“Monkey Mind” is a topic I discuss frequently in the clinic. This is the condition where your mind races from thought to thought, endlessly. It is often associated with high stress levels, and develops because we are having to manage too many things all at once. Our minds, like a juggler, then must bounce from item to item to make sure we are keeping all the balls in the air. Unfortunately, if practiced long enough, it becomes a pattern of thought, and then, even when we should be at rest, our mind continues to bounce around. It can be frustrating and difficult to break this cycle and reign in the mind, but is a task worth attempting.
Like many coping strategies Monkey Mind has a beneficial root, but is harmful when applied inappropriately. Unfortunately, our society’s push to multi-task and social media’s onslaught of stimulus have created an environment which fosters the over-expression of Monkey Mind. Our mind’s ability to process multiple thoughts at once was crucial for our prehistoric, hunter-gatherer ancestors. They needed to be able to look for food, watch for threats, keep track of the weather, and pay attention to the family or clan. Being too focused on food could leave you vulnerable to attack by a predator. Noticing a shift in the weather could mean the difference between life and death. However, this survival strategy has been exaggerated to a destructive point by our technological era. Like our instinct for the sweet flavor (originally found in fruit which offered calories, vitamins and fiber) being high-jacked by candy, soda, and pastries (which have lead modern man to excessive weight gain and disease), our ability to multi-task has been overrun by the electronic age. Social media boasts about the ability to keep people connected, but in reality the more connected people become online the less connected they are to the people around them. In fact, I’m sure we can all think of somebody we know that it is difficult to have a conversation with because they are constantly looking down at their phone or interrupting the conversation with breaking news or some joke or trend that is passed along a social network.
The true crime here is that Monkey Mind robs us of the present. As we bounce around from thought to thought, overthinking the past and worrying about the future, we miss THIS MOMENT. Breaking this destructive habit and learning to live mindfully not only lightens the mental burden but brings with it great peace and joy as we learn to appreciate the present.
Finding the balance point is difficult. Society pressures us to multi-task. Technology was developed to save us time, but as we were able to accomplish more, more was demanded of us. We recognize an out of control Monkey Mind as bad, and at the extreme it is diagnosed as ADD or ADHD, but at the same time there is a push to do more, know more, be faster, and stay connected. Interestingly, there is a lot of good research showing that a great way to treat ADD and ADHD is through time out in nature. Turning that instinct back to its original application can be very helpful. Meditation, too, is a great tool for breaking the overactive mental pattern of Monkey Mind. After all, as the saying goes, “jack of all trades, master of none.” It is hard to do any one thing well if you are doing ten things all at once. Having the mental flexibility to multi-task when necessary, but return to a single-minded focus the rest of the time is crucial.
We are coming into Summer, a time of abundant energy. Yin Yang theory teaches that in the extreme of activity is the seed of stillness. And so, though it is a great time to conquer obstacles and take on projects, it is also a great time to cultivate stillness. If you don’t already meditate, give it a try. Learning to quiet your mind and cultivate a single focus not only frees you from the chaos found in the Monkey Mind, but also allows you to enjoy the world around you. Being connected online disconnects you from the natural world, but connecting to the natural world through meditation builds an awareness and appreciation for the PRESENT.
I’d like to share two recipes this month. Seasonal allergies have been bad this year and so I would like to share this recipe for Chrysanthemum tea which is great for irritated eyes due to allergies. However, the kids and I have recently discovered Almond Macaroons, and they are so much fun, and easy to make that I would like to pass that along too.
Yields about 20 cookies
1 (7oz) box of Odense almond paste
2/3 cup unrefined brown sugar
1 egg white
Optional: dried tart cherries
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Break the almond paste into small pieces and combine with the sugar in a mixing bowl. Mix together until well combined. Then add the egg white and beat on high until the dough is a creamy paste. Drop teaspoonful dollops of the paste onto the parchment paper, and if desired press one of the dried cherries into the top of the dollop. Leave about 2 inches of space between each cookie. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until lightly golden. Cool the cookies on a rack and then carefully peel them off the paper.
