Thursday, December 31, 2009

I haven’t posted in a while and it seems like just yesterday. Days flew by, seasons blended into each other, partly due to “climate change”, partly due to the speed of life that we choose to live at. As Murakami says in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, “I don’t know why, but the older you get, the busier you become.” That’s why I have decided to say a few words in praise of all things slow.

If we were to examine our lives, it seems that even before we are born, we are perpetually busy. Before a child has had a chance to take the first breath of his or her own they are subjected to batteries of tests, exercised with, talked to; plans have already been made for his or her life for years ahead. Before the new citizen of the world has even come to self awareness they are required to hit a whole bunch of milestones in personal development, academics, athletics, etc., that were planned for them by their families sometimes before they were even conceived. And if they happen to have arrived at all the same accomplishments ahead of schedule, then so much the better. The rare moments not filled with the activities aimed at speeding past their peers are mostly filled with “relaxation” activities – fidgeting with electronics, zooming around to play dates and tuning to various kinds of noise – music, film, television etc.

As we all know, the speed game only intensifies in adulthood. The perpetual race to achieve drives us through our school years, our career years, and our family life – even a retirement is only considered to be of good quality if every day is packed with appointments, activities, travel, etc. Inactivity, stillness, and quiet are often associated with being unwell, sick, underperforming, unhappy, not living one’s life fully. And yet even as the society pushes us to be perpetually on the move, we crave the peace, quiet and solitude, whether we acknowledge it or not. We make New Year’s resolutions to walk more and do more yoga, we peruse glossy magazines advocating “the country life” full of meals made from scratch and hand-made holiday decorations, and browse through the long bookstore shelves packed with books on mindfulness and meditation. Most of these annual decisions stay just where they found us – on the cusp of the two years’ turning over, and as the moment passes, we are ready to jump back into the game we call our normal life. And even if we occasionally have regrets about sticking to those resolutions, many of us just shrug them off and say “Oh well, it’s a shame it didn’t happen, but who has the time?!”

While there are a few activities that definitely call for speed, many of the most amazing things we see around us are a result of a long term painstaking labor of love. It takes 11 months to cultivate the gorgeous chrysanthemums that are displayed at the Annual Kiku Exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden for just a month every fall. The plants are slowly molded and trained onto elaborate frames of various shapes and sizes. Sometimes a whole mountain of flowers comes from a single stem – it is as if a flower was encouraged to become a tree through the focused effort of the gardener. The seasonal display of flowers symbolizes both the transience of nature and the permanence of the inspiration it provides.

Many of the slow forming projects will give joy and bear fruit for years – like a hand made quilt or a knitted blanket that may have taken a year to make, some may be able to give instant joy, like a loaf of homemade bread, which, although short-lived, will be remembered as a delicious meal or a thoughtful unique gift. Unlike impulse purchase decisions of most holiday shopping trips, all these things have one thing in common – intent. One has to carefully plan the project, maybe even start in advance to learn a new skill, maybe even try several times before getting it right and deciding that the result is worth presenting to the rest of the world. In some cases, as training for long-distance race, meditating, or gardening, one must be diligent about doing something every day, and commit to it from the beginning, otherwise the result will definitely suffer.

Moreover, this constant regular practice will give the doer plenty of time to examine his or her reason and motive for doing something as involved, as well the personal feelings connected to an activity. The results of this self analysis are often life changing. I have seen fellow human beings change careers, living environments, eating habits and religious devotions after a period of serious self-reflection and involved activity. Many have found guidance through corresponding with fellow soul seekers on the internet, and that surprisingly personal support has given them courage to persist and eventually bring their initially timid plans of devoted practice of whichever kind to full fruition.

I do not claim to be the coaching expert in transforming anyone’s life, and like everyone else, I am hoping to make a number of changes this coming year that I could stick to and that would make the world around me a better place. But one thing I know this process requires is intent. You cannot just decide you will go hiking if you do not have hiking boots, a map, and proper equipment. You must have an idea of the route you are taking and what if there is a stream running across the trail that was not marked on your map and what if you get a blister on your left heel? As any hiker knows, these things do happen, and when they do, this in now way means the end of your hike if you act with just a little bit of forethought. Another important thing is, most times you will not hike alone, and if you are fortunate to have a more experienced hiking buddy, your intent and enjoyment from that activity will strengthen and flourish.

