reclaiming our relationship with food
Food. It is our sustenance and the foundation of our civilization. We give it the power to bring pleasure and pain, satisfaction and regret, community and solitude. As a society, we revere it and we abuse it. But ultimately, we have the power to control our relationship with food and rediscover the great blessing it represents in our lives.
Perfectly round, black mustard seeds dance and explode next to cumin in hot ghee. The ginger, garlic, onions and chilies sizzle, as my mother’s spatula rhythmically stirs, smoke unfurling into the vent; my body feels the divination of a proper subji (vegetable dish). Carefully, I fold the ivory cloth napkins with faint turmeric stains from evenings ago. “Vhere are the tomaters?” My mother’s thick, curried accent inquires through frying masala and the drone of the fan. Father and brother break ice and polish glasses in the midst of stimulating aromas. It is here in the ritual of food preparation that I know my place among family and am filled with gratitude for the sense of belonging.
Reflecting on the holiday seasons passed, waves of memories like these flow through me and bring into focus the tradition of communing with friends and family as we celebrate our prosperity and health, and give thanks for the blessings we have received. Nothing is more central and fundamental to our gatherings no matter one’s religion or culture, than food. Food is at the heart of civilization; it nourishes and nurtures the life force of each person and ensures the continuing evolution of humanity, a profound awareness that our early ancestors acknowledged as a ritual of life. Yet food, with such a vital role, is often demonized by our modern, western cultural messages, revealing our ailing relationship with sustenance. Americans in particular face an epidemic of full-range eating disorders. From obesity to bulimia, from fat-burning diets to weight control supplements, we are tipping the scales on both sides, maxed out at extremes, which render us disconnected and imbalanced in one of our most primary relationships: our relationship with food.
When our ancestors shifted from a hunter-gatherer existence, to an agricultural based society, civilization established its first roots. Cultivation of food marked the beginning of the agrarian calendar and the harvest season was a special time for reaping the abundance of crops. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Indians and Native American cultures, to name just a few, all honored and celebrated food and its preparation as an integral part of their festivals. Sacred rituals infused the preparation, serving and consumption of food in order that the highest vibrations of reverence and gratitude sanctify these holy experiences.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, understood the importance of food as the bridge of the larger family of community, both in a spiritual and social context. This 15th century Guru established lungar, translated loosely as “free kitchen,” to promote community in a country that was historically ruled by a strict caste system. The tradition of lungar, which is actively practiced today, demonstrates the principle teachings of Sikhism including equality, sharing and the oneness of all human kind. Silence is honored during preparation, save the reciting of sacred prayers known as the Gurbani to infuse the food with piety. When lungar preparations are finished, small portions are placed in bowls as offerings in front of a Sikh alter with the holy book (Siri Guru Granth Sahib). The prayers (Ardas) are then chanted including the blessing of the lungar. Servers observe rules of cleanliness and hygiene as part of this sacred ceremony. Fresh, long, white sheets are laid out in rows and worshippers eat side by side on the floor as a gesture of communion, equality and humility. Vegetarian foods are served with khir for dessert, a sweet rice pudding spiced with cardamom and saffron. Indian cultures and religions are masterful at celebrating the bounty and depth of their traditions and holidays with sensually complex cuisine. Most foods are eaten with the hand so that the prana is sustained for full energetic nourishment and also flavor.
The use of food in communion ceremonies is a consistent theme in the spiritual traditions. Christians celebrate the Eucharist, sharing bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, a symbolic act to awaken the Christ consciousness in the heart of each person, and to strengthen the relationship between God and human. Passover, a Jewish holiday has a Seder, which contains a series of rituals that invoke important figures and events in the history of the Jews. The meal is prepared and served using sets of utensils and dishes reserved solely for that festival. During the Seder, the leader invites family members to participate in the telling of the Passover story. The meal is full of symbolic food experiences, which are metaphors for the journey of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom. The telling of the story evolves along with the dinner and is meant to fill the room and each participant with a sense of gratitude and peace.
