Mind, Body, Soul|Feb 4, 2007 7:04 AM| by:

Food for Thought

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Man’s preoccupation with food is nothing new. It is a remnant of his long animal past that persists into his human self. But unlike the animal his preoccupation goes well beyond survival. This is only understandable since with the advent of mind, man has developed the quest for knowing things and based on this mental knowledge he adds values to certain things in his own way. Added to this is the additional capacity in man to express his life force in many more directions and many more ways, one of which finds its route in the various forms of indulgence as well as experimentation with food. The result is a loss of the simple natural balance of the animal life governed largely by instinct and an innate learning. Such a simple natural state is indeed found in the human infant who to some extent is instinctively aware of the needs of the body and what is suitable or harmful for him. But with the development of the life force and the mind in him he soon begins to lose this natural and instinctive balance and has to sometimes pass through much painful learning to recover it, at least partially and precariously. Much damage has already been done by then and many harmful habits formed and ingrained in his physical consciousness that serves as a faithful recorder of sorts. To this picture that is already complicated enough due to the intrusion of the mind and the vital, there is the ugly side of present day commercialism that allures children at a very young age to fast foods and colas and chocolates and junk of all sorts. To top it all is a civilization focused around outer appearances, so much so that first we feed our children with all kinds of unhealthy stuff as a misapplied love and then when their tastes and the body girth is spoilt we device abnormal ways and means to maintain the figure and the image. And all this not out of a healthy respect and genuine concern for the poor body that serves us so well but out of an unhealthy and an almost exclusive preoccupation with physical looks. This food dependency as a means of expression of love and satisfaction sometimes takes a pathological form of obsession. The gross forms of this obsession are the rather well recognized eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia where the young adolescent uses food as a means of fulfilling his or her emotional hunger or stress reduction and bolster an injured self-esteem followed by guilt related to food and figure. All this is only a natural consequence of a narcissistic society preoccupied with show and sham and outer appearances alone. The subtle forms of this obsession are the extreme diet control and an almost ascetic refusal of food, its exaggerated importance in society and culture, the rather excessive importance given to it by religion and certain spiritual cults, an endorsement to fast as a means of appeasing the gods and earning spiritual merit. Whatever be its occult and other significance, which we shall shortly discuss, it makes us too much food-centric, replacing the phrase food for thought with thought for food!

The very first thing that we as a race have to understand is that our mental way of knowing things is not the only way, and certainly not even the best way. The field of medicine and diet is a glaring example of this. For example, how do animals know what is required of them to heal and what is good for eating and what is not? Yet, the animal world, unless corrupted in their surer instincts by contact with man’s mental world, or threatened by natural calamities or falling prey to predators, generally lives a relatively healthy and full life. What is even more surprising (or perhaps not so surprising) is that they come to ‘know’ of survival threats, including natural catastrophes (as the recent tsunami indicated) often much earlier than man in spite of his sophisticated equipment. They have as if a direct and intimate contact with nature which in the human mind is replaced by an indirect analysis of observational data. The same is true of children. In the field of medicine we discover the same thing. What is defended with rigorous trials and studies is undone in a short period by other rigorous trials and studies! The inevitable conclusion we are bound to arrive at is that we are not likely to know the truth of things through mental processes alone or through the conventional statistical approach that observes only a small and selective data and leaves the rest in the folds of darkness assuming that it has no prima facie relevance. Take the case of some recent studies relating milk to certain disorders from cholesterol to cancer. The studies take into consideration the chemical constitution of milk, its co-relation with certain forms of illness, and forget the rest. What about our faith in a particular product or food item, what about the atmosphere in which the food is prepared and the atmosphere in which we eat it, what about our attitudes towards diet and the inner state of our being while we eat? What about other physical and psychological factors, seen and unseen causes that may be responsible for the trigger? All these are too difficult to handle by the statistical method of arriving at truth. Statistics is much like democracy where the majority wins even if it be not representative of truth or the total group. It assumes that all men are equal simply because they are all men in physical appearances. So also the extrapolations done through mice studies and other animal studies suffer from these defects. But the truth is that there are subtle factors that though rare are much more powerful than the common factors even if they be numerous. But who can convince the blind scientist and his prejudice that material causes are the sole important things and who is hell bent in his fixed belief that statistical analysis is the sole method of arriving at the truth of things? Yet the market is flooded with these books on what is helpful and what is harmful for us based on these inadequate methods which the unrefined thinker accepts as gospel truth while the smart market managers make a quick buck out of it. When will we understand this simple truth that is staring at our face each day that man is much more than a mere physical being and even much more than a mere mental being! When will we understand this everyday truth that there is indeed a hierarchy of truths and forces wherein the higher ones can completely cancel and neutralize the effects of the lower and lesser! When will we understand that man does not live by bread alone and that his will and his faith are at least as important factors if not more than the physical factors! When will we understand that many other things go into the composition of a food than its chemistry; that love and joy in the heart of the one who prepares it has its own special place and it can often override other factors!

