood hit, I sort of never really thought about it again except for those occasions of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with the family, where it’s a ritual that’s still employed. My brother Mike is usually the designated grace-giver, because he is the one person who never gave up the practice. Privately from me was always a reaction of, “isn’t this charming?” And yes, I admit, there has been a bit of condescension, as well as actually being charmed, in the thought. But at a recent family gathering, I found myself reacting very differently for the first time to my brother’s bowed head and earnest mutterings. The word charming never entered my head. Powerful, meaningful . . . these were the words that hit me this time, and I couldn’t possibly tell you why, so out of the blue, but it actually re-purposed the experience of eating the meal that was in front of me. Gratitude is the theme with this one. Many in the world go without. So, because I have never had to, the need to give thanks for the bountiful straw that I drew in this life suddenly became compelling. I talked about this very briefly a couple of articles back. I just need to be truly thankful every day, and putting that practice in a ritual form is the surest way to keep me always in grace (pun most definitely intended). When every meal becomes meaningful and cherished, it makes just grabbing a handful because you’re passing by the bowl, or grazing mindlessly and finishing the whole bag out of boredom or restlessness, increasingly meaning-LESS, even, dare I say it, disrespectful in the face of those for whom a meal is a rare, momentous, and lifesaving gift.
- Preparing as many of my meals as possible with my own two hands. There will be times when I go out with friends, and we commune over lunch or dinner. That is a ritual to cherish, for certain. There will be times when I’ve been invited to someone’s house for dinner. There are certainly times every week when I’m on a job, and I need to eat. But other than those examples, gone largely now is the choice to grab take-out when there’s only me, when the option to prepare my food at home instead exists. I’ll almost always choose the cooking. And I am choosing to cook and prepare my meals from a Zen perspective. Meaning to notice and appreciate every move, every moment, every flick of the wrist in mixing ingredients, every whisk, every rinse, every dice, every spice. Even the selection of ingredients, which means I am having to adopt a more mindful approach to grocery shopping.
- Shopping local and organic (or growing my own!). I don’t presently have a living situation where I can grow my own, other than to try my damnedest to keep my apartment windowsill pots of mint and basil alive. But if the means exists, I can’t think of a more perfect way to cultivate a sense of the sacred than nurturing one’s food from seed, bulb, or stalk, to fruition with one’s own hands? I know more and more people who are growing or raising their own, and the practice has changed their lives. For me, for now, the very least I can do is make the commitment to finding stores in my neighborhood that promote and support local farmers, so that what goes in my body is clean, and is no longer supporting the corporate machinery of factory food production, which is dubious at best. I’ve been nutrition-conscious for many years, actually. I’ve read every health guru from Andrew Weil to Gary Null, and have largely tried to live by whole food tenets (while, of course, veering recklessly enough whenever the emotional components to my eating would kick in). But this experiment marks the first time I’ve actually sought to minimize my participation in Food Incorporated, and support local and organic. This also means that if I have to go into a mainstream grocery market, I choose to shop on the end aisles where all the unprocessed, unrefined, LIVE foods reside. Everything in the middle aisles is boxed, canned, packaged, processed, and prefabbed, usually with far more than just the food itself inside, making it a very iffy proposition from a health standpoint. Our bodies deserve better.
- Listening to my body. But also listening to my urges. Urges and cravings exist to compensate for something that is missing. It might be a nutritional lack. More often than not, it’s an emotional one. That’s the time to slow down, examine the urge, not judge it (also a challenge for me), and respond to it in a way that only supports the sacred nature of this experiment. If the answer I get from my soul is that I need to be addressing something, or letting go of something, then I need to do my best to go about that task, instead of burying it with nullifying food. Because here’s the thing: Food can be our greatest enemy OR our greatest ally; the trick is in determining exactly what our relationship with it is going to be. Abusive or cherishing.
- Being done with “diets.” And punishment. And needing to answer everyone else’s call about how I’m supposed to look, with none of those pressures any more obnoxious than my own impatient, unforgiving self-demands. Instead, allow my eating in a mindful and sacred way to do the job of transforming my brain, my heart, and the rest of my body into a precious, godly vessel.
