In 1982 I published the first English language book on the Chinese philosophy of the Five Transformations as applied to psychology. The title of that publication was “Macrobiotics and Human Behavior”. It is now out of print in English but still available on www.amazon.com. Prior to that I had edited a series of lectures given by Michio Kush and self published it as “Your Face Never Lies” this book is still in print and published under the Avery imprint. My current book, “Natural Body / Natural Mind” is available through this site by using the links above.
The articles and interviews now available here will be expanded over the next months as well as video links and other media. If you have any suggestions or would like to receive my newsletter contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chocolate and Nuclear Reactors Are Good For You.
At a recent workshop I gave in Scotland a woman proudly presented me with a newspaper article titled "Hurrah! Red meat is good for us after all" . She was very proud of this discovery...
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I have always liked the word curmudgeon; it has a sort of gritty gravitas to it. Much to my surprise I think I have become one. In fact, I may have been one for years and just didn't know it...
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Overview of Health and Human Ecology
By Bill Tara
The biosphere is a delicate and dynamic system of organic and inorganic matter and energy. The health of this system is essential to all life on the planet and yet the actions of humanity threaten to unravel its fragile composition...
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Living With Absurdity
"Life is a play that does not allow testing. So, sing, cry, dance, laugh and live intensely, before the curtain closes and the piece ends with no applause." Charlie Chaplin...
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WHAT IF MACROBIOTICS WAS REALLY SIMPLE?
MANY STREAMS LEAD TO ONE RIVER
I meet people all the time that tell me that macrobiotics is really difficult and/or confusing. These statements usually fall into two categories: the first category is that they feel they are too busy or too lazy to cook...
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STARVATION IS GOOD FOR BUSINESS
A couple of years ago I was talking to a guy and the topic turned to global warming. He and I both agreed that it was not a good thing (as you do) but he pointed out something that I had neglected to see - there was a great business opportunity there...
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As a young boy growing up in Northern California, I was blessed with the opportunity to hike and camp in the woodlands of the Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges and to roam the rugged coastal cliffs and beaches. One of the highlights of every winter was when my father would take me to cliffs to watch the salmon returning to the river of their birth.
The rains would come, and the rivers would start to swell, and the salmon would gather off the coast. Standing on the cliffs, we could watch them swirl the water, silver in the reflected sun. They were coming back to renew the cycle of life. That they returned each year was miraculous and exciting. When the rains finally broke through the sandy mouth of the river, they would stir and leap into the silt brown waters to finish their journey. It never failed to make my heart race. It is a great sadness that my children and grandchildren will never see that sight.
The river has been altered from its former path. It has been widened and made shallow. Its banks have been dozed into levees to withstand an imagined flood. It is filled with grasses and algae—dank and unwholesome. The fish have been killed. Most of those coastal rivers are dead now. All the government studies in the world will not bring them back.
I do not know whether my daughters and sons will be able to hold their children’s hands and watch the owl at dusk or the fox in the thicket. I do know that if they can’t, their lives will be reduced in a very fundamental way. How we value nature says much about who we are. It speaks directly to the way we live our lives and the significance we place on our actions.
It has become all too common to say that the despoiling of our environment is the price of progress. If this is so, we need to ask what this supposed progress has brought us. If we are healthier, then why do we need ever-increasing numbers of hospitals and more drugs in order to function? If we are happier, why do more and more people complain of stress, and why are an escalating number of children prescribed with antidepressants?
Human history presents a sad portrait of our collective behavior. For every simple act of kindness, beneficial discovery, or creation of beauty, the scale is tipped dramatically by acts of brutality and stupidity on a massive scale. The qualities of violence, greed, and selfishness are dominant in the grand scale of human affairs and lie in sharp contrast to the guidance of the saints and sages we claim to admire the most. There is a deep disconnection between our stated humanity and our collective action.
Attempting to understand and explain this gap between our higher ideals and our most repellent actions has been the driving force behind religion, philosophy, and psychology. The troubling nature of our collective dementia has never before been this close to a critical breakdown. This collapse is not simply the result of new technologies of violence, escalating pollution, or increasingly sophisticated methods of political and economic suppression. The crisis we face is the suicidal destruction of the planet we inhabit. We are burning down the house and have no place to move.
The scope of this disastrous situation and the speed of its development create a special urgency to face the consequences of our actions and to alter the behavior that created them. We cannot solve the problems of unwise political, economic, and technological decisions with the same mind-set and through the same institutions that created them in the first place. A different way of thinking is required, thinking that may lead us to truths that are not only inconvenient but also exceedingly uncomfortable. The good news is that the challenge we face could provide us all with an astounding opportunity to transform human life on the planet in a beautiful way.
social, and environmental health. I have tried to show the connection between these elements that are often separated by convention but not by fact. I have drawn on both ancient and modern sources since the roots of the problem are not new or simply a failure of modern technology but speak directly to our defining values. The foundation of the dilemma lies in our lack of a philosophy of life that serves to guide us toward healthy solutions. While modern medicine, science, and philosophy are good at reducing problems into discrete packets of data for analysis, it is the ancient ways of understanding that can provide better instructions of how to use this information wisely.
I make several assumptions that the reader should be aware of. The first of these assumptions is that our daily thoughts and actions have a profound effect on our health and well being. We know that our diet, our environment, and our emotions are intimately linked to health. The second assumption takes us a step further. It is the notion that our state of health reflects our personal and cultural attitudes regarding human identity and our relationship with nature. The issues of personal, social, and environmental health are really only one issue. They are stages in the continuum of life process. When dysfunction is present in any stage of this continuum, the effects ripple out and infect the whole process.
Faced with the reality of increased sickness in individuals, nations, and the planet, we are forced to look clearly at the social institutions and cultural forces that resist a remedy. This sickness is not a conspiracy by hidden forces, but it is an act of protecting the status quo regardless of the results. I have used the issue of food in this book as an obvious example of how the habits of contemporary culture impact global health on all levels.
