Coming Home to the Body on the Path of Teshuvah

Just over ten years ago, I experienced an intense mental setback that resulted in me withdrawing from the university I attended in order to care for myself. I remember that September because it struck me that it was the first head of the school year at that point in my life where the future was a completely clean slate for me. There were no classes assigned to me. No new semester. No job prospects or work schedule to follow. It was for both better and worse, the freest time in my life at that point.

And there within me still, a war was taking place. The logical side of me was free-falling into complete oblivion. My crisis had overridden every expectation, hierarchy, and process that side of my mind depended on for ordered perception of the world. Was I succeeding at life (breaking myself so free)? Or had I completely fallen apart beyond repair? The desire-driven side of me countered with its own newfound strength. The emptiness existed for me to fill with something new. Now was the opportunity to set things right, to reset, and to start over on my own terms.

In some ways I think I am still getting the two sides of my head to work together. Neither extreme has proved capable of governing my life for too long. Life is best in balance.

There was so much that I learned about myself though during those early post-crisis years. It was, in the greatest sense, a transformative reorientation of what I am accomplishing with this lifetime.

What’s Teshuvah Got to Do With It?

Unrealized by me at the time, Judaism offers us a lot of great traditions around this same process and, coincidentally, during the same time of year. From the month of Elul (Virgo) through Tishrei (Libra), we’re invited to right our wrongs, re-balance the cosmic scales, and set our life back in the good orderly direction it ought to be following. This process is called teshuvah, which means “return.”

For some people, it might be helpful to think of that process as a return from sin to somewhere more familiar. In Judaism, sin is where we miss the mark. So, another helpful way to think of it might be that we’re centering ourselves behind the bow again, returning to aim again at our target.

Where do we aim? Some students of A Course in Miracles like to find the answer by breaking down the word atonement into its constituent parts: at-one-ment. We’re aiming towards oneness–within ourselves, in relation to one another, in relation to creation, and in relation to G-d.

For Kabbalists, teshuvah is literally the return of the letter Hey. In the sin of our separation from G-d, the very name of G-d has fractured, and our practice of teshuvah returns us to a state of perfect awe where everything is again aligned. That last Hey in G-d’s name represents the sefirah of Malkuth, essentially our perception of G-d’s presence in the physical universe, but also the very physical acts of repentance.

Teshuvah asks of us to stop missing the mark, to feel the emotional longing that occurs when we err, to verbally acknowledge our work, and to enact a plan to make changes, knowing that the real test will be the next opportunity we have to make the same mistake again. In the process of teshuvah we learn the sanctity G-d has embedded in these acts.

The Talmud actually tells us that atonement was one of the first things G-d created (even before creation itself). It’s that central to the mechanics of our universe. Like the seasonal cycles that return us to this process every year, our lifetime is set on this cycle of learning, processing, and growing. That’s the irony to Rabbi Eliezer’s instruction in the Talmud to “Repent one day before your death.”

The nature of this experience we call life is to explore and grow. We are always repenting and evolving. Life is teshuvah. Not even the tzaddikim can do one without the other.

Coming Home to the Body

This season, I am reflecting on G-d’s creation of mankind. The Bible teaches us that life is sacred. The human body is even created in the image of G-d. Our physical self-care and self-actualization is a holy obligation, and a central part of that work is learning to decline the things we ought not accept into ourselves. Likewise, we are intended to be fruitful, and the body is designed with a million ways to realize that intention even when parenting is not part of our individual futures.

For me, a gulf has emerged between this sacredness of creation and the society in which we are living. To some degree, this is something I picked up on intuitively during the years around that mental setback I mentioned before, yet I lacked the clarity and direction to disentangle it all at the time.

Today, many aspects of the gulf are quite clear.

  • We are living through an actual plague whose outcome is connected to the ways we nourish and move our bodies. We respond with stay-at-home orders and free doughnuts.
  • Rather than avoiding drug-dealers, we have become so desensitized to the fatalities and compounding malpractice of modern medicine that to even question what ethics guide them is to set yourself apart from the crowd, and in some areas, society itself.
  • We have created a society where dangerous chemical toxins are in nearly everything and where the hormonal alteration of the natural body is laughed off, ignored, or even celebrated.
  • We have created a society where “truth” is a function of politics, singular relative to power, and closed to debate except for the courageous willing to face down what amounts to social exile.

