Years ago my friend, the Jungian analyst and mythologist Rafael Lopez-Pedraza, had just returned from California, and he told me about his astonishment at finding that so many people there didn’t eat food, they ate their ideas. The situation everywhere has gotten only worse. Either we consume our ideologies or we eat unconsciously.
From my point of view the worst aspect of current discussions about food is the materialism behind it all. I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw years ago in which a diner at a restaurant says to the waiter, “My compliments to the chemist.” We are told to read the list of ingredients and the percentages of various nutrients we will get from the food. The various pyramid health plans want us to imagine our food geometrically. Youtube is full of contradictory but impassioned pleas to think of each organ as we eat and give it the chemicals it requires. Apparently a good eater knows how to buy certain foods for the liver, the brain and the lower intestine.
An added problem is that we take all of this widespread talk of chemicals literally. We don’t penetrate beyond the physical in our approach to a diet or a way of eating. But this is the way we do everything in modern society. We are literalists and physicalists. A visit to a doctor’s office these days doesn’t nurture your feelings and fantasies of health. You are a thing to be tinkered with and repaired in an atmosphere of serious engineering and chemicals. A pill rather than a vacation on the sea.
The ideas about food that we take so ponderously and literally are after all fantasies. I mean in the sense of an imagination of what might be good for us. Beneath these local, individual fantasies lie mythologies, deep narratives connected to a person’s background and general outlook on life. For example, a common underlying theme, certainly tied to religion, is: “It’s healthy to deprive yourself.” “No pain, no gain.” “Eat it, it’s good for you.”
Depriving yourself, eating things you don’t like, and suffering in general often seem to be woven into our ideas about what is healthy. Of course, sometimes we have to do things for our health and well-being that are not pleasant. A visit to the dentist is not a day for celebration. Learning how to play the piano requires hours of demanding practice. But here’s the secret: Deprivations and pain are only a small part of caring for your health and an even smaller part of good eating.
You can eat healthy food and not make health the only value, or as I would put it, the only mythology in your diet. Why do you think carefully about the ethnicity of the restaurant you want to go to with certain friends or on a particular day—Italian, Indian, Mexican. I don’t think you consider the chemicals involved in each tradition or which is best for your pancreas. At this point in your life with food, the soul finally has something to say.
You may go to an Indian restaurant for the environment, the aromas, the style of service or the flavors and where they take you in reverie. Your soul may need to be in India that evening, or Italy or Shanghai. The food may be connected somehow, perhaps in memory, to your friends who will share your dinner. In discussions of diet there could be more talk about who you eat with, what makes a restaurant appealing to your deepest self, how to cook with joy at home—yes, the joy of cooking.
Many people find eating painful because they are always trying to enjoy eating and losing weight at the same time. Maybe weight loss isn’t just about exercise and the kind of food we eat. Maybe it’s about how we are in life, again what mythology underlies our approach to everything. I have the fantasy that some people can’t lose weight because they, men and women, are habitually maternal in their relationships. A pregnant woman gains weight for the new being in her; maybe we maternal types keep weight on for the same reason. The more the mother complex dominates, the more difficult it is to lose weight. We “mothers” diet strenuously, but maybe we really need to explore other ways to be in the world.
I grew up in a family where there was very little exploration of ethnic foods or exotic dishes. Our motto was: simple and pretty good tasting. That’s the way we lived: nothing fancy, no dieting, not much mixing with other cultures. This turned out to be quite healthy eating: My mother died at 87 and my father at 100, with only moderate physical problems. Our family dinners were full of fun, good conversation and conviviality. These qualities could be part of any human diet, except that as an expatriate from the family I would include vast ethic diversity.
A soul diet, or better, a soul way of eating, would consider the human experience of eating, not just the physical components. If you are eating “healthy” food in an atmosphere of tension, irritability, painful solitude, perfectionism and a materialistic view of your body, you’re not doing much for your health.
A human being is made up of body, soul and spirit, all overlapping and mutually dependent elements. Any diet that doesn’t take all three into consideration is not a diet for humans but for soulless bodies. If that’s the situation, there isn’t much chance for a healthy outcome.
Invest yourself in cooking and making decisions about food. Make sure the environment for cooking and eating has at least some soul in it. Remember that your relationship with friends and family members is part of your diet. The place, the style, the imagination, the conversation, the reverie, and the deep pleasure all go into making your style of eating soulful and therefore healthy in the full human sense of the word.