The growth, transportation, manufacture, and consumption of food together with the air we breathe and the water we drink is our most intimate biological connection to nature. When our relationship with air, water, and food are distorted, the effects are ruinous. The simple issues of supplying healthy food to the world is often made complex by the vested interests of the global food industry and the self-important posturing of food scientists. Beyond the weekly deluge of new diets, nutritional scares, and concern over weight gain lay larger issues that color every aspect of our lives. Hunger could be reduced, poverty eased, diseases among the wealthy and the poor could be reduced through changes in our attitudes regarding what we eat. All that is needed is the willingness to embrace change.
Christina Pirello - Bill, I’ve read your book, ‘Natural Body, Natural Mind’ three times now and it has become my ‘go to’ book whenever I need to figure out how to express something in a lecture or a class…or sort something out for myself. I find that its wisdom works for both the beginner and the most experienced of those living naturally. For me, its message about living well takes on any number of issues that people face and strips away all the excuses not to live a better life.
I love this book so much. It sums up all I have learned from you over the years and illustrates why, to this day, I consider you my mentor and role model in the work that I do.
A few questions for you…
What made you take the direction you did with this book? By that, I mean that so many books on macrobiotics focus solely on the role of food and disease. In ‘Natural Body, Natural Mind’ you take the reader on a different journey, not downplaying the role of food, but putting it in perspective. What was your thinking?
First thanks for the kind words.
Macrobiotics has been closely identified with disease for the best part of the past thirty years. In the late 70’s the focus on cancer within the community was a huge turning point. Up till then the focus of macrobiotic study was on the development of human consciousness, the issue of “judgment”.
The success of many people using a macrobiotic style diet to reverse disease was dramatic and inspiring but the long-term results to our core principles were profound. We went from a community of people focused on the development of consciousness to a group focused on the therapeutic benefits of food. We became the diet and disease people. This phase influenced the psychology and composition of the community greatly. Those drawn to macrobiotics were much older, more conservative and extremely focused on physical healing or disease prevention.
The concept of personal responsibility for health of early macrobiotic practice were trumped by a new approach where individuals were advised, in a very detailed way, what to eat and what to avoid. This was increasingly done with little or no demand that the “clients” understood the rationale behind the suggestions. This was a huge shift in focus that gave birth to a different attitude toward food. Macrobiotic practice became prescriptive rather than a process of self-discovery.
The dominant macrobiotic ideas regarding foods became an issue of good and bad foods as opposed to an understanding the relative qualities and effects of foods. The low protein, low oil diets that were often prescribed for those with cancer characterized this phase of development and became the accepted template for general eating. Eating this way was referred to as a “healing diet” and eventually became eating a “clean” diet. By those criteria most healthy macrobiotic people were eating “dirty”.
When I set out to write this book I wanted to take the issue of food and health and expand it into some of the areas of life that originally inspired me about the potential of macrobiotic ideas. The way our ideas about food show up in culture and the way that food impacts our emotional and spiritual life have always been personally interesting. This sounds ambitious but this is really a very simple book.
Since my initial involvement with macrobiotics I have been aware that the issue of food is much greater than physical nutrition. What we eat represents a whole range of attitudes we have regarding our relationship to society and the planet. It is one of those aspects of being that says volumes about our politics, our connectedness with our fellow humans and our spiritual values.
It is this “connecting the dots” that makes macrobiotics unique and valuable. There are many approaches to diet that offer reasonable solutions to the question of what we should eat for health. My feeling is that macrobiotics takes the conversation to the next level.
In Chapter Two, ‘The Authentic Self,’ you talk about the gift of life and quote Meister Eckhart on becoming one with the unknowable. For those who have not read the book (yet…), explain what you mean by the authentic self and becoming one with the unknowable, since it is such a large part of this book.
I use the term Authentic Self to describe that aspect of our being that most closely conforms to our personal potential. This authenticity is often a secret that only we know; it is the sometimes hidden passion in our life. Some are living their passion but most of us do not, it is locked away behind self-constructed walls. Being healthy is synonymous with living a life that is passionately engaged. It is allowing our imagination, intellect and spirit to express our own unique qualities into the world.
The interesting thing about this is that when we are living our passion - doing what we really want to do - we strip away some of the more superficial aspects of our personality. It frees us up to experience life in a way where we become more fully engaged in the moment, more intuitive, more vibrant. The psychologist,
Csikszentmihalyi, who I quote in my book, refers to this state as being in “flow”. We have all experienced this feeling; the trick is in sustaining it. This is the state of being that Oshawa referred to as Supreme Judgment but it is really beyond definition, which is why I refer to it as the unknowable - it is embracing the mystery of life.
In Chapter Four, ‘The Question of Consciousness,’ you talk about breaking the spells and enchantments of dreaming in our modern world. You call the gift dangerous. Please talk about the ideas behind getting past our self-enchantment with this gift to dream and create and how to use it for the benefit of humanity and the environment.
We are all storytellers and story weavers; it is a central part of our humanity. Stories are the way we organize information about life and communicate feelings that are difficult to describe in logical thought. We create stories about who we are and why we do what we do. Some of these stories have the ring of truth and help us evolve and some are hollow and false. These personal stories can either help us uncover our authentic self or bury it. The personal stories lie within the larger social mythologies that we create about the big existential issues such as why are we here? What is the purpose of life? How should society function?
If we know that these stories are simply guidelines and metaphorical in nature it is easier to adapt to the changes that happen around and within us. If we think that they are accurate and literal descriptions of a larger truth they can become destructive, they become enchantments. If we look at the issue of food we can see very clearly the immense power that enchantments play in the choices that are made.
The modern American diet is powerful enchantment. The consumption of meat and dairy to their present levels, the refining and chemical “enhancement” of foods, the lure of convenience - of fast, frozen and microwaveable foods all depend on the glassy stare of the enchanted shopper. The power of advertising and the cowardice of medicine and politics help to hold the enchantments in place. No one wants to call attention to the emperor’s lack of clothes.
