Food for the Wise

How We Become What We Eat

May 16, 2013    BY Carrie Demers

Long ago there lived a saınt ın a forest near the royal city, a very good and wise man, known and loved by the king. One day the king invited the saint to dine with him at the palace. The saint accepted the offer, and the two men enjoyed a hearty meal together.

Afterwards the king suggested that the saint rest awhile before returning to his hut, and led the holy man to the royal couple’s private chambers, where he took a short nap. When he awoke, the saint caught sight of a beautiful necklace belonging to the queen. It glittered with gems and gold, and his mind was mesmerized by it. “I need that necklace,” he thought. “I have no wealth, and no security for my old age. This is the perfect solution to my poverty. No one will ever suspect me.” So he tucked the necklace away in his robe and bid his host farewell.

Soon afterwards the queen noticed that the necklace was missing. The servants turned the palace upside down looking for it. The queen scolded and threatened, but to no avail—it was nowhere to be found, and none of the servants would admit to taking it, even after the beatings began.

Meanwhile, the saint began to fret about being caught with the stolen treasure. His mind raced. “They will never suspect me because of my spiritual stature. But what if they do? I will pay for this misdeed!” When he arrived home, he looked around anxiously, but the bare hut offered no hiding place that seemed safe enough. Distraught, he finally buried the necklace in the forest, carefully noting the place so he could find it again. He went to bed exhausted, but slept badly.

The next morning the holy man went outside to do his morning ablutions, and after passing stool and urine his mind became clearer. “What have I done!” he exclaimed. “Why did I steal that necklace? I’m a mendicant. What have I to do with loss and gain? What do I want with a necklace or with the money that such a piece would bring?”

Unable to comprehend his own actions, he returned to his hut and sat for his morning meditation, but he could not let go of his thoughts for long. His mind was caught in the maze: why had he stolen the necklace in the first place, and why had he been so fearful all night? Gradually, he came to the conclusion that his meal with the king must hold the answer. He realized that as long as the food was in his body, his thinking was distorted and it did not become really clear again until he had cleansed his body and quieted his mind for meditation.

Eager to test this theory, he unearthed the necklace and returned with it to the palace, which was abuzz with news of the theft. The saint told the king that he could help find the necklace if the king would answer a few questions. The king agreed readily. Although he was puzzled when the saint asked him about the origin of yesterday’s meal, he responded respectfully. 

After questioning the cook and the manager of the storehouse, they discovered that the grain—which formed the bulk of the meal—came from a village controlled by a wealthy and greedy lord. (In those days, it was customary for farmers to give part of their harvest to the king as a tax.) The landlord habitually stole from the villagers, collecting more grain than was required to meet the taxes, and selling the excess for his own profit. Hence, the grain was grown by people who were fearful and anxious—they knew they would be robbed at harvest time. The grain was further polluted by the greed of the landlord. Because the saint was so pure, his mind reflected the consciousness of what he had eaten strongly and immediately. Satisfied that he had found the cause of his derangement, the saint explained it to the king and returned the necklace.

Are We What We Eat?

We are accustomed to the idea that the chemical makeup of food affects our bodies, that proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, and vitamins are all absorbed and used by the tissues for maintenance, growth, and repair. But as this story suggests, food has other properties as well, properties that affect us at a deeper level. Does the origin of what we eat, how it is grown, processed, prepared, and eaten affect our mind and consciousness as well as our body? The sages would answer, “Of course!” According to the ancient texts these venerable scientists performed numerous experiments on themselves with a variety of foods, painstakingly documenting the results. What they discovered is that food is an embodiment of the life force; it affects us on all levels—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

In the West, we tend to think of food as fuel, ignoring its subtler effects. We know enough to say, “You are what you eat,” recognizing that our bodies are affected by our diet, but we never dream that there is a more profound interpretation of that saying—that we are, we assimilate at a deep level, the sum of the characteristics of the food we eat. In addition to absorbing the physical components such as calories, protein, and carbohydrates, we also assimilate the attitudes with which food has been grown, harvested, processed, and sold. Thus food has the potential to feed or starve our very souls.

