Once a year, I make a commitment to hanblechia, a Lakota ceremony, that helps me go out on the mountain for three or four days to fast and pray. During this time, it's hard not to think of food, but not in the way one would think, as in missing it. Quite the opposite. It allows me time to rethink my relationship with food, especially how important it seems to be all the time.
A typical day, for me, starts with drinking a cup of tea, followed by a light breakfast. Before long, I’m planning lunch, and eventually, it’s time to cook supper. Once or twice a week, I make trips to the market to replenish supplies. No matter where I go, I bring food to nibble. Add to it the maintenance of cleaning the refrigerator and food pantry; washing dishes; expunging old food to the compost pile; or even making plans with people that revolve around eating—a lot of my time is spent on food! But fasting, up on the mountain, all of it goes away the moment I’m tied in.
During the first day of prayer, you’re not thinking of being hungry, though that’s what others suppose. Even by the second or third day, the only recollection of food comes when I recognize the amount of time I suddenly have that isn’t spent on eating, cooking, or replenishing food. Instead, I turn my attention to the flow of the day, which evolves from one minute to the next, without any striving.
The animals and birds are there with me, and show the right kind relationship and balance I can have with food. For instance, the birds start their day with singing and bathing, then foraging and rest. The spider sets up its web and sits patiently all day for a bite. The chipmunks cross the forest floor a couple dozen times, before taking a long respite to nibble on acorns. Everything is done in harmony, like a dance.
As the second day of fasting passes, I explore my own food habits, especially over-consumption, or more appropriately, taking more than my share. I realize that what I eat in one day is probably enough to sustain me for several. I ask for forgiveness, thinking about the times I’ve shoved food in my mouth, hardly noticing what I was even eating. Or the amount of times I’ve wasted food. Or the amount of animals I’ve consumed (in my lifetime). Or the times I couldn’t go more than a couple hours between meals, before screaming, “I’m so hungry!” (This seems laughable after several days of not eating!)
By the third or fourth day, a great shift comes, one of appreciation for all that goes into providing just one meal—or even my morning tea. My prayer takes me from the tea plants, to the soil, the rain, the hands that picked it, cared for it, and delivered it; those who stocked it, and even those providing the electricity to boil the water; the kettle-maker, for the cup maker… hours can pass, spent in the lucid discovery of what actually goes into one cup of tea, let alone a single breakfast bar or a salad. It’s enough to make me weep. I fill up with gratitude, as I recognize, with full awareness, the connection between myself and others: we really are united and connected in infinite ways.
After my time on the mountain, I’m brought down and received by my tayoshpaye (spiritual family), as we share a feast together. It’s actually the hardest part of the hanblechia, because a change has come. I want only to appreciate the tiniest morsel of food. Instead, my family piles up a big plate of food, a loving gesture, thinking that I’m starving. I need only a small bite to say, “Thank you for my life. Thank you, Wakan Takan, for such a precious gift.”
The walk I carry forward is to remember how it felt to let go of the worry and hold food can have, and to make changes in my life, so that things will be different. I also remember to be grateful for all the gifts Grandmother Earth gives, and especially, how my Earth family takes unconditional care of me, providing my food everyday.