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November 28, 2008

Teas for Digestion

On Saturday November 22 Stuart and I conducted our monthly Many Rivers tea tasting on the topic of “Tea for Digestion.” We had a great crowd, an excellent discussion of a lot of research on the topic, and we tasted what may have been the most diverse flight of teas we’ve ever done in over five years of conducting tea tastings. Here is the list:

Several interesting principles emerged from the research that we did in preparation for this tasting. Following is an outline of the subjects discussed, which can be summarized in two points:

  • Camellia sinenis (tea) is recognized both at a general level as an aid to the digestive processes of the body
  • Specific types of tea have been recognized as having special properties that support and enhance digestion

Although we didn’t structure the actual discussion this way, in preparing for the event I had organized the research on tea and digestion into three more or less distinct perspectives, followed by an outline of the topics covered in the discussion on each perspective:

  •  Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
  • Alternative Western Medicine
  • Western Scientific Studies

    Traditional Chinese Medicine
    In TCM, food and drink are understood to be medicinal in nature. Proper digestion is key because the body has to be able to absorb the beneficial substances that we ingest. As a widely appreciated remedy in the context of TCM, tea is understood to have the following properties:

    • Tea helps to regulate & promote healthy movement of qi (chi), i.e., life-force energies
    • Tea helps with the digestion of fatty foods 
    • Tea is often taken immediately after meals as a digestive aid
    • Pu-erh tea invigorates the Spleen, disinhibits dampness, reduces stomach heat, moves stomach qi downwards, counteracts & flushes alcohol toxins – in fact, pu-erh is widely used as a remedy after drinking too much alcohol

      Alternative/Holistic Western medicine
      In alternative Western medicine, our research identified three principal assertions related to tea and digestion: Acid/Alkaline balance of body tissues; Diuretic properties of tea; “Adaptogens” in tea. Here are the summarized points:
       

      Alkalinity/Acidity
      • Tea assists digestion by neutralizing excess acidity and preventing fermentation and putrefaction in the stomach; moreover, more acid body tissues are less healthy than more alkaline tissues, so ingesting more alkaline substances is beneficial for the body. Example: Alkalization of mouth, throat and stomach reduces halitosis
      • Tea leaves freshly picked are maximally alkaline. Processing increases acidity, so whites are more alkaline than greens, greens are more alkaline than oolongs, and black teas may well be acidic rather than alkaline.The acidity/alkalinity of tea may be due in large part to the pH of the water used to brew the tea – ideal water for tea should be slightly alkaline
      • Overbrewing tea, whether from too long an infusion, or using water that exceeds the ideal temperature for the kind of leaf (esp. green teas), can make the brew more acid because more tannic compounds are incorporated in overbrewed teas
      • Since blood and tissue acidity promotes calcium loss from bones & teeth, daily consumption of alkaline teas reduces osteoporosisTea is a diuretic that flushes toxins from the body antioxidant and alkaline properties of tea remove toxins from tissues that are then excreted
      • Tea contains “Blood Adaptogens

        • Adaptogens are medicinal compounds alleged to regulate blood pressure, balance blood sugar, and prevent thickening of the blood

        Scientific Studies
        Results of new scientific studies of the benefits of tea for the body are regularly reported in the scientific and popular media. Many of these studies are relevant to the subject of tea and digestion. As Stuart pointed out at the tasting, it is important to recognize that the nature of scientific inquiry and investigation means that studies are generally constructed to answer more narrow questions than those addressed in TCM and alternative, holistically-oriented western medicine. None is “better” than the others; each approach simply has its own different strengths.

        Here are some points that emerge from a cursory look at currently available studies on tea and digestion:
         

        • Thermogenic (heat-producing) effects of tea on the body:
          • Higher metabolism rate produced by regular tea drinking (which is the basis of claims for tea promoting weight loss)
          • Higher metabolism of fats in particular produced by drinking tea
        • One of the most important antioxidant compounds in tea, EGCG (Epigallocatechin gallate) also has an anti-inflammatory effect within the gastrointestinal tract
        • EGCG blocks absorption of cholesterol by the body, in addition to the action of tea in removal of cholesterol & sticky plaques from walls of blood ; plus it promotes excretion of cholesterol-containing compounds
        • Black tea has been demonstrated to have anti-ulcerative effects in animal studies
        • Black teas have been shown in animal studies to assist in regulation of serum blood sugar levels; although as yet unproven in humans, black tea consumption may thus help prevent diabetes
        • This is just the briefest of outlines of material on the benefits of tea for digestion. We welcome comments on and questions about this posting. Please join the ongoing discussion!

