Twelve Steps to Nowhere
A guide to healthy eating
we are having the pleasure of being slowly nowhere.
John Cage, Lecture on Nothing
2000 BC Eat this root.
1000 Roots are heathen. Say this prayer.
1700 Prayers are superstitious. Drink this potion.
1850 Potions are snake oil. Take this pill.
1950 Those pills are ineffective. Take this antibiotic.
2000 Antibiotics are unnatural. Eat this root.
4000 Years of Medicine
If you’re a typical American, odds are that you will die of either cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. These top three “industrial diseases” are virtually unknown in traditional societies, where people live just as long or longer– and happier too. Seniors in these cultures often die not as senile invalids but with their brains and bodies intact. Clearly, it must be something about our lifestyle. What is it?
Unfortunately, it’s a lot. If you want to live a healthy life, you will almost certainly have to make some major changes. This is not only daunting; it can be downright aggravating. It has been frustrating for me to learn, for instance, that being vegetarian and especially vegan is actually bad for me and the planet, that eating whole foods is not enough, that eating organic is not enough, and that eating low-carb is not enough, and that eating truly Paleo, that is, wild food, is not enough.
How would it feel to learn that those supplements you’ve been taking religiously for years (whether multivitamins or omega-3s) are actually bad for you, or that you gave up meat, ate a low-fat diet, or avoided the sun for years, only to learn that you’re doing yourself harm by doing so?
C.S. Lewis says comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end. If you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth.” If you strive to live right, it means you have to admit you’ve been wrong, over and over again. Sometimes it seems like everything I’ve ever learned has been wrong. What’s next? Is all this effort, failure, and frustration really worth it?
We all know some very happy people who don’t give any thought to their diet. Some would literally rather die than give up certain pleasures. That’s fine; nothing lasts forever. In fact, trying to live healthy may be precisely what we need to not do. Let me explain.
What if 90% of what you are eating right now, even if you think you are eating healthy, is actually junk your body has to work to get rid of? And you’ve been doing this, along with other unhealthy things (like drinking and/or bathing in chlorinated water) all your life? Do you really think you can recover?
A depressing thought, isn’t it. What if most people on the planet have been living this way since civilization (i.e., agriculture) began?
If our diet, our lifestyle, our civilized world is that fundamentally unhealthy, that is, not what our bodies are designed for, then we’ve got an awful lot of turning around to do. And I don’t think any of us can do it in one lifetime, much less on our own. None of us can escape pollution, for instance; it’s everywhere. Most of the problems that manifest as individual health concerns are much bigger than that. In fact, it’s the “save yourself” approach that got us and keeps us in this situation to begin with.
Recovery is a lifelong endeavor for each of us because our whole lives, our entire society, and our history as a people have been shaped by unnatural structures and motivated by distorted urges. The challenge of recovery at this moment can never be reduced to the personal; it is necessarily cultural, historical, and environmental. Indeed, it is a job that will last the lifetime of each of us, plus that of many generations to come. The point is to embark upon the healing.
There is an Aesop fable about two flocks of geese. A hunter casts a net over one. The geese try to scatter, only getting each other more caught in the net. The hunter casts his net over another flock. They fly off together, in the same direction, to a pond where they all dive free of the net.
A culture of human selfishness, of caring only about ourselves and thinking we each know what is best, is what got us here. That attitude can only end, very soon, in self-destruction. Imagine a society that builds a plane that crashes in a remote corner of the world. It takes a plane to get home again. If the survivors each try to make it home on their own, do they have any chance?
Have you ever inadvertently carried an ant far from its colony? Not only does it have nothing to live for; it cannot survive. Each of us in this divide-and-conquer capitalist society who have no more — at best — than our nuclear family and one or two real friends is like that ant.
Whew. That’s probably a lot more than you expected, but when you decide to clean house, it can be surprising how much has been swept under the rug. To sum things up, what I’m saying — mostly to myself — is that maybe I need to accept and grieve the fact that I am screwed. But maybe the world, if I can care about that instead, is not.
There’s a deeper level to this though, one at which both the individual and society can be healthy, starting right now. It starts with a healthy attitude toward life, including your diet.
