Monday, August 13, 2018

The Four Noble Truths and My Stomach

Buddhism dovetails with Sufism

On Monday morning, after several cups of tea, some MCT oil and macadamia nuts, I felt a tightening in my stomach. I drank some water but it didn't make much difference. I tried to ignore it and work. Not possible. I bent over to get the laundry from the washer and got so dizzy I had to grip the wall to keep from falling down. As the pain intensified, a cold sweat drenched my clothes. I collapsed on the floor on my meditation cushion moaning.

30 minutes later - and a lot of stomach massage and elimination - it was gone. I drank a lot of water and then went to swim laps. Probably food poisoning or an allergic reaction. However, quite possibly the worst pain I've experienced since I was in labor 20 years' ago. And I have a high pain tolerance.

For my meditation teacher training at the Interdependence Project, I have to give a talk on the Four Noble Truths. These are the basis for all Buddhist practice as well as the first teachings given by the Buddha about 2600 years' ago. Like the majority of the most powerful learnings in the world, these are deceptively simple. Read the 3 (or four) laws of thermodynamics - energy is neither created nor destroyed. Or Einstein's e=mc squared. Descartes, I think therefore I am (though I might argue with that one).

I am finding, in my studies, that so much of the teachings of Buddhism dovetail neatly into Sufism (and Muslim) thought in that the main message is compassion for oneself and others.

The Dalai Lama practices with the Sufis

Also that the deepest truths are often the most obvious.

Noble Truth #1

Life involves suffering. 

So simple. Some people interpret that as "life is suffering," others say, "there is suffering" or "suffering exists," or "I am suffering." Like all simple phrases, the interpretations are endless. My experience is that life in this human form involves suffering, across the board. The extent and kind of the suffering is different for different people, but our personal suffering is connected with all suffering.

To put it into context, Buddha (the historical person called Siddhartha Gautama) was an Indian prince who had been shielded from all suffering by his family. His mother died from the complications of childbirth, so his father decided to keep him in an opulent palace to protect him. You know those kids, you see them in the Hamptons or Lake Cuomo or Gstaad.

Siddhartha was a bright and curious guy so one day, he snuck out of the palace grounds and took a trip to the South Bronx in the 80s (metaphor is mine). He saw suffering - a dying person, a sick person and a very old person. Siddhartha was shocked to discover that aging, illness and death were  inevitable.

In response, he decided to become a monk and meditate until he found a way out.

Easy-peasy truth. Life is suffering.

But maybe you read or hear that and think, "Sure, but I'm not really suffering. I have a pretty good life and I'm generally a happy person." (Which is what I thought).

I live in a pleasant part of the first world. I have access to clean water, clean air, medical care, organic food, transportation. I have a roof over my head, running drinkable water, heat and air conditioning, electricity, internet. Big windows. My family is safe. My children had access to education. They have friends. They are healthy. My parents and my brother and his wife and their kids have access to the same. We can practice our faith with relative freedom. We have shoes and clothes and books for days. Even years.

So think about it this way - replace "suffering" with "stress."

Who do you know who is NOT stressed these days? Maybe not all the time, but definitely a lot of the time.

I have this imaginary ideal person - a herb farmer living the ideal life in the countryside, growing biodynamic flowers and surfing on the weekends (the life I secretly want to have, maybe in Australia, where I have never been). But even for her, there is probably stress of some kind. Herb-eating bugs, perhaps? Sick sheep or a water leak in her drying room?

Here's how the Dhammakapavattana Sutta (the first teaching, or the "setting in motion of the spiritual wheel") expresses that thought (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:[1] Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

IRL, there's an incredible herbalist I know. She has a beautiful little farm and creates wonderful tinctures and salves. But her mother is ill and faraway and she has to travel long distances to see her. She has to find people to work on her farm while she is traveling. She worries about her mother a lot of the time. She thinks about how she is going to say goodbye.

I am sure she suffers in other ways, too. Tragically, her ideal life is not immune to stress or suffering.

That brings me back to my stomach ache. Here I am, saying I am suffering-free, but I still collapse on the floor in pain. Plus I definitely deal with my own pain and disappointments and stress (construction, contractors, landlords, friends, clients, not to mention my parents and kids).

Even if I managed to stave off aging and illness or even my own death, others I love are likely to die. I gave birth a few times and it did involve suffering.

But even if I skip those big sufferings. There are tiny points of pain all the time.

Amy Miller, a Buddhist nun of Philadelphia provence, explained it this way, "There are so many kinds of suffering - loneliness, rising high and then falling low, meeting something or someone you don't want to, parting from someone you don't want to leave. There is suffering when you face uncertainty, the suffering you feel in the face of impermanence or change." (This was at the Shantideva Center in Prospect Park).

Let's expand our perspective to include people all around us - obviously, in other parts of the city or other parts of the world, there are people who have fewer resources, who face harder living conditions or those amongst us who have terrible illness and obstacles whether physical, mental or emotional.

Yes. There is suffering - from the top of society to the bottom.

Noble Truth #2

There is a cause to the suffering.

Yep. No sh__, Sherlock. LOTS OF CAUSES!

It's my job, it's my husband (or wife), my kids, my boss or my bad-vibe colleagues. It's because my parents messed me up. It's the economy. It's the traffic, the terrible president, it's the fact that I am addicted to donuts/coffee/heroin. It's the expired MCT oil that gave me a stomach ache!

But of course, there are other translations of that truth. In the translation of the Dhammakapavattana Sutta, that truth is called the "Origin of Stress."  It's also called "The Root of Suffering."

According Gil Fronsdal, who does a good job putting the four noble truths into context, it's called "The Arising of Suffering."

In the frame of Buddhist thought - as Gil Fronsdal explains - all suffering comes from (gasp) OURSELVES. All those supposed "causes," for instance, why we eat the donuts every day, are actually "conditions" of our suffering.