Let’s examine this notion, beginning with flesh foods. Research shows that foods derived from animal flesh are harmful to humans. This is not just because flesh foods often contain high levels of cholesterol, although this is a part of the problem. Another part is that the animals have been fed hormones and antibiotics that remain in the meat and are transmitted to those who eat it. But the real problem, according to the ancients, is that the flesh of conscious beings carries within it the memory and the emotion of the kind of life they have led, and that by eating it we transfer these same tendencies (samskaras in yogic parlance) to ourselves.

This hypothesis bears closer examination. The direct effect of food on consciousness is not easily observed, especially if—unlike the saint in our story—we are living a hectic life, full of sensory stimulation. But the yogis insist that it has a cumulative effect, whether or not we can observe it. The effect is greater if the food carries an intense consciousness, as does the flesh of animals. Let’s take as an example cattle that are raised and slaughtered for profit. These cattle are bred, pastured, and later fattened in feedlots, so they have come to depend on humans. Their instinct for self-protection has been weakened by their trust in their caretakers. When they find themselves at the door of the slaughterhouse their survival instinct tells them they are going to be killed by the same beings they have come to look to for food and protection—they go to their deaths bewildered, angry, frightened, and desperate. These powerful negative emotions release a strong chemical into the bloodstream that permeates their flesh. It follows that those who habitually eat this flesh are taking within themselves the samskara of mistrust, anger, fear, and desperation.

The samskaras of non-flesh foods are not nearly as strong. The consciousness in fruits, vegetables, and grains is not so highly developed as the consciousness in animals. According to the yogis, the only way to contaminate plant food with strong negative samskaras is for it to be grown and harvested by people who are themselves extremely negative. Even then, the samskara will be weak because the consciousness of a carrot, for example, is itself quite weak.

On the other hand, the yogis tell us that grain has a greater power to absorb and transmit samskaras. Grain is seed. In addition to containing carbohydrates, protein, and oil, it has the ability to sprout and grow. Grain gathers samskaras more efficiently than do fruits and root vegetables, for example, and for this reason the yoga texts advise those who undertake the higher spiritual practices to increase the portions of wild grains, fruits, and vegetables in their diet, and reduce the amount of cultivated grain. In fact, according to the scriptures, wild grains and fruits are permitted during practices that require fasting. The samskaras of grain that has not been cultivated, as well as the samskaras of fruits and roots, are neutral; they will not affect the consciousness of the practitioner in any active way. 

Let’s take this link between food and consciousness one step further. In the wild, animals kill other animals for food—for survival. We humans kill domesticated animals for profit. And increasingly, family farms that were once the major source of our fruits, grains, and vegetables are giving way to giant food conglomerates where the only concern is for the bottom line. Thus, the consciousness we are absorbing when we eat mass-produced food is profit-oriented and business-oriented. If we are indeed affected by the samskaras of the food we eat, a steady diet of mass-produced food will eventually cause us to develop a convoluted relationship toward others—a customer/merchant relationship based on selfishness, greed, and the desire for gain.

How We Become What We Eat

Assuming for the moment that the yogis are correct when they say that food affects consciousness, it is reasonable to ask how this takes place. The answer offered by the science of Ayurveda is that food affects consciousness, first by affecting the three bodily humors, or doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha. Some foods are predominantly vatic, some pittic, and some kaphic. These humors in turn affect the mind, which then affects consciousness. Let’s see how this works in daily life. 

Food gives us life; therefore it is important that our food have life in it. Canned foods—or anything with a bar code—has lost its vitality. It does not enliven. It still has calories, but calories that are somehow deadening. The ancients called this quality tamasic—that which leads to a state of dullness, boredom, or lethargy. Food that is tamasic—dead, overly cooked, old, stale, fermented, or highly processed—has a dulling effect on the body and mind. It can lead to obesity even though it is lacking in nourishment. Those who build their diets around it are often overweight and undernourished at the same time.

Foods in which vata predominates are said to be rajasic. Such foods are agitating and overly stimulating to the body and mind. Sugar, caffeine, and highly spiced foods are rajasic. After eating them, our bodies grow restless, and our minds become overactive, critical, angry, and impatient. We often eat these foods to counter the dullness engendered by the tamasic foods we have just consumed. (How often do we reach for a cup of coffee or a caffeinated soda after eating a highly processed meal or snack?)

