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The New Macrobiotics

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.

No Recognition 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 recent 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.

End of Article

Author bio-statement: Bill Tara has been active in many health education and service activities. He has been associated with Erewhon Natural Foods, the Kushi Institute, the London Community Health Foundation, the International Macrobiotic Institute in Kiental, Switzerland, and Nova Healing Arts in Boulder, Colorado. Bill lives in Boulder with his wife and children.

 

 

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