Thursday, October 25, 2012

For your health: hang loose, baby

We human beings are at our best when soft and flexible, because we are, in essence, all about movement. Even our bones are flexible, living things. They only turn hard and white when they dry up outside the body.

One of the most damaging effects of excess stress is that it hardens musculature. Hardened muscles are the source of stiff necks, leg cramps, debilitating back pain, temporomandibular problems, insomnia and headaches. Rock hard muscles create pain by putting strain on the joints, lessening blood flow and reducing range of motion.

The famous "six-pack" that is seen as so attractive is actually not a good sign. Overly tight abdominals interfere with healthy movement in the hips, yank on the diaphragm, making it harder to take full breaths, and impinge on digestion. How I wish we revered flexible, toned muscles instead of hard bodies. We are not built to be hard.

Cirrhotic livers are hard as rocks. A healthy liver is soft and flexible. Gallstones and kidney stones, and every kind of cyst and tumor, is a hardening of what should be soft and flowing.

Though not exactly accurate, arteriosclerosis is also called "hardening" of the arteries. It's not the arteries, but all the hardened gunk in them, when it attaches itself to the walls of the arteries, that causes the problem.

I could go on about the ill effects of hardening on our physical bodies, but I'm sure you get the idea.

The metaphors are spot on as well. For instance, being hard hearted is never a good idea. Emotion is about the flow of feelings. The word contains MOTION within it. Those who try to stop the flow of, or solidify, feelings can look forward to many years in therapy, should they ever be willing to release the hardened emotions. And good luck to them!

When you say someone is "hard" on others - or on themselves - you know what that indicates, right? Mean, judgmental, dismissive, cruel behavior involves hardness. Those with soft hearts tend towards compassion, acceptance, trust and humor. I should also mention how much happier those with soft hearts tend to be. Think of the Dalai Lama, for instance.

One of the saddest forms of emotional hardness is the ubiquitous grudge. When anger or hurt is solidified, it turns to a heavy, toxic emotional stone that can prevail over long periods of time, even be passed down from generation to generation. Grudges require a lot of energy to maintain, and may I say that the energy they require is energy that is completely wasted. Grudges do no one any good, not the person holding the grudge nor the grudgee either - though it is more harmful by far for the one holding the grudge.

The mind, too, when it becomes hardened, is not good for anyone. I think of every kind of fundamentalist as someone whose mind has solidified around an idea, whether religious fundamentalism or its evil twin: the virulent anti-God atheist, or anyone whose whole world view is based on an idea they believe to be rock solid, such as strict Vegans, for instance. A hardened mind sees the world as black and white, a very sad predicament that takes away the possibility for every kind of nuance.

A hardened mind is a mind that's shut down, that can't entertain curiosity, that can never learn anything new. It's a sad and scary thing, and no good for anyone.

We are dynamic, cyclical beings living in a dynamic, cyclical universe. We are meant to be mentally, emotionally and physically flexible, resilient and ever changing. Are you feeling hardness somewhere in your body, heart or mind? May I suggest that right now, you could soften your jaw, open your mind and have a good laugh? That always gets everything moving, a good laugh - or, if you're so inclined - a good, sobbing cry.

Here's a link to a New York Times story about the health benefits of laughing. Life is funny. Let go of your hardness, yes? Go with the flow, people, go with the flow. Shalom.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Golden Calf

Science is smart and science is stupid. Both are true and there could be studies done to prove it.

One of the smart/stupid things about science is the ubiquitous study. Studies are interesting but they do not reveal eternal truths. They provide a glimpse into one small, carefully cordoned off area of interest. Extrapolations from the data are based on statistics and therefore do not necessarily apply to individuals.

It's all well and good, except that in my society, we worship at the altar of the scientific study. We consider study results to be the final word, the indisputable truth, the word from on high. Oh man, wouldn't it be great if studies actually could reveal the final word? What a lovely fantasy.

Here is a link to a story from the New York Times that describes the parsing of information that lead to incorrect conclusions about the value of organic food in a very well thought of Stanford study. The writer is only interested in how the study was conducted, but never hints at the fact that perhaps all studies are flawed to some degree or another, biased and shaped in order to produce desired results. After all, in every study, information is parsed.

