Lavender for Longevity

Bee on Lavender (Yun)(Photo from Yun, Creative Commons)

A few gardening and farming enthusiast friends have said independently of each other, “You can’t have too much lavender” and I agree!  While there are 39 known species of flowering plants in the Lavendula genus of the Mint Family (Lamiaciae), the plant most of us know as Lavender is Lavandula angustifolia (formerly known as L. officinalis).  It is  commonly referred to as English Lavender, but is actually native to the Mediterranean (Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, etc).

Lavender Field

Some of the reasons I love Lavender, in addition
to being a beautiful addition to the garden, are that it is:

  • Bee friendly
  • Deer Resistant
  • Gopher Resistant
  • Drought Tolerant
  • Medicinal (essential oil topically is excellent for burns and as a disinfectant)

(photo from Saru and Vamsee’s Travels in Provence, France,
Creative Commons)

THE ENGLISH LAVENDERS

English Lavenders

From left to right: Vera, Munstead, Hidcote, Jean Davis
(photo from Mountain Valley Growers in California)

THE LAVANDINS

Lavindins

From left to right: Grappenhall, Provence, Grosso,
Dutch Mill, Abrialii and Seal
(photo from Mountain Valley Growers in California)

For all of those reasons mentioned agove, and in particular for being both bee friendly and drought tolerant, lavender is a good addition to the garden for bee-longevity and therefore for plant diversity and human longevity as well.

Besides purchasing a plant from your local plant nursery, there are three ways you can create new lavender plants.  It makes a beautiful edge to a long driveway or along a house or even a small strip along the sidewalk in more urban settings.  For this reason it may be preferable (and more cost-effective) to purchase just one or two plants and then propagate your own so you can then have 20 or 30 plants (or more) for less than $10.

  1.  From Seed (in late winter / early spring) For some reason I always believed that small seeds were harder to grow, and the tiny ones, like lettuce and lavender, and was intimidated by them even though I’d grown most everything else from seed.  Then about 10 years ago my sister gave me a little kit to grow lavender seeds and voilà)   This spring we grew Hidcote, Munstead and Provence Lavender from seed (officially Provence is a Lavindin, a hyprid
    • Botanical Interests carries seeds for Hidcote Dwarf
    • Strictly Medicinals (formerly Horizon Herbs) carries a variety of organic seeds, including Broadleaf, Czech, English, French, Hidcote, Munstead & Yellow
  2. From Cuttings (with green stem in spring, summer, autumn)  Start with a plant of your choosing.
  3. Layering (with brown woody stalk in winter) I First learned of the layering technique from herbalist and gardener Marci Tsohonis (of Washington State, owner of Herbal Nature LLC).  She shared photos of lining her whole very long driveway with Lavender.  (I believe hte variety was grosso).  Stunning when in bloom, bee-heaven, and with 50+ plants enough to harvest and make her own herbal products including essential oil for soap.  But even if you don’t want to make anything from it, its still beatuiful and a great contribution to bee food.
    • Lavendery.com has a nice article describing different techniques of layering.

 

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Relaxation and the Root of Suffering

One of the basic principles of Tai Ji Chuan is relaxation.  When I had the great honor of meeting Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang, the Sifu of my Sifu Gene Chen, in Beijing a number of years ago, he watched me do a part of our Chen style Tai Ji set and told me “for now, work on relaxation”.  This seemed the most basic of instruction.  And then he patted me on the back, giving me a direct transmission of relaxation: he moved calmly, almost leisurely, and the weight of his hand was soft like an embrace but heavy like lead.  It is not uncommon in East Asian philosophy and Chinese Medicine that the most basic principles are also often the most profound.

Relaxation is easier said than done.  What is relaxation?  Why are we often not relaxed?  Or in modern vernacular, why are we “stressed” so much of the time?

Tai Ji 太極 (also spelled T’ai Chi in Wade Giles system) translates to “Great Extreme” or “Supreme Ultimate”.  This refers to the process of moving between the poles of Yin and Yang.  In Taiji practice, and applying Taiji principles to daily life, we want to be able to move between the poles of Yin and Yang with ease.

