“Did you know vegetables have dreams?” Misato asked, eyes flitting upward from the coffee she’d been stirring. “My macrobiotics teacher in Japan, that’s what he believed.”
We’d been awake since 3:00am.
A trio of travelers, we were patiently waiting out a six hour layover. From our moment of arrival in Kuala Lumpur, we’d been magnetized to the culinary blend of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Western foods nested within the international terminal. Although we hadn’t enough time to explore beyond the airport, its food court spoke to the rich mix of cultures sheltered by the surrounding Malaysian metropolis.
Having finished our breakfasts, Ils and I remained silent. We needed a sign her words weren’t borne of sleep deprivation, that Misato hadn’t lost her mind.
We waited for her to go on.
“Vegetables have spirits; the spirits have dreams. When you eat them, you help their dreams come true.” Such was the wisdom of Kushi Michio, pioneer of modern macrobiotics and Misato’s teacher. Responsible for introducing a plant-based food philosophy into the United States’ mainstream consciousness, Michio shared such insights during his last lecture at Tokyo University, in 2014.
In Thailand, Buddhism is the dominant religion, although strong animist undercurrents permeate the culture. Here in the mountainous north, spirit worship is not an unfamiliar practice. Saan chao thii and saan phra phum spirit houses cover the landscape, as if standard architectural fare of every storefront and home. Situated on the fringes of Buddhist temple grounds, even, these spirit homes are never empty, replenished daily with food, drink, toys, and other necessities to appease the ancestral and cosmic spirits who find solace underneath their phuang malai (flower garland)-strewn roofs.
Now, I’ve written before about harnessing the power of imagination to surpass self-imposed limitations. As humans, we are blessed with the capacity and privilege to imagine ourselves into worlds full of infinite possibilities and perspectives, to enter into realms where stagnant paradigms fall away like transparent jelly and impossible feats suddenly become part of our everyday modes of being. So, combined with my limited exposure to animism, a little imagination tempered the absurdity of Michio’s “plant-based fantasies,” so to speak.
Still, vegetable spirits with dreams were a new one, flinging my exhausted mind into a last-ditch whirl of animation. I attempted to clarify. “You mean, Misato, that when we eat vegetables, we use their energy to explore different possibilities for ourselves. And, through our experiences, we transform their life-giving power into something more palpable, allowing them to play out their dreams. Is that right?”
She smiled and nodded slightly, a gesture I wasn’t sure signified she’d understood. We didn’t say much more on the subject, and Misato slunk back into her customary, yet profound reticence.
A few days later, still curious whether my life-long plant consumption really had enacted vegetable fairy tales, I asked Misato about it again. She sent me a sweet-tempered animation produced by the Ainu people of Hokkaido, an island in northeastern Japan. Misato translated the Japanese script, which I’ve summarized below. (I’ve included her original translation at the bottom of this post, as I believe her words are more lucid than mine.)
The animation showcases a field of sprightly millet, each ear laughing in gratitude as it is collected by the crop farmers. The harvest is grinded, pounded, and boiled into kibi dango, or millet dumplings. Year after year, the cycle continues.
One season, a few ears remain unpicked, neglected by the farmers who desire only the biggest and healthiest millet that year. Despairing, they are left to fend off heavy rain, perilous wind, and sweltering sun. As winter snows begin to settle, an old woman, happening to pass by, stops to pick the lonely millet ears. Taking them home, she displays the found treasure to her husband. “Even though these are small, they are still God’s food.” The woman recounts her story to the God of Fire, whom she calls upon to dry the forsaken grain. Thanking the God of Millet, the couple make their own kibi dango, saving some seeds to plant for the next harvest.
The following year, the elderly couple’s freshly planted millet makes an extra effort to grow big, helping them, in turn, grow rich with a bounteous crop. The farmers who’d previously ignored the same millet become poor. The animation ends with the God of Millet saying, “even if millet ears are small, they still are Gods. People shouldn’t waste these Gods.”
