When I was in my early twenties, I had a boyfriend whose family made a particular dish for Thanksgiving. They took oranges, cut them in half and scooped out the fruit, which was blended with cooked sweet potato. This half-round orange peel cups were then re-filled with the potato mixture, decorated with marshmallows and cinnamon, and baked in the oven. This was a traditional side dish, served with the cranberries, turkey, dressing, rolls, and green bean casserole. I remember it because it was an extreme example of the foods we eat for holidays; foods that are family traditions, sentimental attachments, curious concoctions only seen once per year at the particular occasion when they are "always" served.
I love Thanksgiving, with the cold autumn weather and things baking in the oven; families gathered together, and pumpkin pie. This year, it's made me think too, about how my yoga teacher used to say how cultural attachments are some of the most difficult for us to see, let alone change; and food is so much more than nutrition to all of us.
Good digestion is the foundation of health: when our digestive system goes wrong, all sorts of disease and toxicity can result. Digestion can be thrown off by over eating, eating the wrong combination of foods (for us), eating poor quality food, or eating under the wrong circumstances. Generally speaking, eating when the sun is out and we are in a calm environment and state of mind is ideal. The light of the sun is related to fire, which is the element that rules transformation and digestion, since digestion is the miraculous transformation of gross foods into energy and nutrients.
Just as we don't eat food based purely on what is good for us and what will help us feel good (we eat food based on emotional attachment, to entertain the palate and out of familiarity and cultural traditions) we also don't always eat in an environment conducive to digestion. Noisy, crowded, or distracting places don't support good digestion. Likewise, eating while angry, sad, or stressed doesn't either. Stress produces a 'fight or flight' reaction in the body, which tends to shut down our digestive processes. The fact is, many of us are in a low-level, chronic state of stress most of the time; definitely if we are eating while rushed or worried.
At the same time, nothing I"m describing is bad, it just is what it is. Every action has a result. If we eat turkey, potato, green beans, salad, cranberry, stuffing, pumpkin pie and whipped cream, there will be a result. It's not a bad thing, but it's predictable.
In the yoga sutra, it says heyam dukham anagatam: future suffering can be avoided. This sutra refers to the previous sutras, which lay out why we do the things we do and what causes suffering in our lives. It boils down to this: with clear understanding of what causes pain, and close observation of ourselves, future suffering can be predicted, and avoided. We sometimes choose something else though: the pleasure of Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, is so great in the moment, that we choose to ignore the consequences we can imagine, even though we've done it for the past 10 years and it's predictable.
Now, this isn't entirely true. When I was younger, in my early twenties, I would disregard that little voice that said I might get too full, or get a stomachache, and forge happily through quite a variety of food on Thanksgiving; these days I enjoy the family and visiting and cooking, choose my foods more thoughtfully, and eat more moderately. But this train of thought caused me to wonder: what else in life is like this? In what other situation do I know the outcome will be not-so-good, yet do whatever-it-is, anyway?
What are those deep, driving motivations and patterns that cause me to choose pain and discomfort over freedom? Is it emotional attachments, fears, strongly rooted habit?
This is the challenge and ongoing inquiry of yoga practice: to gradually gain self awareness, and to allow those choices to become more and more conscious, rather than blind habits. When we look at the earlier sutras, the causes of pain are listed: wrong understanding, aversions, desires and attachments, attachment to our ego, and fear of death.
The first, which I've loosely translated as "wrong understanding" is avidya, literally 'wrong knowledge". This relates to our feeling that it's "us against the world" or that we live in disharmony to nature, or others. The feeling that if we have ours, others will just have to fend for themselves. It is the misperception that what we do is separate, and doesn't affect the whole of life. In fact it is the misperception that we are separate, acting in isolation. To gain true knowledge of ourselves, I gather, is to become aware of the inherent inseparability of all life. The lack of this awareness gives rise to selfishness, isolation, depression and fear, and acting from these feelings represents a basic misunderstanding of what we are and how things work.
Perhaps with practice, observation of ourselves and the world, cultivation of awareness, we will feel more connected, at home in ourselves, and confident. This is one step closer to what we'd call inner peace, and one step away from avidya. I use Thanksgiving dinner, and it's potential for gastronomic disaster, as an example, but I'm really talking about every situation where we 'know better' and do it anyway. It's worth reflection what lures us to those spots again and again, to each of our own favorite indulgences, which may actually be keeping us in our place, inhibiting growth, and re-inforcing our dark suspicions about ourselves.
This gets to the heart of the matter: we are ultimately so attached to comfort, to staying as we are, and to staying within our small boundaries of known success and familiarity, that we keep ourselves there. We revisit the same pitfalls again and again, date the same 'bad boyfriends' and make the same financial mistakes, instead of seeing the underlying issues that cause these behaviors.
Yoga practice, cultivation, and inquiry reveals all this: it shows us how we behave, even the things we don't necessarily feel proud of or like, and gives us choices. Daily practice, over the course of years and decades, slowly refines our understanding and reshapes our behaviors and habits. With steady, persistent, deliberate action, there is potential to transcend the boundaries of self-limiting fears and actions, and become our best selves.