He says it like this: If you are trying to lose weight or eat less sugar and every day you can not find a way to resist the donuts in the coffee shop, the DONUTS are not really the cause of your weight gain or addiction.

You can change the conditions by going to a different coffee shop that does not sell donuts. You can bring coffee from home. You can skip drinking coffee all together. You can buy something else from the coffee shop or only bring enough money with you for coffee. Or you can not open your mouth and put the donuts in.

The actions that lead you to the donuts are the conditions. But the reality is that the obsession with donuts is your own craving.

According to Amy Miller, there are two causes of suffering - one is your own mind and the other is negative action in your past life.

You've probably heard this in a lot of New Age teachings (or my other blog posts) but one of the things that you might notice is that your suffering or discomfort is relative.

For instance, if you have just won the lottery or just fallen in love and your parking lot attendant stops you on the street to tell you that he's very sorry but he crashed your car into a post - you might be ok with it.

On the other hand, if you've just been laid off from your job or your dog died and the same thing happens, you'd be irate. Or feel like the whole world hates you.

The level of your suffering will be different.

In some circles, they might interpret this as - YOU are responsible for your own suffering so you just need to buck up and get over it. Don't worry. Be happy.

And if it's from a past life, well, that's just it. Too late now.

IMHO, that's not exactly what Buddha was saying here.

For instance, did my stomach ache come from my mind? Could I have just been a little more cheerful and not have a stomach ache? Was I cruel to an insect or small animal in my past life and now my abdomen was making amends?

Another interpretation is that suffering comes from cravings and desires. For instance, the desire for physical pleasure, the desire for delicious food, the desire to feel superior to others (like when you are seated in first class and watching all the other passengers file back into economy), the desire to have more.

Still a third way to look at suffering is dissatisfaction. Alan Watts describes it that way. The traffic light is red and you want it to be green. You're late and you keep hitting all the red lights on the way. Or all the DON'T WALK signs when the subway was delayed.

Dissatisfaction is a reaction to what is. Your metabolism. Your height. Your partner. Your bad knees. The weather. The way you were brought up. Maybe someone you love died and you didn't want him to. That's understandable, but it can be qualified as dissatisfaction or discontent.

If you've taken the Landmark Forum courses, you know that dissatisfaction with "what is" is considered the main cause of suffering.

Which also brings up two Buddhist ideas - emptiness or interconnectedness. Weird that those two things would go together. Amy Miller described emptiness as the understanding that nothing has an inherent nature. Nothing is good or bad in itself. A donut alone in a forest does no harm.

Or as Gil Fronsdal would say, every desire has a root.

So Gil described his desire for a beautiful sportscar. Exploring that, he realized that he wanted the car because it would make him look more successful, feed his ego. The car was neither good or bad, right or wrong.

The root might be (as both Amy and Gil say), getting attached to our "story," the meaning that we attach to it. It doesn't mean there is nothing there - it means that what's there is there and nothing more. Seeing the causes of your suffering as something other than your own self is your story.

"I can't make plans because my husband and kids are always doing last-minute things so I just give up." Or "I can't get a job because everyone thinks I'm too fat and I can't lose weight because there are always cookies and junk food around my house."

When we do that we make the "conditions" of our suffering the reasons or the root.

The other idea is Impermanence.

The first, as anyone who has lived in NYC can attest, is the nature of life. Seems like every time you turn the corner, your favorite restaurant is gone and there's a totally new condo building in the place of your parking lot. Your best neighbors move to New Jersey. Despite your best efforts, your kids grow up. Your parents get older. It's sad.

The material world is all about change.

Noble Truth #3

There is a way to end suffering.

The truth is, you can't change the universe, but you can change yourself.

And if you can change yourself, maybe you can change your suffering. Thinking back to my stomach ache, this is an appealing idea. I was in such intense pain that I couldn't imagine anything else.

The translation from Thanissaro Bhikku is as follows:

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.

This probably the simplest of the Four Truths, but also the most pleasant one. You are in pain and the doctor says, "I can tell you exactly what to do."

All these stupid things that make us suffer have a "cure."

This is what one is taught in the Landmark Forum. One can't avoid "what is," but one might be able to avoid some of the suffering that it causes.

A little aside. Pain - the discharging of nerve endings - cannot be avoided. However, how you feel and react to that pain (suffering or not), is mutable.

Noble Truth #4

The Path to Ending Suffering

The Eightfold Path fits well with a Sufi perspective, too

The way one frees oneself from suffering and reaches "liberation" or nirvana is called the Eight-Fold Path. Basically, the Buddha taught there were 8 steps to avoiding suffering. They all involve the word "right" which means "accurate" rather than the opposite of wrong. It is also translated as "wholesome" in Thich Nhat Hanh's explanation. "Right" also means in accordance with the Buddhist ideas of impermanence, emptiness and interdependence (creating positive impact on yourself and the world with as little harm as possible to other beings).

The list, briefly:

1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness/Recollection
8. Right Concentration/Meditation

The things you do to avoid suffering are really about not causing suffering to others and coming to terms with your own suffering in every single aspect of your life.

How you understand, how you think, what you say, what you do, your job, what you try to accomplish, what you hold on to and how you meditate - all of those will affect your ability to manage stress, pain, sadness and discomfort.

Many people think, "Why would the essential teaching of a faith or a school of thought focus on the bleakest parts of life?"

The goal of the first Buddhist teaching is to give you tools to manage those bleak parts so that you can fully enjoy or be present to the good parts.

Acknowledge your own suffering. Explore it. Feel it. Give yourself love and compassion for it.

Forget measuring it against anyone else's suffering or situation. Just be with what arises for yourself.

Because you can only release your own pain when you have admitted that it's there.

