The Qualities of Food and Spiritual Practice

When people take up spiritual practices, they are exposed to many different ideas about the proper diet. With the idea that ‘you are what you eat’, there is a long list of foods that are considered suitable for spiritual practitioners to eat, what are called in the ancient traditions of India, ‘sattwic’ foods. Foods that are considered rajasic, or tamasic are to be avoided. This has led to some very strict dietary regimens which pick out certain foods as helpful and others as detrimental to spiritual growth.

This approach varies markedly from those that leave everything to ‘whatever comes’ into the begging bowl!

There are also stories about whether food should be taken from or in the presence of certain individuals who are considered low caste, or outside caste. One such story had a sage being offered the nectar of immortality by the god Indra, who had taken the form of an ‘untouchable’. The sage turned down the offer because he could not see through the illusion and was bound by the customs of the society as to what could be taken and from whom.

Another instance had Lord Rama accepting food from a low caste woman who was his devotee, despite objections from his brother Lakshmana, because he saw the pure love and devotion, without concern about the specific embodiment of the individual in this lifetime.

The issue of vegetarian or vegan diet adds another dimension to the question. The animals which embody a higher vibration of consciousness than the plant kingdom, are able to suffer pain and the vibrations at the time of their death can impact the person eating that food. Many spiritual paths forego eating meat therefore, and avoid the entire question of imbibing the energy of the animal that has been slaughtered for food. In today’s world, with the intense suffering attendant upon the vast cattle raising and slaughtering industry around the world, the question raises even greater concerns than in the past.

Food today has further issues with the chemical and pharmaceutical contaminants, and pollution, and the intense breeding that changes the essential qualities of various foods and makes them in many cases devoid of much life energy or nutrition. Taking nourishing food that is grown in a more traditional and focused manner certainly provides values that highly processed foods cannot possibly duplicate.

Sri Aurobindo points out that without getting into all the minutiae of individual food substances and their various micro impacts on the being, the underlying consideration was more about the virtue of the food as to its energetic qualities. Tamasic foods were devoid of energy due to being spoiled or stale. Rajasic foods were over-heating. Sattwic foods were nourishing and uplifting. People have made a science out of this, but in reality following these simple guidelines is probably as much attention as needs to be paid by the spiritual practitioner who needs to shift the focus away from the physical body toward the spiritual endeavour.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “I think the importance of sattwic food from the spiritual point of view has been exaggerated. Food is rather a question of hygiene, and many of the sanctions and prohibitions laid down in ancient religions had more a hygienic than a spiritual motive. The Gita’s definitions seem to point in the same direction — tamasic food, it seems to say, is what is stale or rotten with the virtue gone out of it, rajasic food is that which is too acrid, pungent, etc., heats the blood and spoils the health, sattwic food is what is pleasing, healthy, etc. It may well be that different kinds of food nourish the action of the different gunas and so indirectly are helpful or harmful apart from their physical action. But that is as far as one can go confidently. What particular eatables are or are not sattwic is another question and more difficult to determine. Spiritually, I should say that the effect of food depends more on the occult atmosphere and influences that come with it than on anything in the food itself. Vegetarianism is another question altogether; it stands, as you say, on a will not to do harm to the more conscious forms of life for the satisfaction of the belly.”

“As for the question of practicing to take all kinds of food with equal rasa, it is not necessary to practice nor does it really come by practice. One has to acquire equality within in the consciousness and as this equality grows, one can extend it or apply it to the various fields of the activity of the consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Food, pp 314-317

Fasting and the Practice of the Integral Yoga

At some point in their spiritual quest, seekers are generally confronted with the question of ‘fasting’. Some paths recommend fasting as a method to lighten the heaviness of the ‘earth consciousness’ and make the being more receptive to higher vibrational energies. Some point out that fasting aids in achieving a ‘vision quest’. Some practice fasting to habituate the body to become less reliant on the material energy and switch its source of energy to higher vital and eventually spiritual realms. In the daily ordinary life, people undertake various forms of ‘fasting’ as a means of gaining control over their weight, although they call it in that context ‘dieting’.

There is no doubt that fasting changes the energetic flow of the being, that one feels lighter and more in tune with the vital and mental energies and less subject to the downward pull of the physical body. There is also no doubt that in certain contexts, the achievement of a ‘vision’ is aided by the practice of fasting.

