‘The amoeba and I are the same, the difference is only in degree; and from the standpoint of the highest life, all these differences vanish.’ ~ Swami Vivekananda
It is often said that plant-based nutrition, diet and food do not hold a significant enough place at The Art of Integral Being to warrant discussions of their own. I could not disagree more. Aside from the obvious connection that taking an integral approach to living, being and knowing involves the whole of one’s being, where matters of yoga, meditation and other contemplative practices, awakening and the plant-based diet are concerned, they are ever-more pertinent. And they always have been.
Nutrition, health-giving ingredients and nourishing oneself with the rhythms of nature plays a large role in the practices of esoteric Taoism for example. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this is visible through the many forms of daily knowledge that still permeate the ordinary way of life in modern China today. These include but are not limited to the Five Elements (wǔxíng, 五行) diet, nutrition for healing (yàoshàn càiyáo, 药膳 菜肴; shíliáo càiyáo, 食疗菜肴) as well as classical herbalism (àicǎo,艾草). Ahimsa, non-violence or harmless action (ahiṃsā in Sanskrit; avihiṃsā in Pali)—with particular reference to ethics and compassion towards all living things—is a central tenet of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Sikhism also promotes the tenet of Ahimsa and ethics in daily life. The term first appeared in the second of the ancient Vedic text on ritual, Yajurveda, which dates back to at least 1000 BCE. Ayurveda, a system of medicine that is often referred to as the sister science of yoga, involves a series of health treatments and daily practices from massage to nutrition through herbal medicine and a Sattvic diet, which promotes vegetarianism.
Purification of the body also plays a large role in a number of Shamanistic practices, involving ginger, chilli, tobacco, guayusa tea and kambo (a type of Amazonian frog poison that purifies the entire body). These are practices both as a way of life and as a means of preparing the body for psychedelic experiences with plant medicine such as Ayahuasca. The reason is simple, this level of preparation for the physical body and the psychological wellbeing that it brings, later can afford more powerful first-person direct-experiences. The quality and care of our daily nutrition, diet and food drastically alters how awake we are. Being awake to our own nutrition, diet and food in everyday life can shape the way we relate to ourselves, others and the world around us.
Yet all of this knowledge of what-to-eat-with-what-and-when-and-how means nothing at all without a particular kind of attitude, attention and awareness. In short, it is also a preparation of the mind.
Nourishing oneself from the inside is literally where philosophy meets practice in regard to our awakening and therefore our ways of living, being and knowing in the world. Just as speech and other forms of communication blur the lines between what comes out from inside of us, and what enters within from outside of us, food holds a symbolic place in the ways we live, be and know in everyday life. However, one’s approach need not be rigid, restrictive or radical. Even the most arbitrary and habitual of daily life events—preparing food and drink, eating and drinking—can be transformed into more elevated experiences if we bring a particular kind of attitude, attention and awareness to them.
Extending one’s conscious awareness to all dimensions of daily living and being is key. But what does this look like in day-to-day practice?
‘I don’t understand why asking people to eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet is considered drastic, while it is medically conservative to cut people open and put them on cholesterol lowering drugs for the rest of their lives.’ ~ Dean Ornish
Our Food Philosophy
‘Food is mostly plant-based’
Eating predominantly a plant-based diet for various physiological, medical, psychological, ethical, philosophical, environmental and practical reasons is not a radical demand. There are many strong arguments, which is recent years have transformed the way people eat and the kinds of foods available on a daily basis, to adopt a plant-based diet.
As naturalist David Attenborough has encouraged in recent years, if everyone simply tries to reduce as much as possible for the future of our planet, enormous progress to supporting the environment can be achieved, globally. While yogic philosophy does not encourage reducing alone, but rather for ethical reasons simply stop altogether, I believe it is worthwhile being more pragmatic about this matter. For those who find it challenging eating a purely plant-based diet, the 80/20 rule is a solid place to start. And you can stay there if you wish to.
