Intention

Meriam-Webster Dictionary defines “intention” as “a determination to act in a certain way” and “what one intends to do or bring about,” among other usages.

Bringing intention to just about anything can enhance both the experience in the moment and the effectiveness and level of satisfaction induced by the activity. Several synchronistic encounters have generated a resurgence of interest in practicing intention in my everyday life. Here are a few of the ways I am doing that.

Sleeping: Right before I go to sleep, as part of my nightly journaling practice, I set an intention to answer a question or solve a problem. I write it in my journal and ask my inner guidance to help me find the answer or solution. This sometimes leads to vivid dreams that steer me to a resolution. Other times, I awake with greater clarity or peace around the issue. Either way, I find that it is crucial to take a moment immediately upon awakening to record and process the guidance in my journal. Doing so contributes to deeper understanding and an increased chance of remembering and implementing what I learned in my sleep.

Eating: Adding intention around eating can be life changing. For me, intentional eating manifests in many ways. First and foremost, I eat plants, not sentient beings. My primary intention behind doing so is to add to the compassion, as opposed to the suffering, that exists in the world. A bonus is that the most compassionate way of eating is also most life-enhancing for my own body. By eating whole plant foods, I am intentionally doing what is best for raising the level of compassion in the world and for optimizing my own wellness. Beyond this most critical intention, I have committed to checking in with my emotions before I eat, to consciously and thoroughly chewing my food and to putting my fork down between bites. It is amazing how this can transform eating from a function to a practice. It can be challenging to accomplish this in the midst of a hectic day, with lunch squeezed tightly between appointments, but I make every effort to maintain my intentional practices around eating even then. I find that it helps my body to be in a calmer, more peaceful state to accept the nourishment that I give it.

Exercise: Physical activity, in itself, is wonderful for our bodies, minds and spirits. Engaging in regular physical activity has been one of the most transformative habits of my life. I have been a consistent exerciser since I was 23. My focus has shifted from gym to running to cycling over the years. While each has played an important role in who I have become, cycling is an absolute passion. I find the mood-enhancing and spirit-boosting effects of physical activity are elevated when I add another layer of intentionality to my exercise. I am committed to exercise because I know that moving my body in challenging ways makes me far, far happier and healthier than not doing so. I can get even more out of the movement when I meditate on a resonant quote and/or repeat affirmations to myself. On a recent bike ride, the quote that formed the basis for my intentional mediation was this one by Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.”

This is a poignant reminder for me as I work toward some challenging goals. I also include on my rides affirmations designed to reprogram long-held beliefs that are not serving me. I find the combination of powerful physical activity that I love (cycling for me, but it might be something else for you) with positive self-talk and deep pondering of a worthwhile idea to be a particularly potent strategy for improving my confidence and my sense of well-being.

I recently read the excellent book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, by neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki. She explained how a workout called IntenSATI changed her life. The creator of IntenSATI, Patricia Moreno, combined a fusion (dance, martial arts, yoga and interval training) workout with powerful affirmations. Suzuki found that the intention this brought to her exercise changed the way she thought about herself, her body and what is possible in her life. She noticed that her creativity was enhanced, and she was more willing to take reasonable risks in her work and social life. I related strongly to what she said. My experiences on the bike, particularly combined with positive messaging to myself, permeate every aspect of my life and bring me renewal on a regular basis.

I am not necessarily successful at bringing intention to everything I do, but the areas where I do are more rewarding and help me to grow. In our highly distracted world today, the more intention we can introduce into our daily lives, the better. I believe that I have a responsibility to live my life with as much focus and purpose as possible so that I don’t miss the moments that comprise the whole of my existence.

Messages From a Spinning World

I went to bed on Wednesday, January 4 feeling perfectly fine and normal. On Thursday, January 5, my alarm went off at 5 a.m., as usual. I got out of bed just as I typically would. Then, I promptly found myself on the floor with the world spinning wildly and nauseatingly.

I sat there, stunned, wondering what had just happened and suddenly feeling really sick.

I tried to get up, but went back down, the world still turning and flashing in a highly disorienting way.

After several minutes, I was able to get up, but things were definitely not right. The violent motions made me nauseous, and I wondered if I had a virus. Although I vomited, the most prominent symptom was the dizziness.

I had my husband take me to the doctor and learned that my right ear was bulging badly with fluid, and there was also fluid on my left ear. The nurse practitioner surmised that the fluid build-up was causing my dizziness, but also told me that there might be calcium crystals (called otoconia) in my inner ear, behind the fluid in my middle ear. She offered several possible treatments, and I chose nasal spray over oral Prednisone. I also tried the home Epley Maneuver, but felt terrible after doing it, so I have not yet tried it again.

Eleven days after its sudden onset, my vertigo is much better, but, disappointingly, not gone. I am planning to schedule an appointment with an otolaryngologist (Ear, Nose, Throat—ENT) doctor to check on the status of my ears and to find out if there is anything I can or should be doing to expedite my full recovery.

Here is my theory about what happened.

