Getting Unstuck by Getting Un-Stuffed

The older I get, the more difficulty I have coming to grips with just how much stuff surrounds us two-leggeds. I mean, even if we choose to live a spartan lifestyle, we can walk into just about any store at any time and feel what it’s like to be surrounded! Of course, in many of those places, everything is laid out just so and there’s usually plenty of space around the “everything” so that nothing feels too congested, which is the way it would probably feel if I bought it and brought it home.

I’m not a professional organizer, though I have worked with a couple in the last decade. And although they helped get a little neater in the moment, they did not really teach me “how to fish,” so neatness is not a habit I can yet claim.

But I am working on it. It’s like perpetual spring cleaning—going on seven years!

The early Harper's Ferry. I picked this up in New Orleans and have never gotten around to framing it.

The early Harper’s Ferry. I picked this up in New Orleans and have never gotten around to framing it.

Parting, in the case of all this stuff, is neither sweet, nor sorrowful, but filled with consternation as I debate myself: Donate it? Try to sell it? If the latter, then where? A yard sale—where everyone wants what you’ve got and no one wants to pay anything for it? Craigslist? Ebay? Freecycle? The local paper?

I do all of these and each one helps a little. Still, I seem to lack the organizational verve that I desire, as if I could wave a wand and everything would be in its place.

That is part of the problem. Not everything has a place.

Many of my herbs are in bags and boxes in the dining room. There, they wait for me to buy alcohol for tincturing or oil for making salve or even just an opportunity to put them to use as teas.

Likewise, wool for hooking rugs is collected, at least neatly, in opaque plastic bins, so I can see the colors.

I also have multiple “staging areas”—those places where I keep things I need to photograph, measure, describe and post online. Why so many? Because not everything would fit in one spot!

I still love this color, but I have too many things like this.

I still love this color, but I have too many things like this.

I can only imagine that if you’re an American whose families emigrated years ago, you probably have a lot of stuff. What the heck do you do with all of it? Being in a military family may help. There’s an ebb and flow to the moves that get you to consider what’s really worth keeping.

And as with most everything we humans attract into our lives, it all revolves around stories. “This chamber pot was my great aunt Ethel’s. Ooh, maybe she even used it!” Now, if you really like the looks of the chamber pot and want to keep it, you can repurpose it by using it to hold a potted plant, a dracaena, perhaps, until it outgrows the space. But if you’re just hanging onto it because it belonged to Great Aunt Ethel, then you need to find something to replace that story. It could just have been a simple convenience for her, to use on winter nights when it was too cold to make it to the privy.

Potties aside, one person I am finding very helpful in this process and is Andrew Mellen, organizer extraordinaire. From what I know of it, his practice of Buddhism and meditation allow him to welcome in only those things and activities that he loves. And that is what “downsizing” is about: making room for what we truly want. His “Organizational Triangle” offers a simple way of going about organizing: 1. Everything has a home. 2. Like with like. 3. One in, one out.

Not any of my relatives', but a years-ago Christmas gift from Mom with no place to "live."

Not any of my relatives’, but a years-ago Christmas gift from Mom with no place to “live.”

But this process also relates back to the natural world. I suspect that if we get to know ourselves really well, we can better choose what to keep, what to let go, what to bring in and what to walk away from. And if we choose well, there will be less demand for “resources,” which means less stress on the planet, and more time to do what we enjoy.

Animals seem to do this all the time. The bowerbird wants some bauble to include in the structure he builds to woo a female—otherwise, the bauble may just sit on the forest floor, liking the lichens. Animals’ inherent mobility means it’s imperative they travel light. And what’s common among animals is they live in the moment.

Unlike humans, a lot of the time.

I ponder their behavior as I ponder mine. Of course, I want some nice baubles for my space, not because I’m in mate-attracting mode, but just because: I love color and light and texture. But I also am aware of how little time I spend among colors and light and textures, so I’ve got to choose wisely. What I choose needs to keep the energy moving through the space. If there’s anything that disrupts the psychic flow, then I need to consider getting rid of it. The more I do this work, the easier it is to attune to what needs to go.

For anyone who’s “stuck”—in a job, in a business, in a relationship—setting the intention to welcome only those things and activities you love can begin to get you unstuck. I am proof of this. The more I let go, the more centered I feel. The more centered I feel, the healthier I become. The healthier I become, the less frequently I feel triggered and the more I am able to reflect a kind energy toward others.

Beware the Tongue!

Years ago, while still a grad student at George Mason in Fairfax, Virginia, and then again after graduating, I took a class with Robert Nadeau called Literature and the Environment. I’d hoped to emerge from the class with more of a grounding in the mechanics of writing, say, the kinds of articles you might find in Orion Magazine—most of them lovely gems that call you to take a deeper look at the world around you, to see it with eyes different than those with which you first approached.

Robert Nadeau http://gazette.gmu.edu/articles/14977

Robert Nadeau – The Mason Gazette
http://gazette.gmu.edu/articles/14977

Instead, the class was more of an eye-opener about many things economic and ecological. Nadeau started at the beginning of time—if you measure time based on when humans first attained the physiological ability to speak. This, I recall his saying, pointing to his mouth, is what has gotten us into trouble and this, he said, still pointing at his mouth, is what will get us out.

In other words, language—coded sounds, oral and written—and what we do with it can easily put us on the wrong side of eco-history just as language can direct us toward an awareness of our vulnerability to words and the emotions that underlie them. With a growing awareness of this vulnerability, the onus is on us to change how we use language to create a more loving and just world.

I tend to be much more aware of how this works in the larger context of politics, legislation and regulation because that is my background. For example, contrast “watershed protection and restoration program” with “rain tax.”

The first is long, but meaningful, and represents what money allotted for such a program would seek to do—prevent polluted runoff from entering the waterways of Chesapeake country by assessing fees on the impervious surfaces (e.g., parking lots) that surround commercial and residential buildings.

Maybe this kind of yard helps to slow the flow of surface runoff to streets, outfalls and nearby streams and the Bay.

Perhaps this kind of yard helps to slow the flow of surface runoff to streets, outfalls and nearby streams and the Bay.

