What We Need to Thrive: A braided essay

Part 1

Last night I opened a crock of kraut-chi and scooped out some fermented veggies to add to my dinner plate. As I looked into the crock of fermenting vegetables: cabbage, carrots, daikon radish, onion, ginger and hot peppers, I thought of something uplifting: Fermenting vegetables are like so many things in life—what we need to thrive is right there if we can only recognize it. At times when I become overwhelmed by the plague of problems we face from declining health to far reaching issues of species extinction and climate change, I will strive to remember this.kraut ingredients2

Food is important to me. I grew up in a household where preparing and serving food was a creative act bonding the family together. Holidays were celebrated around a table overflowing with family recipes. I actively began growing my own vegetables at eighteen and went on to study organic horticulture, taught apprentices the art and science of organic gardening, then moved to the mid-west as a newlywed to start an organic market garden. After getting breast cancer in the late 1990’s I became fanatical about my diet. I remember eating lots of soy products like tofu, miso, and tempeh because nutritionists claimed that soy was a wonder food, rich in phytoestrogens.

But then soy foods were everywhere. I became skeptical when my parents started buying processed foods like soymilk, soy-butter, and soy-nutritional bars. All that processed food seemed too fake, even if it was soy. Finally I settled on a diet based mostly on vegetables, grains and beans with small amounts of dairy and rare occasions of meat. Coffee and chocolate—not always in moderate amounts— rounded out the diet. I decided this was good enough and turned my attention to sufficient exercise, deepening my meditation practice, and developing other healthy habits.

About ten years later Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food: An eater’s manifesto spelled out what I intuitively knew. Nutritional science is used to deconstruct food to components and then to market food substances that have ingredients added or deleted. We are bombarded with health alerts about good food and bad food according to nutritional studies. When a food is determined to be bad, the industry develops a food product with a lower fat content or a higher fiber content. Now it seems many people suffer from a myriad of health issues stemming from chronic low-grade inflammation. New research points to a culprit, the industrial food complex.kraut bowls

Diets based on industrial food—those products from the grocery store that as Michael Pollen says “Your grandmothers’ wouldn’t recognize as food”—change the microflora of our digestive track that can lead to disease. One way to address this is a return to real whole foods. Another is to eat fermented foods like yoghurt and sauerkraut. People around the world have always included fermented foods in their diet, primarily because it is an easy way to preserve food. Now research shows these foods reinforce the healthy microflora of our digestive system.

Since I don’t own a cow, but have grown lots of cabbage, sauerkraut was a natural choice for making fermented foods. An Asian version is kimchi. A hybrid called kraut-chi, is my favorite sauerkraut with added vegetables and spices. Unlike yoghurt or bread, there is no need to add a starter. Just provide the right conditions: no oxygen, dark coolness, and a little salt and the healthy bacteria lying dormant on the cabbage grow.kraut pot

Part 2

Stillness. I remember a moment from my teens. It was an early spring, and the snow was finally gone. My father sat beaming in a lawn chair with eyes closed, face uplifted to the cold midday sun of early spring. I could see him from the upstairs window as I dusted one of the bedrooms, doing my Saturday chores. I opened the window and called out, “Looks nice out there.”

“Jeanmarie, come sit beside me, feel the sun.”

Together we sat in silence. The heat from the asphalt driveway warmed me and I could smell dried pine needles. My father’s ability to be transported by the vast silences within nature and his willingness to share that stillness was a value I easily resonated with. This is the ninth anniversary of his death and I am acutely aware of my loss. Being content with what is, finding joy in the simplest pleasures, these are gifts I received from my father. From him I learned I could get high listening to music on the radio, or by savoring the wild beauty of the crashing surf. Neurobiologists are finding that through simple practices we can utilize these moments to help us overcome negative thought patterns.

This cutting edge research is a long way from mainstream medicine. Neurobiologists use MRI and other technology to confirm how our thoughts have the power to influence our health. Stress-reduction meditation exercises are nothing new, but now studies are documenting how mindfulness practices can decrease depression. Participants report an increased sense of connection to something larger than oneself. Many researchers exploring mind-body medicine are themselves interested in the connection to the spiritual realm, especially Buddhism.

Buddhist teachings are more a practical psychology than a set of religious beliefs that define a cosmology. What we think of as the Buddhist religion is the overlay of rituals and beliefs added over the last 2,500 years. As ancient Buddhism spread to different countries, people attracted to the teachings adapted it to their indigenous beliefs, thus it blossomed into Vajrayana in Tibet; Theravada in Southeast Asia; and Mahayana in China, Korea and in Japan, where it is known as Zen. The Buddha wasn’t interested in questions of what happens after we die, or determining who created the universe or in describing God; instead he wanted to show people a way to be content. In the west today this stripped down version is often described as Buddhist Psychology.

