Yet another batch of my homemade raw chocolate. The potential variations are endless. This time I used coconut flakes and walnuts. My contribution to Easter dinner.
THE PERSONAL BLOG OF CRYSTAL FLEMING
Yet another batch of my homemade raw chocolate. The potential variations are endless. This time I used coconut flakes and walnuts. My contribution to Easter dinner.
So last weekend I said I would try to get through the next few steps of my life without my spiritual practice.
This was kind of an odd thing to do, given that for the last year and a half, my spiritual practice has consistently provided me with a sense of peace, contentment and joy even through the drama of my everyday life. But suddenly, I wanted to see how life would look without being mindful. I’d begun to worry that my spirituality had become an existential crutch.
Perhaps at this point it would help to briefly explain what my spiritual “practice” looks like. Generally, I’m not big on practices. I don’t like rigid routines and rules. My approach to practice is in fact less about what I “do” and more about my on-going state of conscious awareness. Rather than meditating at particular times, I’ve aimed to live in meditation and cultivate stillness. I use techniques such as self-inquiry (Advaita Vedanta), conscious breathing and the intense experience of sense perception (e.g. focusing on the sensation of touch, the pre-conceptual experience of vision, the inner silence brought on by acute listening) to “remind” my “mind” of its own non-existence and align my attention with the All-There-Is. In addition to these practices, I would read spiritual texts and watch related videos on a semi constant basis.
Anyway, over the past week, I stopped watching videos and for the most part stopped reading spiritual texts. I dropped the intentional practice of self-inquiry. I dropped most of my techniques of mindfulness. And I generally went back to what I call conventional living. While I was aware of my emotions and my inner state, I did not take the second step of being aware of my awareness. It is this second step which allows for de-identification from the mind.
During this week-long experiment, I consciously allowed myself to identify with the mind – for the first time in over a year.
So what were the results? Well, it was basically a disaster. I found myself immediately plunged into the depths of despair. Not because my life was objectively worse, but because I began to take my mind’s egoic tormenting seriously. Mindfulness allows me to fully experience my emotions and thoughts, but also to know that I am not defined by them. During my mindless experiment, I felt the sting of my mind’s critical and fearful thoughts. And it stung like a m..fucker. I felt small. Mindfulness had allowed me to live beyond the confines of my egoic “self” and to identify with the expansiveness of the Universe. But living as a ‘person’ again meant defining myself as an individual entity, with individual fears, hopes and dreams. I felt small and anxious – like I had to defend my own turf. It sucked.
Now, in the interests of science, I should probably tell you that I was PMS’ing this week. Therefore, we are unable to know whether the depths of despair I’ve just described were brought on by my conscious mindlessness or by my spiked hormone levels. I’m inclined to think it was a little of both . . .
* * *
I have the great fortune of having a wonderful therapist I’ve been seeing for almost a year and a half. Did I mention that he’s Asian? Yes, I, Dr. Black Woman, have an Asian male therapist. Anyway, he’s awesome. And what’s particularly awesome about him is that he works with other academics and is deeply familiar with the demands of “the profession”. The best thing about him, though, is that he’s very supportive of my spirituality. And his therapeutic approach, which is grounded in mindfulness, has been very compatible with nonduality. He doesn’t seem to know much about Buddha or Mooji, or if he does, he skillfully feigns ignorance, but when I talk about their teachings, he is able to reframe them in a way that highlights the compatibility of ‘spiritual’ and therapeutic approaches to well-being and awareness.
I used to feel more self conscious about having a therapist, until I found out that almost everyone I know in academia also has a therapist . . . or is on antidepressants . . . or both. Just the other day, another colleague told me that a good therapist helped them manage the stress of the tenure process.
[Interlude. We’re now in my weekly therapy session. ]
Me: So I decided to give up my spiritual practice for a week. I stopped trying to be mindful, stopped reading books, watching videos, everything.
Therapist: And how did that go?
Me: Terrible. I’ve just been incredibly sad, which is unusual. I’ve been really good at managing my emotional life over the last year in large part due to my meditation practice. Mindfulness has really be instrumental in helping me dis-identify with my emotional states.
Therapist: But mindfulness is also about acceptance. You don’t want to negate how you feel. There’s a logic to your feelings.
