Ancient chi in modern times

Simon Brown and Melanie Brown Waxman have reached audiences worldwide teaching macrobiotic principles related to "chi" energy.

melanie brown waxman_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
melanie brown waxman_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
More than 2,000 years before Albert Einstein figured out the relationship between energy and mass, ancient Eastern philosophers held theories about how all people and things are connected and influenced by each other’s kinetic energy.
In their youth, brother and sister Simon Brown and Melanie Brown Waxman, now in their early 50s, might have considered Eastern ideas about interconnectedness-throughenergy to be sentimental. A chance meeting, though, would draw them into the world of Eastern philosophy, first toward food, and later toward lifestyle.
The first step happened when, in their early 20s, they met the son of friends of their parents, who studied Zen and macrobiotics, and became, for a while, Waxman’s boyfriend. She learned to cook from him, and her brother, sharing an apartment with her, was happy to enjoy her food. Neither of them gave it much thought until they both realized, a few months later, that they felt healthier, more energetic and more positive than they ever had.
Brown eventually left his job in mechanical design engineering to study macrobiotics and the ancient principle of chi – or kinetic life force – in its many applications, including macrobiotic cooking, feng shui interior design, meditation, shiatsu massage, visual diagnosis and other Eastern practices. Today, he’s a chef, consultant, teacher, practitioner, and author of 18 books, living in the London countryside. Waxman, who had been working as an editorial assistant at the London Financial Times, left her job as well, to study macrobiotic cooking and the more in-depth principles behind macrobiotic philosophies at the Kushi Macrobiotic Institute in London. She later wrote books and traveled the world as a macrobiotic chef and teacher, including for celebrity pop musician Boy George. Today she lives and teaches in the countryside near Philadelphia.
Three decades later, Brown has raised four children and Waxman has raised seven in the macrobiotic tradition; she has focused especially on teaching geared toward families.
Ginat and Sheldon Rice, founders of The Rice House, Israel’s macrobiotic center, met Brown five years ago, when he and Ginat were guest lecturers at the International Teachers Conference in Lisbon. Seeing him as an iconoclast, the Rices were impressed by his willingness to examine fundamental principles of macrobiotic thought. Waxman’s reputation, they said, preceded her to the annual macrobiotic festival in the UK, where they met the next year.
“The opportunity to bring them to Israel together offered a strong combination of macrobiotic experience for the Israeli public,” Ginat Rice explained of why Rice House invited them to teach here this month.
Brown and Waxman, before their teaching gig in Israel, talked to The Jerusalem Post about some of their philosophies and experiences.
You have studied many different Asian arts and have said they are connected by the ancient Chinese and Japanese concept of chi, or energy. Can you explain this philosophy behind the macrobiotic approach?
[In] modern science, everything has energy; chi would be that energy. It is not static; it is constantly moving through everything, connecting everything, entering and exiting; constantly creating connections. The more scientific way to look at it is that about 70 percent of the body is water: Those water particles are coming in and leaving the body frequently. Say you drink a glass of water; those particles could have come [to your tap] from anywhere on the planet – rivers, streams, clouds, deep in ground wells or from the surface. The water is moving through other people, plants, animals, creatures.
You are also literally connected to all these other things every time you breathe. Every breath releases particles into the blood, then the particles leave and enter other people’s blood. If you go outside in the sun, photons from the sun touch your skin. If this is true, then at night under a clear sky, in theory, the photons of the stars are reaching you [from] millions of light years ago – there is an energy-light connection.
We think of ourselves as individuals, but our bodies are very permeable. We are constantly in a flow of particles and energy washing through us and everything on the planet. If the particles carry information or imprint of where they have been, then we kind of know our universe because we are it. So in terms of chi, you are connected to everything around you: your food, pets, environment, neighbors. Energy does not judge what race, creed or religion you are; it is just exchanging chi anyway. You could say it is what connects us all.
What changed when you started to eat in a macrobiotic way?
After three or four weeks, I started feeling so much better. I had thought I was feeling fine before that, but I had headaches, indigestion, was tired, and these things seemed normal until then. I didn’t realize I was like a car running on an engine with half cylinders. Suddenly I had no headaches, my energy and concentration improved, my mood was better than ever.
