Diet and exercise during intense periods of spiritual practice are just as important as the practices themselves. While some traditions include fasting as a requirement for retreats, I don’t recommend this for a winter retreat because you do need to keep up your energy. Clarity and mental focus take a lot of brain power, and brain power takes calories!
I learned about the importance of diet the hard way during one retreat while I was a nun. One of my sponsors loaded me up with made-from-scratch beef stew, chicken noodle soup, expensive cheeses and Courvoisier (definitely my weak spot!). To top it off, I also had about a pound of candied ginger and walnuts – an irresistible treat famously known as “nun bait”! Day three of this retreat I woke up and couldn’t move – I was literally paralyzed. I lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling in excruciating pain (especially in my hips and lower back) recalling the scene from “Kill Bill” where Uma Thurman is sitting in the back seat willing her legs to work: “Wiggle your big toe…“. It took me hours to get my body up and moving around. After switching out the heavy, greasy foods for lighter and simpler fare, the pain faded, my energy returned and I was able to complete the solitary retreat.
What comes to mind when you think about eating during a retreat? Let’s start with lightness and simplicity. Every meal should be lighter than usual and I don’t necessarily mean smaller. Omitting fried everything is a good start. Large amounts of red meat, thick stews and creamy sauces should generally be avoided. The reason you want to favor foods that are light has to do with focusing your energy on reading, contemplation and meditation and not so much on digesting. Heavy foods will drag down your spirit as well as your body, and sap your vital force.
The subtle body is a complex topic, but suffice it to say there is an energetic self that requires nourishment and exercise. The pathways of the subtle body can get bogged down by negative emotions as well as heavy, greasy foods. Alcohol should also be avoided for the same reason. Personally, I favor oatmeal for breakfast, brown rice and steamed veggies for lunch and soba noodles with an egg for supper.
Simplicity is also key to a successful retreat. Simplify your diet by using fresh ingredients that are minimally processed. Whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, a small amount of nuts and/or lean meat is ideal. If you don’t normally eat this way, try it for two days and notice how you feel. Then go back to your regular diet on the third day and pay attention to the difference. Do you feel lighter in your body and mind with a lighter diet? Do you feel more patient, more relaxed, a little kinder and gentler with simpler fare? You may also discover increased mental clarity and ability to prioritize with a cleaner way of eating.
One last note about food and spiritual practice: no matter what is on your plate, eating can become a practice in and of itself. Before taking the first bite, take a moment to pause and give thanks, say a prayer or mentally make an offering. Here is a blessing from the Catholic tradition that can be modified and used by anyone before sharing a meal:
we thank you for your countless blessings,
especially for the gift of your Son,
for the Church, for our faith, and now for this meal.
Bless this food and the love that unites us.
Keep us for ever grateful and generous in your service.
Through Christ our Lord.
Amen.” (Magnificat, February 2015, p 13)
During the meal, take your time. Eat with awareness and joy. Notice the flavors and textures. Feel gratitude for nourishment. At the end, you may also want to include a closing prayer like this one, or you can improvise one that feels more authentic or more appropriate:
you have blessed us with this time
of nourishment and communion.
Bless all those who prepared it and made it possible.
Show your special care to those who go without
and make us instruments of your compassion.
Through Christ our Lord.