Nourishing the Now
by Shira Shaiman
If you want something to grow, you have to feed it. For anyone who’s ever had a houseplant or pet, this seems obvious. But we don’t necessarily think about applying this natural principle to our own growth and development. According to the pioneering work of nourishment consultant Halé Sofia Schatz, a secret to vibrant living resides in one of our most common daily activities—how we feed ourselves.
On a recent trip to New York City, I decided to venture out of my hotel in search of a health food store where I could pick up a few items for breakfast. I asked the young women at the front desk to point me in the right direction. Even at 8:00 a.m., these women were as stoic as the modern columns supporting the lobby ceiling. When I explained that I wanted breakfast, they suggested the hotel’s restaurant. I shook my head, and they asked what I usually ate.
"It varies," I said, "eggs, greens, yogurt, sometimes fish, quinoa." My mouth began to water at the thought of my latest breakfast favorite of quinoa, kale, and avocado, which I knew I’d be hard pressed to find in Times Square. At the mention of these foods, the women’s professional composure crumbled. They sparked to life. "I love to eat healthy!" they exclaimed in near unison. "But it’s so hard to eat well here," the young woman said, glancing around the lobby. "Getting to work by 6:00 a.m. and having 20 minutes for lunch doesn’t leave much time for anything besides the deli next door." The others were nodding. "You sound so healthy, do you ever cheat?"
Cheat? The question took me by surprise. Cheating would mean I was on a diet, which I’m not. This is my life, I thought. Who would I be cheating?
I told this young woman, who suddenly looked so hungry to me, that in fact I had a slice of baklavah and a cup of Turkish coffee the night before. She didn’t quite know what to make of this. How can healthy and dessert go together in the same breath? Before I encountered nourishment consultant Hale Sofia Schatz’s joyful and heartful approach to food, I felt the same way: you were either on a diet or else it was a free-for-all.
Nourishing myself has become a way of life that I can’t separate from anything else I do. Nourishment means loving and giving to myself, and knowing that I deserve this care and respect. Sometimes that care looks like a bowl of miso soup, other times it’s a piece of dark chocolate, or a night out dancing. The point is, I stopped swinging on the pendulum of starvation and stuffing by learning how to really feed myself.
People generally know what they need to feed themselves well: more fresh foods and fewer processed and refined ones. But between the knowing and the doing there’s frequently a gap, which often results in unnecessary suffering. Of course, this applies to our relationship with food and every other way we treat ourselves.
"The only way I see people make lasting change," observes Schatz, "is by connecting to their spirit. When there’s the awareness that we are more than just bodies, that we are spirit embodied in physical form, it changes how we relate to ourselves. It wakes us up, makes us consider our choices and how to care for ourselves in ways that truly align with the spirit."
The more we nourish the place of wholeness within ourselves, the more our spirit can shine its light. "And this is what we all really want!" says Schatz. "It’s not about losing five pounds or achieving a body that looks a certain way. Everybody wants to feel good—healthy, passionate, at peace, in balance. We yearn to come home to our bodies, minds, and spirits."
Nourishing yourself has more to do with responding to your needs in the present moment than following any particular diet or health system. That’s because the body lives only in the present. Our thoughts about our bodies, however, tend to linger in the past or leap into fantasies of how we wish we looked.
Frequently, we eat according to an old sense of who we are, whether that’s feeding our emotional stories or an idea of who we were at different stages of life. But the body we have today isn’t the same one we had ten years ago, or even ten days ago, and feeding our past instead of our present is a recipe for potential distress.
How can we know what feeds us now? According to Schatz, feeding ourselves is a matter of response-ability: listening to the body and providing for its needs at any given time. Does this seem like a simple approach to feeding ourselves? It is.
Schatz has dedicated the last 30 years to teaching people how to develop communication with their bodies. Her approach is based on the premise that the body is perpetually conveying a stream of information about our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. All we have to do is listen.
The most basic way to tune in to your nourishment needs is clarifying what you are feeling at any given moment—digestion, energy level, emotions, and all the other dynamic experiences of being human.
To illustrate how this simple barometer works, here’s a situation that many of us can relate to. Let’s say you’re a regular coffee drinker who decides to give up caffeine. As the caffeine releases from your bloodstream, chances are you’ll feel fatigued, even grouchy. You wonder: "Why am I so tired all of a sudden?" But it’s not all of a sudden. Without the coffee, you now have a chance to feel what your body’s been trying to convey to you all along, and what the caffeine had masked: "I’m tired!"
While this may not feel good, it does create an opportunity to hear the body’s needs and respond in a more nurturing way. What is your body really asking for? A longer night’s sleep? Less work and more downtime? A new job? Or perhaps a new and refreshed attitude toward life.