November 21, 2008

Meditation as wolf

Why is meditation a carnivore?  Not a daisy, not Bambi? Consider this description of it:

“Meditation has been sold to Americans as a tool to reduce stress, enhance calm and improve health. But real meditation is a wolf, not a fraud in sheep’s clothing. In its purest forms, meditation consumes the unwholesome flesh of self-delusion to lay bare the enduring bones of Truth described by saints and mystics. The catch is that, while still very personally attached to the gristly tendrils of our mechanical, compulsive impulses, we imagine that it must be agony to observe the wolf feasting as it is meant to do. And that fearful anticipation of pain effectively circumvents the only hope of genuine salvation from the merry-go-round of self-deception. Hence real self-examination doesn’t just happen; it must be made to happen, systematically and consistently. That is the task and the promise of real meditation.”

If it is true that meditation has been misrepresented as benign and oh-so-sweet, this passage operates as a corrective to that misperception. When meditation is understood to be boring, bland, and gutless, why should those helplessly recapitulating their compulsive habits seek refuge in meditation?

Meditation as carnivore is a metaphor to help people realize that real practice, real meditation, can be pursued with enormous energy, and must be so pursued to lead to liberation from compulsive habit patterns. Meditation as wolf reminds the practitioner that the energies of the passions can be transmuted to serve practice.

Genuine meditative self-examination entails cultivation of a profound hunger for truth. But such cultivation is not a saccharine pursuit. Injunctions to be “sweet” or “nice” are irrelevant to what it feels like to redirect the convoluted energies of self-indulgence toward a pure passion for truth. But this can be difficult to appreciate, as the title of one of Jacob Needleman’s latest books Why Can’t We Be Good? illustrates. There are two answers to Needleman’s question:
 

1)      We can’t be good because we’re stuck enacting deep habit patterns that are relatively impervious to ordinary self-reflection or psychological manipulation. Even when we manage to shift some things via ordinary means, unintended consequences usually emerge where we least expect them, such that the sum total of unnecessary pain produced does not vary.

2)      The only thing that can profoundly affect the compulsive habits that undergird everything we do is spiritual practice, which consists of the rigorous, persistent witnessing of unvarnished truth. Identifying with considerations of good and bad are worse than irrelevant to this pursuit. These judgments constitute links in the chains that bind us. We cannot break our chains by adding more links!

The purity of witnessing meditation cuts through the quagmire of good intentions and selfish actions, just as carnivores feed not because they seek to be “good” or “bad” but because that is their function.

Ecologists tell us that wolves seek the easiest prey: those who are weak by virtue of being old, lame, ill or young.  When we judge wolves as bad, and eliminate them from ecosystems, other creatures suffer as imbalances occur. It behooves us to recognize that the wolf of meditation consumes that in us which is weak, or as Gurdjieff would have put it, that which is unbecoming to three-brained (human) beings. We serve God, the Universe, and ourselves best when we bring the power and ferocity of the carnivore to pursuit of truth. The strongest practitioners and the greatest saints are those who impartially witness all phenomena with the clarity and single-mindedness of a carnivore stalking its prey.

Note: The paragraph quoted at the beginning of this blog posting is part of the description of two linked public talks that Stuart and I will be doing on two successive Thursdays at Many Rivers in December 2008. The full descriptions of the talks are copied below.

