Can’t bring yourself to meditate? Mini-meditate!

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Author’s Note: I originally published the following article in 2015.

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Chicago Ideas Week presented what everybody needs — especially anyone who exists in a noisy environment: A class on how to meditate amidst distractions. It was held outdoors so participants could truly practice this concept. The class was billed thusly: “…learn how to use your surroundings – even the bustling Michigan Ave. – to become grounded and meditative.” And that is exactly what we did – even more so than expected, actually, because it was surprisingly chilly with a cruel wind that just wouldn’t stop. Talk about learning how to meditate in challenging conditions!

For those of us who dwell in the city, the distractions of traffic and people passing by are so common anyhow, we barely notice them. But sitting in an open plaza exposed to a wind that rumbled between the buildings with the sound of rolling thunder, trying to keep our hoods from blowing off and our noses from running — now that was distracting.

But part of a meditative philosophy is to accept what is – embrace it even – and not just cope but make the best of it. And so if we could meditate and do our minds and bodies some good in this setting, we could probably succeed at this just about anywhere.

Our meditative lecture and exercises were led by Jacquelyn Brennan and Kelly Moore of MindFuel Wellness, a company that organizations hire to come in and counsel their employees on all things wellness. We managed to do three meditative sessions throughout the event: A two-minute meditation for openers, a five-minute mid-class meditation and ended with a full ten-minute meditation.

We also did some light stretching; it felt good to move around a bit and get the blood circulating in hopes of generating some body heat. We learned about breathing, anatomy and posture and how these interrelate to meditation and affect our well-being in day-to-day living. Despite the cold weather, concentrating on one’s breathing took us inside our bodies, where it was warm; and as long as we continued to focus inward, this was ideal.

Kelly opened with mention of just a few of the benefits of meditation: A decreases stress and high blood pressure as well as mental clarity, good immunity and whole-self well-being. Jacquelyn introduced the concept that breathing properly is key, not just while meditating but in our lives at every moment. Today’s civilization creates a fast-paced lifestyle and we tend to react to this with shallow and sometimes even rapid breathing. Breathing like this is not good for the body or ones hope for peace of mind. An interesting bit of trivia was mentioned: Navy Seals snipers slow down their breath for accuracy.

We may be cutting down on our capacity to breathe properly by 30 percent with poor posture. Ideally, we need 60 to 70 percent of our lung capacity to breathe deeply and all the way down to our core. Slouching can reduce your lunch capacity by 30 to 40 percent. When it comes to posture, how is your forward head position, also known as FHP? For every inch your head is forward, you add 10 extra pounds of stress on your neck joint and back and this stress spreads out to impact the whole body. Mind your posture!

Here are some tips to meditate well: Focus on breath so your mind won’t wander. Find a yoga pose you like and sit comfortably. Yoga poses are actually designed for comfortable sitting. You can create meditation at any point during your day. Try to put yourself in a position where you won’t be disturbed – but don’t make the lack of a quiet place an excuse not to meditate. Even five minutes of deep breathing, really concentrating solely on your breath as much as possible, is a form of meditation. Heck even a one-minute meditation can be helpful. And there are several ways to meditate. Do what works for you.

Now you know a bit more about meditation and that it is important and distinctly possible to incorporate at least mini-meditation – anytime and anywhere – into your life – you have no excuse: Just do it – every day!

And I highly recommend being present at Chicago Ideas Week, which happens every autumn, to enhance your life immeasurably.

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Better nutrition now can make you and your future generations healthier

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Author’s Note: Below is a reprint of the article I did for Chicago Ideas in 2015.

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Among its many features, Chicago Ideas Week presented “Food as Medicine,” a panel discussion moderated by Monica Eng, producer at WBEZ and featuring Geeta Maker-Clark, M.D., clinical assistant professor & coordinator of Integrated Medicine at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine; Rebecca Katz, chef, author of several cookbooks and founder of the Healing Kitchens Institute and Michel Nischan, chef and founder & CEO of Wholesome Wave.

Author’s disclaimers:

  • Almost nothing in the article is verbatim, but rather, paraphrased per the author’s take on what was said.
  • Whereas each panelist responded to all the questions, what stood out most to the author is what was included in this article, although each participant contributed loads of fascinating nutritional information.
  • Ideas put forth in this article are not necessarily presented in the order in which they were discussed but were organized for cohesiveness.