The reason there are happy, seemingly healthy people who eat junk is, for one, because the body is incredibly resilient: it can put up with a lot. That’s why problems typically manifest in old age: not from age but from chronic abuse. How soon these degenerative diseases show up also depends on the health/lifestyle of previous generations. That’s why your grandfather could get away with stuff that you can’t.
But also, not everything is physical. No matter how “healthy” or “clean” you eat, if you are stressed out about anything, including your diet, you simply cannot be healthy. We’re designed to spend most of our time relaxed, not anxious, in fight-or-flight. That’s why worrying about what you shouldn’t eat can be worse than what you do end up eating.
Most of our stress today comes from believing in “shoulds.” The truth, however, is that there is no “right” and “wrong” because we are always doing the best we can. The healthiest thing you can do is to realize that life is and always has been perfect, that is, the best that it can be at the time. That doesn’t mean it can’t get better; tt just means it’s never “wrong.” I’ll explain below.
Here, then, are the things I’ve learned (and not yet unlearned) in the past 25 years of dietary searching. I should tell you that I have no degrees or certification in the health field, and you’ll see that I provide few references. For more info, I recommend Mark’s Daily Apple or The Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF).
More importantly, I recommend that you not rely solely on books and your own research. If I have not made it abundantly clear, DIY is very DUM. We are all stuck in a hole and we need others to help pull us out. So get help. Don’t start changing your life without working with a holistic health professional such as an experienced clinical herbalist. Salvation is in community.
1. Eat only natural, whole foods.
Avoid anything with over ten ingredients or more than ten letters in the name of any one ingredient.
Avoid anything invented in the last fifty years, including all fake butters and sugars regardless of what they say. Just because something says “no trans fat” or “sugar-free” does not mean it’s good for you. It probably means the opposite.
On that note, especially avoid anything with “smart,” “healthy,” “nutritional,” etc. in the name, as in so-called “nutritional yeast.” Good things don’t need to advertise.
Also avoid any cookware and storage containers made of materials less than fifty years old, including nonstick pans, new plastic storage wrap, etc. (For which plastics are safest, see “A brief study of plastic food containers” on my website.)
Avoid most “superfood” supplements and other extracts. One manufacturer of krill oil, for example (a type of fish oil), makes all kinds of claims on their website about the benefits and purity of their oil but says nothing about the extraction process. When asked, they told me it was cold-pressed and added that cold-pressed oils “may be healthier… because of the lack of heat and chemicals in the production process.” They pointed out that conventionally-extracted oils are often made with toxic chemicals like hexane. Good point; that’s just two reasons why canola oil is a Frankenfood.
In this case, I then had to specifically ask if they use acetone, which I learned about from quickly consulting the WAPF website. I’ll let you guess the answer. (Note that as of February 2015, Vital Choice tells me they use ethanol, which is just grain alcohol.)
2. Eat only organic food.
Organic food may cost double, but you’ll save that much in doctor’s bills in the long run. In other words, you can either spend your money on good food or spend it on so-called “health insurance.” It’s your choice.
The more popular organic food gets, the more meaningless the label becomes. To get real organic food, buy from local small producers. Even if uncertified, these can be trusted far more than large producers in California or outside the U.S. For more info, see The Revolution will Not Be Microwaved by Sandor Katz.
3. Eat fat, not carbs.
Eat as much healthy fats as you can (e.g. organic butter, lard, coconut oil, and palm oil) while radically reducing your carb consumption, including sweet fruits and so-called “complex” carbohydrates. Avoiding carbs in our drug-addicted society can be very hard to do; see “Why You Must Find Some Low Carb Friends.”
High cholesterol is the result, not the cause, of heart disease. Saying cholesterol’s the culprit is like blaming a vulture for road kill. Do vultures kill the animals or do cars kill them?
High cholesterol, whether HDL or LDL, is the body trying to heal itself. Trying to lower it is literally like ripping the scabs off your wounds. What causes these wounds are, like cars, human inventions, like artificially-created trans fats. Trans fats, enough to cause heart disease, are alive and well in supposedly healthy polyunsaturated oils like canola, safflower, etc. More on that here.