We have all made enough unrealistic change goals without a reasonable idea of where to start, and if we are intending to make some improvements in our ability to keep our promises to ourselves, let us start right here. Let us resolve to work out a plan toward whatever goal we want to achieve, and let us realize that this process will be even paced and maybe even slow, and that aspect will make it so much more rewarding in the end. We will travel down the path of personal transformation and when we come to our desired destination as a finished product of this process, we will be changed beings, and we will own that new identity. As we change ourselves, slowly and with intent, the world around us will change and become a better place that we have helped co-create.

Sounds simple enough? Maybe it is, maybe not, but we have to start with that intent. We have a few hours to resolve, and that is all the time in the world we need. I hope that the New Year brings everyone who reads these words the best of health, happiness, peace and the joy of discovery and transformation!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

China on my Mind!
The Last Chinese Chef The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is another book in very recent memory that I could not put down and could not bear to part with. Funny enough, all of these recent books have to do with Asian cultures, for lack of better term. This one does have to do with the culture of food and sharing in China. It has to do with *China*. That alone would have been enough. But no, Nicole Mones takes a very engrossing and straightforward human story and goes on to explain in detail the importance of the family web and tragic past and sad present, and the hope of renewal, all that while giving the tiniest details of Beijing hutongs, Lake Huohai, the Beihai park, all these details I loved taking in when I was there... The language part and all the little phrases interspersed though the English text made me so happy and dying to travel back. (Enough of that, I wrote a whole review of the language thing in my blurb on the "Sea of Poppies".) So, the food! I will never forget the day when I had to take a cab to the hotel on my lunch break for something I forgot, instead of joining the rest of my study group for lunch, and my venerable professor, Dr. Wang, having written out the address of his clinic for the cab driver, turned around and said, "How are you going to make sure you eat lunch!!!???" I had to assure him, with the help of our translator, that I had oatmeal and snacks in my room, and fruit, and tea, and finally, that there were plenty of places around our hutong to take a quick lunch. He just shook his head and admonished me to make sure I ate before lecture! The scenes of the uncles and father Liang admonishing the main character Maggie to eat made me both laugh and tear. This book amazingly sums my feeling about Beijing and the gravitational pull of Planet China:

"... It's very mind-altering. I've decided China makes me high....It's like a drug. And if it turns out to be *your* drug, you will never want to leave." For better or not, I did have to leave, but I know that when I'm sad for Beijing, I will come back to re-read!

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...a little note book I recently purchased...

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Book Review
Sea of Poppies Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Many have commented on the vibrancy of historical detail and breadth of research in this book, so I will not bother repeating the other readers - it is all true and the praise here is well-deserved. I would like to say that I particularly loved what several other reviewers have found somewhat difficult, and that is the unique and amazing language side of this book. The author claims to be a descendent of one of the main characters, a dispossessed raja who at the end of this installment of the story, escapes imprisonment and, as is clear from the comments, goes on to make a life for himself as linkister (a linguist) in a foreign land, probably China. It is not enough to say here that the whole way the dialects are handled is unique - it is well known that even in modern India more languages co-exist than anywhere else; additionally, we are treated to the lascar hookums, pijjin English, the British and French colonial lexicon, American 19-century Southern idiom, to name the main ones.

I know some readers found it difficult to follow the paced introductions of the parallel lexicons, and I have to say, I myself have this annoying general reading habit to skip ahead, as I cannot wait to know what the end is. I have to say, it has never deterred me from coming back to my marked place of departure and finishing a book while finally paying full attention to the richness of language and the peculiarities of style. This book was so much so the case - I kept coming back, re reading, surging forward and coming back. When I had about 60 pages left, I could not bear to finish it and put it aside, so much has the idiom become part of my thought process.

