By Chitra Jha
Chitra Jha shares the fruits of her lifelong journey towards understanding what constitutes good food
I was born in a middle-class vegetarian family in 1959. My earliest memories of food centre around the images of my mother serving hot and delicious food, straight from the pot into our plates. I also remember harvesting various vegetables and herbs from our kitchen garden, which was irrigated by the waste water from the kitchen and the bathroom; not because we practised ‘conscious’ living, but because that was a common practical practice.
I remember eating to my heart’s content, and enjoying every morsel of the food, along with the shared bonhomie of my siblings. Meal times were fun times, and despite the basic fare on our platters, we always felt satiated and fulfilled.
Counting calories for the fear of putting on weight was not even a distant thought. Pesticides were unheard of. Food was always fresh, nutritious and safe. We did not have to consult a book to know that. It was a given. No one ever questioned that.
As my understanding of nutrition increased, I began to look at food in terms of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Increased knowledge made me a discerning eater. I ate what was supposed to be good for my muscles, bones, skin, and hair; and that included meat and eggs.
By the time I ran my own kitchen, my culinary skills were deeply influenced by the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ foods. Like most mothers, I influenced my children with my borrowed knowledge.
The onset of middle age made me count my calories. ‘Calorie-in and calorie-out balance’ became as important as balancing the budget sheet of my household expenses.
At the turn of the millennium, I discovered spiritual eating and became a vegetarian once again; experimenting with gluten-free and dairy-free choices.
Participating in discussion about foods and adding my two-penny-worth to an already complicated subject, was fun until I realised that food was becoming an obsession. I was only shifting from one ‘box’ to another – changing the label and loyalty from one regimen to another; confusing my body, and denting my self-esteem in the process.
Now only one choice appeals to me, and that is to go back to my childhood practice of eating food with gay abandon. This practice has got me in touch with my inherent wisdom. Something that I was doing ‘unconsciously’ in my childhood has become a ‘conscious’ practice now.
Allow me to share some of my personal understandings and practices with you.
Eat when hungry
Everyone knows that food tastes best when we are hungry. It also tastes great when we like what we are eating. Keeping these two universal observations in mind, I eat what I like to eat, whenever I feel hungry. Conversely, I do not eat what I do not feel like eating, however healthy that food might be. I also do not eat when I do not feel like eating, however tempting that dish might be.
I realised that I tend to overeat or eat without being hungry, when I fear that I may feel hungry later on and there would be nothing left to eat. (In other words, when I do not display enough trust in the universe and its abundance.) In today’s world where food is available in every nook and corner, and my own pantry is full of food stuffs, this is an unfounded fear; I seem to be carrying it from a past life, where I had starved to death.
Now, I give myself permission to eat whenever I feel hungry, without feeling guilty, as long as I eat mindfully and stop eating when a morsel does not taste as good as the one before it.
I serve myself with my favourite food, and sit down to eat mindfully; which means that I take a bite and savour its taste very consciously. This can only be done when I am eating slowly and paying complete attention to what I am eating. In other words, I eat without any other distraction from what I put into my mouth. If there is any distraction, I stop eating until it passes away. Thus eating food has become a sacred, mindful, and meditative practice.
Know when to stop
Until I had begun eating mindfully, I was not aware of when I became satiated; so I invariably ate more than I needed – feeling stuffed and bloated after most meals. The day I chose to eat less than usual, I felt dissatisfied, and became hungry soon thereafter. This induced feelings of guilt and self-deprecation. Why was I not disciplined enough?
Now, when I am keenly aware of the taste of each mouthful, I can discern when the food does not taste as good as the previous mouthful. This is my indication that I have had enough. Now when I stop eating, I feel fulfilled and satisfied.
The only problem is that sometimes this feeling of satiation dawns when there is still some food left on my plate. My upbringing tells me that food should not be wasted. However, my newfound wisdom tells me that I should respect my body enough to not use it as a waste bin. In any case, nothing ever goes wasted; some animal, insect or worm eats it and converts it into manure. This new programming has been the most difficult to install; and I still find myself struggling with it. However, I have taken the middle path of taking smaller helpings at one time, and serving more only when I really feel like eating more.