Me: I know, and you’re right. But my way of being mindful is to fully accept and experience whatever comes up, but also to take that second step of awareness that involves knowing that I am not my emotions. I am not my thoughts. And just that step alone brings me such great peace. Maybe there’s some negation going on that I haven’t explored. I’ll have to give it more thought. I usually don’t try to analyze my feelings as I’m experiencing them. I might talk about them with a friend at some point, or sometimes on my blog or here with you, but otherwise, I try not to delve too deeply into the logic. My peace of mind comes from knowing that I’m not defined by the logic — that there’s an observer. Does that make sense? Do you kind of get it?
Therapist: Yes. I get it. You know, one year is not that long to practice mindfulness. You want it to become second nature.
Me: You’re right. I hadn’t thought about it that way. One year isn’t very long.
Therapist: It takes time, right?
Me: Yes. I guess it does. But I also feel like it was becoming my second nature — it’s the way I’ve been living on a regular basis and it’s brought me great peace. I just started to feel like I was, perhaps, overly dependent on my spirituality.
Therapist: So what are you going to do?
Me: I’m going to go back to my spiritual practice. I suppose I just wanted to see what would happen if I took a break and went back to how I used to live. I gave it a try and I don’t like it. At all.
* * *
What was so surreal about all of this is that I knew that I could end my suffering instantaneously. I knew that I could simply choose to “see” the truth at any moment – that I could take that second step of dis-identifying with mind. But I chose not to. Instead, I deliberately sat in the hell of my mind’s illusions. I chose self-immolation – but I didn’t let the fire actually burn the “self”. I let the small “I” – the personality – survive and even thrive in the flames. I kept it hooked up to an oxygen tube. I refused to take it off of life support. And even more bizarrely, I felt bad about wanting to put it out of its misery. I found myself worried that wanting to wake the mind up from its illusions was a form of escapism – as if the hell of living life egoically as a ‘person’ was the higher, more auspicious road. It made no logical sense, but of course it was the mind’s way of encouraging resistance to awakening – of urging me to allow the dream to carry on, while knowing that I could choose to wake up from the nightmare at any moment.
Anyway, all this to say: I’m going back to conscious mindfulness, spiritual practice and yes, even back to my beloved Mooji. The fact of the matter is that I do want to escape samsara and illusion and the unreal. I’ll keep my crutches until they fall away on their own. And today, those crutches include Midol. Lots of Midol.
It’s been three and a half years since I returned from my two year stay in Paris. I have not taken much time to reminisce or delve into the experience. When people ask how it was, I find it difficult to convey what took place for me during that time – emotionally, culturally, intellectually. It fundamentally changed me. In ways I’m still grasping – ways I’ll probably never fully understand. The other night, I dreamed I was in France again – and in the dream itself, I paused to consciously breathe as I walked along a boulevard, closed my eyes and said to my Dream-Self, “I’m back in Paris! PARIS!” Pure elation.
What struck me most about living abroad was how intensely alive I felt. Alive–because I was forced out of my element. Alive–because I had to struggle to communicate in basic sentences as I painfully transitioned from broken French to fluency. Alive–because I had to figure out how to gather data for my ambitious dissertation. Alive–because I was in a foreign place, in a culture that I did not understand. Alive–because I was constantly pushing myself against the boundaries of my own limits, my own fears.
I spent a total of almost 3 years living in France during my twenties. In college, I participated in Wellesley’s amazing study abroad program in Aix-en-Provence during the spring semester of my junior year. I then returned for several extended trips during the early phase of graduate school and then settled for two years in Paris where I conducted over 120 in-depth interviews and completed ethnographic fieldwork for my dissertation research.
I did not take the time to keep a detailed journal when I was living in France. But I suspect that many, many memories are still there, waiting to unveil and avail themselves. I’ve decided that from time to time, I’ll blog about some of these memories. Everything will be out of order and jumbled, but I’m curious to see what I’m able to recall after all these years.
* * *
Anyone who has ever lived in Paris knows that one does not live not live in Paris at all, but in an arrondissement–a district. I lived in the 14th, on the border of the 6th, on a very small street called La Rue Leopold Robert, tucked between Boulevard Montparnasse and Boulevard Raspail.