This is not the way we are meant to live. It’s not the way we ought to respect our bodies. It’s not the way we ought to respect our minds and the different perspectives we each bring to life together. We are meant to be as one, and also to be the many who are as one. We are meant to engage critically with life, society, and each other, yet to also act as one body together. The tefillin which Jewish men wrap around their arms and foreheads each morning mirror the paradox of this simultaneous oneness and plurality.

I see an opportunity for teshuvah here, an opportunity to return behind the bow and to aim again towards something better. When I first started Free to Live Healthy, I intended it primarily as a journal to chart my own way along this path, reclaiming my health and life from a society that does not live up to Biblical values. For me, alignment within the body is alignment with Torah is alignment with G-d….

Today I can see how this blog itself is part of the teshuvah in my journey. I have got to come home again. Come home to the body, to scripture, to oneness, and to G-d. I know there are so many of us out there–my work has already brought so many of us together. My hope in writing here is to make the way a little clearer for those as lost as I have been before, and to show one path that might take others a bit further along the way we are each returning home to this body G-d has created.

Years ago I learned a beautifully simple meditation from the Plum Village teachers, and it seems fitting to close with it here:

“Breathing in, I am aware of the body.

Breathing out, I am arriving at home.”

5 Questions to Ask Before Coming Off Antidepressants

Choosing to come off of antidepressants is a deeply personal choice which unfortunately can often be misunderstood or stigmatized by both health professionals and our everyday social circles.

More than that, the choice to make any alteration to our brain chemistry is a fairly consequential decision in our lives. It may impact our emotional and physical states, relationships, career, and other areas of our life.

While being under the prescribing doctor’s care is almost always a good idea when making changes to prescribed drugs, these five questions may help you to develop a more holistic plan for coming off antidepressants if that is the choice you make.

What are you going to do when you have your next anxiety attack?

Depending on where you are in your mental health journey this question may seem moot. The truth about some antidepressants is that we feel like we don’t need them when they’re working best. Another way to look at that truth though is to consider that it applies to every coping strategy. When something works, we stop thinking about it. (Even when it does more harm than good, as may be the case with our antidepressants).

Consider how addicts view their drug of choice or how over-eaters view food. The strategy for dealing with an unwanted experience becomes so reflexive we eventually act on muscle memory more than conscious decision-making.

Coming off antidepressants shocks that whole process. Suddenly the coping strategy we’ve grown to depend on isn’t available anymore, and we’re once again facing the same beast that sent us seeking that strategy to begin with.

So what’s the next strategy? Try to imagine yourself in different potentially triggering situations, and then brainstorm your way through them. Going to yoga class might work at establishing a long-term healthier baseline, but it’s not realistic when hyperventilating in the bathroom at work. Give yourself a tool belt with as many different options as you can imagine.

How are you going to manage withdrawal symptoms?

This might be shocking news if you’ve never looked into coming off antidepressants, but the withdrawal period (sometimes lasting weeks or months) can be awful. By my reckoning, there are two components to withdrawal. First, there’s the new feedback we get from the body as it adjusts to life beyond a chemically induced altered state. Some people report the sensation of “brain zaps,” episodes of dizziness, mood swings, and more.

Second, there’s the potential intensity of reacclimatizing to our original symptoms. While you might have experienced anxiety or depression while taking antidepressants, without them, you’re experiencing the un-numbed version. It might be more intense than you’ve been used to for a while, or even worse than before.

How will you plan for, track, and address these experiences?

How do you know if you need to stop?

So here’s an uncomfortable part of coming off antidepressants. Sometimes you have to stop, restart the drugs you don’t want to be on, and wait to try again later. It happens to the best of us, and it’s no reflection on your character or strength as an individual if it happens to you too. People using any drugs for any reason often go through cycles of coming off of them. In this sense, antidepressants are no different than other drugs just because they’re prescribed or legal.

What experiences are your absolute limit in this process? What lines will you draw to protect your long-term health as you begin withdrawal?

What support systems will you engage while coming off antidepressants?

Building on the last question, who will help you through this journey? What professionals and more intimate connections do you need to engage? The obvious answer is that coming off antidepressants should be under the care whatever doctor prescribed them in the first place. But the less obvious answer is that lovers, family members, and friends are probably going to see you more than that doctor.

Who can you trust to give you objective external feedback about your emotional or physical state while withdrawing? What groups or communities might be able to help you feel safer and supported during this process?

What does long-term mental wellness look like for you?

Not a lot of doctors seem to want to ask this question. And that may be an important piece to why so many of us seek health beyond what conventional doctors offer.

