Meditation & Health #4 – Modern Health Challenges Ancient Health Wisdom
Modern Health Challenges Ancient Health Wisdom
By Melia McClure
The Obesity Epidemic
Between 1984 and 1994, Americans collectively gained more than a billion pounds.
No, that’s not a misprint. Not a million – a billion pounds.
We are now at an unprecedented crisis point with regard to global human health. For the first time in history, excess weight and obesity have surpassed undernourishment as the world’s chief food and nutrition challenge. In the United States, overweight and its attendant diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, have reached epidemic proportions. According to Jeannette R. Ickovics, Ph.D., Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health, and of Psychology, at the Yale School of Public Health, and Director of Community Alliance for Research & Engagement, also at Yale University, more than half of adults and one-third of children are currently overweight or obese.
“The average portion of meat or fish should be no bigger than a deck of cards,” said Dr. Ickovics, commenting on the tendency of Americans to supersize meals.
Our food environment has altered dramatically in recent decades, and the change in the way that a substantial segment of the population eats is responsible for the drastic increase in collective weight and the decline in overall wellness.
“When you really look over the last three decades to try to see how body weight has changed, what you see is that things are really quite steady for a very long time and then through the eighties and nineties you just see this rapid increase in the prevalence of obesity across the country,” said Marlene B. Schwartz, Ph.D., Deputy Director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
The two most influential factors that separate us from our hunter-gatherer past are the dominance of junk food in the modern diet, and the absence of work required in procuring something to eat.
“We can now get food with virtually no work,” said Dr. Schwartz. “You can pick up the phone and order a pizza, and get a huge number of calories after expending virtually no calories at all.”
In addition to a dearth of regular exercise, a dearth of regular access to affordable health food is a modern-day plague. More than 13 million Americans presently live in what have come to be known as “food deserts,” cities and towns where stores selling nutritious fare are nearly or totally absent. Such places are also known as “food swamps,” a term that describes areas choking with fast food restaurants and corner stores selling sugary, trans-fatty, chemical-laden junk food and drinks. Frequent ingestion of such toxic faux-food slowly poisons the body and creates an addictive biological response – people begin to crave sugar and processed fare, and lose their natural sense of satiety. And in keeping with the fact that many people are unable to tell when they are full, there is a perception that quantity – not quality – is indicative of good value for money. Corporate junk food producers, through the medium of advertising, are partly responsible for creating this perception. Young people are often the intended target of ads trumpeting the appeal of unhealthy food and drink, and vending machines offering up processed snacks and soda have become ubiquitous in schools.
“These companies are remarkable for reaching kids without parental awareness,” said Dr. Ickovics. “The public should be angry.”
Obesity-related health problems now account for one-third of healthcare costs in the United States. If current patterns continue, some studies indicate that before the middle of the 21st century, nearly all American adults will be overweight or obese, and the incidence of childhood obesity will double. The financial drain on the healthcare system could also double – every decade.
The picture is dire, but it is also reversible. Tapping into ancient dietary and lifestyle wisdom, and returning to the guidance of Mother Nature – which includes our own bodies – is essential to reclaiming collective wellness. And it is as simple as making holistically beneficial, moment-by-moment choices.
As Dr. Ickovics said, “Small changes can make a big impact.”
Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Diet
Everything is energy, including our body and all foods. Everything emits a vibration. To help keep one’s vibration high, eat high-vibration foods: whole, organic, local and seasonal, prepared and eaten calmly and mindfully. As mentioned, many people have difficulty accessing fresh, healthful food, but community initiatives are springing up to address the crisis, and to educate young people about the importance of good nutrition and its connection to the health of the environment. One such initiative is Common Ground, a charter school located in Connecticut that focuses on environmental education. Though situated in an urban setting, Common Ground boasts a working organic farm, through which it teaches students and the community about holistic nutrition and urban sustainability.
“We have several classes that focus on food and agriculture where we get the students to think about what the impacts of their food choices are….the environmental impacts, the health impacts and…the social impacts of the choices that they make with regard to food,” said Melissa Spear, Common Ground’s Executive Director. “It’s important to us not just to make our food accessible, but to really work on a statewide and region-wide level to try to fix a broken food system that makes it very difficult to access locally grown, healthy foods.”
Many of us can choose to create our own initiative on behalf of our health, the health of our families and the wellbeing of the planet. Organically grown whole foods are encoded with the wisdom and naturally high vibration of Mother Nature, and therefore harmonize with the human body and promote environmental sustainability, whereas processed fare emits a damaged vibration that is foreign and toxic to the body. Eating foods that are local and seasonal ensures that one’s diet is attuned to one’s bio-rhythms – the body is rhythmic and deeply connected to the seasons. Those that live in a four-season climate should bear in mind that during the colder months, when the body is focused on staying warm, winter foods such as root vegetables help to generate heat; during the summertime, when cooling is a priority, cool watery foods like cucumber help to facilitate balance. Always consider climate when making food choices.
