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From Keys to the Open Gate

Food Meditation

Anyone who has ever been on a strict diet is familiar with the following eating meditation:

Take a small handful of raisins or nuts. Eat them one at a time, paying strict attention to taste, smell, texture. Don't let your mind wander, but concentrate on each little morsel of food as it enters your mouth, as you chew and swallow, savoring the taste. Let the taste sensation completely disappear before you place another bite in your mouth. Compare this with the way you normally eat a handful of raisins or nuts. Try to eat an entire meal with this type of careful attention to what you are eating, chewing, swallowing.

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Fasting is a traditional way to purify the body and spirit; here it is dedicated to world peace.

A Reflection on Fasting by Mary Collins, OSB

In their pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, the US Catholic bishops call the Christian community to fast for the cause of peace.

As a tangible sign of our need and desire to do penance, we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fasting and abstinence on each Friday of the year. We call upon our people voluntarily to do penance on Friday by eating less food and by abstaining from meat. This return to a traditional practice of penance, once well observed in the US church, should be accompanied by works of charity and service toward our neighbors. Each Friday should be a day significantly devoted to prayer, penance and almsgiving for peace.

The New Testament's answer to the question, "Why should we fast?" is "As a sign of your love." Fasting is not an end in itself. Love has to do with relationships, and fasting can lead us to a better understanding of our essential relationships with ourselves, with others, with the planet earth, and with God. Fasting and abstinence may well be a starting point for spiritual growth toward greater love among the well-fed congregations in this affluent society, protected by a bloated nuclear arsenal.

The New Testament does not guarantee a positive outcome for fasting. Fasting can get side-tracked into dieting. Fasting which will result in deepening love must begin in love and abide in it. Yet a loving decision to forego the joy of uncontrolled eating for a single day out of each seven can put us in touch immediately with our dependence on our own gratification for a sense of well-being. Our initial efforts to fast may reveal that we do indeed live "by bread alone." What then?

A time of fasting is a time of testing human readiness to wait on God. Do we trust that God lives, that God cares, that God loves and keeps the earth and all who live on it? Have we the humility to yield control to God? Fasting in faith can lead us more deeply into the mystery of God with us and in us, and so restore human hope grown weary, love grown cold.

The New Testament regularly associates fasting and prayer and almsgiving. So does the peace pastoral. Both prayer and almsgiving move the center of our fasting beyond our preoccupation with ourselves toward a center of love. If we dare to discover hunger symbolically through a day of fasting each week, a further decision to complement that fast with almsgiving will force us to look around for hungry people.

A day of fasting and involvement with the hungry can draw us further into understanding the complexity of our social reality. We might become more curious about the fat defense budgets and their relationship to unemployment, underemployment, inflation, empty stomachs. We might get more interested in the chain of world food production, which keeps our supermarkets and tables loaded while keeping the world's agricultural workers malnourished, feeding instead the workers' resentment of us and our way of life.

This simple discipline, practiced and continually reflected on, can be a sign of our deepening conversion to the mystery of a love powerful enough to redeem the world.

Mary Collins, OSB

The Fire of Peace: A Prayer Book
Compiled and edited by Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, Pax Christi USA, 1992

Try fasting for half a day. Then a day. Fasting helps to break our attachment to everything we cling to, not just food.
In Islam, fasting from sun-up to sunset is required during Ramadan, roughly one month out of the year. It is recommended at other times to allow a person to detach from desires and rest in dhikr. The basic principle of dhikr, which is remembrance or invocation of Allah, is to bring a person into a state where there are no thoughts, thereby becoming neutralized or cleansed.

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You are not a Muslim if there is one person in your neighborhood who goes to sleep hungry."
---Muhammed

The Prophet on Fasting

The Prophet said, "For how many people does fasting bring nothing other than hunger and thirst?"