Don't even try and change anything until you've done that. When you have taken the time to embrace your suffering like a baby, as Thich Nhat Hanh, describes it, you can let it go. When you take the time to see what is making your baby cry, you can address it. While your baby is crying, it's hard to see anyone else clearly.

Once your suffering is realized, take a minute to realize that if you are suffering, so is everyone else.

And you are connected to everyone else. Your next job is to alleviate or at least not inflame the suffering of those around you.

Gradually, my stomach ache subsided. I threw the whole bottle of MCT oil in the garbage and got back to work.

Useful for Meditation Teacher Training Class!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

How Can I Help?

Years' ago, I got sucked into one of those downloadable courses with the headline, FOUR WORDS EVERY MARKETER NEEDS TO KNOW.

Bizarrely, I remember 2 things from the course - one is that people will excuse almost anything if you use the word "because." If you need to skip ahead in line, if you need special attention, whatever. We are a species that likes to make sense of things. If you give a reason, even if it is nonsense, people feel like they get it and are less likely to be angry, offended or taken advantage of.

The other thing is people who sound angry or swear are less likely to get help from other people. A lot of articles recently show that people who swear a lot are more intelligent, more honest, better able to handle pain and more in control of their lives, BUT when you are angry or seemingly volatile - other people can find you a little scary and just stay away. Studies also show that people who swear are imagined to be less competent.

I told this a friend and she said, "Wow. I wonder if that's why the last time I really needed help, I couldn't find anyone to support me." (I am ashamed to say that I was amongst her friends who wasn't present).

I had a friend who said when she had cancer, no one ever came to the hospital. She said she didn't feel like "broadcasting it" on social media. She was angry.

This also made me think of how some of my Muslim friends are reacting to the protests against the "Muslim Ban" and the Shepard Fairey, "We The People," illustration of a woman in hijab. Which I loved. [Not least because a couple of years' ago Muslim women who tried to show their patriotism by wearing flag hijabs (rather than flag daisy dukes) got them ripped off their heads or were massacred on social media.]

Personally, I have been moved to tears by the "Standing with Muslim" signs all over Brooklyn and New York City. As a Muslim in mainstream America, a lot of us were "stealth" practitioners You know, you let people get to know you a little. You show them how normal and regular you are - and then, when they're softened up a little - you tell them you are Muslim.

Muslim felt like a bad word. It was rarely said aloud on mainstream TV - except in describing terrorists or the misguided women who love them - on Homeland, Sleeper Cell or 24. Since I worked in fashion and beauty, I was at numerous events where Claire Danes was also in attendance. I always gave her a very wide berth. (It's a role, but I always felt creeped out.)

I was surprised by a handful of Muslim friends who hated the Shepard Fairey image (it's from a photograph of a women who does not normally wear hijab) or who felt co-opted by the Muslims praying in public. More than one person said, "They've never even stepped into a mosque in their lives and all of a sudden, they are marching in pro-Muslim rallies."

There are women of color who are insulted by the affluent white women who are marching and standing in solidarity. The white women often miss certain points of sensitivity.

My thoughts: One, from the perspective of advertising, since I have been steeped in it. Two, as a regular person, a single woman of a certain age in NYC.

One - Whether you veil or not, as a Muslim woman, you can't deny that it is a powerful socio-political symbol. It is immediately visible and it immediately aligns you with a group. Personally, I don't cover my head and don't believe it is necessary to my faith (a long blogpost explaining why). I do believe that if you want to, you should be able to cover.

I believe prayer and faith are personal choices and best performed in private. However, there is something powerful in the act of prayer or even meditation in a group, all that energy focusing on a greater good. On top of that, Muslim prayer is beautiful and dramatic because it is both physical and performed in unison. Watching hundreds or thousands of people prostrate all at once is a moving experience, that's why it's used over and over again in films and documentaries, both pro and anti-Islam.

In my opinion, Muslim prayer, performed as a flash mob is spiritually uplifting, beautiful to watch and can show people who are unfamiliar with it that it isn't sinister. It could inspire someone to join in. My taking part in a Jewish ceremony or saying a prayer in a church or a temple doesn't make me less of a Muslim, but it does make me understand, on a visceral level, that we are all human.

My experience has been a sense of love by my friends reaching out to say they support and stand with me. The people who have reached out to me have been Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Atheists, Agnostics. They have been black, white, brown and every variation in the spectrum. They have been gay, straight and trans. Some are not even friends. Some are acquaintances. Some are people I didn't even think liked me.

If you were amongst those people, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You are acknowledged and appreciated. My eyes fill with tears when I say that. My heart aches. I hug you.

Two - As a single person past 40 in NYC, I realize this fastpaced city can be isolating. Everyone works crazy long hours, the cost of living is so high that almost everyone - no matter how well off they are - feels pinched in some way. You have to walk long distances no matter the weather, climb up and down subway and building stairs (in often in heels), carry heavy bags. In everything you do, there will be someone younger, faster, prettier, cheaper, stronger, richer breathing down your neck. On top of that, the entire city is always under construction and shifting the demographics. People who like to say, "Back in the day... " will have lots of fodder as things change at breakneck speed.

Finally, my long-winded point: how to get and accept help.

Unless you can accept people at whatever level they are willing to help, and accept it without judging their motives, you don't open the door for that help.

Lots of people are insincere. They help just because it's trendy or to bring attention to themselves - but maybe that's their way in. Everyone deserves a point of entry. Maybe all those "nice white ladies" marching will run screaming away when push comes to shove. Or maybe they will use their position of privilege to help others. Give them a space to do that. It looks like they are trying.

Maybe all the men marching at the "women's" rallies will think about women differently. Certainly the more bodies you get at a rally, the more effective it is at making an impact. We need men, too.

