essays

The discomfort of awakening and my journey with food

Early in 2016, I was sitting at a diner in Colorado Springs when I had an awakening experience. I was eating a plate of eggs and bacon, and suddenly their visage was revolting: I felt I could not finish the meal. I plucked up a piece of bacon, dipped it in the yolk of an egg, and realized that I was lathering the flank of one being in the embryo of another; I felt physical disgust, and I left the diner without eating any more. 

At the time, I did not quite know what was happening to me, but I did know that the experience in some way hinged on my interconnection with other beings. More precisely, I was recognizing that each of the beings on my plate was a being in the same way I was a being, and this left me unable to eat them. Of a sudden, eating bacon and eggs felt akin to eating humans.

Before going on to what happened after this experience, I want to note two important facts the experience discloses about awakening:

1) Awakening is uncomfortable, as demonstrated by my sudden queasiness and inability to continue eating my food. For a parallel, I want you to think of the scene in The Matrix in which Neo awakens from the titular paradigm, finding himself immersed in a foreign goo and attached to myriad feeding tubes. The experience is disgusting to Neo, and it is so far outside of his previous status quo that he lacks the ability to make sense of it. Like this scene in the film, most awakening experiences contain a degree of shock, even repulsion; they rip us from what we formerly knew and, afterward, require context in order to explain. 

2) There are many kinds of awakening. You may be thinking: inability to eat egg, an awakening experience? I thought awakening was the equivalent of enlightenment, in which final understanding of existence is reached? I would respond: yes, that is a kind of awakening, and I have had that kind at a Buddhist retreat in 2019; but there are also myriad other awakenings in all areas of life as we move toward spiritual growth and wholeness. There are—and I have had—awakenings around sexuality and embodiment, racism, intuition, politics, and so many more topics… all as a life of service and pleasure picks up pace and we discover further dimensions of who we are.

To turn back to my story, what happened immediately after my awakening experience around food is that I decided to become a vegetarian, following up this intention by seeking out friends who were practicing vegetarians and checking out books on the subject from the library. From these resources, I learned how to eat meals that conferred adequate protein, what elements only meat or supplements could provide, and how to eat food that was tasty even while foregoing meat. For five or six weeks, I cooked vegetarian meals at home and ate only grains and vegetables from the cafeteria of the school I was working, ogling with derision the hamburgers, chicken, and so forth that other students and staff members ate. Then, one day, I noted that I badly wanted one of these items of meat myself, and so I ate it. 

What happened? This turn of events illuminates another fact about awakening, which is that it is unsustainable when divorced from a larger principle. In my awakening experience at the diner, I viscerally felt disgust at what I was eating and, for a moment, experienced the food on my plate as equivalent to myself; however, I did not deeply feel nor did I align myself with vegetarianism as an ethic, nor did I feel on a daily basis kinship with the plant and animal community. Instead, I perceived myself as an individual being separate from that community, and so when my wants were out of tune with the principles to which I held myself, I easily chose my wants. 

This might sound like a lack of self-discipline, but it is actually similar to the way in which most addicts will return to imbibing their substance when trying to abstain from it through will alone. For instance, let’s say an alcoholic decides to quit drinking, but does not supplement their will with a support system such as alcoholics anonymous or any substitute pleasures. For a time, will alone may prevent the alcoholic from drinking, but eventually a moment of weakness will coincide with availability of their chosen substance and they will return to it. Why? What force do you think is stronger: individual will or the environment which constructed that will? Without environmental support, the addict will return to the drink and hate themself for it. 

The converse of this story is illustrated by what happened to me a few years later, by which time I had all but forgotten my bout with vegetarianism. At this time, which occurred in the summer of 2019, I attended a Buddhist retreat in northern California at which I was served splendid vegetarian meals three times daily. At this retreat, my feelings of physical fullness and nourishment were complemented by the sensation of spiritual community and daily practice which rounded out life at the center, and so my vegetarian diet was fully supported by a number of factors. Furthermore, it was at this retreat that I had the awakening experience which might rightly be called the “big one,” and so when I returned home I lived with the moment-to-moment sensation of my interconnection with other beings. With this sensation having been converted to a stratum of my life, it was no longer theoretical to imagine my interconnection with the living beings which might or might not appear on my plate; I felt their kinship in my bones and knew that we all imbibed of one energy. 

Even so, a vegetarian diet was not to permanently last following this awakening, either. Eating vegetarian meals after returning home from my retreat, I eventually noticed that I was rapidly losing weight; furthermore, as had happened the previous time a few years before, I simply wanted meat. And so, once again, I obeyed my craving. 

The difference now is that I eat meat only a few times a month, and it has been more than a year since I sorted out my diet in the manner described in the paragraph above. These days, I simply do not want meat anywhere near as often as I used to eat it; there is no longer a conflict between the amount I crave meat and the amount I allow myself to have it, and so my diet is fluid. 

I probably will never cease eating meat entirely, and perhaps that is because some facet of my constitution requires it. However, the reduction of my desire for meat shows that I am in tune with a larger force, because the planet itself is probably not able to produce meat at the current rate for much longer and also sustain human beings. Put differently, I believe that when we really listen to ourselves, we find that we simply do not desire things which at the same time cannot be provided; that being the case, awakening becomes sustainable because it is quite literally supported by our environment. Furthermore, as my story also shows, awakening becomes integrated when multiple factors in our lives intertwine with it; my buddhist practice and daily meditation put me in contact with a long lineage of people who have eaten and continue to eat very little meat, and so it is not difficult for me to remember this impulse. Even more so, it is through meditation that I know my lifeblood is the same energy as the earth’s; what I want is the same thing as the earth wants for me, and so there is no gap between desire and fulfillment. 

Generalizing and putting into practice the journey described above, I want to leave the reader with the following questions:

1) In what ways, if any, are you currently awakening? What awareness is being birthed in you that may or may not feel discordant with your external environment?

2) In what ways, if any, are you currently engaged in forcing? What do you not allow yourself to have out of an egoic principle? What is the deeper need beneath your addiction?

3) What community might you seek out for support? Whom else do you know who is on an awakening journey?

4) What might be the deeper principle that makes your awakening sustainable? That is, what force might unite your higher yearning and whatever it is that feels out of tune with it?

Blessings to you; may you find a set of beliefs and daily practices that bring you and your community into ever more rightness, lightness, and wholeness. 

2 thoughts on “The discomfort of awakening and my journey with food”

  1. My relationship with food continues, provides me both hope and discomfort. I have family members who are very over weight. I am over weight now but not as much as previous. Baking and food preparation are the good times in my past, but yet have resulted in unhealthy weight gain. I have reached a better equilibrium but I am not there yet. The struggle continues, and I also recently came to the recognition that the struggle will never end. Holiday baking is difficult as I want to celebrate the past without jeopardizing the future. How to celebrate the past but yet be healthy in the present is a big question in life. Even though your struggle is a different type of food struggle I can feel exactly what you wrote.

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    1. Darrell, I am moved by your comment and happy to be on this journey with you. Thank you for sharing some of your struggle and its context, and let me know if you would like to be in further communication or if I can support you in any way.

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