This summer I decided to embark on a big cleanse. Experts say you should cleanse in spring and fall, but I’ve always done it whenever the mood strikes—since it might not strike again for some time. So I found myself eliminating refined sugar and minimizing alcohol right in the middle of July, in Portland, when every day there is a brew fest going on or a new ice cream shop opening up. Amidst all the invitations to engorge and imbibe, I needed some positive reinforcement of my cleansing aspirations, and it wasn’t going to be coming from my friends. (Within the last five minutes while writing this, in fact, I got two different text messages inviting me out for drinks).
Luckily during this time I happened to come across the book Be Here Now by Ram Dass, at Palace on SE 34th & Belmont. When I saw the square purple cover nestled amongst the hemp linens, fermented food cookbooks and ceramic wares, I was carried back to another time.
It was freshman year at Lincoln High, at a used book sale, when I first encountered this book. I wasn’t sure what the white gridded mandala on the cover was all about, but I grabbed it instinctively; there was something in those pages that I needed. As I made my way around the tables, book in tow, I felt like I was being watched. But this was how I always felt in stores as a teenager, with my hippie hair, old man fleece shirts and ripped jeans. Kids like me seemed to raise a watchful suspicion to most shopkeepers—which was entirely fair, as my friends and I were not above, say, stealing lingerie from Meier & Frank. (Even though fancy lingerie clashed with our politics and our aesthetic, it was theft from a large corporation; so it fit the bill). At the book sale I wasn’t surprised, then, to look up and realize the staff volunteer, Miss Beech, was watching me from the front of the room, her quizzical eyes darting from the book I was carrying, to my face, and back again. Later I found out that a few years before, a couple of students had dosed Miss Beech’s coffee with liquid LSD for their senior prank. They thought a bit of acid would help her loosen up a bit, reconnect with the cosmic Oneness of the Universe. Instead she ended up in the hospital and took a two-week hiatus from teaching. Understandably, Miss Beech came back even more high strung and guarded towards the students than before—perhaps especially towards those of us buying books about acid instead of something off the recommended reading list from her American Literature class.
Though my friends and I would never spike someone’s coffee, we did our share of drugs—we even attended class a couple times while “frying.” Along with Ken Kesey’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Be Here Now seemed to lend historicity and depth to our forays into psychedelics. I spent most of my time on the curious middle section that is printed on brown butcher paper, with the text oriented sideways. I would stare at the drawings of mandalas, gurus and mythical beings, trying to understand what the letter-pressed spiritual messages were all about.
“FOURTH NOBLE TRUTH IS: THE EIGHTFOLD PATH (FOR GETTING RID OF DESIRE) WHICH SAYS: GET YOUR LIFE STRAIGHT. DO YOUR WORK. DO EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT TO DO. WATCH YOUR SPEECH. WATCH YOUR THOUGHT. WATCH YOUR CALMNESS. GET YOUR CALM CENTER GOING…GET FREE OF DESIRE.”
I thought the pictures were cool, but none of the spiritual messages really registered at the time; I mean, what is being a teenager if not being all about desire? Besides, the author seemed to repeat everything a lot, and after a few pages I figured I got the gist.
Do acid, the book seemed to say.
After high school, I stopped doing drugs altogether and became very straight-laced; a bad trip or two will do that to you. At some point, my old used copy of Be Here Now was given away or lost, and I had more or less forgotten about it until I saw it that day at Palace.
Today, Be Here Now is still printed exactly the same as it was back in the 60’s. The text is often placed directly over the pictures, or so far off the margins of the page and into the binding that you can barely read it; you imagine the author might have been on acid when the layout was conceived, with everything sort of blending together anyway. This time around, though, I’m realizing that rather than an advertisement for psychedelics, the book is more about acid as a doorway to a spiritual journey. For the third section, which I never really looked at before, the text returns to traditional paper and regular typeface (as if the reader is “coming down” along with the author). Now we’re back to mundane reality, with an appendix full of quotes, recipes, and general lifestyle recommendations to maintain enlightenment. All of it pretty much boils down to present moment awareness. “Be here now” is a mantra, a way to invoke continual remembering of awareness in your everyday life. So that’s why Ram Dass repeated himself so much.
One method of living these principles is the way we eat. While Ram Dass talks about the gurus of India going from vegetarianism to metabolizing light into energy and having no need for food whatsoever, that’s not realistic for the average person. But there is a middle path where food is eaten primarily for health and the tendency towards mindless over-consumption is reigned in. In Portland, there’s this ongoing backlash against veganism and all things hippie-dippie; for every vegan restaurant, it seems there is a new crop of eateries featuring burgers and barbeque and fried food galore, with as many dishes dripping with melted cheese as possible. As a city, we’re hopelessly West Coast but don’t want to appear too liberal, lest someone accuse us of a lack of originality.