Those of us trying to live a yogic life strive to eat foods that lead to a state of calmness and clarity. Foods that are pitta-predominant nourish awareness and are said to be sattvic. Most fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes are sattvic, as are some dairy products—milk, ghee, and cheeses like paneer that have not been aged. Ideally, sattvic foods are grown and harvested without pesticides, herbicides, and harsh chemical fertilizers that damage the soil. Such foods are neither dulling nor stimulating. When we eat a sattvic diet our own intrinsic nature—calm, clear, and aware—has the opportunity to shine forth.

This is not to say that we should limit ourselves to sattvic foods. A healthy body needs the quality of solidity (kapha or tamas), energy (vata or rajas), and lightness (pitta or sattva). The optimal diet combines all of these, with sattva predominating. A diet so balanced leads to a body that has the qualities of weight and solidity while remaining light and energetic. Thus, what we eat affects our behavior and our energy body. The characteristics of the physical and energy bodies in turn are reflected in our mind and consciousness.

This is why the yogis tell us that the source and quality of our food is so important. Yet most of us are dependent on the food that is commercially available. We have little choice as to what type of food is sold. For the most part we do not know who grew it, how it was processed, or where it came from. Still, we do have some choices. We can avoid processed food and buy in its stead the freshest food available. We can encourage and take advantage of the trend toward organic food. We can patronize farmers’ markets. Those of us who eat animal products can buy eggs produced by free-range chickens and raw milk from cows that are well cared for. And we can pay attention to how our food is prepared and how we eat it.

The Cook as Spiritual Guardian

In India, where meditation has been a way of life for thousands of years, those who prepare the family food are dedicated to their art and valued for their skill. Here food and God, or Brahman, are recognized as one and the same. Preparing food thoughtlessly or ineptly is regarded as a form of sacrilege. Those who prepare food have the well-being of the household in their hands, for the sages say that if we prepare food while harboring angry, destructive thoughts, the food turns to poison.

Food gives life and connects us to the source of life. When we eat food prepared by those who do not care for us, those who are cooking for profit, and those who would rather be doing something else, we end up with physical and mental indigestion; we are absorbing the energy of the cook along with the energy of the food. According to the Puranas (ancient scriptures of India) selling cooked food is one of the worst sins imaginable. Food is to be offered to the god of fire, Vaishvanara, not to be treated as merchandise. And the Puranas warn that whenever the practice of selling cooked food becomes widespread, it is an unmistakable sign that the Kali Yuga (dark age or age of vice) has arrived.

Rather than relying on food prepared by others, we should cook for ourselves and our loved ones, or allow them to cook for us. The more time we spend handling and preparing our food, the stronger our relationship with it. When we prepare food our feelings automatically go into it, changing it in subtle but significant ways. When we buy commercially prepared food and simply heat it up, the food goes into our bodies without being mediated by our consciousness.

The stronger our link with what we eat, the more it nourishes us. The yogic method of testing this hypothesis is to experiment with it. Start slowly. Make a commitment to spend more time in the kitchen, preparing whole, fresh food once or twice a week. See what happens as you build a relationship with your food. Do you feel better? How does the food you prepare yourself compare with the prepared food you purchase? Watch and see how this changes as you become more attuned to your cooking.

In many quarters the reaction to this suggestion will be, “I simply don’t have time to cook. I’m barely managing as it is.” But stop and think what we are really saying when we insist that we have to eat on the run, that we do not have time to do our own cooking. By saying we do not have time to prepare food—that which sustains life—aren’t we saying we have no time for nurturing ourselves and those we love? Are we too busy because we are earning a living? Maybe—but what good is that living if we do not eat properly? And if we do not have time to approach food properly, we have no time for life.

How We Eat

Even if our food is fresh, nourishing, and lovingly prepared, we will not get its full benefit if we eat hurriedly and unconsciously or when we are out of sorts. Just as cooking in an angry state of mind degrades the quality of the food being prepared, so does eating when we are angry or upset. Further, food eaten on the run, or when the mind is in turmoil, cannot be digested properly. If you have done this, you know it sits like a lump in the pit of the stomach.

So it is best to eat only when we are calm and totally present, focusing on each bite with full awareness that it is life itself that is nourishing us. This can be challenging. Most of us eat on the run and have formed the habit of popping food in our mouth without paying much attention to what we are doing. Sometimes we hardly even taste it. Eating this way leads to a feeling of emptiness, and this is why we often find ourselves looking for a snack even when we have recently eaten a full meal.

