What’s on Your Plate?
For the first 27 years of my life, I didn’t step foot into a kitchen until the food was already on the table. Mom took care of everything.
The kitchen was a complete and total mystery for me. The only thing I felt comfortable doing in the kitchen was making toast, putting my cereal together, and boiling water. My first cooking experiences took place when, at the age of 27, I moved into a monastery and was put on a weekly cooking rotation. It was on-the-job training and learn as you go. It’s quite ironic then, that for the last 10 years one of my main activities has been teaching vegetarian cooking classes.
I had always thought that cooking was something you did to feed yourself and your family. However, monastic life taught me that cooking, if done with the right consciousness, can be a kind of yoga practice. I’m not referring to the yoga practice where you try to turn yourself into a pretzel. I am referring to the original meaning of the term, which arises from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means to harness or bind back. Yoga means you are trying to reconnect with the divine.
Whether or not that reconnect actually takes place depends on our consciousness.
During my vegetarian cooking demonstrations at Columbia University, I tell my students that our consciousness during our cooking should be that we are “cooking for the pleasure of God and that we want to share our food with others.” Knowing that we’re cooking for someone else helps remove some of the selfishness we harbor in our hearts and increases the quality of selflessness. Since the process of yoga is meant to purify our hearts and minds of negative tendencies, simply cooking with the right consciousness can become a yoga practice.
This entails that as we cook we should avoid tasting the food. Often, this idea comes as a complete surprise. You might wonder, how is it possible to cook without tasting what we are doing? It takes practice and a good recipe, but since the food is being cooked for the pleasure of God, it only makes sense that God should be the first individual to taste it. Of course, not tasting the food is really only the first step because ultimately, as we cook ,we should avoid even thinking of eating or enjoying the food during its preparation.
As bizarre as all this might sound, this is the method of cooking adopted by those who adhere to the Bhakti or devotional path of yoga.
One way to express our love for people we care about is to cook for them. I think most us will agree that the best meals are often prepared by a loving mother. Every time I go home, my mom cooks for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m so thick-headed, but it took me a really long time to figure out that my mom cooks for me because she enjoys watching me eat what she’s prepared. The dishes she creates are imbued with her feelings of motherly love and care. Her consciousness has entered the food and is transferred to me. That transference of consciousness creates a powerful bond. So, even though she may, or may not, use the perfect amount of turmeric, hing or cumin, the most important ingredient is there: bhakti, or love.
In a similar way, we can begin to cultivate our love for God by cooking delicious preparations for God from a place of love and devotion.
Consciousness affecting material things may seem a bit farfetched, but we witness this taking place with works of art and music, and how they’re embedded with the consciousness of the particular artists. When we listen to or examine a work of art or music, the artist’s mood also becomes apparent and many times we find ourselves emotionally impacted by this mood. Similarly, cooked food is no less a work of art than traditional art or music and is invested with the emotions and consciousness of the cook. So, when we eat, we’re not only eating the food and its ingredients, but we’re also ingesting the consciousness of the cook.
A very important question we might want to ask ourselves before our next meal is, “Whose consciousness am I eating?”
In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the main yogic texts of India, Krishna, or God, offers a very salient point: “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.” The point Krishna’s making here is that He isn’t looking for elaborate and complicated offerings from the devotees. Instead, He is looking for the love and devotion, or the bhakti, behind the offering.
The other crucial facet of the offering is that it can’t be a product of cruelty. It is a well known fact that animals undergo tremendous emotional and physical suffering when killed. In the classic Vedic text Manusmriti, it is stated, “Having well considered the origin of flesh-foods, and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let man entirely abstain from eating flesh.” Such food items are not only unhealthy for the our bodies, but also unhealthy for our consciousness.
When food is offered to the divine or God, it becomes sanctified.
In the bhakti tradition, food is offered through devotional mantras that focus our intention. It is understood that God then accepts the offering of food and partakes of it. Because the food came in contact with the divine, it acquires divine qualities. In this way, matter is transformed into spirit.
When we consume this offered, or “karma-free” food, our mind, senses, and consciousness become purified of the lesser tendencies such as greed, anger, envy, and selfishness. In short, we automatically come closer to the divine. This is known as the yoga of eating.
Advancing spiritually and elevating our consciousness can often involve rigorous practices. However, it’s nice to know that just by engaging in simple and creative endeavors, such as cooking and eating, one can move closer to that ultimate spiritual goal.
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