Hunger implies emptiness and the desire to find fullness, not only on the physical level but on the emotional, mental and spiritual levels as well. Hunger commences when we are only a few hours out of the womb. We experience separation from our source, our mother, and hunger for her food and her comforting presence. Hunger originates in the search for fulfilment, happiness and completion, but in the outside world it takes many forms. Some seek to satisfy it through food, others through work, sports or leisure. Whatever external activity is performed, it has at its base the deep hunger for reunion with the higher self, for the return to our true nature, peace and bliss. It is a hunger for the permanent cessation of all hunger.
Hunger is a sign of good health, and its absence is a symptom of disease, particularly of the gastrointestinal tract, Hunger signals the brain that food is required. It has 3 components:
These 3 factors work concurrently, creating a deep urge to eat, to take nourishment, to survive. This signals the brain and stimulates the stomach to contract, causing the feeling of gnawing emptiness called 'hunger'. This feeling is strongest on an empty stomach and disappears with the ingestion of food. It is temporarily stopped by sham chewing or swallowing, smoking and drinking alcohol, and by tightening the belt. Strong emotions also quickly abolish them. Appetite determines what we eat to tone down the hunger, but this is often influenced by other factors. For example, sexual suppression leads many people to overeat sweet foods.
Within us the mechanisms exist which tell us exactly how much we need to eat and when to stop. Rats who eat a diet diluted with cellulose or kaolin will increase their intake to Maintain a constant caloric intake and weight.*1 A dehydrated dog will at once replace its fluid loss up to the threshold of diuresis (loss through the kidney).*2 Therefore the body appears to be able to sensitively and accurately measure its intake. This has 2 apparent stages - the first is a temporary one, perhaps mediated by the psychological satisfaction of taking in, and the second is the permanent phase of satiation registered by the satiety centre in the hypothalamus.
Awareness is an important factor in separating physical hunger from mental hunger. By developing awareness we can become sensitive to our inner body signals and needs. Then we can avoid overindulgence by stopping at the point of satiation, and eating for the body and not for the mind. For some people this may require patience and mindfulness as food habits are not so easy to change. However, this is an excellent means of eradicating such conditions as obesity, dyspepsia and other digestive problems which often arise because of habitual overindulgence. Awareness is the key to controlling hunger.
When you desire something and think about it for some time, it becomes a mental hunger or a craving. Such hunger is more than just the need for food, it is the desire to fill in the vacuum which we have created in our lives. Graving is an unconscious mechanism to compensate for deep insecurity, to satisfy the desire for sensual pleasure, or to compensate for lack of power or unrequited love.
When we crave we approach the world from a sense of self-centeredness. We are aware of the things in the world purely from our own subjective point of view. It is obvious that this approach is totally unrealistic and if we take it to its logical conclusion, it can only end in suffering through the frustration of our desires. Tension is thus produced and the body becomes unbalanced, diseased, weak and prone to indigestion.
The obvious antidote to this form of suffering is to try to attain a more selfless, objective view. Yoga and a meditative attitude of awareness will help to accomplish this. Instead of seeing everything with an attitude of grasping and taking, we learn to give, and find that only in this way can we truly gain. Then our hunger is satisfied and we turn inwards in our search for fulfilment rather than out.
In yogic terminology, when hunger is tainted with desire, it is called a klesha. The 5 kleshas are the root of all suffering and pain. In the Patanjali Yoga Sutras it states:
"Ignorance, I feeling (ego), liking (desire), disliking (aversion), and fear of death are the pains." (II :3)
The objects of pleasure cause the mind to run after them. When we overindulge in pleasure we suffer disease. This is a universal law that binds us to the lower levels of consciousness. For example, if we overeat, we suffer from indigestion. Pleasure and pain originate in ignorance (avidya), and they are the prime motivating forces in man, existing at the roots of our being.
Most people eat as soon as they feel the slightest hunger, in an effort to avoid pain. A yogi, however, has developed the willpower to feel hunger without having to satisfy it immediately. He waits and allows the digestive fire to increase, and when he is really hungry he eats. The yogi is aware of hunger pangs, but like all other sensations, he sees their temporary nature and never allows them to control him. He sees hunger as a healthy form of suffering, far better than the suffering which results from overindulgence, and with this mental attitude he can actually enjoy his hunger.
The yogi eats neither out of boredom nor as a compulsive and repetitive habit. He eats to live and does not live to eat. At a certain level of yogic achievement, hunger ceases completely and even food is not required to maintain the body. This occurs when the individual consciousness has merged with the supreme. It is fulfilment of hunger at the spiritual level.
Before reaching this stage, however, the yogi must first become aware of physical hunger and see how it affects the body-mind. Then he can transmute and sublimate his hunger for worldly things into a hunger, a deep desire for spiritual life and inner knowledge. A good exercise for this is the bow and arrow technique which stretches our desire to the limit, thereby forcing us to break through into hitherto unexplored realms. By using the things of the world we can effectively eliminate their influence on us in the same way as we use a thorn to remove a thorn. The method is that of alternating attachment and detachment.
If you want to try this technique for yourself, start by cutting down on all snacks, sweets and highly processed foods. Take 2 simple meals each day, consisting of 3 or 4 basic items which are not changed from meal to meal. If this is too difficult then stop all food and drink with sugar for a week to a month, or stop all salt.
If you lack the discipline for this also, then the ashram environment is the best alternative. It is interesting to note that this technique can be applied to any aspect of your life - such, is the versatility of tantra, the science of stretching and liberating.
In order to achieve an objective balanced view of hunger, it is necessary to become progressively less involved and entangled with habitual cravings and desires. This can best be achieved gradually with the help of yogic in techniques.
*1. E.F. Adolph, Amer. J. Physiol., 151 : 110-125, 1947.
*2. R.T. Bellows & W.P. van Wagenen, Amer. J. Physiol., 126: 13-19, 1939.