Thursday, November 12, 2009

Acid and Alkaline Balance

All the fluids in the body have a balance of positive and negative
ions called the potential of hydrogen, or pH. This value is measured
on a scale of 0 to 14. A pH of 7 means a neutral charge, and values
below 7 are considered acidic. Values above 7 are alkaline. Saliva
generally carries a neutral charge, urine is usually slightly acidic,
and blood has to stay slightly alkaline (7.4). Blood must maintain
this alkaline charge, as death can occur with enough fluctuation.
Maintaining this balance through diet is of the utmost importance; if
the body does not get enough of an alkalizing effect from food, it
will use its own resources to maintain balance. This means drawing on
mineral reserves in the bones and teeth, which leads to osteoperosis,
tooth decay, and kidney stones. An overly acidic condition also leads
to a depressed nervous system. Normal bodily functions produce acid
byproducts which must be neutralized by the body’s mineral buffer
systems; the more energy is produced throughout the day through
stress, exercise, or overactivity, the more acid is produced and must
be neutralized.
So which foods nourish an alkaline condition in the body? Foods with
high mineral content such as vegetables and some fruits work best.
Salt is the essential acid neutralizer, but certainly not the only
important mineral. Eating too much salt will cause cravings for acid
forming foods and has other undesirable effects. Foods that cause an
acidic condition are most grains, most animal products, most beans,
alcohol, coffee, sugar, and processed food and chemicals. Many sodas
have a pH of around 3, which is around 10000 times more acidic than
water.
Macrobiotic meals consist primarily of grains and vegetables, which
are only mildly acidic or alkaline. The vegetables provide the most
alkalizing effects; grains are cooked with a small amount of salt,
shoyu, or seaweed to neutralize their slightly acidic tendency. Beans
are also cooked this way. People engaging in more physical activity
should have more alkalizing substances in their diet.
In general the trend in mainstream America is towards a very over
acidic condition, so most health advice is to balance this with more
alkaline foods. It should be kept in mind that it is possible to
become overly alkaline, which presents its own health problems.
Ultimately, balance is the key.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Yin, Yang, and the Energetics of Food

I recently wrote an article for Casa de Luz called "Yin/Yang and the Energetics of Food." Here it is.

Yin and Yang are abstract terms used in Chinese philosophy to describe opposing forces. Each term is used to refer to an entire range of qualities; for example, yin commonly refers to feminine qualities, to darkness, softness, emptiness, nighttime, and receptivity. Yang refers to the opposite of these qualities; that is, it connotes light, motion, heat, hardness, masculinity, and daytime. This list is certainly not comprehensive; the terms are applied to any comparison of any attribute. Yin and Yang are in fact two aspects of a fundamental existence; dependent on each other and defined by each other. The interplay of yin and yang in nature is a topic of much interest in east Asian philosophy, often underlying disparate arts such as medicine, spirituality, martial arts, dancing, music, construction, gardening, and most important to us, diet. Yin or yang taken to an extreme will convert to its opposite.
The macrobiotic approach to diet is to consider how all of the things we eat balance each other, and how that particular balance affects us. Whenever we eat anything, it has an effect of changing the internal balance in our body in a particular way. This causes us to crave the energetic opposite. For example, eating sugary water (yin) will make us crave something yang (salt). The magnitude of yang or yin energy requires the same magnitude of its opposite to maintain balance. Organic boiled rice can be easily paired with vegetables; baked meat covered in refined salt requires alcohol or carbonated sugar drinks. Every individual person needs a different amount of energy based on their daily activity and their approach to life. Stress, exercise, mania, and general hyperactivity will lead to a diet with a wide energetic balance. Relaxation, meditation, and being open demand a much smaller degree of balance.
The yang or yin nature of a food can be determined by considering how it grows, where it grows, its taste, how it looks, or really from any aspect. Animal foods such as meat and dairy are more yang, although fish is more yin than chicken. Plant foods are generally more yin, with seeds and grains being more yang than fruits and vegetables. Consider the sesame seed: it is very hard and compact and its oil is very stable at high temperatures. Olives are very soft and their oil smokes after very little cooking. A carrot is more yang than its greens, as it grows downwards into the earth in the shape of a point. Its greens grow upwards towards the sun and branch outwards. The most balanced food for humans is brown rice, as it is a grain that grows in water.
Human health is optimally nourished by a narrower, more sane kind of diet. Grains combined with vegetables form the basis and over time foster lasting internal strength. These are supplemented with beans, nuts, seeds, pickles, and occasionally fruit and fish. Over time this balancing act becomes quite intuitive and frees us from strong cravings and insane habits. Try eating a bowl of brown rice daily and see for yourself!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

How to Cook Rice Properly

Rice is a staple food for a large portion of the world population. It originated in India and is now grown all over the world. The unique property of rice is that it grows in water, unlike any other grain. This gives it a strong yang energy. For us humans, regular consumption of properly cooked rice gives us a strong center, a strong root, physical health, and mental and spiritual clarity.

