Eating what you need: a spiritual practice?

I was listening to a friend tell a story about a woman (let’s call her Lucy) who was taking much more than her fair share.  She was, according to the story, manipulating her elderly parents into leaving her a large proportion of the inheritance, which seemed doubly unfair, as Lucy’s sister did a lot of the day-to-day care for their parents.  Despite being comfortably well-off herself, and not needing an extra income, Lucy seemed determined to make sure she got the biggest piece of the pie.  “How selfish!” I thought.  “Why does she feel this need to take more than her share?”  I was quick to judge.

Around the same time, I had begun to explore my spirituality.  Having not grown up in a religious household, I was never christened, had never been to church regularly, and did not identify myself as Christian, Buddhist or indeed anything else.  Practising yoga regularly, however, seemed to be opening new paths.  I can’t remember where I came across the idea of “taking what you need” as a spiritual practice, but I may have stumbled across it while reading yogic texts.  The whole idea was simple: take what you need in life.  No more, no less.  Swayed neither by greed nor martyrdom, treading the middle path.

Look around us.  Global inequality is at an all-time high.  The richest 2% own more than half the world’s wealth.  Watch this video for the full effect: it’s truly horrifying.  Some of us are taking way, way, more than we need.

I looked at my life.  Of course I’m privileged, being born into a white middle class family.  But I don’t feel that I take more than I am entitled to, either in my relationships or my work.  If someone has me over for dinner, I will do my best to reciprocate.  If someone asks for help, I’ll certainly oblige.  I sponsor a little girl in Rwanda.  I live in a small flat.  I cycle.  I turn the tap off while I brush my teeth.  I’m a vegetarian.  When I make a cup of tea at work, I fill the kettle up for the next break.  I’m even one of those people who changes the loo roll when it’s finished!  Surely, I’m taking just what I need!  Surely, I am a prime example of generosity personified!

Ah ha.  But what about the foodie thing?  How many times have I prepared dinner, and given myself a slightly bigger portion?  How many times have I eaten above and beyond what my belly needs?  How many times have I looked at a perfectly reasonable portion of food, and felt worried it might not be enough?  So, so many.  Uh oh.  Perhaps I’m not so different from our greedy friend Lucy after all.

For me, this is a light-bulb moment.  It’s a waking up to myself.  It’s an invitation for me to find a path to more wholeness, to find the yogi within me, that wishes to live a sustainable life.  A life where I take, and eat, just what I need.

Our process is just that.  It is a commitment to learn to eat what we need, because we know this journey will slowly and gently take us to wholeness.  We know the panicked, grabby, get-me-as-much-of-that-as-you-can feeling.  We don’t need to condemn or punish ourselves for confusing spiritual and physical needs.  Often, these beliefs and behaviours are deeply rooted, back to a time when we just didn’t have the awareness and knowledge we have today.  Our process is incremental, gentle and kind.  It brings gifts far richer than weight loss.  It brings a whole new way of being with ourselves and others.  We learn to meet our needs, so we can be of service to others.

One of the kindest things I did for myself, along this journey, was to make myself a symbolic gift.  I painted a beautiful mug to drink my herbal tea in.  On it, I painted this quotation, which is attributed to the Buddha:

I myself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve my love and affection.

Before, I confused eating more with giving myself more love and affection.  It’s an easy mistake, and I still make it at times.  Now I can choose self-compassion.  I can choose self-compassion when I overeat.  I can choose it when I undereat.  I can choose it when I find that beautiful middle path in between the two.

So, Lucy, I’m sorry you feel you need a bigger share of the inheritance than is fair.  I’m sorry that I feel I need a bigger share of the cake than is fair.  I forgive you, and I forgive myself.  But now I know better, I do better.  And I know that compassion, not judgement, will get me there.


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