Recently I was asked, “how important is your intention in qi gong?” (Qi gong, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is a style of moving meditation similar to tai chi which I practice and teach) The short answer is that it is very important, but allow me to take some time to explain why. If you adopt a mindful approach to life, then your intention becomes like your internal compass. It is the driving force behind what you choose to focus your attention on. It is so important that there are some qi gong forms that are, essentially, setting a positive intention for the day. One of my favorites is a short form which involves some simple deep breathing exercises followed by placing the palms together in front of the chest (in prayer position), bowing slightly, and stating, “I am ready for a full and meaningful life.”
It is remarkable, but simply setting a clear intention for your actions can have a profound effect. We see it in more structured life activities all the time. If you go to a business development workshop you can almost guarantee that they will discuss the importance of having a clearly defined business plan. In the non-profit world, it is all about having a clear mission statement. For self-improvement, experts talk about setting clear goals. Think of it this way; you probably would not hire a guide to take you through the Amazon who did not have a clear idea of where he was going. Setting a clear intention can help you navigate through the ‘jungle’ of daily life.
In qi gong there is a saying, “where the mind goes, the qi will follow.” If you do not take the time to reflect and set a clear intention it is all too easy to get pulled in a hundred different directions at once. This leaves your mind scattered, which as a result divides and distracts your energy. You are then in an overall mentally and physically weakened state, and more likely to make decisions that go against your core beliefs- the type of choices that you later regret and beat yourself up about, asking “why did I do that?” However, a clearly set intention can guide your choices and actions and prevent unnecessary expenditures of energy and willpower.
In fact, what you will find through qi gong practice is that your intention can not only be set, but strengthened. We see this in people who are very persuasive. Their intention is so strong that it can affect others. Qi gong masters are said to have such strong intentions for healing that people will start to recover by simply being in their presence. We may not reach that level of accomplishment, but practicing setting an intention will guide your qi to where you want or need it to go.
The beauty of it all is that modern research is supporting these age old claims. Books like Rick Hanson’s Buddha’s Brain detail out the physiological effects of simple meditation techniques. We don’t need to dive into all the neurochemistry here, but in essence, science has shown that you can rebuild your brain, altering your programming so to speak, and create a happier healthier self through things as easy as setting a positive intention.
For the recipe this month I would like to share Katie’s Risotto. It is Spring and more greens and fresh vegetables are becoming available. But the weather is still cool and so protecting your Yang energy by cooking your vegetables is a good idea.
5 celery stalks
2 cups roasted romaine
1 small head of broccoli
2 sprigs fresh dill
1/2 tsp dried rosemary
2 tbsp coconut oil
3 1/2 cups broth
1/4 cup cream
2 cups rice (or quinoa)
1 cup pecorino
Chop the vegetables and sauté them with the dill and rosemary in the coconut oil until soft. Add the broth and cream and bring to a boil. Add the rice and simmer until cooked (if preparing with quinoa, add the grain with the broth). Salt to taste and garnish with finely grated pecorino.
I was listening to a lovely book on tape about mindfulness as I was traveling to Seattle earlier this month and it mentioned a parable that I love, and think is very powerful. The book, for those of you who are interested was Mind Whispering, by Tara Bennett-Goleman, and the parable is a Native American story that goes as follows: A grandfather explains to his grandson that there are two wolves fighting within his heart. One is aggressive, cruel, and mean spirited. The other is gentle, wise, and compassionate. The grandson then asks, “which one will win?” To which the grandfather replies, “the one I feed.”
I often hear people say things like, “I am who I am”, or “that is just who I am”, but the power and beauty of mindfulness is that we always have the power to choose who we are. As we go through life’s many ups and downs it is all too easy to forget about that choice. Many of us go through our days bouncing from one emotional trigger to another, paying little attention to our mental state, and reacting out of habit to the world. Often frustration arises as we encounter difficulties that we are powerless to change. What we often forget, is that though we may not be able to change the world or people around us, we can always change the way we react to them. And that is how mindfulness can set you free from the emotional turmoil of life.