Rice comes in many varieties due to the many climates where it grows. In India, southeast Asia, Texas, and Iran it comes in long grain varieties often with a pleasant aroma. Examples of this are Basmati and Jasmine. These types of rice are particularly useful for moving energy and dispelling heat. In China and Japan we find medium and short grain varieties without aroma, more of a plain worker's food than a delicacy. We should eat rice that fits with our climate, so Boston may choose short grain rice where New Orleans would choose Jasmine.

Cooking rice properly isn't difficult, but there are a few essential steps that are commonly missed.

First rice must be soaked overnight. Rice alone will sit still for man years, even centuries. As a seed its purpose is to lie dormant until it contacts water, when it starts to grow. We want to grow it a little bit before we eat it so it'll be easier to digest. The nutrient profile also changes during this process: dormant rice is just starch, bran, and some vitamins. As rice grows the starch diminishes and there are more amino acids, minerals, and vitamins available. The longer we soak it, the closer it gets to looking like a green plant. Some people even sprout rice for 3-4 days; that is fine, but generally we're ok with eight hours of soaking.
How much water do we soak it in? Generally about 1 1/4 cups water per cup of rice.

Now that we've got soaked rice, we need to add a bit of minerals to alkalize the slightly acidic nature of the rice. The easiest way is to add a punch of salt per cup of rice, but the best way is to use a square inch of Kombu (kelp) seaweed. Kombu not only adds minerals, it also softens the rice and adds natural flavor enhancers. (Kombu is the natural, healthy version of MSG).

So now we've got our rice, water, and minerals. It just needs heat. Bring the rice to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for about 45 minutes. Let it cool off and serve!

Generally rice is served with a pickle to aid digestion. Sauerkraut or sushi ginger works great; even better pickles can be found by googling "Tsukemono."

Optional additions to the pot of rice:
1. Hijiki
2. Adzuki beans
3. Hijiki and Adzuki beans.
4. Almonds
5. Raisins.
6. Pumpkin seeds.
7. Other grains (90/10 ratio rice to other) such as barley, hato mugi, millet, or oats.
8. Starchy vegetables such as Kabocha squash, pumpkin, carrot, parsnip, sweet potato, or butternut squash.

The Useful Art of Listening

Listening is perhaps the most useful and rewarding thing we can do as humans. Different spiritual traditions state this message in different ways; it is essentially turning ourselves "off" and allowing the external environment to sink in. This goes way beyond your ears; your kidneys have a lot to do with it.

Taoism - unifying with the Tao
Buddhism - freedom from ego to realize true nature
Christianity - hearing the word of God
etc.

Listening is used successfully all over the place in modern life.

Business - Good marketers will tell you its not what you want to sell, but what people want to buy. Frank Kern explains this well in How to Find Something to Sell.
Online marketing requires a fair amount of active listening, also known as asking questions. Get online and see what people are searching for, what they are buying, what is their interest. The information is out there, but we have to go get it.
This is active listening.

Romance - Zan Perrion, once labeled "The World's Greatest Seducer" said "A woman tells me everything I need to know to seduce her." In other words, its all about her, and to get that you have to listen.

Dancing - Social dancing, especially Argentine Tango requires us to listen to our partners body and movements.

Spirituality - Listening to your own heart is the essence of the spiritual path.

Here is a great article about listening.

Listening to words is one level of listening. The thing is though, 80% of communication is nonverbal. Subtle clues such as body language and subconscious signals add significant complexity to social interactions.

Note: what all of us really want in life is to feel listened to, understand, and not alone. Listening to people is giving them what they really want, and is the key to social success. Social success is arguably the key to success in life.
The deeper our listening skills, the more connected we feel to each other. Deep connections are quite powerful and give life meaning. What is deep, and how to we increase the depth of our listening?

"Depth" in this context is really our sensitivity level. If someone has to hit us in the head with a brick to make a point, our listening skills don't have much depth. If we are aware of someone's emotional state just standing near them, we have some depth. This is what we want to develop. Asian medicine teaches that the most effective treatment is aimed at the most yin aspect of a person; the depth of our listening determines the depth of yin we can perceive.

What makes us insensitive is hardness - this goes from spiritual hardness all the way to physical hardness. This relates to the kidneys and ears, what taoism considers the water element. If you have a bowl of water sitting on a table, what happens if the table vibrates? The water vibrates. Just like the T-Rex footprint in Jurassic park, water echoes what is going on around it. Our water element is our "ear" in the greater sense, it signals us as to what is going on. Our literal ears pick up vibrations and noises. Our kidneys listen to spiritual energy and qi.