As nutritionist Dr Dean Ornish has encouraged, if everyone simply tries to adopt a whole foods plant-based diet most days of the week, enormous improvement to individual health and wellbeing can be seen, physiologically and biologically. His adage is simple: Your Genes Are Not Your Fate. Serious disease, he has shown, is not only preventable but also reversible.
As nutritionist Dr Andrew Weil and many others have encouraged, eating mindfully is a gateway to avoiding overeating, emotional eating and other eating habits that are unconscious and therefore detrimental to our emotions and overall wellbeing.
As clinical psychologist Dr Ramani Durvasula has encouraged, examining why we eat the way we do teaches us to become aware of the thought-patterns and emotional responses that cause us to eat food that is to our detriment.
Now available to us is an enormous amount of research-informed literature on the ethical, environmental, philosophical, practical, physiological and biological implications of our diets, the best we can do is become more informed and reflect upon the fluxes of our daily lives to take decisions that involve personal change. This is different for everyone.
‘Food is as slow, locally-sourced and seasonal as possible’
The Slow Food movement has, since 1986 in Italy and beyond thanks to founder Carlo Petrini, promotes the upholding of certain values that communities and cultures have about the concept of food. The movement advocates the following conception of food: “good” quality, flavour and health, a “clean” production that does not harm the environment, and “fair” prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers.
When the food we eat is slower, this means the chain of production, distribution and consumption is far shorter, and so it is far fresher, healthier and more sustainable. Locally-sourced foods and eating seasonally is often also more ethical, it tends to be fresher and seasonal, and importantly, it supports people in local communities to sustain their livelihoods and cultural heritage.
We can only do our best, it is not necessarily possible economically or practically to only eat slow, locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients. The first step, however, is to be more awake to certain facts about our everyday life, namely, as to where and how our food is produced, distributed and consumed.
‘Food is as nutritionally-dense, rich and diverse as possible’
It is also worthwhile paying attention to the values and properties of certain ingredients we might otherwise take for granted. As I try to share in my monthly workshop Integral Yoga with Chinese Tea Tasting, tea can be enjoyed in more than one way. This is true for all food and drink. We can take a scientific approach by honing in the actual evidence of how various foods and drinks nourish our health. For example, we can become informed that adding lemon juice to certain foods triples the body’s capacity to absorb iron, which helps us to make evidence-informed decisions about what to eat and how to eat it. Perhaps rigid and mechanical at first, these decisions can also become simple, habitual and even intuitive with time and commitment.
However, we can also take a more sensory approach. We can explore various foods, how they taste, how they smell, how they look, how they feel. This is to embrace the ingredients—fresh, vibrant, flavoursome—and our first-person experience of preparing them and enjoying them. This is to not only pay more attention to the foods themselves, but to engage our senses as a ceremony when we prepare and enjoy food.
‘Food is prepared and enjoyed with a particular kind of attitude, attention and awareness’
Attitude: Bringing gratitude to the preparation and enjoyment of our food is a simple daily practice. There is not one wisdom tradition that does not teach the cultivation of gratitude as a spiritual practice. Gratitude can be extended to all processes involved in our daily nourishment: towards those involved in the production, distribution and consumption of our food; towards the circumstances we are in that enable us to enjoy the food at all; towards our body’s remarkable capacity to support our health and wellbeing before, during and after we nourish ourselves daily. This is that particular kind of attitude.
Attention: As we prepare our food, we can do so as a meditative practice in its own right. As we eat, we can do so as a meditative practice in its own right. Sometimes this is referred to as mindful cooking and mindful eating. This is that particular kind of attention.
Awareness: Extending beyond attention to our daily nourishment, is to become increasingly more aware of the fluxes of daily life. Of how interconnected and interdependent every living thing in existence actually is, this is to become aware of how our food reached us and all those involved in that process. All of this is to ultimately deepen our awareness of living, being and knowing in the world. And it creates a particular kind of sensibility and meaning that is personal to us. This is that particular kind of awareness.
In our 500-hour Integral Yogic Studies teacher training, the topics discussed on this page are explored in far greater depth. On our programme, you also have the opportunity to have arrange additional private consultations for the whole food health programme, Metabolic Balance.