Society holds on to these beliefs and maintains the enchantment even in the face of science and common sense. Look at a fast food add on television. What is being sold? It is not food being sold - it is a particular cultural image that the food is attached to. The neatly dressed multi-cultural, middle class and healthy customers in the add speak to an ideal of American culture but don’t have much to do with the people who really eat with regularity in McDonalds. I have ventured forth into these forbidden zones of dietary tragedy and know that the real consumer is overweight, sad and lower income.
We identify with certain foods no matter what culture we come from. I live in Europe now and every culture has a way of eating that is overwhelmingly influenced by social forces and cultural enchantments, not by health concerns.
In all honesty I have to give equal time to the macrobiotics and other alternative ways of eating as well. We have our enchantments too. The idea that you can eat your way out of every problem or some of the more exotic and esoteric ideas that are found in macrobiotic thinking are also very powerful enchantments and can be destructive. There are certainly some macrobiotic, vegan and vegetarian followers who become orthorexic – so obsessed with their food that it literally makes them sick – because they have fallen under the spell of some dietary enchantment.
When you talk about consciousness and perceptions driving our actions, please talk about the role food plays in creating…or inhibiting that force in us.
In the mid 1970’s I was seeing many people for health counseling in London at the Community Health Foundation. At this time I had attended some lectures by Dr. Jack Worsley and became friends with Dr. Sidney Rose-Neil, both of these men were influential in introducing acupuncture to the UK. I was fascinated by the Chinese theory of the Five Transformations and found it interesting to apply the diagnostic theories to my clients. I was especially drawn to the observations on the connection between organ function and behavior. This lead me to write my book, “Macrobiotics and Human Behavior”, I think it was the first Western book on the subject.
The connection between what we eat and the degree of internal stress that is created in the organ systems of the body is most certainly a huge influence on our sensitivity to our environment. We know this to be true when the stimulus is extreme but we are unaware when it is subtle. A cup of coffee, a shot of vodka, a cigarette, a bar of chocolate – they all affect the way we behave, that’s why we eat, drink or smoke them. Why would we assume that the rest of what we eat or drink would not produce changes?
Our blood nourishes the brain. It is the most sensitive of all our organs to small changes in blood chemistry and it is our organ of perception. What we eat and drink has the largest influence on blood quality – this is only logic. The question is how large is the effect of food on thought, emotion and behavior? I spend a good deal of time on this issue in the book since physical health, emotional history, family, and culture all play a role in the way we perceive the world and how we act on those perceptions.
Please talk a little about ‘The Lessons of Wind and Water’ and how our modern obsession with precision and the need to have a sensible explanation for everything, including matters that used to rely on faith have inhibited our ability to be natural, authentic humans.
The truly magic parts of life cannot be expressed in an equation. We experience the world in two complimentary ways, thinking and feeling. Our present culture prides itself on thinking. When there is a problem we call in the experts, form a committee, examine the facts, balance the viewpoints and make a mess. Feelings have been relegated to maudlin personal interest stories and reality television. We lack the power of deep feeling, intuition and instinct – we don’t trust the more primitive nature of our impulses unless they are rationalized in ideologies.
I say that yin and yang is a feeling based approach to the world. We can study all we want but the reality of yin and yang is a visceral phenomena. It is something that is felt, it needs no rationalization.
We might ask ourselves if an issue such as global warming is a difficult scientific problem that requires new technologies or is it a tangible representations of our disregard for life? Is cancer a phenomenon that requires more study and a chemical “cure” or is it an example of our childish attachment to a way of eating and living that kills us? One set of answers implies that we are doing nothing out of line, don’ really need to change our way of life and simply need to think things out. The alternative choice means that we need a dramatic change of heart and accept the fact that we need to reassess our lives and make fundamental changes. This proposition usually calls up the response that, “people will never do that”. My response is that not everyone needs to. It doesn’t take many people to be the catalyst for social change.
Being reasonable in the face of danger is not always the smart way to go. Obviously we need technologies and thoughtfulness to solve these problems but it is probably unreasonable acts that will turn the course of many of our contemporary problems. I am saying that we need to enliven our mind by allowing our feelings and our intuition to have voice.
You talk in the book about the gift of food. In our modern culture, we see cooking and even eating as another burden to endure in our busy lives. Please talk a little about the gift of self-nourishment…on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels.
Well that’s a big question, a big landscape to travel through. Let me just briefly say that in the last few months I have had the opportunity to counsel many people who have worked hard to establish the level of financial and social recognition that defines success in most cultures. I don’t find them any more healthy or happy that the less wealthy people that I often meet.
Popular enchantments regarding food and nutrition are driven mostly by commercial enterprises. Concepts of healthy food are gradually disappearing. They are being buried beneath concepts such as super foods, micronutrients, supplements, elixirs and protein powders. The simplicity and sensibility of eating fresh food prepared in the home has deprived us of a direct connection to one of the most fundamental sources of our health and well being. When we have to have our food and, increasingly, our water processed by industry we need to ask ourselves if this is really an improvement.
All the issues of health, economics and ecology that trouble the world are an outcome of a particular relationship we have to the world we live in and where we place value. Simple acts such as cooking food, moving our bodies, creativity or play have been subsumed by the drive to “get ahead” or more commonly to “keep our heads above water”. This is a sad fact and there are no magic tricks to change it.
The interesting thing is that when the heart attack lays us low, a bad diagnosis is presented or some personal tragedy strikes we question were the true value of life lies. After all, what is life about? If the purpose of life is to earn and spend we are doing a good job. If the purpose of life is to enjoy this beautiful earth, to live vital healthy lives, to care for each other and to celebrate the gift of life and our personal potential we are abysmal failures. The psychologist, Eric Fromm said that the decision was between living a life that was about having or being – he was right.