It is safe to say that almost all spiritual practices have some form of ritual blessing as an integral part of food preparation and eating. Linda Neaman, a meditation teacher at Le Centre in Venice, CA, who frequently leads food meditations, discusses the shift in consciousness that occurs in the blessing of food, “When we eat from the mind, we do not feel satisfied, but when we center ourselves in our holiest place, and invoke a blessing for food, we fully embody. We are satiated with just a little food, because we are in the heart, where abundance and love already reside. We are lifted up and filled with Grace, Peace, and Joy tenfold””this is spiritual alchemy.” Our understanding of food that has been blessed is a process of introspection and inner revelation. Neaman continues, “When food has been blessed and eaten with mindfulness, it can reveal something to you, that otherwise might not be revealed. It can transport you to the majestic realm of spiritual vitality, beyond the sensual experience, but not without it. This is Heaven on Earth.”
Keeping these beautiful and ancient customs in mind, it seems that the holiday season provides a perfect opportunity to practice mindful eating. Often our family gatherings at this time of year can illuminate challenges, and we may be tempted to eat unconsciously as a reaction to old emotional patterns that are easily triggered by family dynamics. A wise person once said, “If you think you don’t have any issues, go home for the holidays.” Despite the challenges, the heart-centered practices and blessings of grace, joy, communion and peace are accessible to anyone who chooses. In bringing our awareness to our hearts, we are open to receive the morsels of grace we encounter along the way. Food and its preparation are likely at the heart of our familial relationships at this time. Our interactions with food can be infused with the living vibration of grace through intention and the ritual of blessing. With this intention comes the acknowledgment of the Divine-Self. When we embark upon this path, we experience the harmony of food and family and step more courageously into the collective community – the larger family that connects all of us to each other.
While spiritual traditions and teachings throughout history have reminded us of our sacred relationship with food, our own biological story points to the significance of food and our bonds with each other. As newborn babies, if we are fortunate, our first experience in the incarnation after birth is to suckle from our mother’s breast. This earliest imprint is the necessary survival skill of nourishing self. Food prayers and blessings are perhaps an echoing of this primal nurturing experience. Within the nurturing is contained the joyful, sensual experience of food. The holiday season is a profound time of gathering, reflecting and sharing love with family, close friends and community. Food acts as a pleasurable link that supports and joins us together.
Upon entering a kitchen filled with culinary aromas, we immediately sense a place of comfort, harmony and peace. The vibrant colors of different foods and their presentation also play a role in that they sensually nourish and satiate our bodies in subtle ways. Sharing a deeply felt food experience can circulate intimacy and love amongst communing people perhaps like no other event.
With mindful preparation and presentation of a meal, the kitchen essentially becomes a sacred hearth. Taking care of organizational tasks of cooking such as planning, shopping and cleaning clears space for our senses to come alive. Breathing, touching, or tasting the aromas, textures and colors of each dish as they are prepared expands all the subtle bodies without effort. When our mind engages on this sensual embodied level, we are present.
The moment has come. The meal is ready and resplendent on the dining table. We gather in precious moments of silence that rise up from eternity; love, harmony, and peace permeate the room. Many of us have the good fortune to have plenty to eat, clothes to wear, and homes to live in. The reality of the world is that there are many who do not. Prayer is a way of creating balance and harmony in our relationships with ourselves, with food, and the world. When we can truly deepen our practice of feeling the blessings of abundance in our lives and bring mindfulness to our interactions with food and family through the holidays, then we are the blessings, and we live them from the inside out.
Just a simple, silent, centering practice in the heart before taking in food, and giving thanks for all is an act of nourishing the soul and the collective soul of humanity. Martin Buber once said, “One eats in holiness and the table becomes an altar.” Food is the blessing of life that we all share. It is the substance of Holy Communion, and the communion of all beings. Our relationship with food mirrors our relationship with life itself and the sacred journey that is our path.
“If we allow ourselves to touch our bread deeply, we become reborn, because our bread is life itself. Eating it deeply, we touch the sun, the clouds, the earth, and everything in the cosmos. We touch life and we touch the Kingdom of God.” – Thich Nnat Hanh