This is not to say that what we eat has absolutely no importance. Of course it has. And the importance is not simply in terms of chemicals and calories but other things as well, for example the way it is procured, to name just one. Thus coming back to the milk controversy, there are reports to suggest that the harmful effects noted may be due to the way a cow is milked (using pressure pumps to hasten the process but which in turn leads to a denaturation of certain proteins and the use of oxytocin, a hormone to increase milk production. The spirit of commercialism and stark profiteering has crept into the food industry from burgers and fast foods and colas to poultry and meat and milk products. Could the new dietary diseases be a backlash of nature to moderate us in our habits rather than a simple chemical reaction. This distinction is not just of theoretical value but much more. For if it is simply a chemical process we may soon find a chemical way out of it as well. We have indeed already done so with coke. We have now diet cokes and sugar free juices. Soon we may have fat-reducing burgers or slimming chickens and even, who knows protein free milk and eggs!! Everything is possible. But then perhaps nature shall find new ways and new chemicals and new issues of health to upset us. And we shall also find new ways to avoid things and new ways to circumvent them. This is a never ending cat and mouse game. Instead we need to get the message that greed is bad, that excess is bad, whether in the intake of food or restraining it. For excess can be in either direction. To develop food fads or to find ways and means of reducing weight through crash diets or one type of diet are perhaps as harmful. And the best example is of course girls developing anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder where they go on to very simple foods in very little quantities to starve themselves out of a body image or an emotional disturbance. The results are devastating even though weight is considerably reduced. The issue therefore is not just a question of the right diet but also a right and healthy attitude towards diet, a moderation and balance rather than extremes and excesses either way.

There is of course the dravya guna or the material properties or, better still, the quality of material vibration which the food carries and transmits. According to this food is classified not so much by its chemical constituents but by the force that animates it. Thus, non-vegetarian food contains not only an extra dose of fats and proteins but also the vibrational quality of the animal world whose characteristic movement is survival related life force that manifests itself as fear and rage, movements of copulation and aggression. Added to this is the extra dose of the consciousness of pain which goes in when we turn live stock into dead one. This kind of an animal vitality that comes through non-vegetarian food may increase the principle of kinesis or rajas, and with it increase certain animal propensities and strong vital instincts in man. While this may be useful for an athlete or a warrior clan, it would be harmful and deleterious to a spiritual aspirant and a meditating monk. In contrast vegetarian food contains primarily the sap of life, the vital-physical consciousness whose main task is to nourish matter. Therefore it would be naturally healthier and nourishing to both the body and the soul increasing the principle of harmony or sattva in us, even though it would deprive one of the ruggedness and the killer instinct. Similarly food that is rotten and spoilt (who knows which category the refrigerated food would fall into) would only lead to an increase of forces of disintegration and disorder in the system, what is termed as the principle of inertia or tamas in Indian psychology. Its natural result is an increase in the propensity to disease and inertia in the human body, whether we find bacteria and germs in it or not!

In fact in the Indian conception, food or ahara is not just the physical substance or chemicals that we take in for the body’s subsistence but all that we take in our being through various sources. This includes the breath, the sights and sounds, the input of our senses, the many seen and unseen gross or subtle influences which we take inside us from the world around. Further this intake is absorbed not only by the body but also and more importantly by the vital force in us which then in turn feeds the body as well as provides for the mental output. Interestingly this comes closer to the modern concept of things. The food we take is indeed converted into its energy equivalent and it is these packets of energy if we may say so which are actually utilized to provide for the various functions. What is the nature of this energy that we get when food is burnt or broken down, how does it actually provide for the body and other functions? These are some of the questions to which we have presumed an answer but which defy an easy simple understanding. For example there are people and instances where one can draw more energy from very less food or even from what is not considered as food at all. Some persons can feel refreshed and rejuvenated simply by being in a garden or smelling a flower. Some others can draw energy simply through certain gestures and even postures. There are still others who can forget about hunger and feel as if full while reading an interesting book or playing their favourite game or listening to a preferred piece of music. Of course these things are difficult to quantify and measure but the observations can be made and will be found to be true. Again what are the steps by which this vital energy is concerted into the physical? In accounting for the losses we normally take into consideration only the physical workout. But there are other more direct losses as well such as the loss of vital energy that ensues through speech full of gossip, through sex, anger etc. This loss again is difficult to quantify if we simply keep a weight record but to the keen observer of his being it is evident. One can, if one looks carefully, find a correlation between the loss of vital energy and a depression of the general vitality or vital force which predisposes one to certain illnesses. This is a fact partially recognized by some alternate healing systems such as Homeopathy but which finds its full significance in Ayurveda, or the science of longevity.