I had an ear infection in my right ear in November that arose immediately after an extremely stressful event at work, during which I literally felt my body being attacked on the inside. It sounds crazy, but it is true, and I developed the ear infection, a terrible canker sore in my throat and a stress rash that flares up with stressful events, because of the onslaught of stress hormones. I was treated with Augmentin for the ear infection, and it healed. The NP who saw me for the vertigo believes that the fluid was residual from the infection, although there is no current infection. I think there probably are some otoconia involved, although I don’t know that for sure.

On the evening of January 4, I attended my first session at Orange Theory Fitness. I was interested in adding OTF as a supplement to my off-season training. While I still exercise every day during the winter, and I ride when I can, I miss my bike, and I wanted something to spice things up. So, although, exercise wasn’t unusual, the motions in OTF—a combination of rapid rowing on a rowing machine; fast-paced weight training, in a wide range of positions; and power walking at steep inclines on the treadmill—were different than what I have been doing. My off-season training generally includes cycling on days off work, when weather permits; the indoor spinning bike; circuit training, but with fewer dramatic changes of position; Foundation Training; yoga and walking. I believe that I had an underlying problem, residual from the ear infection, and the many quick and dramatic position changes probably caused the pressure from the fluid to move otoconia into undesirable locations in my inner ear, and I awoke the next morning, after the crystals settled while I was lying down, with vertigo.

I don’t know that any of this is true, but this is my theory.

I do want to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Orange Theory Fitness. It is a sound and effective way to exercise. I was greeted when I walked in the door, with, “Hey, you’re my advisor!” by the coach for my class, who is one of our Exercise Science students. The owner has been super nice and very understanding of my need to cancel my plans to join as a seasonal member. (I can’t even think about the movement of a rowing machine or lying down on a weight bench right now.) There is no reason that most healthy people should not be able to work out at OTF safely and uneventfully. I think I just happened to have an unknown underlying situation that was waiting to be stirred up by certain movements that I had not been doing in my daily life.

Anyway, hopefully, I will learn more and be able to rid myself of this strange, uncomfortable and annoying problem when I see the ENT.

In the meantime, I have been able to draw some interesting analogies to life because I like to try to learn from every situation.

A signature of this vertigo is that certain positions create problems, while I can feel reasonably “normal” when I avoid them. Once I got past the acute onset and figured out where I had to be careful, I recognized that lying down or moving my head to one side or the other while lying down creates the most trouble. Sitting up from lying down or rolling to one side can also create fairly dramatic vertigo. Bending down, moving my head forward, looking up to a high shelf, tilting my head to the left or right or looking down while moving can also cause problems. So, I have learned to be deliberate in my movements.

I can liken this sense of being off balance physically and the unsettling sensations that result to being out of balance in my life, emotional vertigo. If I notice what activities cause me to feel bad, and which ones feel right, I can make conscious decisions about how I spend my time and energy. I can take notice and regularly assess what causes problems and decide to make adjustments to bring my daily activities into better alignment with my strengths, talents, passions and values. Like this physical vertigo, emotional vertigo may not have a quick fix, and it may take trying a variety of remedies. It may require consulting professionals and doing research on my own. I was already in the process of examining my life and looking at what feels right and what does not and setting into motion some changes to bring my life into better, healthier alignment. They won’t happen quickly, but, just as the vertigo has forced me to pay close attention to how I move my body in space, I choose to recognize the signs—some manifesting physically—of a life out of balance and out of alignment with what matters to me. Once I identify the problems, I can make deliberate, conscious movements toward the solutions.

Success, Redefined

“The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” Benjamin Disraeli

I have decided that constancy to purpose is also the secret to happiness and inner peace. After my wake-up call from stress-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy, I realized that I needed to focus on the things that really matter to me and let go of other expectations whenever possible. There are so many obligations, options, opportunities, causes, people and ideas competing for our time and attention. Trying to keep up with all of them and stay healthy is just not feasible.

We each have to find our own best way to make a difference—to make the contributions we want to make to the world, while remaining as healthy and centered as possible. This requires focusing on our unique opportunities to be a positive force in the universe and spending our time and energy doing those activities that feel most right. These are some touchstones that I find helpful in striving for this focus:

Clear values. Compassion. Excellence. Integrity. Fitness. These are the ethical aims that drive me and the most basic characteristics for which I want to be known. When I am clear about what ideals are most important to me, they guide my decisions in the directions that reinforce and enhance those principles in my life.

A philosophy for living. It is my responsibility to use my strengths and maximize my gifts to ensure that my net contribution to the world is positive. I express my gratitude for the strengths and gifts I have been given by putting them to effective, positive use.

Awareness of my strengths.  Honesty. Love of Learning. Perseverance. Gratitude. Judgment. According to the VIA Survey, these are my top five strengths. I frequently check in with myself to determine how well I am utilizing these strengths. Focusing my energy, whenever possible, on activities that allow me to employ these strengths optimizes both my effectiveness and my ability to find personal fulfillment in what I do.