Long-term mental wellness is more than just applying a prescription to a set of symptoms, or slapping a diagnosis over it all. How do you want to feel? How do you not want to feel?

Your vision for long-term mental wellness might include mitigation of certain symptoms or experiences, but it could also include aspects like finding time or a medium for creative expression, not being on medications for the rest of your life, eating healthier, sleeping better, or feeling more confident in yourself.

Write or sketch all this out.

Coming off antidepressants isn’t a choice in league with picking out a shirt for tomorrow. You’re making a life-altering decision here. Be certain you’re making the choice you want to move forward with, and that it fits into your vision for your long-term sense of self.

No one else can answer that question for you. Truthfully, no one else may even ask.

Parashat Vayelech (Then He Went Out)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses declares that he is 120 years old and that G-d has told him that he will not pass over the Jordan River to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Joshua is appointed their new leader, and Moses tells them that G-d will deliver the land to them, and that they must not be afraid of the people living there.

Moses implores the Israelites to keep their covenant with G-d, but he also knows that they will be unfaithful and forsake their commandments to follow foreign gods instead. Moses finishes preparing the Torah as a book to be kept safe by the Levites. And while the latter half of the passage reflects Moses’ bitterness at the impending rejection of G-d’s law by the Israelites, there are two notes of hope we ought to hear.

The first is G-d’s promise that the special relationship held with the Israelites will not be forgotten by their descendents (emphasis added):

“‘When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their ancestors, and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant. And when many disasters and calamities come on them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants. I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath.'”

Deuteronomy 31:20-22 (NIV)

Our second note of hope comes in the repeated instruction to “be strong and courageous,” which appears three separate times in the reading. The first time (v.6), Moses speaks it to all of Israel. Then he went out and spoke it a second time (v.7) to Joshua specifically but in the presence of all of Israel. The third and final time (v.23), G-d speaks it directly to Joshua. We need to get that message, right? That’s why it’s repeated so many times. G-d is with us, will never leave us, and will never forsake us. We–specifically, us here in the present day–are the descendants who will not forget G-d’s covenant with our ancestors. So be strong and courageous, because there is nothing we ought to fear or allow us to feel discouraged.

Photo by Rik Buiting on Unsplash

Then He Went Out

The other side of that truth that we ought not be afraid though is the reality of our fear and discouraged spirit. Generally speaking, our spiritual leaders and, well, G-d, don’t need to repeat something multiple times if we’re already doing it. Like our repeated failures to live up to the commandments prescribed by G-d, there are times where we are not strong and courageous, where we are afraid both of others and of G-d forsaking us. Perhaps it is really our guilt at being unfaithful to G-d that we are feeling here? When we are living in that covenant, we have nothing to fear. When we know that we’re not upholding our end of it, we know that G-d is free to shrug just the same.

Another way to look at this is to consider what it’s like to make a big change in our lives. That’s what the Israelites were doing, right? They were finally, after wandering the wilderness for forty years, crossing over into the Promised Land. More than that journey alone, they were losing their leader, Moses, and Joshua was being charged to take his place. If you’ve ever worked in a company going through a change in leadership, think about how that played out for a moment. People likely had their doubts, their criticisms, their resistance to changing the way they’d grown accustomed to doing things.

The Israelites were no different, and both G-d and Moses seem thoroughly convinced that they’ll be unable to commit to new patterns of behavior to match their new homeland. This passage starts with “then he went out,” but the message seems hardly convinced the Israelites are ready or will last long once they too go out. Not exactly a vote of confidence in Joshua’s new leadership.

In part we are the Israelites here. We’re being led, directed, and brought into a covenant. We’re also a bit of Moses too. The life we’re living right now is one we’ve led ourselves to. It’s under our leadership, for better and worse, that we’ve developed the kind of deep grooves we’re now challenging ourselves to jump for something new.

Lastly, we’re also Joshua in this story (and not just those of us who share his name). Life on the other side of a terrified and discouraged spirit takes new leadership, new habits, perseverance, and the kind of fortitude built by the strengths we’ve gained previously. It’s Moses who goes out in the beginning of this passage. But it’s Joshua who must pick up the story next.

Like all of us on the precipice of something great and new, I am certain he felt his moments of fear and doubt. How many times did he remind himself, “be strong and courageous”?

No matter. Because then he went out….

5 Late Summer Veggies to Fall in Love With

Summertime is the height of gardening season. It’s when everything we planted in spring comes into fruition, and all that hard work starts to pay off with actual food we can eat.