My apartment was in a building on the corner, with a Caribbean restaurant on conveniently located on the first floor. There was a touchpad on the front door, which lead to an entry way with black and white tiles, another door, and then the tiny burgundy elevator — just enough room for two people. I knew I was lucky to have an elevator at all — many buildings in Paris do not — and my apartment was on the sixth floor — all the way up.
The studio I lived in was smaller than most college dorms. Upon entering the apartment, you immediately found yourself in the kitchen. I’m using the term “kitchen” loosely, here. In fact, it was a 3 ft by 3 ftspace with a sink, a microwave and a tiny counter. There was no oven. I did, however, have a stove. With two eyes.
There was a bathroom – with peach walls – and a luxuriously large bathtub that I miss dearly. But the shower was awkwardly arranged such that if you moved too far to the left or the right, you could easily knock yourself unconscious by bumping into the built-in shelves that were built-in too low. There was a little metal table next to the sink and a huge, ornate floor-to-ceiling window. My “bedroom” featured a futon, a desk, another huge, ornate window, a mirrored wall, a small flat screen TV, a small table, two chairs and a bookshelf and a radio. I estimate that the entire space was probably about 250 square feet. And that’s being generous.
I did, however, have the great fortune of living in a fully furnished apartment designed by someone with great aesthetic taste – a woman who started off as my landlady and later became a dear friend. She had arranged the apartment to be efficient and beautiful. There was plenty of closet space, built-in drawers and cabinets, pretty drapes. It was a simple. ridiculously tiny apartment, nothing fancy, but fairly comfortable by Paris standards. The one complication was the plumbing — the toilet, to be exact — but I don’t have the energy to delve into the depths of despair caused by the broyeur in that bathroom . . . another story for another day.
There’s something that happens to you when you spend several formative years in a single Parisian neighborhood. The atmosphere of the place gets stamped on your soul. So long as I have consciousness, I will never be able to undo what Montparnasse place did to me. The taste of the toursades and the croissants au chocolat from the bakery on the corner. The smell of the soap in my laundromat. The flashing green lights of the pharmacy signs on boulevard Montparnasse. The rush of happiness I felt slipping into my cave, La Rotonde, the famous brasserie where I was a regular. For reasons that still evade me, the staff – from the waiters on up to the management – treated me like a mini-celebrity. “Un café creme, s’il vous plait.” I almost always got the same thing.
I lived in an incredibly central location. Thirty seconds to the closest metro – but only a few minutes to several other lines. Four minutes from my door to the Jardin du Luxembourg — the elegant Senate gardens. On my street alone, there were about 5 restaurants — and about a hundred more within a few block radius. My gym was around the corner. There was a major mall down the street, several movie theaters, art venues, the whole nine. What there wasn’t a lot of was black folks. Or brown. It was a decidedly white, largely wealthy area. My landlady — an incredible woman who also happened to be African American – was an exception.
I remember how frightened I was when I first disembarked. I had to write down basic sentences – sometimes on flashcards – to make it through the day. I didn’t have time to be paralyzed by my fear, though, because I started doing research — that is, interviewing people in French — right away. I was incredibly rusty when I began my fieldwork, but I jumped right in. There’s no other way to do it.
I didn’t write much about what it was like living in France while I was living it because it was an experience that overwhelmed all of my senses. Remembering now how incredible it was to visit Monaco – once with a friend and later with my mother. Standing on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean sea, watching the neon blue waves crash beautifully onto the rocks below. People watching in the Marais. Dancing with a dear friend on the roof of her apartment overlooking the sparkling Eiffel Tower at sunset as we drank champagne. Jogging from my apartment to the Place de la Concorde and feeling like a badass. Attending a largely black French church – with a white American pastor – in a suburb north of Paris with a friend. Picking cherries off of trees — and eating them — at a friend’s home in the south of France. Being lovingly adopted by the family of Camerounian classmate at the Universite de Provence, Aix-Marseille. My intense involvement with Democrats Abroad as a spokesperson for the Obama campaign in Paris. Being whisked off in private cars (Mercedes – always Mercedes) to do countless TV and radio interviews in a language I had not yet quite mastered. Feeling awkward and afraid and nervous and exhilarated and excited and alive — so alive. So many memories. So many that I left aside and repressed.
