MY THOUGHTS ON
I think it is excellent
that there is now more of a conversation going
on about macrobiotics, as it indicates a regeneration
of life and vitality in the subject. As macrobiotics
has gone through a quiet phase I also think
it is now healthy to go through a period of
enquiry and experimentation. We need to do the
biological equivalent of evolving to meet a
changing world and we need those mutated cells
to speed up the process.
This will only happen
through people breaking out and trying new ways
to reactivate the energy in macrobiotics and
other people joining in to support and help
build on their success. To make this happen
I think it is essential to encourage and embrace
new thoughts and actions so that we can see
what works and what does not without resorting
to criticism and blame.
Here are some random thoughts
of mine that have developed over twenty-five
years of being a macrobiotic student, running
macrobiotic centres in America and London, being
a teacher and counsellor, writing books and
running a health food shop.
To put it all into context
we need to take a brief look at the last thirty
years of macrobiotics. One of George Ohsawa,
Michio and Aveline Kushi and Herman Aihara's
greatest achievements was to successfully introduce
or at least popularise a huge range of Eastern
/ Japanese ideologies, practices and products
to the West. Under Michio's and his colleagues
macrobiotic umbrella came Shiatsu, Do In, Nine
Star Ki astrology, meditation, Reiki, chanting,
the I Ching and oriental diagnosis.
Macrobiotic centres were
the place to go if you wanted to learn about
ki / chi, yin and yang and the five elements.
The macrobiotic community was responsible for
bringing tofu, miso, sea vegetables, umeboshi
and bancha tea, to the West.
When I first went to America
it was even common for people in the macrobiotic
community to make their own futons. Members
of the macrobiotic community embraced acupuncture,
Aikido, Tai chi helped them to become established.
Michio deserves all our
gratitude for not only being able to deliver
these subjects in a clear understandable form,
but also for having the generosity to spend
so much of his time giving out his amazing knowledge.
Inevitably many of these practices grew up and
eventually left the macrobiotic family.
Interestingly once they
set up their own schools some tried to actively
assert their independence by distancing themselves
from macrobiotics. As time went by even subjects
like ki / chi, yin and yang and the five elements
were no longer the sole preserve of macrobiotics.
Things that were pioneering
in the late seventies and early eighties became
main stream. Ohsawa's thoughts on taking responsibility
for your life and health, once radical, now
rolls off everyone's tongue. Logically the pool
of new things to bring to the West dried up
and this coincided with a time when more and
more people came to macrobiotics to recover
from serious health problems, largely inspired
by Dr. Satalaro's book 'Recalled by Life'.
Now macrobiotics took
a more serious turn with the emphasis on healing.
I don't think it was a conscious decision, simply
that people needing help turned up and the macrobiotic
community responded. I think this transition
from an amazing adventure into eastern philosophy
and healing to something more focussed left
a lot of people behind. Where was all the excitement,
the pioneering spirit now?
To some it just seemed
like macrobiotic counsellors were playing at
doctors - the very thing George Ohsawa had railed
against with his ideas of self-responsibility.
That huge transition has now run its course
and macrobiotics is now facing another challenge.
The first and most important
idea to grasp when thinking about subjects like
macrobiotics is that concepts and reality are
never the same. This is essential to understand
our relationship to any ideology. Reality is
our unique subjective experience of life. Concepts
are human being's attempts to explain reality.
We never succeed entirely;
concepts are always only an approximation that
works some of the time. The general rule is
that the more complex the concept the further
from reality it becomes. Therefore concepts
including yin and yang, five elements, twelve
theorems and principles, levels of health, judgement,
spirals of materialisation, evolution etc are
not an accurate description of reality, they
are one view of reality.
As much as I like thinking
about them there is a clear distinction in my
mind between macrobiotic ideology and real life.
It seems to be human nature
that when a group of people with similar interests
and beliefs get to together they push each other
further and further down an intellectual path,
competing to impress each other, eager to keep
up so each can remain a part of the group. Some
of my happiest times have been sitting in a
cafˇ or restaurant with macrobiotic friends
discussing macrobiotic philosophy.
The problem with this
is that whilst incredibly stimulating for those
in the group, the group as a whole sails off
into the distance, getting further and further
away from reality, loosing their connection
with the rest of the world. Inevitably the gap
between the group and the rest of society becomes
too large for other people to cross and the
group becomes isolated.