One problem is getting numbed out. At the supermarket, you can see someone who looks unhealthy shopping with a cart full of sugary and processed foods, and in a sense this poisons them, but they don’t realize it because they have bypassed their ability to realize, and we need to switch the process back on. The easiest way to eat is simply and to practice meditation as a means to let our senses come back to their proper state. A lot of sugar, spices [processed foods] – our tongue adjusts and we become less sensitive; the same happens with health. We get used to our body not working properly. But then you take out the coffee, alcohol, sugar, poor-quality oils, junk and [processed] foods, you will feel much better.
Couldn’t these improvements in body and spirit happen to anyone who cut out sugar and processed foods?
Yes, of course, macrobiotics is just one way, and it’s been around long enough that people [made] a lot of mistakes, so there is a wealth of experience and knowledge. The wonderful thing about the way macrobiotics is presented is that it is incredibly holistic. It’s a way of looking at the world that could be applied to almost anything. This happens throughout China: once you learn about chi, Zen, the five elements, yin-yang, exercise, herbs and foods, philosophy and art, a huge world opens up out of that. It creates greater awareness and sensitivity.
We think of Leonardo da Vinci as exceptional, but we can all put an essay together, paint, etc. – but we are not really encouraged to develop ourselves in this way. The beauty apropos in China and Japanese culture is that you can develop yourselves in these ways. So I guess what MB has to offer is holistic and is not limited to food. And we also can see how to be more connected.
Most people think of a macrobiotic diet as primarily vegan with an Asian influence; what is the correct way to describe the macrobiotic way to eat?
It is a philosophy to connect you to your senses and life around you, supported by awareness of food. The focus of the food comes from the land and not from a factory; you eat primarily whole, natural foods and there are different ideas for how one would do that. There is a hypothesis that in the first months, to recover your natural sense, to follow a diet of vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruits, nuts and seeds, vegetables and sea vegetables. This is suitable for vegetarians or vegans. But one might also eat some animal foods; if you were trying to avoid saturated fat, then you might have only fish. If you eat meat, you should have an awareness of the animal’s life cycle [what it eats, how it is treated]. You could [also] say that rather than what you can take out, they created something rich that you can bring into a diet [like fermented foods and ways to use sea vegetables]. Macrobiotics is a fantastic place to explore how to be healthy, but there was never a time when it was [solely vegan].
Is macrobiotics evolving? There was a time when tomatoes and eggplants, for example, were forbidden, and when most people urged veganism.
In the last 10-20 years, things have changed. People, including myself, would say those foods have so many useful properties, so for most people it is useful to enjoy those nutrients. In the 1980s, the macrobiotic diet was tightly focused on [healing] cancer; the mentality was that if it wasn’t incredibly restrictive and simple, then it wouldn’t work, but this wasn’t true. It is human nature that when we change ourselves, some think you have to go to extremes. It is more relaxed now, open to ideas of people as individuals with their own sensitivities and awareness, who need to find what’s best for them rather than eat someone else’s diet.
[Macrobiotics founder] George Osawa talked about taking responsibility for ourselves, and mental freedom and non-credo – not getting caught up in judgment and credo. I don’t think that he was interested in whether we ate tomatoes. I eat meat, eggs and yogurt sometimes, and I thought I’d get a big reaction, but I didn’t – in the old days I would have been excommunicated.
I think the mistake is when macrobiotics sounds like a religion, and it puts a lot of people off. In fact, it is compatible with any religion [or way of life]. Macrobiotics is about making the most of your life, and the process is through awareness and sensitivity to know how to feed ourselves in a way [leading to] health, clarity and mental stability, to live life more fully.
In Eastern philosophy, there is a practice of visual diagnosis, and you have said that chi is also expressed through our faces. Does this mean that if there is a health problem it can be seen, say, in the skin or eyes?
