Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
7/29/2011 5:19:51 PM
It was the om heard ’round the world. Yesterday in 108 cities—from London to Los Angeles, Hong Kong to Houston, Barcelona to Birmingham, and more—“MedMob” groups participated in large-scale displays of meditation.
Playing off of the flash mob concept, in which strangers organize online, arrange to meet at a specific time and place, and then perform an unexpected public act, MedMob members delight in presenting meditation in a surprising, inclusive way, says Shambhala Sun. MedMob’s goals aren’t complex, but they are significant:
1. To create an environment for people from all walks of life to come together in meditation.
2. To expose the world to meditation through public display of meditation.
3. To come together as a global community to send positive intentions out into the world.
4. To show that leading by example is the best way to lead. Simple acts can stimulate major paradigm shifts in thinking.
The MedMob movement, which began in Austin early this year, is for everyone, reports David Telfer McConaghay for elephant journal. Telfer assures us that passers-by do not need to believe in “hippy-dippy feel-goodery” to participate in meditation, whether in a group or alone. “The goal is not to attain some state of illusory bliss, then wander around all day in a disconnected daze with a silly grin,” he writes. “The goal (if meditation can be said to have a goal) is to allow the naturally arising chaos and distractions of the mind to settle and fade so that we can act and make choices with greater intention and clarity.”
Below are a handful of blissful (and maybe even a little hippy-dippy) feel-good photos from the July 28, 2011 international MedMob event:
Long Beach, California (above)
Sources: Shambhala Sun, elephant journal
Images courtesy of MedMob. (The photo at the top of this post comes from Amsterdam.)
7/26/2011 4:55:33 PM
Public transportation and (welcome) social interaction don’t seem like natural companions, but Los Angeles designer and architect Julie Kim is making the bus stop a more neighborly place—and recording the results.
At a buzzing LA Metro bus stop in Koreatown this summer, Kim set up a coffee table in front of a bench for waiting patrons and covertly filmed what happened, reports GOOD. In minutes, the stylish, hand-built table—complete with a vase of flowers and a short stack of local newspapers—generated kinship and conversation between the diverse riders that gathered around it.
“The number and variety of people milling about—workers, kids, the elderly, of every ethnic group—surprised me,” Kim told GOOD. Watch a quick video of her experiment here:
Kim has more ideas for engaging the public at bus stops, like setting up exercise equipment. What other accoutrements could create meaningful interactions? Perhaps a minibar or a stack of meditation pillows, or how about a collection of secondhand musical instruments to get a bus stop hootenanny started…
7/22/2011 11:19:50 AM
When someone is suffering, it can be agony to fully listen—we’re compelled to jump in with advice or stories of our own trials, filling any awkward space or moment of silent air with word upon word. The first rule of empathy, however, is to simply shut up. So says Miki Kashtan (if much more eloquently) on Tikkun Daily.
Kashtan writes that giving our full presence is the most important step in practicing true empathy, and it doesn’t require us to utter a thing:
There is a high correlation between one person’s listening presence and the other person’s sense of not being alone, and this is communicated without words. We can be present with someone whose language we don’t understand, who speaks about circumstances we have never experienced, or whose reactions are baffling to us. It’s a soul orientation and intentionality to simply be with another.
When we achieve full presence, empathic understanding follows, Kashtan continues:
Full empathic presence includes the breaking open of our heart to take in another’s humanity. . . . We listen to their words and their story, and allow ourselves to be affected by the experience of what it would be like.
Then we understand. Empathic understanding is different from empathic presence. We can have presence across any barrier, and it’s still a gift. If we also understand, even without saying anything, I believe the other person’s sense of being heard increases, and they are even less alone with the weight of their experience.
There are signs that empathy is on the decline, with narcissism working to elbow it out of our modern lives. As Utne Reader noted (May-June 2011), University of Michigan psychologist Sara Konrath found that empathy levels among college students who took the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) plummeted between 1979 and 2009. The greatest drops were in empathic concern and perspective taking—the ability to imagine another person’s point of view.
But don’t lament the inexpugnable death of human compassion yet. Empathy is in us—even science says so. This month, University of Southern California professor Lisa Aziz-Zadeh mapped how the brain generates empathy, painting it as a naturally occurring emotion, reports Times of India. “It appears that both the intuitive and rationalizing parts of the brain work in tandem to create the sensation of empathy,” Aziz-Zadeh told the Times. “People do it automatically.”