There was a test we were put through while at the language school (which I must say I used to profoundly resent at the time, impatient as I was as a young student). The task was presented as an initially incomprehensible jumble of invented language words with maybe one or two words in English in between. The student was to search for the meaning of the word, to uncover more meanings of the surrounding words from the context, and progressively build up on it. After a full session, the task culminated in being able to translate back and forth between the English and the invented lingo. The task was timed, and no matter how impatient you were to skip ahead, it took exactly the alloted minutes to start owning the new words and their sometimes multiple meanings. Furthermore, when we studied the regular European languages at the school, the emphasis was placed not on translating back and forth between English and our native language, but on learning the many meanings of various words and idioms in the target language, starting to think in the language you were studying.

To me, this concept is brilliantly presented in Ghosh's book - the pacing, the introduction of the languages and dialects, first incomprehensible, and then fully understandable, the tension it creates, finally culminating in the publication of Raja Neel's Chrestomathy, is one of the most amazing linguistic works I have encountered in fiction. It is a nice addition that it is solidly based on a well-developed story full of interesting characters who are the mouths speaking these various idioms - with both these factors going for this book, the next two books cannot come fast enough! Well recommended and a reading well worth your time. Interest in languages definitely helpful!

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Lunch with a Friend

I love dining alfresco spring into late fall, as long as I can get away with it, and this summer has not been kind to my fondness for the outdoor meals. Chilly evenings and almost constant rains have been keeping us indoors, save for a few lucky hours here and there, which were so rare that they seemed to be better spent running and hiking than dining. Friday afternoon the rain finally gave us a brief respite, so I and my friend and colleague Angela Lee Chen were able to take a pleasant walk down the block to the restaurant Blue, in the city of White Plains where we work. Angela's brother Daron Lee is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and a chef at this White Plains, NY, gem of a restaurant. Although the menu offers plenty of interesting options, nothing is better than taking a seat by the huge French window and having the chef send out some of his favorites and new inventions. The beautiful and breezy interior design complements the eclectic artful presentation of all sorts of vegetarian, meat and seafood fusion dishes.
Old favorite with a new twist - tuna tartare with jicama, and the overall winner of the day from the new menu is the truffle dumpling in chilled corn broth. A very special lunch, and one very grateful diner! Blue can be reached directly, with a newly redesigned website coming soon.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Dip in the Lake

Well, I could have said - purification, and all the high notions, but in the end it was just an extremely enjoyable hike in the woods, with a swim in between. Fahnstock park, to be exact. It was great to walk in the woods. I love this trail. It leads to a small freshwater lake in the woods called Beaver Pond. The beauty of it at all times of year doesn't stop to amaze me. It is in the depth of the woods and just yards from the trailhead becomes a thicket of blueberry bushes, ferns and all sorts of vegetation. So many memories are connected to this trail. My good old dog Theo used to run on it. Overheated, he would arrive at end point, the lake, and drink in buckets of water, only to disgorge them an hour or so later. He ate a lot of grass and cooled his paws in the water, but was hardly a swimmer. Chester the beagle was tried out off leash on this trail - never again, as we almost lost him to the smells and attractions of the perfect hunting ground. For a while, we gave up on the idea of taking him hiking. He is not what you would call an awesome hiking companion, but this time he refused to be left behind in the city. Once on the path, he pressed on, whirling around to direct us to every wild animal smell he could spot.

Hershey, our chocolate lab, first learned to swim in the little lake. He jumped in and completely went under, causing us a moment of absolute horror, and a second later came up for air, paddling his paws and using his tail as a rudder, like he was born into the water. And look at him now. Besides running off leash at full speed back and forth and covering twice the distance with his constant returns to his slower companions, he dives right in - he knows why he is here and never hesitates. The water was high this time due to the heavy rains and he seemed to have to swim harder to get back with his ball.

I wasn't sure the water would be warm enough to swim but it certainly was! Cool and refreshing, and not freezing at all. After doing intense energy work on many different people for two long weekends in the yoga seminar I needed to have that cool fresh water carry away all the webs and tangles of other folks' karmas. The feeling of being accepted by the water brought so much relief I could feel a huge weight lifted off my body. I floated and felt light, treaded water without stepping on anything solid. When it was time to leave we walked back on the trail to where we started. Some of the "swamp pink" is still showing its delicate short-lived flowers, and the green is still fresh in the early summer, washed by the recent constant rains. Next time we go, there will be other flowers, new blooms and fruits, and a heavier scent of a hot and humid summer. Whenever we hike to the lake it's always perfect, like a picture in a meditation, this moment of oneness - a prefect rolling path with a fresh lake at the end, waiting to receive the tired feet of those who made the pilgrimage.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Some Minor Distractions Preventing One From Writing a Deep Philosophical Commentary

- Contemplating blurred visions of transient beauty;

- Mommy, you are giving me a headache - I cannot stand one more minute of this!