We’re taught that saturated fats are bad for us when it’s actually the lack of saturated fats that make these vegetable oils so unhealthy. We’re told that animal fats will clog up our arteries. Where do animal fats come from? If you’ve ever butchered an animal, you know that they are full of saturated fat. Why aren’t they getting heart disease? Plenty of human cultures practically chug saturated fat and they don’t get heart disease either.
4. Eat out as little as possible.
What’s the point of eating healthy at home when you’re eating out at restaurants? I doubt there’s a single restaurant in the U.S. that serves healthy food as I define it. Even the most expensive restaurants use mostly or entirely non-organic, mass-produced ingredients. At least that’s true in Asheville, where I sold wild mushrooms to the top restaurants for over twelve years. So-called “health food” restaurants often rely on soy. And unless soy is fermented as tempeh or miso, it is very unhealthy; see WAPF referenced above.
Here we are now, a little bit after the beginning of the fourth large part of this talk… Slowly, as the talk goes on, we have the feeling we are getting nowhere. That is a pleasure which will continue.
John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing”
On the other hand, don’t put yourself in diet prison. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re just going to end up downing doughnuts or ice cream to make up for punishing yourself. It is possible to make healthy versions of these foods at home with friends and enjoy them in moderation. After all, the ban on fat (healthy fats) is lifted! And the healthier you eat and feel, the less you will crave junk food. At this point, I eat most meals without grain or anything starchy. And though it’s hard for even I to believe, I don’t miss it.
5. Soak all seeds overnight before use.
We all know about the dangers of eating food with preservatives. There are natural preservatives as well and they are also toxic.
Nuts, grains, and beans are all seeds. Seeds are designed to wait until it rains to sprout. And while they’re waiting, they have natural preservatives to keep them from rotting. To “rot” means to be eaten by something else. Preservatives work by deterring others from eating something. They deter others by being toxic. Formaldehyde, for example, is a preservative. Whatever’s in a twinkie also works: even 40 years later.
If, like me, when you eat pancakes for breakfast, you feel heavy, weighted down, that’s because you have just eaten a load of natural preservatives. The way these preservatives work is by inhibiting enzymes. That means they prevent easy digestion. Hence your experience. Try the soaked-flour recipe in Nourishing Traditions. Hopefully, like me, you’ll feel the difference.
6. Eat plenty of antioxidant foods.
You don’t need exotic foods from the Amazon, just any fruits and vegetables with rich color. One reason antioxidants are important is because most of us eat overcooked food. Except for saturated fats, all foods heated above 320º denature, becoming carcinogenic. That means you do not want to fry with polyunsaturates like canola oil (which is an unnatural oil to begin with). But that also includes carmelizing sugar, browning meats, broiling fish, even baking bread. Sorry. Note that the inside of cooked foods usually don’t reach this temperature, just the tasty part.
Fortunately, eating antioxidant foods may sufficiently prevent the damage overcooking can do. Of course you can avoid browning your food in the first place, but some things are worth dying a little sooner for.
7. Eat raw foods as much as possible, especially dairy and meat.
We fear germs like we fear terrorists, but if you’ve ever watched a toddler, you know they put everything they find right into their mouth. If that were so dangerous, we would have died out a long time ago!
The idea that raw meat and dairy are dangerous is a commercially-promulgated myth. It is pasteurization that is unhealthy and only necessary on factory farms. This high-tech sounding process simply means cooking food– specifically, heating it to 161 degrees for 20 seconds. Actually, you only have to heat food to about 115 degrees to cook it, for this is the temperature at which enzymes are destroyed. Without enzymes, bacteria and everything else dies. Sooner or later, so do we. That’s why right around 115º is the temperature at which things will feel too hot to touch. Try it!
Raw meat is a lot harder for most of us to consider eating than raw dairy or fish, but I encourage you to look into it. On raw egg safety, see this article on Mercola.com.