Anyone who’s known me over the past few years has witnessed my developing enthusiasm for an Ayurvedic approach to diet, wherein foods’ tastes, smells, textures, viscosities, and other observable qualities catalyze specific physiological effects. How and when we consume foods are equally important factors in how our bodies digest and use them.
Here’s an exaggerated example. Contemplate the difference between guzzling a smoothie while anxiously speeding to work, praying our boss won’t notice our lateness, and allowing time to eat a seated meal in its entirely, appreciating its smells, tastes, and textures. The former scenario will likely yield improper digestion revealed in myriad unpleasant ways (think heartburn, bloating, etc.); the latter condition is kinder, permitting the body to rest and digest for optimal nourishment.
In essence, Ayurvedic food philosophy considers the eater, the eaten, and the relationship between the two.
Misato’s tale of vegetable dreams, however, introduced another perspective to the mix. I’ve alluded before to the notion that every life form, from the tiniest atom to complete human being, represents a single manifestation of an infinite pool of probabilities and possibilities. Each plant, stone, and insect, every animal, human, and object, holds a particular perspective which, in its unique, unrepeatable way, helps the Universe – or God – know itself.
Within this framework, the idea that vegetables have dreams doesn’t seem too far-fetched. See, both Eastern and Western food philosophies agree that the foods we eat support our activity, both physical or mental. Whatever we consume contains an energy that is integrated, transformed, and utilized within the body to perform a certain function.
Working with my body system, a carrot gives me the energy to gaze upon a sunset; a bowl of rice powers my muscles to hike, cycle, and laugh; a handful of cashews partially becomes the fatty myelin sheaths which silhouette my body’s nerves, helping me to listen, speak, and feel.
When we consume foods, we enter into an energetic exchange which involves the transformation of one manifestation of the Universe into another.
A carrot could not see through my eyes, just as rice grains couldn’t hop on a bicycle or cashews hear as I did, unless I had picked these foods up, swallowed them down, and let my body work its magic.
What’s even more spectacular about our part of the exchange? We have the agency to direct this given energy through our words, thoughts, and actions. We have the freedom to choose, through our individual human expressions, how we make our vegetable friends’ dreams come true. It’s a beautiful collaboration, another showing of the Universe’s brilliant design to know itself.
Recently, I’ve been trying out a practice to acknowledge and honor the presence of vegetable (and other plants’) dreams. Before eating, I hold my palms over the food that will enter my body, visualize where it was grown, and express gratitude for the unconditional support it offers as I play out my chosen expressions of the Universe – expressions which are interminably linked to its own.
The practice is like making a pact: “you help me create, grow, and explore, and I’ll help carry out the possibilities you’ve imagined for your post-vegetable self.” Through my lived experience, I agree to make its dreams come true.
Here’s another thought, just to spark our collective imagination: when we consider the Universe as a complete and perfect system, aren’t our dreams, vegetable and human, really one and the same?
The following is the Ainu animation shared with me, along with Misato’s rough English translation:
A human mother and father take care of me (God of Millet) every year.
The parents brought me up carefully.
But in a certain year, the mother picked only my big sisters (big millets). We were small. The mother ignored and left us.
A old women came here and she said, “Rich people have lots of field and ignore these Gods of food, even though all people really want to have Gods of food.”
She collected us with tears.
She returned to her house and told the story to her husband. She said, “I think even if these are very small, these are still Gods. So then I collected and brought them back home.”
She also told the story to the God of Fire and she dried us. And then she made a cake of me.
Her husband was also glad and told the story to God at an altar. He admired me.
The old women brought my bran to the altar of bran. The God of the altar was also glad.
Every God was glad and I became more respectable as a God.
I made the old woman and man rich. From the next year, we made much effort to grow up big. They reaped us and made cakes. The Gods were also glad for that.
I heard the mother and father who used to grow me got bad luck and became poor.
I, as God of Millet, told people that even if they [millet ears] are small, they still are Gods. People shouldn’t waste these Gods.