There is a great disconnect that exists between people of modern societies, particularly city-dwellers, and their food. We are a supermarket generation. We know little of where our food comes from or how it’s grown, made, raised or killed nor what is involved in any of these processes.
This disconnect isn’t just a minor, unfortunate consequence of modern life and its many conveniences. It’s one of the genuinely tragic prices we’ve paid for those conveniences because a natural result of not knowing where our food comes from is a lack of appreciation for it – for the food itself and the earth that produces it as well as the industries and the people who cultivate it.
First, I’ll discuss the people and industry that bring our food to us. Agriculture is the bedrock of modern human civilization. Without it, we would all be spending the vast majority of our time running around looking for food. Literally. That is what our ancestors did, and that is what we would be doing. The upside of this kind of primal lifestyle is that, faced with the everpresent threat of hunger and death, our ancestors, perhaps without even meaning to, were intimately linked to the rhythms and cycles of life and death. They hunted their meat themselves, or, in later agricultural societies, they at least raised their own crops and livestock and killed the animals themselves, using every last part of the creatures. Some cultures even prayed to the spirit of the animal before eating it.
As a result, many ancient cultures developed a kind of humble reverence for food and everything related to it. And intentionally or not, perhaps more out of a fear of breaking the delicate balance that sustained them rather than an enlightened kind of ecological awareness, they were able to maintain at least some level of equilibrium between their own survival and that of their environment.
Now, although I’m an idealist, I try to balance idealism with practicality and realism. I’m quite aware that, for most urban-dwellers who are busy enough trying to hold down a job while keeping together their families, tilling soil and growing crops or butchering and dressing their own meat isn’t exactly feasible. In order to design new smartphones, the next blockbuster pharmaceutical, fret about our stocks and 401(k)s or write an essay like this, we need the agricultural infrastructure that has been mastered over the ages. For us modern folks, chasing after the dollar is the modern-day equivalent of the hunting and gathering. This is fair enough but it does tend to perpetuate the demoralizing schism I am trying to bring attention to.
“But I love eating!” one might say. Make no mistake: our love of eating is not affected by our modern lifestyle, but it is a kind of hedonistic or escapist love of gross pleasure that is not counterbalanced by solemn appreciation and humility. Here in Korea, where I live, I sometimes see people in BBQ restaurants ordering plate after plate after plate of meat and, though I’m not saying there’s anything at all inherently wrong with this, I very often find myself wondering if there is genuine appreciation behind such boisterous consumption or just an unquestioned sense of God-given entitlement. Understand, I’m not making any argument here against the eating of meat or even of unabashed gluttony. I’m not even a vegetarian myself. What I’m calling for is the conscious cultivation of appreciation and gratitude for all the hard work, logistics, sacrifice and even violence and gore that’s required so that we can enjoy our BBQ ribs or whatever it is that hits the spot for us. I once had a friend in college who said to me, “Sure, I’ll eat meat. I have nothing against it. But only on one condition: I have to kill the animal myself.”
Fortunately, for those of us who don’t want to hunt, it is, on one hand, a miracle of industry that allows food to magically appear wherever we go so long as we have the money to pay for it. And, yes, we work hard for that money. But, still, something about not seeing or knowing about exactly where the food comes does lead us to take the miracle for granted.
Probing deeper, beyond taking the agriculture industry for granted is our lack of appreciation for the actual food itself and, by extension, for the earth and her gifts as a whole. It becomes both a cause and a symptom of the schism between ourselves and the vast, intricate network of everything around us, of the interconnectedness of all things great and small, perpetuating one of the most primordial psychic wounds: the sense of myself as an isolated and fragmented being terminally split from the world around me.
It is this great schism in our consciousness that I believe is the true exile from Eden. One of the beauties of sacred literature is that there are many ways to interpret its great parables. And of the many ways in which the biblical story of the exile from Eden can be interpreted, this is one of the symbolic and non-religious ways in which I choose to interpret it. Humanity’s fall from grace was not a literal, isolated event but a multi-faceted process of which becoming increasingly disconnected from the earth that conceived, fed and nurtured it was but one aspect. The exile from Eden is a daily event. We exile ourselves everyday by the way we fail to notice and appreciate the natural world without which life would not even be possible.