Acknowledgement of my gifts. This list could go on and on. I am aware that I have been given so many resources and gifts, ranging from a loving upbringing to robust health to a quality education to a love of cycling and a drive to be fit. As an undergraduate student doing both paid and volunteer work in the nonprofit sector, I felt guilty for having been given so much, when I regularly witnessed so much suffering around me. In the years since, I have transformed the guilt into a healthier ownership of responsibility. I strive to maximize, not squander, my gifts. To provide just one example, I celebrate and express gratitude for my good health by nurturing it through cycling; eating a whole-food, plant-based diet; parking at the far reaches of parking lots; taking the stairs—even to the tenth floor when visiting people in the hospital—and making responsible decisions to take care of myself. To do otherwise, in my opinion, would be to scoff at the universe that has given me so many wonderful resources and to neglect my responsibility to give back.

A mission. To contribute to the advancement of human evolution in the direction of compassion. Compassion is my cornerstone value. I strive to live a life of compassion and to structure my decisions and actions around this value.  I can’t magically change the world into the one I wish it were, but I can keep pushing the needle in the direction of compassion. I am encouraged by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” By living and modeling compassion, I hope that I am planting seeds that will grow and flourish in this and future generations, gradually improving the conditions of both humans and nonhumans.

Recognition of the intersection of my passions, my strengths and the needs in the world. Aristotle said, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation,” and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I picture these ideas together as a Venn diagram that guides me to my own best way to make a difference in the world. (I created a cool Venn diagram in a Word document, but I absolutely cannot get it to paste here, so I am presenting it as an equation below.)

Passions/Gladness+Talents/Strengths/Gifts+Need=Vocation


And that leads me to where it all comes together . . .

A motto. Fitness is advocacy. This is where all of the above ideas come together in a concise, encapsulated statement that directs my actions and focuses my efforts. There are so many needs in the world, and there are so many ways to address them. We each have to find our own best ways to serve the needs that speak to us most urgently. Represented in the above Venn diagram/equation and summed up in the motto, “Fitness is advocacy,” my unique way of adding compassion to the world becomes clear. When I am fit and healthy and ride hard, while fueling my body with plants, I demonstrate that no one has to suffer or die for us to be well nourished. Being a vegan cyclist has allowed me to educate people in small towns across Kansas about eating well on plants, and it has allowed me to inspire others to try plant-based eating. I give my mind, body and spirit the freedom and movement of the open road while advocating in an upbeat, positive way for compassionate living. There are many other important ways to make a difference. I sometimes participate in other strategies, but I have become clearer and clearer that my signature style of advocacy is through the example I set in my own life. In this way, I feel balanced and at peace.

I started this post with a quote about success, and I will finish it with one of my favorite definitions of success. Mike Ditka said, “Success is measured by your discipline and inner peace.” I have come to a point where I really believe that. I am successful when I adhere to the habits, routines and strategies—the disciplines—that help me to remain consistently focused on my purpose. Deviating from that self-discipline for very long throws me off balance and disturbs my inner peace. When I keep my purpose in focus, I feel peaceful. That is my bottom-line determinant of success: Does this (way of life, relationship, job, commitment, activity, food, etc.) bring me more stress or more peace? Choosing the direction that is consistent with my purpose and nurtures inner peace is success.

 

Reflections on BAK 2016

Two weeks have already passed since Biking Across Kansas (BAK) 2016 concluded at the Missouri border, in Elwood, Kansas. I have learned so much on and through this annual ride. My experiences with BAK epitomize my major goal for this blog: celebrating my passion for cycling and the lessons and insight I glean through it. No doubt, more formidable crucibles exist, but I have found BAK to be a reliable forge for my evolving self. From my first BAK in 1999, when I was a runner-turned-novice-cyclist, accompanying my then-boyfriend (now husband), to my 18th BAK, as a seasoned veteran and BAK Board Member, I have moved through many phases of life; gained and lost animal and human companions, jobs and life directions; encountered physical and environmental challenges and felt my way through parenthood. Every BAK is different and special in its own way. These are my reflections on BAK 2016.