The latter, short and sweet, is used by opponents of such a program to diminish the importance of watershed protection while also switching on the emotions of someone who tends to be upset by taxes and might think, “Gee, now they’re taxing the rain.” It also creates a link with pop culture, to wit, George Harrison’s “Taxman”: “If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.” It prompts people to think, “How ridiculous!”

The first phrase is intellectually honest, but does little to create an emotional bond. The latter is dishonest, but creates the kind of bond advertisers and marketers love—one that glues itself in memory. Frankly, the program could be called a “seafood protection program,” a “healthy fish program” or even a “healthy beaches program,” because, though the main goal is to boost the overall water quality in the Bay, the “side effects” are edible seafood and water you can actually swim in, maybe even after a storm.

2014: New Growth on the Horizon

Every autumn when I assess my feelings around what I’ve been doing, I often come to the conclusion that whatever I’ve been doing is “never enough.” Seldom have I felt that wherever I am is exactly where I am supposed to be. Is this feeling of “never enough” a particular—and peculiar—artifact of Western culture or, more specifically, American culture?

Not 2010! Not as much snow...yet, but lots of growth predicted.

Not 2010! Not as much snow…yet, but lots of growth predicted.

In my life, I have found it difficult to step outside of the existing culture, but more and more, I know I need to. The culture at-large does not tend to support anyone who feels content with their life.

Living outside Washington, D.C., I am ever-cognizant of the hustle-bustle involved in “the American way of life,” in which discontentment plays a starring role. I used to participate more fully in that way of life, having had a decent-paying job, having spent about a third of what I earned on rent (many people spend much more than a third). When I moved to Annapolis, I then spent a minimum of an hour, often more, commuting to that job in Virginia. I did not enjoy driving; it seemed like a colossal waste of time, and yet, I felt I had to. I felt caught in a bind and as the months of commuting went on, I grew angrier.

That said, as long as I was learning something new, I enjoyed the work. And I enjoyed other benefits: having money to hear live jazz, money to take whatever classes I wanted to take, paid vacation, money for a painting now and then.

I’ve experienced a see-saw effect between that life and the one I now live: It’s as if when I had more money, I had larger holes to fill and I filled them with incessant activity or spending on things I thought could fill the holes. Now, I work to examine the holes, be with them, shift my patterns into viewing myself as whole and healed—as the way God or Creator sees us humans.

Sandhill cranes...and other animals just are. How can we two-leggeds just be?

Sandhill cranes…and other animals just are. How can we two-leggeds just be?

This is not easy work, but it is the most important. If I still had that job and that commute, I probably wouldn’t be doing this inner work and, moreover, I would not be attempting to find or do work that I enjoy.

Life to me is a continual cracking-open of our hearts, which is meant to soften our hard edges, make us more vulnerable so they we can experience greater intimacy, with ourselves and in turn, with others and with Spirit. The cracking-open happens through our experiencing our own difficulties as well as those of others. It comes through pain and suffering, and yet we, especially Americans, I think, have quite a dualistic view of suffering: It’s horrible or it’s great. Seldom is there a middle way when it comes to suffering. We don’t want to suffer and we don’t want to see others suffer. Or, in some intellectual way, we know we need to suffer, but it remains an exercise of the mind while the heart goes untouched, because we are still protective of our hearts.

At this time, for me, everything is up in the air. It’s like the dry snow outside, swirling on eddies of wind large and small. Lately, I’ve explored a little of farming, something I’ve wanted to do since I was very young. I’ve learned that cheesemaking doesn’t necessarily resonate with me, at least on a commercial scale. I know I’d like to learn more about greenhouses and chickens. I know from what I’ve seen and the stories of friends who farm that it is especially difficult to make any kind of living that way and, maybe even worse for those who concern themselves with inner work as I do, there’s little time. So, I don’t know what will happen in that arena.

When I set out to be an herbalist, I had this idea that I just wanted to practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. They call it a practice because the practitioner never knows everything, everything that can help herself or her clients, but you practice, so you constantly learn. I thought it would be practical enough to build a business around herbalism.joe_pye_composite_icon_final_Web

But what I discovered is that many people don’t necessarily know what an herbalist is or what an herbalist does. Perhaps they believe that we have a particular “plant of choice,” such as marijuana—which, at least for this herbalist, could not be further from the truth. I like weeds—nettles, dandelion, plantain, plants accessible to most everyone, if they know what to look for.

I finish 2013 unsure how I can best help to educate people as to what herbalists do, I guess because for me, herbalism is akin to ecology and akin to permaculture; it’s a way of looking at life and at health, of looking at death and illness, of trying to understand how best to support oneself and others in the most healthful way possible, the most whole/holy way possible.

How can I help people get interested in making their own medicine—especially if the kind of medicine I’m talking about may not have anything at all to do with dandelion root, and everything to do with having an intimate conversation with a friend or family member?

How should I market what I do? How should I charge for it? What I do is energy-intensive, because it’s my goal with every client to be present to that person, to give her or him my full presence. Can anyone put a price on that kind of energy?

As I said, at this time, everything is up in the air. I’ve long viewed my business as an extension of all of the work that I do—the work on myself, the work in the garden, the work with family and friends. In 2014, I’d like to spread the word about herbalism, about the permaculture principles of Earth care/people care/fair share. I want to increase my sense of community where I live—to find people with whom I can garden and wildcraft. I have some new health and plant-medicine activities that I’ll share in the coming weeks. I expect that I’ll write more about health. I am open to what comes. I know whatever comes will be an adventure and, ultimately, fun.

Sometimes medicine is experienced just by being with a plant, such as castor.

Sometimes medicine is experienced just by being with a plant, such as castor, a pet, a place, or a person.

If you live in the Annapolis, Md., area and want to learn more about herbalism or want to focus on what your health means for you, please send me a note by e-mail at artofearth@yahoo.com. If you’d like to hear more about the activities of Art of Earth, you can join my e-mail list. I don’t bombard anyone with e-mail, though I do send out more e-mail if there’s a scheduled event. If you find it’s not for you, you can opt-out anytime.

I wish you a happy, healthy, soulfully prosperous 2014. Most of all, I wish you love and peace.

To Mammo or Not to Mammo?

Today marks the beginning of “Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” a month that turns 28 this year, born of a marriage between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of then-Imperial Chemical Industries (now AstraZeneca).