The Prophet once heard a woman neighbor cursing her servant. He sent her some food, and she sent back a message saying that she was fasting. He said, "How can you be fasting, and yet curse your servant? What is the use of your fast?" We cannot take just one portion of our path. We cannot take only the outer practices without the inner meaning. What is the inner meaning of fasting? The real meaning, the inner secret, is for one's heart to fast from anything other than Allah.

Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri
Living Islam: East and West
Element Books, London, 1989

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Since women are so often the ones in charge of preparing food, it is only natural that reform concerning the rules and regulations which govern the kitchen should start with them.

Kashrut

The creation of new kinds of community is one vital component of a feminist Judaism. Within Jewish communities seeking to connect faith and politics, new content poured into traditional Jewish ceremonies and forms often provides connections between visions of social and religious transformation and the basic rhythms of everyday life. The consonance of purpose between law and prophecy--to connect faith with the whole of reality--can be enacted in ritual and law attuned to the demands of justice. Thus, coming out of new Jewish communities, a number of Jewish feminists and other progressive Jews have called for a set of dietary laws (kashrut) that reflect the feminist value of connection to other persons and a wider web of life. Kashrut is already a system reminding us of the sanctity of animal life, and some have suggested that, for the sake of this sanctity as well as for the sake of preserving grain for the hungry, we extend this reminder to a full vegetarianism. Kashrut already tells us that "we are what we eat," and many values central to contemporary progressive food practices and to feminist concerns about sexuality and embodiment can be included in an expanded system of kashrut. Concern for protecting our bodies might take the form of prohibiting foods that are grown with pesticides or that contain carcinogens or hormones. Concern over the rise of hunger might be expressed in the form of a special blessing before or after meals and a commitment to set aside a proportion of the cost of all meals to feed the hungry. Concern about the exploitation of workers and planting of monocrops on lands needed for local agricultural production might lead to forbidding foods that are the product of exploitation and oppression. In these ways, kashrut, which has been a central dimension of Judaism as a system of separations and distinctions, can also be a vehicle for connecting Jews to others without losing its meaning as a marker of Jewish distinctiveness and identity. Such a new kashrut would turn the simple everyday act of eating into an aspect of the continuing quest for justice.

Judith Plaskow
Standing Again at Sinai
New York, HarperCollins, 1990

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At mealtimes in Soto Zen monasteries, monks and laypeople chant: "Seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us." The number seventy-two refers to the posts within the monastery, including those of abbot, administrators, cook, etc. Simultaneously, the number represents all efforts that contribute to life inside and outside of the monastery, past or present. This little chant expresses appreciation for benefits being received, and dedicates the merit generated by their use back out into the world.
Abbess Koei Hoshino practices shojin cooking, a method of cooking vegetarian food developed by Zen monks and nuns to aid their spiritual practice. The word "shojin" is composed of the Chinese characters for "spirit" and "to prepare." The tradition includes not only the immediate preparation of food in a mindful way, but every aspect of the process from the cultivation of plants to placing the food on the table. Perhaps you can use this method as you prepare food to become more mindful in and out of the kitchen.

Shojin Cooking

Every aspect of life is spiritual practice. In Zen we say, "always, everyday life." This means that everything in life is training. That's how I have lived my life. So I never think of cooking as something separate from spiritual life. . . .
In the beginning of the process, I think of those who will be given the food to eat. But then, as the process of preparing food takes over, there is mu (nothingness), as we say in Zen. I don't think of anything. The mind enters a state in which it is not caught up in anything. It is then that one is able to do one's best cooking. So, if you are thinking, "Let's prepare this well for others" or "Let's offer our affectionate heart in preparing this food" you will know your practice is still shallow. When you are doing your best, you get to the point where you are just doing your best, not thinking of it."

From an interview with Theresa King
in The Spiral Path, Yes International Publishers, St. Paul, MN, 1992.

