By Suryamithra Vishwa/Harmony Page-DailyFT
The past three weeks have had people generally used to extravagance and gluttony, obsessing over food, faced probably for the first time in their life, with a kind of fate that most of the world’s poor face permanently. The fate of hunger.
In Sri Lanka, for the majority of our people; in the makeshift houses one sees when traveling by train in many areas, in the slums of Colombo, in the plantation sector, in the homes that the garment factory workers come from in rural areas, in the homes that women leave to work as maids in other countries, in the homes of farmers who are prey to middleman, hunger is likely a daily phenomenon. It is as deadly as the coronavirus. It has always been.
But it does not affect the rich. It does not affect Prime Ministers and monarchy. So, this virus called hunger is swept under the carpet of normalcy, knitted with the gnarled threads of modern day ‘development’ and spread across the world as silent exploitation.
To the rich and the middle class of this country and the world it is now a curfew/lockdown induced hunger; but one could argue that for these classes it is not so much hunger but greed and craving; no they cannot eat the red rice again, they want basmati, they cannot eat ham and sandwiches again, they want bacon and eggs and whatever other substance of taste that passes off for food. But in some cases, as the past few days went by, some of these food-obsessed types were seen quite desperate as social media posts showed; with many posting pictures ardently clutching a loaf of bread stating that it was something unseen for days. Probably the same thing must be said in some poor household 365 days of the year, not because there is a virus called COVID-19 invading us and a curfew clamped to curtail it but because the money to buy a loaf of bread is a luxury.
In these days when we are stuck at home, it is possible for us to seek another path within our consciousness. Instead of obsessing over food, posting pictures of whatever delicacy that we have managed to find, or grumbling that the choon paan guy is not blaring down the street, we can eat whatever we have in mindfulness and without attachment, keeping in mind that there are billions in the world who have always had food scarcity as the norm and that these billions are today in a far worse situation, facing both the coronavirus and the collective viruses of hunger and unemployment. If we do this, there is a lot we can learn about our inner selves and how our mind reacts while also probably finding out that we eat mostly as creatures of habit and not of true hunger
On the phenomena of hunger
Let us delve a bit deeper on the phenomena of hunger. What is hunger? And what is craving? Most of us belong to some ‘religion’ or the other, so let us stop a moment to see how the seekers of spiritual paths that have led to Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam; the current day religions, have identified with food and the human spirit. None of them have denied that humans need food. Their approach has taken note of both the feeding of the body as well as that which can be described as the higher mind within the individual, the spirit, the higher self, consciousness, or the soul.
The Buddha, like many ascetics in his time who assiduously fasted for the disciplining of the senses, found how little food is needed to keep the body alive. Fasting is recommended in many religious philosophies. Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Muslims have one common approach to disciplining their craving for food; they fast as recommended by those who are hailed as founders of their religion.
Why did these spiritual masters prescribe fasting? They did it because they used it in their own spiritual growth and their own quest to defeat the body as well as the mind of craving. They would have known the dangers of craving, not only for the individual but also for communities, societies and the world. The modern world that we know of today can indeed be described as one of craving and greed as opposed to need.
Man, said Jesus Christ, does not live on bread alone and in the hadeeth: the recorded words and actions of Prophet Muhammad it is said, “The son of Adam does not fill any vessel worse than his stomach. It is enough for the son of Adam to eat a few mouthfuls to keep him going, but if he must (fill his stomach), then one third for his food, one third for his drink and one third for air.”
We can see then that eating to keep the body functional is recommended but not mindless eating to satisfy the unthinking indulgence of taste. Yet, this is what most of us do within the lifestyles we follow today. Most of our indulgence induced eating is bad for our health as we eat the wrong things, just based on taste and not nutrition.
The Buddha had explained to his monks the health benefits of eating just one meal a day and avoiding eating in the evening. Today many Western dieticians are saying the same thing.
