Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Personal Diet

I occasionally get asked what my day to day diet is like. I did some postings of various meals that I made for myself on another blog, but felt it would be good to also do it here, using the comments section to add some of my meals as I make them for a while, and to include recipes when possible.

Having stated this intention, I would like to share a few disclaimers. One is that I am definitely an explorer who is very much in a learning process about the role of diet in the spiritual life. My opinions are going to change from time to time, probably not drastically, but it a way that shows some fine tuning and evolution in understanding.

I started out with the usual American diet, with lots of steak, potatoes, and some overboiled veggies on the side, occasional Chinese stir fried dishes, some Mexican food (or the American re-styling of this genre ala fast food), and occasionally some burgers and fries. Some salads would figure into the equation, but it was mostly an optional garnish and was not taken as a serious source of nutrition. There were some soups every now and then, too, with ever increasing amounts of MSG (monosodium glutamate) that no one really knew was frying the brains of people and causing a number of mental illnesses, later to be classified as an "excito-toxin", increasing the speed that electrons crossed the synaptic gaps.

During that time I had severe allergies, especially to grass pollen and cat dander. The general feeling about allergies was that it was something you had or not had, that it was genetic or inherited, and that you could not do much besides take allergy pills. I just mainly lived with it. I got periodic sinus headaches with them and took aspirin, and spent one night in particular struggling to breathe each breath, not knowing whether I was going to live out the night and see the next morning. I got into a concentration about breathing then and was, after a long time, about to resume normal breathing and fall peacefully asleep.

In college, I decided to become vegetarian. It was not for dietary reasons, but for compassion for animals. The inspiration came from my studies, in a college class called "History of American Theology". I had chosen to study the Quakers and John Woolman in particular, and wrote an essay about his walkabout across the US at that time when he was alive. I decided to meditate Quaker style and found, like Woolman, a prompting from within to become vegetarian. Every time I thought of becoming vegetarian, a gentle joy waves through me. After a month of these wavings through, I surrendered to the impulse and made it into a decision. I was taking "Ethics" in philosophy that year also and going into the various ethical issues that are still hot topics in the world. My professor and later friend was not quite vegetarian himself, but had leanings in this direction and was reducing his intake. I went cold turkey and failed miserably. My body did not react well to the change. After only 3 days, I ate a steak and felt a little defeated in my purpose.

But life has a way of helping us out, a pastor gave me a copy of RECIPES FOR A SMALL PLANET, and I was able to make decent and tasty vegetarian meals for myself. I was still lacto-ovo vegetarian, since I was mainly into not killing animals for food. I transitioned in smaller stages for six months, first not buying any dead cow meat or chicken meat a month, then not eating any at restuarants the next month, and then not eating at friend's houses the next month, and then doing the same thing for fish for the next three months. This more gradual transition worked.

About two years into being vegetarian, I noticed that my allergies had weakened considerably and some people even remarked that I had a glow of health, something that in my previous days as a carnivore never happened. About four more years later, I dropped eggs. Or actually my body decided it did not like eggs anymore and spontaneously threw them up. Perhaps it was a bad egg, but I got that it was a signal that my body was changing and did not want eggs anymore. This rang true in the next two years.

I was reducing my dairy fairly rapidly after this and was near vegan, having only the casein in soy cheese and some yogurt as my only two dairy sources, with some occasional "sneak ins" of Parmesan cheese in some tomato sauces when I would go to an Italian restuarant and the chef did not get the request right. It was not that they would deliberately put in cheese, but that sometimes it was already sprinkled in while making the sauces and then forgotten. This phase ended when I was in deep retreat up on the coast of Oregon and realized that I had accidentally crossed the line into being completely vegan, so I decided to stay that way. I found that my allergies reduced to almost zero from this and from some emotional processing that I found in a Reiki book that I was reading. My eyes still itch and sometimes get red during the peak of hayfever season, and sometimes I occasionally sneeze. When I was a carnivore, I would go through boxes of allergy pills. When I was lacto-ovo vegetarian, I would only use about 10 tablets a year. When I was vegan, it might be one tab. After having gone through a year and quarter eating raw food only, it is down to zero tablets. I am not into raw food only now, because I feel that legumes are better cooked for me and my body likes a little occasional rice. But I do recommend that people try about 3 to 5 months raw food diet (at the right time) just for the cleansing it does. When you feel strong protein cravings, it is a signal that the cleansing time is complete. I interviewed a lot of raw foodists and found that they hit a specific protein craving at roughly the 3 to 5 month zone. They usually, at that time, ate too many almonds and got sick.