Irradiation is a more recent method of sterilization. But just as with irradiation for cancer and antibiotics for infection, you can’t just nuke the enemy without taking a good chunk of your own body and its healthy resident allies down with it. Strengthen your internal community instead. Here’s how:
8. Eat fermented foods.
Fermentation is exactly how your gut digests things. So fermented food is simply predigested food. That may sound icky but it’s good for you. Raw fermented foods also serve as natural probiotics, just like acidophilus (which in supplements is often ineffective). For more info, see Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz.
Note that fermented foods are high in histamine, as in “anti-histamine.” Your body can handle histamines if you have a healthy gut, but most of us eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) don’t. So take your time. Listen to your body, don’t just shoot at it with magic bullets. Give yourself as much time to change your health as it took to get to where you are now. If you’re over forty, then focus more on your emotional and spiritual health, or the health of children or the planet.
9. Eat a variety of foods, especially wild foods.
A skillful forager, lost in the woods for a week, will usually have better nutrition than he would at home eating the devitalized and preservative-filled foods that are sold in the average supermarket.
Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Good Life
Grains are a modern convenience food of civilization. They have played a tremendous role in history, not because they are suitable as staples, but because they are cheap. They are cheap because they store well. And they store well because of natural preservatives which can make digesting them very difficult (see step five).
The power of agriculture is that, for a relatively short while, it supports a larger population, not a healthier one. You can take steroids and grow larger fast too; our drug-fed food system is no different.
An agricultural population is not a healthier one because our bodies are not civilized. They don’t evolve in a mere few thousand years to eat what you can buy in the store. We are designed to eat what we now call “wild food,” that is, natural food, not cultivated food. That’s why even the earliest civilizations had heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity– simply because they relied on agriculture, especially grains.1 I’m not sure we’re even adapted to cooking.
Cooking aside, even if you avoid a diet heavy in grains (particularly white flour), you’re still not going to get the nutrition you’re designed for. That’s because cultivated plant and animal products have but a fraction of the nutritional value of their wild predecessors. You’re not eating Paleo if you’re not eating wild.
Wild food is more nutritious is because it is healthier itself. Plants and animals growing in the wild, where and when they grow naturally, are going to be healthier than those in a climate-controlled greenhouse. They need to be, otherwise they wouldn’t survive.
Stress is the trigger that “switches on” phytochemical production in a plant… Plants in orchards or carefully-tended fields tend to be protected by the farmer from natural stressors like insects or competitive weeds.
Eating food from plants that have struggled to survive toughens us up as well…
Not only do highly refined foods present tremendous caloric excess, they lack these salutary signals from the plant world—“signals that challenge.” Those signals might otherwise condition our cells in a way that prevents disease…
These recommendations end up sounding rather grandmotherly—if your grandmother was a spartan, no-nonsense peasant who lived off the land. But the underlying thrust contradicts assumptions about the need to protect oneself from hardship. Certain kinds of difficulty, it turns out, may be required for health.
A quick tour of her backyard revealed a variety of nurtured plants that one would expect to see in a yard-waste bin…
With minimal to no help, purslane and other wild plants are thriving during the country’s worst drought in decades. On top of that, they taste good…
“People say, ‘That stuff grows in the cracks of my sidewalk. I don’t want to eat that.’ But when you think about it, it’s growing in the cracks of sidewalks during the worst drought of most of our lives. Isn’t that exactly what you want to eat?” asks Blockley.
“Whatever is in that plant, keeping it alive and healthy,” he adds, “I want in my blood.”
Who do you think is going to be healthier, Tarzan or an accountant? If I were a cannibal, I think I know who I would rather eat!
This simple principle of strength-building is technically referred to as preconditioning or hormesis. But the truth is even simpler than that.
Like I started out saying, what’s good for us is whatever we’ve evolved to eat. If cotton candy grew on trees, we could have evolved to eat that. We’re adapted to eating what’s mostly available in nature. And throughout most of our evolution, that was wild animals that ate wild greens. That’s why grass-fed meat and dairy is better for you.
You don’t have to know all the nutritional data; it just makes sense. We are at home in the Garden of Eden, it’s still here all around us, and like the Genesis story illustrates, that’s all we need to know.
