SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Monday, May 31, 2010

On the Subject of (god help us ) Mindful Eating

May 31, 2010

I'm eager to post news of a really delightful and helpful read. It was a present actually, which is the best incentive to read anything. Sally Ling, a master chef who owns and operates Sally Ling's Gourmet Chinese Restaurant in Fort Lee, gave me Savor, Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, written by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung, who is a friend of Sally's and a lecturer on the subject of healthy eating and director of health promotion and communication at the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Nutrition.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a famous Zen Buddhist monk who has authored many books on the subject of creating peace within and in the world, and runs Plum Village in France, dedicated to mindful living.

I'm a Buddhist, and I've read most of Thich Nhat Hanh's works over the years. I once saw a video of him that ran about 20 minutes and focussed entirely on his mindful eating of an orange. The master spoke slowly, peeling the orange with grace, teaching the viewer not only how to savor and appreciate every bite, but how to be aware of how this gift from the earth that feeds us and keeps us alive relates to all other living things and processes. The video and lesson in mindfulness so impressed me that a few years later I tried his experiment with a group of middle school aged students at an afterschool center. Shocked with the way the kids would throw food at one another at snacktime and treat it essentially like garbage, I hoped to shift their attitudes about eating just a little. I had built up a strong relationship with them by then, and I'm sure that helped to create the spirit of respect and quiet in which about 20 children who had selected their own fruit out of a basket, peeled a banana or an orange, appraised and appreciated their snacks as they ate them. It was a lesson unlike any other these kids, who came from largely poor backgrounds, had experienced on the subject, and whatever success I had in teaching it I owe to Zen Master Hanh.

To a large extent, Savor, like many other good books out there on the subject of mindful eating, appeals to common sense. But it goes further. Sometimes you have to back up common sense with science. Research now shows how the body and mind are interrelated, and the book is based on the notion, now scientifically supported, that it's not only what we eat and drink but the way we eat and drink that "profoundly affects our physical and mental well-being." The authors follow a Buddhist-based approach to nutrition, suggesting essentially that individuals take time and put thought into eating, and experience the process with all their senses.

In order to look honestly at what we eat, how much and why, the authors suggest starting a food journal. It's not a bad idea. So many of us become totally unconscious around the process of eating either because we're on the run, watching TV or paying attention to everything but what we're ingesting.

Some of the common sense advice, supported by studies, Cheung and Hanh:

* Eat three to four reasonable meals a day.
* Avoid skipping breakfast.
* Go to bed at a reasonable hour and try to get a good night's rest.
* Eat healthy carbs such as fruits, legumes, vegetables and whole grains as these are full of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
* Practice mindful breathing and meditation to reduce stress in your life and supplement a healthy diet.

An Appendix is chock full of resources, and the numerous notes in back attest to the fact that this is both a richly insightful and well researched book. Timely and important, it presents a model of right thinking and right eating for our age.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Alcoholism and Absolution

May 17, 2010

It's a testament to how much I think of literature that until just recently I thought Mary Karr's latest memoir, Lit, had to do with the subject, literature, rather than getting drunk. Actually, it has to do with both subjects, as, during the part of her life described here, Karr is a young wife and mother teaching in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her husband Warren, a Ph.D., who both teaches and writes poetry and once studied under the famous master himself Robert Lowell. Certainly, "lit" as in literature, and poetry in particular, and the struggle to find meaning in both language and life run as concurrent themes in the prose.

As one reads this confessional about a young alcoholic mother and poet in Cambridge, one can't help but recall other notable female poets who perched briefly in that locale on their way to fame. Poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, both of whom committed suicide, (after some success), instantly come to mind. I read a marvelous short story once about poets Plath, Sexton and Lowell, the founder of the confessional poetry movement who suffered both from alcoholism and manic depression, and their imagined meetings in bars and cafes, discussing madness and suicide, during the time in the late 50s when they actually studied and wrote poetry in the same adult writing class in Cambridge.

While in that highly academic environment, and living with a scholar herself, Karr aspired to be a good mother and a successful poet and writer, but was impeded by her drinking, a turbulent past, and marriage to a professional who, while being a good father to son Dev, was a distant mate. Frustrations trigger Karr's descent into alcoholism, and she describes the process in vivid and unnerving detail.

There are the episodes of heavy drinking, vomiting, hangovers, lies; the guilt about raising a child in the midst of this; increasing unhappiness with her marriage. After Karr quits drinking, she becomes depressed and suicidal and makes a trip to the loony bin in an effort to save her life and mind.

It's not that Karr's existence was so horrifying, at least not to anyone who has ever "been there" and made it to AA rooms, where one hears every kind of story. But it's relentlessly dark, and would be stultifying were it not for the saving graces of Karr's humor and insight. You have to admire Karr's determination to get at the truth as she wades through her murky past and memory. She's not just telling her AA story, but analyzing key processes too, the level of her misery, lack of self-worth, how she got to become a drunk and came out of it, how she got help and learned to embrace a "higher power," some form of spirituality, which is considered essential in recovery from mental illness, particularly alcoholism.

The search for meaning and the telling take courage, and Karr has plenty of that. Thankfully, Karr's Texan wit runs rampant and can shift a dark mood in a nanosecond, as she would say, or make the reader crack up when she least expects it -- in the midst of a spell of misery or lunacy. While recounting a period in early recovery when she was utterly depressed, not exercising a bit, Karr describes showering and suddenly "feeling something in the back of my legs -- it was my ass."

It takes a special gift to write with humor and perspicacity about a crappy past. Karr has that gift, and her quirky prose infused with Texan sass makes all the difference.