Sunday, September 06, 2009

food and joy

So, I'll declare my prejudice up front. I mistrust people who don't enjoy food. I just mean that there is something about people who are closed down around the issue of food that makes me nervous.

To amuse myself, I thought back to some of the people I have met lately and how they are about food and I thought, yes. How they are about food reveals a lot about who they are. So here I go; I'm about to reveal a great deal about who I am as well!

Among the various ways people are about food, the rules or excuses they have for the way they eat, the most horrifying I encountered most recently was someone who wanted to lose weight. To "get that full feeling", this person consumed gross volumes of some sort of Asian sea-weed noodle which purported to do nothing: no calories, no nutrition, not even any taste.

I can't imagine a more empty way of eating. Where is the soul? Where is the sizzle? Where is the lusciousness? Where is the zen? Where is the love?

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra describes an eight-limbed yogic path to enlightenment, (or ashtanga yoga), which suggests a program of ethical restraints or abstentions (yamas), lifestyle observances (niyamas), postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and absorption into the Divine (samadhi).

The first and second limbs contain the 10 ethical precepts, or core values, of a yoga practice from which the postures flow and deepen, but may just as easily be adopted as the ethical and philosophical basis of a more joyful and healthy way of relating to food, and ultimately, life.

Rather than a set of do's and dont's, it is helpful to think of the yamas and niyamas as invitations to act in ways that promote inner and outer peace, making space for harmony and balance. By living with lovingkindness in harmony within yourself and in relationship to your environment and to others, consciousness and joy naturally arise.

Ahimsa: Non-harming/Non-violence

Non-violence is the opportunity to relinquish hostility and irritability, and instead make space within your consciousness for peace.

Though our modern lives are full of comfort, we have gradually become distant from, even suspicious of, our natural environment. Living in homes with heaters and air conditioners has isolated us from the changes in the four seasons. We are often separated by many thousands of miles from the sources of our food.

We are confused daily by contradictory scientific opinions as to what is good for us or not. And we are assaulted constantly by a food-industry that is more interested in creating a desire for manufactured foods for profit, not in providing nourishing foods that our bodies need.

We often despise our hunger and have developed a love/hate relationship to food. We are full of mistrust, misgivings, guilt and fear, even while we crave nourishment for our bodies and senses, and a connection to the natural world that sustains us.

I've seen people refuse to enjoy perfectly nutritious food because it falls into a "condemned" food group. I've seen people starve themselves before a big event so they can "pig out" on the big day. I've seen people eat only certain foods day after day, not out of enjoyment, but because of a belief that this diet is "good for them". I've seen people eat exactly what they like and how they like it, even though they "know" this diet ends up making them feel awful.

Just how many ways can we invent to be harsh with ourselves, to be violent towards ourselves?

Satya: Truthfulness

It is believed that if one is fully vested in satya, everything you say will come to be realized. If that is true, it is terrible to have that negative relationship to food which would result in all the dire consequences of those beliefs coming true: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, skin blemishes, fragile bones, early senility, an untimely death, etc., etc.

However, satya is usually interpreted as "the Truth which equals love," a concept of truth which is not merely a synonym of fact or correctness, but is more metaphysical. With the integrity and humility to realize that the truth may be bigger than you, bigger even than the smartest scientists, you might be able to relax and let go of so many of the negative beliefs we have around food. It might help to realize that scientists are just asking the questions, making observations. There will always be more questions than answers.

Why not ask more questions? Experiment. See how food really makes you feel. Be open to discovering the truth about yourself and about food. Maybe you are something bigger than all those facts you believe about you and food.

Asteya: Non-stealing

Most people don't stop to consider all the different levels of energy involved in all they are consuming.

They look for cheap food, fast, without considering what it costs the farmer, the community, or the environment, to produce it and bring it to market. And they don't appreciate the people who prepare their food and serve it.

Our way of being in this world affects others. Ways that we can be obstructions to the enjoyment others have in life are by being judgmental, harsh, unkind, rude, stingy, selfish and greedy. How many ways do these traits express themselves around food?

Brahmacharya: Celibacy/restraint

Often interpreted to mean celibacy, brahmacharya is more about preventing the dissipation of one's energy through the misuse of the senses. It is more broadly interpreted to mean restraint, moderation and acting responsibly.

Not being aware of how emotions affect your appetite can get you in trouble so easily. Eating to fill the gap, whether emotional or physical, robs you of the opportunity to notice, to be present and enjoy all the other sensations of eating. Being aware, you enjoy the tastes, feel when you are full, and notice how different foods affect you.

Eating shouldn't be a chore. It shouldn't be an exercise in self-flaggellation. It needn't be a stressed-out measuring of portions and counting of calories. It doesn't need to be an obsessive adherence to a regimen. Simply being present and observing yourself, you notice tastes and sensations. You find certain foods are not only wonderful but leave you feeling truly nourished. You find other foods make you feel not so good, not so likely to want to repeat the experience.

Notice how the situation doesn't need your stress to resolve itself. And by not giving so much energy to food moments, you are more at ease and happier in relation to food, and appreciative of its place in relationship to the rest of your life.

