This essay was first published under the title “Food” in the Summer 2014 journal of Brooklyn Aikikai. I am very grateful to the dojo’s sensei, Mr. Robert Savocca, for inviting me to publish a piece in each of his dojo’s two premier issues.
In “Fed-Up,” the 2014 movie about the American diet, Katie Couric reports that American supermarkets sell over 600,000 separate food items. If you consider for a second that American supermarkets sell only a few hundred kinds of fruits and vegetables, meat from only a handful of animals, and a very limited selection of seafood, it becomes clear that only a very small percentage—probably a percentage in the single digits—of these 600,000 items are actually food. The American diet consists, in very large part, of processed items that, while they contain calories and are fortified with vitamins and minerals, are in my opinion not food at all.
This is not a benign problem. These faux foods are directly implicated in the deteriorating health of the American population. In fact, for the first time since statistics have been kept, American children born today have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Doctor Robert Lustig MD, a childhood endocrinologist and an expert on obesity, argues that refined sugar is not just a convenient sweetener, but a chronic hepatotoxin. His 90-minute lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” is to my mind a must-see video. As of May 2014 it has been viewed 4.7 million times on You Tube. The bottom line of his argument? Sugar is toxic and it is the smoking gun behind the epidemic of obesity and its sequelae and related disorders like diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, hyper tension and on and on. If current trends continue one in three American children born today will develop Type II Diabetes as a direct consequence of the sugar added to processed foods.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest 9% of the total caloric intake in the US is from soft drinks, and for teenagers the percentage is 13%. And, compounding the nightmare of sugar consumption, a quick Google search will reveal that there is now very compelling research that suggests that daily soft drink consumption, even three-times-a-week consumption, increases the likelihood of developing pancreatic and prostate cancers.
In 1911, about 20 years after the invention of hydrogenated vegetable oil, Procter & Gamble introduced Crisco vegetable shortening in grocery stores. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, as its name implies, is formulated by attaching hydrogen atoms onto the long chains of carbon atoms that are the molecular backbone of naturally occurring vegetable oils. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, or trans-fat as it is commonly called, has the advantage of being solid at room temperature, an attribute that makes it less messy, especially in commercial cooking operations. It also has a long shelf life, making it convenient for ordinary consumers who might use a can of it over a few months. Its long shelf life, combined with the fact that it stays solid at room temperature, makes it an ideal fat to use in the production of mass-market foods such as pastry. As a consequence of these advantages trans-fats became, and unfortunately still are, ubiquitous in the American diet.
Trans-fats, like sugar, are toxic. Consumption of trans-fats has been proven to increase the risk—that is cause—coronary artery disease. Heart disease is now the number one cause of death for Americans.
These facts, of course, are in open circulation and by themselves are not an appropriate subject for the annual journal of Brooklyn Aikikai.
But these facts are part of a larger landscape of facts that tell us, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see, that as a culture we are so disconnected from the earth and from ourselves that we have lost a great part of our instinctive discernment. Any idiot knows that you cannot make a sandwich from a slab of concrete nor substitute gravel for rice. But Coca Cola, Cheez Whiz and Kellogg’s Fruit Loops are no more food than concrete or gravel. Ironically, a bowl of gravel and milk is probably less toxic than a bowl of Fruit Loops and milk.
How can it be that anyone can experience Coca Cola and mistake it for food? And if we cannot discern that Coca Cola is toxic, or at least not a food, what else in our daily lives do we misidentify? Perhaps just about everything.
We are all very familiar with Jesus’ response to the devil in the Gospel of Mathew: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” But few of us are familiar with the entire statement, which reads: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (KJV, Mathew 4-4) The idea, I suggest, is that man is fed by the truth. In the Gospel the lie is represented by the devil. In this essay the lie is represented by Coca Cola. There really is not much difference between the devil and Coca Cola: each is a metaphor, a paradigm, for taking the false for the real or, more precisely and worse, presenting the false as the real.
