Archive for November, 2012

“Everyone eats and drinks, but few appreciate taste.”

Food is a necessity; we need to eat to survive. Every day we eat on average three meals a day with various snack times scattered in between. We eat to celebrate. We eat to console.  I purposefully scheduled the sense of taste for the week of Thanksgiving, a time set aside for Americans to stuff themselves as full as the turkey they consume.

My original intent for this week was to explore and scavenge for the food provided in the natural areas around my home. Sounds great only November is not the best time for harvesting even in a desert region like Arizona. No food was found. The prickly pear fruit is gone. Sigh! This summer I did actually try a prickly pear fruit that I plucked from the end of the cactus during a hike in Sedona. I squeezed out some of the juice and was pleasantly surprised at the sweet taste. Except for the tiny cactus barbs I was picking out of my hands for the next two days, I rather enjoyed one of nature’s treats. I looked all season for the stores to stock harvested prickly pear fruit but they never did.

Since I was unable to harvest my own food from the wild, the techniques I employed this week explored the concept of eating to connect to our inner nature. I believe that if we are connected to our inner nature, we may more easily connect with Nature.

Technique #1 – Conscious Eating

What did you eat for your Thanksgiving feast? Were you aware of the size and number of portions you consumed? One aspect of conscious eating is the awareness of what we are eating, how much we are eating, and specifically how we are eating will affect our overall health and well being. There was a time when I would eat a lot of breads and baked goods. At Thanksgiving this would mean rolls and pies. A few years ago I started to be more conscious of my eating habits and realized I had a touch of gluten intolerance. If I ate a lot of breads, which at the time included Krispy Kreme doughnuts, then I would have digestion problems for the next couple of days. I don’t know how long I suffered from gluten induced indigestion because I was never consciously aware of the cause and effect loop of my eating habits.

One aspect of conscious eating that I try to employ on a daily basis is eating as naturally as possible. My family and I changed our eating habits and strive to eat organically with locally grown produce when possible. There is a taste difference between locally grown produce and produce trucked into the stores. Both may be organic in nature, but locally grown literally tastes better. If you don’t believe me, next summer try an experiment and you’ll see, locally grown tastes better.

Eating naturally for me means that I refrain from eating meat and adhere to a vegan diet.  I don’t judge anyone for their choice of dietary restrictions, but each of us needs to look deep inside to our inner nature to decide what dietary lifestyle fits our health lifestyle most supportively. For me, giving up meat immediately gave me more energy. Taking dairy out of my diet had positive effects on my immune system and sinus congestion. And I already mentioned the gluten. In Ayurvedic medicine, individuals were divided into three doshas according to physical characteristics and temperament. Balancing your individual dosha included being conscious of what you were eating and how it would affect your specific dosha. Now I am not recommending you take a dosha quiz and plan your meals based on your dosha, but I do recommend becoming more consciously aware of your food, how it affects you, and making positive changes to support a healthier lifestyle.

Technique #2 – Ancestral Foods

Connecting with our inner nature would not be complete without an understanding of where we come from? I’m not talking the birds and the bees, but where are our ancestral roots. Growing up in the LDS (aka Mormon) church, there was a big emphasis on ancestors and genealogy. I am proud of my ancestral heritage. My ancestors come primarily from England, Denmark, Sweden, and Greece. Dr. Lendon Smith wrote about imitating the diets of our ancestors in his book Happiness is a Healthy Life. To be complete and balanced within ourselves, we must connect with our ancestors. I don’t advocate changing to a completely ethnic/ancestral diet unless you feel this would be an important step to improving your health, like going vegan did for me. Deciding to change any part of your diet takes a conscious decision (see technique #1 in case you missed it). But bringing in ethnic dishes from your ancestral roots will move you farther in the direction of this connection. For me, Thanksgiving has always had a Greek dish. My grandfather’s line is the Greek line, and my grandmother learned to cook tyropitakia (cheese triangles) a traditional Greek dish. Even after my grandparents passing, in my family we have continued to enjoy cheese triangles as part of our Thanksgiving feast. This year we went a little different and made baklava instead. Ethnic dishes serve as one connection with our ancestors.