In Buddhist philosophy the origin of suffering is identified as ignorance and the three poisons as ignorance, desire (or attachment) and aversion (or hatred).  The famous Tibetan Buddhist painting of the Wheel of Life depicts this inner cosmology graphically, as a sort of map of cause and effects.  In the center are images of the pig, representing ignorance, and the rooster and snake, representing desire and aversion.

“The middle of the wheel depicts the basic problem. In the very center is a pig, symbolizing ignorance that drives the entire process. The pig stands for the root ignorance, which isn’t just an inability to apprehend the truth but an active misapprehension of the status of oneself and all other objects—one’s own mind or body, other people, and so forth. It is the conception or assumption that phenomena exist in a far more concrete way than they actually do. Based on this misapprehension of the status of persons and things, we are drawn into afflictive desire and hatred, symbolized by a rooster and a snake respectively.”  (Jeffrey Hopkins’ Introduction to The Meaning of Life; Buddhist Perspectives on Cause and Effect by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama)

This desire and aversion create an environment where it becomes challenging to move between the extremes of Yin and Yang with ease.  Instead we move toward one, hoping for more, and simultaneously recoil from another.  By attempting to distance or separate ourselves from this less desirable part of our experience, we inadvertently empower the shadow, giving it stronger influence over ourselves and our lives than it would otherwise have. Both clinging / desire and aversion pull us out of the present moment, and instead we find ourselves dwelling in the ignorance and illusions created by our mind propelling us into past and future potential scenarios that do not exist.

So how can we truly relax when we are pulled and pushed by our own cravings and fears?

In tai ji we speak of the lower Dān Tián 丹田 as the main energy center, located in the lower abdomen, with its center about three fingers’ width below the belly button.  Often in Tai Ji we talk about relaxing and sinking our Qì 氣 into our lower Dan Tian.  Sometimes we talk of another Dan Tian in the center of the chest or sternum (coinciding with acupuncture point Ren 17, Shān Zhōng, “Chest Center”, the Influential Point of Qi).  Sifu sometimes talked of how we must relax our middle Dān Tián to sink the Qi from our chests / hearts down into our lower Dan Tian.

One time, in private conversation in Golden Gate Park, Sifu Gene Chen spoke to me of a third Dan Tian, and he pointed to acupuncture point Yìn Táng 印堂 between the eyebrows.  It is first necessary to relax our minds to allow the qi to sink into our middle then lower Dan Tians, Sifu instructed.  In this way our own Qi nourishes our bodies instead of becoming stuck mentally or in our Upper Jiao / Chest / Heart Center.

How do we relax the mind?

To shift the experiential paradigm from one of frequent “fight or flight” state to a calmer, more grounded, less reactive one, it is more important to have a regular practice, ideally daily, for a short amount of time than to have a long irregular or infrequent practice.  Practicing moving and sitting meditation are both excellent disciplines to cultivate a more relaxed state of being.  Even just 20 minutes a day of simple abdominal breathing can help re-pattern our Qi and subsequently has the potential to improve our health and well-being.  Observing our impulses towards desire and aversion may help us to loosen the grip we have on our own projected sense of the world, relaxing instead into the present moment and moving with greater ease between extremes.

Small steps: each breath returning to the place of gratitude inside of ourselves.  Breathing in re-awakening to the sensations of the present moment, breathing out letting go of all else.

 

May all beings be happy.
May they live in safety and joy.
All living beings,
Whether weak or strong,
Tall, stout, average, or short,
Seen or unseen, near or distant,
Born or to be born,
May they all be happy.