  • We are almost always tougher than we think—if we give ourselves the chance to find out. I think my first real inkling of this occurred when I trained for, and completed, my first marathon, the 1996 New York City Marathon. After my introductory BAK three years later, my mom asked, “How did you know you could do it?” I realized that my experience in the NYC Marathon, as well as the encouragement and example that my husband and his friends provided, allowed me to have the sense of self-efficacy necessary to attempt to ride across the state. This year, I was privileged to help my son Logan discover that he, too, is tougher than he realized. Logan has grown up around cycling and has participated in BAK every year since I hauled him into the wind and up the Blue Hills in my belly. He has accumulated some road miles for each of the last four years, but this year, on a new road bike, he smashed his previous record and greatly surpassed his goals. At one point, while he and I were riding late in the week after leaving a SAG (support stop) where he had been complimented, I said, “People are really impressed with you, and they are amazed by how well you are riding.” He giggled and said, “Yeah, me too.” The 309 miles he rode boosted his confidence and helped him to realize that he is capable of taking on challenges that some may find unreasonable or impossible. I hope that this awareness carries over into other arenas in his life as he prepares to enter middle school this fall and beyond. The confidence that I have built by accomplishing challenging cycling goals continues to be invaluable for me.
  • I felt stronger than ever. Last year, my as-yet-undiagnosed B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy were at their peak on BAK. While I enjoyed the ride, I knew something was not right, and I had thermoregulation issues that caused me a lot of discomfort and concern. I did not really tell anyone how much I was suffering at times. Once I was diagnosed and eliminated the supplements that led to the B6 toxicity, I began in earnest to make a conscious effort to minimize the negative stress in my life, manage unavoidable stress more effectively and optimize my nutrition. I was delighted to find this year that I felt strong and healthy on BAK. At one SAG in Highland, KS, a man told me, “It is just fun to watch you go up the hills. It is like your legs are just carrying you up like a little water bug.” While I appreciated the compliment, he might have retracted it if he had seen me in the hot, hilly headwind stretch that followed that SAG. However, I truly did feel strong and in control over the course of the week, perhaps stronger than on any previous BAK. It was a nice testament to the efficacy of the changes I have made in my life.
  • The wind is just wind, and the hills are just hills. As I mentioned in my introductory post about my blog’s namesake quote, there was a time when I allowed myself to become stressed and frazzled by wind. There was also a time when seeing upcoming hills could psych me out. Since my son rode with me for 309 miles on a very hilly route, I had a lot of opportunity to observe his reactions to hills and wind. When we had a cornering tailwind, he enjoyed the hills and did not worry over them. Later in the week, though, when we faced some challenging hills in strong headwind, his enthusiasm for the hills waned. I tried to share my hard-earned wisdom with him. I have learned that I will get up the hill, albeit a slow, effortful slog at times. I will also reach my destination in the headwind. That, too, can be slow and painful, but I have learned to stay calm in both those conditions, as well as to remain unruffled in crosswind. Those can be unnerving, especially in hills, because the wind currents can become unpredictable and scary. I have learned how to talk to myself to stay calm and collected and peaceful. I tried to help Logan do this, too. I think my words helped occasionally, but I realized that experience is often the most convincing coach. He will probably have to learn these lessons on his own, in order to truly internalize them. Watching him allowed me to reflect on my gratitude for these cycling lessons and to recognize how much I have used them over the past year, as I have worked to manage my stress in healthier ways and to be happier in my daily life.
  • Life is more fun if I am flexible and adaptable. There will be wind, and there will be hills, and I just need to flow with them. Biking Across Kansas provides abundant surprises and unpredictability. Will showers be warm, ice cold, a weak trickle or a needle-like spray? Where will we sleep tonight? What vegan dinner options will be available? On BAK and, I have found, in life, approaching the unknown with a sense of adventure, rather than dread, makes the ride and life much more enjoyable. If I remember the underlying truth—that there is nowhere I would rather be than BAK—I can weather minor inconveniences and irritations without allowing them to spoil the fun. The same is true when navigating the mundane realities of life.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. I have been called “rigid” more than once. I prefer the terms “disciplined” and “driven.” I do acknowledge that I can sometimes benefit from relaxing. My nutritional plan on BAK is a perfect example. I never waver in my veganism, but it is not always easy or even possible to meet every one of my daily nutritional objectives while cycling through rural Kansas. This year, I did not always get as many servings of beans or greens as I would have preferred. It is tough to eat exclusively whole-grain pasta or bread, like I do at home. I promised myself this year that I would relax, do the best I could and not allow myself to become stressed if my nutrition was not perfect. I controlled what I could and let go of the rest, and I was very happy and got plenty to eat.
  • Friendships formed and strengthened amidst shared challenge are unique and special. BAK provides an extraordinary medium for growing friendships. Longtime BAKers have shared memories of battling the elements together for many miles over many years. I enjoyed riding quite a few miles this year with my friend David, whose long-ago, matter-of-fact statement about the wind inspired the name of my blog. We share a special bond because of the road battles we have fought together and because of our common love of cycling. We have suffered and survived an 80-mile day with cold, torrential rain, small hail and 45-mph wind. He has stuck by me (twice) when I was slower than slow because of terrible heat cramps. He has worked on my bike roadside when I had mechanical problems. A few years ago, my friend Denise and I rode for a day with two young cross-country runners from Wamego, teaching them how to draft. Even my marriage is a result of cycling. My husband was literally on his bike when we met, and almost all of our dating and early-marriage entertainment was cycling. There is just something special about persevering together when it would be easier to quit.
  • Sometimes easier is better. Before Kenny and I got together, he was a confirmed tenter on BAK. There was no sleeping inside the schools for him. I love sleeping in a tent, so I joined him in his conviction that the tent was the place to be. Once Logan came along, managing the tent and getting on the road in the mornings became more complicated. Over the past few years, and especially now that Logan is riding, rather than sleeping in, we have both realized that sometimes it is just easier and more fun to have one less thing to handle in the mornings (or even in the evenings). There used to be a sort of pride around sleeping in the tent, no matter what. Not anymore. This matches the question that I try to use to make decisions in the rest of life these days: “Will it bring more stress or more peace to my life?” Sometimes easier is better. Kenny and I both owned that truth more fully this year than in the past. We slept inside six of the eight nights. It was easier, and that allowed us both to enjoy BAK more.