If we find ourselves feeling stressed or out of sorts when mealtime rolls around, a few minutes of deep breathing or a walk around the block may quiet the mind so it can focus on the activity at hand. It is also helpful to pause and acknowledge the source of the food before we begin eating. This is why many cultures observe certain rituals before eating. In some, a portion of the food is removed and offered to domesticated animals or reserved for the poor. In others, a small portion of each dish is removed and offered into the fire in recognition of the forces that nourish us. A ritual such as this serves as a reminder that by eating we are connecting ourselves with the forces of nature—both known and unknown. To eat consciously is to acknowledge our connection with the source of our existence—which is not matter but spirit. Offering a portion of our food, even if only mentally, is a way of connecting ourselves with consciousness, which is our intrinsic nature.

That is why the yogis caution us to be mindful while we eat. Remember that food is the most basic link with the source of life. Be thankful for it, pray over it, honor it. We are not just filling our belly; we are nurturing our mind and spirit as well. Eating with full awareness puts us in harmony with nature—not only with the external world, but also our own inner nature. This creates better health, while strengthening our connection to our intuitive self. For when we are in tune with that wise part of ourselves, our thinking is clearer, we make decisions that better serve us, and we are drawn to what matters most in life.

In respecting this vehicle we have been given, and in honoring the food that nourishes it, we purify our bodies. In the East ritual offerings are made into a fire, and the smoke from such a fire is believed to have the power to purify. If the offering is tainted, the smoke is impure and taints all that it touches. The same holds true of our digestive fire; if we offer it trash, the impurities it yields affect our whole being. So let us offer into our own inner fire wholesome gifts that burn clean and yield a pure mind and body. Abiding by the laws of nature truly nourishes us in all ways. 

How Food Affects Us

Foods that increase life-span, mental essence, strength, health, comfort, and pleasantness, that are flavorful, unctuous, stable, and satisfying to the heart are the foods favored by the sattvic. Bitter, sour, salty, excessively hot, pungent, dry, and burning are the foods favored by the rajasic,  causing discomfort, depression, and illness. Not fully cooked, flavorless, smelly, stale, leftover by others, not fit as an offering is the food favored by the tamasic. —Bhagavad Gita 17:8-10

We all know that food plays a great part in human life. The best selling of all books are not bibles or other spiritual books but cookbooks. Our eating habits in the modern world both in the East and in the West create disasters in human life. The human being is obsessed with food, so much so that it seems that one is born only for eating. Modern man eats many times a day without knowing what comprises a nutritious diet. Taste has become predominant instead of nutrition in the formation of our dietary habits. Artificial foods are increasing daily. We have lost the sense of food value, and we eat foods that are unhealthy. Food that is not fresh or nutritious, that is leftover and full of spices or grease is unhealthy. Overeating and eating unfresh food and food that is full of fat and spices create many diseases. The mind and body are inseparable; if proper food is not supplied to the body, the mind is affected. Such tamasic food makes the mind dull, passive, and inert. On the other hand, rajasic food agitates the mind and creates hypertension; it is also unhealthy for the liver and hard on the kidneys. Rajasic food satisfies the senses, but it is not healthy physically or mentally. Neither is it healthy for those who want to tread the path of spirituality. Aspirants are advised that well-selected and well-prepared vegetarian food is healthier than a meat diet.

That food which does not cause inertia and heaviness and does not make one restless, lazy, or sleepy is called sattvic food. Those who eat sattvic food remain calm, quiet, and serene; those who eat rajasic food become agitated, angry, and worried; those who eat impure food and drink liquor are tamasic. Those who eat heavy food full of fat and who drink alcohol excessively suffer both physically and mentally.

Food plays an important role in thought, speech, and action: it has profound effects on all aspects of human behavior. Diet and environment are two important factors that play a great role in sadhana. A calm, quiet, and serene atmosphere and a simple, fresh, and nutritious diet are essential requisites for the sadhaka.

Carrie Demers
Carrie Demers MD, has practiced integrative medicine for 22 years. After earning her medical degree and becoming board-certified in internal medicine, Dr. Demers went on to study massage, homeopathy, yoga, meditation, nutrition, herbal medicine, and ayurveda. She uses all these modalities to support patients’ inherent ability to heal.

Dr. Demers sees patients, writes articles, and lectures nationally on integrative medicine. She is board-certified in integrative medicine, and has been the... Read more>>