One of the reasons I pushed so much of my French life aside is because of how it ended. I spent my first year in Paris getting my bearings and learning how to take care of myself on my own in a foreign place. Then I began a romance with a Frenchman that would last almost four years and follow me across the Atlantic. Although it was often very charming to feel so in love and lust in the city of lights, it was in fact a very difficult relationship – one fraught with emotional trauma and drama that unfolded in two countries, in two languages.
My memories of Paris were tainted with the turmoil of that relationship. It is only now – 15 months after I ended it – that I am able to begin to look back at France with fresh eyes and remember my life there without the painful memory of our story defining my Parisian experience.
Still, it is not without some trepidation that I reconstruct this period of my life. Who knows what I’ll recall? Or, worse, what I’ve irreparably lost?
7 Weeks in. Still going strong. Meat cravings have been on the rise, however. Driving home from work the other day I was this close to going to my old wings place. The only thing that stopped me was imagining the suffering of those exploited and tortured chickens. Came home and ate my mac ‘n cheese instead. Yesterday I was overcome with an intense desire to consume lobster tail with lots of butter and fresh lemon juice. Today, I was nearly seduced by the wafting odor of grilled meat from a restaurant while on my way to an Indian spot for lunch. I held firm and stuck to a vegetarian dish, though I did break down and eat copious amounts of naan. Cheese naan. Yum. I also passed out afterwards. It was the most wheat I’ve had since I started this transition. Body couldn’t handle it..
In other news, I’ve tried to get Zora on board by introducing raw cat food (lamb to be precise) into her diet. I try to sweeten the pot by stirring in some Kit ‘n Kaboodle, her favorite go-to-junkfood. She’s very, very skeptical so far. But she’s nibbling. Progress!
Anyway, here’s the game plan I’ve been working with this week:
Before I moved to Long Island, I thought black people had the market on mac ‘n cheese. Very soon, I discovered that for sheezy my cheesy is, in fact, the craze of almost every Euro-American restaurant in the state of New York. Even the fancy “organic” pub in my town has mac ‘n cheese on the menu. And not as a side dish or an appetizer — they serve it as an entree. Anyway, this weekend I found myself craving something rich and decadent, so I gave vegan, gluten-free mac ‘n cheese the old college try.
This ahhhhmazing dish turned out to be a spicy, robust, savory and delicious – just the way I like it.
I don’t really remember exactly how I did this, but I will give you a vague, sketchy overview of what most likely occurred in my kitchen:
In Lieu of a Recipe
What I May Have Done:
It was fabulous. So good, in fact, that I had a bite for a midnight snack..
The first time I visited my town’s gluten free, mostly vegan bakery, I had no idea I was visiting a gluten free, mostly vegan bakery. I just saw “baked goods” and wandered in, looking for something sweet and delectable. As I perused the menu peppered with “gluten free” this and “vegan” that, I was overcome with a mild sense of disgust. This was not a real bakery. The healthier the food sounded, the less I wanted to eat it. I left without getting anything.
The second time I stopped by was with a friend. He had a hankering for something sweet, saw the bakery and asked if we could pick up something. I reluctantly agreed. When he realized how healthy everything was, he, too, turned up his nose. “I tried to tell you,” I said, shaking my head as we left. Again, I left this bakery empty handed. We ended up going to a swanky bar for cheesecake instead.
The third time I visited the bakery was last week. Having settled quite comfortably into my relatively new veganish, gluten-freeish lifestyle, I was eager to actually taste their offerings. I picked up an apple strudel muffin and a banana nut muffin. The former was divine, the latter was meh.
The fourth time I visited the bakery was yesterday. They had one of those apple muffins left. It was so good, I could have cried. It also realized that I would really shed hot, bitter tears if I had to pay 3-4 dollars every time I wanted a vegan, gluten free muffin. And so it was that I decided to try my hand at egg-less, milk-less, wheat-less baking.
I gave some thought to replicating the apple strudel muffin but that seemed too complicated. So, instead, I decided to try out something I’ve successfully executed before: banana nut muffins.
For this adventure, I used a recipe from Namely Marley, a cool food blog. I had to buy a few new staples to add to my growing vegan/gluten free pantry: vegan flour (I got white rice, though brown rice probably would have been a better choice) and egg-replacer, just in case – even though the recipe did not call for it.