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Playing with Fire

“Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.“

Fire!! I have to admit that I was excited for this week. I love fire, one of my favorite elements to play with; I am a bit of a pyro. Traditional Chinese Medicine the element of fire carries the capacity for transformation. One of the goals of this project is a transformation, a transformation to attain a connection with Nature. The organs associated with the fire element are the heart, the small intestine, and the triple heater. The triple heater is not actually an organ but in Chinese medicine it is a function within the body that helps to regulate the qi within the body and the flow of the meridians. Many people regard fire as a destructive agent. This is a narrow minded view of the importance of fire in our lives. Fire is an essential component not only for transformation but for fostering the passion of living.

Technique #1 – Qi Gong Fire Routine
Working with the description of fire as an element within the system of body functions, I purchased a DVD by martial artist Matthew Cohen designed to increase the fire element in the body to activate the body’s senses, strengthen the immune system, and aid in the detoxification of the body. It is a 40 minute routine that involves several tai chi like movements and yoga like poses. By the end of the routine my legs were on fire so my senses were definitely activated. I could sense the muscle strain by the vibration of each individual muscle in my leg. Okay, so the routine is not for the beginner. I completed the routine, cheating a little on some of the leg bends otherwise I might have fallen over completely and been unable to stand; and then I went to bed. The next day I discovered the benefits of the fire routine enhancing the body’s natural detoxification functions. To put it bluntly, I did not feel well at all. Within a day I felt better but I know the detoxification symptoms were a product of the qi gong routine.

Recommendation: Be careful and take it slow. A routine like this may be more than your body can handle at the time.

Technique #2 – Candle Meditation
My first mediation teacher recommended using a lit candle as the focus of meditation practice. The natural fire element assists the meditator to concentrate and focus more quickly and easily. There is just something about a flame that immediately catches my attention. I could stare at a candle for a long time without getting bored, and this is when I am not trying to achieve a state of meditation. But using the flame of a candle as a focus point for meditative concentration will assist the beginning and advanced student of meditation to look inside. The flame becomes the mirror of the soul.

The flame on a candle is a living presence. It freely gives of itself to light the way in the darkness and give warmth in the cold night. I started the post with a quote by Buddha comparing the lit candle to the spiritual life. Many spiritual teachers have used similar metaphors. Jesus Christ said not to hide a candle under a bushel but to use it to light the house. Transformation by fire allows an individual to not only light their own way but assist others in making progress.

For anyone beginning a meditation practice, get a candle. Don’t try and cheat by downloading a candle app onto your iPhone. I tried it and there is no comparison to the real thing. You need real fire to achieve the meditative focus that will allow transformation to occur.

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The Sound of Silence

“A thousand trills and quivering sounds
In airy circles o’er us fly,
Till, wafted by a gentle breeze,
They faint and languish by degrees,
And at a distance die.” 

-Joseph Addison

Moving now to the sense of hearing, this week explored the sounds and silence of nature. Like our sense of sight, our ears are constantly bombarded with noise. Even during meditation while the outer sense of hearing may find silence, the goal of silencing the inner voices can be a constant battle. Two techniques dealing with sound and silence were explored this week.

Technique #1 – Walk of Silence
Earthwalks provides the first technique for this week. In the fast-paced life of our modern existence silence is a difficult commodity to find. Even in the wee hours of the night, the hum of electronics or the refrigerator can still be heard. Out in nature, airplanes never cease their endless travel overhead and traffic is nearly constant. This earthwalk goes one step farther (no pun intended) instructing the walker to walk in silence, even ending the crunch of gravel under your feet on the trail. Not as easy as it sounds. Intense concentration was expended on placing my feet in the correct spot to limit sound and I moved as if in slow motion. For me, this earthwalk did not pave the way to a closer connection with nature or with myself. I only felt connected in slow motion with my feet.
Technique #2 – Bringing Nature Indoors
The latter half of the week turned downright frigid with highs only reaching the high 30’s and low 40’s. The wind never stopped blowing and we had rain and snow on two different days. Not the best hiking weather. Nature had to come indoors because I was unprepared to go outdoors. It will take me a little time for the adjustment.

