Monday, December 23, 2013

Fear, anger, anxiety, and depression

I have written earlier about my struggle with anxiety which led me to meditation.  Even with regular meditation the anxiety has been been a constant battle, but at least I have the tools to recognize that the sensations in the body are those of anxiety and that they will pass.  It is not always easy to do this and there are times when it gets a bit overwhelming, but over time, I have been fortunate to see a reduction in those overwhelming moments.  I should say that even the ability to have a regular meditation practice is a blessing by itself because health does not always cooperate in this regard.

What prompted me to write about this topic is that these emotions appear to be all very interrelated.  I don't claim this as some sort of original thought.  It is just a documentation of my experience with it.  I am not qualified to give advice in this area and all of what I am writing may be incorrect.  Do your own research!

Lets start with fear.  Fear is built into us.  In fact, at a subconscious level we are aware that life will not last forever and we therefore try to cling on to "feel good" experiences.  This point was articulated in the first chapter of the book Mindfulness in Plain English.
Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension, that no matter how great the moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are either going to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have got and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going to die. In the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.
But because we don't understand the "root fear," instead we project that fear on to various situations in our lives (e.g. fear of being disliked or fear of future or certain phobias such as such fear of heights and so on).  Most books about anxiety talk about the fight or flight response which comes from a very primitive part of the brain, one that reacts much faster than the cognitive parts which process information.  Fear prepares the body for flight.

Which brings us to anger.  Anger is a close relative of fear.  It prepares us to fight.  Dig deep below the anger and there is almost certainly some type of fear (and as mentioned earlier, dig deeper into the fear and one finds that it is the fear of death that is really bothering us).  It triggers various biochemical reactions in the body to prepare us to fight.  We may act on our anger, which typically won't yield good results because reactive mind is at play and we are unable to think clearly in that situation.  Or we may suppress our anger, sometimes for years on end.  An interesting observation I have found to be true in my case is that when anger arises, I project it on to whatever is going through my mind at that time which may or may not be what is happening in that instant -- may be the traffic, may be a family member, could be a coworker, a store clerk or even the weather!  I am very adept at suppressing the anger (I have decades of practice), but that is not the correct way to deal with it.  Unbridled expression also does not appear to be the correct solution in this case as it only leads to escalating anger and confrontation that is not likely to result in anything productive.

Which brings us to anxiety.  Suppressing fear and anger over a long period of time creates excessive stress hormones in the body which are not given appropriate release, e.g. a punching bag or vigorous exercise might provide a reasonable outlet at a physical level.  Really these need to be addressed at an emotional level so we understand what is causing these emotions.  In my case, these unresolved emotions have been buried for decades.  But in the absence of that, eventually these will cause symptoms of anxiety and physical ailments associated with anxiety.  It throws the adrenals in overdrive and causes us to always be in a hurry.  This in turn causes a loss in energy levels.  It's like having a caffeine high which eventually leads to a crash.  Occasional anxiety is probably normal.  Anxiety that lasts weeks or months or years is a problem.  Physical discomfort and ailments only serve to make this worse.

Which brings us to depression.  The body can maintain the heightened energy levels in the anxious state only for so long.  Anxiety attacks that happen often enough lead to depression.  One might think that depression is the body's way of shutting down and trying to repair the damage done by the anxiety.  Unfortunately, when the energy levels recover, we go back to anxiety and we cycle back and forth between these states.  And thus we remain stuck in this vicious cycle.

What is the solution?

I haven't experienced it fully yet.  Vipassana meditation teaches us that we should never react to sensations, but just observe them.  I have found that useful, and I'm able to invoke it more and more with regular sustained practice, but yet have overwhelming moments.  Bhakti yoga instructs us to chant mantras if we notice we are in such a state.  Chanting immediately calms the mind.  I use this practice as well when I remember to do so and find it especially useful when the sensations are too overwhelming to simply observe.  A couple of other practices I have found useful are gratitude (life could always be worse) and forgiveness (both for others and for the self).

In all of these states (and actually several other states, but that is a topic for a different time), Vipassana teaches us that the breath will be altered.  Usually the breath will speed up but is very shallow or even stall when in these states.  Which is why remembering to take deep breaths is often cited as a remedy to deal with the mind that is stuck in one of these states.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sattvic food on the go

(Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on this subject so use this information at your own risk.  Also, if you have any information to add, please let me know.  My email address is available in my profile.)