The enchantment of “Having It All” is a very seductive one. The word economy means managing the resources of the home – the word ecology means understanding the home even an optimist like myself sees the irony in this. The task for us all is to participate in the creation of a human ecology that provokes a more humane human economy. This act means embracing a certain eccentricity of body, mind and spirit. The conventional and accepted way of life commonly promoted is one that is moving in a dangerous and unhealthy direction – creative and life-affirming eccentricity is called for. I firmly believe that a macrobiotic vision for modern times has much to offer in the development of this movement in world society. It could be fun.
How did you discover macrobiotics?
In the mid 1960’s I was living in San Francisco with my friend Paul Hawken. We had an old warehouse in one of the least reputable parts of the city where we worked on our lightshows, produced rock concerts and lived.
A friend gave Paul a book on macrobiotics by George Oshawa and he decided to give it a chance to cure his asthma. I went along for the ride. We tried to find the foods described in the book, no easy task, and experimented in cooking it. As far as we were concerned, we were the only people in the world who were doing this.
My interest was stimulated by the similarity between Oshawa’s writing and the Tao Te Ching. I had been given a copy years before. It was one of those little pocket books and I carried it around with me. I loved it; there was such simplicity and depth to it. Ohsawa was talking about using the philosophy in a practical way.
I had some troubling health problems and noticed right away that my symptoms began to get better and my general health improve. I was fascinated not only in the physical changes but in the emotional and mental ones as well. It felt like I was emerging from a haze.
What made a San Francisco Rock promoter change his career to macrobiotics?
Well it was theatre that was my passion. The rock and roll was a way to earn some money and be connected to what was going on in the city. Everything revolved around the rock scene. Paul and I, together with some friends had formed a group called the Calliope Company to produce the rock dances and make mischief. At the time that I started eating my own version of macrobiotics and reading Oshawa I was putting together an evening of two plays at a place called “The Straight Theatre” in the Haight/Ashbury. Paul and I had loaned out the warehouse to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters (read all about it in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe).
It was a time that the whole peace, love and rock and roll attitude seemed to be unraveling. What had been fun and exciting and creative was starting to take on a darker edge. There were people getting killed in drug deals, the street was getting very restless and people I knew were showing signs of mental distress (me included). Macrobiotics seemed to offer a very sane and healthy alternative.
What were your sources of inspiration?
That is somewhat difficult to answer. As far as macrobiotics goes, my initial inspiration was the reading I was doing on Taoism and my love of nature. Macrobiotics seemed to me a practical extension of the Taoist way of seeing and experiencing the world. To live in a way that honored nature was very appealing because I felt I was becoming distanced from the greatest source of my own spiritual experience.
For a while the experimentation with drugs had seemed a way to access the energy of nature more fully but I became disillusioned with that path. The part of macrobiotic philosophy that had to do with the connection of physical health to the deepening of consciousness made complete sense to me.
How did you end up in Boston working with, Michio Kushi?
We were starting to meet other people who were studying macrobiotics in San Francisco. There were little pockets of artists, political activists and street hippies who were eating brown rice and passing around copies of Michio’s lectures. We thought they were great. There were people who knew connections to get miso, tamari and even brown rice! We considered eating this way as part of the general cultural revolution, some people smoked dope, some ate brown rice and more than a few did both.
Paul went out to the East coast to set up a light show and visited Boston to check out Kushi and the Boston scene. He called me up and said he was staying and that I should consider coming too. After I closed down the warehouse and finished the show I was working on, I had a big decision to make. The play had gotten some good reviews and the author of one of the shows wanted to take it to New York. I found myself having to choose between something I had always wanted to do or something completely in the other direction. I think that the whole San Francisco scene exhausted me.
One evening I went to a dance at the Fillmore and the whole thing seemed very superficial. It was strange but I felt I had slipped into a different way of seeing, I couldn’t relate to what anyone was saying or doing. I was longing for a little sanity.
I packed my things in an old car a friend gave me and headed east. Every place I stopped for gas they would ask me how far I had driven in that old junk car and if I really expected it to last to the east coast, providence was on my side.
Several other members of the Calliope crew had started to follow the macrobiotic way of life, including Jean Allison and Wally Gorell; they came out too in the following months.
How rewarding was your experience of working with, Michio Kushi and being part of the Boston Community?
Boston was really fun in the sixties; young people from all over the states were coming into town to visit Michio and Aveline. When I arrived I started working at Sanae, the first macrobiotic restaurant in town, and at Erewhon, the food store.
Paul had taken over the shop and he and I were the only employees. The shop was about the size of a small bedroom and we packed all the food in brown paper bags with hand written labels on them. We spent most of the day talking with people who came in.
Every week Michio would give a talk at the Arlington Street church and the whole community would show up. There would be between 50 and 100 people along for the lectures. Some of us lived together communally in “study houses”. We ate together and would get together in the evenings and discuss Michio’s lectures or just whatever we were studying. It was a big change for everyone - it was almost monastic.
Most of the people coming to Boston were from the counter-culture. Many had been involved in the civil rights or anti-war movements; quite a few were from the arts.
There was a kind of revolutionary zeal that animated every project we took on. Whenever we needed anything done in the restaurant or shop people would come in and lend a hand.
When Michio asked me to move to Chicago and set up a center and shop there I didn’t bat an eye. When he asked me to move on nine months later and set up a center in Los Angeles I just went. It was very unpredictable; an adventure but we all had a sense of doing something important in the world. We were out to make a difference.
Lots of people have different types of relationships with macrobiotics, there are a lot of misconceptions; what are your thoughts on this? How do you relate to macrobiotics?
Some of the misconceptions are a result of macrobiotic writing, teaching and behavior. I don’t find most misconceptions difficult to understand. Of course, there are some opinions expressed about macrobiotics that are not misconceptions but uncomfortable truths. That zeal that I referred to can lead to problems in any movement. It is the problem of creating balance between the belief and determination to put ideas forward in a compelling way while still maintaining a sense of proportion. This has been illustrated in macrobiotics as a therapeutic approach to healing.