According to Grandmaster JinBodhi, each and every food carries its own unique energy, and we are able to generally categorize foods according to their intrinsic energetic nature. Foods of hot property produce masculine, yang energy in the body, while those of cold property produce feminine, yin energy. Wine and spirits, for example, are of hot property, thus they generate an eruptive, forceful energy. Conversely, water, being of cool property, creates calming feminine energy. Most meats are hot, while most vegetables are cool. Too much or too little of one type of energy contributes to physical and emotional imbalance, and therefore a holistically harmonizing diet must consist of a variety of energies and elements.
The Inner Canon of Yellow Emperor, an ancient Chinese medical text, states, “In the past, people practiced the Tao, the Way of Life. They understood the principle of balance as represented by the transformations of the energies of the universe. They formulated exercises to promote energy flow to harmonize themselves within the universe. They ate a balanced diet at regular times, arose and retired at regular hours, avoided overstressing their bodies and minds, and refrained from overindulgence of all kinds. They maintained wellbeing of body and mind; thus, it is not surprising that they lived over 100 years.” Classical Chinese philosophy divides body constitution and temperament into five categories: metal, wood, fire, earth and water. Specific physiological systems are ruled by one of the five elements: Wood governs the liver and gallbladder; fire energy infuses the heart, pericardium and small intestine; metal rules the lungs and large intestine; and water energy governs the kidneys and bladder. The five-element theory serves to generalize the functional properties of the body, and to demonstrate the laws and relationships enacted both within the human form – a microcosm of the natural world – and in the environment. Just as there is a constant interplay between the elements in Nature, one nourishing or shaping another, so it is within the body: For example, the kidneys, a water element organ, nourish the liver, a wood element organ, and therefore if the kidneys are compromised by a destructive influence such as chronic fear, the liver will suffer.
Traditional Chinese Medicine also describes the condition of bodily constitution using words such as excessive, deficient, heat, cold, damp, dry, and so forth. Although it may not be possible to completely understand our individual bodily state without professional guidance or copious study, it is possible to listen to the voice of the body more carefully.
“The way of health is the way of balance,” teaches Grandmaster JinBodhi. “A person should eat food that complements his or her body constitution. If your basic body constitution is hot, then you should eat more vegetables and drink cooling soups. If a person of hot constitution eats a lot of peanuts or cashews, they might suffer constipation or develop acne, because nuts are of hot property. We should tune in to our body constitution and choose our foods accordingly.”
By tuning in to our uniqueness, as well as to the varying energies carried by foods, it is possible to nourish the self on a deeper level than that facilitated by simply breaking down a food chemically into the categories of fat, carbohydrate, protein and calories. The body is infinitely wiser and more complex than the latter approach is capable of addressing, and tapping into ancient wisdom is a far more sustainable way of achieving a healthy weight and overall wellness than any fad diet. Eating wisely means eating to nourish our lifeforce – our Qi – rather than treating the body like a machine that requires set amounts of calories and nutrients. And nourishing Qi begins with maintaining emotional tranquility. The following basic steps will help you to incorporate ancient wisdom into your daily diet.
1.Grandmaster JinBodhi teaches that negative emotions directly impact our health; hence, one of the primary goals of Bodhi Meditation is to restore health through restoring emotional equilibrium. Traditional Chinese Medicine agrees, teaching us that worry damages Qi. Damaged Qi manifests as impaired digestion, in addition to, as aforementioned, diminished function of major organs. Chronic worry is a huge part of most people’s lives, and worry about food and its impact on appearance in particular is a hallmark neurosis of Western culture. Treating both food preparation and eating as simple celebrations of gratitude is key to opening the body to receive sustenance. We begin to produce digestive enzymes as soon as we see and smell food, and being in a state of appreciation and enjoyment is an essential yin energy aspect to helping along the physical process of digestion. According to Grandmaster JinBodhi, we will not receive the full benefits of even very nutritious food in the absence of a positive mood. Conversely, love and joy are highly nutritious, as the famous Cantonese saying, “When two people are in love, even drinking water will make them feel full,” attests. By the same token, Grandmaster JinBodhi advises filling a container with drinking water and allowing it to settle for a day or two in a calm, happy environment, such as a kitchen or family room where family and friends gather to chat and laugh. Water, like everything else, is energy and it is influenced by the energy around it, a truth that has been compellingly explored by Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto, author of the groundbreaking work The Hidden Messages in Water. Therefore, drinking water that has been allowed to settle in an atmosphere of enjoyment and appreciation offers us enhanced benefits. Remember, though, not to overdo liquids at mealtime, so as to prevent the dilution of digestive juices.