A concentrated week spent focused on the bike really illuminates the lessons I learn from cycling. I made a conscious effort this year to enjoy every moment and to avoid dreading my return to real life. Although I would head back out to the Colorado border right now to ride BAK again, I have been fairly successful at cherishing the experiences I had on BAK 2016 and allowing them to enrich my daily life, rather than to look back only with sad nostalgia, wishing my real life were different, as has sometimes been the case in the past.

My goal now is to carry what I have learned from BAK 2016 with me on my training rides at home and in my daily activities as a mom, a wife, an academic advisor, a vegan advocate, a blogger and my assorted other roles. Doing so is evidence that I have truly internalized and incorporated into my being the gifts of the ride.

LoganFirstFullDayBAK2016

Tips for Raising a Vegan Child

I have been vegan for eight years and vegetarian for 34 years. My 11-year-old son has been vegetarian since birth. I didn’t require him to become vegan when I made the switch to veganism, but I did talk to him about why I was making the decision. When he was in kindergarten, he told me he wanted to become vegan, and he has never looked back. Here is how we do it.

  • Make sure he/she is not left out. This is my number-one rule. I never want my son to feel deprived, so, I provide food that he enjoys for every gathering—family, school and community. I send vegan treats along to birthday parties at friends’ homes and vegan popcorn for movie day at school. When a physics professor visited and made liquid nitrogen ice cream, I sent delectable vegan ice cream for my son. This requires paying attention to school activity dates, and it is certainly extra work, but it is very important to me that my son doesn’t see being vegan as a sacrifice or drag.
  • Make delicious food to share. My cookies and chocolate cake are very popular with some of my son’s friends. One, in particular, considers vegan food a delicacy and gets very excited when I serve it at school parties. Having his friends like what his mom brings helps my son feel cool and normal.
  • Nourish your child appropriately. Like any vegan, she/he should take a B12 supplement. Emphasize whole foods and never assume that your child won’t like a fruit, vegetable or bean. Let him/her see you enjoying a wide variety of whole plant foods, and encourage her/him to do the same.
  • Pack appealing lunches. At home I make almost exclusively whole-food meals. Since I pack a lunch for my son to take to school every single day, I need to keep those interesting. He has access to a microwave, so I send things like frozen spring rolls, frozen burritos, frozen sliders and frozen butternut squash ravioli. These are not necessarily the most healthful vegan options, but they are better than animal-based alternatives, and they keep him feeling good about taking his lunch, instead of eating the school lunches.
  • Talk to teachers. At the beginning of every school year, I make a point to talk to my son’s teacher to let her/him know that my son is vegan, sometimes explaining what that means. I assure them that I will provide food for all parties and ask if he can keep snacks (usually a dozen individual packs of pretzels) in the classroom cabinet, so that he will have a snack for birthday parties that pop up throughout the year. One teacher asked me for books on veganism, and another asked me for recipes. Communicating with teachers is a great way to raise awareness while advocating for your child.
  • Anticipate conflicts and approach them proactively. When I knew that Easter eggs would be colored at school, I purchased wooden eggs and provided special markers for my son to color the eggs. Other kids wished they had his eggs.
  • Provide rationale . . . but don’t overwhelm. I want my son to understand why we are vegan, without getting depressed by the horrific details. This requires a balance of education and protection from pain, telling the truth, but not too much.
  • Help to educate others. When my son was younger, he took Benji Bean Sprout Doesn’t Eat Meat or That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals to school to read to his class. It helped the other children understand more about our values.
  • Celebrate vegan milestones. On his vegan anniversary, I give my son cards, telling him that I am proud of his ability to keep a commitment and live his values. He saves these and even posts them on his bulletin board in his room. I also make him a special dinner of his favorite foods.
  • Foster the development of an identity. Early on after he became vegan in kindergarten, I bought matching pendants for the two of us. Recently, I purchased a vegan cycling jersey for myself. He wanted one, so I bought him one. I want him to feel proud of being vegan.
  • Find a community. It can be tough to find other vegan kids, but my son has benefitted from attending vegan potlucks and other “adult” gatherings. He loves seeing other vegans and knowing that everything on the table is vegan.
  • Pick your battles. We live in an imperfect world that has not really caught up to vegans yet. So, there will be challenges. We will become exhausted and frustrate our children if we try to fight everything at once. Your child will be exposed to things you wish he/she were not, and family and friends will take her/him places you wish they wouldn’t. Decide what is most important and stand firm about those things. Relax about the others.

Just as it is not difficult to be vegan, it is not difficult to raise a vegan child. It takes creativity and planning and a willingness to put in the extra work to make sure that he/she always has delicious food, but it is worth it to know that I am living my values and contributing to the advancement of human evolution in the direction of compassion by nurturing another compassionate being to carry on the work. Best wishes in your journey as a vegan parent!

Reflections on the First 100 Days of 2016

When I completed my #100HAPPYDAYS challenge with the turn of the new year, I committed to myself to undertake two new 100-day practices. Last Saturday marked the 100th day of 2016. As I was on my bike that morning, I reflected on the first 100 days and my progress toward the goals I set for myself.