– From the Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata I.8

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The Yin Art of Listening

The idea of Yin and Yang is a universal concept that can be used to look at all different aspects of life and all phenomena: personally at levels of mind and body and more broadly at the whole world around us.  It is a way of looking at individual parts, and at the same time recognizing the whole.  It is a way of understanding dualism, how dualistic parts relate, transform into each other and at times consume each other.  This duality can be seen through concepts of woman and man, darkness and light, earth and heaven, in and out, sinking and floating, softness and hardness.  The concept of Yin and Yang also exists in cycles through time, such as planetary cycles around the sun, the seasonal cycles of the year, and the daily cycle of day and night.

We see the parts while recognizing the whole.  For example, during the different phases of the moon while see only a thin crescent, we understand that the moon in its entirety is still there, mostly in shadows.  And during the full moon when we can see only the light side, we recognize that the dark side also exists, and is a part of the whole.   Yin and Yang also exist in our physiology as well as our own physical movements, as well as in the way we interact with others.

We become aware of this concept on the individual level when we practice Taiji or Qigong and on an interactive level when pushing hands or interact with others.

One of the key ideas of yin and yang is that nothing can ever be all one or the other.  Everything is a combination of both, and that combination is always dynamically changing, never stagnant.  At any given moment in time, something may seem all Yin or all Yang, such as the winter and summer solstices respectively, but this is never the case.  Even at 99.99% yin or yang, there is still the capacity to change and become its opposite.  Yin transforms into Yang, and Yang into Yin

Similarly, nothing is ever abiding permanently at 50% Yin and 50% Yang.  Again, although it may seem that way for a moment in time, such as the balanced day and night of Spring and Autumn equinox, this is only the illusion of taking one moment out of time and forfeiting the whole fluid movement.

In order to be ready for the unexpected, it is necessary to see both Yin and Yang in everything.  Within all things and situations there is the seed of its apparent opposite.

Mentally and physically, we are at our most awake and present experience of being when we can change at any given time.  We explore balance between extremes of any situation, a balance that is dynamic and changing.

Softness and hardness are important aspects of practicing taiji.  Not only does softness and hardness apply to our physical movements, but also to our mental way of being.  One who is too hard may not ever want to lose.  Accepting loss is a form of softness.

When someone offers a negative comment or criticism and we are able to receive it with appreciation, this is an example of a Yin reaction to a Yang action, thus balancing yin and yang in our interaction with others.

Another way we can be lack yin receptivity is by not listening.  By having an answer ready before someone is finished talking, we have too much resistance, too quick of a defense.  In this way we have locked our own minds, similar to a martial arts joint lock in which the opponent becomes immobile.  This is a type of mental na.  Listening is a skill that we can learn and practice actively and mindfully.  To learn to embrace the culturally under-appreciated Yin aspect is to learn to listen without resistance, to listen without prejudice or defense, to listen with appreciation, even when the subject is challenging or when we feel reactive or triggered.  This demonstrates respect and love.  If someone is angry, their Qi has risen.  If we interrupt them and respond defensively, this likely will aggravate their anger, and potentially raise our own Qi as well.  This is responding to Yang with Yang.

To show respect when someone is angry, we may make every effort to truly listen to all they have to say.  This also supports the Qi by allowing it to sink again.  In this manner it is possible to respond with one’s own thoughts or opinions later in a more conversational and less confrontational manner.  Through mindful practice, we learn to embody both Yin and Yang, on many levels, including through fully listening before speaking or even forming a mental response.

(thanks to my Sifu Gene Chen for his introduction to and inspiration on the subject)

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Napping for Longevity

The quest for longevity, and to a further extent immortality, is one as old as recorded history, as it continues to be in modern times with research into where are  the most concentrate groups of centenarians and what do they have in common in terms of lifestyle.   Ultimately we are searching for secrets to a longer, happier and more fulfilling life.

Funny because most of these “secrets” are everyday common wisdom, valued among traditional cultures, and nowadays discarded in favor of a more efficient, faster-paced, more productive life complete with smart phones and constant access to the Internet. .

Recently I was talking with our neighbor’s handyman and gardener, a soft-spoken older gentleman from El Salvador, about the merits of napping.  We were on our way in to give my two year old daughter her afternoon nap.