The “Standard Macrobiotic Diet”, with adjustments for individual illnesses, has been used by a great number of people with huge success. It is a real accomplishment and has saved, prolonged or enhanced thousands of lives. The problem lies when these experiences are looked at as proof that a macrobiotic approach can cure any problem. When we say that we are stepping into a trap of our own making. It makes it easy for our approach to be dismissed as foolish or creates a paradox when macrobiotic individuals get sick or die from an illness that we say we can cure. We have been given a great gift; we need to use it better.
These problems lie in sharp contrast to the contributions that macrobiotics has made to society. The Macrobiotic community has already made huge and often unacknowledged impact on alternative health care and the natural foods movement. It was Erewhon that lead the way in America in developing the model for all the Natural Food Stores that followed, Erewhon developed the market for foods such as miso, tamari, tofu and tempeh. It also pioneered and took great financial risks in developing organic grain and bean suppliers. The same is true in the UK and the rest of Europe, macrobiotic shops and education centers lead the way.
It was the Sams brothers, and then later, Peter Bradford who took risks to sell good quality Soya foods, sea vegetables and other macrobiotic staples. It was small macrobiotic food stores and distribution businesses that changed the image and reality of what was the health food shop, dominated by pill sales, into real food shops. It has been macrobiotic cooks that spread the awareness of cooking healthy and tasty food long before celebrity chefs jumped on board.
It has also been interesting to me to see the number of nutritional studies that verify the basic tenets of the macrobiotic diet with no mention of it. Many of Michio’s ideas have served as the foundation for the practice of both medical and alternative health programs. When we take these things into account, macrobiotics has had fair success in changing attitudes about healthy eating.
As far as misconception goes, I guess it comes with the territory. Whenever you challenge held beliefs you are apt to experience a tainted listening. Issue such as food choices, health care and the environment are very contentious. They are issues that speak directly to how we live our lives day to day; they often challenge very deep social/cultural assumptions. We need to have an awareness of that. It is part of the maturing of our community and the evolution of our ideas. The good news is that we get to start fresh everyday
What led you to London?
I passed through London on a nine-month journey I took from London to Calcutta overland, when you could still do it. I loved it here, met the Greg and Craig Sams and worked for them for a few weeks remodeling a restaurant they were running. I looked up a few of Oshawa’s students in Europe and had my eyes opened to new ideas about the world at large. When I returned to the states I became restless.
Erewhon was thinking about opening up in Europe and sent me here to set up a branch store with a container-shipping center in Rotterdam. I researched property, talked to folks in the business and things started to slow down. Erewhon was having second thoughts about the expense and running into cash flow problems and I was not giving them the feedback they didn’t find inspiring. I was starting to think that we would be perceived as the “ugly Americans” if we set up shop and cause more problems than it was worth. They scraped the plans and said that if I wanted to stay I would have to get a job. I decided to do just that.
What inspired you to develop the Community Health Foundation? What problems did you encounter?
I worked for the Sams brothers, managing the shop on the Portobello Road and doing some lecturing around London. New folks started showing up at the lectures and at the cooking classes my ex-wife Renee was doing. Eventually I left the Portobello Road shop and started Sunwheel Foods with Peter Bradford and Bob & Harry Harrop. We were making bread, granola and nut butters as well as importing food from Japan and distributing in the London area. As my teaching was getting to be more time consuming, I cut back my duties in the company.
I was starting to have a vision of a self-sustaining education center. Study houses were the macrobiotic model at that time but I felt that it was a limiting way of doing things. I wanted to see a situation where people could live in their own home and visit whenever they wanted classes, a meal, buy a book– a sort of a natural mall.
The first step toward this was established in a squat on the Caledonian Road called the “Self Help Center”. Some friends of mine who were involved with drug rehab work squatted the house and gave me the keys. It was a real dump. I went to the local council and told them what I wanted to do and they agreed to leave me alone as long as I would give it back when they wanted it. Done deal.
The place was a disaster zone. We survived by fixing up our own plumbing and electrics and started doing classes. We had a doctor, a psychologist, several people who did group work and myself. We were hoping to do counseling for women, antenatal services, drug counseling as well as macrobiotics, shiatsu and cooking classes. The macrobiotic services were the only ones that were drawing in people. We needed a better home.
An American guy I had met was working for a group in London that was developing biofeedback technology. They had the lease to a building on Old Street in London and couldn’t use the whole place. He asked me to come and see if I could use any of it as a rental. When we were walking through it I was just fantasizing how I would use the space. A few days later he called to tell me that if I wanted to take the lease it was mine. He was having trouble with his group and felt that I could put the place to better use. I went again with Peter, Donal Cox and a few others and we decided to go for it. We formed a charitable trust, put together a team of Trustees, got an agreement for six months free rent from the St. Lukes Trust, signed a twenty year lease and moved in. Everything needed doing and I only had £1,000.00 in the bank.
We started talking up our vision of a full service alternative health center and people started showing up to help. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians and wandering poets, all started showing up at the door willing to work, mostly for free. We managed to find other organizations that were willing to rent space and some very generous people who were willing to put in some cash. I moved into the building so that I was there 24/7. We booked Michio to come and do a seminar so we had an exact date when everything had to be done. Miracles happen when everyone is focused – we were on time and all dressed up when the hour arrived.
We attracted great people. In addition to Peter and Donal, his wife Jean, Mike Burns, Robbie Swinerton, Chris Dawkins, Dave Lasaki, Neil Gulliver, Jon Sandifer, Anne Tara, Marge and Richard Finchell, Dr. Tony Haines and so many more.
Just as important was that the courses at the East West Center were a great success. We started a food shop, bookshop, café, kindergarten and later at the Kushi Institute. The institute was started in London and grew out of a late night conversation between Michio, Aveline and I. It produced a whole generation of leaders from all over Europe.