I’ve given up trying to pretend I’m not a hippie. I was born in Berkeley and raised in Portland and Petaluma; it’s in my blood and there’s no use fighting it. In diet, I’ve circled around veganism and vegetarianism many times, from age eight to the present. (Actually, my dad swears we apparently pledged to go vegan together a year ago, but while he went vegan and never looked back, I totally forgot about the pledge and kept eating burgers). While I’ve always felt a dim sense of concern about the meat industry, I overrode my conscience because I felt I needed meat “for protein.” But after meeting my July goal of a month or so without alcohol or sugar, my temporary cleansing morphed into a systematic dietary change. Cleansing and the wakefulness it invokes will make you feel everything more acutely; I simply cannot armor myself to the reality of the meat industry any longer. For protein, I’ve reacquainted myself with quinoa, beans and rice, tempeh and miso (to me, unfermented soy products seem about as processed and indigestible as a hot dog, and I want nothing to do with them). When I eat this gentle diet, I feel both light and satiated, energized. And I really use all the calories in my diet, painting, lifting, and walking around a five-acre nursery all day. I would notice if I wasn’t getting enough protein.
Food isn’t only nourishment; it’s also about nurturing. As my food choices change, I’m finding pathways out of this whole deeply ingrained cycle of reactivity that was connected to eating in a disassociated way. Heavy food creates heavily laden emotions, and an emotional-nutritional residue that embroiders its way throughout your whole being. (For more on this theory, check out The Self-Healing Cookbook by Kristina Turner, and Paul Pitchford’s Healing With Whole Foods). When you detoxify, it can be tough at first because there’s less insulation from the stress of life—but if you stay with it, eventually there is less stress of the self-created kind, which is probably where most stress comes from anyway. As your body is rid of those hard-to-digest foods and their toxic by-products coursing through your system, you mellow out emotionally. You become less reactive, and start to unhook from stupid shit that isn’t worth your energy. More space arises to be more present to the things that do matter. In fact, for people of the Western industrialized world, maybe trying to change our thoughts as a way to inner peace isn’t the right way in; maybe it all starts with what’s going on in our guts. In our troubled, overburdened guts that are trying so hard to process all the excess fat and sugar and empty calories, starving for real nutrition. It’s an irony that is costing us the world itself.
I always hear people gripe that eating whole foods is “too expensive” for the average person, but that’s only if you’re literally doing all your shopping at Whole Foods, et al. I can’t afford to shop at places like that very often, either. When you cook for yourself and only eat out occasionally, eating well can actually lower your food budget. Cleansing tends to radiate outward into efficiency and economy in all things; eating only what you need, spending money consciously, doing your work with no more effort than required, communicating without an excess of words, cleaning out your closets, your files.
Sure, any health regime can become its own form of rigidity. To be moderate in all things also means to not overdo moderation, to really celebrate indulgences now and then. After my month of Lent, for my birthday I shared a bar of dark chocolate with a friend and had two beers. Let me tell you, I enjoyed every molecule of that chocolate—I even enjoyed the air molecules around the chocolate. But in everyday life, there’s no need to “treat” yourself constantly. In fact, eating too much sugar is probably why we feel the need to ground ourselves with heavy animal foods, and conversely to lighten again with sweets; it’s a cycle that is caused by our bodies’ desire for balance.
Maybe it is a bit premature for me to announce a new lease on eating just yet; I mean, it’s only been a month and a half or so, and I’ve done cleanses before and then fallen back into old habits. But this feels different. Though I’m not exactly declaring veganism just yet, I’m allergic to dairy, so minimizing meat equals being mostly vegan by default. (But I can’t give up my morning eggs). And sugar is the kind of thing where once it’s out of your system, you don’t really crave it; it’s just a matter of not letting it back into the routine. The governing principle of all of these choices is how I feel on an inward level—not what someone else is telling me I should or shouldn’t do. Maybe the end result of all this healthy eating is that our mind mellows out too; after all, that is what all of the seeking, the healthy eating and the yoga is about—it’s about taming the mind. Personally, I haven’t gotten that far, so I wouldn’t know; in fact today my mind is like a Labrador puppy on methamphetamines—but each thing in its own time.
Part of what’s so great about Be Here Now is that it affirms making better choices from exactly where you are at a given time. Just seeing the spine of the book is a mantra, a reminder of that outlet where the plug keeps falling out all the time, and you just notice that, and plug it back in. Plug it back in; plug it back in.