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Suppression OR Mastery ?
(Source: Eating Wisely and Well by Ramesh Bijalani)

All wisdom traditions agree on the need to rise above flimsy, fragile and futile sensory pleasures, and instead concentrate on steady and meaningful goals. However, they do not agree on the way this may be done; there are at least two ways to do it. One of the ways is to kill the desire for sensory pleasures by keeping away from them, using brute will power (nigraha). The other way is to gain mastery by overcoming attachment to the object of desire (samyama). Let us examine both these methods as applied to food, since eating is one of the most difficult among the sensory pleasures to overcome.

It is certainly possible to use strong determination to keep completely away from all food that tastes good. Using strong willpower, it is even possible to sustain the abstinence for very long periods. But if, behind the heroic effort, there is only the desire to demonstrate one’s willpower what sustains the abstinence is the admiration it invites and the egoistic satisfaction it provides. The desire really does not disappear; it is merely pushed aside*. The person keeps reminding himself, ‘I cannot overcome the desire, but my willpower is so strong that I will not yield to do it.’ The result is that this person keeps away from tasty food, but is thinking about it all the time. He thrives on a perverse satisfaction derived from classifying all the foods presented to him in terms of taste, and leaving out those that taste good. In other words, the person still pays attention to taste, perhaps more than average attention, but makes an unusual choice by choosing the unpleasant-tasting foods. Thus, he has failed to overcome his attachment to food; he has merely replaced a positive attachment is still an attachment, and therefore, bondage. In short, mere suppression does not fulfill the objective of overcoming attachment to food so that the mind can be free to seek higher goals. So long as attachment continues, whether positive or negative, the mind cannot focus on higher goals.

*Gandhi, M.K. An Autobiography or The story of My Experiments with Truth. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2011.

The other method aimed at mastering the desire for food is based on overcoming the attachment to food rather than physically keeping away from it. This attitude follows inner development in two directions. First, the person realizes the true purpose of food, which is to nourish the body rather than to please the palate. Second, the person has a higher goal to aspire for. The result is that the person develops a tendency to think less and less about food, including its taste~. If he gets food that tastes good, he enjoys it. But he is not attached to the taste, he does not make special efforts to seek it, he does not long for it. If he does not get food that tastes good, he does not miss it. In short, his happiness does not depend on the taste of the food. Not being at the mercy of a sensory pleasure for happiness is true liberation. Thus, acquiring mastery over a sensory pleasure is an inside-out approach. It consists of an inner change, which is reflected in an outer change. The inner change is lack of attachment. The outer change is not caring for the taste of food. As Sri Aurobindo said, ‘If I get, I take; if I don’t get, I shall not mind’. If a person is offered a lavish, palatable meal, and he makes a fuss, saying, ‘I do not eat sweets. I do not eat spices. I do not eat fried foods. I love only fruits and vegetables’, it is generally more an expression of the sattvic ego than mastery over taste. Yes, sattva also has an ego, and that is why the ideal of the Gita is to go beyond the three gunas. As long as the attachment stays, physically keeping away from sensory pleasures does not serve any spiritual purpose. Once the attachment goes, keeping away from the pleasures is not necessary but the tendency to keep away from them comes automatically. There is an expression in the Isha Upanishad, ‘tena tyaktena bhunjithaa’ (तेन त्यक्तेन भुंजीथा), which means ‘renounce and enjoy’. It may be asked how one can enjoy if one has renounced. Here, renunciation refers to inner renunciation, or giving up of attachment. In this sense, one can truly enjoy only if one has renounced! With inner renunciation, the sensory pleasure, which has come without seeking or struggle, can be enjoyed without worrying about how long it will last. One can simply enjoy it while it lasts, and then forget about it.

~If the desire stays but is not satisfied, that can also lead to mental stress. The person may be eating fruits and vegetables, but his mind may be dwelling on omelettes and cutlets. The person may be fasting, but his mind may be dwelling on what he will eat when he breaks the fast. These are stressful mental states. Mental stress is a major contributor to lifestyle diseases. Therefore, if the attachment to food has not been overcome, the stress due to missing the wrong foods may do more harm than the good resulting from eating the right foods. That is why this chapter is not merely philosophy; it has practical implications.
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