A Sunday school teacher decided to have her class memorize one of the most quoted passages in the Bible, the 23rd psalm. She gave the youngsters a month to learn the chapter. One boy was excited about the task, but he just couldn’t remember the psalm. After much practice, he could barely get past the first line. On the day that the kids were scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, this boy was very nervous. When it was his turn, he stepped up to the microphone and said, “The Lord is my shepherd, and that’s all I need to know.”
Granted, a truly “paleolithic” diet would exclude dairy products, given that animal domestication is no older than agriculture. But then it should also exclude olive oil, beer, bananas, chocolate… not to mention cars, telephones, electricity, iron and steel… In other words, hopefully the “paleo” argument is sound even when we make exceptions.
Learning about wild foods in most of the world is easy: you just “apprentice” a neighbor — or watch your parents. You didn’t learn the vegetables in the store from books, and you don’t need a book to learn wild foods either. The only field guide worth having has two legs.
There’s one more problem with not shopping outside of the box. For all our apparent choice in the supermarket, people today eat only a fraction of the variety of foods we ate only a hundred years ago. How many of us eat celery root, seaweed, sunchokes, or kidneys? You’ve heard about eating refined foods, but we eat refined diets.
Wild species are in fact both one of the Earth’s most important resources and the least utilized. We have come to depend completely on less than 1% of living species for our existence, the remainder waiting untested and fallow. In the course of history, according to estimates made by Myers, people have utilized about 7,000 kinds of plants for food; predominant among these are wheat, rye, maize, and about a dozen other highly domesticated species. Yet there are at least 75,000 edible plants in existence, and many of these are superior to the crop plants in widest use.
E.O. Wilson, “The Current State of Biological Diversity,” 1988
When I was growing up, we had only thirteen channels on TV to choose from. Now we have 300. With food, we’re not so fortunate. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported in 2012 that “globalization has reduced the number of plant species used for food and other purposes from roughly 100,000 to about 30.” By 1999, 75 percent of our food was coming five animals and 12 plants. Nearly 60% of our calories, according to the same FAO report, come from just three plants: rice, corn, and wheat. The FAO’s own logo says “let there be bread.”
What do you think this monoculture does to the range of nutrients in our diet? “Nutritionists consider dietary diversity – the number of different foods or food groups consumed over a given reference period – a key indicator of a high quality diet” (Bouis et al, 2013).
Some of us try to fill the gaps with supplements. Sometimes these are even mixed into our food, like iodine in salt or vitamins in cereal. But these are cheap and often ineffective substitutes. Ascorbic acid, for instance, is only one of hundreds of components that actually make up “vitamin C.” Sure, it’s the main component, but taking ascorbic acid for vitamin C is like putting an engine in a car frame and expecting the car to run. By the same token, taking Acidophilus is hardly a way to build a healthy gut.
Eating just a few cultivated foods and making sure you get enough protein, fat, and the basic vitamins is pretty much the same thing.
The fact is, you can’t fix the body with supplements any more than you can fix a computer with a wrench: it’s just too complex. To think we can engineer and biohack our way to health with exotic or scientific magic bullets, even “functional foods,” is egotistical and naïve.2
The idea that we are “stewards of the earth” is another symptom of human arrogance. Imagine yourself with the task of overseeing your body’s physical processes. Do you understand the way it works well enough to keep all its systems in operation? Can you make your kidneys function?… Are you conscious of the blood flow through your arteries?… We are unconscious of most of our body’s processes, thank goodness, because we’d screw it up if we weren’t. The human body is so complex, with so many parts… a system which is far more complex than we can fully imagine. The idea that we are consciously care-taking such a large and mysterious system is ludicrous.
“Nature is a superchemist. It’s been doing this for a lot longer than we or even mammals have been around. Plants have been doing this for about 400 million years.” That puts people — even very smart people — at a competitive disadvantage.
Living well is not about “doing what you need to do” to stay healthy. It’s about doing and eating what comes naturally, without effort or new years resolutions. I’m talking about the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
However good your diet and gut health, it is not nearly as good as that of our ancestors. Everyone should make the effort to improve their gut health by re-wilding their diet and lifestyle. Being more adventurous in your normal cuisine plus reconnecting with nature and its associated microbial life may be what we all need.