That’s nearly three decades of fundraisers to make people aware of breast cancer and, ostensibly, to raise money for the cure.

If I could wave a magic wand, I’d rename these 31 days, “Breast Health Awareness Month,” but then, why dedicate only one month out of 12 to breast health, when women and men need to be focused on health year-round?

What one often finds during this month is the push-push-push for women to get mammograms.first-mammogram-appt-web_MDAnderson This may accelerate under the Affordable Care Act, which aims to provide no-cost “preventive” screenings.

I can only speak for myself, but I will not be one of the ones who gets such “screening.”

Why?

Because compression is not my friend and I know my “girls” won’t like it. Seriously, what message does it send to our bodies when we turn over what represents nurturing to a cold machine that flattens them and blankets them with radiation? Even the newer imaging devices use radiation.

I have had two close relatives maintain mammography screening for years. With both, the screenings picked up unusual-looking areas in the breast. One went the mastectomy route and required hormonal support, but no chemo and radiation. The other had a lumpectomy and required chemo and radiation.

Despite my genetic connection to them, I have no plans to give in to fear around cancer. Neither of these ladies likes the fact that I am in the “declined mammo” camp, but health choices are highly personal. I’d have preferred not to see the one go through what I perceive as a war on the body, but then, that, too, is her choice and I support her in that. It seems to have worked for her. Her hair and nails are regrowing. But she now has a ton of medical debt and not a long time in which to pay that off.

Time will tell for both of them as it will for me.

But here are some data that you may be interested in whether you’re a woman—or a man who loves the women in his life and wants what’s best for them.mammography_1_UConnHealthCenter

Based on meta-analytical research by two Danes published in the British Medical Journal from women in five countries who had mammograms resulting from a mass effort to screen beginning at age 50:

one of 2,000 will avoid a breast-cancer death;

10 will get diagnosed with a non-lethal breast cancer, which will be treated unnecessarily;

10 to 15 will learn they have breast cancer earlier than they’d otherwise know, but this will not affect their outcome;

and 100 to 500 will have a “false alarm” that, in about half of these, will lead to a biopsy.

(Leigh’s question: Can anyone guess at the amount of stress created around “false alarms”? And what does that stress do to the body? It certainly takes a toll on one’s immune defenses.)

The two researchers, Karsten Juhl Jørgensen and Peter C. Gøtzsche, also published an easy-to-read explanation of their research, including benefits and harms, which is available here.

Take a look. Go to the research. Make up your own mind. Have a plan. And don’t be cowed either way. Decide for yourself what you’d like; that is your right.

I’ll be writing more about breast health this month, so stay tuned.

A Time for Letting Go

Autumn is an especially good time to assess where we’ve been and where we are. Doing this sets the stage for winter, the go-inside time, a time for dreaming and breathing new visions that can come to fruition in the coming months or years.AutumnLeaves

The assessment process is akin to psychic closet-cleaning: Does this attitude still suit me? Would I look (and feel) better if I integrated this particular state of mind into my mental/emotional wardrobe? The fact is, sometimes we have to make room for the new by first getting rid of the old.

But just like cleaning out the closet, some psychic clothing is hard to get rid of. It’s like finding a toy from childhood in the box way over to the side on the back shelf. It is still there, taking up space. And while it may signify in ways, a better, less complicated time of life, it still begs the question: Why am I hanging on to this?

For me, mental/emotional downsizing has been an ongoing process. What amazes me most is that, based on the majority of the people I’ve met over the years, we all have a natural inclination toward growth. Growth can be quite uncomfortable—just ask any 10-year old with growing pains!

To a great extent, plants can help us to better align with our soul’s purpose here—both the general human purpose, which is to be about love for one another—as well as the specific purpose and purposes for which we exist. Whether we simply sit with plants and sketch them and note what feelings arise in us as we do, or whether we take them internally as medicine, they can help strip away some of the strictures (either self-imposed or the deep-seated kinds that are inherent in old family or ancestral patterns—sometimes they are one and the same!) and enable new pieces of ourselves to land on fertile soil and germinate and take root.

I’ve written about agrimony before and its potential for helping to free us from the drama triangle—neither persecutor, nor victim, nor rescuer be! But other plants—those that can help us to “process” our experiences and work through our body’s excretion pathways (liver, kidneys, bladder, lungs, intestines, lymph, and skin) can also be helpful, because experience, which represents all of our interfacing with the world around us, also gets processed through these paths of excretion.

Although using plants is seldom a one-for-one, this-for-that endeavor, if we check in with ourselves and know what we’ve been feeling the previous season or months, we may have a better handle on which plants to look to. For example, anger is the realm of the liver, so bile-stimulating plants (dandelion root, burdock root, yellow dock as well as the yellow bitters, such as Oregon grape and goldenseal)Goldenseal berrying may be helpful. On a physiologic level, these herbs help to promote digestive secretions, so actually can help us to better digest our food. Anger, which can throw us into sympathetic-dominant mode, makes it hard for us to digest our food, which is why it’s best not to eat when we’re angry. But given all the anger-causing potential of our culture, people can experience low-grade anger for long periods of time—and that can depress digestive function.

Many medicinals are diuretic, but typically spare minerals, unlike synthetic diuretics, which can deplete potassium and others. In Chinese medicine, the kidneys are where one’s essence is stored and are also the seat of fear. So, if you check in and have been feeling a lot of fear in recent months, certain plants may help you process that energy. Nettle leaf, dandelion leaf, plantain leaf—these are all mild herbs and taste pretty good, too. Nettle is specifically tonic and nutritive for the kidneys.

Many other plants provide both physiologic and energetic effects to those who take them. Of course, intention is everything and that’s why it’s nice to approach any use of plants with intention—whether the intention is to resolve a specific issue and heal or just to feel more secure in ourselves. Volumes can and have been written about plants as medicines and plants as energy workers. If you have questions about using plants in either of these ways, you can always e-mail me at artofearth at yahoo dot com.

And for people who are on medications that may prevent them from using alcohol extracts or teas, there are a whole host of flower essences they can use that work specifically on the energetic level and won’t interact with the pharmaceuticals.

This information is intended for educational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any particular condition. For help with specific conditions, consult a healthcare practitioner who is qualified to help you. If you want to use plant medicines as part of your healing process, consult an herbalist.