I don’t really like following recipies, as you may have noticed, and I did not follow Marley’s very well. Instead of using margarine, I used coconut oil. I must have mismeasured something, though, because the first batch came out looking rather homely. They weren’t rising. And they kind of had that “blah” taste than the bakery’s banana nut muffins had. So, I added a tablespoon of “egg replacer” to the batter along with some ground cinnamon and ginger. The second batch was *awesome*! For these, I also added a topping, for which I used coconut and agave in addition to brown sugar. My graduate students will be sampling these in our seminar tomorrow.
I finally decided that the first batch was *awesome* too, because it has less sugar/agave and will be my go-to healthier snack this week. It also makes a pretty good delivery system for a dollop of almond butter.
Oh, and between you and me, my muffins turned out to be a lot better than the bakery’s. A lot. *dusts shoulders off*
I’ve been plotting on this meal all week and finally tried it out today. On my last trip to the market, I bought fresh kale and pre-packaged polenta for the first time and I’ve really enjoyed their variety and yumminess.
In Lieu of a Recipe:
I made the tomato/onion sauce in the Vitamix a few days ago and froze it. This morning I thawed it out, poured it into a small sauce pan and added a handful of shiitake mushrooms. I also added a teaspoon of agave syrup, a few capers and squeezed in a touch of fresh lemon juice.
While that was simmering, I massaged a big bunch of kale and sautéed it with a pinch of sea salt in a generous amount of EVOO. Then I added four slices of Roma tomato, which I sprinkled with basil.
In a small pan, I sautéed four slices of polenta in even more EVOO. (This is certainly not a low fat recipe). I then added the kale to the polenta and sprinkled it all with freshly ground black pepper. I left the slices of Roma tomato in the stir fry pan, but turned off the eye.
Meanwhile, I emptied my stove (which I generally use for storage) and set the broiler to low. I sprinkled the kale/polenta mix with 1/3 cup of Daiya vegan cheddar. I put the small pan in the oven and let it broil for about 5 min, until the tomatoes were a touch crispy and the cheese was bubbly.
To plate it up, I put a few spoonfuls of the sauce down first, then layered the polenta/kale/cheese mix, alternating with more sauce. Finally I garnished this delectable dish with the grilled tomatoes, capers and basil.
Words cannot describe how amazing this was. And it’s gluten free/vegan!
..and Nisargadatta Maharaj and Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hanh and the Bhagavad Gita.
For the time being anyway.
After a year and a half of fairly intense seeking and transformation, I’m going on a spiritual diet. The realization of my oneness with the Absolute has been beautifully assisted by these teachings & teachers.. but enough is enough. At this point I am reading and hearing the same things over and over again. Now I simply want to live it. No guided meditations or videos or texts. No more crutches. Just this moment and the direct experience of the Divine.
Like my veganish, rawish, gluten-freeish eating experiment, I’m doing this without a set timetable or goal.
It’s become clear that all this spiritualizing is holding something up. What, I am not entirely sure. But I know I need to go these next few steps alone. As Presence.
So, the spirit moved me to get a Vitamix this week. In addition to some pretty awesome sauces and smoothies, I’ve also made soup!
This carrot apple tangelo soup started out as Vitamixtake. I wanted to make a smoothie or a juice but I didn’t add enough water. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe I used two apples, one tangelo and 2-3 carrots. It’s been a few days and my memory is hazy. Anyway, When all was said and done, my “juice” had the consistency of soup. Disappointed, but undaunted, I set it aside in the fridge and decided I would eat it later in the week.
Well, later arrived today. The first task was to tone down the sweetness. I blended the soup with about a 1/4 cup of vegan Daiya cheddar, which darkened the color and made the taste more savory. I took a handful of kale and massaged it to soften the texture. Then, I sautéed the kale in EVOO with three slices of Food Merchant’s polenta, fresh garlic, 1/4 cup red onions and shiitake mushrooms. Meanwhile, I transferred the soup from the Vitamix to a pot on medium heat and added sea salt and nutmeg. When the veggies were done, I added them to the soup.
For the toast, I grilled two slices of gluten free bread in EVOO, sliced them diagonally and arranged in the gorgeous soup. Ground some fresh black pepper over the dish and voila! An incredible, vegan lunch.
Dessert was a peach, apple, ginger smoothie, also made with the Vitamix.. Yum!