I choose to give away all the leftover food to either humans or animals, and not store it in the fridge, as I have realised that freshly cooked food tastes the best. And I deserve the best!
Eat whatever you like
After accumulating a whole lot of knowledge about food, this has been a difficult lesson to learn. I have had to literally discard most of what I had learnt – especially about vegetarianism.
Today, I am clear that with the current human design, only ‘life’ sustains ‘life’. We eat ‘live’ foods to keep ourselves ‘alive’. Some life form gives up its life to sustain my life; whether that life form is vegetative or animated – both are equally precious.
Along with the above understanding, I am also aware that it is not appropriate to consciously and intentionally cause suffering and pain to one sentient being, in order to feed it to another being. Inner wisdom teaches me to cherish what I eat and be grateful for it. It asks me to consider the innate qualities of what I eat, and make an intention to embody those qualities in its honour.
There is a difference in my earlier energy which passed judgment and said, ‘One should never eat this or that’ and my current energy which offers compassion to both – the one who eats and the one who is eaten. This compassion flows with the understanding that when I eat, whatever I eat, I do take away some life and cause harm to some living being; I choose to do it with respect, reverence and gratitude.
Do what is appropriate in that moment
While I continue to eat farm-fresh vegetarian food, as that is what I most feel like eating, I face challenges in various social settings. Under those circumstances, I choose to remain present in the moment, connect with whatever food is being offered, and eat whatever I feel a resonance with. More often than not, I connect with the simplest of foods on offer, and end up eliciting comments like, ‘Are you on a diet? Are you a vegetarian? Are you a vegan?’ etc. I know that I am only doing what is appropriate in that moment, without putting myself in a box.
The result of our actions
While what we eat seems like an innocent and innocuous act of self-preservation, I realise that there is something more at play here. Since eating too is an action which is backed by some intent, we get to experience the result of our action sooner or later.
This reminds me of Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite bhajan, ‘Vaishnav jan toh taine kahiye je peer parayee jaane re.’ (You will be considered a vegetarian only if you can feel another being’s pain.) Whether we literally eat another being or not, it is time to ask ourselves if we are figuratively eating another being. How do we do that? By using or misusing their energy; taking what is not ours; acting out of fear and greed to hoard and over-consume; staying attached to our own views and opinions; controlling or manipulating another through praise or blame; getting our way by hook or by crook; through unskilful speech and actions; and preferring one being over another.
In my experience, the balance lies in our relationship with what we eat. When we eat in fear-based ways, we cause more harm and suffering – to others as well as to ourselves. On the other hand if we eat in love-based ways, revering every sentient being and recognising that no one ever wants to suffer, we cannot harm another or ourselves. Mindful eating teaches us that nothing is separate from us and everything must be treated with reverence – in self-interest.
Intuitive and mindful eating makes us connect with our food in a very special way. It leads us to those food items which are ready to take on a new life through us by becoming a part of our body energy; before returning to nourish the Earth.
However, I truly believe that consuming life to sustain life is a passing phase in human evolution. When we become more mindful and compassionate, we will learn how to draw energy from the cosmos to support our system. Gradually, our system will evolve to no longer need food for energy.
Until that happens, we will do well to learn this ancient prayer while appreciating our food, “I invite whoever is willing to become food for me at this moment. My blessings go with you. Please feel my love and gratitude as you satiate my hunger. May you incarnate in a higher level of being!”
Finally, let me share my clarity mantra with you. Whenever I am confused about what to eat and when, I tell myself, lions and elephants live in similar habitats; but their food habits are diametrically opposite. Do elephants judge lions and feel holier than them? Do lions look down at elephants and tell them what they are missing? In nature, each being follows its own nature fearlessly. Can we follow our nature too? What is our nature by the way?
Human nature is to follow our joy! Whether in food or in work or in leisure! Let us follow our joy!
Chitra Jha is a healer, writer and trainer. Her first book, Achieve your highest potential has been published by Penguin India.
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