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Meditation, A Trip to Oaxaca, & Back on the Vegan Train

Morning Meditation

Brrrrr – bringing in a few armloads of wood for the wood stove – smoke from the smoldering overnight fire spiraling up through the cold daybreak air – my Siberian husky, Nellie, sniffing the air for signs of the coyote that crossed the road a moment ago, just below the house.  Plunked down in the middle of the forest here in New Marlborough, I don’t see the sunrises or sunsets, just the sun breaking through the trees – a crack of yellow light streaming into the kitchen, as the kettle starts to whistle.  Made some almond milk last night, so making tea with almond milk and masala spices – the squirrel or mouse who was rattling around in the attic last evening, chewing and scratching, preparing his new winter nest, has gone out now for more nuts and acorns and whatnot.

Morning meditation focuses on getting the fire going – open the damper and the left over coals start to glow – a few dry sticks and kindling, and the temperature moves up toward combustion as the air flows through the stove.  The oxygen feeds the process and all of a sudden a puff, and simultaneously, the flames burst up around the wood, and the fire is under way.  Oxygen, wow!  What a gas!  Time to sit and enjoy the stillness, the sounds of the crackling fire, and the warmth radiating off the stove.  Such gratitude fills my heart this morning.

Going Vegan

Spent some time in the past few months experimenting with vegan diet.  I was a religious vegetarian from l971-1996. After my  first book came out in l995 and I started traveling, and at the urging of my hosts in various places, I ate wild salmon for the first time in Vancouver, grass fed beef in Livingston, Montana, and jerk chicken in Jamaica.  Since then I’ve been primarily vegetarian, with exceptions for an annual grass fed burger, a ridiculously expensive organic turkey a few years, and some wild salmon from time to time.  But I did love dairy – cheese, yogurt, butter, eggs, half and half for tea and coffee, you know the drill!!

That said, I am also extremely committed to supporting organic farming and have been an outspoken critic of factory farming for decades.  So I am as careful as I can be to know the source of any dairy or meat I consume.  My thinking is that if you are going to eat a burger, you need to raise and slaughter the cow yourself.  Which has made me feel a little hypocritical every time I eat one of those grass fed burgers!!  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t actually kill a cow.  In fact I know I couldn’t, but just to make sure, you will need to ask me again, if I’m ever facing starvation and there is a cow nearby.

I know it isn’t really feasible on a planet with 7 billion people, many living in food deserts in the Cities, for folks to raise their own meat as we did decades ago, before big agribusiness factory farming took hold, and when there were just 2 billion people on the planet.  But it’s a lot more ethical than buying a tidy and neatly wrapped-in-plastic package of sliced pig, raised in deplorable, filthy, inhumane cages on a pig farm in North Carolina, from the meat department of the super market.   A couple years ago, I gave  up eating eggs, ever, unless I knew the farm where they came from.  I’d just watched one too many documentaries, showing the horrible lives of factory farmed chickens, to be able any longer to conveniently block that image out of my mind just so I could enjoy a Sunday breakfast out with friends at the local diner for an omelet.  Students with chickens gave me eggs, local farms offered “Fresh Eggs,” and for $6.50 I could buy a dozen eggs at the Great Barrington farmer’s market from May through October.  Yikes – what do people with 4 kids do?  No wonder, factory farmed eggs, at $1.79 a dozen, the collective output of gargantuan galaxies of sentient beings’ suffering, are the overwhelming choice of most middle class families.  But that is another topic for another blog post.  No wonder I decided to go vegan.

And the whole thing with the highjacking of terms like “organic,” “free-range,” “grass-fed,”  “happy cows,” etc. by big agribusiness began to make me suspect of all the dairy products. I quit going to Starbucks a few years ago because they use factory farmed milk and cream in their stores (you don’t really think about all this until you start watching all the documentaries that filmmakers have gone to a lot of trouble to produce to wake us up!)  Is this milk really from happy cows?  Com’n, what a load of bollix – true in some cases, but mostly not.  A local farmer not far from here, who processes (read “kills”) his own cows, which means they don’t go to slaughter houses for their final breath.  He says of his grass fed meat products, “Yup, these cows are happy one minute and dead the next.”  Hmmmm, a lot better than Purdue, but someone still has to kill the animal, and I still struggle with being OK with buying, eating, or using that meat (and I feel like a hypocrite!)

In August, I attended Plantstock, a conference held at the Esselstyn farm in Claverack, NY, about 20 miles from here.  The speakers were Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, and “star” of the powerful documentary “Forks Over Knives, Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of Dr. Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes, Rip Esselstyn, author of The Engine 2 Diet and My Beef with Meat, Dr. Douglas Lisle, author of The Pleasure Trap, and others.  It was a gorgeous weekend, and the whole conference was geared at the huge health and environmental benefits of eating a plant based diet.  The vegan food offerings included for all 400 participants – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – were plentiful and sensational.  The presentations ranged from the radical Plant Perfect diet for reversing heart disease (no animal products, no dairy, no added oils (not even our beloved olive), no nuts or seeds, except chia, hemp, and flax seeds, not even avocados until the arteries unclog) to the more friendly Plant Strong diet which includes mostly plants, grains, some nuts, avocados OK, and even a bit of chocolate and coffee.