Of course, that is easier said than done. But our mental state is actually a habit, and like any bad habit, it can be changed if we put in the work. Our bodies and our brains are amazing at conserving energy, and that is how these mental habits form. It takes less energy to respond out of habit than it would to evaluate everything as if it were a first. Unfortunately, the mental habits we develop in our youth are not always the best to carry forward into adult life. But if we don’t realize that we can change the way we respond, we can get trapped in out-dated mental shortcuts.
For example, a child may develop an attitude of indifference as a self-protective mechanism if they are raised with little control over their own life. The indifference protected them from feeling hurt when they had no choice. However, this self-protective attitude can become quite harmful once they age and have the freedom to choose. An indifference toward life can lead to lost opportunities and difficulties with relationships. Or, on the contrary, a perfectionist attitude which could have been very helpful while going through school or early in a career, can lead to negative self-talk or self-imposed stress later in life when goals have been reached and you should be able to enjoy your achievements. The key here is flexibility and adaptability. But the body is good at making habits, not changing them.
In El Salvador there is a saying, “nothing in this world is black or white, it all depends on the lens through which you view it.” Our mental states color the lenses through which we view the world. Our triggers, the things that cause us to suffer, are nothing more than knee-jerk emotional responses to perceptions colored by our mental state. We can break these cycles and dramatically change the way we respond to situations if we free ourselves from these habits. And best of all is that if you work at it long enough your brain will make this mindful approach to life a habit, and it will become easier and easier to do.
Buddhism states that the world is an illusion, and though this is a difficult concept for a materialistic culture to grasp, an understanding of physiology and neurobiology help to support this claim. What science shows is that we don’t see the world around us as it is, we see an image distorted by perception of a limited amount of data. We have a limited range of perception – the narrow band of visible light, a course sense of touch, a limited sense of smell, etc. – and our brain actually spends most of its energy filtering out the information coming in from the senses. It uses the current mental state, and past experiences to prioritize the incoming data and color the images brought to consciousness. You can think of your mental states as different filters, or reporters. The same event viewed through different filters will create different responses. You would not be surprised if you heard that the report given, and the conclusions drawn, by the BBC and Fox News were different even when covering the same event. It is the same within your mind, and just like you can choose which news station to listen to, you can choose which mental state to “feed”.
On closing, I will leave you with another gem I learned from Mind Whispering; What we call mindfulness actually comes from two words meaning ‘attention’ and ‘conscious’. In other words, to practice mindfulness we learn to pay attention to not only the world, but to how we respond to the world, and then we consciously choose our reactions.
It seems I have a lot to say this month. Please see my March 2014 post for some information on detoxing. It is Spring, and energetically, this is the best time of year to go through a detox. As far as a recipe goes. I’d like to share with you something my father showed me. Greens are a great part of a diet, but too many raw greens can be hard to digest, this recipe for caramelized beet greens is a delicious way to get the nutrition while being gentle on digestion.
Caramelized Beet Greens
1 bunch of beet greens
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp unrefined sugar
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp port (or other red wine)
Sea Salt to taste
Clean and chop the greens. Sautee the leaves in butter. Once they have wilted add the vinegar, wine, and sugar. Mix well and simmer until the fluids have thickened.
Add salt to taste.
We have all heard the saying, “birds of a feather flock together.” Or similarly, “the best way to know someone is by seeing the company that he keeps.” But did you know that the same applies to our behaviors?
In Oriental medicine there is another great saying, “as above, so below.” Which means that patterns that are true in nature, are also true within the body. In a recent training I took part in, it was mentioned that behaviors tend to group together. In other words, someone with one good health habit is likely to have or develop other good health habits. Or the contrary, someone with a harmful habit, is less likely to display other healthy habits. Birds of a feather indeed!
The training was about supporting people in their attempts to quit tobacco use. And the statistics gathered showed that if you smoke you are less likely to eat well, less likely to exercise, and not likely to stay well hydrated. You were, on the other hand, more likely to consume excess alcohol, or have poor sleep patterns. These were the so-called groupings of negative behaviors. But as I mentioned above, people who developed a positive habit, such as a good diet, were likely to experience a grouping of other beneficial habits in the near future – such as quitting smoking, starting to exercise, taking vitamins, etc.