Meanwhile, even a basic examination of fasting as prescribed for spiritual growth of any religious tradition will reveal how closely the craving of the mind/senses, and the conquest of it, is linked to the purifying and liberation of the mind.
COVID-19, self-control and empathy
The COVID-19 fear which is creating the global lockdown and in turn creating a food scarcity can teach us a great lesson; a lesson in temperance, self-control and empathy. We can take this time to get deeper spiritual insight about the religion we profess. All philosophers, prophets, sages, mystics and religious teachers have one thing in common; they were social reformers. Socrates is known as a philosopher, not a religious teacher, but the values, the call for mind searching to reach the pinnacle of wisdom that he promoted is not very different from the teachings of the ancient spiritual masters.
All prophets revered by the Jews, Christians and the Muslims from Amos to Habakkuk to Isaiah, have lamented about social iniquity, hypocrisy and injustice that prevailed at the time in the nations they focused their attention on. In these times too there were grand cities controlled by the rich while there were a majority of poor who could not even get scraps of food from wealthy houses.
Our spiritual masters spoke against these inequalities of diverse kinds. The Buddha was against the caste system that existed during his time, in the name of religion. Jesus protested against hypocrisy and oppression of the poor and the outcast. Prophet Muhammad emphasised on charity and abstinence. All these spiritual masters were a voice for the hungry, the sick, the marginalised, the widows, and the poor. If they were all to return today and the view the world as it is now, how would they speak to us? Will they be happy with the gross inequality that we have in today’s ‘modern and developed’ world?
Unfortunately, we are today mere brand managers of our ‘religion’. We have kept the label but we have thrown away the core ingredient of spirituality. Even if we fast as part of our ‘religious’ practice, it is food that is dominant in our mind. When I mentioned fasting to a friend, whose religious tradition recommends prolonged fasting, her first response was ‘oh imagine all the cooking I have to do at the end of each day.’ This shows that most of us may quite paradoxically look at fasting as a way to appreciate tasty food at the end of it. The mention of fasting does not bring about a sense of freedom and happiness at a chance at mental development but rather, a great worry about the cooking that has to be done at the end of it! Even if one were in an extended family, a habit of a sparse breaking of the fast with nutritious but simple food would not burden the mind.
Cultivating a different mindset to food during COVID-19
In these days when we are stuck at home, it is possible for us to seek another path within our consciousness. Instead of obsessing over food, posting pictures of whatever delicacy that we have managed to find, or grumbling that the choon paan guy is not blaring down the street, we can eat whatever we have in mindfulness and without attachment, keeping in mind that there are billions in the world who have always had food scarcity as the norm and that these billions are today in far worse situation, facing both the coronavirus and the collective viruses of hunger and unemployment. If we do this, there is a lot we can learn about our inner selves and how our mind reacts while also probably finding out that we eat mostly as creatures of habit and not of true hunger.
This writer for the past 20 years has regularly practiced fasting, both as a spiritual exercise, to toughen willpower, as an immunity booster and as a form of empathising with others for whom hunger is a way of life. In this present crisis, because I had not stocked up on food, I have been on intermittent fasting the past three weeks as an alternative to forever thinking about food in this time of crisis. At each fast that I do I learn something new about the mind and about the body.
One common thing I always find out is that eating minimally to keep the body sustained rather than indulged has one great freedom. It liberates the mind from the attachment to food. When one eats then, one eats with gratitude and in a meditative state, thinking of those in the food chain who helped to provide the food, and mentally thanking them and thanking anyone involved in making the food and if it is oneself, appreciating the ability and means to prepare the food.
There are enough books and online material about mindful eating. One fundamental aspect, that has many health dividends, is the prolonged chewing of the food that occurs when one eats mindfully. This is the opposite of gulping food down in a pre-occupied manner and thus burdening the digestive system within the body which is why we get tired after a meal.
So, may we use this time of great suffering for the world for contemplation and let us make the task of preparing and consuming food a meditative practice that may also help us to act more in charity and kindness.
(The picture at the top is by Shehan Gunasekara)