First, because I finished Michael Greger’s How Not to Die at the same time the new year was dawning, I committed to myself to use, and strive to complete each day, the goals in his wonderful Daily Dozen app. Although I wasn’t perfect in my completion of the nutrition and exercise goals set by the app, I am very satisfied with my success in this aspect of my first 100 days. Eating according to the Daily Dozen goals has become an engrained habit that has improved my physical, mental and emotional well-being. I am confident that this will remain a daily part of my life.

In addition to striving to eat each component of the Daily Dozen (like three servings of beans, one serving of cruciferous vegetables and two more servings of greens daily), I also internalized the practice of thoroughly maximizing the consumption of green-light (whole, plant-based) foods and minimizing the consumption of yellow- or red-light foods. I was close to this in a lot of areas anyway, but there were a couple of types of food that consistently had a hold on me.

At times I ate a high-volume of (reasonably healthful, always vegan) energy bars. In these early days of 2016, I have not consumed an energy bar. There are certainly worse things I could eat, but the added sugar (even less-refined sugars like agave nectar and brown rice syrup) had a tighter grasp on me that I acknowledged for years. The bars I ate were comfort foods, often consumed in stressful times throughout the day. Replacing these admittedly convenient snacks with fruit, vegetables, whole grains or nuts has been easier than I expected, and I find that I am often less hungry throughout the day than when I was eating one, two, three or even sometimes four of these highly caloric bars throughout a work day.

Additionally, vegan dark chocolate held me in its sway. At one point, when my son was two and we had recently moved, I realized to my horror that I was completely addicted to chocolate. I awoke thinking about how to get it, and I would panic if my supply ran low. I cut myself off from any form of chocolate for three years. Then, I thought I was safe to return to eating it. Sometimes I was. But sometimes stress got the better of me, and I would eat much more than I planned. A dependence crept back in, if somewhat moderated from the dark period years prior.

With Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen, I am striving toward nutritional ideals, not running from fear and controlled by dependence on comfort foods, and I have found that this has healed my relationship with food. Many might be surprised (at least I think) to learn that I have often had a fairly disordered relationship with food. It was not an eating disorder exactly, but an unhealthy expectation for food to comfort, soothe and fix me. There have been periods (especially in recent years) when I felt guilty every time I ate. I constantly disappointed myself by not living up to my expectations around eating. The first 100 days of 2016 helped me to release my disordered thinking, like my body better (although I still have room for improvement) and feel truly good about almost everything I am putting into my body. Food should nourish me. Period. It can’t fulfill any other emotional need or fill a void. The habits I cultivated over the first 100 days have put me on the path of true nutrition and healthy, guilt-free enjoyment of nature’s abundance.

My second goal for the first 100 days was to make writing progress every day. That goal has proven to be more elusive, but, as I reflected on my bike on the 100th day a week ago, I think it has evolved into something bigger and arguably more valuable. What I have realized is that not everything fits into my life every day. That is the bottom line. I have to make choices, and I have to give myself room to breathe. In my ideal world, I would ride, read and write to my heart’s content daily. But, I have to pay the bills, so work consumes my time and my mental energy more often than I would like. And, I am mom to an 11 year old who is increasingly involved in activities (but nothing like some kids). And I am a wife and part of an extended family. And I have to sleep. Nourishing my body takes time and planning. So, some days I get to make progress on my writing. Other days, I think about it and wish I could do more, but have to make a choice.

My encounter with B6 toxicity and small fiber peripheral neuropathy last year was a wake-up call. At base, it was the result of poor stress management and feeling like I had to find a way to fit everything into my life. I tried to do that through over-supplementation, and it had negative results for my body. It scared me because I realized that my attempts to mask my stress had led to something that could have done permanent damage. So, I had to make changes. And make choices. My mantra and my guiding beacon has been Elizabeth Gilbert’s quote, “You do what you can do as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go.”

Those words have been such comfort and salvation for me. They remain posted above my computer at work, and I continue to get better at living them. I have had to adjust my expectations at work, as I have in my writing and the rest of my life. I no longer demand of myself that I get through all my email daily. I already give up almost every single lunch period, eating and working at my desk most days of most months. I finally gave myself permission to go home even if I had many unopened emails in my inbox. When I am booked with appointments, back to back, all day, every day, for months, it is simply not possible to fit everything else into the serendipitous minutes when I finish an appointment early or a student runs late or (jump for joy!) no-shows. I enjoy my job, but I have had to adjust my expectations, and I have made it a practice to manage students’ expectations. I let them know that it may take me a couple days to get back with them when they contact me, but I assure them that I will respond, and I do. Ideally, I would get to everybody every day. But I can’t and remain healthy.

Writing is the same. I make it enough of a priority when I can that I keep up a semi-regular practice of progress, but I have released the guilt of not accomplishing my stated goal every day. That outcome of my 100 days has probably been more significant than the prolific production of written content would have been. I have learned (and am still learning) better balance and patience with myself.

I have had to apply Gilbert’s words and the internalization of them to other aspects of my life as well. I fall prey to worry that dear friends may feel hurt that I can’t make it to all the events and activities I would like. I have to push aside concerns that I may be perceived as neglecting causes that are deeply important to me. Ultimately, I have to do what fits. I have to prioritize inner peace over constant activity. I have to know my introverted self and how much stimulation and interaction I can handle until downtime is a must.

