This past weekend, on a visit to my soon-to-be mother-in-law’s house, I was remembering my first few years as a newly converted natural foodie. I was about 19 and heavily into macrobiotics. In those days (the mid-1980s), macrobiotics focused on a very simple diet primarily of brown rice, cooked vegetables, beans, and seaweed. Dairy in all its forms was completely out, as was any sugar–except that we were still using brown rice syrup and barley malt as our “binge foods.” Meat was off the menu too, except for the very rare occasion of having some fish.
Imagine my poor mother that first year I came home for Thanksgiving after leaving the nest now in what I lovingly remember as my “macro-neurotic” state.
There I was: refusing the turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy while asking to have the stuffing made with whole-grain bread and saying things like, “Mom, don’t kill me by putting butter or turkey stock in the stuffing! I won’t eat it!”
Not one morsel of pumpkin pie, not one bite of a chocolate chip cookie (my mom’s specialty), or one spoonful of Jell-O Supreme passed by my lips that Thanksgiving—or for several ensuing Thanksgivings, and Christmases for that matter.
Not one of those events passed without me living in a state of self-satisfied righteousness, a mélange of superiority mixed with pity for those not enlightened enough to get on the obvious right eating path. Right eating path to what? I’m not sure I even knew. I was just sure that I was on it and that my relatives were not.
Ah, blind youth. I’ve since apologized to my mother many times and have put that apology in action over and over again as I continue to unfold the yogic practices of ahimsa and loving-kindness. Ahimsa is an interesting concept and one that I dare say I’ve seen many struggle with, especially as it relates to food. Ahimsa is one of the five yamas, or ethical precepts from the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. I’d love to quote Judith Hanson Lasater here from an article she wrote in Yoga Journal.
“The first yama is perhaps the most famous one: ahimsa, usually translated as ‘nonviolence.’ This refers not only to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or thoughts. What we think about ourselves or others can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm. To practice ahimsa is to be constantly vigilant, to observe ourselves in interaction with others and to notice our thoughts and intentions. Try practicing ahimsa by observing your thoughts when a smoker sits next to you. Your thoughts may be just as damaging to you as his cigarette is to him.”
While for many, the practice of ahimsa translates to their choice of what not to eat (like animal products, for example), what I began to discover was that it wasn’t just what I chose to eat that dictated my success in the practice but how I chose to express those choices. In the case of my early macrobiotic holiday meals, my guess is a little less judgment (OK, a lot less judgment), would have caused far less harm than a little consumption of meat and sugar.
Whether you are a vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, or carnivore, the most interesting yogic question in my opinion is: With what thoughts, feelings, and energy toward others and toward yourself are you bringing to the meal?
This past weekend, as I stood in my fiancé’s mother’s kitchen helping to prepare a meal that included stewed beef and processed rice, I chose to stir in a very important ingredient: I added a good dose of laughter and the joy at sharing a meal together to the pot. I didn’t do this because it was the “spiritual” thing to do, but because it sprang from a sincere desire to love and experience open-hearted ahimsa.
Jim’s mom was admittedly nervous at first, saying that she was a bit intimidated by the thought of cooking with an executive chef—and that was just about the cooking process itself, not even the “what” of what we were cooking. Imagine if I had walked in there with any level of judgment about what we should or shouldn’t be eating? I checked every morsel of judgment I could find sneakily hiding in my subconscious at the door.
While I do feel that whole, natural, local, vegetarian foods really can be the poster child for eating with the spirit of ahimsa, I’m also grateful that I have seen how the power of loving-kindness is like a magic elixir when added to any recipe.
What do you think? What are your experiences with eating with others who hold different food values or have very different eating styles?