FOOD, MEALS AND THE PORTALS OF VERTICAL TIME
Posted 12-August: 2012
by Bill Scheffel
All openings and closings, all the beings that we pass through and that pass through us, are gathered together in a single momentous event... The fundamental event of human-being is The Feast. - Tom Cheetham
For at least eight years I have enjoyed a feast nearly every night. Feasts, although they can and have occurred in restaurants are best taken at home, in an environment that is not fully public, a place where the guests come by invitation. "Home" - as I have had many opportunities to discover - can be a hotel room and the meal simply a plate of crackers, cheese and fruit. Most of the feasts I have taken has included a glass or two of wine. Most of these feasts I've taken alone. In some years I might have eaten alone up to two-hundred or more evenings. "Alone" I must put in parenthesis also, since my intention at every feast has been to invite the dralas and dine with them. Perhaps it is often the wine, but I would say the dralas generally appear and we share each other's company.
All those meals taken alone begin to wear on me, and I like nothing better than eating with others. When I have the chance to feast with others - as I have been doing for the last six months - I almost begin to forget the necessity of dining alone, since one sometimes must be alone with the drala so as not to forget who they are, that they are in ones life... and that they seem almost in a hurry to show up precisely when the feast begins.
Hexagram #50 of the I Ching is The Caldron, the ceremonial vessel - derived from the ordinary kitchen pot - the vessel used to transform raw ingredients through heat and containment into food, the meal. Raw food of course has its place, but cooking something over a fire goes way back - i.e., about 250,000 years ago (the firing of pottery goes back at least 25,000 years). Anyone who has sat around a campfire even once will never forget the experience. It is not just the warmth the fire offers, or the food that might be cooked there, but the communal pleasure of gathering with other human beings - and the invisible beings. Even a rye cracker eaten in a sixth floor hotel room carries this tradition and potential feast.
If life is change, transformation is the experience of waking up within change - which changes our experience of change. C. J. Jung helped reintroduce The West to one of its traditions of spiritual transformation, alchemy, in which a caldron was the most essential tool. No doubt the alchemist's attempts to change "base metals into gold" or realize anima mundi was a human longing and inquiry that went back to the caves and fire pits of our earliest ancestors. How seldom do we realize that cooking even the simplest meal is to participate in the most primordial way with life and our own spiritual DNA? In this sense, even a breakfast of oatmeal is worthy of our full presence and is a worthy feast.
Liberal Catholic Church, Fairfield Iowa.
Lest we forget - or perhaps never knew - the holy communion of many Christian traditions is also a feast, unusual and potent. I was reminded of this when my friends AnaVictoria and Seth took me to the church they attend (though not the only one) in Fairfield Iowa: The Liberal Catholic Church, whose founders broke away from the Anglican Church in the early 20th Century to form a faith open to Theosophy, the universality of the Christ principle or the unity of all religions.
My own upbringing was Episcopal (the name for the Anglican Church in the United States) and except at the memorial service of my father, I'd not taken hold communion since I was twelve years sold. We sat in the third pew on the right and I recited the liturgy and sang all the hymns, but did not know that I would go to up the alter to receive the blood and flesh of Christ until until moments before I did go. Did I really want to? Would it be genuine? Was I even allowed to? The spirit moved me, as they say, and I later realized it would have been an offense not to partake. Not to mention that the ritual of wine and wafer became potent and real to me, and experience of the drala, the availability of Christ. The wine was good and the wafer tasteless and transparent.
After the service I spoke with one of the priests, who knew about Naropa University and with whom I found immediate resonance. We agreed that in communion, as in other ritual denouements, our experience of the relative or conditioned world meets or is penetrated by the unconditional; an atmospheric change sometimes lasting no longer than the sound of a gunshot, but which lands us on the other shore - from which we emerge reset. Amen.
I feel that meals are a natural portal to the unconditioned, to the dralas, to spirit - not to mention sensuality and the best forms of conversation. MFK Fisher knew this, though her writing was "secular" she established her entire literary career writing about food.
Breadmaking is one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony... there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread - M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating
Rituals exist to remind us of the portals - from Latin porta "gate" - that are always with us, an aspect of vertical time. The door to sambhogakaya beings, to dralas, has throughout time and cultures been one that is "above" us. Thus steeples, stupas and minarets are highly vertical, lofty, penetrating the sky - and at the same time, the center of a circumference. When we sit at the table we a vertical form within a natural circle. Even if you eat alone - or from your lap in a suffed chair (as I do with my friend Lisa whose apartment I share several months of the year in Washington DC) - the circle is formed. Is this because the essence of own inner, "subtle body," the central column of the chakra system, is seen as a tube? Yes, I think we feel that, always, when we stop to eat. If I sit down with a sandwich on the grass of an urban park I feel this circle, this enclosure and coming-into-center.
For myself, besides the food and often the wine, the ritual elements of opening the portal are lighting a candle and saying grace (what a beautiful word). It was from Chögyam Trungpa what I first received the universal instruction of smoke; that when smoke rises the dralas descend. From the Tibetan tradition cedar or juniper was typically burned in the lasang or ceremony of invoking drala, just as the Native Americans burn white sage (and the Liberal Catholic Church frankincense). I experience in simply lighting a candle some switch goes on - a bit of smoke certainly does ascend. I've also learned that soy candles have a far more pleasing quality than paraffin (and are far less expensive than beeswax). As for grace, there are countless ways of saying it, from reciting a formal chant (as I usually do, one from the Shambhala tradition) to simple making it up on the spot - as Seth did when I joined he and his family for three dinners and two lunches over a late July weekend.
Paloma, Marisol, AnaVictoria, Seth. Fairfield Iowa.
Paloma with plantain.
Marisol with mango.
Paloma with lunch.
Meal in hotel room. Portland, Oregon.
Man offering votive candles. Orthodox Church, Bucharest, Romania.