But if the exile from Eden is a daily recurrence, there is hope in that so, too, can the return to it be a daily event if one should so choose and take the trouble to do.
How then, while remaining practical, can we bring greater awareness and appreciation to the act of eating? I propose two simple and, for the most part, easy ways. The first is the act of what, for convenience, I’ll call “saying grace” (which is not literal, necessarily). The second is the methodical use of heightened attention while eating.
The traditional practice of saying grace before meals is, I believe, one of the most dignified of cultural practices (which is, by the way, by no means limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition or even religion in general), and just one simple way that we can return to Eden. Most of the larger religions’ grace prayers involve expressing gratitude to a god or gods. Aside from its religious purpose, there is a very practical purpose of saying grace that even the non-religious could appreciate. It keeps us connected to the food that sustains us and, by extension, the earth and the people who make that sustenance possible. It keeps us connected and grounded, therefore, to life itself – the fragility of it, the precariousness of it, the mutual interdependence of it. And keeping us grounded to life also keeps us grounded to our mortality, for life and death are intertwined in a permanent embrace in which we can’t have one without the other (“Bless this life that gave itself so that I may live.”). Even if you’re a vegetarian, from an absolutist point of view there is no way around this conundrum. Plants conain enzymes. Milk and cheese contain organisms. It is all life, and life feeds on life.
A ritualistic prayer said out loud with hands clasped may be appropriate for some, but for many non-religious it can be awkward, irrelevant or, worse, a turn-off. But connecting with your food doesn’t require the common rituals of closing your eyes or clasping hands, gestures that are completely fine and appropriate in certain contexts but inappropriate in others. All it requires is a very brief moment in which you look at the food in front of you and try to feel, in your mind, appreciation for and connection to all that it took to put it there. You can think about nature and her miraculous gifts. The agriculture industry and all those who labor in it. The extraordinarily complex infrastructure and logistics involved in getting food from soil to plate. The animal that died so that you might live. Whatever or whomever so long as you are appreciating and connecting. It can take all of five seconds. But it must be done daily or, at least, as often as one can remember, because another fact of human nature is that we slip backwards into old habit and complacence. If you’re not comfortable doing it in front of people, do it when you eat alone. Though, remember, it can be done inconspicuously enough so that no one you’re with will even notice.
The second way is what might be called mindful eating. Mindful eating can be seen as a kind of meditation. I have reservations about the word “meditation” because it is so loaded with myths and misconceptions. But meditation, from the simplest point of view, is nothing more than the intentional cultivation of concentration. From this perspective, there are almost an endless number of ways to meditate and they are all valid. The benefit of meditation via mindful eating, however, is that the act itself is inherently pleasurable and human psychology dictates that we gravitate toward pleasurable acts and veer away from uncomfortable or painful ones (an insight that the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism harnessed in its cultivation of the somewhat misnamed “Tantric sex”). Moreover, any pleasurable activity, when given your full, unwavering attention is amplified in its pleasure. Easy enough, you might think, but if you pay attention to your thoughts during eating, playing, relaxing or making love you will see for yourself that this is actually difficult without practice and hence is rarely done.
Mindful eating is simple but it goes against certain ingrained habits and is therefore counter-intuitive at first. It requires slowing down and many of us are used to wolfing down our food as fast as possible. It requires at least some silence and we are used to yakking non-stop. It requires trying to momentarily ignore, to the best of one’s ability, the incessant chatter in one’s head and focusing on the taste, texture, appearance and pleasure of the food. If only for a moment, we are stopping to reconnect with the source of life and hence to life itself. Best of all, the food will be more delicious, satiating and even healthier because your digestion is more efficient when you are relaxed. Bonus benefits of this kind of practice, when done regularly, can be things like gradual, non-strenuous weight loss and even the healing of minor eating disorders.
Reconnecting spiritually with food and, by extension, both the social and bioecological infrastructures that provide it for us, is actually at the ultimate level reconnecting to the sacred web of all life. And food is a useful entryway because it is so visceral and immediate. This vibrant awareness of our inseparable connection to all things, then, is the paradise of legend. It is Eden, and it can be returned to not in some mythical future but right here and now.