30-Day Media Challenge: An Update

A woman I studied permaculture with in early 2010 had never seen footage of the World Trade Center towers collapsing. Even now, when I think of what I saw and heard September 11, 2001, it feels so surreal. How I envied that woman! How I wish I could erase those images!

Because even as removed as television is from being right there, it still offers little buffer to one’s body. It is as if you are right there, experiencing an event or a situation. I cannot help but believe this is true with most everything we see on TV, whether fiction or the “news” or a boxing match.

That is part of the reason why I undertook a 30-day challenge to modify my visual diet. In some ways, I did well. For example, I have a tendency to channel-surf around Nat Geo and Discovery. Discovery’s programming—in my opinion—has gone to the dogs in recent years. I have tended to watch crime-related shows, but I put these on my “no-watch” list and I did not watch any these past 30 days. I find these shows dramatize the violence over an entire hour, though they could summarize a case in 10 minutes or less. Yeah, I know, that doesn’t make for “interesting” television. So, these are shows I will refrain from watching.

That said, I did not give up the summer series, Under the Dome, though if it’s continued beyond this coming week, I may. Under_the_Dome_intertitleThe whole idea of being stuck with a bunch of people who are so deeply influenced by one person who has only his best interests in mind does not appeal to me. And I can’t help but wonder if, deep down, the lopsided portrayal of such an influence makes a mockery of most people, who probably would be skeptical about anything a politician (whether in Congress or on the city council) says or does. Which brings me to a different program—House of Cards.

This program, originally released online by Netflix, won an Emmy this summer. I generally like Kevin Spacey’s work, and this is what drew my interest. But I am weary of Washington. From my previous work, I am familiar enough with political Washington to find the show believable. But before I was even through the second episode, I found myself asking why I was watching this. Is it really necessary to dramatize this stuff?

Of course, you can go back to the ancients to get your fill of political drama. But I still wonder, when such behavior is glamorized and then validated by the act of watching it, whether we are making good choices. Maybe I sound like a prude, but I want better for us and I believe we can be—and do—better.

I rounded out the month with The Cotton Club. I have wanted to watch this movie again for a while. I’d seen it a couple of times before, once when it came out in 1984 and once in the 1990s. I skipped the 2000s. Why did I want to see it again? For the singing and dancing—those are what I most remembered enjoying: Gregory and Maurice Hines and the hoofers, the dance numbers at the club, and the songs. The Hines brothers appeared years ago on Sesame Street, a show I enjoyed, so maybe I have a subconscious bent toward themand tap.

But I probably should not have watched it. I did not recall it being as violent as it was. I used to think I could stomach that stuff—especially when it involved gangsters, like those in The Cotton Club or Goodfellas, because to borrow Vera’s (Diane Lane) line, “That’s what they do,”—gangsters kill gangsters. But I still have to ask myself: What’s the point?

One thing I appreciate about the Internet is I can go on YouTube and select specific songs or dances and view them. Anytime I want to call up Gregory Hines, there he is! Same with Lonnette McKee singing “Ill Wind.” Okay, I love that song, but maybe that’s not a good example; there’re a lot of violent scenes mixed into the montage.

The older I get, the more I chafe at violence, especially gratuitous. The last piece of fiction I worked on, I killed off a character. I have not written any fiction since then, so maybe that says it all.

Someone will probably make much ado of my taking pot shots at what they consider art. But there is plenty of art that has conflict, but lacks violence.

And then there’s the everyday art (everyday and miraculous at the same time!) that is the garden. RabbitPeachFoxgloveAnd there is the art that each person makes of her or his life. Some of that art is violent, of course. I could argue that anytime we disrespect ourselves, we are committing violence against ourselves. Same with others, because we are all part of this whole realm.

The challenge for me moving forward will be those times when I just want to zone out, after work and before bed: too tired not to sleep, too wired to sleep. I could say, I’ll find an herb for that…but that is not my style.

The upshot? Violence is part of life, of course, but I already know that. I don’t need to be shown the why or the how, no matter how artfully done it is.

Junk “food” is part of our food realm as well, and I don’t partake of that. In the same way that junk “food” is devoid of nutrition, there is something harmful about visual junk: it demands of us that we “process” it and in the processing, we lay waste to (and waste) certain aspects of ourselves as well as our energy. In other words, it takes more than it gives. So like anything that sucks our energy, we really need to ask: Is it worth it?

Postscript
What is it about brilliant September days that bring tragedy? This week’s shootings at the Navy Yard in Southeast D.C. are a reminder that you just never know when it’s your time. I can imagine how much pain the shooter was in, but I cannot imagine becoming so unconnected as to allow pain to drive me to harm someone else. If anything, such tragedies signal a call to all of us to become more aware of the state of our fellow beings. Maybe no kindness could have helped that man, but who knows? Kindness—here’s a goal for us: to make kindness a way of life, a way of being.

Going on a Media Diet: 30-Day Challenge

I work part-time in retail. Doing so allows a more steady flow of income as I build my herbal business. I truly enjoy the customer aspect of retailing: meeting new people, talking about the products we sell, finding out what they like to cook and eat and how they might use our products.

One thing I dislike about retailing—and fortunately it doesn’t happen too often—is when someone walks into the store on a cell phone. And they’re talking. They are unapproachable and that leaves me to wonder, What should I do?

The other night, this happened. Or so I thought…only the lady was not talking or texting;200px-Cnn.svg she was getting a CNN update about Hannah Anderson, the California teen who was kidnapped and whisked away to some remote part of Idaho. The woman apologized for being on her phone and filled me in, saying Anderson had been killed (this, apparently, a case of CNN jumping the gun, because the girl had not been killed; her kidnapper had been).

“How awful,” I said.

And then I proceeded to introduce this lady to our products while feeling like I had whiplash.

The woman was very pleasant and thankful for the tour. But when she left, I had the feeling I’d been assaulted by her having shared something with me I had no desire to hear and that was siphoning away my energy. Many people have had this experience. It isn’t that we are not empathetic, but we truly cannot do anything about the situation, so hearing about it serves only to drain us.

