Food is not just food. If it were, the act of eating would be a passing detail in life that wouldn’t have much impact one way or another. But that’s not quite what’s happening. Eating seems to have a lot of charges and feeling behind it these days. Have you noticed? That’s because we are making food more than just food. We are placing certain meanings and expectations into food that we may not even realize. In short, food can often act as symbolic substitutes for other things. Important things.
When I began learning how to see the different ways food acted as symbols in my own life, through my studies with Marc David and other authors and teachers, I became better equipped to navigate eating with more compassion and understanding.
Here are 4 BIG symbols we ascribe to food:
Anxiety around diet or our challenges with eating are often a deep longing for the archetypal Loving Mother – The Mother who takes care of us, soothes us, sees us, validates us, makes everything okay, and loves us unconditionally. When we see how ‘Food = Mother,’ we can become more open to seeing what’s really happening when we are reaching for types or amounts of food that confuse us. Since infancy, it was hard-wired in us, “food = mother” and eating soothed us, but years later the perfect mother love that we expect and project onto our food never quite delivers and can often shape-shift into a confusing and complicated relationship (just like our relationship with our real mothers).
The invitation here is massive – how to remain aware and awake and re-mother ourselves (Jungian analyst, Marion Woodman, frequently writes about the connection with food and the Great Mother).
Disowned sensual energy can be projected onto food. Many of us are suffering from a lack of deep intimacy, of pleasure, or of allowing oneself to be penetrated by the beauty and intensity of life itself. I remember a teacher pointing out that women think and talk about food the same way men think and talk about sex. If ‘Food=Lover,’ we may be called on to open and receive, to surrender a bit, to re-connect with the truth and longings of our own sexuality, to get sexual, and to allow more pleasure into our lives. (Check out David Deida’s work on sensuality and masculine/feminine energy).
Eating itself it ritualistic. We eat certain foods at certain times in certain environments with certain people. We re-create the familiar eating rituals of our youth. Consciously, the ritual of eating can be beautiful and nourishing, but there is a shadow side to food ritual as well. We may be projecting our spiritual need for ritual onto our food. Some food rituals I witness in my practice are the cycles of dieting, binge eating, or meticulously counting or planning out food and meals.
For some of us, our eating becomes our religion. Perhaps we need to integrate deeper, more soulful rituals into our lives, so our food rituals can take their proper place. (Thomas Moore has a beautiful book, A Religion of One’s Own, that speaks to creating a more soulful life).
It is true that each time we purchase food we are voting on a certain version of the world. (Charles Eisenstein speaks beautifully about this in his book, The Yoga of Eating). In a way it can feel deeply gratifying to know the way we spend our money is a small step in co-creating a world we can feel good about. Where ‘Food = Badge’ can go awry is our tendency to make food a moral issue. Morality brings judgment to the table – a judgment of self and judgment of others.
When we are walking around wearing our food choices as a moral badge of honor, as evidence of one’s “goodness,” we may be being invited into a deeper connection to one’s self and one’s inherent goodness, independent of food choices. When the label, title, and personas are stripped away, what is left? Do you know who you are? Food choices and eating habits tend to flow more harmoniously from this place.
Maybe you identify with some of the symbols above. Maybe a food symbol for you is Community, Escape, Fuel, Religion, Information, or Art. Bring awareness to all of it. I encourage you to notice how your eating habits make perfect sense.
Examine your eating and catch a glimpse of your inner world.
Can you heed the bigger invitations that come to you via your eating challenges and concerns?