Eng opened with a heavy statement: The #1 cause of death is the quality [or lack thereof] of ones diet.

Maker-Clark confirmed that food is a most powerful drug. We take it every day, several times a day. She added that a healthful diet can improve or even prevent any chronic disease.

There’s a science called nutrigenomics: Food alters the way our genes are expressed. We are born with a genetic map. Stress, toxins and food affect this. We don’t have much control over the toxins in the environment; we can learn to cope with stress, but it’s a constant part of life. Food is the variable over which we have the most control. You can change your gene expression by the way you eat and live your life.

Know yourself: What are you most prone to? How can you eat in a way to optimize who you are? She recommends if you want a doctor to help with this, turn to one who practices functional medicine or integrative medicine. Eng cited this is also known as “Oriental medicine.”

We all have a genetic predisposition toward certain diseases or ailments. Food can act like a switch that either flips on the DNA in our bodies that triggers those diseases or stops us from ever getting those diseases. If you don’t get a disease to which you are genetically vulnerable, you start to create a different gene pool for future generations in your family so that they will no longer vulnerable to those diseases anymore.

3Eng asked: How is it that we have medical schools that don’t teach nutrition?

Maker-Clark revealed that, having been through medical school herself, although doctors are taught very comprehensively about the human body and related topics, school curriculums only briefly touch on just the rudimentary basics of nutrition. In fact, nutrition has never really been considered part of a doctor’s business. But now, patients are asking doctors nutritional questions, and many doctors don’t know the answers and have to turn to “Dr. Google” themselves.

In the culture in which she was raised, even children grow up learning that foods can have medicinal properties. In her own practice, she started to realize at a certain point in her career that she was simply becoming a “medication manager” and wanted to share yoga, stress reduction and healthful eating. Thus, she has made it her mission to bring culinary medicine to medical schools where she teaches nutrition to a class by cooking and eating together.

Eng asked: How did we (the U.S.) get where we are today regarding food?

Nischan responded it likely started when we needed to move armies of stomachs; food technology strived for efficiency. For instance, convenience foods can travel farther better and withstand extreme conditions.

Also, modifications to foods were made with the greater good in mind: In an attempt to feed the world, there’s been a striving to make food more available and more affordable.

Hippies started the health food trend, partly as a rebellion against “the man” but also because they didn’t want any chemicals in their food. But this has gone too far with salt, sugar and other seasonings having been vilified.

The public school systems are now trying to feed children healthier diets, but they’re overcooking it and leaving out the herbs and spices that would make the food taste good. This is non-ideal, as children’s taste buds are very sensitive to bitter foods.

4Eng mentioned: “Bringing the yum.”

Katz cited she is all about “the power of yum” and for good reason: If it doesn’t taste good, you won’t eat it, simple as that. Some people see salt and sugar and fat as major bad guys to be eschewed entirely. But a pinch of sea salt, the use of olive oil and, yes, even a bit of natural sugar can make an otherwise bland and boring dish, that’s also good for you, palatable. She is also big on lemon as a flavoring and lemon zest. Herbs and spices can be used to build flavor. Food should not taste like “hippie gruel.”

Maker-Clark agreed it is key that food be fun and pleasurable. She says she has a cartoon in her office portraying someone who says, “I lost 30 pounds on the reduced joy diet.”

Eng asked what each of the panelists’ favorite recipes were. Maker-Clark said hers is roasted miso tahini cauliflower. Katz makes something she calls “the everything drizzle.” Nischan’s favorite is scrambled eggs with roasted garlic, chopped kale stems and shallots.

Eng posed: Which diet is the best, most healthful? There are so many out there right now.

The panel unanimously agreed diet is a very individual thing – there is no “one size fits all” – but one thing is for certain: Plants are where it’s at. Maker-Clark recommended lots of vegetables in all different colors. Nischan advised avoid highly processed carbs, especially high-fructose corn syrup and packets of “cheese powder” passed off as a dairy product.

One needs to listen to and be in touch with ones own body: What makes your body feel good – or not? Perhaps try the Aruvedic approach.

