Sunday, September 11, 2016

Eating on a full mind

The experience of a meal starts well before energy in an edible form we call food hits the senses, primarily that of taste and smell and ends when it leaves the mouth. Food is a significant part of the pursuit of happiness, and the sensations it evokes within has become a powerful surrogate for a happy state of existence. Cultural ties that are linked to food have been forged over centuries, braving both war and famine. These unique regional cuisines have solidified down the ages. So much so, that UNESCO has a list of intangible cultural treasures which includes traditional cuisines such as Mexican, Japanese, French etc. Of course any one is free to indulge in any particular cuisine far from its place of origin, and there isn’t any royalty exchanged in the process. Certain cuisines have an air of exoticness and sophistication around them. Other types of food are commonplace and are considered comfort food. With such a wide variety of treats from all over the world to choose from, it almost seems unfair that our stomachs are only the size of one’s fist. At that size, it has room for samplers and water. However, it is able to expand to many times its original size and therein lies one of the keys to the obesity epidemic. Left to its own devices, the body has enough checks and balances to prevent overloading of the stomach and the digestive machinery. But the safety mechanisms of body are easily overpowered by the mind. When it comes to food, the mind is a paradox. There is conscious awareness of what we want to eat, but during the actual act of eating, the mind is someplace else. Food has become a fuel to a wandering mind.

What may take an expert chef hours to prepare and present in a very appealing way gets minced and crushed by the teeth in a matter of minutes before leaving the mouth. How many of us maintain a real time conscious awareness of the taste and texture of the food as it enters the mouth? It seems far more comfortable to be distracted while eating such as watching TV or talking. In the animal kingdom, food is taken more seriously, as it is a life or death matter. The species that is most efficient at extracting the most amount of energy with the least effort survive the cruel culling machine of evolution. For humans, at least for those lucky enough to be in parts of the world that have abundant food supplies, food is still a “life and death” issue, albeit through lifestyle diseases linked through obesity. Interdependence is written into the evolutionary code. In this regard the human species are ahead of the game. Although we are subject to the forces of nature, modern technology has largely circumvented this.

Of all the living species, we humans have the biggest trump card, the mind. This is also our biggest weakness. The mind is an unimaginably large storehouse, holding countless thought “grains”. Just as any grain silo needs to be protected against pests, the mind also needs to be protected from negative emotions. We hold the true intention behind many if not all emotions in strict confidence. Whether an emotion is positive or negative depends on the mental intention behind certain thoughts. Some of these emotions find expression, through appropriate or inappropriate ways depending on whether they are positive or negative respectively. Emotions that evoke a state of stress in the mind, generally find expression through food, which then turns from a biological necessity to an emotional one. The term “junk food” can be expanded to include any food taken in excess, not just fast food. Food is the “low hanging fruit” that please the mind and helps us contain emotions. Though the mind may be placated through eating, it can punish the body if done in excess. Many modern day diseases sprout from seeds sown in one’s own mind.
Right eating is a tricky balance between appeasing the mind and catering to the needs of the body. The health of the body depends more on the right type of nutrition and less on the taste of food. The mind must be made an active participant. It is a sore loser and settles scores by hitting back when we are vulnerable. That vulnerable point can be anywhere between starting a good habit and turning it into an irreversible part of our daily routine. For some it takes days, for others it may take months or years to solidify a new habit. It all depends on how far back we are from our goal we are and what obstacles we may have to overcome. The mind easily washes over fledgling new habits and readily reestablishes its old regime of bad habits that are detrimental to bodily health. It has been shown that when a diet fails, the rebound weight gain can make us heavier than what we were prior to the diet. To complicate matters, there is a tendency to skim from one diet to another, the cumulative effect is a net weight gain, not weight loss.