Ice Cream is Bad. Eating ice cream causes dairy fat to accumulate around the kidneys and block their energy. Eating too much ice cream over time can lead to fat buildup around the tiny hairs in the ear and can actually make you deaf. One common use for ice cream is to numb us to emotions; its cold fatty nature turns numbs our feelings; its the emotional equivalent of putting in earplugs. Don't eat ice cream.

There are three levels of action we can take to improve our listening sensitivity.

1. The Physical Level. Diet plays a big role here. Modern diets have a very high energy span - very yang on one end with lots of meat and salt, and very yin on the other hand with fruit, sodas, sweets, alcohol, and drugs. This wide polarity is like loud music that covers up what we don't want to hear. So turn down the diet noise - get more vegetables, grains, and beans, and less meat and sugar. Sea vegetables are particularly useful: their nature is very receptive as they live in water and generally move around with the currents. Take in small quantities.
We should try to stick to softer fats too. This means less grain, seed, and nut oils and butters and less fat from animals raised on grains and seeds. Coconut oil and olive oil are great. Fish fat is great too, as long as the fish weren't raised on corn (really). Flax and hemp seed oils are great too, due to their high content of Omega-3s and complete protein.

2. The Energetic Level. This can be summed up in one word: Stillness. When we do things, move around, exercise, talk, dance, play games, this is generally just to distract ourselves from whatever pain we're feeling at the moment, pain caused by unhappiness that exists around us. To begin truly listening we have to stop and be still. This is the essence of Zen and Tibetan sitting meditation, and Zhan Zhuang standing posture. It could be said that being still is "getting out of the way of the divine." One point to make is that when being still we don't want to numb ourselves to our mind. The goal is to be as comfortable as possible while being still. So many of us can't stand to sit still for any length of time, because it makes us uncomfortable. We hear things we don't want to hear. The truth is this is exactly the direction we have to go to find happiness and open up to the world around us.

3. The Spiritual Level. At this point its really about intention and passion. How much do we want to listen to others instead of ourselves? How much yearning is in our heart to connect with life? We must set the intention of making a space for others in our heart even when we have so much of our own unhappiness. We cannot expect anything in return for this. We set the intention and find the passion within ourselves.

Activities to Practice:
- Dancing, especially Argentine Tango.
- Taijiquan, Aikido, Systema, Yiquan,
- Still Meditation, sitting or standing
- Actually Listening. Sit down with a friend and ask them whats up. Listen to what they say without responding with advice or what you think, just echo back what you heard. "So you're saying..." or simply "yes", "thats true", "you're right", etc.

Good luck out there!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Cure for the Quarter Life Crisis

So you've been out of school for a bit, you're working a real job, and it sucks. There is a sense of disillusionment, a feeling of unhappiness and a lack of meaning.
What to do? The answer is easy: Become more engaged with life. There it is, the secret to everything in just a few words.
What does that mean, more engaged?

We are disengaged from our hearts and from each other. Our culture is one of distraction and avoiding unhappiness - keep buying things, watch TV, surf the internet, listen to music, get drunk, run a marathon.

We're doing all these things for ourselves, to make ourselves happy. This is ultimately a dead-end and why quarter, mid, and whenever-in-life crises happen. We get bored of distracting ourselves and yearn for greater connection.

The real path to a meaningful life is to stop asking "what can I get" and start asking "what can I give". What is going on around us that needs our help? Where can we make an impact or provide support? What is our passion? Maybe our neighbor needs their dog walked. Maybe there is a band we like that needs a website. The possibilities are infinite and things are going on around us all the time, we just have to stop being scared, stop running away, and jump in.

Most of us went to a public school system that trained us to be good factory workers with our lives structured and directed by authorities over us. Our teachers assigned us homework, graded our homework, and the school set class times.
This left many of us with no sense of personal responsibility or childlike curiosity about the world. When we graduated and found ourselves in the working world, we discovered that the situation was entirely reversed: we're supposed to set our own rules, find our passion and follow it.

We must overcome our upbringing and take responsibility for our happiness, for our hearts and our passion. Taking responsibility for ourselves means engaging with ourselves and not relying on anyone else to bring us happiness, whether through romance, sex, employment, or entertainment. As we engage with ourselves, so do we engage with life. Engaging with life deeply and fully will bring meaning and answer all of our questions. We'll feel less regret. Things will make sense. Life will be joyful, and that joy will be real.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Welcome!

Welcome to the American Taoist blog, a forum dedicated to applying the cumulative wisdom of the ages to life in modern society. Topics range from diet and health to exercise, relationships, finances, and spiritual concerns.