I did learn not to overcook food after my raw food phase. I take more care to preserve the enzymes that are usually lost in cooking and also keep a certain percentage of raw food and raw smoothies in my diet. It is somewhere between 50 percent and 70 percent, more raw in the summer, and less in the winter. I love raw pea soup and regular cooked soups. It seems that having that much water in the food is helpful to digestion.

In the biography of Milarepa, the great yogi saint mentions getting lots of energy from having had nettles soup mixed with a little barley flour. It surged through his system and helped more kundalini energy through him. He had gotten the barley four as a gift from a hunter who thought his diet was weak in some carbs (he did not quite put it that way). Apparently his body was muscle glycogen starved and surged back into life after getting some. Milarepa did not forget this dramatic shift and made a note to himself that diet was an important factor on the spiritual path. I liked how Milarepa did maintain the attitude of a scientist and kept learning from his own experience. His conclusion rang true to me.

My first experiences with herbal medicine was through two events. One was getting some Celestial Seasonings Sleepy Time Tea and feeling it literally knock me out. A friend of mine in college gave the tea but warned me that it might make my already tired body want to sleep even more. I remember saying that something about that it was only a bunch of herbs and would probably be too mild to do that. I was wrong. The other event was my getting very sick in graduate school and had to not go to classes for two weeks. I was in a fever, trying to wait out the illness, and was not getting any better. After two weeks, a friend dropped by and asked if I wanted to go out from some Chinese food. I figured that I could be sick anywhere and that at least I could get some food. I was not particularly hungry, but my friend was willing to split a stir fry with me and that was enough. The waitress was a friend of mine, who apparently noticed that I was coming more to life when I drank some of their Oolong tea and kept filling the pot. I drank 50 cups and was feeling better and better. I went to sleep well that night and woke up feeling so well that it seemed as if I was never sick. Going from a fever that never left to a wellness with no linger signs of illness in about 10 hours felt like a miracle. I explain it better now. I was getting hydrated. I was getting a caffeine boost that jump started my immune system. I was getting a ton of antioxidants. And I was getting natural antibiotics from the fermented products inside the Oolong tea. Oolong, unlike the regular green tea that it is made from, it fermented. The bacteria that cause fermentation always secrete their own antibiotics to take over their space and claim it. In the process they often transform a lot of the acids into medicinal compounds. Then there is theanine to jump start the dopamine and polyphenols that clear up "brain rust". But like Milarepa's experience, I did not forget my entry into the world of herbs and diet for healing.

Since then I have been experimenting more and more with herbs and especially herbal teas for healing, and even herbal teas for nutrition. I find that it only takes a little tweak to prepare cooked food as if it were a herbal preparation, adding spices, not for flavor only, but for medicinal considerations. It is no accident that many old style Chinese cooks will saute onions, garlic, turmeric, and ginger in oil as a preparation for a stir fry. The antioxidants in ginger and turmeric help the oil to not degrade (low heat helps too, when stir frying only veggies, you do not need as much heat as you would with animal flesh). All the spices are really medicinal herbs. There is a Chinese saying that goes, "Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food" that summarizes this kind of consciousness.

I also do read a lot of western medical stuff on diet. Our biochemical and physiological understanding has grown a lot. But the approach lacks the order of Aryurvedic and Tibetan healing knowledge. As a result, the medical data does not form a unified whole in the minds of people and is less of a guide for people. When you grok the Aryurvedic system, then the data falls into place more readily and supports the aims of the old rishis. I had to learn the harder path of trying out a lot of diets that were based on partial knowledge, like the Pritikin diet, the Macrobiotic diet, the high protein diet, and the gluten free diet. Most of their knowledge did get integrated into a larger picture. I learned something valuable from each of them, but some, like the high protein and the Pritikin were too unbalanced for the long term. It seems that balance and proportion are valuable keys to right diet. What goes against this is "addictive craving" which only cares to eat "comfort food" and "pleasure food". While food is meant to be pleasurable and comforting to eat, it needs to be primarily nutritional and medicinal. If this focus is not maintained, then one will never eat in balance. One will eat too much and not enough of the right things, and this indulgent way of eating does kill people or at least stresses people, ages them, and hurts them. Our diet is meant to be a support for our lives and not an adverse factor we are supposed to survive.