Meta studies have disproved all kinds of things that were allegedly true due to earlier studies. In one meta study about placebos, it was discovered that, while always effective, placebos are far more effective now than thirty years ago.

Whatever in the world can that mean? We believe in the power of pills, definitely, more so than thirty years ago - I guess!

We spend a lot of money on studies. I'm not trying to say they're worthless, but how I wish more in my society cultivated the questioning attitude. I wish we weren't so willing to swallow the results of studies hook, line and sinker. In any area of inquiry, there is never a final answer. Every answer should create more questions. Smart scientists know that. How I wish John Q. Citizen did.

May we open our eyes, cultivate the questioning attitude, and try not to be so gullible. May it be so.


Monday, October 15, 2012

No shit, Sherlock

Indeed, women's bodies are battlefields, now as always throughout history, almost everywhere from the north pole to the south pole. Almost. It would behoove our evolution as a species to spend lots of time studying the cultures where women were and are not demeaned, battered, sold, and demoted to second class citzenship. There are precious few. Why did those cultures develop differently? What did they know that we don't? What can we learn from those cultures?

Yes, I have many questions. But I should also say I understand why our bodies are targets. It's instinctual, it has to do with the fact that we make the babies. We hold in our bodies the mystery of life and death. Everyone wants a piece of that. Many want to control it because the mystery we embody is powerful. It's not rational.

The New York Times posted a story this past week in which they described as a trend for female TV comedians: "self acceptance as a new form of defiance." Here is a link.

A quote from the piece:

"Society makes a show of supporting people who make peace with their extra pounds, but we really celebrate those who declare war on their bodies. "

I've been thinking about that ever since, about the way that women in my society starve themselves, flog themselves at the gym, and devote at least part of almost every moment engaged in self loathing because of the size and shape of their bodies. It doesn't matter if they are thin or fat, fit or flabby - no, this has nothing to do with their actual bodies. It's about the self loathing. It's about our bodies as battlegrounds.

Apparently, even in a society that allegedly supports women's rights and freedoms, our bodies are battlegrounds. If the men don't do it to us, we do it to ourselves. Good lord.

May self acceptance take hold as a saucy, sassy, sexy and powerful new trend in my society. May it be so. Shalom.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Talk to your ancestors

A simple ancestor altar. From left to right, my father, my mother, sister Karen with sister Deborah and me, the baby. (I love being held in the arms of the ancestors.) At the right is my dog, Jake. The objects represent ancestors of spirit, animal and stone. This is where I talk to my ancestors.

Throughout human history, from the north pole to the south pole, in every culture I know about, we have talked to our beloved ancestors. We honor our lineages, we remember those who came before us, those who brought us into this world. In every culture I know about, there is a custom that addresses the need for contact with those who are no longer physically alive. Whether it happens in ritual, or during prayer, while visiting the grave or burial mound, while on our knees beside the bed with palms pressed together, whether aloud or in our minds or in our dreams, we human beings have always talked to those who came before. We tell our stories, ask for advice. We honor the memory of our ancestors. It is an essential part of being human.

The fact that we don't do this in my society at this moment in time is one of the reasons we as a culture are so spiritually impoverished. We buy more and more stuff, hoping to fill the internal void that should be replete with faith, awe, reverence, and mystery. Stuff will never fill that void! But we keep trying.

Now please don't ask me to prove to you that the ancestors are listening. I can't. No one has ever been able to prove it, and if someone does, well, I for one will be very surprised. Can you prove to me that love is "real?" Of course you can't, but you feel it - at least I hope you feel love. Good lord.

Talking to the ancestors is not a science, it is an art, perhaps one of the most sincere of all the arts. If you feel self conscious, you wouldn't be the first, nor will you be the last. Opening the heart to the incomprehensible is an act of valour. It takes courage. It's the proverbial leap of faith, hence challenging, but not that daunting, because it's a leap humans have been taking since the dawn of our species. In my society, we tend to forget we are the freaks, we are the anomaly, dismissing the ancestors as we do. Cultural hubris, in my society, knows no bounds. We hunger for connection but are too rational to allow ourselves the beauty of our old rituals. The rational mind can not feed the soul. Hence, we go shopping.

