The sanctity of food: Conscious eating as a spiritual practice
The wonderful thing about food is you get three votes a day. Every one of them has the potential to change the world.
The earliest humans were hunter-gatherers who never knew exactly where their next meal might be coming from. In fact, their “meals” were probably eaten on the run as they stalked enough prey to constitute an actual meal, but it is unlikely that their meals were regular or even eaten daily. Given the conditions under which they secured food, it was impossible for them to take any of it for granted. Every morsel was hard-won and therefore, exceedingly precious.
When humans became sedentary, they transitioned from hunting and gathering to growing their own food, and while this made eating more predictable as a result of a more stable lifestyle, few ate mindlessly. Whether living in a small agricultural village along the Nile River in ancient times or growing food in one’s backyard garden in the twenty-first century, small-scale agriculture is labor-intensive, and appreciation for food is greatly enhanced by the energy expended in growing it.
Sedentary societies were dependent on the kindness of nature to provide the rain and sunshine necessary for growing food. Thus, many earth-based forms of spirituality evolved in which humans experienced a direct connection between the agricultural harvest and a particular deity such as Osiris in Egypt and Ceres in Rome. As part of their gratitude for what they believed the deity had provided, people offered food to the gods and goddesses of nature.
Throughout human history, particularly in indigenous cultures, food has been perceived as sacred. The word sacred is not a religious term but rather one that simply means “set apart” or not of the ordinary. It is also related to sacrifice which may mean that something is sacred because it derived from something sacrificed. For example, we speak of battlefields and military cemeteries as sacred. In ancient times, some temples, mountains, or forests were sacred because animals were sacrificed to a god in those places. All food is sacred in the sense that the life of a plant or animal has been sacrificed to feed another being.
Ancient, traditional societies understood that food is life force energy for which they needed to exert significant amounts of energy whether by hunting or growing it in order to eat. Because their survival was often in jeopardy, food became sacred to these cultures.
With the mass movement of people from the land to cities, the sanctity of food was eclipsed by fascination with artificial, synthetic, and technologically-produced forms of food. No longer was it necessary to hunt or grow food because now it was delivered from short or long distances to nearby markets, and thus it seems that the sacredness of food decreased in proportion to the energy required to obtain it.
At this moment we are witnessing, and many of us are participating in, an unprecedented transition from industrial agriculture to sustainable (local, organic) agriculture. While this transition has been shaped by declining resources, including fossil fuels, and while an increasing number of individuals prefer to eat foods grown closer to home that have not been contaminated with pesticides, attempting to define the transition exclusively in terms of science or sustainability discounts the role of the human soul in it. In other words, there is a spiritual component to this phenomenon.
In his article “Reclaiming The Sacred In Food And Farming,” Emeritus Professor of Agriculture and Economics, John Ikerd of the University of Missouri writes of the spirituality of sustainable agriculture and asks, “What is this thing called spirituality?”
His answer: “…spirituality is not religion, at least not as it is used here. Religion is simply one of many possible means of expressing one’s spirituality. William James, a religious philosopher, defined religion as ‘an attempt to be in harmony with an unseen order of things.’ Paraphrasing James, one might define spirituality as ‘a need to be in harmony with an unseen order.’ This definition embraces a wide range of cultural beliefs, philosophies, and religions.”
Ikerd proceeds to quote statements defining spirituality from a variety of cultures, but he summarizes them by saying:
A common thread of all these expressions of spirituality is the existence of an unseen order or interconnected web that defines the oneness of all things within a unified whole. We as people are a part of this whole. We may attempt to understand it and even influence it, but we did not create nor can we control it. Thus, we must seek peace through harmony within the order of things beyond our control. This harmony may be defined as “doing the right things.” And, by “doing the right things;” for ourselves, for others around us, and for those of future generations, we create harmony and find inner peace.
As a student of mythology and ritual, I must also ask what the symbolism of this transition may be for our time. On some level, whether conscious or unconscious, we are all aware of the dire predicament in which we and our planet are mired at this point in human history. In fact, I believe that through a return to sustainable agriculture and in the very act of growing our own food, some aspect of the human psyche is bowing to the earth and the sacred in gratitude for and resonance with the elements of the soil from which we have evolved. The ramifications of this in our lives and our communities have been and may well continue to be astounding—a renewed reverence for the earth, a heightened appreciation for nutrition and the health benefits of organic food, a deepened connection with our families and communities around growing and eating food in our local place, and enmeshing local foodsheds directly with local economic development to name only a few.
The opposite of the sacred, of course, is the profane. Something in our ancient memory understands that mindlessly-manufactured and technologically-tortured so-called food constitutes the most profane of substances which are unfit to be ingested in human bodies. The more deeply immersed we are in the sanctity of food and its origins, the more we are likely to be repelled by processed, genetically modified, and chemically-laden foods that have been produced by way of massive resource and ecological destruction, and which deliver more of the same to our physiology.
The sacred within us instinctively resonates with the sanctity of food. Therefore, the growing, transporting, distribution, and consumption of food are sacred acts that deserve ritual and reverence from the moment the seed is planted in the earth to the moment we have washed and put away the plate on which our food was served.
How then specifically do we respond when we return to the reality of food as sacred?
Peter Bolland in his article “The Sacrament Of Food,” says that “Maybe the most sacred space in your home is not the yoga room, or the altar with the candle, or the chair by the window where you meditate and pray. Maybe the most sacred room in your house is the kitchen.” But our interaction with food begins far in advance of preparing it in the kitchen. Here are some suggestions for cultivating more mindful reverence in our relationship with food:
- Know exactly where your food comes from. Read labels, ask questions, and research sources for whole, organic foods in your region.
- Consider becoming a community supported agriculture (CSA) member which allows you to buy directly from the farmer or grower.
- Give thanks when you shop—thank the food you purchase, thank market staff, and give thanks that you can afford to shop.
- Commit to purchasing 10% or more of food that is grown locally.
- Mindfully plan your meals. Perhaps it won’t be possible for you to eat at home today or tomorrow or the next day because you are traveling or because of time constraints. Plan a strategy for eating in places where nourishing food is served or plan to bring healthy snacks with you.
- Take a moment or two to stop before eating and give thanks for your food. Remember to thank the people who grew, harvested, transported, and distributed your food. Thank plants and animals for their lives and the sacrifice they made with their lives so that you can be fed.
- Regularly enjoy food with family and friends. Cook and eat meals together. Share the sacrament of food with each other in potlucks or other gatherings.
- Occasionally share extra food or leftovers with neighbors or people who are not in your family or circle of friends. In a world of skyrocketing food prices and climate change, food “security” may become increasingly “insecure,” and sharing food with others communicates a subtle message that you are concerned about their well being in hard times. Reaching out in this way encourages reciprocity around food so that when someone has little or no food, others are more motivated to share.
While eating is a political and an economic act, it is also a sacrament. How we eat matters not only to ourselves but to everyone else, or in the words of Peter Bolland, “The way we eat is the way we live. How we eat is who we are. Let us affirm that which is best in us and in each other through the sacrament of food.”