And finally,

- Aren't these the longest cat arms you have ever seen?!

After a long weekend studying at Integral Yoga, it is nice to see your family go about their business. Have faith, that deep philosophical thought is coming. Take it from the smart ones - relaxation is key!

I have to thank my friend Lisa, who always manages to post the most endearing pictures of her critters to complement the deepest thoughts.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Yoga Immersion

This coming Friday, I will be starting my training as a therapeutic yoga instructor. I signed up at the Integral Yoga Institute, in New York. It is my sincere hope that I will somehow, despite all economic odds and the horrendous health care system which by and large deems most therapeutic and alternative medicine services not medically necessary, my patients will benefit from a yoga practice that will be done with a gentle encouragement and an understanding that all of us start by facing, and then overcoming our limitations, whether physical or mental.

As a matter of fact, Yoga is known as a union of physical and mental, or the great late sage Sri Pattabhi Jois, commented in his book "Yoga Mala", it is a way of establishing the mind in the Self. It is with this union that perfect health is found to be rooted. It is not a series of strange postures on a rubber mat, or even a couple deep breaths for stress relief - it is a holistic health discipline that is perfect in union of the many areas it comprises.

You know my fascination with the tree as the perfect metaphor for life, health and renewal. How amazing it is that the great B.K.S. Iyengar compared the practice of yoga to a vibrant tree:

"A tree has roots, branches,leaves, bark, sap, flowers, and fruits. Each one of these components has a separate identity, but each component cannot by itself become a tree. It is the same with Yoga. As all the parts put together become a tree, so all the eight stages put together form Yoga. The universal principles of Yama (universal moral commandments) are the roots, and the individual disciplines of Niyama (rules of self-purification) form the trunk. Asanas (poses) are like various branches spreading in different directions. Pranayama (conscious prolongation of inhalation, retention and exhalation) which aerates the body with energy, is like the leaves which aerate the entire tree. Pratyahara (a discipline that quiets the senses and draws them inward) prevents the energy of the senses from flowing outwards, just as the bark protects the tree from decay. Dharana (concentration and stimulation of inner awareness) is the sap of the tree that holds the body and intellect firm. Dhyana (meditation) is the flower ripening into the fruit of samadhi (bliss). Even as the fruit is the highest development of a tree, the realisation of one's true self (atmadarsana) is the culmination of the practice of Yoga." B.K.S.Raja Iyengar, "Light on Pranayama" - the definitions in brackets are my insertions, also based on his book.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Random Knitting Project - Flowers
Why do we try to imitate something that can never be improved on? We give it stylized shape and color, we try to reduce it to a number of sticthes of brushstrokes... And in the end each of them still looks different, no matter how much you try to repeat the pattern in exactly the same way. Maybe it is the nature of a flower shape, maybe I am just a sloppy knitter!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

And so we begin. Today is the Master Cleanser Day - the first day of the rest of the new year. I have been adhering to a predominantly vegetarian diet for close to twenty years, and for the past five, I have added on a spring cleanse. I love raw foods, especially juices and smoothies; they really do make you feel, forgive my trite expression, vibrant. There has been even a winter or two where I ate raw or at least 85% raw. Not this one, though - the cold and snow all the way into late March here in New York have pretty much sapped all raw juices out of even the most hardy of us. Despite staying focused with outdoor runs and hikes, I found myself falling more and more into the inviting trap of comfort foods and letting some of my greens go past their freshest in the fridge. (How really fresh is the produce we buy in stores is the topic of another discussion).

