Vedanta in America: Giving thanks for food

For Thanksgiving, we welcome back ReadTheSpirit Vedanta correspondent Lynne Schreiber. Religious traditions from Asia are blossoming around the world and ReadTheSpirit is working hard to help English-language readers learn from these many different perspectives. The term “Vedanta” refers to spiritual movements that stem from the ancient religious traditions of India.

For this month’s report, Lynne writes about spiritual attitudes toward food.

Enjoying Our Meals—in Gratitude
Feasting on Eastern Wisdom

By Lynne Meredith Schreiber

Food is a linchpin as 2010 turns toward 2011. This time of year, families celebrate and fast—satiate ourselves and deprive ourselves. We say blessings over food. We restrict food according to belief and tradition. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s celebrations in America—food is always at our fingertips.

This year, though, I keep thinking about a line from a yoga master: “I don’t want to ingest suffering.” Vedanta calls us to think about our relationships to food in new ways. Since I began studying Vedanta, I have been thinking in new ways about all the things I do in every single minute—including the foods I choose to eat. Every choice we make leaves an imprint on the world.

We can learn from nature, Vedanta teaches. In the wild, animals follow their own nature—only disrupting their natural patterns under great stress. Living on their own in the natural world, we don’t find obese animals.

The human species is another story. We eat far beyond satiation. We stumble into psychological warfare through the foods we choose to eat. We eat to assuage guilt, to repair broken hearts, to convince people to love us, to reassure. We feed people to feel a sense of power, of comfort, of importance, of nostalgia. Food is so much more than sustenance for humans.

Balancing Food and the Fullness of Life in Vedanta

Earlier this fall, Swami Parthasarathy, the great Vedanta scholar from India, said, “The whole mission in life is to control the mind. If a human being doesn’t control the mind, it can devastate him. The mind is powerful, not stifling, not strangling. Govern it, guide it properly. If you don’t, it will have a disastrous effect.”

Swamiji said, “If you want to control your mind, vegetarian food is the most conducive choice. A mango seed planted in India grows into a beautiful tree. The soil is conducive for growth of the plant. Vegetarianism is conducive for keeping the mind under control.”

Around the world, food flows through our spiritual traditions. There are blessings for every kind of meal, even for snacks. Whole religions grew out of seasonal worship, celebrating harvest and rain, planting and sowing.

Yoga is not a religion, but it bears the same tenets and wise paths of its Eastern origins. Swami Vishnudevananda expressed, in his five essential points of yoga—also known as the five principles for physical and mental health as well as spiritual growth—that proper diet is equal to exercise, breath, relaxation, meditation.

“Besides being responsible for building our physical body, the foods we eat profoundly affect our mind,” he said. “For maximum body-mind efficiency and complete spiritual awareness, yoga advocates a lacto-vegetarian diet. The yogic diet is a vegetarian one, consisting of pure, simple, natural foods which are easily digested and promote health. Simple meals aid digestion.”

Those choosing this path are encouraged to gain understanding of nutrition to balance their spirit. It’s an age-old lesson that modern foodies are adopting in spades: Know where your food comes from, opt for those as close to the source as possible, unadulterated—free of chemicals, pesticides and, as in the above quote, suffering.

Why Vedanta Emphasizes Vegetarian Diet

The cycles of nature, according to Swami Vishnudevananda, begin with the sun—the source of energy for all life on earth. The sun nourishes the plants at the top of the food chain. Animals consuming food at the top of the food chain have the greatest life-promoting properties. “The food value of animal flesh is termed as ‘second-hand’ source of nutrition, inferior in nature,” he said.

“Eat to live, don’t live to eat.” The purpose of eating, said Vishnudevananda, is to supply ourselves with life force, Prana, vital life energy.

Vedanta shows us that often our hunger can go far beyond mere physical sustenance. Look closely: We confuse hunger for emotion. We hunger for love, for acceptance, for respect, for happiness, for power. The main difference between Eastern and Western approaches to consumption is this: Limiting ourselves to “enough” is a deep spiritual value in the East; there are few limits to consumption in Western culture.

Perhaps that is why so many millions are drawn to practice yoga, and as a by-product, begin to stumble into the teachings that created the physical practice of yoga. A good mind-body workout can lead to deeper thoughts about our diet as well.

Celebrating Gratitude at the Holidays

All too often at this time of year, we consume—and we are consumed. When I was an Orthodox Jew, it seemed like our lives revolved around food: the foods we could not eat because they were not kosher, the cities we wanted to live in because they had more kosher restaurants and grocery stores, the foods I’d make for the two weekly elaborate Sabbath meals and the mandate to have meat at the holiday table, symbolic of the richness of the day. The mere prohibition of certain foods led me to over-consume the approved foods, during approved times. Before and after a 25-hour fast like Yom Kippur or Tisha B’Av, we filled up far more than we would have at a normal meal.

The same patterns flow through other religious traditions. Millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians are in the midst of their Nativity Fast now—with major feast days yet to come. Western Christians joke every year about the splurging of American Christmas and the purging of New Year’s diets.

This year, we might all consider the spiritual wisdom of Vedanta concerning food. And, one of those central lessons lies in simply giving thanks. In some Vedic circles, people sign letters and emails: in gratitude. What a fitting idea in the American Thanksgiving week! Although this holiday focuses around the traditional foods of this harvest season, it is really about showing gratitude, regardless of ethnic or religious origin.

Ultimately, our choices build us—not our observances, which we may wind up performing by rote. Every day, we carve out our belief system anew, and this time of year we make many of our choices through food. I am not vegetarian—but I do pay attention to how much meat I eat, aware finally of the consequences of that choice. Shouldn’t compassion be the very foundation of our spiritual awakening?

This year, make your choices meaningful. Make your flavors sing.

LYNNE MEREDITH SCHREIBER is a nationally known author and freelance writer who is a regular correspondent on Vedanta for ReadTheSpirit. She also is owner and chief creative officer of Your People LLC, a PR, maketing and business development company in suburban Detroit.

Great background reading: Here is Lynne’s overview of Vedanta, published in July 2010.

Are you a film and Sci-Fi fan? Planning to watch the newly released DVD version of “Avatar” this week? Here is a story Lynne reported about the ancient spiritual roots of themes celebrated in the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar.”

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