If you are angry - even if your anger comes from sadness, pain or loneliness, even if its justified - people will stay away from you. Most of us are scared of anger spilling over on to us. We all learned as toddlers to get out of Mummy's way, if she's in a bad mood.

I'm not saying don't be sad or hurt or angry - anger can motivate us to powerful action - but it also can isolate us. If you often say negative things about people you encounter, the people listening will wonder if they are up next. You leave your social media friends or listeners with a bad taste in their mouths and a sense of discomfort.

If you speak well of people - not flippantly, but consciously - what you say is nicer to be around. Being completely pollyanna is nauseating, but when you hear yourself getting in an "Oscar the Grouch" mood, try to stop it. Unless you can be as clever and funny as Fran Lebowitz, probably better to lay off.

If you ever want help, that is.

On top of that, you can only get help and support if you ask. Amanda Palmer wrote a book called the Art of Asking which had a brilliant premise - if you want help, you need to ask. If you are not a public person on social media and don't feel comfortable letting your friends know when you are struggling, then you need to call/email/text them personally and ASK (without bullying or intimidating).

First, as social animals, we are hardwired to want to help each other. It makes you feel good when you make someone else feel good. When others see you helping someone, it makes THEM feel good. That chain carries over into the actions of the others who see your actions. Each person who witnesses someone else doing something caring is likely to behave with compassion and/or empathy in his/her next social interaction. There is scientific data to back this up.

Next, it is a powerful thing to be vulnerable. Not all the time, because you can be a black hole of needs. It's great to be self-sufficient and independent. But sometimes, let your guard down. Let someone - or lots of people - know that you are struggling. In the end, we are all human beings. Appeal to someone on a human level and they will want to help you. When you let your guard down, you open yourself up to abuse, but you also give someone a safe space to step into. You let them rise to the occasion.

NYC is isolating. Social media makes FOMO out of control. Everyone else's life is infinitely more fabulous and wonderful. They all seem to be at parties or on amazing vacations while you are home in your raggedy, stained pajamas eating chocolate and lying in your unmade bed looking at their pictures. However, believing someone's life is their instagram feed is like believing you are as wonderful as your dog says you are.

Really want help, connection and love? Go help someone else. It's great to write in your gratitude journal, but then go help in a domestic abuse shelter. Do something for someone else that you wish someone had done for you. What goes around, comes around. It really does.

For all my friends of color who think white people hate them (not that lots of them are not scared of us), go find one or two and talk to them about what's really going on for you. Listen to them in return. Hug them if that makes sense. Don't beat anyone up, open a dialogue. If you talk to people about what you are feeling, without blaming anyone else for your feelings, it allows them to connect. It makes a bridge.

Ever notice how if your bag spills open on the subway in NYC, people will all get up and help you collect the contents? Some people won't because they have their own issues. But most people will look under those grimy benches and pick up your lip gloss or packet of tissues and give them back. They might ask you to check if your Metrocard or IDs are still there so you can get home.

One day, I was late for a class. I ran down the subway stairs, shoved myself through all the people who couldn't get on a packed train car. I threw myself into the crowd. Unfortunately, I slipped out and my leg got caught in the space between the train and the platform.

A huge group of people - most of whom I had just shoved aside - came forward and pulled me out of the gap. They dusted off my bags and helped me to my feet. They asked if I was all right.

No one asked about my religion or my political beliefs (even though I have badges all over my backpack).

That is what it means to be a human being.

We will only get through the next few years if we learn to be indivisible and use our different experiences and access to help each other. BECAUSE it's crucial to stand together.

We are here for you. Just let us know how we can help. Let us in.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The C-Word: Meals to Heal or Savor Health

When you have cancer - or another major crisis - every single thing you consume should be supporting your recovery. Since not eating when you are not hungry is natural, and fasting or limiting calories during chemotherapy makes it even more effective - never eat just to gain weight. Your meals should heal.

Talk about Fearless Healing ideas: Susan Bratton, who studied microbiology and finance, started a powerful new business when she watched one of her best friends succumb to cancer treatments. She says, "Food really matters. Doctors are just beginning to learn how important it is."

Susan Bratton serves meals that heal at Savor Health
A year or two ago, I wrote a post called, "What's Left to Eat?" That's what people say when I say I don't eat wheat, dairy, sugar or processed foods (or animal products that come from animals aren't organic and humanely-raised). I am not militant, I do eat a bite or two of someone else's homemade-with-love cooking to get some of their love in my body. I don't ask if the soy sauce has sodium benzoate in it.

At home, I am always testing out new recipes and new ways to make delicious, interesting food that feeds your wellbeing as well as your tastebuds and your need - because, let's face it, pleasure is a real need - for taste and texture.

All very well for me, because I am usually healthy and energetic these days. On the other hand, sometimes, you know you should, but you just can't face another thing. Or the people who are helping you with your meals are overwhelmed or don't know what to give you.

Susan started a food service called Savor Health that prepares and delivers healing meals to people with cancer or other systemic health issues. They have oncological nutritionists onboard who work with you to put together your most healing options.  To me, what was most interesting about Susan was her background. Unlike a lot of people in the wellness world, she comes from a background of science and finance. She was drawn to the hard facts that are often ignored. "I wanted to bridge the two worlds, the one of medicine and the one of alternative or natural healing. So I found well-designed studies that supported what I learned and could be trusted by the medical community."
Basically, she took things that practitioners of natural medicine have known for thousands of years and found ways to help oncologists, cardiologists, health insurance companies and even corporations understand how they work.

Even if you're not sick, eating well makes your skin glow and eyes sparkle, gives you more energy and actually makes you happier - so much better than a jar of expensive face cream.

So, much as I adore Moon Juice and Amanda Chantal Bacon (I really love her energy and her desire to help), this is a practical approach that you can start using immediately, especially in New York City. You can also stop stressing out your friends who are trying to figure out what to feed you!