To make a diet plan stick, calorie counting is paramount. Where those calories are counted is very important. It is more effective if calories are consciously counted and accounted for in the mind and not just on a plate of food in front of us. We have calorie counters on our phones, but it is more helpful if that information is also consciously stored in the mind from day to day. Without a rough daily mental math totaling up caloric intake (it need not be exact), a new dietary habit will not hit close to home and score a win. Left to the mind, there is a blanket permission to indulge in food. When the body protests, it is usually after we stuff it into submission. It does not help that food releases endorphins, a pleasure hormone. When one can get an endorphin high through eating and not leave the couch, where is the incentive to seek punishment on a treadmill to get the same endorphin release? There is always a clever justification brought forth by the mind when it comes to food cravings.

The mind has a voracious appetite for sensory enjoyment. It is not a drawback of the mind. It is it’s very nature. The mind is structured to ingest as much sensory input as possible. The sorting out of that information comes later. For the most part, we choose the option not to sort and label these experiences. When it comes down to getting a handle and directing the mind, where we intervene is important and has a bearing on whether we generate enough willpower to override the mind. It can be at the level of the senses, emotions or at the level of intellect. Intervening through the intellect is most effective as one can reason and not give into whims and fancies. The intellect has the discriminatory power to choose between what is good or bad, but it is pushed aside by the cascade of sensations that precede it. The rush that comes from indulging in those sensations seems too hard to give up. When it comes to food addictions, there is a sense of helplessness in spite of knowing right from wrong. The mind gets blamed as if it is an entity outside of ourselves.

The mind is usually focussed on the external world, the source of the constant stream of experiences that we have become so accustomed to. It is hard to abruptly stop this process and go from experiencing a wide variety to a state of no experience (or “no mind” state). The jump may be too big to bridge all at once. One method of making this transition, is to allow the mind to continue creating experiences (its natural state) with one important difference. The source of those experiences should come from within the mind itself. Just behind the conscious mind is the subconscious, which is a massive storehouse of raw material that can be turned into conscious experiences. By doing so, we are not adding to the storehouse but slowing emptying it. It may be a slow process but a sure way to clear old psychic impressions.

The flow of experiences coming from the subconscious may seem unmanageable at first. For those not accustomed to doing so, sitting with eyes closed even for a few moments can become an unbearable experience stemming from the sudden flood of thoughts. Just as a gust of wind hits a peak and then dies down, this mad scramble of thoughts will settle down after several minutes if one is able to sit through the initial chaos. The experiences that flow from the subconscious have already been vetted by the “Department of Likes and Dislikes”. So there is no need to reanalyze and reclassify those. Rather, they must just be watched as if one is watching a movie. The mind loves to interpret, even if thoughts and experiences are from within. It may end up becoming an exercise in restraint to prevent the mind from doing this, this however is a worthwhile undertaking. A word of caution is worth mentioning here. This process will not always seem pleasant. There is no other way for those stored experiences and thoughts to come out but through the conscious mind. It is better to let them leave under our watchful gaze rather than letting those thoughts surreptitiously take over the conscious mind, which they tend to do. An example of this is a bad memory. Before one realizes it, a certain event stored in the memory bank can enter and ruin a perfectly peaceful state of mind. At that time, we are often forced to turn our attention to the external world for a fresh experience in order to leave a disturbed mind behind.  

When the mind urged to go “against the grain” and not the path of least resistance (which is active pursuit of some, accompanied by passive acceptance of all sensory experiences), the structure of the mind will gradually change. “Going against the grain” is not letting any experience register in the mind without our conscious awareness. Grooves created by old habit patterns are deep and not easily erased. Just as when there is a flash flood, water tends to flow in the path that may been carved by previous floods, our behavior similarly follows prior patterns. In order to write a sentence on a piece of paper, four things are necessary; paper, a pen, ink in the pen and a mind that directs what needs to be written. If any one of the four is missing, the sentence cannot be written. Anything that is “written” on the mind that cannot be easily erased creates a habit. Drawing from the previous example, the mind can be compared to the paper, the body and the senses to the pen, the ink can be compared to actual experience. We have the capability to direct which experiences to accept or reject and hence “the flow of ink”. However, it is not easy to “remove” the mind from our consciousness. It is easier to control where the senses are directed. Just as we use these components to create a habit, we can also unlearn a habit by removing one or more of these components when thoughts linked to a particular habit arises.  

