Food can either be medicine or poison. On Bali, everything is alive and sacred. Animism is a way of living that honors all beings and makes most daily activities into an offering: this includes the preparation, presentation, and service of meals.
For Balinese people, nourishment requires ritual space. The first time I spent time on this magical Indonesian island, I was a college student. One day, I was riding the bemo a six-passenger van tuned bus that was crammed with 12 people. Everyone stared at me in horror as I devoured a juicy rambutan fruit.
Later, I asked one of my teachers why this had happened. She explained the role of food in Balinese culture. Food is meant as an offering to one another and the Gods. Eating must be done in private. Those who do not eat in this way dis-honor their bodies, the food, and the spirits. Major faux pas.
In that moment, I began to understand the importance of mindful eating.
When our student group was in a remote village in the Balinese jungle, I mindfully accepted the food that was offered to me and ate it quietly while looking down at my plate. Despite the fact that their water and electricity had been taken away by a construction project funded by the World Bank, these people created an incredible feast over a simple fire.
I could never have imagined that this meal would change my life forever. That night, our group became extremely ill with vomiting and fever. We knew that parasites were a part of life in the tropics, but no one had gotten quite this sick yet. We all took over-the-counter pills to expel worms and, after a few days, symptoms subsided.
I thought this was the end of the painful parasitic infection. But this was only the beginning. After finishing my studies in Indonesia, I traveled to Thailand and India before returning to the U.S. When I arrived at my family’s home in Kansas City, I turned on the faucet and poured myself a glass of water. I drank it, amazed at the fact that I could drink water out of the tap. Next, I filled my empty glass with milk and savored it. I had gone 8 months without dairy products.
Little did I know that was the last time I would drink cow milk. Within 30 minutes, I was on the floor, clutching my stomach and crying with stomach cramps. It felt like having parasites all over again. After the pain passed later that evening. I moved on, assuming it was an isolated incident. I started noticing similar symptoms whenever I ate dairy, so I slowly cut dairy out of my diet.
As time passed, more and more foods seemed to lead to gastrointestinal distress for me. Over the course of 4 years, I lost 20 pounds that I didn’t need to lose. My cholesterol levels were elevated, my thyroid was sluggish, and my stomach cramps persisted. My Vermont family practitioner did not see any of these as warning signs. In retrospect, I understand that they were my body’s attempt to tell me that something was out of balance.
When I talked with my fellow students from that trip, none reported the kind of digestive issues I was experiencing. I now know that the parasite I contracted had gone chronic. Low-grade, long-term infections are a huge health risk. My liver and kidney function began to wane, I developed an eating disorder, and my anxiety and depression were off the charts. Not to mention a violent case of IBS.
I had tried everything: multiple rounds of antibiotics, elimination diets, supplements, anti-parasitic herbs on rotation. I was a walking encyclopedia of anti-parasite protocols.
When I went to my first silent meditation retreat, I had not left my house for more than 2 hours in over a year. A friend convinced me that I would be fine, the food at the retreat center was really healthy, and it would be so helpful to me. I finally agreed. Terrified, I carpooled with her and at my first five day meditation retreat.
I couldn’t believe it. At the end of the retreat, I realized that over 75% of my symptoms were gone. Totally gone. I was blown away and continued to sit meditation retreats. Along with attention to a whole-foods based diet, daily gentle exercise, and time with friends and family, mindfulness has been the key to my healing process. I am thankful for it every day.