The Zen of Food
Years ago, I spent a lot of time in an ashram. One of my jobs (besides less-glamorous stuff like cleaning toilets) was to cook in the kitchens. It was lovely. The food was simple, clean, pure; most of our meals were composed primarily of beans, rice and vegetables, but they tasted like the fare of five-star restaurants. I am convinced it was the serenity and open-heartedness of the people cooking, the melodic chants we sang as we stirred. The spirituality of the place entered the food — or maybe, we became more spiritual because of it.
In a well-known quote from Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating, authors Peter Farb and George Armelagos say, “Food to a large extent is what holds a society together, and eating is closely linked to deep spiritual experiences.” Most religions and spiritual paths throughout history have some kind of ritual or rule related to food and eating. Fasting is one practice; in many spiritual traditions, the act of abstaining from food is thought to increase spiritual awareness, achieve the discipline necessary to resist temptations of the flesh, purify the body or atone for evil acts.
And when they do eat, devotees are mindful — even rigorous — in their choices. The Hindu dietary regimen, for example, thinks of food as belonging to one of three categories, depending upon its effect on the body and spirit. Tamasic food is overripe, spoiled, stale, processed or canned, and results in dullness, heaviness, sluggishness and lethargy. Rajasic food is spicy, pungent, hot or stimulating, and is related to overactivity, agitation and overstimulation. Sattvic foods — considered the most desirable — are pure, fresh and light, and leave us feeling refreshed, clear and alert. These (predictably enough) include fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. I think it’s moving and elegant that this ideal diet, the one mostly widely recommended for healing, was described in the Bhagavad Gita more than 2,000 years ago.
Other traditions have other rules. Buddhists aren’t necessarily vegetarians; Buddha was said to have instructed his disciples to accept whatever food was offered, and that to refuse an offering was to reject the giver (without helping the already dead animal). Careful admonishments were given, however, to avoid eating carelessly: to eat mindlessly, or just for pleasure, is to be moved by selfish temptations.
In Judaism, kashrut is the set of laws defining appropriate foods (in English, it’s called kosher), but other, more subtle, spiritual rules also apply. Traditional Jewish teachings believe the body is a gift for which we are responsible; and on a very practical level, an early book of Jewish teachings writes, “It is not possible to understand and become wise in Torah and mitzvot when you are hungry or sickly or when one of your limbs hurts” (2). Practicing Muslims eat allowed foods (halal) and avoid forbidden foods (haram) mentioned in the Qur’an, and are guided by a verse in the Qur’an saying “Eat of the good things We have given you for sustenance, and be not inordinate with respect to them,” meaning eat and enjoy — but not to excess (3).
So how does all of this relate to most of us as eaters, especial those without a particular spiritual belief system or practice? On a simple, practical level, we can adopt some of the practices of other cultures around food. Some of these principles you might consider:
1. Eat mindfully, being aware of the food and your body.
2. Eat for the purpose of nourishing your body; treat your body as a temple.
3. Eat only fresh, clean, light foods, avoiding foods that are processed or canned.
4. Eat only what you need, without overeating or binging on food.
5. Eat for the purpose of bettering yourself spiritually.
As a set of rules for eating — and living — it’s hard to do better.
1. Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating , by Peter Farb and George Armelagos (Houghton Mifflin, 1980)
2. A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism As a Spiritual Practice, by Michael Strassfeld (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006), page 74.
3. The Qur’an, translated by M.H. Shakir, (Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 1999), chapter 20, verse 81, page 205