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Cooking Exercise

The next time you cook, pay close attention to every single action that you perform in the kitchen. Don't think about what you have to do later in the day or what you did that morning. Think about the potato you are peeling, the carrot you are cutting in long, thin strips. Look at the color of the vegetable in your hand, examine its various features. Cut it open and appreciate its complexity and variety--the seeds or the pattern. Taste it, feel its texture. Think about where it came from, how it grew in the sun, how it was washed with the rain. Contemplate its harvest, its journey from the field to the store or supermarket. Appreciate every item of food that you prepare. Be with the food, don't be somewhere else. Cut it carefully. Cook it mindfully. Pay attention.

Dishwashing Exercise

As you wash dishes, keep your consciousness focused on your actions: your hand as it turns on the tap, as it pours out the soap. With a relaxed, open mind, be aware of yourself putting each plate into the water, wiping it clean, rinsing it, putting it on the rack to dry. This sounds easy to do, but is surprisingly difficult. The mind tends to "space out" after a few dishes and to forget all about doing the exercise. When you remember, simply bring your consciousness right back to the task at hand. No need to tell yourself that your mind is like a flea the way it hops around or that you really should learn to concentrate. Just bring the mind back into focus. By doing this as daily practice, you can train the mind to concentrate--and also get a lot of dishes done.

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Also see A Taste of Heaven and Earth: A Zen Approach to Cooking and Eating by Bettina Vitell.
Macrobiotic cooking provides a deeply spiritual approach to food, stressing harmonious balancing of yin and yang as well as mindful attention to ingredients and their preparation. Vivian Eggers, who lives on Maui, began her studies at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and continued them at the Kushi Institute in Boston. She often cooks for religious retreats.