A related issue of the mutual interaction of the vital force with the body is the feeding of the physical substance or the body tissues by the vital force in us. This is an internal preying if we may say so, which is observed in people who fast. They feed upon their own body tissues and thereby gain the energy required. But there may be an external preying as well, the eating away of one person’s vital by another. In other words the vital has several sources of subsistence. First and the most common is food. The second is directly from the vital world through processes which increase the vital energy in us such as comes through certain breathing exercises of which pranayama is the foremost. The third is the influx of vital energy through the various senses and that includes things like music. In fact it is a whole science awaiting our discovery as to what happens when we expose ourselves to different kinds of music. People are known, for instance to go crazy and dance for hours without getting tired and in thrill and excitement with certain kinds of music. But while they do get stimulated while they dance, one has still to see the after-effects. One has still to discover what is the kind of vital energy they draw, whether some demoniac force of a crude and unregenerate vital which increase the asuric propensities in us or else if they increase in us through their soothing harmonics the godlike qualities. In other words, it is not enough to know what food we eat but also the environment in which we eat, the human beings with whom the food is linked in its preparation as well as in our eating. A whole world awaits its discovery.

A fourth kind of energy is derived from human beings and through our mutual interaction with others. It is a very common source of energy transfer if we may say so which goes unnoticed, and yet, is a source of many a complications and problems in life. Especially when it takes place in closed energy loops such as the kind which is formed when two people grow intimate to the exclusion of the world and others. Finally, one can derive energy directly from the higher spiritual regions. People are known to forego food easily during a state of inner ecstasy that one gets through a certain kind of divine communion. The well known Indian custom of offering the food to the Divine before eating it had this deep rationale. By doing so the food became prasada and its intrinsic value changes and even overrides its external value in terms of calories and chemicals etc. It is actually a way of linking the most material consciousness represented in food with the spiritual consciousness which inhabits the human body, unseen and unknown to itself. By making food an offering we sanctify it. By invoking the Divine we provide a possibility of charging it with divine qualities and powers of health and healing. Such a charging of material objects with a higher consciousness is a knowledge that still exists in certain parts of the world and is used effectively by the spiritually evolved who can provide distinct and palpable help at the most material level by charging food and flowers, herbs and leaves or even water and the air one breathes in their atmosphere. That there are actual observations made about the effects of thought upon the crystallographic image of water molecules and on the growth rate of plants is often ignored, not because it is unscientific or unproven but because we are still blind to this domain and mechanism of things that transcend the mere physical. That our hopelessly limited material sight is blind to these deeper truths is one tragedy of our present civilization. That in our exclusive concentration upon material consciousness and our over involvement with physical and chemical processes we have lost contact with higher realities and its nourishing forces and energies is another tragedy.

Yet this tragedy has served a purpose. It has created for us a solid foundational understanding of matter. It has grounded us upon mother earth. It has sounded and explored the powers and forces that lie hidden in the dumb inert matter. But now that this curve is almost nearing its completion, it is perhaps time that we look at a more total and comprehensive truth, discover a more complete harmony of the part with the whole, of matter with spirit and of the food sheath(1) with the soul. To simply classify food in terms of chemicals and calories takes us away from its deeper quality, its higher associations, the possibilities of its transmutation. It may even misguide us through rational beliefs built upon partial truths and mislead us into unwarranted hopes and fears. Worse still by focusing so much upon the external food it may go into a blind comfort zone till nature strikes us with yet another new malady and we find that what we considered healthy so far was actually unhealthy and what we regarded as unhealthy was in fact not so bad after all. We may say, echoing the proponent of the germ theory who refuted his own findings on his death bed, it is not the food alone but the soul that consumes it. It is not the food alone but the body-mind field that receives it.

1. The food sheath or the annamaya kosha built of material vibrations and energy. This along with the vital sheath or the pranamaya kosha built of vital vibrations and energy is regarded in the language of the ancient Indian seers as the gross body (physical vehicle) or the sthula shareer.

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