Dangerous Meditation I: The Esoteric Pearl of Great Price
Rob Schmidt, Ph.D., Tayu meditation teacher
Thursday December 11  7:30 pm
The esoteric spiritual practices of the world’s great religious traditions have left the confines of monastic cells and huts in remote mountains. Descriptions of esoteric secrets now fill books and can be found on the web. Does that mean there are fewer spiritual secrets left, or none? Instead of lamenting this purported loss, we might prefer to celebrate that the willful obscurantism of false teachers, deployed to snag the unwary, has been thus undermined. Most importantly, we can take comfort in the perennial truth that the “open secret” of genuine practice remains hidden in plain view in our age where information is garbage. While in times past mystics sought the Pearl of Great Price in remote deserts, today the mesmerizing wilderness of contemporary life obscures its gleam. We need training to recognize the nature of the Pearl because it and we are immersed in crap.  Yet even with every stolen mystery a mouse-click away, the truth of esoteric practice remains constant: only those initiated into productive, persistent practice are positioned to pluck the Pearl from the grime of illusion consistently and reliably. Join us for the first of two talks discussing what esoteric Truth means in the twenty-first century. These talks serve as prelude to a practice group commencing in January 2009 at Many Rivers.
Rob Schmidt, Ph.D. studied with Tayu Meditation Center founder Robert Daniel Ennis, and succeeded him as Tayu spiritual director.  Tayu Center is an esoteric spiritual school with roots in several traditions, but founder Robert Ennis crafted an original and cohesive set of everyday esoteric practices applicable to the conditions of life in the twenty-first century.
Dangerous Meditation II: The Esoteric Practice of Co-Meditation
Stuart Goodnick, Tayu meditation teacher
Thursday December 18 7:30 pm
Meditation has been sold to Americans as a tool to reduce stress, enhance calm and improve health. But real meditation is a wolf, not a fraud in sheep’s clothing. In its purest forms, meditation consumes the unwholesome flesh of self-delusion to lay bare the enduring bones of Truth described by saints and mystics. The catch is that, while still very personally attached to the gristly tendrils of our mechanical, compulsive impulses, we imagine that it must be agony to observe the wolf feasting as it is meant to do. And that fearful anticipation of pain effectively circumvents the only hope of genuine salvation from the merry-go-round of self-deception. Hence real self-examination doesn’t just happen; it must be made to happen, systematically and consistently. That is the task and the promise of real meditation. Co-Meditation is an esoteric meditative practice explicitly designed to bring impartial self-examination attention to those sticky, delusive habits of relationship that obscure the true nature of our connections to others. Join us for the second of two talks discussing the nature of esoteric practice, and to taste the most basic form of Co-Meditation.
Stuart Goodnick studied with Tayu Meditation Center founder Robert Daniel Ennis, and has been a Tayu teacher since 1993. Tayu Center is an esoteric spiritual school with roots in several traditions, but founder Robert Ennis crafted an original and cohesive set of everyday esoteric practices applicable to the conditions of life in the twenty-first century.

November 17, 2008

Five New Nisargadatta DVDs!

The all time bestseller at Many Rivers is the book I AM THAT, the teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj.  For those who love this book, and for those who are new to the profound, yet accessible teachings of Nisargadatta Many Rivers now offers five DVD's of his teachings.  These DVDs contain archival footage of Nisargadatta and his disciples.  Nisargadatta is truly a Sage for our time; a layman who earned his living at home, he was nevertheless able to attain deep insight/awakening and offered guidance to countless students from all over the world.  Many Rivers is happy to be able to offer these DVDs to our customers.

The Astrology Club

One of the things I really enjoy about working at Many Rivers is that each day there seems to be some chance meeting that educates and entertains.  Yesterday five people came to the store to compare their Astrological Birth Charts.  They all had their charts and one by one they passed the charts around and offered their analyses and comments, suggestions and observations.  One of the five had told me about this plan so I brought my own chart (Sun in Cancer, Cancer Rising, Moon in Pisces).  The group spent some time on my chart as well.  It was gratifying to receive input from a multitude of people.
 
Star crossed interactions happen like this at Many Rivers which always makes me eager to return to the store for another day.  Who knows what the stars will have in store?

November 08, 2008

The Magic of L-theanine

There comes a time whenever we do tea tastings at Many Rivers, usually after the third of fourth cup of tea, when the mood discernably shifts. Everyone seems to relax and pool their energy. We go from being a collection of individual tasters to being a coherent group of adventurers sharing a common experience. About that time, I usually joke that the L-theanine has just kicked in.