It won't hurt anyone if you try, will it? It can be our little secret. I won't tell, I promise. Find a time/space in which you're comfortable, grounded, and willing. Think of an ancestor you loved and who loved you, "beyond all reason" as one of my friends says. Then talk, just as you would have with these beloved people before they passed away. Talk out loud or just in your mind and heart. Say what you wish you had while they were still here. You can say anything - why not?

Most people discover it's a lot easier than they thought, once they get started. I'm not surprised. Human beings have been talking to their ancestors for aeons, literally for a hundred thousand years, probably longer. It's like riding a bike, even if you have never tried.

Talking to the ancestors is healing to body, mind and spirit. Also, don't dismiss the possibility that something very wise might come to you in the midst of the conversation. It has been known to happen!

May you feel the mysterious and comforting sense of connection with the generations that preceded you and the ones yet to come. We are part of a chain of generations; we are part of the human family. Knowing that helps everything. Believe me. Shalom.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

We still dream Ponce de Leon's dream

What is "health food?" It depends, doesn't it? I remember the health food of the 70s which included thick, greasy nut butters, lots of soy milk, sprouts of every variety, and whole grain breads so dense each loaf weighed about ten pounds, and brown rice. Always and only brown rice.

That food was quite unhealthy for me, that is to say, I was incapable of digesting most of it. However, that is what I ate because at the time I believed there was such a thing as food that's good for everyone.

Of course I'm not the only one who believed there was such a thing as a perfect food for all. A lot of money has been made by the people who write books touting the perfect diet for everyone - whatever that is. During the 70s I read Jethro Kloss's classic Back to Eden, and Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe. No matter how earnestly I wanted to eat "health food," the nut butters and horrible dense breads were like lead balloons in my finicky digestive system.

I never liked herbal tea. There. I've said it.

There have been many fashions and fads in health food. What is thought to be great for everyone varies from decade to decade. I remember when food combining was the big thing. Another era I remember had to do with how much water we should drink, and when. It was thought that drinking water along with a meal was a Very Bad Thing.

Almost always there is some juice or tea that everyone swears by. A few of the allegedly magical elixirs that come to mind include wheat grass juice, pomegranate juice, green tea, white tea, Acai juice and coconut water. Smoothies and vegetable juices have enjoyed a long wave of popularity, as have supplements (puzzling to me since supplements are uber processed and very hard to integrate. They are hard on the liver and in fact unless you take them at the perfect moment with the perfect food, they will mostly be pissed out.)

I am tempted to get into a big rant against Veganism, the Paleo diet and the raw food diet, but I will restrain myself.

What is healthy depends on you, not on a particular set of foods or rules. It would be wonderful if it were as simple as eating what someone else tells you is best. Ah, but life is never simple, is it?

This is on my mind because I made a stew this week with grass fed organic beef that's available at the Tuesday farmers market at Eastern Market. Real beef is so ... well ... beefy! The flavor was very strong, much stronger than the high quality organic meat I buy regularly at Whole Foods. I was thinking, of course our ancestors hunted the bison. A little bit of real beef goes a very long way!

May you eat well by choosing foods and drinks that suit your body, digestion, and temperament. May what you eat be easily digestible, satisfying, nurturing. After a meal, may you be energized and grounded, i.e. well fed. If what you eat makes you tired or queasy, it could be time to think about making some changes.

May all in my society remember how lucky we are to be able to choose what is healthy and what isn't. What a luxury!


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Live long and prosper, y'all

Ageism is not healthy. Sad to say, it is rampant in my society. Old people are among the last groups it's OK to make fun of. If you made a joke about black people or gay people smelling funny, for instance, oh man - you could never get away with that in public in 21st century America - at least in east coast urban areas. But you can say any insulting, heinous thing about old people and still get a big laugh.