Harmony through Macrobiotics

Kimberley: What's the theory behind macrobiotic cooking?
Vivian Eggers: Basically, it's the understanding of the principles of yin and yang and its application to food and the condition of the body. Yin is basically expansive energy and yang is contractive energy, and there are many different words to describe the qualities of expansion and contraction: lightness and darkness, male and female. One of the most basic points for understanding this is through the seasons and the transformation of the seasons. Summer is hot, everything is lush and green, the birds are out singing every day. It's an expansive time. Then this changes and shifts and goes all the way around to its opposite in the winter when the leaves are gone, it's barren and cold, the land is frozen. We stay inside trying to keep warm and retain heat. Yin and yang are very real, very manifest in daily life. So when you start thinking in terms of yin and yang it's like being given new tools for seeing.
Within that energy system, there are many correlations with the body, each organ corresponds to each of the five elements--fire, earth, water, air, and metal. And each element has a particular energy. That's what one studies in acupuncture or shiatsu as well as macrobiotic cooking so that you understand the sensitivity of the organs to a particular time of year, to a particular time of day, to a particular color, to a particular emotion, to a particular food. In macrobiotic cooking, you study the whole body, not just how to cut up carrots.
K: You just spoke of metal energy. What is it?
V: We're sitting here now in a country setting where there's a lot of earth energy, but in the background, we hear a truck on the highway. That's metal energy. It moves very quickly, it cuts through air energy, through earth energy. Look at these scissors, they're made of energy, strong, solid, cutting. They're good example of metal energy.
K: What food has metal energy?
V: Brown rice, for instance. It's strong, and supports metal energy in the human body.
K: Let's take one day in the life of a macrobiotic cook. How would you approach cooking for a family?
V: First, an assessment of my own condition, by checking in with myself in the morning to see how I feel. What color is my skin? What's going on with my eyes? How's my tongue? Are my fingers or toes cold? All those little things. If there's a complaint--a headache, menstrual cramps--your body will let you know immediately. So this influences what I'm going to ingest throughout the day. If I'm cooking for children, then I go and be with them: Hello, how are you? How did you sleep last night? What's going on with your body?
K: You have to be conscious of not only what's being prepared and how it's presented, but also who is going to eat it and how it effects them on an internal level?
V: Absolutely. Initially, it sounds like a lot of work, but it's not. It's as easy as riding a bicycle. When you first teach a child how to ride a bicycle, you tell her that she needs to sit on the seat, to balance, to pedal, to hold onto the handle bars and steer, go at a certain speed, so on and so forth. But doing it is really easy. And of course, the more you do it, the more you learn. This is a study I've been involved with for maybe fourteen years now and every time I cook for a group of people or go through a process with my own health, I'm still learning. It's an expansion process, like being handed a flower that gradually unfolds over a period of years.
K: What all is involved?
V: In addition to nutrition, macrobiotics deals with the energetics of food, the energy of the cook and how important that is. Being aware that you're not putting anger in the food, and so forth. Plus the style of cutting and how that influences not only the taste of the dish, but it's energy.
If you're cutting carrots, for instance, the way you cut creates a particular energetic quality. If I take the carrot and make big diagonal cuts by turning the carrot every inch, I end up with large triangular pieces, suitable for a stew. If I take the carrot and make quick short cuts on the diagonal, say an eighth of an inch, then turn these pieces over and cut them very finely, I end up with long fine match-stick shaped carrots. Now if I put them both into a large stew pot and cook them for an hour, the large pieces will be tender, the skin of the carrot will have lightly separated from it. However, the match-stick carrots will be completely exhausted. On the other hand, if I saute both of them in a skillet, the match-sticks will be done in a matter of minutes, where the others will be somewhat warmed and seared on the outside, but completely raw on the inside. So one of the fundamentals of macrobiotic cooking is knowing how to use a knife to chop vegetables so there is a uniform cut and consistency to them. Also, when you cut, you put your own ki [energy] into them as opposed to using a Cuisinart where you get a consistent cut, but no ki energy. If you want to give someone your ki, then the stronger food is the one you've cut by hand and put your energy into.
Food preparation becomes a form of meditation because of your focus and awareness and intention to sustain those you feed, not just to get the meal out of the way. When I'm cooking for retreats, it becomes part of my practice. I try to go into the kitchen and remain centered and aware, creating the most peaceful food that I can, even if it's for a hundred and fifty or more people.
K: So instead of planning the menu a week in advance, you have to be constantly mindful what you need, of what your body needs, what other people need.
V: Absolutely. You develop that, and it's quite easy. It just comes. I couldn't go back to the other way of cooking. Now I always consider who am I cooking for and what is the intention. It has become second nature. When I cook I'm always in a place of joy and pleasure internally.
K: How do you know if food is yin or yang? Does it change depending on how it is prepared?
