As a nation we have become pretty obsessive about food and health. We worry about it so much that, for lots of people today, the primary daily question is no longer “What’s for dinner?”, but rather “How will what I eat at dinner affect my health?’
The condition of worrying about whether we are eating the right thing even has its own title: Orthorexia.
We are orthorexics, people with an unhealthy obsession about healthy eating.
Other cultures don’t worry about orthorexia. They have more deep-rooted responses to the questions of food and health. They have better, simpler, and more profound, answers.
For example, as my wife has been busy doing a series of Tai Chi lessons each Wednesday evening, I have been busy glancing at her tai chi books. In one of them, the tai chi teacher Angus Clark makes a couple of stunning observations.
“The best way to look after the stomach is to eat with enjoyment and dedication”, he writes in the chapter on “Digestion and Elimination”.
And he goes on: “Digestion is a complex process that is strongly influenced by emotions”.
So, ask yourself just what your emotional state is when you sit down to eat. If we need to eat with enjoyment, we need to recognize that how we feel about our food, and how we feel when we are eating our food, can actually influence the efficacy of our digestion.
But how often do we eat when we are in a state of stress – after an overlong commute, driven nuts by the kids, with the memory of a bruising ‘phone call still in our mind – or find ourselves generally not in any fit state to really take time to enjoy our food?
We don’t need just good food: we need to be in a state in which to enjoy that good food. But what chance have you of getting to that state if your reaction to what is being served is to ask: “Should I really be eating this? Will this make me fat?”. Where is the enjoyment and dedication we need? What are our stressed emotions doing to our digestive powers?
Yet if we also do a little tai chi, or the Qi Gong as practiced by Eileen Murray and described on these pages a month ago, we will manage through some of the exercises to massage the kidneys and to massage the colon, which can improve our digestion, and help with irritable bowel syndrome.
This is a good example of joined-up thinking when it comes to food and health.
Where we in the West have fractured the relationship between healthy eating and healthfulness, other cultures see things in a complete, unbroken chain of logic: you are what you eat, and you are the way you eat.
“Cooking and health have never been divided in Chinese tradition. Food is not simply a means to satisfy hunger; it is always looked upon as an aid to good health and a preventive medicine”, wrote Yong Yap Cotterell in her book “The Chinese Kitchen”, published back in 1986.
Significantly, Ms Cotterell also points out that, “The desire for longevity is another ancient impulse behind the Chinese concern for a healthy diet”.
And what does tai chi do for you? It promotes health, and longevity. Like Chinese cooking, it aims to balance yin and yang, the forces of harmony and change.
“So fundamental is this notion of balance in Chinese culture that a traditional doctor will invariably ask about a patient’s diet before attempting diagnosis”, writes Yong Yap Cotterell.
Whilst my wife has been busy with the tai chi, I have been caught up in wabi-sabi. This is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic that values things that are incomplete, humble and unconventional, and I think it has lessons for us as well, when it comes to eating and enjoying eating.
In his book “Wabi-Sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers”, Leonard Koren fashions a delightful introduction to a world view that has always been closely linked to the Japanese tea ceremony. What is interesting in the historical development of wabi-sabi is the way in which it became a reaction against the perfectionism of the Chinese tea ceremony.
In the 16th century, Sen no Rikyu, a tea master, created tea rooms that were based on simple farmer’s huts, with mud walls and exposed structural elements. He also placed simple Japanese and Korean folk craft objects as part of the complex ritual of the tea ceremony, asserting their value as equal to precious Chinese “treasures”.
What Rikyu was saying was that the labyrinthine tea ceremony should not aim to be perfect and slick: it should be rustic and real, it should be wabi-sabi. According to Leonard Koren, this was “his most enduring aesthetic triumph”.
And that is how our meal times should be.
No matter that it is late, and you are tired, and the kitchen is a mess, and you can’t find the corkscrew. Wanting things to be perfect when you eat is just going to stress you out even more, and shorten your life, mess up your yin-yang balance and slow your digestion down. It’s not that your dinnertime is not perfect: it’s just that it is wabi-sabi, and so it’s perfectly fine, thank you. So, eat with enjoyment and dedication.