Somehow the idea of a siesta here is considered lazy and is under-valued.  In El Salvador, he told me, everyone takes a break in the middle of the day to eat calmly and then take a rest.  Usually its about 2 hours total.

Take a nap, change your life“, by Sara Mednick, a great book my mentor Dr. Robert Johns keeps in his clinic waiting room, outlines how taking a nap actually increases productivity, making us significantly more efficient in the second half of the day.

Slow down, unplug, and take a mid-day break.  It’s good for you.

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Autumn into Winter (Yin of Yin)

This past weekend was filled with seasonally appropriate themes of autumn and winter, of harvest and death: a Harvest Faire (complete with pumpkin patch, hay rides and a children’s play celebrating the time of year), a memorial gathering for a dear college friend who left us too young at 38, and a performance piece about my father’s passing by my friend and father’s wife Adriana Marchione that, in her own words, “is a performance project that chronicles the loss of a spouse and the dreams that guide the path of the one left behind.”

Culturally we celebrate the flowering, fruiting, youth and fertility of spring and summer.  Not so celebrated are aging (autumn) and death (winter).  But in autumn is the wisdom-pearl of aging gracefully and embracing Yin, moving toward winter where the veil between the worlds grows thinnest and many cultures honor those that have come before us, that helped to bring us to where we find ourselves now.

Autumn is one of my favorite times of year.  Yin swells as Yang recedes.  The gifts we can give ourselves this time of year are slowing down, allowing more time for rest and nourishment.  We can calibrate our physiology by simply noticing when it gets dark out and going to bed  a little earlier, following the lead of earlier sunsets.  Less doing, less productivity.  When the sun sets, try turning some of the lights lower or off so that you can feel that it is getting dark earlier.  Light a candle in the evening – we humans have a long relationship with fire and have fewer opportunities these days to feel its flickering light and warmth.

We also can give ourselves the gift of letting go of what is not needed, paring down to the essentials: a  little less social activity, more time home indoors and outdoors in nature, cherishing unscheduled hours throughout the week. Sip warm tea or broth and experiment with not getting much accomplished.  This non-doing supports our bodies to accomplish physiologically the deep replenishing that is needed this time of year.

Sometimes slowing down can be challenging- we get used to the sense energy we feel from staying active, and when we slow down we may feel how fatigued we actually are, discovering that it is actually a false energy and we are running on fumes – a phenomena my mentor Dr. Johns calls “wired and tired”.  I’ve observed this “wired and tired” phenomena in adults for years, but no where is it more clearly demonstrated than with a 2 year old who, late for a nap, runs around wildly and frenetically, fragile and emotionally vulnerable.  Give yourself permission to slow down, to feel tired, to find yourself where you actually are.

In this way we nourish our bodies and minds, like a well-stocked pantry, storing what is essential, preparing for Winter’s time of utmost Yin, and letting go of everything else.

 

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Creativity for the Heart

My Chinese medicine mentor Dr. Robert Johns (author of “The Art of Acupuncture Techniques“) recommends his patients to do soft and creative activities with their hands, especially for those with heart conditions or high levels of stress and too much time spent in their heads, such as desk jobs or just general over-thinking.  There is an additional requirement that the activity is something of their own choice and that they enjoy, not one born out of a sense of “should”.  Bread making, ceramics, brush painting, knitting, Chinese calligraphy…  the choices are vast.