I totally drank the KoolAid.  While I don’t have heart disease, I do  have mildly elevated blood pressure from a bout with polymyalgia rheumatica in 2008 and 2009, an auto-immune disorder, brought on by years of suppressed stress, that creates inflammation in the arteries.  I’ve been on a low dose blood pressure medication since then and with meditation and pranayama and yoga in general, have been working to get off the medication completely.  I wondered if going vegan would help.  I’d had a lipid profile, a blood test that checks, cholesterol, high density lipoproteins, low density lipoproteins, and triglycerides, done in in early August, and while I don’t have high cholesterol (it was 150), I thought I could do better.

So I jumped in and became vegan on August 18, 2014.  Until October 25th (see Mexico trip below) when I could not resist a few farm fresh eggs and the daily queso fresco from the farm next door, I stuck perfectly to the Plant Strong program and Rip’s Engine 2 diet.  Just before I left for Mexico, I had another lipid profile done and in 8 weeks, I’d dropped my cholesterol by 15 points, dropped my LDL’s, and can’t remember what happened with the triglycerides.  The HDL’s went down too, which most doctors would not see as a good thing, but when I spoke with Dr. Esselstyn earlier this week, he got all excited when I told him that!  “Yes,” he exclaimed, “that’s great.  That’s what happens.  You don’t need as many of those molecules to clear . . . ”  Oh my God, he then launched into the brilliant biochemistry of what happens and why that was good, but I can’t remember it well enough to include here.  I’ll do some research and get back to you.

So bottom line?  Dairy and meat products clog your arteries and producing them for 7 billion people is completely screwing up our environment, not to mention the proliferation of suffering for farm animals cause by our greedy obsession with meat and dairy.   Want to reverse and/or prevent cancer, heart disease, or diabetes?  Go vegan – works pretty well for most folks.  Pretty simple and quite incredible.  Watch Folks Over Knives.  Don’t want to go vegan?  Give up meat for a few days a week and check your sources!  Be radical!!   Or get some chickens for you back yard!!!


Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico

The trip to Oaxaca, the mile high city of Mexico, the last week of October was epic.  Our max capacity for the trip was 12 and we took 12!  perfect.  Oaxaca, in south-central Mexico in the Sierra Juarez mountains is the cultural epicenter of Mexico – art, music, folk art, celebration, festivals – and to be there the week going into La Dia de Los Muertos was sizzling with celebration and festivity.  Mary Jane Gagnier, our host, is one of the foremost authorities on Mexican folk art, and thanks to her tireless support of the indigenous peoples and their arts and crafts, we were warmly welcomed into the homes and traditions of the local culture.

After four days in the high energy folk-art culture and colorful markets of the City, we pack up and head up into the mountains to Amatlan, a tiny, rural village bout a 2 hour drive northeast of the City, and accessible only via a road with nothing but switchbacks for all two hours..  Staying in newly constructed eco-tourism cabins, tile floors, local timber frame construction, with cinderblock and wood walls and and huge brick fireplaces.   Our first morning – it’s 4 am,  still dark and then, the first rooster goes off, then a donkey, then a couple more roosters and then, the bell ringer obviously awakened and rushing to his post, the church bells start.   Day of the Dead in Mexico is when all the departed souls return to pay a visit to friends and families.  To help them find their way back to their previous homes and villages, all the churches ring bells, 24/7, to guide them in. And they go all day – in the city, in the villages, the bells ring in the return of departed relatives.  It’s just a couple days now before the Big Day, so all the bell ringers are rigorously rehearsing their marathon performances.   Bread and chocolate are the big items of the week.  Tens of thousands of loaves of bread are baked for dunking into hot chocolate – not made with milk as here in the US, but with water – just chocolate, sugar, and water.  And of course, there is the ubiquitous presence of mescal.

Mexico is a large producer of cacao beans – like Peru, Costa Rica and other central and south American countries.  The cacao in the markets is phenomenal.  The beans are ground in large mills, with a lava like flow of dark, gooey, awesome smelling chocolate oozing out of the mouth of the mill.  People stand around and wait in line for hours to have orders filled for a kilo or a couple kilos of chocolate – Add sugar?  Cinnamon sticks?  Almonds?  Vanilla beans?  Coffee beans?  Oaxacan pasilla chiles?  No problem.  All made to order.  The cacao mill stores are crazy busy before Dia de los Muertos – it’s the tradition – eat bread, and drink chocolate and drink mescal.  One jolts you awake and keeps you up for the parties, and the other mellows you out and puts you to sleep.  I brought back a kilo of just straight cacao – sin azucar!!  Oh, and a little bottle of mescal!  🙂  I think we’ll go back next year.  Lots of hiking, laughing, and oh, of course, morning mediations, yoga, and delicious pranayama at 8000 feet.  For sure we’ll go back.