- Eating without distraction. And instead, putting my focus on the ritual itself. Appreciating every bite, every swallow; once again, the Zen approach. As opposed to stuffing my mouth mindlessly while watching a movie, or checking email, or grabbing food on the hurried go, and juggling a jaw full of food and a steering wheel at the same time, and not even paying attention to my eventual fullness, or to the taste experience. That one is hard for me. I have such a restless, antsy brain that JUST sitting and eating, and doing nothing else except enjoying the sensory experience of a delicious meal goes completely against my life’s experience. I’ve always eaten while multi-tasking, if I’m eating alone. Doing nothing except eating my meal is essentially a meditation. And while I’ve been an ardent meditator for many years, this idea is easily the most radical of them all for me. And therefore the one I am most determined to accomplish.
I am a firm believer in food as medicine. Food can change our brains and our health, because it contains information that talks to our genes. It’s serious stuff. So, why have I lived my entire life regarding it sloppily and cavalierly at best? That’s the question I’m trying to answer even as I write this, and as I venture forward in this experiment with a new appreciation for every meal I’m blessed to partake in.
The first night that I tried shutting off the TV and the computer, and putting my phone away, and just cooking a meal . . . and then setting my table . . . and then putting on some music (actually the music was playing during the cooking . . . very peaceful evening this was), and then sitting down and eating my meal, it was a transplendent experience. I was truly in the moment. I blessed the food I was about to cook, and then I blessed it again as I sat down to eat. I took my time. I didn’t go back for seconds, because I didn’t need to. I’m accustomed to going back for seconds. Usually because I’ve shoveled my food into the trough so fast, while watching some fast-paced movie or something equally agitating online, and so the rhythm of my external stimuli would be matched and mimicked by the fork-to-mouth action, and simply wouldn’t stop. Plus I’m a musician for my living; having a 15-minute break on a gig that’s designated for the meal they offer you has borne some very gastrically-abusing habits among my musician cohorts. I learned to be a fast eater, and then the habit stuck even beyond being on a gig. This first night in this new experiment, I ate slowly. I thoroughly enjoyed the taste sensations. I relished in the art of food pairing. And I let the world and the evening go by, as I luxuriated (yes, I can actually claim luxuriating) in the experience of my dinner. I also realize that not nearly every night, nor every meal, will be that magical. There will be the occasions when my mood is terse, perhaps my day has been a challenge, and I won’t feel like cooking, or I won’t feel like gracing, and all I’ll want to do is mainline the drug that food can be with the wrong infusion, into the gullet, and numb out. But I figure, it’s a one-day-at-a-time kind of thing, like AA. Like any program that attempts to repair something that is out of spiritual alignment. It’s a mountain. And I’ll need to be prepared to climb it daily.
During the formulating of this idea, and writing about it, I’ve had to ask myself (if my creed here is truly vigilant honesty, and that’s been my claim) if all of this isn’t just a new scheme, of the gaggle of them that I’ve tried, toward trying to lose weight. And while I can’t say that isn’t a factor, the truth is I am looking for something deeper. I’m in this whole thing for a spiritual revolution. An uprising from my innards, pulling at every thread in my sight lines and my insight lines, that will help to weave me right into the tapestry of interconnected consciousness and the frequency of infinite realms and possibilities. I know, I know, I’ve gone off the reservation a bit with the flower-child rhetoric. But I assure you it isn’t without focus or substance. And it’s already happening, this personal revolution, unfolding layer by layer by layer, a tiny bit each day.
I heard an anecdote recently about some Buddhist monks who, in an effort to protect their sacred Buddha monument from Burmese soldiers, covered their beloved statue in mud, knowing that the soldiers would find no material value in a statue made of clay, when what was hiding beneath its clay cloak was a monument made of gold. And the story was told in the context of the very fitting metaphor for this idea that our true value can often be hidden beneath layers of mud, or, in our contemporary parlance, baggage. And what that parable is meant to suggest is that the spiritual journey is really more about subtraction than addition. We are already complete beneath our wounds and our fears, and through the process of shedding layer after layer to reveal our sovereign splendor, we become lighter and lighter, freer and freer.
This new eating thing? It’s just a layer.
“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food.” – Hippocrates
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.