One of the meditation techniques I employ for my nightly meditation sessions is a visualization of an ideal relaxation spot. My ideal spot is on a private beach with the waves gently rolling in to shore and a perfect late summer temperature, quite unlike my current reality. On my iPod is an mp3 of ocean waves from a set of nature based CDs, this one titled Healing Sounds of Nature: Ocean Waves. Unlike some nature meditation tracks, no New Age or classical music accompanies the pure sound of the ocean waves. Listening to the ocean waves during my personal meditation sessions enhances the visualization of my relaxation spot, and allows for a deeper meditation. The perfect companion for an Arizonan stuck 6 hours from the beach during the first week of winter weather.

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“The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.”
― Chief Seattle

Traditional Chinese Medicine identified five elements in Nature with corresponding organs in the body. This week the focus is on the element of Earth associated with the spleen and the stomach. In Shiatsu theory the element of earth is also associated with stillness. I think of common sayings that express this thought like “immovable as the earth” or “build on a solid foundation.” Both of these sayings evoke a sense of strength and stillness but not on a level of contemplative stillness. The techniques I practiced this week opened my mind to the reality of an earth still but moving.

Technique #1 – Cultivating Curiosity
Dr. Daniel Deslauriers, from the California Institute of Integral Studies, shared with me an article from the New York Times titled “Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature” about biologist David Haskell that records his observations of a yard square area of forest ground. Mark Coleman in Awake in the Wild has a similar exercise called “Cultivating Curiosity” where the observer picks a square foot area of earth and meditatively observes the area for 20 – 30 minutes. So with two recommendations for this practice I set out to stare at a piece of ground for 20 minutes. I found me a nice piece of ground as you can see here.

At first, I kind of thought this was a silly exercise but as I began with the observations, the earth literally came to life. Ants, there were these really small ants all over the place. Busy with seemingly no place to go. I became engrossed in their work but could not find the main headquarters of this small army (pun intended). I think it was actually under the rock I was sitting on. Haskell visited his square yard of forest floor over the course of a year getting to know the area intimately. While I studied my square foot I was able to shed the worries of the day and thoughts did not crowd on my observations.

In relation to this project of (re)connection, we as humans should be intimately familiar with areas of Nature that surround us. Do we move through life without noticing the wildflowers by the side of the road, or the hawk sitting in the tree? One of the outcomes of this project so far for me personally is having my eyes opened at the amount of data that was processed and censored within the stores of my own brain. Hiking in Nature has taken on a different level of being for me and I am only half done with the project.

Technique #2 – Heartbeat
From Earthwalks by James Endredy, the earthwalk titled Heartbeat invites the walker to tune into the rhythm of nature through the medium of a drum. I have been learning the Djembe so I thought this would be a definite on my list to try. The Djembe was a little heavy for hiking through the granite outcroppings in my favorite hiking area so I took along a bodhran, an Irish frame drum. Endredy recommends beginning the drumming as you begin the hike but this did not feel right for me. I found a nice spot of earth and sat down.

After a few moments of contemplative silence during which I listened to all of the sounds around me and within me. I began drumming to the beat of the earth, or the small pulses of energy I could feel beneath my feet. I found that the base beat was matched be the flock of ducks swimming in the lake. I had never realized the rhythm inherent in the quacking of the ducks when in a group but it was similar to the steady rhythm of the cricket or the cicada. Now the songbirds were non-conformists, well I had one that would sing a syncopated trill after every second beat. She did this for about 20 seconds. We had a nice duet going.

Being an amateur musician myself, I had to go home and find out how fast the beat of the earth was on the metronome, 66 beats per minute. My heartbeat slowed to match this rhythm while I was drumming. I didn’t just play the beat but added my own rolls to match the trills of the songbirds, faster notes to match the flapping of the ducks wings as they took flight, and an expression of my own inner song. This technique is not for the self-conscious but it is for the amateur with an open mind and heart. I drummed for a good 30 minutes in 2 different locations. Both locations, though separated by several granite hills, matched in base beat. While hiking out, I played with each step as recommended by Endredy. If I went faster than the 66 beats per minute beat, I felt out of step. The drumming really did put me in touch with the natural rhythm of the area. I highly recommend this technique!!!

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