This is going to be a very long post, and I expect to update it over time.  It contains some general guidelines that I follow when traveling or eating out.

When traveling there is very little control over the type of food we have access to.  There are actually ways to cook even while on the go by carrying a portable rice cooker or hot plate, but for the purpose of this article I'll ignore the cooking option; if I ever figure out how to do that efficiently, I may write another article about that.

I have written about the subject of sattvic food in an earlier post.  I try to eat sattvic food as best as I can, but this means very limited eating out, because sattvic food must be fresh and needs to be prepared a certain way.  Since this post is about finding sattvic food on the go, it's mainly about where to find near-sattvic food based on the ingredients alone when eating out.  There's also the issue of chemicals in the food used as taste enhancers or preservatives but I'll ignore those as well.  FoodBabe is an excellent blog dedicated to investigating some of the weird ingredients in the processed foods found in restaurants and on store shelves.

So for the purpose of this article, we define sattvic food as lacto-vegetarian without onions, garlic, mushrooms, or vinegar.  I admit this is quite a warped definition, but we need to start somewhere!

Often, no one knows what's in the food

Unfortunately, because of the "industrialization of food," the people serving the food are seldom aware of the ingredients.  In many cases they will have to go to the kitchen to ask the chef.  In many cases, the chef uses pre-prepared ingredients devised by an executive chef so unless there's information provided by the corporate office, even the chef may not know.  Most servers will claim that their food is "prepared from scratch and they can leave out any problem ingredients" but after checking with the kitchen they will come back and apologize.

Most restaurants do not understand the term lacto-vegetarian.   In the US, restaurants usually understand vegetarian as being lacto-ovo and assume cheese would be OK (even though it may contain animal rennet) as would sour cream (which sometimes contains gelatin).  However, they do understand the term vegan in which case they would avoid all animal products, so unless I have had the chance to thoroughly check the ingredients of the dishes, I usually ask for food that is vegan and without onions, garlic, mushrooms, or vinegar.

I'll start out with the different cuisines and what I watch out for.  I ask a lot of questions and I'm a pain when I eat out.  Often, I try and call ahead to find out what is possible, since many places cannot accommodate these requirements.  This is why I have only a preferred handful of places that I frequent.

A side-effect of skipping onions and garlic is that I can actually taste the underlying ingredients a lot better.  In many cases,  I find the ingredients like vegetables are stale.  Earlier there were times when I'd still just eat it.  Then I stopped eating it, but I'd still pay the bill and leave hungry.  Nowadays I usually complain to the server and if they still want me to pay, I will, but I leave hungry.  I would rather not mess up my already sensitive digestion.  Of course, a bad experience often means I will strike a restaurant off my list of places to visit.

Some places will accept the special request, but will serve food with onions and/or garlic anyway and hope that I won't be able to tell.  Unfortunately, my palate is now too sensitive, so I either send it back and have them redo it, or leave hungry with/without paying (depending on the options that they give me).

American/Sandwich

Most restaurants tend to have eggs in their bread.  They would not know that but for egg allergies being fairly common.  They usually don't know about rennet in cheese.  They often use frozen ingredients (e.g. fries) and may or may not know what goes into them and their seasoning.  Most veggie burgers will contain onions and/or garlic in the patties as do many of the side vegetables.  In general I try to avoid these places unless they can clarify with some certainty that the food is vegan with no onions, garlic, or mushrooms.   Sometimes all they have to offer is a salad, but I usually have to skip the dressing because of the eggs, onions, garlic that are often used in those.  Even vegan restaurants are often a challenge because their seasonings almost always contain onions and garlic.

Chinese/Thai

Most sauces are either pre-made or use starter pastes or powders that already contain onions and/or garlic and/or mushrooms.  Really, the only thing that is safe at both Chinese and Thai restaurants is a bland stir fry of vegetables in oil, possibly with fresh tofu.  If the tofu is "spiced," typically the hard type, it will often have onions and/or garlic.  Many Thai restaurants use fish sauce even in vegetarian dishes unless there is an explicit request to exclude it.  Many of the noodles are made with eggs.  If the tofu is sour, I assume it's gone stale.  I eat only the vegetables that taste fresh and leave the rest.  Fortunately, portions are usually oversized so I don't end up hungry.  Fortune cookies are almost always made with eggs.  

Many strict Buddhists avoid onions and garlic, so many places will understand this requirement.