I believe this happened
within macrobiotics. For this reason macrobiotics
became a force that only appealed to those with
an overwhelming reason to eat macrobiotically
- hence its reputation as a cancer diet. These
people have little interest in the concepts;
they just want to get better. The concepts alone
are no longer appealing enough to bring in large
numbers of new people - times have changed.
Where concepts are important
is that they colour our perception of the world
we live in. If you understand the concept of
yin and yang you will have different ideas on
diet and health. Concepts allow us to discuss
our subjective experiences of reality in a way
that can challenge us mentally to think about
a subject in more depth.
The only real reason to
cultivate another belief system is to give a
different meaning to your life. If as a result
of starting macrobiotics someone believes they
are more in control of their life and that makes
them feel good, the concepts that lead to this
are helpful. If however the concepts lead to
a fear of food, confusion and anxiety they are
The concept itself, whether
yin and yang, the five elements etc is not the
issue; the only consideration is the result
of believing that ideology. It is not essential
to be consciously aware of concepts; they may
be interesting, enlightening and inspiring,
but not essential to acquiring knowledge.
In fact you do not need
any of the macrobiotic concepts to eat macrobiotically.
Anyone can acquire everything they need to eat
macrobiotically just by living with other people
who eat that way. For example most people acquire
the knowledge to eat Indian cuisine by going
to Indian restaurants, children naturally acquire
a second language by living in a different country.
If you eat macrobiotically for long enough you
will know what it feels like to take in living
whole foods and develop the sensitivity to know
which foods disagree with you and which help
you recover from illness.
Ultimately you will intuitively
know which foods are best for you. I believe
that now in macrobiotics we only need the concepts
that attract and encourage interest in macrobiotics
and allow a person to develop and deepen their
practice. It is not worth getting hung up or
attached to any concept, concepts are useful
as stepping stones. I have even heard concepts
described as useful lies, they provide a working
framework within which to experiment; they are
not reality and certainly not the truth. Too
many concepts can put people off a subject,
making it difficult to understand and giving
people more reasons not to do it.
Reality is how you feel
after drinking some bancha tea, giving a hug,
smelling a flower or simply laughing. Paradoxically
macrobiotic teaching that aims to have us really
live the Big Life has tended to be very dry
and concept orientated. In my training only
the cooking and eating of the foods and giving
and receiving shiatsu were reality based.
By putting so much emphasis
on concepts we neglect to build a solid foundation
to macrobiotics and that it becomes ephemeral,
transient and nebulous - it becomes something
that is all in the head; it can become a self-indulgent
form of mental masturbation. Not something that
people are going to queue up to get involved
PEOPLE ON THE OUTSIDE
As a subject macrobiotics
is not readily accessible, understandable or
clear. This has nothing to do with the name
(which I like); it is that unless the whole
basis of macrobiotics is communicated properly
over a long period of time it can be complex,
confusing and ambiguous. Of course such contradictory
characteristics can also be strengths but they
do mean that in its current form macrobiotics
will never have mass appeal; to gain mass appeal
the whole diet and philosophy needs to be summed
up in a word or sentence.
Think of all the long
term popular diets; Vegetarian (no meat or fish),
Vegan (No meats, fish or dairy food), Food Combining
(high protein foods and high carbohydrate foods
at separate meals), Raw Food Diet (the title
says it all), Atkin's Diet (high protein low
carbohydrate) or High Carbohydrate Diet (it's
in the name). Glycemic Index (Eat food that
contain sugars that break down slowly).
All of these rely on only
one concept. You can understand them immediately
and they quickly become part of the global conversation.
Even practices like homeopathy are based on
one concept. It is not just a question of redefining
macrobiotics it is a question reinventing macrobiotics
so it has one prime concept that is clear and
understandable. At this point in time I am not
sure that many of the concepts are helping.
Nor do I perceive that those people practicing
macrobiotics use them anyway.
People are most likely
to adopt something from someone else's experience
of reality. ÒI started a macrobiotic diet and
within a few days my energy levels shot up,
I lost excess weight and just feel so much better.Ó
This is their reality and no-one can argue with
it. Compare this immediacy with trying to get
a friend to eat macrobiotically by explaining
In my experience I found
that even the basic cooking became a prisoner
of conceptualisation. During my time in America
in the early eighties far too much emphasis
was put on important things like how to layer
vegetables in a nishime dish (and worse the
vital categorisation of vegetables for the nishime
in terms of yin and yang was contradicted from
one teacher to another so it was confusing to
know what the layers should be) with the result
that students became fanatic disciples or felt
disempowered and fearful in terms of something
as simple as cooking vegetables.
