One of the shifts I’ve been making recently is to take seriously the role that food plays in my spiritual life. In the past, I’ve thought of the connection between meals and spiritual development primarily as one of convenience. Food brings people together. Community is important for spiritual development. Rituals concerning food and eating can be a powerful way to deepen spirituality. This is why one of the family rituals I’m a stickler about is prayer before eating. I see it as an opportunity to practice gratitude as a family.
When I started researching the connection between food and spirituality, that’s primarily what I thought I’d find: meals provide a means of practicing spirituality, not because eating is innately a spiritual act but because it brings people together. However, I soon realized that many traditions see a deep connection between food and the spirit. (I mentioned last week that Christianity is an outlier in not having “rules” about what people eat. This appears to crop up in a number of ways, including that outside of communion, we just don’t have a lot of teaching on the interplay between food and the spiritual life. I’m not sure yet if this is more because of our historical teachings or if it’s a function of modern culture, where many of us are pretty separated from our food sources. Thoughts?)
In Hinduism, for example, food is understand to affect the body, mind and soul. There are 3 categories of food with corresponding affects on the spirit/mind.
- Tamasic food: overripe, spoiled, stale or processed, which leads to dullness, heaviness, sluggishness and lethargy.
- Rajasic food: spicy, pungent, hot or stimulating, and is related to overactivity, agitation and overstimulation.
- Sattvic foods: pure, fresh and light, and leave us feeling refreshed, clear and alert.
Now, at a cursory glance, this list seems like pretty standard health advice. We all know that processed food isn’t good for us–eating “whole foods,” “slow foods” or “being a locavore” has become mainstream advice for just this reason. Similarly, I know first hand that I feel better if I have a veggie-laden meal. However, there’s nuance in these levels that illustrates a deeper sense of connection between mind and body. Remember, these food types are understood to affect our spirit as well as just our body.
Nutritionist Yaakov Shmuel Levinson explores a similar idea drawing from Kabbalistic interpretation. He notes:
The body is nourished by the physical aspects, or nutrients, contained in the foods we eat; the soul is nourished by the spiritual power, or sparks of holiness, which enliven the physical substance of all matter, including food. Therefore, body and soul are united in the act of eating.
In Christianity, there are some similarities here to communion (or eucharist), which many traditions understand as food that feeds both the body and the soul. While teachings around this vary based on denominations, many Christians hold the view that the bread and wine of communion literally feeds the spirit.
Food, then, becomes a very real way on nourishing the soul, not just the body. From this standpoint, we’d be wise to pay attention to both what and how we eat. What reverence might we bring to our meals if we believed we were nourishing our deepest inner selves? How would we better appreciate our food if we believed it was imbued by a divine spark?
Even those who find themselves challenged to accept this viewpoint might find some wisdom here. Eating lunch while hunched over our desk and answering emails or slamming coffee to get through a busy morning doesn’t suddenly seems wasteful. These common practices (I’m guilty of both, regularly) don’t allow us to fully nourish either the body or the soul. We miss out on the sights, smells and sounds of eating–all of which are bodily sensations that can increase our enjoyment. We miss, too, any opportunity to ponder the enormity of life and sacrifice that’s present in all of our food choices, whether animal or plant based. On the other hand, mindful eating provides multiple opportunities each day to experience wonder, gratitude and connection to the earth and life.
The good news is it doesn’t take much to develop a practice that regains these spiritual virtues. Food based meditations are plentiful. Like this video from the University of New Hampshire or this one, which promises to help ease cravings. Personally, though, I like Christopher Willard’s advice on 6 Ways to Practice Mindful Eating: Informal mindfulness practices for those of us who don’t have five minutes to contemplate a raisin. (How can you go wrong with a title like that?) And true enough, we can enrich our spirituality simply by adopting practices like “considering the life cycle of food” or “when eating, just eat.”
I’m reminded, too, that when we’re looking to deepen our spiritual life, we’re always wise to start where we are. Personally, a resolution to eat every meal with mindfulness is a non-starter. Sometimes I’m just lucky to eat. A better goal for me is probably to eat mindfully 50% of the time, or to avoid snacking (because it lends itself to mindlessness), or to eat whole foods, which make it easier for me to appreciate the sun, rain and labor that went into my food.
As Mary DeTurris Poust says in Cravings: A Catholic Wrestles with Food, Self-Image, and God:
Even if you can’t be totally mindful at every meal, if you can say a blessing, silently if necessary, or offer up a prayer for someone, something beyond yourself and your food, the prayer helps to transform eating into something that affects not only our hunger at that moment but the greater world.