Using our hands creativity can help pull us out of our busy minds and into our bodies.  Creativity can also help create the calm expansiveness needed to free the mind in order to dream.  From a Chinese medical perspective, using the finger tips creatively and softly engages the highly-vascularized and innervated Jing 井 Well points near the finger tips (points used to revive consciousness).  It calms the Shen 神 (spirit, consciousness).
jing well pts & arteries of the hand and forearm
(click on image for larger view)
The steady gradual shift of earlier nightfalls became suddenly more apparent around the Autumn equinox two weeks ago.  During this time of year I often feel a rekindled inspiration to craft – to pick up an old familiar (such as knitting) or to make a new friend (such as doll making).  The crafting inspiration is kindled in part by the desire to create a gift especially for someone, and partly kindled by the desire to spend fluid time awakening to textures of yarn, fabric, wool, paper, watching form emerge from raw materials and ideas.
An article in Time Magazine recently reported, “Increasingly, brain research is showing that in the case of creative people, this mortal cause-and-effect pays powerful dividends — that it’s not just the luck of living a long life that allows some people to leave behind such robust bodies of work but that the act of doing creative work is what helps add those extra years. And that’s something that can be available to everybody.”
So pick up an old creative habit or discover a new one!

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Kindergarten: learn to read?

In an article titled “Reading at Five – Why?” pubished in SEEN (Souteast Eductiaon Network) Joan Almon writes about the lack of evidence showing any benefits for the trend of teaching children reading at increasingly earlier ages.

“Stephen Hinshaw at the University of California at Berkeley, an expert in hyperactive disorders, spoke of the need for a broad-based kindergarten approach. He was quoted in Time magazine in 2003, saying, “Even more vital than early reading is the learning of play skills, which form the foundation of cognitive skills.” He pointed out that in Europe children are often not taught to read until age seven.”

“… young children are deeply curious and learn a great deal through self-directed exploration. High school science teachers now speak of the need for more inquiry-based learning, which is exactly the way young children learn if encouraged to do so.”

Read the full article here.

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Why Fevers are Your Friend

Health and medical journalists are not presently providing the public with what might be the most important health advice that they should be given during the flu season:   people with the flu should avoid taking fever-reducing drugs, such as aspirin or acetaminophen (aka TylenolTM), except in rare situations

…fever is a vital defense of the body in its efforts to fight infection.  A fever enables the body to increase its production of interferon, an important antiviral substance that is critical for fighting infection.  Fever also increases white blood cell mobility and activity, which are instrumental factors in fighting infection.
(There are, of course, some exceptions … seek medical care if one’s fever is above 104 degrees for over six hours or in any fever in an infant under four months of age.)
The above exceprt is from the article “Epidemic Of Fever Phobia: The Facts On Why Fever Is Your Friend” by Dana Ullman, pubished in the Huffington Post Sep 30, 2009.  Read the whole article here.
On the subject of Tylenol, newly publicized research shows that there is significant overdose risk.  And studies show that children who take Tylenol even as seldomly as once a month have significantly increased risk of asthma.  (CNN article from 2010 states double the risk  whereas The Healthy Home Economist in Sept 2013 states a 540% increased risk for once a month takers.
 

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Alternatives to “Time Outs” –

The following excerpt comes an article titled “Time Out vs. Time In: What’s the difference?” from Positive Parenting Connection website
Read the whole article here, originally published July 19, 2012

During the time in,  parents are encouraged to empathize with the child’s feelings and often just quiet connection is all that is needed until the storm has passed. It doesn’t mean that you must let your child continue with a behavior that is inappropriate. The time in gives you the opportunity to really connect and then address whatever change needs to be made.

Some of the reasons Time IN or positive time out works:

*children are likely to feel that their needs are being considered

*there can be connection between parent and child before a correction is presented

*children are given time to properly process a range of feelings

*parents don’t feel out of control or create a power struggle to keep child in the time out.

*children don’t feel isolated, shamed or scared

*It gives parent and children an opportunity to talk about the real issue at hand

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Self-Esteem

“…it is clear that when adults praise children for seemingly inborn characteristics like being smart, it creates the opposite effect.  Children become less willing to take on challenges because they don’t want to risk losing their label of smartness.  Praising children for their effort and their strategies is much more effective.  Like happiness, self-esteem is a by-product of trying hard, making mistakes, failing and learning to go forward toward a goal.”

Full article “Success in Parenting – Avoiding the Happiness and Self-Esteem Traps” by Ellen Galinsky available here, published in the Huffington Post 07/05/2012


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