People assume hunting and gathering takes a lot of work. Try farming! Besides, this raises a huge difference between the Paleo diet — or any diet, for that matter, even wild food — and foraging.
Eating wild food is not enough. You can’t buy exercise, time outside, reconnection, or any of the other myriad benefits of foraging in a store. Which brings us to:
10. Get enough exercise, laughs, and love.
If a man has a friend, what need has he of medicines?
It’s easy to focus on food, but just as only a small part of who we are is physical, food is at best only ¼ of the picture. Changing how you live is far more important. And that’s a lot harder than just changing where you shop or what you buy. “Going green” is not going to save you or the world.
First off, we are built for exercise, real exercise. Just like our food, we need stimulation on all levels. Whether it’s your bicep or your brain, it’s “use it or lose it.” So much for labor-saving devices. Contrary to what most of us think of as Progress, an easier life is not necessarily a better one. In fact, “the hottest fire makes the strongest steel.” Or as Steve Torma (paraphrasing Brian Swimme) puts it, “the optimal condition for the evolution of an organism is the greatest amount of stress that can be creatively borne.”
Of course, we all know what all work and no play does (well, maybe not all of us). But when stress is “creatively borne,” work IS play. The same is true of relationships. How many times have you heard someone say, “having children is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the best thing I’ve ever done?”
Sadly, on the list of modern man’s achievements, the rewards and joys of family are not among them. We live in a fragmented society: most of us lack real community. “To love and be loved,” like all the best things in life, may be free, but free does not always mean easy. Good relationships, especially in this culture, are not easy. They’re not available in stores.
Poor relationships (such as hating our parents and everyone who reminds us of them) cause much of the stress in our lives. And in my estimation, unnecessary stress — not natural, tonifying stress — is the #1 cause of premature death and aging. It’s also much of the reason we eat poorly in the first place. People like me may obsess about diet to avoid deeper emotional issues. There’s even a medical diagnosis for obsessing about food; it’s called orthorexia. For more info, see When Food is Love by Geneen Roth.
The longest-living man in history (not counting biblical personages like Moses and Enoch) was an English peasant who worked in the fields until his death at the age of 152. According to William Harvey, the famous physician, “Old Par” lived “on subrancid cheese and milk in every form, coarse and hard bread and small drink, generally sour whey. On this sorry fare, but living in his home, free from care, did this poor man attain to such length of days.”3 Old Par was stress-free.
Until the year she died, my old neighbor, Mrs. Brown, also lived alone– on frozen pizza, ham, corn and Bright and Early orange juice. She used to sweep the street because, as she put it, “it do me good to stir.” She was also fond of saying, with a shiver that overtook her, “I LOVES my Jesus.” She lived to 102.
I’m not saying you have to live alone or love Jesus, but I do think that the foundation of health is a strong faith. What that means for me is believing in life. If you are stressed out, maybe you need to ask yourself the question, “do I believe in life? Do I believe that everything is going to be all right, that everything is for the best?”
At 42, you wouldn’t consider Maureen McCarthy old– unless you knew that she is supposed to be dead. Maureen has LAM, a rare and progressive lung disease, and at this point she has less than 10% lung capacity. You wouldn’t know it though, because aside from wearing a breathing tube some of the time, Maureen appears normal. Better than normal, actually. A corporate consultant and frequent keynote speaker, Maureen is more vibrant than most people I know.
What is Maureen’s secret? Faced ten years ago with her prognosis, Maureen decided that she didn’t have the time or energy to get upset about everything– or anything. She decided that she just could not afford to let things bother her. For Maureen, each day was and is a gift. As she puts it, “I love what is.”
That’s what I mean by believing in life. Loving what is. The word “health” literally means wholeness, and you get whole when you not only accept but love life as a whole– all of it.
This is not just some selfish new age magic trick. It’s a spiritual approach to life, to be sure, but a religious one. The word religion actually means “to bring back together.” If you love all of life, it means you love others as well and want what’s best for them too. In other words, you can love what you don’t like and still work to change it. You don’t have to hate it. On the contrary, as Thaddeus Golas paradoxically explains in The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, only when you love something can you leave it.