V: Yin and yang are relative to each other. In the Taoist symbol, one area is predominately black, with a little dot of white, and vice versa. This perfectly depicts yin and yang in that they're connected to each other and even though a particular thing may have a predominantly yang quality, it still has a little bit of yin. Certain substances are very yang--salt and beef, for instance. But when you want to get into a fine comparison, you have to look at one food in relation to another.
The recommendation in macrobiotics is a grain-based diet. The main food you eat are grains, for they are our most gentle, peaceful, nurturing food, the ones with the most to give to sustain and develop human life. Within grains, brown rice is the focal point, the centering food. The rest branches out and develops around it.
K: Was all this developed before the theories about eating low on the food chain?
V: Long before, but it meshes beautifully with it. A cow is a large animal with its own digestive system, with a heart of its own, a circulatory system, a nervous system and so on. Before you can ingest it, you have to take its life in one way or another, then take the meat from its body in a good clean way and prepare it in a certain way, otherwise it becomes poisonous. Look at the activity that's involved in all of that. Of course in this modern day and age, we just go to the supermarket and run the cart down the meat aisle and choose a shrink wrapped package. It's not like it was several generations ago when people were involved in a personal way in taking the lives of the animal they would then eat. The modern meat industry has separated us from that process altogether. It's yet another way in which we are divorced from our bodies.
K: And perhaps from the sacred. Many native traditions honor the deer for giving its life so that the two-leggeds might eat. And from the way you talk about macrobiotic cooking, even vegetables seem filled with an almost animistic energy.
V: Absolutely, the mundane world becomes very precious. Macrobiotic cooking requires constant mindfulness. The meals that I would feed a troupe of exotic dancers from Armenia wouldn't be the same food that I would feed to group of nuns on retreat. There would be adjustments of the food, of the preparation, and the cooking technique.
Take grain, for instance. Most people take their grain in the form of bread. Even in whole grained-bread, the grain is crushed, ground into flour. Then it usually sits around a very long time until it is baked. By the time you get it, the grain has gone through quite a process. Where's the chi energy in it? As opposed to going to the store and buying brown rice, cooking it in your pressure cooker, then eating it by crushing the grain in your own mouth.
Digestion begins in the mouth, so macrobiotics recommends that each mouthful be chewed 25 to 50 times to bring out the sweetness of the grain. Also to really taste the grain. Many people completely miss the experience of truly tasting food. There is a textural change that occurs as well in long chewing so that digestion is much easier since the food liquifies. If you take time to just sit and eat slowly, you'll find that the food you are eating can be better utilized and that you'll eat less. You can eat smaller portions of food and be satisfied.
Macrobiotics is about having a rich, full, deep, healthy, independent life. Part of the reason for eating this way is to remove yourself from the dependency of drugstores and doctors or even holistic practitioners. In studying macrobiotics, you are removing yourself from all of this for you are studying your body and its relationship to this earth, to the elements. In choosing your foods with such awareness, many deep and profound changes occur within the body.
K: I think that most people's idea of macrobiotic food is that it is a very boring diet of brown rice.
V: Yes. Everywhere I travel people will say, "Oh, I did that macrobiotic diet." When I ask them what they ate, they say they cooked brown rice and miso soup. That's all I hear. Maybe they add aduki beans. That is pretty boring. But that isn't what macrobiotics is about and it's a great misunderstanding. Initially, Michio Kushi, who helped to popularize macrobiotics, promoted a basic macrobiotic diet consisting of a certain proportion of brown rice to beans to a sea vegetable to a root vegetable to a pickle accompanied by miso soup. That's what I call the training wheel diet. So this is a guideline. The foundation is brown rice and miso soup, but true macrobiotic cooking spins out from there very, very quickly. To prepare a macrobiotic meal is a real spontaneous dance.
K: How would someone learn to cook macrobiotically?
V: They could start by seeking out a macrobiotic cook or center. There are people all over the United States. Also books are an excellent starting place. They provide information, bring up questions. The basic recipe book, Introducing Macrobiotic Cooking by Wendy Esko, is a primer that is very easy to understand; it teaches all the dishes in a straightforward way.
K: When I worked as a chef, I'd find myself having long, non-verbal conversations with food. Do you talk to food? Does it talk to you?
V: Absolutely.

Macrobiotic advocates teach that eating in harmony with your environment creates a balance and peace in your life that can be extended to your family, community, and eventually the world. A good thing to keep in mind the next time you sit down at a table for a meal.

Macrobiotic Resources

To learn more about the macrobiotic community contact The International Macrobiotic Directory, 1050 40th Street, Oakland, CA 94608. Michio and Avaline Kushi, who run the Kushi Institute in Boston, have a number of cookbooks out, including Michio Kushi's Standard Macrobiotic Diet, 1992, and The Macrobiotic Way, 1985). See also Aveline Kushi's Complete Guide To Macrobiotic Cooking and Lessons of Night and Day. She and Wendy Esko co-authored The Changing Seasons Cookbook and The Macrobiotic Cancer Prevention Cookbook. Cornelia Aihara, who--with her husband Herman--run the George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation and Vega Study Center in Oroville, CA, is the author of The Do of Cooking, Macrobiotic Kitchen, The Calendar Cookbook, and Macrobiotic Childcare. Andrea Bliss Lerman's The Macrobiotic Community Cookbook features recipes and short sketches of the chefs involved.

 

 

 
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