From food all things are born,
by food they live,
towards food they move, into food they return.
—Taittireeya-Upanishad, Book III
Leading up to New Year's, I stopped eating as I was down with the flu. I lay on my back for two days, drinking chicken broth, herbal tisane, and lots of water. Looking at any kind of glowing screen was painful so I spent most of the time staring at the ceiling, occasionally trying to read from a book. However uncomfortable, the illness was a delicious conclusion to the year, replete with a feeling of gratitude to my body for its intelligence to undergo a timely psychophysical reset.
On New Year's Eve I was feeling a lot better and took the opportunity to drop in to a festive gathering of friends. At first my senses were overwhelmed by the people, the table laden with dishes, the lights brighter than I could tolerate during my retreat with the grippe. I felt like a serpent who had just shed his skin, but gradually I relaxed into the warmth of the atmosphere, soothed by the melodic sound of people talking in different corners of the house.
The ritual of the celebration required that I eat something and I chose a black olive. In my slow, delicate state I first held the glistening, oil-cured fruit between my fingers admiring its shape. I put the slick black olive in my mouth and felt its wrinkled surface, tasted the pungent oil, letting the ineffable scent waft through the back of my throat into my nose.
As I began to chew and the olive became pulp, the image of an olive tree arose in my mind. It was an ancient tree with a strong trunk, and green and black fruit nestled within a thick canopy of delicate leaves. The tree shimmered with life and as I chewed I made a connection—I was eating something living. I was eating a life.
Separating the pit from the meat of the olive with my tongue, the implication of life deepened. I was chewing a being whose life might span hundreds or thousands of years. I saw that we are always eating something that is alive, and that eating is participation in a cosmic ecosystem of life. Everything that lives, eats. Everything that lives is eating life and being eaten by life in an eternal process—life is continuously transforming life into life.
I chewed slowly, noticing the olive meat mix with saliva, and swallowed, following it down my throat, and then lost sensation in my esophagus but had a general awareness of the olive arriving in my stomach.
After several days of not eating, the single olive was deeply satisfying and I knew I didn't need any more food. So I sat quietly, talking to a friend about the cuisine of the ancient Egyptians. As I spoke and listened, I noticed that I was breathing. The conversation continued but another realization blossomed in connection with a Hermetic teaching I read about somewhere.
Breathing is eating. Air is food in a gaseous state. With every breath, I am eating and being nourished. All of us in the room were breathing and partaking of the same air. We were breathing one another's exhalations, continuously taking nourishment from the same volume of air that extends everywhere.
Then the question arose, is there an analogue to the food of air, as air is to food? I looked into the eyes of the person I was talking to and I saw the rich brown of her irises, the blackness of her pupils, the whiteness within her lids, and I realized this was the third food, a food in electronic state, the food of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches directly nourishing my nervous system with an input of sensory impressions.
Dumbfounded for a moment at the enormity of the realization I lost my train of thought and the conversation trailed off. "What's wrong? Are you feeling OK?" my companion asked.
I didn't know how to describe what I was seeing. This body is a mysterious instrument of transformation. It takes in these three foods—solid, gaseous, and electronic—like notes in three octaves of vibration combining to transform food into all the energies of our body and inner life. The olive I just ate is transformed not only into vitality but also into the thoughts I am now thinking, and the awareness of the thoughts.
Not just me, but every living thing is transforming food. All life it seems is but a part of a larger cosmic body transforming food in precisely the same way.
"I'm ok," I said. "But I need to go." I excused myself to return home and cross the threshold of the new year with a moment of private silence in the company of all life. And with an intention to ponder, observe, and come to a deeper understanding of food.