Aparigraha: Non-grasping/non-hoarding

Just let it go.

If our homes are filled with old junk that isn't useful to us anymore, there's no room for new things to come in. That holds true for the nonmaterial ideas and attitudes you cling to as well. If you are hanging on to old beliefs about yourself or your relationship to food, or clinging to a diet that no longer nourishes and satisfies you, you are not open to new ways of eating and relating to food.

Even when you are happy and feel good with your diet, change brings new energy and revitalizes you. Being stuck in even a good rut is still a rut. You start to get attached to it and identify with it. It's easy to start thinking you are your healthy diet. But the truth is that nothing lasts forever. Beliefs and scientific findings come and go. Trends and fashions change. Food goes in and food goes out. Duh!

If your tendency to be grasping and hold on stems from a feeling of lack, the best way to let that go is to be present, recognize and acknowledge abundance, and practice gratitude.

Saucha: purity/cleanliness

You want to keep your thoughts uncluttered so you can feel free from afflictive emotions; you keep your body and environment in order, to create a sense of calm.

The physical practice of yoga deepens your awareness of your body, so you become more conscious of foods that bring you a consistent sense of well-being and those that make you feel bad after you eat them. Over time, you find you are in a more comfortable and relaxed relationship with food.

And look more deeply at what the body is: The more you clean it, the more you realize that it is an impermanent, decaying thing. Saucha helps break up excessive fixation with your body, or the bodies of others.

Santosha: Contentment

Contentment is really about accepting life as it is. It's not about creating perfection. Life will throw whatever it wants at you. Plan all you want: you ultimately have little control.

Be welcoming of what you get; remember to find joy in the experience. There are probably more ways people survive on strange foods than you had ever thought possible or healthy. Practice enlightened hedonism: eating satisfying food in smaller portions, without demonizing any food or food group. With a more sensitive palate, you don't have to eat as much, especially when you take the time to notice the most intense sensory pleasures of food.

Tapas: Right Effort

Tapas is translated as "self-discipline," "effort," or "internal fire". The Yoga Sutra suggests that tapas in action generates heat that will both burn away impurities and kindle the sparks of divinity within.

One goal of tapas is to stop anything you do mindlessly because you've become habituated. When you use your will to overcome your conditioning, you free yourself from the many unconscious actions that cause suffering. By eating consciously when you are truly hungry, by noticing what you are eating and how it tastes, how it makes you feel, and how it nourishes your body, you become more aware of what you do around food that either ultimately makes food an enjoyable part of life or not.

Svadhyaya: Self-Study

When you practice self-observation, you begin to uncover and address the unconscious patterns governing your life. When you can notice, but not judge, what you are doing and how you are feeling in every moment, you open a little space in your life for empathy towards yourself. That empathy also extends automatically to others.

As you notice your secrets and habits with kindness, you also notice that many others do the same things. In realizing the commonality we share in being human, forgiveness is so much easier. How divine!

Ishvara pranidhana: Dedication to the highest

We emphasize devotion and service, making an artistic offering to the greater good, and act with the intention of bringing more beauty and love into the world. Always pause to look for the higher essence in any situation.

We are not satisfied with slapping a meal on the table, something from the drive-through grabbed on the run, a meal eaten mechanically. There is something about eating food from a beautiful bowl, looking at a bunch of flowers in a vase on the table, the feel of a fine linen napkin.

Yoga represents one path toward enlightenment, wherein we give up our need for certainty and acknowledge the essential mystery of our lives.

Food is one of the greatest ways we have of embracing a bit of this mystery. It is a very "witchy" thing to grow food by planting a seed in the ground. The more we tamper with that process, the more of its essential nutritive values we rob from our food. There is hardly a nutrionist who can fault the simplest diet that is closest to its natural source, unprocessed and unrefined.

In Japanese Zen Buddhism, Shojin cooking emphasises this awareness of our connection to nature and the seasons. "Chori ni kometa aijo" means cooking with love. This is meant to include love for Buddha nature, for the people who eat our food, for the ingredients and even for the pots and pans. Shojin cooking embodies the belief that the essential flavour of the food comes from one's heart, from cooking with one's whole soul and from respecting the spirit of the kitchen.

There is a whole slow food movement that believes food is special not only because of the regional traditions employed in its making, but in the process which brings into play the care and attention of loving human hands.

Food is also a part of the place where it was grown. It is not only the taste but the very nutrients in the food that are affected by soil, climate and water.

How often have you found that your enjoyment of a glass of wine was dependent not only on the foods it was paired with, but with the company of your friends, the conversation, the setting where you enjoyed the meal and the way the sun was shining on that particular day. The same wine on another day without all those other components just didn't match up.

Food is a connection between people, between people and the earth. It is a celebration of life. The point of living is to be joyful and food is such a wonderful part of it. Very few social events take place in any culture without the ceremony of food.

Lovingkindness is something so many people desperately need. By giving ourselves a chance to live in harmony with our food, with ourselves and with the larger world, we may be able to be more joyful around food. By being relaxed, unashamed, appreciative, understanding and knowledgeable about food, we may go a long way towards redefining the concept of "eating well".

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