11. Use drugs sparingly.
Drugs are refinements on life. They include things we put into our mouths like white sugar, white flour, and white salt, but also things we take in our eyes and ears, like the media: television, movies, radio, magazines and books. These are all refinements on life because they are life mediated, i.e., parts of it selected and packaged. That’s why we need a healthy media diet as much as a healthy food diet.
Computers are a drug. Music is a drug. All art, in fact, being a refinement, a special arrangement or representation of life, is a drug: often an idealization, but always a simplification, if only in being static or a given perspective. These are all products, ultimately, of thought, i.e., conceptualization. Concepts (a.k.a., ideas) are all generalizations, i.e., simplifications of life, and as such, they are the original drugs.
In our materialistic society, we may not recognize all these “immaterial” things as drugs, but they release drugs inside ourselves nonetheless, like adrenalin. Their exciting or calming effects feel good for a while. But drugs are intoxicating because they are toxic. That’s why the ancient taoists warned against them.
Like exercise, a little bit of poison every day is actually good for you. In acute situations, a little more can be helpful and even life-saving. But like a knife, a bulldozer, television, or a romantic relationship, drugs are also dangerous.
The problem with these refinements is that the world is infinitely complex. Life is always changing. Whenever you restrict your diet, however, whether of food, ideas, or experiences, you’re selecting from it, so life becomes less diverse, more generic, more of the same. The less you do this, on the other hand, the less you “play favorites,” the more variety you experience. The more varied your experience, the more present you become.
This doesn’t mean you have to be constantly trying something new. Every experience is always different than the last in some way; you just have to pay attention. The point is not to change your circumstances, it’s to be more present to them. The more present you are, the more whole you become. And the more whole you are, the healthier you will be. It’s the meaning of the word.
Sound familiar? This is just the old ‘zen’ idea of having an empty mind so you can fully experience and respond to each new moment. Samurai need it; we can get by for long stretches without it, but then we are living asleep, dreaming.
Of course it’s OK to dream. I actually think that life is one big dream. But life is the ultimate dream. If you are not participating in it, you are probably retreating from it. Life is a challenge, for sure, and taking drugs is easy but ultimately unsatisfying. That’s why drugs are addictive: they feel good for a while because they are simpler, less complicated than life: like stereotyping people, for instance, and making fun of them or killing them. But sooner or later we wake up to reality, which is that one hand is cutting the other.
Only by participating in all of life, by being present to and part of our primary relationship, our family, our job, community, country, planet, universe, everything– and everything is what I mean by “God”– can we finally be healed, healthy, and happy. That’s enlightenment. That’s what Hinduism calls Realization: realizing that it’s all good, all God, including me and you and everything we thought was bad.
If living “awake” means remembering that “it’s all good,” then is there any right or wrong? And if nothing is fundamentally either, then why do we forget this?
In this view, there is indeed nothing “right” or “wrong.” Those are just ideas. And life is, in fact, a dream (see here). We can hurt each other, but nothing’s permanent: hurt, harm, even death. I would even say that life is not about avoiding hurting each other. “Right” living is the effort toward enlightenment, which means being fully present, which means feeling each other’s pain as much as our own and feeling our own pain as much as another’s. When that happens, we are really just one big Being. Then all our actions have our own self-interest in mind because then there IS no “other.”
When you’re enlightened, life is truly a dream. There’s no more work, only play. Nothing needs to be done. Think about it: if this was all a game, if you never really died, if you couldn’t lose any more than the game, then why would you have to struggle, why would you have to hurt each other in order to survive?
Most of us live in ignorance of our true nature, our true unity. Most of us only realize this truth when we die (or in a near death experience). That’s why we seek out drugs: we’re being selective, thinking some things are better than others.
You’ve probably heard that “we’re all One” in church or in books. If so, then why don’t we realize it? Because that’s part of the game. If you’re going to play pin the tail on the donkey, you have to be blindfolded. We have an innate tendency toward ignorance; that’s one way to understand the concept of “original sin.” That’s also why I’m not spoiling the fun by telling you this. Even if you believe me, you’re sure to forget!