Yes, but I like to focus on the positive, because what you believe can kill you. There are people who were diagnosed with cancer and told how long they had to live and they died on schedule, but in autopsy found they had been misdiagnosed and what they had was not terminal cancer, but they literally died from the diagnosis. I think people hugely underestimate the power of the mind on physical health and life. Thoughts and feelings make a huge difference. For example, you could test as more acidic, and then eat to be more alkaline, but if you have thoughts that lead to stress you will remain acidic. When we are in fight or flight, food will have no affect. If you are being relaxed, enjoying [healthy] food, meditating, laughing, having fun, doing exercise, then everything works together, and inevitably we are going to be more healthy. [I] feel it is important to encourage and support people, and not to do harm.
You have focused part of your career on teaching about families, and you yourself have seven kids raised with a vegan, macrobiotic approach. Vegan diets for infants have been heavily criticized in recent years, after stories of babies who die of malnutrition. What is the confusion?
The baby who died recently had a totally unhealthy diet. A vegan or macrobiotic approach can be great for a baby – if you have all the nutrition. Breast milk is the ideal nourishment for newborn babies. I breast-fed all my babies for a year or so, and at five-six months when the baby’s digestion is very young, most babies start on grains [like white rice]. I continued breast-feeding and added whole grains cooked with a lot of water for a long time and put them through a sieve. I also would cook vegetables very soft. I would add things like a little [brown] rice syrup – breast milk is naturally very sweet – and slowly I added things like ground sesame seed paste, which is one of the highest foods in calcium, and is very high in fat and protein. Beans and sweet rice are also high in protein, and sweet rice is high in fats, compared to other grains. At around nine months I also started adding in sea vegetables, which have a high concentration of minerals. Green leafy vegetables also are high in calcium and minerals. I can only speak from experience, but all my kids were breast-fed, ate a macrobiotic diet growing up and didn’t have B12 [or other health] issues.
The key for me is to look at the overall diet and make sure that children have a wide variety of grains, beans, lots of vegetables, fruits, sea vegetables, fish if desired, nuts, seeds, good-quality oils, and sugar-free desserts [at the right age]. I don’t feel it is just about food; children need to spend time outdoors, running around freely and getting grubby. They need hugs, mental stimulation and fun. All these add to strengthening the immune system and making it easier to absorb nutrition. B12 is not only about how much, but if it can be absorbed and stored. If a child has a very narrow diet with too much refined carbs, flour products, sugar and salt, then the chances are they will find it more difficult to absorb good nutrition.
How were your pregnancies and recoveries? Did you ever feel depleted?
Before macrobiotics, I was always trying different fad diets which left me feeling drained, lethargic and emotionally up and down. When I started macrobiotics, my energy was long-lasting and strong, and I felt up and positive, almost high on life. I used to ride my bike all over London and never felt tired. I felt like I had come home to something that nourished me on all levels.
[Later] I was 12 years pregnant or breast-feeding. I was very active, I did pre-natal yoga, I spent time in nature and I felt very strong and healthy in all of my pregnancies. My labors were all pretty easy, and I don’t have any stretch marks. It’s about a complete lifestyle and not just about eating good food. But in retrospect I would have rested more after the births. I did stay in bed for two weeks after each birth, but don’t feel I enjoyed it as much as I could have. I tell women with kids that you have to rest every day. I think there is a tendency in the first three years of a baby’s life for the mother to not have as much energy. In the modern world, we forget about rest, and moms focus on nurturing others but not selves.
How should a pregnant or breast-feeding mother adapt her eating?
You need more fat, and a richer and more varied diet, and women in general are in a rush and feeding their family, so it’s important to sit down and enjoy the meals. Mild sweets, like soups made from sweet vegetables – carrots, parsnips, squash, cabbage, onions – or carrot juice or sugarfree deserts using fruit or [brown] rice syrup or even whole grains have a mild sweet taste and cut back on [sweet] cravings. A wide variety of salads and whole grains and vegetables and beans, and sea vegetables, nuts, seeds and dressings are very nourishing, so one should not just eat brown rice and miso soup, for example. For oils, olive oil and sesame oil [are nutritious], and if concerned about omega-3s, one could incorporate fish.
How was your kids’ health?