Negative news does not faze me if I believe there is something I can do to help. When there is nothing we can do, we can send energy to the people involved, and there are entire practices around this, from a friend of a friend who lights a candle every morning when she prays for a number of people close to her and far away, to my friend Beth Terrence’s May is for Metta (lovingkindness) practice. But this assumes, too, that we have the presence of mind to send energy—and that is something that takes practice.

I personally am still in the “avoid” phase of my development. Regardless of context, most all news revolves around someone doing something, usually bad, to someone else. Occasionally, a feel-good story or broadcast item is thrown in for good measure. When the news is bad, I feel depressed, so my best solution is to avoid. It’s kind of like a shopaholic who avoids going to stores and unsubscribes from all mail-order catalogs and e-mails.

The fact is, we are awash in information, a lot of it just bad—bad, meaning poorly written or crafted, but bad also meaning, this stuff really isn’t good or healthy for us to partake of or read.

The only person who’s given me flack about this is my father, who seems to believe I am uninformed for not subscribing to a newspaper—whether the Washington Post or our local daily. But I am informed enough to know that paying attention to negative stuff puts me in a bad way, so I avoid it. Am I informed or not?

We have plenty of studies from neuroscience that show our brains evolved to give more weight to the negative than the positive. Naked little apes, we were much like the desert hare on television that falls prey to the family of Harris hawks. We are still wired to look over our shoulders.bbcover

Believing that we must keep up with everything that’s going on in the world is a fallacy, too, and taxes our energy and resources. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t if we want to—just that we should not feel compelled, feel as though we’re bad people or somehow lacking if we don’t follow every little snippet of a story. It is, of course, important that we engage our civic duties—to know what state or federal laws or local ordinances are being proposed and to weigh in, because these laws have direct or indirect impacts on us.

For all who read this blog, if you agree, I have a challenge: Let’s see if we can go on a media diet for 30 days. This doesn’t mean you have to commit to missing out on your favorite shows—though, if you want to take a full break from all media for 30 days, that would be akin to doing an elimination diet with certain foods and that can be helpful in finding triggers. But what I envision is cutting out the crappy-feeling news or TV programs: the kind of stuff that I would ordinarily click on when I’m on Yahoo! or when I come home late and just want to zone out. It means recognizing that this stuff is like high-fructose corn syrup for our minds—empty calories that suck our energy as we try to “digest” it.

My end of this bargain will also include seeking out the good stuff and sharing it with you, from Web sites and articles to TED talks and, possibly, book reviews. But if you find yourself doing that as well, feel free to share below, in the comments section, or post to my Facebook page here.

To start us off, I have a couple of links to share.

This first is an article by neuroscientist Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain. It’s entitled Seven Facts about the Brain that Incline the Mind to Joy.

The second is an entire Web site devoted to good news, the Good News Network.

So, I hope you’ll join me and share how you feel as you go along.

Teasing Out Your Bliss Point

When my beloved and I stopped by Art Things in West Annapolis last week for some advice on hanging a piece of fiber art I had made a couple years ago, we ran into Jeff Huntington. He is a local artist and adjunct faculty of The Corcoran School of Art + Design in Washington, D.C. He also does screen-print work and makes my beloved’s work shirts, and that is the main way we know him.

My beloved asked him what he’s been up to and he mentioned Bliss Point, a series of portraits of a variety of children and young people—nieces and nephews of Huntington’s—that capture their expressions as sugar addicts. The term “bliss point” is food-industry jargon for the point at which there is just the right amount of sugar that makes a processed food or drink optimally enjoyable.

Processed Food Today
“Bliss point” is the key to the castle for processed food companies. If they can target just the right amount of sugar in their products, they’ll sell more. The general thinking is that people buy “food” based on what they expect it will taste like—and how—not based on how nourishing the food (or “food product”) is. The food-processing industry has reams of data (mathematical and otherwise) about the various bliss points of processed food. And they can make similar calculations for salt and increasingly for fat, which has been tricky to pinpoint.

A mural by Jeff Huntington and Jimi HaHa depicting one of Huntington's nephews after he drank a 20-ounce Mountain Dew.

A mural by Jeff Huntington and Jimi HaHa depicting one of Huntington’s nephews after he drank a 20-ounce Mountain Dew.

Huntington’s work on the bliss point is very visible in a mural he did with local artist and musician Jimi “HaHa” Davies. (The two have an artistic partnership known as JaH-HaHa Collaborative Art, and if you live in Annapolis or spend some time there, you’ve probably seen their penny portraits or t-shirts.) The mural, entitled SUGARUSH, is one of Huntington’s nephews and captures the expression of the boy after he has drunk a 20-ounce Mountain Dew. The mural is on an east-facing wall of the Metropolitan restaurant on West Street in Annapolis. The boy looks like he’s going to blow up.

The Bliss Point series portraits can be viewed here. The portraits speak for themselves. But if you understand something about how sugar behaves in the body, then you won’t be too surprised that the children look like they’re drugged out. Bliss Point was Huntington’s response to an invitation to Corcoran fine arts faculty to participate in an exhibition in Milan, called Are We What We Eat? Sustenance and Art. The aim: raise awareness of issues around sustainable food and nutrition.

Because Huntington often taps his nieces and nephews to serve as models, he gets up-close looks of children who consume a lot of caffeine and sugar and other processed foods from an early age. For this reason, he shifted some of the imagery he used in the collages to those of “cupcakes, icing, brownies, chocolate and other sweets.”

Health and social issues have tended to entice Huntington, whose past series have focused on Alzheimer’s (Plaques and Tangles), because his own father lives with advanced stages of the illness, and anorexia and eating disorders among those in the beauty/fashion industry (Super Models).

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit Monell Center does a lot of research around the chemistry of human taste and smell, including the "bliss point."

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit Monell Center researches the chemistry of human taste and smell, including the “bliss point.”

Adults, even the parents of today’s children, may not “get it” when it comes to sugar and manufactured foods that are specifically engineered to keep em coming back for more. Although the food-processing industry is not terribly old in the long history of what people have eaten, it has become increasingly sophisticated in terms of what it puts into food to encourage consumption. The term “bliss point” used to be applied to economics, but has made its home in the food-processing industry since the 1970s.

