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All You Can Eat

In America, eating is often overlaid with meaning or divorced from meaning, but it can also serve as a vehicle of awakening.

By Mark Epstein, M.D.

Food Offering

"How can I know God?" Ram Dass once asked his guru. "Feed everyone," Neem Karoli Baba replied without hesitation. As someone whose family took pride in parsimonious dinner portions and the absence of dessert, the idea of the importance of food intrigued me. Didn't the spiritual path demand abstinence? What did eating have to do with wisdom? I assumed Neem Karoli Baba was speaking metaphorically, until I visited his temple and saw for myself.

Some years after I first heard Ram Dass tell his story, I travelled to Vrindavan, India, to the dedication of a murti, or monument to his guru's memory. Vrindavan is known as the birthplace of Krishna, a holy city whose very ground is worshipped as the body of the god. Neem Karoli Baba's temple was one of hundreds in the town, but true to his teachings, its dedication was an opportunity for a huge feast. Great vats of food were prepared by Indian devotees. Longtime followers of Maharaj-ji (the more familiar name for the guru) took the honor of serving lunch to the crowds. People came from all over the city and countryside and waited patiently for their portions, lines snaking outside of the temple courtyard as far as the eye could see. An air of quiet celebration, of peaceful satiety, dominated. There was enough for everyone, even the dogs.

The power of this simple teaching, "Feed everyone," is inescapable in as vivid a landscape as India's, where poverty hangs like the smoky haze of millions of outdoor cooking fires. In America, where starvation comes in emotional as well as physical forms, the maxim is no less powerful. What does it mean to feed everyone in a country where most people have enough to eat, where obesity is a national pastime, and where, despite our relative abundance, we are still loaded down with issues about food? The answer to this question has to do with recovering the celebratory aspects of the everyday. At Maharaj-ji's ashram the simple act of serving and taking lunch was an occasion for festivity and joy. Eating became a pure act of grace and gratitude. In America, eating can be either overlaid with meaning or divorced from meaning altogether, but it rarely serves as a vehicle of awakening to the spirituality of the everyday.

I found myself reflecting on Maharaj-ji the other morning while listening to a 40-year-old female patient tearfully berate herself for her inability to lose weight. Lonely and sad, her future, in her eyes, seemed bleak. "My clothes keep getting tighter and tighter and I'm never going to meet anyone and it's not fair," Chloe murmured. She kept turning to food to try to fill her emotional needs, but the short-term satisfactions always led to long-term frustrations.

An image of Maharaj-ji's temple celebration floated through my mind as she talked—so much food being offered in the midst of so much need. What struck me in my reverie was the pure joy at the ashram, not just of giving, but of consuming. The pleasures of food and the pleasures of devotion are linked in a capacity to appreciate the wonders of the everyday.

My patient, however, seemed to be treating food as a substitute for emotional gratification; it was as dangerous to her as it was comforting. Food had taken on so many overtones that she had lost touch with the simple act of eating.

Spending the bulk of her time avoiding temptation, Chloe periodically dropped her restraint and gorged herself past the point of fullness. She tried to discipline herself, dieting for days at a time, but always succumbed to another binge sooner or later, dropping her resolve and devouring forbidden foods with abandon. Caught in this cycle of deprivation, indulgence, self-criticism, and shame, she was never really nourished. Maharaj-ji said, "Feed everyone." What could I find to feed her?

My patient pulled me back from my reflections. She was crying softly. "Maybe you're ready to take this on in a different way," I suggested. A line from Vivekananda danced in my head: "The mind is a terrible master but a wonderful servant." Trying to control herself through self-denial, Chloe was becoming more and more frustrated. She was unable to master herself but could not envision another approach. What could we do, I wondered, to change her from a failed master to a devoted servant?

Feed Yourself First

I knew that meditation and yoga held the key to turning this kind of problem around. Spiritual practice involves an obsessional, or ritualized, repetition of exercises designed to open the practitioner to what is already present. Whether it is watching the breath, observing thoughts, or repeating an asana, the repetitive quality helps us break through to an appreciation of how things really are. One of the great lessons of spiritual practice is that we can only push against ourselves so much. No matter how strongly we want to master an asana, we eventually come up against our own physical limits. At that point we have to let go. Chloe was having trouble accepting her need to eat. The key to her predicament was not abstinence but sustenance.

Just as alcoholics are helpless to stop drinking once they have begun, Chloe could not interrupt her food compulsion once she was feeling any kind of physical or emotional deprivation. She was not the strong, self-sufficient, independent person she thought she should be; she was someone who could not handle even the slightest feeling of need. To protect herself, I suggested, she might have to eat as many as six times a day, at prescribed times and defined intervals, so that deprivation did not build up. If she let herself fall behind, her hunger would provoke binging. As in yoga and meditation, the key to managing her obsession with food lay in becoming obsessional about it. She had to think about food all the time, to give it priority in her life, in order to take care of herself properly. She had to learn to feed herself, rather than pretend that she could handle being hungry.

There is a story about Krishna, the god of binging without purging, in whose birthplace Maharaj-ji dwelt. From the time of his childhood, he was known affectionately as the butter thief, "butter" being the term for the curdled milk he was so fond of. People used to hide in the kitchen to watch the small, dark-skinned child steal from the butter jar, so great was his pleasure at the taste. His desire was so pure and his enjoyment so thorough that watching him eat evoked ecstasy in the onlookers. There was no residue to Krishna's enjoyment, no leftover dissatisfaction or guilt or shame.

At times, it seemed as if he would eat anything. His mother once pulled him off the ground in horror as she saw him eating the very dirt of the village. She pried open his mouth to look inside and suddenly found herself staring into a mountain where his uvula should have been, a lake in his right tonsil. The entire universe, of which she herself was a part, swirled within the baby god's mouth. Krishna had the capacity to meet desire head on and satisfy it completely. In feeding himself, he fed everyone.

There was something in this story that Chloe needed to hear. She was not feeding herself properly. If she was at a party where people were eating birthday cake, she would resist the dessert but then gorge herself when she was home later.

She approached such events hoping each time that it would be different, yet each time she was disappointed. "You'd think after 25 years I'd know better," she said ruefully. But when I suggested that she fix herself something to eat in those situations, she looked at me incredulously.

"You could think of it as an offering to Krishna," I suggested. After all, if we have to feed everyone to know God, we certainly have to feed ourselves. In overlaying food with so much emotional meaning, in trying to use it for nourishment that it is not capable of providing, Chloe had lost touch with the simple joy that eating can be. To that end, she had also lost touch with herself. Maharaj-ji's teachings were about recovering the joy that is inherent in the everyday, not by deprivation but by celebration.

In the baby Krishna's entirely unselfconscious approach to life lay a model Chloe could appreciate. But it was no longer happening naturally for her. Just as some of us have to make a routine out of meditation or yoga to remind ourselves of the simple joys of the everyday, Chloe had to practice feeding herself.

Sometimes it takes being obsessional to remind us of our true natures. And sometimes the trick to weighing less is eating more.

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Reader Comments

Don't understand

Why is the "only" issue always overweight? Can we please discuss why? I'd like to see more ideas on career path, spiritual path, vocation. The only reason people are overweight is because they take in more units of calories than they expend. Think of taking 10 oz. of water into a cup when you only can have 5 oz. or else you overflow. Keep a stairmaster in the kitchen and a yoga mat. I do. I fight to keep weight on to look healthy.

Trish DAvis

Excellent article - I really enjoyed it - especially the way of thinking about feeding those around us in a society ""blessed" with an overabundance of food.

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