Food and the Spiritual Seeker, Part 4

There is a vast difference between the relationship to food of the vast mass of humanity and that of the spiritual seeker. Nevertheless, the impact of modern society impinges upon almost everyone and distorts the body’s natural responses to food and the way we perceive our relationship to food. Traditional spiritual paths frequently relied on an ascetic viewpoint to minimize the focus on food. There were several models. One was a more or less self-sufficient Ashram model which provided simple foods, simply prepared for the aspirants residing there. Another sent the seekers out into the local community with a begging bowl and they were able to eat what food they were voluntarily provided by the villagers. No thought in either case was given to special attention to taste or preparation, or even what type of food or the quantity of food. Everything was set up to provide basic nourishment to the body and nothing more.

In the West, where suppression of the sexual urge became one of the predominant themes, religious orders sometimes permitted a shifting of the attention toward food as a substitute for the sexual outlet, and thus, we saw a subtle change in the relation to food among aspirants in those orders as they gave room for vital cravings and desires to impact their relationship to food.

When we look at modern society, there remains a strong ascetic theme among renunciates, members of close-knit religious orders and sannyasins, yet they are not generally directly or heavily impacted by the pressures of modern life, due to their self-determined status as renunciates. For those who are determined to live and work in the world, and to strive towards perfection of the body, several additional factors come into play. These factors include living in a society that creates its own expectations and uses heavy marketing to steer the mind and the vital energies towards various foods and relationships with food. There are also the processed and manufactured foods that use scientific knowledge to enhance flavors or create addictive cravings. There is an emphasis on the palate, and not on the nutritional value or on moderation of consumption. There are issues around food that is available and food that is affordable, and there is a constant flow of misinformation which also creates confusion that any seeker, living in the world needs to be able to sort out.

Western sciences of anatomy and physiology, along with basic biology, provide information about specific triggers within the body that provoke responses, and people eat, not just for nutrition, but for emotional solace, social relationships and as a replacement for unexamined emotional or psychological issues. Sciences from other parts of the world add their own information and the seeker, living in the setting of this environment and all these pressures and information, needs to be able to find a balanced and correct relationship to food within the context of their aspiration.

With the advent of provoked vital desires and greed, as well as a wide range of mental formulas around the question of food, nutrition and dieting, we have also mostly lost the ability to understand the body’s own signals about what it actually needs, and thus, we can create imbalances while intending to create a balanced approach towards nutrition.

Sri Aurobindo provides some general guidance about the attitude the seeker can take towards food and eating which can aid in maneuvering through all these concerns. Since he is pointing toward a perfected life, not a life that abandons the world for a purely spiritual result of some sort, the body must be properly nourished and cared for, made sound and responsive to the needs of the higher energies that need to manifest through it, and thus, the choice of foods and their amounts, as well as the way the seeker responds to the foods is of some importance. There can still be a natural pleasure in food that is well-prepared and tasty, and there can be a sense of coordination between the body’s actual need and the taste that it craves at a particular point in time; this must be seen and understood to avoid making this an excuse for vital indulgence or mental interference.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Meanwhile food and the ordinary process of Nature can be accepted, although its use has to be liberated from attachment and desire and the grosser undiscriminating appetites and clutch at the pleasures of the flesh which is the way of the Ignorance; the physical processes have to be subtilised and the grossest may have to be eliminated and new processes found or new instrumentalities emerge. So long as it is accepted, a refined pleasure in it may be permitted and even a desireless ananda of taste take the place of the physical relish and the human selection by likings and dislikings which is our present imperfect response to what is offered to us by Nature. It must be remembered that for the divine life on earth, earth and Matter have not to be and cannot be rejected but have only to be sublimated and to reveal in themselves the possibilities of the spirit, serve the spirit’s highest uses and be transformed into instruments of a greater living.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Mind of Light, The Divine Body, pg. 52

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