What we want from food.

What we want from food.

I spent last Thanksgiving in the Santa Fe State Penitentiary. It’s not what you think; I left after a couple of hours, having gone there as an invited speaker to lead a talk. Our topic: what makes us feel nourished. And though I expected the answers to be vastly different, they were heartwarmingly similar. Family. Love. Rest. Nature. And, not surprisingly, food.

\What is it that makes most of us feel nourished, and what exactly does it mean to be nourished–truly, deeply nourished? For me (not surprisingly) as it is for many of us, the answer is food. It’s quick, easy, darn cheap compared to other pleasures, and can be had at all hours of the day or night.

Of course, we want nutrition from food: we expect it  to make us lose weight, lower our cholesterol, increase our energy, make us live longer, and generally render us infallible, if we can just arrange the appropriate line-up of vitamins, minerals, omega-3s and healthy fats. But we also turn to food for solace, comfort and joy, for company when we’re lonely, for peace when we’re feeling put upon, to make us feel whole, complete and nourished.

How does nourishment differ from nutrition? Not long ago, I had an illness that resulted in, among other things, an inability for me to chew and swallow. Needless to say, this greatly interfered with my ability to eat. Suddenly, my once-fertile culinary landscape–rich with fragrant sauces, tangy dressings, robust spices and interesting textures–was barren. I couldn’t eat harissa, coarse sea salt, pomegranate molasses, chipotle peppers, crisp lettuce. All I could eat were bland, lukewarm soups, pureed into a drinkable gruel. I made as many variations on these as I could; because I was sick, I often ate them alone. Brimming with sometimes a dozen different organic vegetables, legumes and nut oils, they were the gold standard for a nutritious meal. But I didn’t feel nourished.

The difference between nutrition and nourishment is easy to see. The difference between the soul’s need for nourishment and the mind’s desire for distraction can be trickier. When we turn to food for  comfort, indulgence, solace, company or peace, we’re not really seeking nourishment. The mind is looking for a quick fix, a way to get out of itself. It’s using food as a fix, a fast-acting, cheap and painless drug. We dig into a pint of ice cream while we’re standing in front of the freezer. That’s not nutritious, and it’s certainly not nourishing. It’s the “get me out of here!” reaction of the ego’s fear of discomfort. This concept is at the heart of understanding cravings: if a desire for a certain kind of food feels obsessive, desperate, intense, or as if immediate action is required, that’s usually the mind’s desire, not the body’s or the soul’s need. The whims of the mind can be distracted with immediate, enjoyable but simple tasks: a telephone call, a crossword puzzle, an interesting book, a funny movie. The body’s needs and the soul’s desires are not so easily avoided.

A long time ago, I cooked for groups of people in a spiritual environment, we in the kitchen came to cook after meditating, in a tranquil state of mind. We moved slowly and spoke in calm, happy voices, occasionally punctuating the air with laughter. We learned to sing beautiful chants as we chopped onions and stirred beans. The great peace and calm in the kitchen, the sweetness of the atmosphere, the melodic, rhythmic sounds of devotional chants—all conspired to render a meal as simple as dahl and rice a gourmet masterpiece. This sense of reverence for the practice of nourishing our bodies extended to how we ate the food. We paused before eating. We ate first with our eyes, taking in the colors and textures of the food. As we ate, we chewed slowly, breathed deeply, paused often to notice how the food was feeling in our bodies.

I’d like to say these practices are so automatic to me now, they’re almost second nature. It’s not true.  I still fall into bad habits—especially eating  at the computer, or when I’m stressed. When that happens, I may feel full, and righteous about my nutritional choices, but I usually don’t feel nourished. Incorporating mindfulness and discerning between nutrition, distraction and deep nourishment is a lifelong practice that, like any practice, requires patience, determination and, ultimately, compassion and forgiveness.