Audience Q: How we can overcome “food insecurity”? (This term applies to those who cannot afford healthful foods, which are often far more pricey than junk food). Maker-Clark said she feels there’s validity in frozen and canned goods, which are less expensive than fresh foods.

Audience Q: How to quit a sugar addiction? Maker-Clark answered it takes time, one step at a time. Try to replace refined sugar with a sweet vegetable — i.e., maple syrup on a sweet potato. Nischan said turn to your family, community and a support group for assistance for a sugar addiction or any type of addiction.

And that wrapped up another Chicago Ideas Week event packed with great information and inspiration for us to live better lives.

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Chicago Ideas Week: Create historic “you are beautiful” art with Matthew Hoffman

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Author’s Note: Below is a reprint of the article I did in October 2015 when Chicago Ideas offered me a press pass to attend events, and I covered three including one by Matthew Hoffman, the “you are beautiful” guy. This year, he is doing another CIW event – and this time, you can join him in creating a mural and be part of this uplifting world movement!

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This past week, Chicago Ideas Week brought to us artist-in-residence Matthew Hoffman to talk about his art. You’ve likely seen his art around town or elsewhere, and you may be familiar with his “you are beautiful” initiative.

An initial impression of Matthew is that he’s mellow though friendly and not the least bit pretentious despite his fame. He has a rather quiet — even serious — demeanor. (Perhaps he was thinking of what he would do next to uplift this troubled world.) The first thing Matthew wanted to relay about himself were his three motivations for doing his art:

o       To stimulate conversation
o       To deliver positive messages
o       That it’s important to put yourself out there in the world

Matthew shared that as a youngster he enjoyed tinkering and making things. Eventually he got his degree in graphic arts. He moved to Chicago in 2002 and worked at a PR firm for many years until he was part of a big layoff. Losing one’s job can be devastating, but he decided “it’s all good” and started tinkering again.

He focused on outdoor placement of art where anyone can see it. He’s never been in trouble with the law though he admits he has probably “taken liberties.” He says writing on things you’re not supposed to isn’t necessarily considered right, but people are going to do it anyhow so why not post positive messages.

3-Crowd SceneIn 2003, he opened a P.O. Box so people could order stickers. Now they’re available online. In fact, now there are over 2 million stickers in 81 languages on all 7 continents, making it a global movement. He’s been doing this for 13 years, and what he does is spread mainly by word-of-mouth. He is able to support himself by his art and in fact employs one person and is about to hire another.

His very first “you are beautiful’ installation was comprised of refrigerator magnets and didn’t even have all the letters. But it garnered positive attention none-the-less. His next “you are beautiful” installation quickly disappeared. Someone eventually emailed him to admit they had it on their living room wall and they wouldn’t give it back. He learned from that and started making the letters bigger; they’re now 8’ x 8’.

Although he started small, now he does large projects that are requisitioned. Planning starts months ahead. The letters are laser cut; the work is very intensive, most projects involving thousands of pieces. The projects are done by Matthew, sometimes in concert with other artists. But you will also see ‘you are beautiful” done by others. When people started emulating him, he kept an open mind about it. His famous sayings are not copyrighted; they’re “for the community,” and there are now “you are beautiful” installations all over the world.

One Sunday morning, he did a fence piece with Styrofoam cups between his apartment and his studio, where he could see it as he rode his bike back and forth. Someone changed the word ‘beautiful’ to ‘bad.’ His piece changed continually. He noted someone even added more cups. The message changed from positive to negative and back to positive, every other time, till it eventually disappeared.

In an underpass, he did a large “you are beautiful” on which people added tags. To cover those up, the city repainted it a drab beige. Next, someone painted it bright orange. To this day, people are still helping to preserve it.

In 2004, some folks in San Francisco used party streamers and spelled out “you are beautiful” on an overpass, which made the front page of the local newspaper. A girl in grade school slipped “you are beautiful” messages into everyone’s lockers before school. The message is also being shared at senior centers. At one point, an art gallery did a “you are beautiful” showing.

Some of Matthew’s other famous sayings from which he creates artwork are “love” and “nice to be important to be nice.” When he did his premiere “everyone makes mistakes” piece, he describes it as “a massive mistake” which turned out to be two times too big and unable to stand on its own.