Indian

Indian restaurants tend to be safer on average because usually they will have heard of the requirement for no onions and no garlic because of the Jain community.  However, I have found several surprising things.  In upwards of 50% of the restaurants in the US and Europe, they use eggs to make naan bread.  A safer option for bread is the tandoori roti which is made with whole wheat flour.  The sauces are usually pre-made or use pre-made powders and so the menu for items with no onions and no garlic is very limited.  Desserts such as kulfi may contain eggs; in some cases they source their desserts from some place else and they don't even know what ingredients they contain.  Usually, at Indian restaurants they tend to have the butter tomato sauce (makhani) which can be made without onions and garlic, or else it's pretty much sauteed vegetables such as cauliflower or okra.  Sometimes the okra is frozen; I found that out from a friendly server at one of the restaurants I frequent.

Italian 

Pizza crust is often made with eggs.  The sauces will usually contain onions or garlic.  Many times the olive oil they use is infused with garlic.  The breads they serve sometimes contains eggs.  Fresh pasta and stuffed pasta (e.g. ravioli) is usually made with eggs.  And the cheeses often contain animal rennet.  Among the seemingly lacto-vegetarian desserts, I try to watch for eggs in icecream and gelatin in things like panna cotta.

Usually, they can make a dried pasta tossed with a few vegetables in olive oil and salt.  If the pizza crust is made without eggs, they can usually skip the sauce and in some cases even the cheese (if unsure about animal rennet) and just top the pizza with some vegetables.

Foodbabe has a nice investigation on what's in your pizza.

Mexican

This is a really tough one.  Salsas usually have onions and/or garlic.  The cheese may contain animal rennet.  Most of their sauces have onions and/or garlic as do the beans.  Rice may be made with chicken stock or cooked with onions.  Flavored tortillas (such as spinach or tomato) will usually have onions and/or garlic.  About the only thing that may work at a Mexican restaurant is a quesadilla, but if I have to leave out the cheese, there may be little else to put it in.

Temples

Many temples such as the Hare Krishna temples offer food that is truly sattvic.  When traveling to other cities, I often try and look for these.  Even if they don't advertise meals as open to the public, they will often accommodate a visitor.  And some of the temples like the ones in Dallas and Vancouver have a restaurant attached to the temple.  Here is what looks like a fairly comprehensive directory of ISKCON restaurants.  Unfortunately, because is ISKCON is now quite fragmented, I haven't been able to find a reliable directory of temples, but I can usually rely on Google when looking for a temple in any given city.

Some cities have Buddhist temples that offer food without onions and garlic but they usually do use mushrooms.

Airlines

Most flights in the west tend to only offer vegan food and usually contains onions and garlic.  Some airlines offer Jain meals which work out really well.  Jain food does not contain onions or garlic but is even more strict by excluding certain vegetables such as potatoes.  Many airlines offer the Jain meal option only on flights to/from the Indian subcontinent.

Looking for vegetarian-friendly restaurants

happycow.net provides a worldwide directory and user reviews of vegetarian friendly restaurants.  Yelp is also helpful in this regard.

In a subsequent post, I will cover what I have found about the ingredients at popular chain restaurants, usually from communicating with their corporate office via their website.