However we get to that utterly tuned-in, selfless state of empathy, providing a listening ear, giving our full presence, and being moved by another can be gifts not only to the sufferers, but to us—the empathizers—as well. Writes Kashtan:
Allowing into our heart the other person’s suffering doesn’t mean we suffer with them, because that means shifting the focus of our attention to our own experience. Rather, it means that we recognize the experience as fully human, and behold the beauty of it, in all its aspects, even when difficult.
Sources: Tikkun, Times of India
Image by Parvin, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/19/2011 5:29:14 PM
“All meat is not created equal,” reads a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health” evaluates 20 common protein-rich foods to determine the healthiest picks for the planet and for our bodies.
The best bet is the friendly lentil. The worst offenders? Lamb, beef, and (say it ain’t so!) cheese. The amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) they generate—from feed production, ruminant digestion, and manure—along with their fat contents and cradle-to-grave carbon footprints put them at the bottom of EWG’s impact chart:
Eating less meat and cheese can make an astonishing reduction in GHG emissions, says political food blog Civil Eats:
Just like reducing home energy use or driving less, skipping meat once a week can make a meaningful difference in GHG emissions if we all do it. According to EWG’s calculations, if everyone in the U.S. chose a vegetarian diet, it would be the equivalent of taking 46 million cars off the road or not driving 555 billion miles. To present a likelier option, if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles–or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.
That said, not all lamb chops are evil. On the farm where I grew up, for example, we had a modest flock of fifty sheep and, although they were raised for meat, the cycle was about as humane and environmentally responsible as it comes: We gently moved them from pasture to pasture, where they grazed on grass and alfalfa; we lovingly sheared them onsite, selling the lanolin-soft wool; we lambed them in the spring, midwifing the hardest births; and, finally, we took the lambs to a small processor just eight miles up the road.
If you’re in search of ethical, eco-friendly, health-smart meat, look for local, lean, pasture-raised cuts, given no antibiotics or hormones and, preferably, certified “organic” and “humane.” Want help losing your appetite for meat instead? Read Will Wlizlo’s soberingly graphic Utne Reader post “Inside the Meat Processing Plant.” (Shudder.)
Sources: Environmental Working Group, Civil Eats
Infographic by Environmental Working Group.
7/15/2011 4:50:17 PM
Is eating locally just another status symbol? Get together with certain members of the locavore movement, and you’ll hear conversations about the cost of CSAs and the cost of timeshares, rare heirloom seeds and rare art acquisitions. Troll the aisles of your neighborhood co-op grocery, and you’ll find a strange financial homogeneity in much of the clientele: These are people who can afford a five-dollar pint of strawberries.
Slowly, though, the local food movement is inching toward inclusion. In 20 states, some farmers markets offer double vouchers to folks enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And now, progressive food shelves are stocking local food.
The Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, aims to provide the poor with access to the best farm-raised local produce by spearheading a local foods drive that spans this year’s growing season. According to the center, in 2011 they have already given out more than 58,000 pounds of food—much of it local.
The center partners with small farmers who make donations based on what is in season and, often, what is in surplus. Most donators are happy to contribute to a cause that is good for the community and prevents their beloved produce from going to waste. So far this year, the food shelf has received a bounty of fresh, local fruits and veggies—mixed greens, rhubarb, radishes, broccoli, beets, green beans, and more.
Each month 700–800 clients—about half of which are African American and a significant number are immigrants—benefit from the food shelf. “There is some justice in the stereotype of the local foods movement as predominantly white and affluent,” says food shelf development coordinator Josh Grinolds in an email. “Access and information go hand in hand with means and wealth. Many of the clients we serve are trying to simply have access to food, period.”
Unfortunately, many traditional programs to feed the hungry do not offer the healthiest options, and this leads to additional problems. “Hunger has received a lot of media attention in recent years and with good reason,” says Grinolds. “Since 2008, visits to Minnesota food shelves have increased by 62 percent.” But that’s not the whole story. He continues:
What people often fail to realize is that obesity is a growing problem as well—particularly among the poor, whose access to healthy, nutritious foods is often sharply limited due to cost. So it is important to think holistically. In addressing one problem (hunger), we don’t want to create another (obesity). For this reason, we are focusing on providing access to fresh, local foods for the underserved populations that are our clients.