When I was 19 years old I lived for nine months at the Lama Foundation, an eclectic spiritual community in the Rocky Mountains of northern New Mexico. When I lived there in 1978 people embraced different spiritual paths—from Hindus to born-again-Christians, as well as strict Muslims. The Lama Foundation hosted retreats of spiritual teachers that would draw hundreds of participants. I worked in the garden and the kitchen. The retreat that changed my life was taught by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, teachers credited with bringing Vipassana meditation to the West. During the 10-day retreat I learned a practice that has stayed with me for 40 years.

One of my favorite neurobiologists is Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain. By studying parts of the brain that are activated by different experiences and responses, Hanson researches the underlying neural causes of discontent and happiness. He has tapped into the brains of Buddhist monks and long-term Buddhist practitioners to determine what part of the brain is active during deep contentment. From there he has gone on to show how we can work with the brain’s neuroplasticity and take charge of restructuring it.

It is not just a matter of simplistic positive thinking that involves ignoring what we don’t like, but noting where our attention is. By listening to our internal dialog, it is possible to notice when our attention strays from the present. These gaps in attention get filled with discontent, confusion, and grasping or pushing away an experience. We can be triggered by an experience and become fearful or angry and then go on to weave stories about the experience that escalate the discontent. We can fill up our lives with this negative bias. In fact, the negative reactivity was a survival mechanism that humans evolved for survival. Many people have a tendency to scan their environment for potential negative situations. Most of us have “Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity.” Hanson suggests a technique for rewiring our brains called HEAL.

H – Have a positive experience.

E – Enrich it. Savor it for 10-30 seconds.

A – Absorb it. Imagine the experience like soaking up the sunshine, or install it in the brain. Practice deeply and regularly for lasting change.

L ­– Link to replace negative thoughts. Remember one of these positive experiences in the midst of negative thoughts and replace it with a sense of well-being.

Hansen suggests that this practice can create a sense of core needs already being met. This procedure can target sections of the brain with the mental activity and deliberately stimulate neurons to rewire and eventually change the brain.

Part 3

Lately I’ve been haunted by a chilling photograph of Chinese agricultural workers in a pear orchard. They are poised on branches of the fruit trees, hand-pollinating the blossoms, because the natural pollinators have been wiped out. In order to have fruit, people in that area must do the work of bees. Is this our future?

Many gardeners are familiar with the plight of European honeybees. Colony Collapse Disorder happens when adult bees leave the hive en masse. Although this problem has stabilized, in the winter of 2012 -2013, US beekeepers on average lost 45% of their hives from a myriad of problems. Many nurseries sell perennial flowers (even ones sold to attract pollinators) that have been doused with a lethal pesticide called neonicotinoides. Petitions are circulating demanding that Lowes, Home Depot and other chain nurseries change these toxic practices.

The forgotten pollinators are essential contributors to human well-being. Many of our food crops require insect pollinators to move pollen from the male flower parts to the female part. The pollinators are often rewarded with nutrient-rich nectar. Insects and flowering plants co-evolved together; a fascinating story of mutual benefits.

For now our gardens have enough wild pollinators to ensure healthy crop production. The good news is there are 4,000 species of native bees in North America. More than 50 species have been recorded in agricultural fields of tomatoes, watermelon, and sunflower.

I love watching pollinators as they work the flowers; I find almost as much joy watching them as I do bird-watching. Think of it as mini-wildlife watching. The lives of insects are on full display for the patient observer. Over the years I have observed predator-prey relationships, insects mating and laying eggs. To an insect, the multi-head flowers of yarrow or angelica are virtual fields of blossoms. With a hand lens I have watched butterflies unfurl siphon-hose tongues when they land on a flower (the taste-buds on their feet can recognize a nectar source.)

Just like we have landscapes to attract birds, we can encourage the native pollinators. Non-toxic gardens are the most important.

Specific practices include:

  • Planting native wildflowers and common herbs for a profusion of blooms,
  • Eliminating pesticide use including botanical insecticides,
  • Allowing the margins of the garden to remain undisturbed natural habitat, for nesting sites including tall grass and weeds, brush piles, logs and bare soil.

It is easy for me to be overwhelmed by the destruction of the planet. Finding a way to move forward has been a general motivation for all I’m doing with my life—maybe it’s the generation I was born into, maybe it’s my father’s influence.

Just yesterday I took some photos of an Italian prune plum, one of the first trees to bloom this spring. As I angled for a good shot, I noticed several kinds of bees and even some flies buzzing the flowers. I savored each moment, consciously holding the experience a little longer than normal. After about six photos I decided I had what I needed. The blue sky behind the white blossoms was an essential part. I downloaded the digital photos and adjusted them before posting on Facebook. I studied each one to select my choice. Throughout the last 24 hours, when I have been plagued by mourning and doubts, I brought to mind the image of hope and well being of the plum in bloom, exercising my neurons. I can imagine my father smiling and marveling at the interconnections and beauty.

When we practice healthy ways of being for body, mind and spirit, we naturally develop a sense of composure, fertile ground for healthy habits. These habits in turn help us align our values in a way that promotes greater presence, a sense of place where we share the planet.