And this is exactly where the spring cleanse comes in. Much has been written about the relation between the food we ingest and the general health, as well as the toxic build up certain processed foods create in our bodies. The beauty of spring is that no matter how many balls of cheese, glasses of wine, steak and egg breakfasts there have been, we can now start anew. Depending on how consistent we are in cleansing from year to year, sometimes taking a less dramatic cleanse at least once during another season, and on how motivated we are to make some changes in our regular diet to extend the positive effects of the cleanse, the overall outcomes may be quite dramatic. For me, five years of cleansing have been like five years of study, building year after year on what is achieved.

Oh, no, it does not make it easier every time. Just having run marathon once will not make the second one easier without a certain degree of preparation! From the previous years I have learned that jumping into a strict cleanse does not really work that well for me, so I've been choosing to do a really long one. My cleanse spans most of March and April and gradually builds up to a juice fast, green drink week, a Master Cleanser period, or some combination of the above. After finishing that part, I continue for another couple weeks on raw and lightly cooked vegetables, fruit and alkalizing grains. (These also form the bulk of my diet thoughout the year, with room for occasional treats.) That seems to work better and with more "carry over effect" that deciding to suddenly forgo your regular fare for three to five days and subsist on raw juices or water, only to be craving the day of the imminent return to your diet staples.

This year, I started right after my birthday and have gotten to my Master Cleanse day without much drama, except for some loss of endurance on occasional long runs - strenuous activity is really not part of any cleanse - and with a much welcome feeling of being able to unhook from the outside stress with less effort.

Much has been said about our fear of being without solid foods for any period of time. We may be sick, overweight, tired, depressed, we constantly invent new medications to fight conditions caused by excess of any form and fashion, we are avidly consuming new books on diet and dieting, but wait - isn't that the root? We are consuming! Even if the common sense tells us to ease off, even for a day, not to consume food, drink, material goods, the moment we stop consuming, we are outside of our zone of comfort. Why? I do not have an answer for this yet, but I have a strong feeling that the cessation of craving may lead to a cessation of suffering, at least in some degree.

This leads me to another important point, and I know I am not the original writer of this either. Your fast is more than just cessation of food consumption, it is a cessation of distraction and a day of mental-emotional health primarily. Your mind will lead, and your body will follow, starting with the very decision to make the cleanse happen. When I first did a Master Cleanser fast of 3 days, I had so much energy that I was able to work the whole time I was on it. Next year I remember trying to work, not having as much energy, ending up with a bunch of blurry days filled with struggling along. No matter what, I feel like both of those times I missed out on an opportunity to give my soul a rest, at least for a day.

And this is exactly what I did today. As I am writing this, I am sipping my tenth glass of Master Cleanser, I have taken a bath and practiced yoga, knitted, read, snuggled with my pets; last but not least, I have sat on my meditation cushion at regular intervals, and I just feel content. I know that for most of us, life cannot be like that every day, and I don't expect it to be. I love my family, my friends and my patients. I love going for a run with other folks, visiting a museum, practicing yoga in studio filled with people, having a meal in a place full with the buzz of other lives around you. But today my contentment came from being not in any control, just being quiet, just staying still. I feel blessed to be able to afford this delicious day. See, food is not the only thing that can be delicious :)

Do you know what the hardest part of this has been? Not using the electronics. Wednesday is my usual day off. It is a good day to be off. If you have paperwork and errands to catch up on, everything is open, if you have a need to have some peace and quiet, then everyone else is at work, and you can have the whole park to yourself in the afternoon. I have no problem compartmentalizing my work from my day off. My dear patients whose emails I will return first thing tomorrow will hopefully forgive me (I won't ever ignore a real emergency, though), although I don't even consider it work, it is more like a labor of love. But completely turning off my phone, not snapping a couple cute pictures of my cats and dogs snoozing peacefully, happy that mommy is still in bed reading, that was not to happen. I stayed away from the Internet and the news and the chat and the general email until it was time to sit down and write this blog, but have I been completely sequestered from the world? Cannot say that... Maybe it is for the better, it makes the luxury of having a day of restoration more amazing against the backdrop of the rest of the world zooming by for another 24 hours.

Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphants by Mathias Énard My rating: 5 of 5 stars This is an amazing book, and I was fortuna...