For some of us, summertime is when an investment in a tomato plant finally gives back. For others, it’s when gardening starts getting overwhelming because… who decided it was going to be fun to sweat out the humidity weeding and harvesting that stubborn raised bed that won’t stop producing?

Summer is also usually the mid-point for our local farmers markets. All the hard work of local farmers and homesteaders shows for these few weeks of the year, and then, before you know it, everything is winding down for the autumn.

Heralding the end of the season is a slow transition of summer to fall vegetables. Look for these late summer veggies at your local farmers market or vegetable stand to catch them while they’re still in season.

Late Summer Veggies

  • Okra–These fellas thrive in heat (when properly hydrated) which makes them excellent summer staples. Depending on the climate where you live, a second crop is possible if started a few months before first frost. Try oven-roasting or pickling these guys in early fall for a new twist.
  • Eggplant–Who doesn’t love a nice eggplant? For me, these are the quintessential late summer vegetable because they’re so hearty. Every bite is like a little taste of the coming fall. The classic go-to recipe with these is eggplant parmesan, but you could also grill them or make ratatouille.
  • Zucchini–Another hearty and versatile veggie, you can either slap these on the grill or grate them down for zucchini bread.
  • Summer Squash–Eggplant’s mild and yellow cousin, summer squash goes well with almost every protein you throw at it. Grill it, bread it, bake it, or mix it up with some zucchini in a salad side dish.
  • Artichokes–These babies are typically thought of as a spring vegetable, but they can produce a second crop early in the fall as well. Baked artichoke dip is one of my favorite side dishes from childhood. For me, it’s one of those first transition dishes between summer and fall, warm and hearty enough to align us to the season.

What else are you seeing? Comment below with some of your late summer veggie faves.

Best Potassium Sources on a Low-Carb Diet

Potassium is a vital mineral in the foods we eat. With important jobs like regulating our water balance, blood pressure, and muscle control, its role in maintaining our overall health cannot be understated.

As we age, our bodies need more potassium, but there’s a delicate balance to be maintained. Both too little potassium (hypokalemia) and too much potassium (hyperkalemia) can cause dangerous fatigue and abnormal heart rhythms. Certain medications (including diuretics, albuterol, insulin, and some antipsychotics) can dramatically lower our potassium levels, while improper functioning of our kidneys can result in too high of a potassium level in our bloodstream. Balancing our potassium levels may take patience and a willingness to explore many different potential variables influencing our results.

The impact of maintaining this balance is crucial though. Potassium functions as a major line of defense against the excess sodium brought into the body through modern processed foods. Left unchecked, this excess sodium may cause high blood pressure, which in turn increases our risk of heart disease and stroke.

So Where Do We Get Potassium?

Usually the first food to come to mind when we think about good potassium sources is a banana. For people watching their carb intake though, this can be a turn-off. Nevertheless, since potassium supplements can accidentally trigger hyperkalemia, we shouldn’t give up on nutritional sources just yet.

With careful planning, you can still reach your recommended daily intake with the help of these low-carb green veggies.

  • Romaine
  • Spinach
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Zucchini
  • Beet Greens

Romaine has become a personal favorite of mine. It’s a great low-calorie option to add into smoothies or a salad, and is full of water to help you stay hydrated too. If you compare the nutritional data for romaine to bananas, you’re getting around 232mg of potassium per 1g of sugar in romaine versus 422mg of potassium per 14g of sugar in a banana.

While brussels sprouts (533mg of potassium to 2.9g of sugar), zucchini (573mg of potassium to 3.7g of sugar), and spinach (839mg of potassium to negligible sugar) all pack a punch, it’s beet greens that really take the cake with 1309mg of potassium to negligible amounts of sugar.

For adults, the recommended daily intake is around 3,400mg for males and 2,600mg for females. So that still leaves a few servings to fit in one way or another.

What potassium sources will you use?

An Apple Smoothie for Rosh Hashanah

If we had to pick one food most associated with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), it might be the apple. All across the Jewish world, families are dipping apples in honey and praying for G-d to grant a happy and sweet new year. And there’s no shortage of sweetness to be found in Jewish festival fare.

For all the cultural vibrancy to be found in Jewish cuisine, there’s a definite prevalence of desserts and carb-heavy, breaded dishes. So if you’re unlucky enough to be the kind of person who needs to manage their blood sugar levels, there can be a real conflict between culture and health.

Fear not. I’ve got you covered this year.