Old people have done nothing wrong, you know. They just haven't died yet. Why is the success of their survival funny? Or repulsive? Do they smell any worse than babies with poopy diapers or teenage boys, randy with hormones? C'mon.

Being old is a disgusting situation, supposedly. Yet we're supposed to take good care of ourselves so we can live long lives. It's a crazy paradox that doesn't serve anyone, no matter how young or old they may be.

I was thinking recently about all the carefully delineated developmental stages of human life from birth to around age 21. There's infancy, then babyhood. After humans begin to walk, we call them toddlers. After that comes middle childhood, then pre-adolescence, followed, of course, by adolescence. At around age twenty, we are pronounced young adults. After that, the trajectory of life blurs in terms of definition, purposefully so, I think.

Sometimes we hear the phrase "middle age." But what does that mean? When is a person middle aged? When does a person move from middle age to old age? We're told NEVER to call ourselves old, or that "you're only as old as you feel," things like that, which leaves us in a no man's land of perpetual middle age - I guess. In fact I have a friend who is in his 70s. He thinks of himself as being in "late middle age." Really?

Because being old is as repulsive in my society as being fat, it becomes the goal of aging people to pretend they're younger. They try to keep up the same pace as earlier in life. They work out harder, they try to get by with the same lack of sufficient sleep, they continue their grueling schedules in the office. And they have plastic surgery. Of course things go very wrong.

One of the many sad things about this behavior is that middle aged people feel betrayed by their bodies when they can't keep going full throttle. Shouldn't we be grateful to our bodies for carrying on? Shouldn't we appreciate our longevity, shouldn't we celebrate our long lives by being kinder than we were to ourselves earlier in life? Well?

How about if, between the ages of 20-40, we think of ourselves as young adults? During those years, by all means, we can push ourselves, full steam ahead. Young adulthood is a great time to broaden our fiefdoms, climb the ladder at work, partner, have kids, and Do Everything. Hell yeah.

From 40-60, it would be very healthy to understand that we are now in middle age. Instead of acting out by having an affair or buying a stupid sports car, or whining about how beautiful we used to be, it would behoove us to slow down just a little bit, figure out how to not work quite so hard, take our exercise programs down one notch, too. Between 40-60, downsizing in terms of stuff is a great idea. Once the kids are gone, do people really still need gigantic houses? To me it makes sense to move into smaller spaces before old age. During middle age, if we get into the habit of what I call "aggressive self care," we will fare far better than if we decide to ignore the passing years. In middle age, if we are not in the habit of exercising, we must get to it. Building strength and resilience during middle age will serve us on every level. Middle age is a great time to begin receiving massage on a regular basis, eating carefully, not drinking so much, making sure we get enough sleep. Middle age is also a wonderful time to stop taking everything literally and personally. Begin to practice letting go. By practicing aggressive self care in middle age, we lay a solid foundation for a healthy old age.

I think that, at age sixty, we graduate from middle age to early old age. From 70-80, we're in middle old age, and from age 80 onwards, we're in late old age. In every phase of old age, we need to learn something new every day, we need - more than ever - to listen to music, take in beauty, and laugh as much as possible. Instead of flogging ourselves with work, we need to kick back, let the younger people take on the heavy responsibilities we carried for so many years. I'm not suggesting that we retire. Humans are working animals; we need to be productive. But if it's possible, we need to slow way down, change the way we work so it is sustainable. This makes for a satisfying old age.

If there are things we've always done because we believed we should, not because we enjoyed or believed in them, when we enter early old age, we should begin to shed all that. Old age could be a time of liberation from the Shoulds and Oughts that attend early adulthood and middle age.

Yes we need to move around, but perhaps not so harshly as earlier in life. Instead of killing ourselves at the gym, why not take a yoga class, or walk every day? Switch on some music and dance around?

If we slowed down gradually, accepted and were grateful for the very long lives many of us are privileged to live, we would be far happier and healthier in body and mind. As it is, we want to live a long time, but also believe that right around age 40 we should pretend we aren't aging. That is crazy behavior that sets us up for a hideous few decades marked by denial and self loathing. It's very unfortunate.

Life is good, not just youth - all of life. I am grateful. L'chaim!