Excellent, but part of every child’s developing immune system is getting colds and bugs, and it would not be honest to say my kids did not get sick. But my kids recovered very quickly – in like a day. They were very energetic, but also calm. They didn’t have any sugar or meat.
I try not to say that foods are good or bad, or be heavy handed, because it can set up issues or eating disorders later on. They did start experimenting during the teenage years, which is really a good thing because then they could learn from their own experience rather than hearing it from me; they started eating some sweets and cheese, but by the time they were 20, they all saw the value of eating whole, living foods as the mainstay of their diet and enjoy cooking and preparing recipes they learned at home.
How did you get them to eat vegetables if you didn’t want to be too controlling?
I set up an environment of fun around food. I made up goofy stories about Mr. Broccoli, and I wrote about the life cycle of carrots from the carrot’s point of view. Small children are a challenge, but if there is a variety, it can help them to develop intuition. I tried to help them understand that food sustains, and there are certain foods that are only for special occasions.
Also, if kids help out, they’ll eat a lot more. I have done cooking classes for kids: They made Portuguese fried rice with brown rice, cucumbers stuffed with tofu and umeboshi [pickled plums], brown rice crispy treats with peanut butter and coconut, jello from agar agar [sea vegetable], smoothies; we pounded mochi [sweet rice] into mice, with raisin ears and almond eyes. You just have to make it fun. Get them involved even in stirring the pot or picking a vegetable from the garden.
One time I gave a talk to preschoolers about vegetables – American kids aren’t that aware; they buy carrots in bags and didn’t know they grow in the ground. Kids love it when you get them involved.
How did you end up cooking for Boy George, and what did you both get from that experience?
I met George through Simon, who had first become friends [with him] when George ate at the macrobiotic restaurant [where] Simon was director. George loved the food and wanted to feel great and lose weight. I first stayed at his house in London and went to Milan for the Versace men’s fashion show with him – some great stories there. I then toured America with him, cooking on a small burner in some of the top hotel rooms in the country. I also lived with him for four months in New York while he was doing his Broadway show, Taboo.
Although I cooked for him, our relationship was one of friendship. I always have a great time with George; he is incredibly creative: singing, writing, designing clothes, sewing, doing photography, and he’s also a DJ. He was wonderful to cook for because he relished everything. George has a huge appetite for life, and that includes food, so it was hard for him to only eat whole, living foods. When he did, though, he lost weight, felt calm and had great energy. He wrote a macrobiotic cookbook called the Karma Cookbook with Simon’s ex.
What is most misunderstood about macrobiotics?
Macrobiotics is not [just] about diet, but about enjoying life in the way you live with family and community and nature. So many people spend most of their time indoors, and spending time in nature makes a huge difference to health, and they would get recharged. Lots of times people say, oh, it sounds so boring! But there is so much variety. If you look at many old cultures they use mostly whole grains, vegetables and beans, and meat was a very small part of daily food. You can shift your diet depending on climate and environment and adjust it for the kind of work you do. It’s hard to imagine the person who works in the field as a farmer needs the same food as a person who works in an office. We need to develop who we are, and the same is true for our kids.
I also feel that macrobiotic study is practical, so you need to actually do it – get in the kitchen, cook an array of wonderful foods, spend time in nature, take responsibility for your own health and well-being, observe life, play, give back, etc. I have also cooked for many, many people, from those with serious life-threatening diseases to well-known stars. I have cooked under all kinds of situations, outdoors, in a tent, in a hotel room, state-ofthe- art kitchens, surrounded by kids, dogs and cats, in a Zen environment and in different countries/climates. I think this has made me realize how flexible macrobiotic cooking is. I also lived in Portugal for three years in a fishing village. It was a wonderful experience and I felt closest to nature there, cooking fresh foods from the local markets that was either caught or picked that day. There wasn’t so much variety as in the US, but I actually loved that because it made me more creative and I discovered how much you can create with less.
The schedule of classes, June 9-22, is at www.TheRice-, or by phone: (02) 566-9367 or (052) 365-0004. Classes include macrobiotic cooking, feng shui, stress reduction, face reading, and raising healthy families.