Some teachers even made
an issue out of which direction to stir a soup!
This would be acceptable if the teachers could
explain it. Just saying you stir in a certain
direction because energy spirals into the planet
isn't enough. Who is to say that going with
the flow is better than stirring against it?
Surely it all depends on whether you want the
energy of the food to be more active or peaceful.
As water does not consistently
form a spiral in one direction when draining
through a plug this ought to lead to questions
and discussion regarding whether the energy
spirals into the planet in one way all the time.
What does happen to the spiral once it has passed
through the plughole? Why would your pot of
food necessarily be in the centre of a spiral
I use this to illustrate
that by giving out even one poorly thought out
concept during a class, students will either
become very dogmatic or begin to question the
validity of everything else that is claimed
in the name of macrobiotics. Worse we invite
ridicule of macrobiotics when the students go
out and tell their friends about what they have
Non-credo needs to start
with those teaching it. Ideas that started out
as fascinating insights into the world we live
in soon ended up being regurgitated as macrobiotic
principles by people that did not really live,
practice or understand them; a vital insight
becomes nothing more than a stagnant second
or third hand opinion. Theories that had not
been put through any rigorous intellectual analysis
or practical testing found their way into the
growing jungle of macrobiotic philosophy.
Macrobiotic teachers went
through a phase of feeling they had to put in
every concept, even though they clearly could
not engage in a meaningful discussion with students
if they went 'off script'. I remember going
to classes where the teacher could not even
explain why there were basic contradictions
in the concepts they put forward or why the
macrobiotic version of yin and yang differed
from the Chinese version.
When the teaching of a
subject degenerates to this level the concepts
become a major handicap to the whole movement.
I have also noticed that in teaching macrobiotics
on more advanced courses there is an element
of pressure on the teacher (self imposed?) to
impress his or her audience, to come up with
that amazing revelation, to prove a depth of
understanding not witnessed before.
I am sure it is part of
human nature and we all have these little impulses
to shine. In macrobiotics it meant that there
was little consistency in how the concepts were
interpreted and expressed. All the teachers
I have met have been sincere and well intentioned
and I think it is nothing more than general
human nature that these situations arise - they
are certainly not unique to macrobiotics.
I think we need to recognise
that students generally put more value on a
well-organised course that methodically and
carefully takes them through to completion and
leaves them with a feeling of having something
tangible and lasting to offer the world . Many
trainings in similar fields are skills based.
In macrobiotics this would be the cooking, diagnosis
and working with people; unfortunately too many
macrobiotic classes have involved someone talking
whilst everyone else sits down taking notes.
THE MACROBIOTIC DIET
I also think we now need
to get away from classifying food as part of
the macrobiotic diet or not part of the macrobiotic
diet; or that foods are good or bad. Instead
we need to be able to explain the likely effects
of eating different foods and let people choose
if that is something they want. More advising
than prescribing. For example it is possible
to describe why you might want to drink coffee
and what the possible ill effects could be,
or under whic circumstances you would want to
avoid it, without declaring it inside or outside
Clear, simple guidelines
are important for people starting a new way
of eating, for example Òtry the standard macrobiotic
diet for three monthsÓ, but they do not need
to be put forward as the macrobiotic diet in
its entirety. Michio's 'Standard Diet' is an
amazing piece of work and a very well thought
out diet plan. This alone stands out as one
of the greatest contributions to macrobiotics.
From my experience it
works in terms of helping recover from poor
health. However, if macrobiotics is more than
recovering from health then long term practitioners
should not feel confined by a particular version
of the macrobiotic diet. As far as I am concerned
it is fine for someone to eat macrobiotically
in terms of whole living foods for one day a
week as a form of cleaning out his or her digestive
system, to try it for three months to improve
a health complaint or do it for life. It does
not have to be all or nothing.
