Food and the Mind

May 11th, 2015



“What some call health, if purchased by perpetual anxiety about diet, isn’t much better than tedious disease.”

– George Dennison Prentice

guilty eating



Why do we get so hung up about food?


Does anyone think it a little strange that the countries with the greatest wealth and abundance have become the most fixated with food – in particular, with what we may be missing out on?


Witness endless health articles and advertising campaigns warning us that we may be lacking some vital ingredient we have overlooked in our diet. Why are we so easily convinced we don’t have enough of something in a society that has too much of everything?


Mother Earth


To understand this we would do well to look at the realm of the Earth element in traditional Chinese medicine. Our relationship with the Earth begins with our oral nature. There is not much a new earthling can do other than breathe, evacuate waste and suck.


The ability to suck is the beginning of our relationship with the earth – beginning with our earth mother.[1] Feeding not only nourishes our physical body but confirms our very existence as a physical being on the planet. It is profoundly linked to our survival and, as we shall see, our anxiety about that.


In my clinical experience the stronger dependency cases like alcoholism, anorexia or the inability to stabilize bodyweight usually involves a traumatic history of separation, estrangement or a broken bond of trust with the mother. (No fathers, you don’t get off the hook that easily but at this early stage of development nothing replaces dear old mum.)


Dependency and trust issues are important because they mold our ability to depend upon and trust ourselves. In psychology the dependent personality is marked by a ‘poor internal locus of control’. We might also know it as poor impulse control.

It may even begin earlier than we think. That is, many of our cravings may have been pre-programmed before we were even born.




Anxiety and the Earth


So what on earth has this to do with our, err, Earth element? It is responsible for keeping us centered, balanced and neutral in relation to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” – the ups and downs of life. Without this centeredness we will feel helpless and powerless to navigate our world. The result is anxiety and a sense that we are lacking the ability or tools to resolve our problems. It is this sense of lack – something we need from outside ourselves – that leads us back to dependency. When it comes to our Earth element that usually means oral dependency.




” I just need a little, something…”


So spoke that sweet, little sugar addict, Winnie the Pooh. He of the soft, spongy body and swinging blood sugar levels. The ‘flavor’ attributed to the Earth element is sweet. Low blood sugar levels (a lack of ‘sweet’) leads to mood swings, tiredness and anxiety. As babies or young children, how many times has this situation been ‘solved’ by having something pushed into our mouths: A breast, a ‘pacifier’, a sweet ‘little something’?


In other words we are ‘trained’ early on to cope with anxiety by using food to comfort ourselves. This Pavlovian response is then easily activated in adult life every time we experience anxiety. That makes it very tempting for someone selling food or supplements, ‘miracle diets’ or ‘health’ books and media to increase our anxiety levels by convincing us we are lacking something very important – something we do not have within ourselves to resolve.


We are taken out of our calming center and become desperate to fill the hole of neediness that is created within. We suddenly find we “need a little, something…” whether that be a healthy ‘pick me up’ mix or a hamburger.


Mature Choices


The Earth element also stands for the developmental phase of ‘maturity’. Have you noticed how fast-food outlets reflect the design and color choices of childhood? Are neon bright colored, ‘dolls house’ buildings, neatly boxed food on little plastic trays, and plastic toy souvenirs really the first choice for a mature adult? It more likely suggests an arrested development of our maturation process at an infantile level – along with the attendant oral dependency. While that may be ‘good for business’ it is not so good for us.


So yes, there are very real reasons to be concerned about food quality and to consciously make healthy food choices, particularly in this age of ‘industrial’ farming and food processing.



 Heaven and Earth


The truth is that we can just as easily become fixated of ‘health’ food via exactly the same mechanism of ‘lack’. So what do we do? The most important focus needs to be on the origin of this mechanism: our relationship with the Self.


Our connection with Self is mediated via the ‘heavenly’ connection of the Fire element. The Fire element reminds us that we are not completely bound by and dependent upon the earth for our nourishment. Our Fire element links us to an endless internal resource from which we can draw upon. We need not feel abandoned by ourselves when we remember that.


The separation from Self is the root of all our existential anxiety. This is not just a self  esteem issue. It is a challenge to confirm and justify our very existence – constantly. That road leads to exhaustion and burnout.


The act of meditation by way of contrast means going inward and spending time with the Self. It is sometimes called by another name which may make its intentions clearer: ‘Self reflection’.


Nam June Paik's "TV-Buddha" (1974)

Nam June Paik’s “TV-Buddha” (1974)


This practice also creates self distance to the worries of the world as we suddenly realise what happens to or around us is not the determining factor of how we feel. In so doing it breaks the needy link of dependency on things outside of ourselves hurting or helping us. We were never lost or abandonded because we are always ‘at home’ wherever we are.


Interestingly, the Fire element has also traditionally been the mediator of spiritual practices accompanied by a period of fasting – a temporary cessation of our tether to the earth and its endless grazing concerns…


grazing sheep


Here is a simple practice:


  1. Sit quietly and comfortably
  2. Imagine there is a ‘plug’ connected to the base of our neck with the cable extending out into an infinite resource.
  3. Note what happens in our body and mind as we ‘load up’ on this resource.


No batteries required – nor food or its attendant fixations.



It’s fun to not be earthbound for a while.



Till another Monday brings us down to earth again,



[1]  Literally in this case as it is the stomach meridian, part of the Earth element, that passes through the nipple.


© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation:

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