Eating is the most life affirming act after breathing. It is deep rooted in our primal make-up that powerfully influences our fears, joys, health and social bonding. But in recent times we have lost touch with our food. Many of us, unlike even our recent ancestors, too often don’t know where our food comes from or about the processes it may have gone through. Worse, we have been losing touch in the sphere that we do have more control over: Cooking and Eating.
Our natural instincts are being threatened by unprecedented non-organic stimuli that either overwhelm us or make us feel inadequate. Television was the first tech that was successful on a mass scale in dividing our attentions.We swapped our dining tables for couches as we ate while consuming information. Today we are interrupted by our mobile phones with their various alerts and calls to urgency. Fast food culture quickly swept many of us up at first as a novelty and then as a solution to stressful lives. I too have been victim to all of this.
I had two main bad food habits, Eating quickly and eating without attention. I think they went hand in hand actually and I realised that it was causing the digestion issues that I regularly experienced. However, I had always been interested in food and particularly in its medicinal qualities and so this interest would often draw my attention to becoming conscious of my habits. Like all bad habits they create a vicious circle. I ate fast because I felt nervous and eating fast made me feel more nervous! It’s been a journey to improve this part myself and the results have been enlightening. I also found that in creating good habits we create virtuous cycles!
The really positive news is that we as peoples from all over the world have already developed ways to help us in these unsettling times and to increase consciousness in our actions that help us return to a state of grace. While these ways seem to be inexhaustibly varied they also have commonality. I would like to portray this commonality as a formula and what I am calling the Ceremony of food. It’s quite simple: 1. Setting intention, 2. Settling attention and 3. Gratitude. Acting in accordance with these three qualities has helped me to accelerate my progress in improving my physical health and a greater sense of well-being. By the end of this article my aim is to encourage you to try the same. Before I give an example from one of my own ceremonies I would like to share some of the sources of my inspiration from my experiences with different cultures.
During travels in South America and interactions with indigenous tribes I found that much of daily life revolved around food. Gratitude played a large part frequently communicated as prayers to ancestors and to nature for being the source of abundance. I found it moving that gratitude is expressed unconditionally and prior to having received the source of nourishment. I also found it refreshing and inspiring when I saw that people would take responsibility even when food was more scarce than expected. It said something about their relationship to food and in these times they would make a ritual to find favour again with the spirits.
I am a vegetarian but I also admired the hunters for their attitude to meat. They respected animals, understanding that they were themselves like the animals. They were at peace with the understanding that they might also one day share the same fate, killing their prey quickly to inflict the least amount of suffering.
But my memories of food started much earlier, around the age of seven I first visited Punjab to stay in the village of my ancestors. I remember sitting outside in the courtyard around a fire telling stories while a few aunties took centre stage making chapatis on traditional stoves, calling out to someone to fetch more wood for the fire. On our farm we had a field reserved where we grew produce just for our family. We would decide what to eat according to the season and then a couple of us would set off on cycles to go and pick vegetables and herbs for the feast to be (one time my aunties accidentally picked cannabis and made Pakoras from them – but that’s a story for another time!). Neighbours and friends often accompanied us at dinner since there was plenty to share and also probably because we did not have facilities to keep leftovers for too long. On another trip to India I enjoyed the Hindu tradition of Prasad where they give something physical to their chosen deity before eating, usually a serving of the food that had been prepared, placed at an altar.
Today, by way of my practice of Aikido (A zen based martial art that believes in peaceful resolution) I am drawn to Japanese culture and have come to admire many of their Zen-like ways – most of all, how they aspire to maintain their state of awareness without giving into judgement of the perceived importance of a given action. Externally, the ceremonies tend to be of a more formal nature but internally their attention is being drawn inwards into a state of profundity. The most well known are the tea ceremonies, an aesthetic ritual performed to perfection through the practice of giving undivided attention to each action. A practice that is akin to mindful meditation.
In England, my home, I love our most cherished of ceremonies, Christmas dinner, a time for family to unconditionally make time for each other and to connect with spiritual heritage. Taking centre stage is the feast. Intentions for the day are fortified with careful planning, in search for ingredients to provide for the wonderful variety of food, and putting up decorations.
The words intention, gratitude and attention come up a lot when we look at examples of ceremonies across the world so with that in mind, here’s an example of a ceremony that I do at home. I will imagine I am inviting my friend called Jesse over who has been feeling a little sad lately.
- I will find some space to clear my mind and say some words to express gratitude and to set intention.
- “Thank you Mother Earth for your endless source of nourishment and providing all that we need for.
- “I am grateful for my wonderful friends. I intend to make a meal that will help my guest and friend Jesse to transcend difficult times she has been going through and to enjoy a memorable time together.”
- Setting attention: I will prepare a dish that I know Jesse will like. I might think about using some herbs that would be particularly beneficial to cheering her up, I know she loves daffodils so I’ll go and pick some and then for fun I could prepare a game to play.
- Gratitude. After the meal, I will say some words of gratitude again.
- “Thank you for this food and to all the people who made it possible for us to be able to enjoy this wonderful food, Thank you to the farmers, the tradespeople, the administrators who take care of the logistics, the transporters the shop workers and to the technology and technologists that keep this amazing process going
- “Thank you Jesse for being a meaningful part of my life. I know you found it difficult to leave your house so I am so especially grateful that you could be here with me today.
- “Jesse would you like to say something?”
Next thing is for you to make your own ceremony – and you need not wait for a special occasion! Make each one unique if you wish – they can be quirky, funny, serious, formal or informal, but like all the examples, use the ceremony formula and express it with solemnity and mindfulness,. This is the key for transforming the mundane into the magical.