The 'all or nothing' approach
(I am not really sure where this came from but
again may be part of human nature - a group
of people doing something together see someone
wandering from their version of the set path
as a threat / failure / letting down the group
/ compromising the principles?) has led to guilt,
regular secret binges among people involved
in the movement and a kind of emotional pressure
that people outside the movement rightly interpret
I think we need to let
go of the feeling that we need to sell macrobiotics,
to argue the case or even to persuade. This
would effectively prevent people making ridiculous
claims on its behalf and create the impression
we are fanatics out to convert people. Why not
let it grow organically by example, by people
simply having good experiences with macrobiotics;
make it a happy movement that people feel naturally
I suspect that macrobiotics
will always be something of a specialist approach
to food and health and it will mostly appeal
to those who have the time and desire to take
on something more challenging. Regardless we
need to make sure that everything within macrobiotics
makes it accessible and easy for them to continue.
GROWING THE MACROBIOTIC
One other casualty of
over conceptualisation has been the ability
of macrobiotic leaders to reproduce themselves.
In nature every organism has to survive and
reproduce. In macrobiotics during the eighties
the demands to master all the concepts to the
extent that people could go out and teach macrobiotics
themselves became so great that the new generations
of teachers and counsellors never really made
People studied for years
but never got the blessing or encouragement
from their peers to go out and make a career
of it, with the result that the whole movement
imploded. I always found Mishio, Aveline and
Shuzuko very encouraging and was present when
they encouraged others but there was also a
group of people who had studied for many years
with them who may have felt that having spent
so many years in macrobiotics ourselves we want
everyone else to reach the same level before
also being a teacher, cook or counsellor.
Looking back it should
have been possible in the early eighties to
have had a macrobiotic teacher / cook / counsellor
in every large town, as has happened with other
practices. Our failure to reproduce has meant
that macrobiotics has not been taken out into
the community and spread on a one to one basis.
People need to have a clear vision of the end
when embarking on a training of any kind and
this has not been clear to potential recruits.
HONESTY AND MATURITY
We need a frank and honest
appreciation of what macrobiotics is and what
it can do. Yes it is the best diet I know for
healing, but it has limitations. It does not
work for everybody and it is not necessarily
appropriate for everybody. A true master is
someone who knows the limitations of what they
Most people would rather
get advice from someone who has the maturity
to advise on what something cannot do rather
than listen to a zealot whose perspective is
blinded by naive enthusiasm. I think the ability
to acknowledge one's limitations comes out of
confidence in what you do. Bravado and bigotry
can be a mask for insecurity and lack of understanding.
There is nothing wrong with accepting the problems
and challenges that macrobiotics has and it
certainly does not weaken the strength of the
KEEP IT SIMPLE
In my opinion to make
macrobiotics more appealing we need to prune
out all the concepts that get in the way of
people starting and practicing macrobiotics.
This is not a criticism of any of the concepts
but simply that there are too many of them.
One should be enough, possibly three at the
most. At the same time we need to meditate on
what makes macrobiotics different, special or
interesting. What should that concept be? If
I were to choose one concept it is; 'That people
and food both contain energy, and that when
you eat, your energy changes according to the
foods you choose and the attitude you have towards
This encompasses the way
foods grow and their preparation for the table
and a description of the nature of the energy
of the food and our attitude; yin and yang and
the five elements provide good working models,
but as they have been borrowed from traditional
Chinese medicine (and in the case of yin and
yang altered) this needs some thought. We only
need to be experts in one thing to be of value
All that is required is
one concept that people can understand, feel
inspired by and use in their daily life. Later
if they wish to deepen their interest, they
can embark on a structured program of study
and possibly start a career of their own in
macrobiotics. To be successful the concept needs
to be one that generally has a happy outcome
for all those that use it.
It certainly needs to
be free from inducing the fear factor, a guru
mentality, fanaticism, isolation, or obsession.
Although as a concept this might seem removed
from current nutritional thinking in my view
we need to be different and distinct to stand
apart from the wealth of nutritional based diets
that come and go.
I welcome all the views
that people have and I am always interested
in listening to those that are different to
mine. For me now is the time to get back to
basics and focus on one thing we can do well.
Personally I have a great appreciation for my
journey through macrobiotics and enormous respect
for all those that helped me along the way.
I would not change any
part of my experience so far - I have met incredibly
stimulating people who have enriched my life
immeasurably. It worked for me but I am also
aware it did not for many others. Let's renew
the spirit with new open discussions and explore
new ways to move forward.
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