The devil tempts Jesus with the notion that the temporal trumps the eternal; the Coca Cola Company tempts with the notion that its sweet poison is food. There really is not much difference between the two.
Is it too big a step to suggest, as some mystics do, that we are fed—for better and for worse—by all the impressions that we receive, both vivifying and deleterious? If so we have to ask is the Coca Cola Company only feeding us physical poison, or is it feeding us lies as well? This is a question worth thinking about because how we answer it may impact how we choose to live our lives.
As children we are “fed” many notions, for example that we are citizens of a certain country and therefore must be patriotic. Somehow the natural consequence of this is that the vast majority in the world come to believe that building or purchasing airplanes that drop bombs on people far away is not obviously depraved and criminal on its face, but a manifestation of the virtue of strength and accordingly worthy of patriotic celebration.
We live bombarded by a constant stream of impressions—from advertisers, from politicians, from religious leaders, from teachers, from entertainers, from buffoons and scoundrels, from the half-informed, and from the enlightened—that feed us notions that become part of our psyches just as organically as the protein we eat is transformed into our bodies.
Today clean food is all the rage. I myself am a partner in an organic farm. Many years ago my mother, a woman who served no processed food in our home, put her finger on the underlying motivation behind the movement toward organic food: “Yours is the generation” she said, “that was raised on Hostess Twinkies, discovered they were junk, and felt betrayed.”
As Michael Pollan points-out, if you wish to eat wholesome food the answer is very simple: eat nothing that your great grandmother would not recognize. Your great grandmother, obviously, would not recognize Coca Cola, but she would also not recognize bread that includes among its ingredients preservatives, numbered colors, xanthium gum, trans-fat or high fructose corn syrup. Pollan’s approach to food shopping would probably eliminate 599,000 of the 600,000 items that are sold as food in the US.
Alas there is no similarly simple trick for switching our spiritual diet to the food of fine impressions, although many have tried. Indeed, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that the impulse among seekers of many traditions to gather—in monasteries, or in ashrams, or in dojos, or in communes or in colonies or in intentional communities of various sorts—issues, ultimately, from the desire to switch the daily diet of impressions from the heterogeneous flood of coarse and fine impressions “in the world” to a controlled flow of finer impressions in a setting removed from the world. The efficacy of leaving the world in order to find a finer life is, unfortunately, highly problematic. Many sincere seekers have suffered terribly when they have pulled back the veil at a monastery to find a swamp of political intrigue, sexual abuse, petty power struggles and pillaging of the treasury. But some seekers who have sought what Theodore Roethke called “the unquenchable quiet at the heart of form” have found their way in the brotherhood or sisterhood of a monastery or similar institution.
The rather obvious but somehow elusive fact is that no one can eat our food for us. We can choose, meal by meal, both what we put in our bellies and also the food we offer to our neighbor, provided of course that we are present enough to actually notice.
Similarly, we can choose what sort of impressions we wish to eat and share. Do we listen to spewing buffoon or do we turn off the radio? Do we spend our time with others who devote their lives to scheming about money, or do we engage in pursuits whose rewards cannot be quantized in the trivially simple arithmetic of dollars? Just as at any minute we can choose the apple over the candy bar, or offer our neighbor the apple over the candy bar, we can also choose to offer our neighbor a compassionate response or a sarcastic remark.
In this way we are always and everywhere interrelated, just as we are at a dinner table.
I suggest that just as it takes a developed discernment know what foods nourish our bodies, it takes a moment-to-moment work of discernment to live so that the impressions we receive and generate refine us and our neighbors rather than coarsen us and our neighbors.
In my opinion an active impulse to develop discernment in one realm, say food, brings with it a growing capacity to have discernment in other realms. And the difference between an individual worthy of the name and just another face in the crowd is succinctly and simply this: an individual has discernment. Eat accordingly.