It is, however, also true that the physical body requires adequate nutrition and that fasting, if practiced over the longer term rather than as a very short-term exercise, can undermine the physical substance and stability, and can create a nervous condition of the being that is not healthy for the spiritual practitioner who is not simply trying to abandon the outer life of the body.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “It is a fact that by fasting, if the mind and the nerves are solid or the will-force dynamic, one can get for a time into a state of inner energy and receptivity which is alluring to the mind and the usual reactions of hunger, weakness, intestinal disturbance, etc., can be wholly avoided. But the body suffers by diminution and there can easily develop in the vital a morbid overstrained condition due to the inrush of more vital energy than the nervous system can assimilate or co-ordinate. Nervous people should avoid the temptation to fast, it is often accompanied or followed by delusions and a loss of balance. Especially if there is a motive of hunger-strike or that element comes in, fasting becomes perilous, for it is then an indulgence of a vital movement which may easily become a habit injurious and pernicious to the sadhana. Even if all these reactions are avoided, still there is no sufficient utility in fasting, since the higher energy and receptivity ought to come not by artificial or physical means but by intensity of the consciousness and strong will for the sadhana.”

“The first thing I tell people when they want not to eat or sleep is that no yoga can be done without sufficient food and sleep (see the Gita on this point). Fasting or sleeplessness make the nerves morbid and excited and weaken the brain and lead to delusions and fantasies. The Gita says, yoga is not for one who eats too much or sleeps too much, neither is it for one who does not eat or does not sleep, but if one eats and sleeps suitably — yuktahari yuktanidrah — then one can do it best. It is the same with everything else. How often have I said that excessive retirement was suspect to me and that to do nothing but meditate was a lop-sided and therefore unsound sadhana?”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Food, pp 314-317

Understanding and Attaining the Right Attitude Toward Food for the Yogic Practitioner

Shifting the awareness away from the ego-consciousness to the divine standpoint takes place as a ‘tuning’ process which Sri Aurobindo designates as ‘aspiration’. This represents a focus of the attention of the being on the higher consciousness and away from the normal fixation on the outer life of the normal human consciousness. Food is one area that occupies an enormous role and significance in the human sphere, whether it is obtaining food, preparing food, enjoying food or talking or thinking about food. We have a fixation that involves, on the one hand, a ‘greed’ for food, and on the other, a desire to control our weight and appearance, which leads to a constant stream of diets that claim to have the solution to weight control. For many people in the world, who live in a status of starvation or near starvation, the seeking for food is one of primal survival. For those who live the lifestyle of the West, there is generally an over-abundance of food, and an ongoing campaign of marketing by food companies to generate desire and support for their specific forms of food. There is also a lot of research done by various companies to enhance the “addictive” effect of the foods they sell, which adds a biochemical component to the normal drive or craving. This shifts food from its ordinary status of being a basic need of the body to one that reflects all types of vital desires and artificially created demands that we try to satisfy through food.

For the practitioner of yoga, then, it is essential to disassociate oneself from the artificial constructs that cause greed for food, or which turn food into a substitute for cravings of the desire-soul.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is the attachment to food, the greed and eagerness for it, making it an unduly important thing in the life, that is contrary to the spirit of yoga. To be aware that something is pleasant to the palate is not wrong; only one must have no desire nor hankering for it, no exultation in getting it, no displeasure or regret at not getting it. One must be calm and equal, not getting upset or dissatisfied when the food is not tasty or not in abundance — eating the fixed amount that is necessary, not less or more. There should be neither eagerness nor repugnance. To be always thinking about food and troubling the mind is quite the wrong way of getting rid of the food-desire. Put the food element in the right place in the life, in a small corner, and don’t concentrate on it but on other things.”

“Greed for food has to be overcome, but it has not to be given too much thought. The proper attitude to food is a certain equality. Food is for the maintenance of the body and one should take enough for that — what the body needs; if one gives less the body feels the need and hankers; if you give more, then that is indulging the vital. As for particular foods the palate likes, the attitude of the mind and vital should be, ‘If I get, I take; if I don’t get, I shall not mind.’ One should not think too much of food either to indulge or unduly to repress — that is the best.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Food, pp 314-317

The Attitude Towards Food and the Practice of Yoga

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