Education is part of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center’s mission as well. In conjunction with their food shelf program, they offer free cooking classes. The classes taught by Simply Good Eating, an extension of the University of Minnesota, complement the center’s desire to promote healthy food for all and eliminate food waste. Says Grinolds:
We recognize that clients may not know how to cook with unfamiliar vegetables such as kale or eggplant or zucchini. If clients end up passing over such vegetables, they will end up in the trash—which is precisely what we are trying to avoid! So if clients are going to experience the benefits of healthy eating, and we are going to help reduce food waste, education is a necessary component of the local foods drive.
The center will host a local foods night on August 18 featuring demonstrations by local chefs and CSA farmers, resource tables, samples of local fruits and vegetables, kid-friendly activities, and live music to raise awareness for the project. The event is free, but backyard and community gardeners who attend are encouraged to donate produce, natch.
UPDATE: Check out Miller-McCune’s story on how local food is making its way into California’s food banks.
Source: Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, Miller-McCune
Image by NatalieMaynor, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/13/2011 2:04:12 PM
Although there’s no password to get in, Brazenhead Books is the speakeasy of bookstores. The shop, hidden in an undisclosed apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, is stacked floor to ceiling with volumes by some of the book world’s best known—Arthur Miller and Anton Chekhov, Dorothy Parker and Jack London, Pierre Louys and Anthony Trollope (as well as a bottle or two of Woodford Reserve). But, because the shop is in a residence, it’s not legal and is, therefore, on the down low.
In the 1970s, proprietor Michael Seidenberg ran a law-abiding used bookstore, but when rent quadrupled, writes The Paris Review, the already-struggling shop closed. Seidenberg says, “When people say ‘Did Barnes and Noble put you out?’” he replies, “No, no—real estate put me out.” The substantial inventory moved to his nearby apartment and Brazenhead Books soon opened its doors—to anyone who could find it.
When asked how clandestine the bookstore really is, Seidenberg quips, “Here’s the funny thing . . . my name is known, and my name is in the phone book, and anyone can call me, but of course in this age of super intelligence, no one has a phone book. I always thought that was pretty shocking—that I was hiding in plain sight.”
Don’t miss this charming three-minute mini-documentary on Etsy, in which filmmaker Andrew David Watson takes us into the secret sphere of Brazenhead. If you’re a devotee of a good book and a good pipe, you may never want to leave:
, The Paris Review
7/8/2011 5:03:00 PM
Could your dildo be dangerous? Many sex toys contain toxic chemicals, including plasticizers that can lead to infertility, hormone imbalances, and other health problems. In Germany, the Green Party is making moves to clean up the country’s goodie drawers.
The party has reason for concern. “Phthalates and other plasticizers are highly regulated in children’s toys,” reports Jess Zimmerman for Grist, “but adult toys—which are, after all, designed to get all up in your mucus membranes—can have all the plasticizers they want.”
The German Greens demand that their government come up with a plan of action to protect its citizens—20 percent of whom report using sex toys—from the toxic plasticizers in dildos and vibrators, says Spiegel, and they have published a paper called “Sexual Health as a Consumer Protection Issue” to outline the issue. Thus far, the German Ministry for Food, Agriculture, and Consumer Protection has offered few concrete solutions. In fact, it refuses to even use concrete terms like “dildo” or vibrator,” referring only to “erotic items.”
There are a handful of non-toxic, green-focused sex-toy shops in the United States, with the Smitten Kitten—based in Minneapolis, but with a healthy online presence—at the forefront. Owner Jennifer Pritchett is working to make sex toys safe for all. She says:
The Smitten Kitten is proud to say that we pioneered the eco-friendly and non-toxic movement in the adult retail industry. In 2003 we were first ever non-toxic sex-toy shop. Likewise, we founded the first ever community advocacy organization and adult industry education organization, The Coalition Against Toxic Toys. [The Smitten Kitten is] a big part of my life and an ever growing positive influence on the sexual health and vitality of our community as a whole.
So, before you get up close and personal with a new “erotic item,” consider the manufacturing methods and materials used. Go green, then go wild.
Sources: Grist, Spiegel
Image by stagshop, licensed under Creative Commons.
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