Cherry Hill Seminary Column
Nourishing the Body Sacred
As Pagans, we do not shun our bodies. We do not assume that any physical pleasure is bad, and our bodies are often the paths we use to interact with the God/dess, via drumming or dancing. We hold that all acts of love and pleasure are sacred and that we will harm none. So why is it that we so often harm ourselves and reduce our capacity for pleasure by giving our bodies toxins and foods with no nutritional or spiritual value?
While we seek to model our spiritual practice after those of the ancients, we ourselves are the products of Western culture, and the Western world is very mental. We seek constant stimulation for our minds, but the attention we give our bodies can be superficial. More often than not, this attention is based on how our bodies look rather than how well they function. As a modern religion that reclaims the good things that were lost and creates a new vision, Paganism is well suited to re-create, revitalize and restore positive functional ideas about the body.
We are biologically designed to have spiritual experiences. In the top rear section of our brains, in the parietal lobe, is an area that Dr. Andrew Newberg calls the orientation association area. Under certain conditions, we can disconnect from this area in our brain by interrupting the flow of sensory information. The result is a profound sense of connection with the rest of the Universe that has been documented in numerous spiritual experiences. Our bodies are the vehicles through which we connect and experience God/dess. It is also the vehicle through which we experience the world and through which we experience Deity. Everything we see, hear, taste, smell, feel is done with our bodies. Every emotion is transmitted with a cascade of peptides, and every new experience or sensation stimulates the creation of new neurological connections in the brain. The better our brains and bodies work, the more profoundly we can feel oneness with the All.
The Rede says, "do what you will but harm none." "None" includes ourselves. Like all things in nature, body effects are circular. When we exercise and eat the right foods, our minds are more clear, our emotions more effervescent. When we think positive thoughts instead of negative ones, our bodies have more energy and sensation. The better the body works, the more efficiently it functions, and the more we will get out of it. Our senses - vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and proprioception - work better when the body is cherished and cared for. Our brains work better when fed nutrients instead of toxins. The body makes the molecules of emotion, and it makes more pleasant feelings when fed the right ingredients.
These ideas are profoundly personal to me. As a small child, I was molested. This produced an assortment of emotional and physical upheavals that lasted well into my late twenties, and from which I still experience repercussions now, at age 39. My coping mechanisms included meditation and exercise, which were very healthy. But they also included eating lots of sugar and refined foods, which certainly inhibited my recovery. While in therapy, I had to fight for every step forward because I was not supporting my mental and emotional changes with a nourishing diet. In therapy, I learned that my anxiety attacks occurred because I was not eating when I was hungry, and my blood sugar was crashing. But therapy did not help the insomnia or the nausea that was a regular visitor.
When I stopped eating wheat, the nausea I had been feeling after eating disappeared, and even better, I found that for the first time in my life, I had a real appetite. Stopping sugar was much more difficult. The first week really stank. All I could think about was chocolate. But after that week, I found I was sleeping. Sleeping when I went to bed and all night long. My body started to feel different. I had more energy, lots more energy. I finally understood what it was to feel really good.
If as pagans, we wish to cherish our physicality, then we must care for our bodies. As pagans, we celebrate life and the turn of the seasons. Our spiritual ancestors lived close to the land. They farmed, and they hunted. They raised cattle and pigs and chickens and these too thrived (at least when there were not drought conditions) from what the earth grew, and they thanked the Gods for the bounty of the harvest. Manure and vegetable scraps were given back to the soil because it made the plants grow better. This is the cycle of birth, life, death and renewal that we celebrate.
Yet where is this cycle represented in a brand name cookie or snack cake? When these things are broken down they have nothing to offer to either our bodies or the soil. How can it be possible to honor our bodies by plying them with a can of colored liquid full of either chemicals that do not occur in nature, or refined sugar that would literally starve us to death if it was all we had to eat? While it can be argued that there is pleasure to be had from the consumption of a snack-cake, I do not believe that this honors the God/dess. Nor does sitting all day show respect and love to a body designed for efficient hunting and foraging.
We eat what is familiar, what we are used to. But what if what we are used to is not what is best for our bodies? We often eat mindlessly, with no awareness of what goes in our mouths. I haven't eaten lima beans since I was a kid at my babysitter's kitchen table. Her name was Aunt Anna and she was a Mennonite (a more modern sect of the Amish) and expected the best of behavior from me. This included eating what was put in front of me, and with most things that was fine. But lima beans were my nemesis. They were very dry and mealy. I don't recall if she managed to convince me - by whatever method – to eat them, but I have memories of sitting for long periods of time with those limas staring back from my plate, slowly becoming more and more unpalatable.