There was a long period in my life when one of my biggest fears was “settling” in any arena. That concern still arises from time to time. Have I sold myself short in terms of my temporal and financial investment in my education? Do others think so? Am I limiting my success because I am afraid to take risks or to make sacrifices? Have I been inconsistent? Indecisive? A disappointment to myself or others? There are times when those questions and concerns still seep through the cracks in the walls I have erected to shield myself from them. Ultimately, though, my 100 days and last year’s health scare have made it clear that I simply have to take care of myself. Trusting my instincts regarding personal limits is a vital aspect of that self-care.

I feel good about my first 100 (now +7) days of 2016, and I feel ready to move forward in a way that maximizes my nutrition and allows me to find a measure of satisfaction with my writing progress and the expectations I have for it in my life. Additionally, the lessons I have learned through the 100 days practices will continue to nurture me in every component of my life. I am grateful for the #100HAPPYDAYS challenge and for the habits and method it has instilled. I fully intend to move forward with those lessons in my toolbox for personal growth.

Beans in My Smoothie and Other Life-Saving Habits

Beans_in_My_Smoothie“How can I add beans to this?” Dr. Michael Greger asks himself at every meal. This is just one of several simple tweaks I have adopted since reading his new book, How Not to Die.

I cannot overstate the value of this book and its companion app, Daily Dozen. Information about both is available at www.nutritionfacts.org. I absolutely loved the book and, although it was long, I was sad to see it end. This is a book that will stay with me for the long haul, however, because I have incorporated the lessons into my daily life.

I have eaten a generally healthful diet for a long time, but HNTD gave me so many good ideas for easy, evidence-based tweaks. Since January 1, 2016, I have further optimized my nutrition with the very handy, free Daily Dozen app, available through Google Play Store and the App Store.

Dr. Greger has dedicated his career to promoting health and wellness through nutrition. He introduces the book with the inspirational story of his grandma who was sent home in a wheelchair to die of heart disease when he was a child. She saw a 60 Minutes segment featuring Nathan Pritkin’s then-new lifestyle medicine center and traveled across the country to give herself one last chance by checking into it. After adopting Pritkin’s plant-based diet and beginning to exercise, she left death’s doorstep at age 65 to live a rich, full life, until she died at 96. Dr. Greger was so moved by his grandma’s amazing recovery that he vowed to become a physician and help people transform their own lives through the way they lived them.

This wonderful book is the most well-researched, comprehensive nutrition and lifestyle book I have ever read . . . and I have read quite a few.

Part One is a fascinating, detailed presentation of solid scientific evidence for using nutrition and lifestyle to prevent, fight and even reverse 15 leading causes of death: heart disease, lung disease, brain disease, digestive cancers, infection, diabetes, hypertension, liver disease, blood cancer, kidney disease, breast cancer, suicidal depression, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and iatrogenic (caused by medical care) causes. Chapter by chapter, Dr. Greger highlights scientific studies in each of these areas and presents evidence illuminating the most health-promoting foods, as well as the riskiest ones, for each health condition.

Then, in Part 2, Dr. Greger introduces his Daily Dozen, from which the app was born, and explains chapter by chapter why he strives to include each component in his day. I love this app and am using it every day. I truly believe that the adjustments I have made to achieve the Daily Dozen goals have taken my largely whole-food, completely vegan, diet to a new level of wholesomeness and quality. I am not perfect, but I do my best to set myself up to achieve each Daily Dozen objective.

The components of his Daily Dozen are these:

Beans: Dr. Greger makes a compelling case for consuming three daily servings of beans (including tempeh or tofu, which are soy foods). Toward this end, I have adopted the practice of adding some variety of bean to my morning smoothie. I put so many good things in there anyway, and beans add a wonderful creaminess. I also have simplified the lunches I pack for work: a variety of bean, a large serving of greens (heated together at work) and guacamole. It may sound boring, but it is wonderful . . . and simple.

Berries: A daily serving of berries is easy and delicious to include in a smoothie or as a snack. They are so full of antioxidants and fiber that they are widely recognized as a “super food.”

Other Fruits: Dr. Greger cites studies indicating that increased fruit consumption is correlated with better weight management. This is just one of many reasons he recommends three additional fruit servings per day.

Cruciferous Vegetables: Sulforaphane is the component in cruciferous vegetables that earns them a separate category in the Daily Dozen. Dr. Greger presents persuasive evidence that sulforaphane is a cancer-fighter.  It has been shown to have potential benefits for vision, nasal allergies, type 2 diabetes and autism. Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, bok choy and Brussels sprouts are just some of the tasty routes to accomplishing the daily cruciferous vegetable serving goal.

Greens: I have added greens to my smoothies for years, and Dr. Greger presents many strong reasons to incorporate at least two servings of raw or cooked greens into our diets each day, on top of whatever cruciferous vegetable we are eating. I firmly believe, and Dr. Greger presents corroborating evidence, that these are some of the most healthful foods we can eat.