In the beginning we really didn’t have time for problems we were too busy and excited. When difficulties cropped up we handled them. In the long run we never had enough money to develop the property past “London funk”. The facilities were just too uninviting for us to expand the work out into broader society. Eventually bits and pieces were sold off to pay the bills. I’m afraid that the baby went out with the bathwater.
How did your love of nature come about?
I was blessed in that I grew up in central California between the coastal range and the ocean. I was never a sociable kid; I spent a lot of time by myself in the fields, hills and beaches near my home. My father was an outdoorsman he loved nature – loved fishing and took me with him. I always felt a comfort in the mountains or near the ocean. I could just sit for hours and watch the waves or a river or listen to the sound of the wind in the trees. It was, and still is the source of my deepest spiritual experience. The more that we waste it; the more it is despoiled, the deeper that love becomes.
Can you tell us a about the small book (The Tao Te Ching) that you carried in your shirt pocket? And how this book has served you over the years?
The Tao Te Ching has been the most important book in my life (and books are important to me). I don’t carry it in my pocket anymore but I carry it in my heart and head. It is not the literal interpretation of the poems that matters to me it is the spirit. What the Tao Te Ching says to me is that a healthy mind, body and spirit unfold in us when we are aligned with the rhythms and patterns of nature. It indicates that if we pay attention we can see these patterns and feel these rhythms in the world around us.
It tells me that when I am stressed out or ill that I am not paying attention. It tells me that we all have the capacity to return to our authentic nature, that part of us that is wise not smart.
Macrobiotics Today, January/February 1995, Vol. 35, No. 1
"The New Macrobiotics" Bill Tara
The last ten years have shown a renewed sense of inquiry into the shared beliefs of the macrobiotic community. A questioning of dogma and more serious reflection of experience, rather than theory, are forces which are reshaping what macrobiotics will be in the future. It is a time of rich potential and Macrobiotics Today has been the leading forum for much of this discussion. Recent issues have raised important questions for all of us involved in macrobiotic practice and education. In the September/October 1994 issue the theme was "Macrobiotics: Japanese Traditional vs. Contemporary American," certainly a valuable area of exploration.
While reading the issue I was aware of two things which were missing for me: The first of these is, what really distinguishes Contemporary Macrobiotics from the macrobiotics of the past? The second is, how much of the New Macrobiotics is a reaction to its Japanese origins. With the exception of an excellent article by Tom Monte, it did not seem to me that any of the articles addressed these fundamental questions. Instead, the authors seemed unanimous in expressing the opinion that most of the differences of opinion in macrobiotics are simply cultural, I disagree.
Over the past five years I have used the term The New Macrobiotics and Contemporary Macrobiotics in promoting some of the courses at Nova Healing Arts, as a way of distinguishing what I teach in my lectures and seminars from some of the ideas expressed in macrobiotic literature and taught at many of the macrobiotic educational centers. I have done this so that I would not misrepresent our programs to potential students. The distinction has to do with the vision I hold of macrobiotics in the future and which I feel is shared by many in the macrobiotic community.
It is important to me that these distinctions not be blurred or dismissed as a reaction to cultural traditions or even as is sometimes implied, a kind of prejudice against things Japanese. Alex Jack stated, in his article, that in the macrobiotic community, "We are experiencing culture shock. We are turning against Oriental teachings and teachers in direct proportion to our uncritical acceptance of everything Eastern in the past." This may sound very reasonable but I do not think it is an accurate description of some of the differences between the past and present which are emerging in our community.
I have the wonderful opportunity to meet with macrobiotic people from all over the United States, Western and Eastern Europe, Australia and Canada each year in my work. The overwhelming critique, regarding Eastern (specifically Japanese) teachings, is not that they are wrong, or not valuable, but simply that there is no recognition of anything else. There is a big difference between the two. The inclusion of other cultural viewpoints gets a polite nod in macrobiotic literature but that's all.
Modern non-scientific theories of health and healing, systems of healing which are based on psychology, herbalism, Western or primitive tribal approaches to spiritual development, and a variety of valuable insights which might well enhance our understanding are seen as "condiments" in macrobiotic education compared to the "main course" of Oriental medicine. The arts and skills of these systems are not taught in any meaningful manner in our educational programs or reflected on deeply in our writing. This is not to say that Michio or Herman or any of the second or third generation of macrobiotic teachers must be required to have an interest in any of them, it is just a fact that they are not seriously honored or studied. This is a point I will come back to. I consider it to be an important distinction in the development of a "New Macrobiotics."
There are several areas of concern which invite some thought and reflection regarding the ways we use macrobiotics and the ideas which drive it in our lives. The first of these is identifying the core assumptions and beliefs of the "macrobiotic community," the second is the public expression of these beliefs in teaching and educational materials and the third is the ways these beliefs are reflected in macrobiotic practice. What I offer here are my views on some of the areas where I feel further discussion and reflection is needed if we are to develop our true potential as a vital, creative and effective community.
Inquiry or Uncertainty?
Macrobiotic ideas embrace a wide range of observations, aspirations, and beliefs. One of the first things which appealed to me, when I began to study George Ohsawa's writings, was the emphasis on personal freedom. My understanding of Ohsawa was that the theory of yin and yang was a tool which could serve us to establish a particular quality of freedom in daily life. I took this to mean that by understanding and experiencing the rhythm and movement of life within us and outside us we could learn to co-operate with the forces of nature and to pursue health and harmony in our life.
This state of harmony allows us to appreciate the twists and turns of existence, to pursue mastery over our learned behavior, and to liberate our lives from the slavery of repressive patterns of action and thought which hold us back from our true potential. I still embrace this thought and have experienced the benefits of using it in my life, it is also a constant challenge. The challenge comes from my own limitations - my habits - my reluctance to move into the sometimes painful realm of deeper inquiry into my personal relationships with others and my motives and desires. The deepening of this inquiry into myself is the great adventure which lies at the foundation of macrobiotics in my life. So then, for me macrobiotics is the study of change.