Building new and better habits is like tearing down an old building and constructing something new in its place. When we constantly pursue old habits, the mind starts to show wear and tear and we become “jaded with life”. Just as a building needs regular upkeep and maintenance, the mind also needs to be tuned up and cleaned now and then. “Renovating” the mind involves throwing out old habit patterns. But in this respect, we are akin to hoarders. We want everything new, but cannot part with the old. A new building cannot be built in place of an old old unless the old one is torn down first. To create an entirely new kind of mind, a certain amount of courage is required to part with the old. The mind is a creative space. The more empty it is, more can be created. Through disuse, our creative ability has become dormant. We live in a “left brain world” where repetition of what is already created by others is pursued. We just have to wake up the other half of the brain. Life will then become more interesting and each day will bring new opportunities for change.

When it comes to diets, our focus is on rearranging food on the plate, rather than changing the structure of the mind. With repetition, our taste buds become accustomed to a particular taste. The rule of habit ensures that more and more of a particular type of food is pursued. The contact between food and the taste buds is brief, but it creates a long lasting impression. In this respect, the mind is very unsympathetic to the body. It cares less about quality and more about quantity. Food can broadly be divided into two groups- pleasure foods and essential foods. Pleasure foods entertain the mind and essential foods sustain the body. We are caught in between. If the mind is in sync with the body, essential foods can be made pleasurable to eat. Besides food, a roof over one’s head is a basic essential. Depending on our means, we can turn this essential need into into luxurious dwelling place. There is nothing wrong with that as long as we live within our means. Similarly, the mind’s taste in food can be indulged as long as it is not detrimental to the body. Just as one may have a household budget for essential and nonessential expenses, the calories we take in on daily basis could be budgeted for the needs of the body and the wants of the mind.

Desires are universal. Some are more fastidious than others. There are desires that can be readily manifested into reality, and there are others that cannot. Our appetite for desires is unlimited. It is the birthing ground for greed which first manifests internally. External manifestation of greed happens when the mind overflows. Enjoyment of worldly objects is just a reflection of the internal state of mind. Unregulated intake of food is an example of this. It is socially acceptable to manifest greed in the form of overeating. Since many do it, it is considered normal behaviour. When it comes to sensory experiences, the mind can be compared to a rodent. Like rodents, an ill fitting mind has plagued mankind for ages. Tempted by food, rodents risk life and limb trying to get at a bait. Once a rodent finds food, it takes it back to its burrow to enjoy it. Similarly, once something catches the mind’s fancy, it brings the reflection of the object within and “chews” on it to create an experience within. Just like rodents are vectors for diseases, the mind is the carrier of diseases; dangerous ones such as anger, jealousy, envy, pride etc.

A mind habituated to seeking new experiences is always restless. A restless mind could make us eat more food than necessary for the health of the body. After the intake of a large meal, the mind tends to quieten down. This experiencing of “peace of mind” perhaps triggers the next bout of overeating to recreate those sensations within the mind. Eating to calm the mind is clumsy and becomes detrimental to one’s health in the long run. In the short run, there appear to be no obvious consequences. But health is a long term investment, perhaps the most important investment we could ever make. Food manufacturers are always ahead of the game keeping us supplied with food that appeals to the mind. More often than not, this food may be harmful to the body. Food marketing is generally inconsistent with current dietary recommendations. Everyday there is a constant barrage of food products that claim to be “new” and “improved”. They aim reflects the shifting tastes of mind. The mind dwells on the superficial aspects of food such as appearance, taste, texture, smell and what we hear from others. Nutritional content is a secondary consideration pursued by the intellect which has long been rendered powerless when it comes to smart food choices.

One form of “packaged food” that we don’t have to worry about is what nature grows and packages for us out in the open. This “sun cooked food” is the healthiest form of food we can ever eat. It is fresh and wholesome, “made to order” for the body, but not necessarily the mind. Nature disregards the mind’s likes and dislikes. The mind constantly changes from minute to minute and is hard for us to keep up, let alone for nature. Food that is physiologically most advantageous to sustaining life is the right type of food no matter where we live. Almost all species of animals with the prominent exception of mankind prefers fresh food that is nutritional and vibrant with energy. Humans tend to gravitate towards dead and denatured food that finds a resting place in a box. It is unfair to expect the body to resurrect life out of processed food which essentially is “dead food”. This comes at a huge cost, both in terms of individual suffering resulting from diseases and the also societal burden via escalating health care costs.  

