July 7, 2010

Dying of Consumption. ~ Annette Andrews

2010 Winter Olympics Through a Lens of Spiritual Nutrition

In February 2010, the Winter Olympics exploded in my city, Vancouver, and all I saw was a massive staging of a global spectacle of consumption. This prompted me to contemplate conspicuous consumption and spectacle in terms of spiritual nutrition.

When I began to consider how I am directly connected to the excess associated with the Olympics, I found the implications within the context of a Buddhist belief system poignant and far-reaching.

These implications included the obvious such as wasteful use of money, excessive displays of wealth, harming the environment, noise pollution, alienation, nationalism.  As well as positive acts of community coming together (Robson Street dance mob, Silent March for Missing Women in the Eastside), family entertainment, multicultural exchanges, and the development and creation of the greenest Olympic Village and neighbourhood in the world (LEED Platinum Certification and Gold status) with the use of Olympic money.

The Olympics come to be through a mix of desires, some beneficial and others negative, including both greed and altruism found in various acts of generosity or hording, community development or elitism and so on.

Disentangling it proved confusing until I searched and found an essay on Buddha’s discourse on the four kinds of (human) nutriments (all of which are a form of desire and craving) by Thich Nhat Hanh.  I then fortuitously  located an original copy of the short but poignant discourse.

I learned that what we consume and how we feed our bodies, really does consume us.  We can find examples of this externally, in our everyday life, in terms of our collective feelings and acts of malaise, depression, ennui, despair, anger, and frustration, or joy, open-heartedness, and generosity.

These ‘illnesses’ of mind and body are epidemics in our rapidly globalizing ‘one size fits all’ culture because we are not taught the art of mindful consumption. That is, how we might begin to be mindful of our cravings and what we are both producing for consumption, as well as ourselves consuming.

Remember when dying of consumption was a diagnosis for tuberculosis? Consumption was so named because the ill person was literally consumed overtime by the disease, and it was unstoppable. This diagnosis could apply to all diseases of body and mind that consume us eventually and entirely, such as forms of cancer and psychological disorders like anorexia.

In order to be mindful, we have to know what it is we consume – we need to understand how our body and minds are fed, and what desires (negative or positive) are behind them.  When we understand that we are all connected, then nothing that comes into our minds and bodies is harmless.

THE FOUR NUTRIMENTS (according to the Buddha)


Not only can foods be nutritionally perilous, such as those containing too much sugar or chemical additives, or being comprised entirely of toxins like alcohol and household medicines, but the production of these foods can also be harmful to our holistic well-being. The obvious example would be the industrialization of animals for meat with the less foods that involve violence in their production the better. What is less obvious, are that foods need be manufactured in the most compassionate ways, not only for the food stuffs themselves, but also the people utilized in the production process. A carrot may a better alternative than a candy bar for your colon, but not necessarily the right choice for your compassionate body if the carrot was produced in a facility that exploited its workers. This reasoning also pertains to the products we apply to our skin and hair as so much is absorbed through the skin.


We also eat with our six sense organs. For example, we visually consume (primarily toxic these days) advertisements, ideas of sexuality in the media, and repeated acts of violence.  We can also understand this in terms of a beautiful song that comes in through the ears and shapes our cells, or manipulates water molecules, into geometric patterns (versus heavy metal music that distorts a water molecule beyond recognition).  This would also include the paint we choose for our walls, the furnishings we purchase and so on, not only for their olfactory or aesthetic values, but in relation to the conditions these products were produced and by whom.


This is what we should be doing with our life – our deepest desire. Desire is understood as a food because what we desire we will seek to consume and, eventually, we will be consumed by this desire.  Choose wisely.  According to the historical (Guatama) Buddha, our true, pure desire MUST be identified. For example, the Buddha’s desire was to transform all his own personal suffering, and then show others a logical way to do the same.  This desire, to understand and end personal suffering in the world, consumed him and his life to good ends.  However, consider the volition of those who seek to amass (consciously or not) excessive material wealth. They will consume and be consumed in the end by the shape their craving, their desire, takes – in this case, greed.

The parable that comes to mind is of the man who discovers a piece of land that contains a valuable treasure.  The man desires the treasure so powerfully that he sacrifices everything he owns in order to get it.

Now consider the behavior of a drug or sexual addict versus that of a humanitarian.  All may be consumed voraciously by their desire, with very different results.

What desire consumes you, what cravings do you consume?


This one is a bit rich to digest and simplify in a few sentences, but can be understood within the broader context of how our clinging and all consuming desires feed, as fuel to a fire, our cyclic existence and rebirth. Both Paali words, ‘aahaara’ (nutriment) and ‘upaadaana’ (clinging), share the definition of ‘taking up’ and ‘seizing’; as well, both words signify ‘fuel’ as would be consumed in a fire.

So what can we do?

The adage ‘you are what you eat‘ is deceivingly simple, but within the light of Buddhist philosophy our entire existence, meaningful or not, depends upon consumption as desire leading to craving. 

When the world force feeds us toxins, or even when we simply crave too much of one thing, the best antidote is Stop, Drop, and Meditate.

According to many Buddhist teachers the best way to see clearly all the things we are consuming, including our desire (that shapes our consciousness and if you believe, future rebirth), is with the clarity and calm abiding experienced in meditation. With this tool of contemplation, we can begin to ascertain our pure desire; understand the root of our various cravings; and seriously question our motivations.

In this very moment what idea or longing are you consumed with?  Will it consume you?  Should it? Is there a desire that merits more attention and energy in your life? If so, are you feeding it the nourishment it requires to flourish?

An obvious metaphor: When I first watched the film Requiem for a Dream by Darren by Aronofsky, I was nearly sick to my stomach and had to race out of the theatre. In part, because the subject matter, heroin addiction, was deeply disturbing, but also because the director employed a quick jump editing technique partnered with intense music that evoked anxiety and sadness.

If we come to understand that any of the things we are consuming (voluntarily or otherwise) are sickening, we can choose to be moderate and mindful of avoiding or eliminating all forms of toxins whenever possible.  We can opt out of the consumptive spectacle that defines our culture and take control of our desire – ideally locating a desire that will consume us to beneficial ends.

This has implications for our current conspicuous consumption model, and reaches into nooks and crannies of our culture that may be hard to face, such as cultural production, and massive events like the World Cup or the World Olympics.

I appreciate the joy involved with competition, but I also understand the sorrow of the losing side.  I can visually imbibe in a fireworks display but I can simultaneously understand the repercussions such as noise and environmental pollution, and wasting of resources and so on. Just as I receive great enjoyment from a glass of wine, a bottle is too much. We all know the benefits of changing one’s diet to include more healthful foods cannot be immediately observed, and so too with the effects of moderating or increasing the various four discussed nutrients.

Within these guidelines, I chose not to squander too much energy on the Olympics, but rather to be being mindful of the toxins that are all around. From a larger perspective still, I choose to genuinely focus on locating my true desire, and better understand much of the direct, adverse effects of the Olympics as symptoms of an overall societal malaise that can be disentangled one interconnected being at a time.

Food for thought: I’ve decided that when I die of consumption I don’t want my death to ring out as a mournful dirge – I want my death to be cause for a joyful celebration. As I see it, I can only ensure this is so by locating and being consumed by my one purest desire.

I haven’t located mine yet, have you?

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