Other Vegetables: Besides a serving of cruciferous vegetables and two servings of greens, eating two more vegetable servings each day will add a variety of other valuable nutrients to our dietary profile. Most of us have heard the recommendation to “eat a rainbow.” Dr. Greger explains that richness of color matters not just in greens, but in other fruits and vegetables, too. For instance, red onions have more phytonutrients than white onions, and sweet potatoes are more nutritious than white potatoes.

Flaxseeds: Omega-3 fatty acids and lignans have been shown to be protective against cancer and to promote heart and brain health. Dr. Greger recommends a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds per day. I already made sure to include an Omega-3 source in my daily smoothie—flax, chia, hemp or walnuts—and now I include flax and possibly one of the others, but always flax, at minimum.

Nuts and Seeds: Sure, nuts and seeds have a high fat content, but it is health-promoting monounsaturated fat. Because these foods are satiating, one serving a day can nourish us with healthful fat and protein, while lessening the chance of overeating less healthful foods.

Herbs and Spices: Specifically, Dr. Greger recommends ¼ teaspoon daily of turmeric because of its documented ameliorative benefits for a host of conditions ranging from pulmonary disease to rheumatoid arthritis. This is easy to incorporate into my daily smoothie, if I am not going to be eating other foods that lend themselves to turmeric flavoring. Dr. Greger encourages the liberal use of most herbs and spices to add a range of phytonutrients, while minimizing the need for salt.

Whole Grains: Dr. Greger promotes the consumption of three servings daily of whole grains because of evidence that they are associated with reduced risk for stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. There are so many from which to choose, and Dr. Greger recommends eating a variety of different grains.

Beverages: Water is high on Dr. Greger’s list, but he also presents evidence for drinking green, white, black and herbal teas. Green tea has particularly healing benefits. Dr. Greger acknowledges that hydration needs are quite individual and even vary within a given person, depending on weather and exercise conditions. However, he recommends five servings as a minimum each day.

Exercise: Although not a food, exercise is part of Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen because of its well-documented benefits for physical and mental health. Rather than sell the public short with his recommendation, he prefers to provide evidence for a relatively high dose of exercise daily. Especially during the cold, dark off-season from cycling, it is difficult for me to meet Dr. Greger’s exercise recommendations every day, but I give it my best effort, within the confines of real life. I remember the mantra from my graduate Exercise Science program, “Any exercise is better than no exercise, and, to a point, more is better than less.” I have lived this for a long time. Even if I can’t go for a bike ride every day, I exercise daily, and I love (often to my son’s frustration) to build in opportunities for exercise, like parking as far as possible from a store, taking the long way to or from the bathroom at work or walking, instead of driving, to a basketball game here in my small town. It all adds up.

Besides his Daily Dozen, Dr. Greger promotes eating according to a “traffic light” system. Foods that get the green light—unprocessed plant foods—should be emphasized. Yellow-light foods are processed plant foods and unprocessed animal products. These foods should be minimized. Processed animal products and ultra-processed plant foods comprise the red-light category. These should be avoided completely.

Dr. Greger defines “unprocessed” as “nothing bad added, nothing good taken away.” Ultra-processed plant foods have no redeeming nutritional value.

His simple model is an easy way to make choices on a daily basis. He sees room for yellow-light foods to the extent that they promote consumption of more green-light foods. His example is his fondness for hot sauce that contains added salt. He eats more greens because he likes them with this hot sauce, so it has a place in his diet. While I have long emphasized unprocessed plant foods, I have taken that to a higher level after reading HNTD. For example, I am using dates in place of agave nectar or maple syrup when my smoothies need a sweetener. Dates are whole and unprocessed, while agave nectar and maple syrup are processed. Vegan yogurt (Daiya cherry!) is a treat for me. I eat more whole-grains and berries, as well as nuts and cacao nibs, when I eat it, so I have continued to eat it as an occasional treat, although it is a yellow-light food, since it is processed. The bulk of my daily food is unprocessed plant-based goodness, though, and this feels wonderful.

Dr. Greger states that he is not promoting a vegan diet, so much as he is promoting an “evidence-based” diet. It just so happens that the diet that promotes health and minimizes sickness is also one that increases compassion in our world. He entered the plant-based world because of its demonstrated health benefits, but he has become a strong supporter of the ethics behind veganism over the years.

I respected Dr. Greger’s work before reading HNTD, but I am a true fan now—so much so that I plan to become a regular donor to his foundation because it aligns with all of my most important core values: compassion, excellence, integrity and fitness.

I will end this post with the quote that Dr. Greger used to conclude his book. Dr. Kim Williams, upon assuming the post of president of the American College of Cardiology in 2015, explained his rationale for eating a completely plant-based diet this way, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want it to be my fault.” I love that. We all have so much power to maximize our chances for a long, healthy life. Yet, so many of us abdicate our responsibility for our own well-being, relinquishing this power to genetics or chance or fate. Yes, things happen. Yes, we will all die of something. Yes, sometimes people who lead apparently very healthful lives die prematurely of cancer or heart disease or stroke. These things are all true, but it is also true that many more deaths and so much suffering could be prevented if we all took the steps Dr. Greger recommends in How Not to Die. His book is a tremendous gift in an immensely readable and highly accessible package. Please read it, adopt this lifestyle and save yourself, the animals and the planet in the process.