How can we hear our inner needs, let alone respond to them, amidst the noise and distraction of our rapidly expanding consumer culture? When you consider that the typical American supermarket carries 35,000 food products, that food is available everywhere and at all times, and that countless diets and expert theories about food come in and out of vogue, it’s no wonder we feel so overwhelmed and conflicted when it comes to feeding ourselves.
One way to clear the confusion is by limiting our field of choices. For the first time in human history, we regularly eat food that’s prepared by people we don’t know, and with questionable ingredients, or ingredients of unknown origin. We would never consider putting a foreign object into our bodies, but with food we do it all the time. We need to bring nourishment home, literally back into our hands and kitchens.
Since a one-size-fits-all food plan won’t accommodate everybody’s unique needs, we can always rely on the earth for sane guidance. After all, that’s where food originates. When we regularly choose whole foods, like seasonal vegetables and fruit, whole grains, seeds and nuts, lean proteins, and organic animal products, we receive the most potent life-giving nourishment with the least amount of excess.
Essentially, vital foods energize and give us life, while processed and refined foods have a deadening effect. Feeding ourselves fresh vegetables and fruits, especially in season and from local sources, also connects us to the life force of the earth. Even if you can’t garden or spend time in nature, feeding yourself vegetables and fruits is one way to literally engage with the natural rhythms that connect all life together.
Who Are You Feeding?
Feeding yourself is an intimately personal experience. Think about it. Let’s say you buy a beautiful apple from a farm stand. You take a bite and the crisp textures and juices explode in your mouth. You chew, swallow, and the apple is gone.
Usually we don’t dwell on what happens to our food once we’ve consumed it. But now that you’ve taken that apple into your body the fruit has become part of you. In fact, some of that apple will literally become you, transforming into the energy your body and mind need for sustenance. In this sense, the adage "you are what you eat" has some validity. If you’ve only considered food for its taste, then this can be quite a wake-up call.
But Schatz has a different spin on this familiar saying. "In my view, it’s also true that you eat what you are," she explains. "From working with hundreds of people in various stages of life and from different backgrounds, I see that we eat foods that perpetuate certain behaviors. For example, a fast life seeks out fast food, whether it looks like McDonald’s or the health food deli counter."
For many, eating has become a mindless activity, or something done in conjunction with at least one or more tasks. How can you be present for a meal if you are also reading a book, typing on the keyboard, eating while rushing to work, or driving your car? We open our mouths, but we don’t necessarily receive the food we give ourselves. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that no activity is too mundane for mindfulness; even washing the dishes is an occasion to be present. If we aren’t present for ourselves when we eat, then we’ve missed a little piece of our lives, and this leaves us wanting more and more to feel satiated.
To highlight the difference between mindless, frenzied consumption and purposeful, conscious nourishment, Schatz encourages people to explore the concept of feeding themselves. When you feed yourself, there’s a giver and a receiver: the one who does the feeding and the self who receives the food.
The question then becomes: Who are you feeding? Which aspect of yourself are you choosing to nourish? The one who moves calmly through life, or the stressed-out person who rushes from appointment to appointment? Which parts of yourself do you want to nurture? Consider the foods, as well as the activities, friends, books, music, even profession that would support your growth.
Nourishment is a daily awareness practice, just like yoga or meditation. But where we can miss a day on our mat or zafu, we don’t usually skip a day of feeding ourselves. For this very reason, nourishing ourselves offers countless opportunities to pay attention to who we really are and to respond with kindness and respect.
Nourishment doesn’t mean always or never. When we follow an all-or-nothing mentality, we do ourselves a great disservice. "We have to dispel the myth that a healthy lifestyle means never eating a piece of chocolate, or making ourselves take a yoga class every day no matter what. This kind of rigid behavior is too difficult for us to sustain," says Schatz. Just as a flexible spine is an essential yogic element to maintaining health, a flexible attitude toward food is crucial for nourishing yourself. The middle-way approach is rooted in a regular discipline that’s also relaxed and responsive to your complex physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs in the present moment.
For Schatz, the body is an ongoing experiment, the laboratory where she studies how to take care of the gift that we’ve all been divinely given. "People are surprised when I tell them that I have to continually engage with the question of feeding myself. I’m faced with the same daily choices as everyone else! There’s nothing automatic about it. The body has so much to teach us. If we can learn to live in this vehicle with love, equanimity, and compassion, then imagine what we can do in the world, which is just a bigger vehicle."
Shira Shaiman is a poet, writer, and editor. She is coauthor with Halé Sofia Schatz of If the Buddha Came to Dinner: How to Nourish Your Body to Awaken Your Spirit.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Spring 2005 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.