Yet those lima beans were certainly full of things that would have been very good for my body. They were raised by Anna's kinfolk on a farm in Pennsylvania. The Mennonites, like the Amish, farmed with good organic compost that came from cows that lived in fields instead of being locked perpetually in barns. Those beans were carefully nurtured, and picked by hands that knew the soil intimately. They were shared with Anna out of a sense of love and community, and my unwillingness to eat them must have been a deep affront to her. Looking back now, it would have been just as easy to learn to like those lima beans as it was for me to sit there and be stubborn (I was very stubborn.) Apparently it takes up to ten times of trying something new before we like it, but it is in fact a choice.
Much of the food that we can buy in grocery stores is prepared mindlessly, and perhaps this is appropriate, since we often eat without giving any attention to what we are putting in our mouths. It is possible that if we gave our complete attention to what we were eating, we might find it dull and unappetizing. Regular consumption of processed foods, which are high in sugar and chemical flavor enhancers, dull the taste buds so that more and more is needed for satiety.
Imagine instead a meal that has been lovingly prepared from organic ingredients. Vegetables and fruits raised with organic compost, organic whole grains that have not been stripped of their essential nutrients, and meats and dairy products from animals that have been raised with respect and slaughtered humanely. When the meal is placed before you, you pause to breathe and thank the Gods for such beautiful, nourishing food. You thank the animals and plants that are giving you their energy, and reflect on the great spiral of life and death in which we all participate. Then you dig in and savor each bite with pleasure, for this meal is a ritual to the Goddess. Each mouthful brings different flavors, scents, and textures. When you are satiated, your body feels good and your mind is clear, your cravings fulfilled.
American eating habits and lifestyles do not encourage the development of smell, taste, touch and proprioception (our internal sensation). Because all of our senses and thus our spirits are not being stimulated, we look for stimulation in the places the advertisers say that we should. Packaged foods visually promise sensation, but provide little but the taste of sweet and salty. We then eat more and more in a futile attempt to be fulfilled, sometimes ending up addicted to foods that do not nourish either body or spirit. Or perhaps we smoke or drink or do other things that satisfy our immediate need to feel good without producing any long-term results.
On the whole, it is no longer possible for most of us to live as our ancestors did. Making a living at farming is becoming more and more difficult, and the profession itself is no longer respected as it once was. So how do we care for our precious and sacred body in a world of television and processed foods? No matter the satisfaction of the mental pursuits of our technological age, our bodies still need the stimulation of physical movement, the reassurance of touch, the arousal of scent and complex flavors that comes with eating real food.
While there are dozens of diet regimes that one may attempt, I believe that unless we develop the habit of eating mindfully, with the thought of honoring our precious physicality, that anything we may gain from changing the foods we consume will be temporary. To function well, our bodymind needs plenty of fresh water (remember the 8 glasses everyone talks about?), adequate protein from either animal or plant sources, and the vitamins and minerals the come from fresh (preferably organic) produce. If ninety to ninety five percent of our caloric intake is from real foods, then we can sometimes enjoy a soda or some other refined food. But the truth is that once a person starts eating real food, the refined stuff becomes far less palatable. Candy and soda becomes too sweet, and other refined foods are too salty or just plain tasteless.
Our body also needs movement, a practice that leaves us alert with a peaceful mind. Movement that brings awareness of our muscles, our bones, our organs, will not only stimulate those areas, but increase our brain capacity as well. One of the great joys of being Pagan is that our physical expression can be a spiritual practice. We can dance and drum, we can hike in the woods, or deserts, or paddle a boat on the water. We can make love. Exercise becomes an act of worship when is its done out of love and respect for the physical world.
Since I stopped eating processed food, everything tastes better to me, carrots or parsnips seem positively sugary, and I even notice the sweetness in broccoli. The flavor and scent of the food bursts in my mouth and is deeply satisfying. My mind is clearer and my emotions are calmer. I am harder to shake up and I think better under pressure. I am not eating a purely organic diet (it is expensive) but I and my family are gradually headed in that direction. When I choose organic vegetables and fruits, I honor the cycles of the Earth. When I choose free-range beef or chicken, I support practices that honor the whole life of the animal, not just its death. Eating real food honors the One.
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Jensen, Bernard, Ph.D., Food Healing For Man, Bernard Jensen Enterprises, 1983.
Bio: Selina Rifkin recognized she was Pagan in her late teens. She has been a solitary practitioner, but has also participated in many circles in several different traditions. At Cherry Hill Seminary, she is the Executive Assistant to the Director and Moodle Technician. Her spirituality is expressed through both her practice as a massage therapist, and as a martial artist and enjoys the dynamic tension between the two arts.