If this inquiry into the nature of human life and our relationship with others and the planet is part of the spirit of macrobiotic living there are some serious paradoxes which present themselves. They all fall under the broad heading of the certainty, dogma and infallibility which riddle macrobiotic attitudes on health, healing, and human development at this time.
A reputation of macrobiotic teachings which is sadly true, is that we seem to have an answer to everything, not simply a theory about things, but that we have the final answer! Some of this may have to do with a practice said to be followed by Ohsawa of demanding firm answers from his students to every question. "I don't know" was supposedly never accepted as a response.
Since I never met him I cannot comment much on this approach except that it is an excellent tool for honing judgement in a classroom. It makes you use your imagination, can improve confidence in thinking on your feet, and often allows your intuitive response to move to the surface. The problem with this approach is that it can often create answers which are just "made-up." If your answers are clever, if others like them, you could start to believe that your answers are correct even without any practical experience to back them up. This game of exercising "intellectual intuition" is exciting and fun to do. It can be dangerous if there is simply one small group or only one person who plays the game best and becomes the source of all valid opinion.
For me the issue of infallibility in teaching is an important one in understanding some of the problems in the development of the macrobiotic community. Both Ohsawa and the second generation of Japanese teachers, particularly Michio Kushi, had and have a penchant for broad statements and instant theorizing.
On many occasions, these observations can be right on target, often they are stimulating insights and point to a new perspective on an issue, and sometimes they are mis-informed or face saving opinions created to maintain the illusion of supreme judgement. Since there is little or no opportunity to examine or debate theory, there is no real opportunity for the community to benefit from reflection on opinions which become dogma from the moment of utterance.
This situation is a sad creation of both teachers and the community as a whole. It is an issue which I do not believe is inherently Japanese. Even if it were, it would be one which must be challenged. If we are to develop our understanding in a way which allows for "not knowing" in areas where experience is scant or nonexistent we have to create more opportunity for discussion and debate. Theory based on limited experience must be identified as such. It seems that for many the admission of not knowing the answer to a question, is too yin or a sign of weakness. This might not matter except that we are dealing here with a body of knowledge which is often being applied to help people in times of great personal need, where issues of life and death are being addressed.
The problem of infallibility is compounded when opinions are presented as fact in writing or teaching and defended even where experience proves otherwise. When there is an overriding investment in "knowing it all" it cripples the capacity to learn from mistakes or to adjust or change that which doesn't work.
Failure to produce the results expected is most often placed on the individual applying the theory, "they didn't really understand" or "they didn't really follow the advice correctly" are the standard responses. Dogma not only limits growth and development of macrobiotic understanding, it is potentially dangerous for those who apply it out of belief alone. Denial is a sad reality in macrobiotic propaganda and teaching. The depth of denial in our community is evidenced by the degree of discomfort demonstrated in the face of criticism, whether generated from without or within.
Education or Indoctrination?
Our response to the mistakes that we make on an individual or group level is a true reflection of our integrity, creativity, and flexibility. It is these qualities of human expression which allow us to grow and learn. Within the macrobiotic community, criticism, however honest, is most often interpreted as an attack. Within macrobiotic organizations and in the community at large this defensiveness often leads to a discounting of any disagreements as being the result of personal animosity, or a result of an individual's way of eating. If someone expresses an opinion forcibly they must be eating meat, if someone uses a poetic metaphor to describe their feelings they must be eating too much fruit. This stifles expression (even if there's an element of truth in it).
Several years ago it was found that some macrobiotic infants were seriously low in vitamin B-12. The mothers of these children were often vilified as "having poor judgement" or "not really practicing macrobiotics" even when they were diligently following what they considered the advice laid out in books or taught in lectures. The initial response to those who suggested that the problem might lie in incomplete information in the books or lectures, or that the way of communicating information needed to be reassessed were seen to be attacking the authors of the books. Compassion for the mothers, or serious and timely discussion of why these unfortunate mistakes were made was overwhelmed by "damage control." The plight of the children and the families were secondary to coming up with a quick explanation and maintaining the appearance of infallibility. The same mentality is evident in the illnesses of Aveline and Lilly Kushi.
Aveline is one of the true pioneers of macrobiotics in the world. She has been an inspiration to countless men and women with her unfailing energy, drive, and dedication. She is a courageous woman who has given of herself unconditionally to the cause of macrobiotic education. Her illness should give us all pause for reflection.
I cannot say what factors have contributed to her cancer. It could be genetic or environmental; it could be her diet, her work, her marriage, or any number of factors which I have heard put forward. One thing is certain to me, if it is explained away by a scenario which combines her so - called "stubbornness," with her personal eating patterns, it reduces the problem to such a degree that we can never address the larger issues of both her health and women's health within our community. What we will get is a general suggestion that women should relax more and we that should all use a more yin approach in preparing our vegetables. The point here is that denial of our mistakes only serves one purpose, it feeds the power of those who create and maintain the dogma.
Education is the act of drawing out the truth. The Latin word educare, means to grow or bring forth. Education involves open inquiry, patience, experimentation, honesty, and the ability to know you don't know. The opposite of this process is indoctrination. Indoctrination is putting in - not drawing out. It is an imposing of information, not a search for truth, it empowers the teacher not the student.
We can only take our place in the larger community of individuals and organizations who are working for a healthy and just society when we display the courage and commitment to openly discuss and creatively adapt macrobiotic thinking and practice to the reality of our situation. Macrobiotic people still get sick, they still have problems. Our maturity as a community will be reflected in our ability to accept this with compassion and curiosity and to be continually adapting our practice while maintaining the integrity of our principles
The New Macrobiotics
So what then is The New Macrobiotics? From here it looks like its growing already, the roots have taken hold. For me, it includes but is not limited to the following distinctions.
1. A reassessment of the role of empowerment in healing. Healing is one of the great mysteries of life. My understanding of the macrobiotic spirit is that our function is to explore the realm of healing and work toward the empowerment of the individual to make choices. This is tricky territory when we have all been raised to give away our power to professionals, be they macrobiotic or medical.