Processed Food Back Then

Today is different than when Huntington or I grew up in the ‘70s. We had processed foods, of course. One of my favorites was Little Debbie Swiss Rolls, those creamy combinations of chocolate and vanilla that I liked to freeze, then cut into slices before eating. There were Lucky Charms and Sugar Pops and, later, Cheerios to which I added granulated white sugar. There were Yoo-hoo chocolate drinks and Doritos, and one of my other favorites—Pop Tarts.

I don’t like thinking about these today, because I am concerned that even thinking about them will trigger my metabolism to prepare to receive them, which means it would say to the pancreas, “Hey, buddy! Wake up! WE NEED SOME INSULIN!” Even when I wasn’t eating super-processed stuff, I was still getting sugar in the form of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail or Libby’s canned corn. Despite my memories of these foods, they were not constant companions. Mom did the grocery shopping and so, had a fairly tight grip on the food budget and what we ate, and she would not allow junk to replace better-quality foods.

To this day, I still have not tried this food product. Mom always made hers from scratch.

To this day, I still have not tried this food product. Mom always made hers from scratch.

Mom cooked supper almost every night or we had leftovers and those things were seldom out of a box. We never had Hamburger Helper, for example, and she made her mac and cheese from scratch. But we ate a fair amount of pasta—spaghetti or Husband’s Delight—and rice—the processed yellow rice you could get in tiny bags at the Kash ‘n’ Karry for Monday night’s chicken-and-yellow-rice dish.

Things changed about 1980-81. Pinellas County, Florida, got a Costco and a Pace and things that had been a sometimes-treat, such as Coke, became pretty regular drinks we’d have with supper. They were so much cheaper to buy in bulk…and Mom did.

I speed-skated competitively, and I recall many a Friday night, when the general skate session ended at midnight, we’d come in for a two-hour practice. At 2 AM, we’d head toward home and stop at the Jack-in-the-Box or, more often, at the Krispy Kreme. I loaded up on a crème-filled, chocolate-covered doughnut topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. I ate this with a small carton of milk, while the adults had coffee and caught up on more gossip. My parents would have been just slightly older than the age I am now, and I cannot imagine staying up that late—even with a child in a sport like speed-skating—or eating that much sugar or drinking caffeine at what is considered “liver time” in Chinese medicine, the time when we are to give most of our processing organs a rest.

“Food Product” Prevalence
But it’s not only that today, everywhere we look, we find processed foods. It’s also that they are cheap to buy and, as Huntington points out, very well advertised. The advertising has “been there for a long time, but it’s become so intense, relentless and constant,” he says. If there’s an equation that seems to suit processed food, it might be bliss point + prevalence + convenience + heavy advertising = more sales/more consumption.

The funny thing about the processed food industry is that it does not confine itself to any one country. In fact, recently the United States shifted to second place in the ranking of nations consuming energy-deficient foods, following Mexico. Some thought this was reason to cheer. I was not one of them.

It was not all that long ago that it was common in places like the South to see mineral deficiencies result in illnesses like pellagra. Many people don’t seem to have a handle on the physics and physiology of food/energy. A food that is not nutrient dense actually draws more from the body’s reserves that it gives back, which means the person’s energetic accounts are in the red.

More common sight: families buying fresh food directly from farmers at local markets.

A more common sight: families buying fresh food directly from farmers at local markets.

I asked Huntington what he thought might slow or reverse these tendencies to consume “food products” and drinks that are not helpful for us. He doesn’t know, but says any move toward reversing and slowing is just that—slow. “Younger generations slowly get wiser, older generations and habits die, and eventually it will be more common to care, be more aware, read labels, etc., and to want this kind of awareness for our children instead of blindly painting some false image of ‘happiness’ for others to see.”

There are signs of a wake-up underway. If you visit local farmers markets on the weekend, you see more families with young children buying fruits and vegetables and better-quality eggs. You see more people growing some of their own food. You have more people asking important questions: “What’s in this? Are there any genetically modified organisms? What about ‘natural flavors’?”

I, for one, am hopeful that the times, they are a’changin’.

To view more of the work of JaH-HaHa Art Collaborative, go here.

Seeking the Shaman Within: An Interview with Beth Terrence

My first personal encounter with shamanic practices came in 2007, in an appropriate-to-our-times trio of CDs recorded by therapist and shamanic practitioner Sandra Ingerman. It was entitled, The Soul Retrieval Journey: Seeing in the Dark.IngermanSoulRetrieval

As Ingerman defined it, “Shamanism is the first spiritual practice of human kind,” dating back at least 30,000 years. Shamanic practices are cross-cultural, with variants used in Siberia, Australia, Africa, North and South America, and parts of Europe and Asia.

The word “shaman” comes from Tungus, a Siberian tribe (today called the Evenki), and it translate as “one who sees in the dark.” That phrase resonates as shamanic work often involves going into the depths of what we don’t see in our everyday, conscious lives and bringing ideas, revelations, and more nuanced views of old experiences into our consciousness so that we can grow our awareness of ourselves.

Fast-forward to 2011. I’d heard about “Beth” from the friend of a friend, but for whatever reason, it did not work out for us to meet. The friend did not say anything about Beth’s work, just that it sounded like Beth and I would have a lot in common.

When I finally met Beth early in 2012, I was glad I had. Beth Terrence, Annapolis-based shaman, facilitator and holistic practitioner, has become a good friend and has been an integral part of my spiritual growth in the last year. She runs Beth Terrence Holistic Health Resources & Wellness Programs.

Beth Terrence is a shaman, facilitator and holistic practitioner based in Annapolis, Md.

Beth Terrence is a shaman, facilitator and holistic practitioner based in Annapolis, Md.

By the time I met Beth, I’d done some shamanic work on my own and had taken a basic shamanic journeying class through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, started by anthropologist Michael Harner, Sandra Ingerman’s teacher.

But I had never had a soul retrieval undertaken on my behalf. Terrence journeyed for me and recovered two parts, both of which have begun to play key roles in the spiritual work I do now.

Long-Standing Interest in Holistic Healing
Holistic practices are not new to Terrence. She was 11 when she came across a book on reflexology. She used the book to teach herself. As a teenager, she developed a meditation practice that continues to this day. Her own health issues with fibromyalgia led to yoga, chiropractic work, herbs, massage and acupuncture. When she got as far as she could on the physical level, she began to work with emotions and the spirit. Eventually, this led her to shamanic work.

