There is considerable confusion, and a resultant variety of ways that spiritual seekers respond, to the question of food. Ordinarily food should not lead to any sense of bewilderment, as it is simply a necessity for the maintenance of the physical body in general. The issue arises when food becomes something else, a sublimated vital response to life, or a means of enjoyment, etc. In particular, spiritual seekers who carry out a discipline of avoidance of other forms of vital enjoyment may channel the latent desires into their relationship with food.
The numerous ways of addressing food includes ascetic fasting on the one end of the spectrum, to abandonment of any attempt to control the drive for food on the other, and everything in between. Mendicant renunciates eat whatever is given them in their begging bowl from day to day. If nothing comes, they do not eat. Others practice careful control over the food they eat, seeking out sattwic foods, avoiding foods that are considered tamasic or rajasic, as part of the spiritual discipline. Still others try to optimize their enjoyment of food and make the preparation and presentation of food into an ‘art form’. Some treat food as the basic building block and fuel for the physical body and try to eat based on principles of what the body needs to function optimally and properly. Some look on food as an object of desire, and work to control the action of the desire as they would do with any other vital drive. Others may treat food as a reward for their efforts and thus gorge themselves on it. And some treat moderation, the ‘middle way’ as the path of success in yoga, and thus, try to find a balanced approach in their relation to the question of food.
Tibetan yogi Milarepa had his own unique experience in relation to food. He was so concentrated on achieving realisation in one lifetime that at one point he entered into a cave for strict meditation practices and did not try to obtain food on a daily basis. He subsisted on nettles which grew in the area, to the extent that it was said that his skin took on a green shade. Eventually he reached a crisis where he could not focus on his meditation and he took that as a reason to open a scroll his guru had provided him ‘to be opened in extreme emergency’. The scroll advised him that he would not progress further in his meditation without adequate nourishment to his body, so he went out and obtained food, after which he achieved the realisation he was seeking.
Sri Aurobindo writes: “What is necessary is to take enough food and think no more about it, taking it as a means for the maintenance of the physical instrument only. But just as one should not overeat, so one should not diminish unduly — it produces a reaction which defeats the object — for the object is not to allow either the greed for food or the heavy tamas of the physical which is the result of excessive eating to interfere with the concentration on the spiritual experience and progress. If the body is left insufficiently nourished, it will think of food more than otherwise.”
“Too much eating makes the body material and heavy, eating too little makes it weak and nervous — one has to find the true harmony and balance between the body’s need and the food taken.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Food, pp 314-317