The reasons are complex, but neurochemistry and psychology can explain a lot of it. Smoking changes neural pathways and changes the way food tastes, and so healthy food does not taste good to a smoker. But that is a two way street, so if someone who smokes and has a poor diet, changes their diet, it will change the way their cigarettes taste, and therefore can facilitate quitting. It is similar with exercise. Putting a physical demand on the lungs can highlight the damage from toxins and inflammation caused by smoking. A desire to improve physical performance can then become a powerful motivator for quitting smoking. And someone who is committed to exercise will usually turn to good nutrition as well.
So what? That is where psychology comes in. Often we are daunted by large lifestyle changes, but find it easier to commit to small steps. Experiencing success in those small steps then can fuel our motivation to make other changes. And as long as we keep a positive attitude, and accept that there may be bumps in the road but commit to keep moving forward, with the passing of time those large shifts happen naturally, step by step. This, of course, applies to all kinds of behavior changes, not just quitting tobacco.
The take home message then is that there is no shame in ‘baby steps’. If you struggle with illness, but believe that exercising, changing your diet, learning to meditate, and taking vitamins/supplements is an impossible change – that it is just not you – then break it down. Start with one step, and take comfort in the fact that it will make future changes easier. After all, a journey of 1000 miles begins with one step.
This month I would like to share a recipe for Anman – steamed buns filled with adzuki bean paste. It sounds exotic, but are actually quite easy to prepare, and was a lot of fun to do as a family. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
for 10 buns
Ingredients for the paste: 1 1/3 cups adzuki beans, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 tsp salt,
Ingredients for the buns: 1 1/3 cups flour, 3 1/2 tbsp sugar, 3/4 tsp instant yeast, 3/4 tbsp. baking powder, 1 1/3 oz milk, 3 1/3 oz water, 1tbsp butter
For the paste, soak the beans overnight. Bring them to a boil, and then simmer for 10 min. Next, drain the beans and add 4 cups of fresh water. Bring the beans to a boil again and then lower heat to a simmer until they are soft (about an hour). Drain the beans, add the sugar and salt and purée the mixture into a paste. Return to heat until the mixture thickens, then let cool.
For the buns, combine the dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in the milk and water. Finally, add in the butter and knead the dough until it’s smooth, add flour as necessary if the dough is sticky. Let the dough rest for 30 min, then divide the dough into 10 balls. Flatten the balls, put a spoonful of the paste in the center and wrap the dough around it, pinching the edges shut. Let stand for about 15 min, and then steam for about 15 min.
Happy New Year every one. It is the time of resolutions. Hopefully you have found the resolve to stick with your choice, what ever it was. But many of you are probably finding that changing behavior can be very challenging. In fact, one study that I found through a quick Google search states that only 8% of people are successful with their resolutions.
I recently completed a course in how to help people quit tobacco use, and because, at its root, quitting tobacco use has largely to do with changing behavior there were lots of things mentioned in the course that are applicable to anyone trying to make a positive change in their lives. And so, I would like to share a couple of the facts that stood out to me.
The first is that lasting change rarely happens overnight. The idea of quitting “cold turkey” is nice, however, it is usually a build up of influences over months, years, or even a life time that culminate in that final lasting decision. A closely related point is that perseverance is the key. Habits are hard to break, so don’t be hard on yourself if you have a set back, and don’t give up. As the martial arts saying goes, “fall down seven times, get up eight times.” But the tidbit that resonated most with me is that most people require multiple motivators. We don’t change our habits for a single reason, and the reasons that motivate me might be completely different from what motivates you.
This stood out to me because of a recent conversation I had with my parents about eating organic. Years ago when I first talked to my parents about the benefits of eating organic foods they humored me, but it was obvious that they were not buying it. I could talk until I was blue in the face about avoiding chemicals and getting more nutrients, but that was not a priority for them. Time went by and my siblings moved out of the house and my parents had time to grow a garden again. That is when they noticed that the food they raised in the garden tasted much better than what they got at the store. Then they visited us and found that the organic produce we bought tasted as good as their garden grown produce. They did not mention it at the time. Some months passed and I had a conversation with my mom over the phone. We love sharing recipes, and I teased her asking if she was using organic tomatoes. To my surprise she said yes, that they were eating mostly organic, and that after staying with us they were also trying to get their meat from organic grass-fed sources. I was shocked, and asked what brought them around. She said it was the taste- the meat and the produce tasted so much better to them when it was organic. To me the good taste was an added bonus and the health benefits were the motivator, but to my parents it was the other way around.