2-Anything is PossibleIt’s not unusual for folks to help him spread the word: One early Sunday morning, several of his friends hiked around the city with letters that read “anything is possible.” He did a “go for it” for the historic Pullman district in Chicago where people from the community assisted; he likened it to a “barn raising.” It was done in a large facility, and cohorts walked two blocks on foot carrying big pieces to the installation site. It was meant to be temporary, but it’s still there.

What’s next for Matthew? He says he and his team will go all over the city. Plans include installations in Englewood, Roscoe Village, Lawndale. He agreed with someone who said it would be a good idea to share his positive messages in high-crime areas. “You are beautiful” is a beautiful idea spreading out and making the world a more beautiful place. Thank you, Matthew.

And thanks to Chicago Ideas and its sponsors for inviting Matthew Hoffman to share his stories along with an eye-popping slideshow presentation. During one exciting don’t-miss-it week every autumn, Chicago Ideas presents all kinds of fascinating speakers and hands-on events. Plan on it every year. The surest way of doing this is to become a member.

And always know this: You are beautiful!

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Rock out with THUMBKNUCKLE

THUMBKNUCKLE — mixing rock, blues, funk, country and its own genre-defying originals — made its debut on the Chicago music scene in April of 2011 at Lilly’s. THUMBKNUCKLE was born of a handful of musicians who had played together in other bands over the years and were ready to start fresh spreading good times and good music around Chicagoland: Toe-tapping, finger-snapping, head-bopping, danceable music.

Band members (in alphabetical order) are:THUMBKNUCKLE logo
Tim Alesi: drums, backup vocals
Dean Bolz: bass, backup vocals
Paul Stephani: lead guitar
Mark Stumpf: keyboards, lead vocals
Dennis Voges: drums, lead vocals

Tim “T Bone’s on the skins!” started playing drums when he was only 10 and was already performing in clubs by age 15. He’s been in more than one local band, most notably The Bad Boys. Tim cites the rock music of the 60’s and 70’s as his inspiration.

Dean “the Machine” who has been playing the bass for decades says he didn’t originally know what a bass was. He was at a party where some musicians were playing but they were missing a bass player. Dean volunteered and someone handed him a bass and showed him the ropes. Since then he’s played bass in many local area bands throughout the years such as Pump-N Ethel, Eddie and the Pizzalas, The Bootleggers and Soulified to name just a few.

Paulie a/k/a the “Blue Dragon” has been in several bands over the past 25 years. He says, “I love making sounds with my guitar,” and those of us lucky enough to have heard him know exactly what he’s talking about; he’s a phenomenal guitarist who can play any genre of music.

Mark a/k/a/ “88” got familiar with the family piano as he grew up and started jamming with his Indiana friends, The Shelby Brothers. In Chicago’s Old Town, he was a member of the house band Fish and the Blue Fins at John Beluschi’s U.S. Blues for five years. Since then, Mark has been a part of several bands including the LaSalle Band and Tango Ridge.

Dennis “Denny Deluxe” is from small town Indiana where he encountered his first drum set around age 10; he got a strong feeling about the drums at that time, but shrugged it off. Many years later, he felt the irresistible urge to finally give in and buy some drums. Subsequently he discovered, at a Baptist church, that he could also sing. Throughout the years, he’s been in many bands and is a regular at open mic sessions all over Chicagoland.

These guys’ lives have intertwined since they were young. Tim was only 13 when he met teenage Dean, already a musician. They played together in a band called Blucifer. Dean and Mark were both in the Bob Goode Blues Band. Dean, Paulie and Mark were also together in Best Kept Secret and Well Hung Jury. And everyone has played with Denny here and there. So this is much like a band of brothers.

Where can you catch THUMBKNUCKLE in action? At Smilin’ Jim’s Saloon where they kick off and host an open mic jam the first Friday night of each month. Mark your calendars: The next one is coming right up Friday, May 5. Musicians are welcome along with music lovers. This is a rockin’ good time guaranteed to start your weekend off on a high note. THUMBKNUCKLE also has an upcoming show June 17 at At Work Sports Bar.

Make it a point to catch THUMBKNUCKLE in person. THUMBKNUCKLE seriously rocks!