Shana Tova Apple Smoothie

  • 1 Pink Lady apple
  • 1/2 banana
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 2 dashes of cinnamon
  • 1 scoop of vanilla plant-based protein powder
  • About 1/2 cup of water (adjust to reach desired consistency)

Blend all ingredients together.

Serve over ice.

Optional: top it off with a drizzle of raw honey, berries, or nuts*.

*No nuts on Rosh Hashanah though.

Your highest carb components are going to be the apple (~21g net), the banana (~12g net), and the honey. It’s entirely possible to keep this smoothie right at about 30g of carbs. And when adding the protein powder, you’ll end up feeling full too if you’re hoping to use this as a meal replacement.

As an added benefit, some research indicates that flavonoid-rich apples like the Pink Lady variety could improve clinical measurements for cardiovascular health including blood pressure and response to stress. Cinnamon also has shown a statistically significant decrease in fasting glucose levels, although more research into its application is needed.

Your mileage may vary, but in my own experience, it’s important to consider the results of studies like these as part of a holistic approach to blood glucose management, and not as a single supplement substitution for medical intervention. (Lest anyone think an apple smoothie will replace an insulin shot).

All that said, it’s a delicious shake. I’ve been enjoying these for breakfast the last few mornings, topped off with some raspberries from our orchard.

May your 5782 be just as sweet. Shana Tova, readers!

A Shmita Year (and a new blog)

Something like 0.2% of the world’s population is Jewish, so starting off with a term like shmita is a bit of a risk here. Most people have no idea what shmita means. And truthfully, at the start of this calendar year, I was one of them.

So what is a shmita year?

In the simplest terms, a shmita year is a year-long rest for the land. Shmita literally means “release,” but we could also understand it as a sort of sabbatical for the planet. If you’re familiar with the concept of a weekly sabbath, shmita is very similar. Instead of a weekly sabbath though, we mark shmita once every seven years for a full year starting and ending at Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year).

Now, rest for the land, or, letting the land lie fallow, is the key observation here. But traditional teachings also incorporate other forms of rest. We release old debts during the shmita year, and in ancient times, these years also marked the liberation of enslaved peoples.

While the Biblical promise for observing shmita is great, its actual observance is rare and historically mitigated by numerous other interpretations and traditions that narrow its scope in order to disrupt society as a whole the least. With that said, shmita is voluntarily observed in Israel and throughout the world.

The shmita year invites us to consider what our bodies immediately need, and to take only that which is necessary. It invites us to consider how the indigenous agricultural wisdom of an ancient diaspora in ongoing relationship with many lands can apply to us still today. And it challenges us to identify and free ourselves from the bonds of servitude not as apparent as they are in times and places where enslavement continues.

Our next shmita year begins on September 7th, 2021 and ends on September 25th, 2022.

A year without a tomato patch

For all the shock of the pandemic, this last year has culminated in a lot of significant successes for me. I’ve opened a new practice and gotten back into the work I truly love doing. I’m finding my footing with a now decades-old interest in natural (and Bible-based) living. And I just moved to a historic farmhouse where all of my family’s homesteading dreams are ready to come true. If anything it feels like 2020 was my shmita year, and I ought to be jumping in with both feet right now.

Ah, but that would take the intention out of it, wouldn’t it? Nothing I lost in the pandemic was of my own doing. And while a shmita year is about release, there’s an active element to that. We have to be the ones who release the land, release debt, and release the bonds we have over one another. The shmita year isn’t passive. It isn’t just a description of a time where we are without something we want. It’s about living apart from the life we’re accustomed to in a year-long shabbat, depending on the land to provide just enough, and on G-d’s eternal wisdom to see to it that everything still harmonizes.

That’s the lesson, isn’t it? Six years of hard work building the kind of life we want to live. One year resting and remembering that we’re part of G-d’s creation, and G-d’s plan.

Maybe it seems odd to start a healthy living blog with a post about obscure Jewish agricultural practices. But in these last days before the shmita year begins, I want to plant that seed. Living in alignment with Torah is living in alignment with Earth is living in alignment with my body.

I’m not growing tomatoes in the backyard next spring. I’m not disturbing the land beyond what is necessary to maintain the property. And more than that, I’m freeing myself from the bonds of toxic chemicals and of repressive ideas about myself (and manhood too). I’m putting my faith back in G-d, the wild land, and the sense of intuition that guides me living between them. One year from now, the wisdom I’ll have gained will be enough to sustain me for six more.

This year is about being free to live healthy. And this blog is for those of us sharing that journey.