And so the key is to find what motivates and resonates with you. Don’t rely on what motivates others. For eating a good diet (whole food, mostly plant, organic when possible) there are many motivators to choose from: better flavor, more vitality, stronger immune system, decreasing risk of chronic disease, protecting DNA from free radical damage, longevity, beauty, and supporting local and sustainable farming practices just to name a few.
May your 2015 be filled with happiness and prosperity, and may you see success in your resolutions (especially if it was to be healthier this year).
Brocco Loco Salad:
A well balanced diet includes a combination of both fresh and cooked foods. However, during the Winter it is not advisable to eat much raw food. This is a Winter suitable salad because the blanching and canning of the vegetables counteracts their otherwise cold nature. I created this salad on a whim, but my family loved it. I hope you do too. Just remember, that if you are using canned goods, choose the organic and BPA free options when available.
1 lg head of Broccoli,
1 can lima beans,
1 can baby corn,
2 slices bacon,
1/2 cup mayonnaise,
1/2 cup grated mizithra cheese,
Sea Salt to taste
Blanche the broccoli, then cut into small pieces. Cook the bacon until crispy and then crumble. Drain the beans and corn. Chop the baby corn into small pieces. In a large bowl mix together all the ingredients. Add salt to taste.
We had a nearly tragic experience a couple of days ago. Thankfully, it all turned out okay, but there was possibility for horrific outcomes. The morning started out well; we were decorating the house with the kids, getting ready for Christmas. The kids got chilly when we hung the outdoor lights and requested a fire when we came back in. We enjoyed the fire and let it run its course. The house got smoky and so we opened some windows and aired it out a bit. So far nothing out of the ordinary. Then, as we were getting ready for bed, our carbon monoxide alarm went off. At first, I thought it must be malfunctioning because of the smoke, so we hit the reset button, but within a couple of minutes it went off again. We opened the windows and aired the house out, and still it would go off every couple of minutes. So we decided we had better call the fire department. Sure enough, when they arrived they told us all to get out ASAP, that the CO levels in the house were very high! We stayed in our neighbor’s house as they thoroughly aired the house out. In the end, it all turned out well, with an adventure for the kids and nothing but a late bed time as the consequence. Thank God we listened to the warning!
As a clinician, this experience got me thinking. How many warning signs in our bodies do we ignore? Our adventure turned out well because we reacted to the warning in time, and the experts remedied the situation quickly and efficiently. If we would have delayed, things could easily have gotten much worse. But when it comes to our health, we often do not react as quickly. In fact, we often ignore, or are completely oblivious to the warning signs we get. For example, most people do not address the cause of headaches, heart burn, or high blood pressure, they just mask it with Advil, acid blockers, or diuretics. But these and many other symptoms are truly our bodies warnings. And if we address them early on, they can usually be resolved. However, when we put them off and ignore them, the underlying imbalance spreads and worsens to the point that eventually treatment can become very difficult, or even impossible. Let’s take the headache example. Tension in the neck and shoulders is a common cause of headaches, and is relatively easy to treat. But neck tension left untreated can lead to injury, arthritic changes, degenerative disk disease, and even dementia because of the negative effect chronic tension has on circulation through the neck and brain. Dementia and degenerative disk disease are much more difficult to treat than neck tension, just as airing the house out is much easier than treating someone who has passed out from CO poisoning.
2014 is coming to an end, and the end of the year is a good time to reflect. Take some time to think about your body and your health. Is there a problem area, or ongoing discomfort that could be addressed? Are you on medications? If so, are they treating the cause, or masking the symptoms? If your body is flashing warning signs, it is best to address them, not ignore them. The body is amazingly complex, sometimes the signs are overt, but many times they are subtle. If you are unsure what your body is telling you, seek the advice of a holistic practitioner, like an acupuncturist, who is trained to recognize the body’s language.