Check it out and tell me what you think in the comments!

Monday, October 31, 2016

The C-Word: Staying the Course

Many people I talk to about getting healthier say the same thing to me, "It's too much, Ameena. Maybe you could do it, but I can't change my diet. I can't change my lifestyle."

Yes. Yes you can.

If you want to. 

I'm not trying to beat you up. But I know you can.

Think about this way - it's about long-term goals. Delayed gratification is very hard for people's brains to process. Myself, especially. I tend to be impulsive. When I want something, I want it NOW. I know the feeling.

You may realize you are able to do it in one way but not in another. Some people can save money. They say to themselves, "I'll skip going out to dinner or an extra drink for a bigger dent in my debt or my retirement savings." (I am not one of those people. Despite being middle-aged, retirement seems very far away. And my debt is amorphorous.)

For me, it's "I'll skip buying those boots or that coat, so I can pay the mortgage or rent." I can do short-term.

If you can think, "I'll skip that ice cream cone and my tummy/thighs/double chin will look flatter on Saturday night - or at the beach," which is just a few days' ahead, you can eat to stop or slow cancer or heart disease. If you can do a few crunches every evening, you can be stronger in less than a week.

The strict anticancer diet, which is very close to the Whole30 meal plan, is doable for impulsive people if you can think short term. You tell yourself, "If I skip the milk and sugar in my tea or coffee today, I will have so much more energy or no headache tomorrow." I can promise that you skip the grains and sweeteners (ALL of them, including artificial ones), you will definitely have a flatter stomach by tomorrow. Yes, you will probably feel a little worse while you detox (maybe for three days) and you will be dreaming about candy, but once you get rid of the addiction, you WILL feel and look amazing. Isn't that worth it? Three days to clear eyes and skin? 10 days to a glow?

Instead of thinking about giving stuff up forever, think about giving it up for a week. Or 30 days.

On evenings when you are tired and grumpy and the donuts are calling your name, you think, "Just til tomorrow. I won't eat them now and I will be so happy tonight. Then if I still feel like it, I can always get one tomorrow." When tomorrow comes, you do the same thing. Or maybe you think, "Just for an hour. I'll see if I still want one when I pass the next donut shop." Then when you pass the next donut shop, you say to yourself, "I'm almost home. I could make some sweet potatoes..." and so on.

why it's worth to stick to your anticancer diet. a cherokee proverb.

On the other hand, if you are a long-term thinking person, you say, "I'll skip sugar, dairy and grains so that I can make it to my daughter's wedding - or my granddaughter's wedding."

Or the way I think, "If I stay away from air pollution and toxins, exercise, meditate and eat organic and green today, I will remain self-sufficient and active until I die." Obviously, this is not totally controllable - I could get hit by a car or some other horrid thing, but similarly, I could lose all my retirement savings in a bad investment or if the economy tanks again.

Personally, I am less worried about leaving this world than I am about losing my autonomy and agency.

I don't want to spend the last years of my life being pushed around in a wheelchair and/or an institution. I really don't want other people making decisions for me or choosing what time I go to bed or what meds I take. I don't want to be in constant pain or feeble or lose control of my limbs.

I want to leave this world on my yoga mat, in a sufi meditation or on a surf board.

If you're a short-term person - can you change your lifestyle long enough to make it to your next doctor's appointment and see how your vitals have changed? Can you change it long enough to put your cancer in remission?

This is how I save for retirement. Eating lightly, no sugar and more greens, exercising more, sleeping well, taking supplements that reduce inflammation and strengthen my immune system, meditating - all that is better than health insurance at keeping you from diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

It's not hard to eat organic, humane and anti-inflammatory, look after your heart and stay away from toxins if you want to protect yourself from dementia and alzheimer's.

I know you can do it too.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The C-Word: The Beauty of Cancer

This may sound all superficial when you are in what feels like a life or death situation, but beauty products are actually crucial. We all know that when you are happier, you heal faster.  But also, when you look better, people treat you differently. We are only human.

Getting chemotherapy and planning my skincare

I felt hideous when everything started falling apart, not least because people would stare (just for a minute and then look away). I looked like a scrawny, hairless alien. I don't know if they thought I had cancer or something else, but people tended to give me a wide berth, as though my disease just might be catching. My daughters gave me a gift certificate to a place called Spa Castle - a gigantic Korean spa with all kinds of relaxing treatments - and I didn't go because I thought everyone would REALLY stare at me in a bathing suit. It didn't help that most massage therapists, nail salons, aestheticians, even dentists would refuse me treatment because they were scared of what the cancer might do - or my compromised immune system.

Friends would say, "You look great!" in a loudish, fakely cheerful voice. Or they'd tell me about someone else who had chemo and looked much worse. I ran errands, worked and was happy that I could, but I felt embarrassed about my looks. I went to see one of my daughters in her school play and, between scenes, I came out into the lobby and sat on the floor and cried because I felt like a leper.

A few weeks' later, I was in a meeting at an ad agency pitching, of all things, a haircare line, and feeling totally awkward. I mentioned to the table that I didn't need shampoo. My boss laughed, "No, you need Miracle-Gro!" Well, that broke the tension.


How you look matters.

If you are reading this for a friend or family member who is sick, keep that in mind.

To start out, let's forget serious beauty treatments and think about discomfort. Your skin feels rough, hot, dry and itchy - or some combination of the three - during chemo and/or radiation. Unfortunately, almost any commercial product you apply will irritate the skin even further. Your eyes are often red, dry and swollen.

To start with, I didn't use any cleansers at all. My skin was just too dry. I rinsed it with water. If I attempted to use anything even slightly exfoliating, it made my cheeks sting. I only wore natural make-up products so I didn't need to remove them.