Chain restaurants

Below are some options for sattvic food at chain restaurants.  Again, this is really using the term loosely as defined earlier in this post.  Most of these findings are based on private communication with their corporate offices via their website.  This information is accurate as of this writing, but things can change, so it never hurts to double-check at the time of ordering.
  • California Pizza Kitchen: CPK has a great resource on their website for vegetarians and vegans, which has a separate section for lacto-vegetarians, but then you have have to figure out how to exclude onions, garlic, mushrooms, vinegar, etc.  But a simple pizza would typically work OK.  They have several cheeses without animal rennet and their crust is made without eggs.  I have not been able to confirm whether their pizza sauce is made without onions and garlic.
  • Chipotle: The cilantro-lime rice is fine as is the cheese quesadilla (cheese does not use animal rennet).  The beans, tofu, salsas all contain onions and/or garlic.  They actually publish all their ingredients.  Wouldn't it be nice if all restaurants did this?
  • In-n-Out Burger: French fries are about the only thing.  Their cheese is made with animal rennet.
  • P F Changs: All of their sauces are either non-vegetarian or contains onions and garlic.  About the only thing you can get at PF Chang's is the steamed Buddha's feast (asking for no onions) and replacing the spiced tofu with silken tofu (the spiced tofu has either onions or garlic).
  • PizzaRev: Only the blue cheese contains animal rennet, other cheeses use vegetarian enzymes. The tomato sauce contains garlic powder.
  • Subway: They source their cheese from several suppliers so they can't guarantee that it will be without animal rennet.  Most of their breads are OK.  About the only thing you can get is a veggie sub with some fresh vegetables, topped with olive oil and salt/pepper.  Most of their dressings contain one or more of eggs/onions/garlic/vinegar.  For me, Subway is a last-resort type place because the quality of their food isn't all that great.
  • Wolfgang Puck: This is for the location at Denver airport.  Pizza dough is made without eggs and mozzarella and gorgonzola cheeses are without animal rennet.
  • ZPizza: Their mozzarella cheese does not contain animal rennet.  The crust is made without eggs.  The tomato sauce (different from their marinara sauce) does not contain onions or garlic.
Cheese brands
  • Bravo Farms: All cheese is made with vegetable rennet.
  • Emmi USA: Despite the labels on almost all of their cheese just listing "enzymes", from private communication, I found that only 2 of their cheeses from Switzerland are made with vegetarian rennet--the Switzerland Swiss and Don Olive.  The others are all made with animal rennet.  They also offer cheeses made in the US and most of those are made with microbial rennet.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Concert at the Yoga Farm: Karnamrita Dasi

This Thanksgiving weekend at the Yoga Farm, we were lucky to have Karnamrita Dasi for kirtan on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.  She played the harmonium and was accompanied by a tabla player (a different one on Thursday and Friday/Saturday) and someone who alternated between playing the guitar and mandolin.

I knew this was going to be a treat.  I had seen Karnamrita several years ago (before I started writing this blog) at a performance at the Yoga Farm.  It was a great experience back then, so much that I bought her CD, Prayers by Women, and have listened to it regularly over the years.  I went hunting around for more music by her, but while there are lots of random recordings from festivals and such on youtube, the only other recorded piece I was able to find was her piece titled Om Purnam on the Sri Isopanishad in an album by Bada Haridas.

She brings an amazing energy with her sharing various stories from her and life and educating the audience about the lyrics and encouraging participation.  She grew up in an ashram community in the US, but spent several years in India learning music.  I really cannot adequately describe her voice or even the experience of being at the concert.  Her CD might give a slight glimpse into her voice, but there is so much more that is not captured by recordings.

On Friday evening, she told us to remember the name of an album she wanted to recommend --  the Radha Krsna Temple album which was produced by George Harrison (free version at archive.orgCD versioniTunes) .  Some photos from the recording of the Radha Krsna Temple album are available here.

On Saturday morning I found it on iTunes and it instantly sent me back to my college years when my dad would play this music at home in the mornings.  I cannot seem to tire from listening to Govinda, which contains verses from the Brahma Samhita, specifically verses 5.30 and 5.32, reproduced below.
veṇuṁ kvaṇantam aravinda-dalāyatākṣam-
barhāvataṁsam asitāmbuda-sundarāṅgam
kandarpa-koṭi-kamanīya-viśeṣa-śobhaṁ
govindam ādi-puruṣaṁ tam ahaṁ bhajāmi 
aṅgāni yasya sakalendriya-vṛtti-manti
paśyanti pānti kalayanti ciraṁ jaganti
ānanda-cinmaya-sad-ujjvala-vigrahasya
govindam ādi-puruṣaṁ tam ahaṁ bhajāmi
This was the first time I actually understood how to pronounce the words as Karnamrita had walked us through it on Friday night.

Listening to it over and over brought tears to my eyes as my mind was flooded with (mostly unhappy) memories of my teenage years and I started to realize how incomprehensible the meaning of life is with so much sadness and suffering as we go from birth to youth to old age and finally to death.

She said that she only sings in sanskrit (with a few exceptions), and also mentioned that memorizing the sanskrit texts such as the Brahma Samhita would keep ones memory sharp, such is the nature of the sanskrit language.

This was really a beautiful weekend as I spent three evenings in row at the Yoga Farm enjoying wonderful food cooked by Shambu and some of the most enchanting kirtan.

Albums featuring Karnamrita Dasi

Since first writing this article, I have come across some other pieces featuring her singing.  She doesn't do a good job of advertising her music but the following is a listing of the pieces that I've been able to find where she has either sung solo or as part of a group.