The recipe this month is Katie’s invention. It is both seasonal and delicious.
Apple Pumpkin Roast
4 cups cubed pumpkin
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp rosemary
Sea Salt to taste
1 oz soft goat cheese (optional)
Start by removing the seeds and cutting the pumpkin into wedges. Then peel the wedges and cut the pumpkin into about half inch cubes. Cut the apples into cubes as well. In a large bowl toss the pumpkin and apple pieces with the oil and spices. Preheat the oven to 400⁰ F. Spread on a cookie sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin has browned edges, about 45min.
Serve hot, with a side of goat cheese if desired.
I must admit, that until recently I have struggled with the idea of supplementation. One of the big reasons that I switched my life’s path from allopathic medicine to alternative medicine was the fact that I do not like to take medication and felt uncomfortable prescribing them to others. I had held onto a belief that we should be able to get all we need from our diet. And though logically I knew that in many cases it is impossible, or at least impractical, to get a therapeutic dose of nutrients from our food, internally supplementation still felt unnatural.
However, that all changed recently after watching a documentary with my family. The Life of Mammals by David Attenborogh was fascinating. It has amazing footage and equally impressive information. But the thing that impressed me most was the episode that showed the challenges many herbivores face with their diet, and the lengths to which they will go to supplement it. For example, African elephants cannot get enough minerals in their diet and so will travel great distances and enter caves at night to literally mine salts. Also, warthogs and many other rainforest animals who consume leaves with a high toxic load will go to great lengths to find specific mud wallows. Consuming the mineral rich mud from these specific wallows allows them to eliminate (or as we call it, detox) the harmful chemicals from their system. My son then told me that he watched another program which showed that Orangutans will chew specific leaves and then rub the pulp into their muscles after a long day of swinging through the jungle!
One of the basic teachings of Taoist medicine is to learn from the wisdom of the natural world. It baffles me to consider how the first elephant would have decided to mine for salts, or how creatures of the rainforest leaned that they could survive on a diet of toxic leaves as long as they detoxed with minerals, but the precedent in nature for supplementation is obvious. If animals go to such lengths to supplement their diet for nutrient sufficiency and detoxification, then why not us?
Unfortunately, the media does not make the decision to supplement easy. We are constantly bombarded with new “miracle” supplements, or contradictory reports about the safety or efficacy of supplements. If you are curious about supplements for specific conditions the best thing to do is to speak with someone who has studied natural medicine, but there are certain things that are safe and recommended for everyone. A good quality multi-vitamin/mineral, fish-oil, and vitamin D make a great basic platform that anyone can benefit from. Because we are exposed to higher concentrations of toxic halides and radioactive waste than ever before, I think adding Iodine to this basic platform is also recommended. It is important to specify ‘good quality’ because, unfortunately, not all supplements are safe, and cheaper brands are often full of fillers or emulsifiers, or may not have the concentrations of nutrients advertised on their labels.
Please let me know if you have questions on why these supplements are recommended, and I hope this post has helped you understand that supplementation is a very natural thing to do.
This month I would like to share a Pho recipe. Because it uses marrow bones it is rich in nutrients and minerals, and because it also has aromatic herbs such as star anise and ginger it is especially seasonally appropriate for the fall. Enjoy, I know we are!
Pho-Style Spaghetti Squash:
1 spaghetti squash
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 soup bones
4 cloves garlic
5 slices ginger
1 Tbsp sea salt
2 pods star anise
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Yukon gold potatoes
1 cup mushrooms
1/2 cup watercress
1 1/2 cups bean sprouts
1/2 cup green onion chopped
1 bunch Thai basil
1 lime cut in quarters
Finely chop the onion and mince the garlic. Simmer in a slow cooker with the soup bones, ginger, salt, star anise, Worcestershire sauce, and fish sauce.
An hour before serving, thinly slice the carrots, potatoes, and mushrooms and add them to the broth. Cut the squash in half, drizzle with olive oil, and bake at 350⁰ for 45 min, or until squash separates easily with a fork.
In each bowl serve the squash and top with the thinly sliced raw sirloin. Pour the boiling broth over the meat and top with desired garnishes.