L-theanine is a major amino acid primarily found in green tea that has been shown to have some interesting psychoactive properties in part because it is able to cross the blood-brain barrier. Animal neurochemistry studies have shown that L-theanine increases brain serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels. Other studies have shown that L-theanine reduces the body's reaction to mental stress by lowering the heart rate and salivary immunoglobulin A (s-IgA) via a reduction of sympathetic nervous activation. L-theanine has been shown to enhance cognitive abilities, enhance alpha wave production, and improve the body's immune reaction. One recent double blind study (2004) compared the effects of 200mg of L-theanine to 1 mg of alprazolam (Xanax) in reducing anxiety in volunteers. The results showed that L-theanine outperformed alprazolam in showing enhanced relaxing effects for volunteers who were already relatively relaxed, while neither seemed to show much effect for volunteers starting out in an agitated state.

An L-Theanine extract is available through Suntheanine, a Japanese company that holds numerous patents on processes for extracting L-theanine from gyokuro tea leaves. Japanese green teas (e.g. gyokuro, sencha) appear to have the highest concentrations of L-theanine of all common teas. Japanese matcha has by far the greatest concentration of L-theanine of any tea by virtue of the fact that it consists of actual ground tea leaves rather leaves used for infusion. Our own experience of a wide variety of teas, however, is that the relaxing effects of L-theanine can be found in any good cup of tea.

The presence of L-theanine in tea accounts for the vastly different experiences we have of the effects of caffeine when drinking a cup of tea and drinking a cup of coffee. Whereas the oils and alkaloids in coffee tend to promote a stress response in the body that heightens a sense of panic when combined with the effects of caffeine, L-theanine tends to combine with caffeine in tea to produce a calm, relaxed sense of alertness. It is no surprise that tea has long been an ally of Buddhist and Taoist (Daoist) monks in supporting their meditation. In fact the history of the spread of tea and the history of the spread of Buddhism run parallel as monks and traders brought tea and the Dharma along with them on their journeys along the Silk Road.

When you drink your next cup of tea and enjoy that soothing relaxation as the troubles of the world drift away like steam floating over your hot brew, take a moment to appreciate the magic of L-theanine, just one of the many wonderful aspects of this amazing beverage.

 

November 07, 2008

Esoteric Tayu practice in Australia

Stuart and I have been in Australia this week passing on the Tayu dharma to a sincere Fourth Way practitioner from Mauritius, a small island nation east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Sydney has been a convenient spot to meet, since it is roughly half-way between California and Mauritius.

Our dharma friend from Mauritius has expressed the desire to come to California for further, more intensive training in Tayu practice as soon as he can make that happen. Since Mauritius and California are literally almost exactly opposite one another on the planet, that may take some time, but we trust that whatever is supposed to happen will indeed occur. In the meantime, he has gotten some powerful impression food to take back with him to Mauritius, to share with the practice group that he has formed there.

We have seen that the Tayu Co-Meditation exercises are an excellent example of a true esoteric body of practices. It is a point that many Tayu practitioners who have had the good fortune to learn them from Stuart and me, or Robert himself, may not appreciate fully. The Co-Meditation exercises only make sense when presented within an appropriate context. Stuart and I are, after many years of presenting them, quite skilled in creating and maintaining the appropriate contexts. And it may be all too easy for those who have tackled Co-Meditation in those contexts to take the contexts for granted.

What do I mean by "context" for Co-Meditation? I refer to the fact that the natural egoic obstacles to the practice of Co-Meditation, as with any other experiential esoteric practice, would make it virtually impossible for a newcomer to actually do the practice without help. There would be far, far too many excuses for the ego to throw up as obstacles to proceeding further. This doesn't feel natural or comfortable, I've never done anything like this before, I don't know what might happen, this could psychologically harm people, etc. The ego can generate a multitude of barriers to self-examination in the blink of an eye. The proper context can neutralize this strong egoic tendency.

So one of the things that Stuart and I can send back to California, prior to our return there, is just this point: although you may not have been used to thinking of them in that way, the Tayu Co-Meditation exercises are an excellent example of an esoteric body of "knowledge" available only in the context of a spiritual school.


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