There are very real ethical issues in healing which are seldom discussed within the community. They have to do with the limitations of macrobiotic treatment, the ways to truly empower clients in counselling and ways to see the difference between inspiration and delusion.
These issues demand attention. There are abuses of power which occur in counselling, teaching, and especially diagnosis which can happen even if you are on the alert. This is not unique to macrobiotics, it occurs in both orthodox and alternative medicine. It only serves the immediate ego needs of the practitioner.
2. An increased and deepening study of other healing traditions. The world is filled with powerful and effective traditions of health and healing. If we are to create a thorough understanding of the dynamics of health we must learn from many sources. There is no culture or system which has the final answers. These traditions need to be included in macrobiotic educational centers, together with an appraisal of how they work and how and when they might fit with our philosophy and practice. We cannot say we are working toward the evolution of a holistic approach to health and healing and ignore these traditions.
3. Diminished reliance of scientific rationalizations for macrobiotic practice. Science is a powerful force within our culture. It can give us very real insights into the world we live in and our place in it. It is also often a trap. When we attempt to create a "macrobiotic science," we lose the essence of our work. This does not mean we should ignore or minimize the importance of scientific work, but we should be sensitive to the fact that the practice of macrobiotics is not the application of a science, it is an art. When we reduce our philosophy to a series of dry and mechanical principles we remove its life.
We say that we want people to develop their intuition and to identify their personal relationship to their food, their relationships and the world we live in. What often happens is that the instructions they receive are very "scientific" and undermine those very qualities. I often see people who are instructed to measure and gauge every bite of food, count every chew, and cut each vegetable with rigorous attention. There can be value in this as an exercise in awareness, but this is not how the instructions have been heard.
I have dealt with many people who were terrified that their cooking or a slight variance in their diet might kill them or a loved one. They are following instructions to the letter out of fear. This is even the case when their experience tells them they are getting worse. These are not isolated cases. As a community we must do more to review our skills in communication so that these situations are reduced or eliminated. Shrugging them off as just another example of poor judgement doesn't work.
4. Reducing the fear of food. There is often an attitude in macrobiotic circles which I can only call neurotic, regarding food. It would be foolish to diminish the importance of food choices in the health of individuals or the planet. It is a daily gift of spirit as matter. It requires attention and respect.
Since the mid-seventies there has been an increased focus on using food as a cure for disease, primarily cancer. This attention has influenced the daily eating of many macrobiotic people who are in fair health. Foods which may not be useful for a person with a particular health problem become "foods to avoid" for everyone. This fear of certain foods, rather than respect for their attributes, does not serve health. It feeds into rigid behavior and may contribute to health issues which I believe are appearing in our community. I believe many macrobiotic people to be malnourished. The diet becomes so "clean" and the body so "pure" that there is no reserve for physical activity, exuberance or creativity, except perhaps with the aid of coffee, alcohol or "binge" eating. I do not believe this to be healthy.
5. A deeper inquiry into the role of psychological and spiritual aspects of health. All of the above issues can play heavily on an individual attempting to reclaim their health. Fears of food, anxiety regarding "getting it right," confusing instructions, being made to be wrong, all these things actually can be productive of poor health no matter how well you eat. Many take up the challenge of this out of their own strength and commitment - they usually use macrobiotics with success.
Many more don't, they are the ones who drop out, the ones who become bewildered or confused, the ones who leave angry. I believe we must not ignore their reactions. We must appreciate better the profound pain, which any of us may hold, and address it creatively. We must not assume that our personal experiences can be directly applied to another without sensitivity to their personal struggles.
To assist in this, a better knowledge of the dynamics of the mind and spirit becomes essential. If emotions are dismissed as "discharge" or witnessed as "sentimental judgement" we are really missing the boat. The richness of visualization work, psychological counselling, meditation and relaxation techniques need attention as techniques which may have even more importance than detailed dietary changes in many cases.
6. An openness of heart to other men and women who work for a healthy planet. There is big work ahead of us all. There are many problems of a personal, social, and environmental nature which cry out for attention in the modern world. All of this work calls out for a greater sensitivity to issues of gender, culture and religion than ever before. We are all called to appreciate differences while understanding the underlying threads of connection which bond us in the community of life on our planet. Many people are responding to this call, not just rice eaters.
There is a vocabulary of separation which has been there for a long time and really needs to be changed. I don't know how many times I have heard the opinions of someone dismissed because they ate meat or sugar or were a vegetarian and not "macrobiotic." This fits right in with the mythologies of the peacefulness of rice eating cultures, the passive nature of vegetarians and other stories which are simply not held up by either history or experience. This is arrogance at its worst.
The historian, Vincent Harding, warned against a Noah's Ark mentality at an early macrobiotic congress. What he saw was the mythology that if a war broke out or an environmental disaster took place the "holy ones," those who ate the right food, would be saved! What a recipe for inaction and self-righteousness! Michio has prompted these theories more than anyone. Much of it comes in the form of his personal musings but it is heard as gospel and not discouraged.
In Alex's article he makes a statement which is very familiar, ". . .we are the de-facto government of the future world." Well, I don't think so. We are really a very small group of individuals who are trying to sort out how to live lives of peace, social harmony, and health in a world which is changing very fast. It is an honorable, important, and challenging task. It will probably take making many friends in other organizations, forming new cultural links, and joining others who are on parallel paths if we are to really make a positive contribution to the world. An inflated sense of importance will not really help.
As Tom Monte indicated, we really need to meet and work through many of these issues if we are to have a macrobiotic community which continues to grow, evolve, and bring the power of what we have into the world. I will continue to identify and honor those teachings which I have been fortunate enough to have been given from the generation of macrobiotic teachers who came before me. Their teachings and pioneering spirit have been and still are a great gift to me. I also feel strongly that we must move into a new era of macrobiotic development, one marked by open and honest inquiry, if we are to broaden and deepen the social impact of this way of living.