“Most traditional and indigenous cultures have had someone who holds the spiritual foundation in the community,” she says. “People go to this person for healing. This person works with the individual and the collective.”

Shamanic practices are a natural fit for Terrence. In cultures where a shaman saw to the well being of the people, the shaman often had an initiatory experience as a child—they were somehow set apart from the tribe, whether because of illness or something else that distinguished them.

Terrence believes that her childhood and teenage years were her gateway to shamanic work. Her mother suffered from schizophrenia, InspiredVoicesand the experience of growing up was one of near-constant fear. (Terrence writes about this experience in “Lost and Found: The Birth of a Shaman,” in Inspired Voices: True Stories by Visionary Women, compiled by Andrea Hylen.)

Traditionally and even in many indigenous cultures today, shamans often work on the physical plane, using plants to help heal the physical body. But the work doesn’t rest only on the physical. Indeed, greater support for healing may come through helping the mind, emotions and spirit.

Helping Others to Access the Shaman Within
It is a gift when we can see ourselves as we truly are, but not many people are so well developed or disciplined that they can easily size up their internal conflicts and pinpoint the roots of their illnesses. And in a culture where distractions are woven into the fabric of daily life, it’s all the more difficult to take the time to focus on oneself and discover what lies in the unconscious and to bring it to consciousness and begin to work with it.

But that said, with a little help, we can learn how to work with ourselves.

“I believe we all have a shaman within,” says Terrence, who’s been working with shamanic practices for more than 10 years.

Beth Terrence deepened her connection to herself and to Earth through a vision quest.

Beth Terrence deepened her connection to herself and to Earth through a vision quest.

Shamans can help others access that “inner shaman,” which allows the person to regain his or her own spiritual integrity and wholeness.

A primary tool that shamans use is the shamanic journey, a way of connecting with unseen worlds in non-ordinary reality, that is, reality not bounded by time and space, where the journeyer can access information that can help herself or others.

All in an Afternoon’s Journey
The hallmark of a journey is a visit to lower, middle or upper worlds—or a combination of those. A person initiates a journey to the lower world usually by visualizing an opening in the earth. The opening may be a pool or lake, a tree or a waterfall, even the stairs that lead down to a subway tunnel. The lower world is the realm of power animals or totem animals, which are helping spirits, usually an aspect of ourselves that we need to activate—to bring from the unconscious to the conscious realm—depending on what the animal represents in general as well as to the journeyer specifically.

Middle world journeys take place on this plane and often are initiated by visualizing a walk out the front door.

An upper-world journey is initiated by visualizing an upward track, such as a tree or mountain or even an elevator going up. The upper world is where the spirits of  the ancestors reside along with teachers in human form. Angels or animals may also appear. All can be helping spirits.

Among the reasons for undertaking a journey are to get in touch with these helping spirits and guides. They can provide insights into your past, present or future. They may help inspire your creativity. Overall, they provide a safe connection to yourself to allow for wide-ranging exploration.

Physical and Spiritual Healing
One of the doorways Terrence passed through on her way to becoming a shaman was her own struggle with fibromyalgia at about age 19. “I didn’t find much support in conventional medicine, so I looked to other modes of healing,” she says. “In that process—diet/nutrition, yoga, meditation, body work, network chiropractic—at some point I came to a place where it was 70 percent resolved. I realized the primary aspect I needed to address was the emotions.”

That realization led to other areas, including Bach Flower Remedies, pioneered by Dr. Edward Bach, and PEER (Primary Energy Emotional Recovery).

Willow is one of Dr. Bach's remedy plants, meant to assist with moving emotions involving resentment and self-pity.

Willow is one of Dr. Bach’s remedy plants, meant to assist with moving emotions involving resentment and self-pity.

Working with those methods helped to resolve the symptoms of the fibromyalgia. But there was still more to do. “I still felt like something was missing, some piece—that I still carried a lot of pain and so I continued on my personal work as part of my journey.”

When she left New York City for Maryland in 2001, Terrence experienced a period of grief and intense loss, including the deaths of people close to her as well as divorce. But her mentor for energy healing, Bill Henegan, who helped her understand her calling, also worked with her through that time.

“I wouldn’t have made it through without him,” she says.

A year later, Terrence began to attend a sweat lodge/shamanic journey/ceremony group. Then a friend who felt severely depressed and had serious health issues felt drawn to have a soul retrieval and asked Terrence to come as a witness. That was Terrence’s first experience with individual shamanic work as a healing tool.

Soul retrieval is one of the main shamanic practices. It can be helpful for people who have suffered soul loss, a common occurrence for anyone living. Soul loss can result from basic experiences and extraordinary experiences, such as trauma, accidents, or even those times as a child when we felt no one was there for us or, for whatever reason, our needs were not met. Soul loss may also occur when we don’t have the ability to deal with what’s coming up, when we feel cut off or disconnected from ourselves—even if the disconnection is caused by something that happened in a different lifetime—and parts of ourselves have dissociated.

“Soul retrieval helps people to reconnect with parts of ourselves that are ready to come back,” says Terrence.

Shamanic practitioners and people themselves can use the journey process to recover these parts and reconnect with them. To do a soul retrieval, the shaman first creates a sacred space in which the client is supported in a “container” of love, one that protects him or her from interferences of the outside world.

Dark Night of the Soul
Through that period of grieving and further journey work, Terrence began to feel more connection with the spirit realm. She went to a workshop that combined shamanic journeying and work with stones and crystals as spirit medicine. The workshop leader told Terrence that her pull toward the spirits was so strong that she needed to choose between leaving this realm or staying here and moving through the pain and turmoil. It was then she decided to have a soul retrieval herself.

When Bill Henegan passed away in 2005, Terrence encountered some “divine timing” in her connection with shaman Ross Bishop through the Energy Therapy Network, an online list of providers and events that relate to alternative healing—the same way she had met Henegan.

Terrence apprenticed with Bishop, who had studied shamanic practices with indigenous people, but also incorporated inner-child work with journeying.

Inner children may be described as those parts of ourselves that have gotten—to borrow poet Robert Bly’s phrase—stuffed “into the bag.” The children are, well, children. They are spontaneous and joyful. But to some adult for whom a child’s actions may cause embarrassment, those parts of the children get shoved away, out of sight. But they do not disappear. They become what Carl Jung dubbed the shadow. The question is, of course, how best to reintegrate those pieces of ourselves?