Some people suggest you splash water on your face and then apply a thin layer of sweet almond oil. This is the most basic level of care but it is best for babies with eczema because their skin is naturally plump and soft. Since oil just helps seal the moisture into your skin, it doesn't give your skin the cooling, soothing, quenching it craves.

During my 25+ years in the beauty industry, I used to joke that all the expensive skin creams worked about as well as Crisco with fragrance and a nice jar. It's not totally true.

Even post-chemo, you should probably keep this list in mind - what you really need for your skin is a three-part solution - 1. an emollient, 2. a humectant and 3. an occlusive. Many skin products incorporate the three, but if you don't find one that works for you, here's what you need.

The emollient is a moisturizer. It hydrates, softens and plumps up the fine lines. It feels good on the skin. The reason you can't rely on it alone is that it evaporates very quickly. Thus it can leave the skin feeling even dryer than it did to begin with.

Next, you need a humectant. Humectants draw the moisture from the air into your skin. Glycerin, coconut oil and hyaluronic acid (sounds scary but it's actually something your body creates to lubricate itself) are humectants. If you use too much of a humectant, it can make you skin look fresh and dewy, but it can also make it feel sticky to the touch, especially as the product dries - because it does dry but not completely into a thick gel.

So to top it all off, you need an occlusive. An occlusive seals in the moisture and protects and fortifies your skin's moisture barrier. The moisture on your skin not only makes the skin softer and more resilient, it creates a barrier to bacteria, environmental irritants and pollutants. Thus dry skin is actually more prone to infection.

For me, the best moisturizer during chemo was a simple Calendula cream. Look for brands designed for first aid, like Boiron or Thompson's, or for babies. Make sure it is unscented. It cooled the skin and soothed the itchy red rash. I still travel with a tube of this as my face is very sensitive to stress and different kinds of water. (Personally, after cleansing, I start with a Vitamin C product to help re-build the collagen, reduce the dark spots and splotches you get from chemotherapy and brighten the skin. Be careful with this though, as the wrong product can irritate the skin and cause MORE redness (and that's hardly what you need). Liquid Gold is the only brand I recommend for people with cancer, since it's natural and designed for sensitive skin.)

Then I used a humectant. A friend of mine was working for Estee Lauder and she sent me the Creme De La Mer serum, a rich gel - I think it was fortified with seaweed or algae - that, unlike most commercially-prepared products, didn't have a heavy scent or color. You can also use a pure hyaluronic acid or a natural rosewater and glycerin combination mist. I also love a product called Liquid Gold cell quench which is made of hyaluronic acid and plant stem cells. I spray on some rosewater and glycerin and then roll on a little cell quench and spread it around with my finger tips.

My favorite beauty products for people having cancer treatments - and my routine today.

For my occlusive, I then used a heavy moisturizer with a sweet almond oil base called Cleopatra's cream. It's made by a friend of natural, non-GMO ingredients - including antibacterial coconut oil and homeopathic suspensions of minerals and seems to be the ONLY thing that really hydrates my post-chemo dryness. It still smells lovely but not fake in anyway.

Last, I used a balm or oil at night. I've seen herbal shops selling calendula balms made of herbal extracts and essential oils. As long as it is not too scented, you could use that instead. I would test it on your arm and see how it feels. The Liquid Gold brand also makes a balm with vitamin E that is great for sealing in the moisture and healing.

Finally, moisture has to come from the inside, too. While you are having chemo, drink water like crazy and make sure you are getting your good fats - avocados, coconut oil, nuts, rice bran oil. I took 4 capsules a day of rice bran oil, two capsule of rosemary oil and four capsules a day of seabuckthorn oil.

Just remember that everything you apply to your skin gets absorbed into your blood stream, so if you wouldn't eat it, you probably shouldn't rub it into your face, especially when you are weak and your immune system is compromised.

One month after I stopped chemotherapy. My face well moisturized - just eyeliner but nothing else!
When you are all greased-up, let it soak in for a little while so that you don't look too slippery. Then it's time for make-up! There is a little-known brand called Illuminare which was actually designed to be super gentle for a breast cancer patient and is made out of natural minerals. It's a make-up artists secret as it blends really well, a teensy bit goes a long way and it is non-irritating, even if you fall asleep with it on. Since it has a high mineral content, it works as a sunscreen as well - very useful since the skin becomes very photosensitive during chemotherapy and radiation - and it actually helps your skin heal.

Illuminare makes eye products that do not irritate the eyes (but irritatingly, require separate brushes - though that forces you to clean them often which is good) and nontoxic lipcolors that last all day. One finds that one's lips not only get dry and cracked, they become pale.

I still wore my kajal every single day, unless my eyes got too stingy. Kajal is a South Asian eyeliner made of charcoal and healing oils. I use a brand called Hashmi Kajal. It's supposedly made out of Ayurvedic ingredients and protects your eyesight. It didn't bother my eyes, it's cheap and the only bad thing about it is that the plastic cap is really cheap and can break off in your bag and smear the waterproof stuff everywhere so keep it in a ziplock bag. I rinsed it in cold water between uses.

Apart from kajal, I am sucky at applying make-up myself but there are a million great tutorials on youtube. Watch them but, be super careful with the products you choose. It is not worth the discomfort of skin and eyes that are even more irritated than before. I tried my daughters' make-up and came home and cried again because of how much they made my eyes sting and my face hurt.

My friend Mary Schook showed me how to safely apply false lashes if I needed to go out. And these days, there are no shortage of brow products (it's amazing how weird people look with no eyebrows).  This was shot by my youngest daughter, Rara, and the voice-over is by Zarina.

Brush color on your brows - or where they were - slightly lighter than you think because it can very quickly look mad. When you first start, ask someone else to make sure you haven't turned yourself into Salvador Dali or Lucille Ball in the early 60s.