The digestive system is at the crossroads of most modern diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and perhaps even some forms of cancer. Depending on how we eat, one can ascend in health or descend into illness. Food we take in directly plays a part, the mind indirectly influences this process through our choice in the type and quantity of food we eat. In the digestive tract, energy in gross form (as food) is converted into molecular form that can be transported to each living cell in the body. Once food is turned into molecules, it matters little what the taste or presentation was externally. The sun does the opposite. It turns energy in molecular form into plants and animals that ultimately become our source of food. In the digestive tract, there is a “fire”, which is the warmth generated as a byproduct of cellular metabolism or cellular respiration. This digestive “fire” within all of us can be thought of as a mirror of the external sun. Both are involved in creation, preservation and destruction. When a seed is placed in moist soil that is warmed by the light of the sun, new plant life is created. Dead leaves and plant material decompose in that same soil and provide nutrients for germinating seeds. In between the two processes, solar energy maintains life in plants that have grown and matured.

The building blocks of life are produced in the gastrointestinal tract through the food we eat. This in turns maintains the health and well being of bodily tissues and organs. The digestive tract also has a destructive element that is beneficial to us. It is the breakdown and elimination of waste products. Cells transport waste in molecular form which is turned into material form that is eliminated from the body. It is a self sustaining process, this “motor” starts right after we are born. There is inherent harmony between these three processes of creation preservation and destruction; with a tilt towards growth early in life, sustenance in the middle of life and a gradual slowdown and decay late in life.

Under the physical layer of our being lies the mental layer where these three principles of creation, preservation and destruction also play an important role. These can be thought of as the three modes of functioning of mind. Deep instinctual and superficial desires create our personality. In this respect, we are the ones who create our “projected” selves. We first create our “self” or personality and through this we try to bring desires to fruition This creative aspect of the mind manifests in the physical dimension and extends to external world as wealth, success etc., and is focused on the outer world through a strong force of attraction. Food can be thought of as a mental surrogate for creative energy and this is perhaps the reason for the mind’s attraction to food.

Preserving our mental creations is another aspect of the mind. A pure form of this energy is love, such as that of a mother for her child; her chief motive is to preserve and protect the new life she has helped bring into the world. The raw and unrefined aspect of this energy is anger, jealousy, hatred etc. These negative emotions stem from a deep rooted need for preservation of what we selfishly consider ours. The instinct of preservation mainly relates to the psychic dimension and it trickles down to the physical dimension where it may take a destructive turn.

The activity of the destructive element of the mind roughly correlates with the level of self awareness we have achieved. The mind destroys awareness of the greater self and limits us to the lesser self. Individual awareness is limited when one is bound by the five senses. A more universal awareness of oneness may happen through the sixth sense or the power of intuition. Food binds our awareness to the body if we are focused just on sensory interactions. The key to unlocking the higher mind is how we use our power of intention. Purer the intention, the freer we are. Our approach to food can shed some light on the intention we have set for ourselves; whether we are thinking only about ourselves or we are all inclusive. For example, if food intake is mainly about satisfying cravings in the mind it becomes a highly individualistic and self centered activity. The same food may be eaten with an entirely different mindset, with a sense of thanksgiving towards everybody upstream who may have had a hand in getting food to our plate; starting with farm workers right down to the grocery clerk and the person preparing the food. Including and thanking everyone in the food chain builds gratitude within. Eating can be used as a transformative experience if we maintain awareness of how much time and effort that may have gone into bringing food to our plates. Practicing this exercise in awareness while eating, may take us from the shallow reaches of the mind to the depths of our true being. Furthermore our bodies may end up being healthier by virtue of the mind bowing down to the needs of the body and not the other way around.