The idea of life being a game may seem straightforward enough, but it’s a quite a slap in the face to all who have lost a loved one, or parts of their own life, to some tragedy or injustice. “The Holocaust was a game?” “9-11 is a joke?” “You mean to say that rape, torture, and child abuse are just for fun?”
My answer is, do you want these things to go on or not? I’m telling you that there is no other way to stop cruelty than to see it for what it is. Nothing else has worked. People turn to drugs when they’re hurt (see the work of Gabor Maté). And there’s only one way to stop the hurt.
Have you ever had or heard of a nightmare that goes on and on? Night after night, you are hounded by the same persecutor. You can’t get away; you can’t fight and win. The nightmare only ends when you turn around and face the monster and see it for what it is: a part of you, the one that is doing the dreaming! This awareness is called lucidity. Staying in this awareness, that you are the dreamer, is called lucid dreaming.
Usually the only way we manage to escape a nightmare is by crying out in despair, and our cry wakes us up. It wakes us up out of the dream to who we really are, the dreamer. Yet we look around and see others as separate from ourselves. The challenge is to realize that we too are being dreamt by something bigger than ourselves, something that contains us all. The challenge is to remain awake, aware, lucid in the dream of life.
So it goes, the game of falling asleep to separateness and waking up again to unity. That is the meaning of life. The most surprising thing about it, to me at least, is that it is so simple! Not complicated, but quite possibly the hardest thing in the world.
What will you choose? The blue pill or red one? The red one looks like blood and guts. But as Chuang Tzu (via Thomas Merton) teaches, “easy ways do not come from God.” For more on how an easier life is not necessarily a better one, see here.
Like Cherie Carter-Scott’s last rule of being human, “you will forget all this.” But everything I’ve said is just a bunch of ideas anyway. Learn to feel what’s right for you. For some people under certain circumstances, smoking is the best thing they can do (see “Bodies, Habits, Likes and Dislikes – All Karmic” in Paxton Robey’s No Time for Karma, online here).
Ultimately, we don’t know what’s right and wrong, for us or anyone else. Only God knows. And the only way to know what God knows, moment by moment, is through your intuition. More on that here.
So that’s it. I’m sure there’s details I left out. Like Michael Pollan so brilliantly cautions us, don’t overeat. Then there’s drinking and bathing in clean water, breathing clean air, and getting enough sun. Turns out that sitting in a sunny room and bathing with soap both negate the effects of sun exposure.4 More evidence for the depressing contention that nearly everything humanity has invented is wrong, i.e., unnatural and unhealthy. In twenty years or so, if we last that long, we will probably all agree that wireless devices like cell and portable phones, along with laptops, hair dryers, and riding in cars, all cause cancer. Even the magnetic field in your fridge may be causing dangerous changes in your food.
In the end, life is not about doing everything right. I think it’s about how come to view our “mistakes.” And like I said, I think being overly focused on our own individual health may be the biggest mistake of all. So lighten up: we’re all gonna die!
1 although many of the traditional diets I refer to in my opening remarks are agrarian, according to Sally Fallon they did not eat excessive amounts of grain (so as to throw their omega-6/omega-3 ratio off) and what grain they did consume was properly prepared to neutralize its natural preservatives (see Nourishing Traditions). It’s also possible that new world and heirloom grains like quinoa, amaranth, and teff are lower-carb, phytate-free, and healthier in other ways than rice and wheat.
2 see for example, Tara Parker-Pope, “News Keeps Getting Worse for Vitamins,” NYT, 11/20/08
3 McLaughlin, A Diet of Tripe, 36.
4 “Sunshine Can Actually Decrease Your Vitamin D Levels,” 5/12/09. Note that the title refers not to the sunlight you’re exposed to outside but the partial sunlight that comes through window glass. For general sun exposure recommendations see here. Note that Dr. Mercola’s contention that soap washes away vitamin D has been contested. According to Brady Hurst DC, CCCN, the vitamin D produced occurs in deeper layers of the skin that are not affected by bathing (email, 11/10/09).