Most people undergoing cancer treatments become very skinny. Like 14 year-old bones sticking out scrawny. If you were never slim before, this is the silver lining. And here is your chance to try layering! While I'd recommend choosing fabrics that are very smooth and soft so as not to irritate your skin further, I used to start with a very thin, soft cotton t-shirt underneath everything because it gave me more options. I also found that a thin pair of cotton leggings under a loose shirt or dress were useful - because there were so many instances during treatment where one had to undress one part of the body or another. With layers like that, you could reveal an arm, a hand, a foot or a leg without leaving the rest of yourself exposed. That way, you feel like you maintain a level of dignity.

Since I live in New York City AND I didn't want to have to buy an entirely new wardrobe before, during and after treatment, I chose most stuff in neutral colors - black, white and gray - with accents in red or blue. I added a bright pop of color near the face - a scarf or hat -  to cheer myself up.

In terms of fragrance, when you really look odd, it's nice to smell sweet. A lot of people find that chemotherapy and/or radiation makes them nauseated and sensitive to smells, especially artificial ones. I found that, at my most nauseated, the scent of natural grapefruit oil was fresh and clean smelling. Lavender and Rosemary - but the natural oils, not the fake stuff - have a green, camphorousness that can cut through the nausea. They are both also calming and antibacterial. Personally, I also found natural rose and jasmine oils very soothing as well as sexy (and not much made me feel sexy at that time).

My suggestion is to go to health food store or natural aromatherapy place and test out some of the oils. Or ask people to bring you a few. Try a tiny bit on your wrist and leave it on for a while. Or put it on a sweater or sweatshirt. See if it smells nice or it makes you feel sick as the day goes on. If you can't handle any scented products at all, don't worry about it. But given the endocrine interruptors and other nasty effects of synthetic fragrance, I'd recommend you avoid them all together.

Also, look at the products in your bathroom. Shampoos, conditioners, bodywash, soaps and lotions can all irritate the skin and eyes - and they also penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. I would go as natural as you can manage. I used Dr. Bronner's Lavender soap (I didn't need shampoo), a natural toothpaste with no fluoride (another possible carcinogen) and food grade sweet almond oil or coconut oil on my body after bathing. Then I rubbed on a little natural flower oil. I used a Weleda's natural deodorant made mostly from baking soda and it seemed to work well.

If you are getting radiation, I recommend a 20-30 minute soak in 1 cup of epsom salt, 1/2 cup of baking soda and 1/2 cup of natural sea salt after treatment. Then take a shower afterwards.

I made a big effort to reduce the plastic bottles and artificial cleaning products - all my years of swimming laps made me adore the chlorine smell of Clorox Clean-Up - but you can get much less toxic cleaners made of hydrogen peroxide and they are just as effective at killing germs.

I did not wear a wig because I found them itchy, expensive and ugly. (Plus, I have fond memories of Sinead O'Connor and the model Eve as bad ass b@#ches). Since I underwent chemotherapy from October til February, I was partial to some extremely soft cashmere beanies made by Meg Cohen. These are the nicest, thickest cashmere I have ever felt and they are locally-made by the nicest person. It's a tiny business that behaves with the best ethics.

Think about it this way, if you are going to have something close to your skin (and your crown chakra), make sure it has good energy!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Fearless Dessert! Crackpie made EVEN MORE addictive!

I am totally indebted to my friend Evangeline Kim for making this recipe. I had only once tasted a teensy bit of Momofuko Milk Bar's famous crack pie but since they used wheat and refined sugar, I didn't really go further. Cut to five or six years' later and she was telling us how delicious it was and offered to make one while staying here. I challenged her to make a version I could eat (without sugar or wheat). So here it is - and if you eat it warm, topped with a dollop of coconut cream - you will literally not be able to stop in until you have to lie down on the floor and unbutton your trousers in total surrender.

Personally, I would not make this myself as it is too labor-intensive and then I would just eat it all up if it was lying around the fridge BUT - it would be the best thing ever to take with you when you get invited somewhere for thanksgiving or a party and there are no desserts that you can eat and everyone is making you feel like a loser as they chow down. When you bring this, they will all be won over to your side. They will all be talking about how ridiculous it is that everyone can't eat healthy and it's so easy and delicious. 

Or eat it all yourself.

Organic, Paleo, Gluten-Free, NO REFINED SUGAR - even VEGAN - TOTALLY ADDICTIVE Crackpie

Ingredients - recipe adapted from the Bon Appetite one.
Servings: 4-10 (depends on people's self-control)
Cookie Crust

  • Coconut oil or grass-fed butter to grease baking pan
  • 9 tablespoons coconut oil or grass-fed, organic butter
  • 7 tablespoons coconut sugar or 4 tablespoons of monk fruit sweetener
  • 1 heaping tablespoon ground chia seeds mixed with 4 tablespoons of water (or 1 organic egg)
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons old-fashioned oats
  • 1/4 cup almond flour
  • 1/4 cup coconut flour 
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2-1/4 teaspoon sea salt


  • 1 1/4 cup coconut sugar or 3/4 cup of coconut sugar and 1 tablespoon of monk fruit to taste
  • 1 tablespoon coconut milk powder (or colostrum powder)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons coconut oil (or grass-fed butter) 
  • 6 1/2 tablespoons coconut cream
  • 3/4 cup avocado puree (or 4 large organic egg yolks)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

Preparation (prep: 40 min, total: 15 hrs - It's long. Plan in advance.)