Using Bishop’s techniques, which are found in his book Healing the Shadow, “there’s an opportunity for [people] to, in a sense, self-facilitate their own soul return.”HealingtheShadow_Cover_RossBishop

A practitioner can help initiate the process of returning lost soul parts as well as to help someone move more easily through areas of resistance—areas that may be difficult and uncomfortable for someone to work with on her own.

Terrence has seen how much journeying can help people who are burdened especially by old patterns and habits. One instance of this was in her work with people who have addictions. She was able to introduce the journey process to people who didn’t know about it and didn’t have “too much faith or belief they would have some sort of experience.” They were able to have a visual or auditory experience that helped them to learn about their own intuition and how they themselves experience that intuition energetically, says Terrence.

They learned to solve problems creatively, using imagery that came to them through their inner guidance. Most importantly, they achieved a “natural state change” rather than using a substance. Creating a natural altered state of consciousness is one of the many benefits of shamanic journeywork and opens possibilities for those dealing with addictions. Through journeys, they can experience the sense of connection they had been longing for—a sense of connection for which they had used substances as substitutes. Journeys gave them a way to cultivate connection with—and within—themselves as well as with others and the world.

More Connection, More Joy
That’s how shamanic work goes—whether someone is reconnecting with lost soul parts or simply seeking guidance. The more people connect and reconnect, the more they are able to live fully, with more joy, and the more they are able to be in the present; they become integrated. That can help people to live better with fellow humans and with Earth itself.

It’s always been important for two-leggeds to connect with Earth by actually walking on the land or swimming Earth’s waters. But unless you make the time to do so, it’s difficult today. Yet, as Terrence says, “In any moment, we can go into that space in nature (through the shamanic journey). In our day and age and in our culture, fostering a sense of connection with Earth and the natural world is a major part of shamanic work.”

Even if shamans do not work directly with plants, today’s shamanic practices still derive from Spirit, Earth and humankind, likely making them the oldest co-created practices.

“Often, through ceremony and ritual, we honor and connect with Earth—that’s an aspect of all ceremony,” says Terrence.Beth_VisionSite2

In shamanic work, “there’s a strong respect and honoring of Mother Earth as a caretaker and the feeling that all beings are equal and one,” says Terrence. “The interconnectedness of all things is accepted as a foundational belief or philosophy.”

“Becoming integrated is part of becoming whole and balanced,” says Terrence. “Lack of integration adds to chaos. Integration can provide a sense of peace, balance and wholeness…as more people become integrated, that can create more balance in the world.”

Meeting People Where They Are
In an indigenous culture with an active shaman, people would not be without their soul parts for very long. The return of the parts would often be accompanied by celebration or a joyous welcome from family, Terrence adds.

Given all the chaos present in modern, Western culture, it’s often difficult for lost soul parts to become integrated. “If we lived in a natural place and we lived more slowly, it might be easier for the parts to integrate,” says Terrence.

How Terrence works and at what pace depends on where the client is. Through a process of dialogue, exploration and inner guidance, she feels into what method would best benefit a client at that time.

“Ideally, my goal is to initiate a process of transformation for my clients so that they can then continue to work on their own process of growth and change,” says Terrence. “The work is customized. It may take several visits or ongoing work to address various issues or layers. This ultimately creates a foundation so that the client becomes their own agent of change,”—their own shaman.

Learn more about Beth Terrence by visiting www.bethterrence.com.

On Saturday, July 27, from 1 to 4 PM, in Annapolis, I’ll have the privilege and honor of co-leading a workshop with . Beth and I will offer a variety of tools for heart-centered living as well as heart-supportive plant medicines. Cost of the workshop is $50. Space is limited, so if you’re interested, register by going to https://www.eventbrite.com/event/7246250731?ref=ebtnebregn.

Prep Your Way to Better Food

Getting fresh, whole foods into your diet doesn’t have to be burdensome. It requires a little planning and some wrist action. The long-term benefits are tastier and better-quality food.

Here’s how to make it happen:

Fresh peas from Woodside Greenhouse are a huge draw at the Jones Falls Expressway Sunday market in Baltimore.

Fresh peas from Woodside Greenhouse are a huge draw at the Jones Falls Expressway Sunday market in Baltimore.

Shop at local farmers markets for the freshest food.
Unless nearby grocers have a specific program to buy from local farms, then much of what ends up in the produce section has traveled, on average, anywhere from 800 to 1,400 miles. Imagine how much health-giving “oomph” those greens and fruits lose every mile they are trucked! Also, when plants are bred for long-distance and storage, other qualities, including taste, are often sacrificed.

Prep fresh food right away, or as soon as you can.
Direct-to-eater foods tend to spoil quickly, and even if you compost what spoils, your wallet and your health still take a hit. You can increase the number of greens in your diet by prepping everything at once. Rinse, de-stem and chop Swiss chard, cut up kale or collards. Slice crookneck squash or zucchini. Rinse and spin-out lettuce. Large storage containers that fit in the fridge hold the greens and whatever else. That way they are ready when you want them. Doing food prep separately from cooking and cleaning makes a huge difference in the amount of time and labor spent at one setting. It makes it a little easier if your spouse or partner likes to help out in the kitchen, and it’s a great way to teach children the value of fresh food and how to take care of themselves.

Prepping two bunches of chard takes 15 to 20 minutes, once you establish a routine and rhythm.

Prepping two bunches of chard takes 15 to 20 minutes, once you establish a routine and rhythm.

Stock up on fresh fruits for winter eating.
Canning, freezing and drying are the main ways to save what’s in season for the seasons ahead. If you have space, freezing tends to be easiest and may help preserve nutrients and taste. For fruits, such as berries and figs, wash them, cut off stems, if applicable, and place on a sheet of wax paper or parchment on a cookie sheet. Place in freezer. Check a half-hour or more later, depending on the fruit, to ensure that the fruit is solid. Then remove from the tray and place in a bag and date the bag.

Make and freeze seasonal soups, such as asparagus or tomato, to eat during the winter months.
Quart-sized yogurt containers work well for this. I chill the soups down first in glass Mason jars in the fridge before transferring them to the containers, which are labeled and dated.