2.An awareness of quantity and timing is critical to the facilitation of good digestion. A traditional Chinese maxim addresses this: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a merchant and supper like a pauper.” Digestive fire is strongest in the morning, diminishing throughout the day. Grandmaster JinBodhi has said: “A full belly in the evening can lead to ravenous feelings of hunger in the morning, since the stomach is stretched out and it feels empty. And if you again fill this stretched stomach with food, you’ll end up eating more than your body actually needs. Some people don’t have time to eat a good breakfast or lunch, and so they feel they have to eat a big dinner to compensate their body. This lifestyle has caused a lot of Westerners to put on weight. Feeling in need of a big dinner indicates some psychological imbalance, an emotional longing that remains unsatisfied. And going to bed right after eating is not good for our health. It can cause weight gain, fatty liver, fat accumulation around the heart, snoring, etc. It can even cause the sudden stoppage of the heart.” An awareness of timing extends to taking into account the rhythm of the seasons. Again, eating seasonally, which means consuming more locally-grown cooling foods, such as green vegetables, in the spring and summer and heartier, warming foods, such as soups and stews, in the autumn and winter, is a significant part of grounding the body in the wisdom of Mother Earth. Bear in mind that digestion is a warm activity stoked by internal fire. The Book of Rites, written in the 11th century BC, states: “Sui Ren [Fire Man] invented fire by drilling wood and instructed the people to take cooked food to prevent digestive diseases.” Choose gentle cooking methods, such as steaming and stir-frying, that don’t negatively alter nutrient and energetic composition. The balance of warm and cold foods in the diet depends, of course, on individual constitution, however consuming vast amounts of cold-property, raw and chilled foods can put out the internal fire needed to run the digestive system at capacity. Eating some seasonal raw vegetables and leafy greens does help to cleanse the body, though, and raw foods can be warmed up by combining them with condiments such as mustard, ginger, vinegar or black pepper, and by chewing thoroughly.
3.The five-element approach becomes the five-flavor approach with respect to food. The five flavors are sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent. Sweet is moistening and nourishing, salty is detoxifying and softening, sour stimulates absorption, bitter counteracts dampness and pungent encourages the removal of blockages and smooth flow. Applying the five-flavor approach in the simplest way means eating a diet that includes a wide variety of foods, being careful not to under- or overdo any one particular flavor. Again, tuning into your body’s messages is essential. If one is suffering from a cold, a warming, pungent food such as ginger may be of help, and conversely, if one has excessive heat and dampness a cold, bitter food like cabbage might confer benefit. As stated, each person’s constitution and emotional condition is unique and as such Traditional Chinese Medicine does not utilize generalizations. Remain receptive to the changing condition of your body and mind, and do not adhere to rigid absolutes regarding food.
4.Grandmaster JinBodhi emphasizes the importance of fermented food and drink – which have been cornerstones of the diet of many cultures throughout history – to human health. In particular, he recommends a fermented tea that has been popular for centuries, called pu-erh tea. “Fermented tea is much milder to the body than green tea. It warms the stomach and aids digestion. People who suffer excess acid will benefit from drinking a glass of pu-erh.” Remember to choose organic tea whenever possible. Grandmaster JinBodhi also advises that people consume fermented milk products, such as kefir, while refraining from drinking unfermented milk. The probiotic content of fermented food and drink is a powerful health-promoter, crucial not just to the wellness of the digestive system but to the health of the entire body. Making kimchi and sauerkraut a regular part of your diet will also boost your intake of friendly bacteria.
Keeping It Simple
It is possible to halt the epidemic of obesity and obesity-related illness that currently holds millions of people in its grip. Fitting ancient wisdom into modern life is really a matter of common sense and a commitment to making choices that benefit the individual and the environment. When boiled down to the basics, the steps to better health are easily incorporated. Benefit yourself, your family and the environment by choosing organic, local and seasonal fare. Tune in to your body constitution. Practice gratitude and keep your spirits up when preparing and eating food. Pay attention to how much you eat and when – the body’s digestive power is strongest in the morning. Eat a good balance of hot-property and cold-property foods, bearing in mind that digestion needs an inner flame, and make sure your diet contains a wide variety of flavors. And finally, remember that there are at least 10 times as many bacteria in the human body as cells, so nourish your bacterial flora as societies around the world have wisely done for centuries – by consuming fermented food and drink.
The current generation of young people is predicted to have a shorter lifespan than that of the previous one. If we return to Mother Nature by selecting whole, natural foods, and transition from sedentary to moderately active, we can ensure that the people of today and tomorrow enjoy good health in keeping with that of the Ancients.