Cookie Crust
  • Preheat oven to 300°F. Line 13x9x2-inch metal baking pan with parchment paper; coat with coconut oil or butter. Combine 6 tablespoons oil/butter, 6 tablespoons coconut sugar in medium bowl. Beat mixture until light and fluffy, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl, about 2 minutes. Add ground chia seed mixture or egg; beat until pale and fluffy. Add oats, almond and coconut flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and beat until well blended, about 1 minute. Turn mixture out onto prepared baking pan; press out evenly to edges of pan. Bake until light golden on top, 17 to 18 minutes. Transfer baking pan to rack and cool cookie completely.
  • Using hands, crumble oat cookie into large bowl; add 3 tablespoons coconut oil/butter and 1 1/2 tablespoons coconut sugar. Rub in with fingertips until mixture is moist enough to stick together. Transfer cookie crust mixture to 9-inch-diameter glass pie dish. Using fingers, press mixture evenly onto bottom and up sides of coconut oil or butter greased pie dish. Place pie dish with crust on rimmed baking sheet.
  • Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 325°F. Whisk coconut sugar, coconut milk or colostrum powder, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Add coconut oil or melted butter and whisk until blended. Add coconut cream, then pureed avocado/egg yolks and vanilla and whisk until well blended. Pour filling into crust. Bake pie 30 minutes (filling may begin to bubble). Reduce oven temperature to 300°F. Continue to bake pie until filling is brown in spots and set around edges but center still moves slightly when pie dish is gently shaken, about 20 minutes longer. Cool pie 2 hours in pie dish on rack (If you can resist it. 30 minutes in is about when I ate the first half of the pie, I globbed the coconut cream on top).

    Chill whatever you can save uncovered overnight.
    The coconut sugar and coconut cream makes for a darker pie, but since there is slightly less of a sugar rush - and it's balanced with the higher protein and fiber - it doesn't knock you out quite so fast. But it DOES have fructose - so easy on it! Maybe try substituting Monk Fruit in places?
Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover so that no one knows what it is; keep chilled. Lock up your fridge.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The C-Word: Fearless Blondies!

I read somewhere that when you crave chocolate, you are actually craving protein and minerals so this is one solution - a snack that has both dark chocolate (magnesium!) and a highly-digestible protein, mineral, fat and fiber combination that helps in balancing hormones. Look up chickpeas to see how much you need them.

Overwhelmed with a sugar jones - usually because I haven't had enough sleep, am feeling anxious about something, my hormones are out of whack or I have a little candida - these blondies help curb them (or maybe surrender to them).

I bake a bunch and freeze some. They have that wickedly satisfying sweet-salty-chewy crumbly feeling which you can suddenly feel desperate for if you don't eat grains, refined sugar or processed foods. So here's my version of the great recipe from ambitious kitchen (I LOVE her). Mine are slightly lighter and cakier, hers are fudgier (they both have their benefits).

gluten-free, paleo, vegan chickpea blondies! 
Get out the food processor. Sorry to say that big old food processor is really a necessity here. I've done it in the vitamix and it doesn't come out as well. But you can try it.

Stuff you need:

food processor (or powerful blender)
spatula (to scrape it out of the food processor)
8 x 8 baking pan


1 can of chickpeas
1 tablespoon of ground chia seeds
4 tablespoons of water or vanilla hemp milk
1/2 cup of vanilla hemp milk
1/2 cup of peanut or almond butter (or sunflower butter if you want it to be nut-free)
1/4 teaspoon of baking soda
1/4 teaspoon of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of sea salt (at the moment, I am into Hawaiian red salt) plus 1/4 to sprinkle on top
2 tablespoons of vanilla extract

1 bag of dark chocolate chips (get good ones, it will make a difference - this time we used callebaut - which DO have sugar but not a lot)

1 (more or less) tablespoon of coconut (or ghee or butter if you don't mind it not being vegan) to grease the pan.

Turn the oven on to 350 degrees.

In the food processor, just put everything in there, except for the chocolate chips, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, the grease for the pan, the chia seeds and the hemp milk.

In a teacup, mix the chia seeds with the water or hemp milk to get a gloopy, viscous, eggy mixture. This replaces egg - though you can save time and just drop an egg in there to be more paleo. Add this and the rest of the hemp milk to the food processor.

Pulse, puree, whatever until the entire thing is smooth. Taste for sweetness and saltiness. I don't add sugar, but if you want, you could use whatever sweetener you feel good with - coconut sugar, stevia, lucuma, lankanto - I've heard good things about it, it's made of monk fruit and you can use it for cooking, but I've never done it myself. The chocolate chips are sweet and the nut butters are naturally sweet so just taste what works for you. If you add more flavorings, pulse a little more.

Open the lid of the food processor, dump in half to 3/4 bag of chocolate chips. Stir them around with the spatula - don't turn the machine back on or you will puree them too!

If you want to give them to someone who is not well or needs a little extra love, while you stir them up, think healing and loving thoughts. Imagine that people eating your blondies are immediately healed from whatever is ailing them. Imagine energy coming from your core straight into the batter. You can even say a little prayer and ask your Source to infuse your blondies with healing power. (Note: the person you are sending healing to can be you. We all need it sometimes).

That's how you "reiki" them.

Now grease the pan well with whichever grease you've chosen. I like some raw, sea salty, grassfed butter here but coconut oil tastes buttery too.

Pour the batter into the pan, use the spatula to spread it all out. Sprinkle the rest of the chocolate chips on top, use the spatula to squish them down a little. Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of large-grained sea salt around.

Put the pan in the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes depending on your oven. I've noticed big variations on baking times depending on the oven and the liquidity of the batter. The way to tell if they are ready is that they are slightly brown on the edges and have pulled away from the sides of the pan and the center is set and not jiggley.

Paleo, gluten-free, nut-free chickpea blondies!

Like that.

If they are undercooked, don't kill yourself. All the ingredients are perfectly safe and good raw and they will simply be more fudgey when they cool. If they are overcooked or slightly burned, they will probably still taste delicious - it's all good.

Even really picky kids and my dad will eat them (don't blow it like me and get all overexcited about the ingredients before they put them in their mouths so that they don't even want to try them).

I have been told I am a food fascist...but go out and make your own!