Kindness and IBS

Irritable Bowel Syndrome may begin with your bowels but in my experience it makes the rest of you pretty irritable before long. We sufferers experience discomfort, sometimes severe discomfort. From time to time your clothes don’t fit and your exercise regime no longer appeals. It’s problematic to enjoy food or your favourite activities and quite quickly your life can feel out of control. This is a vicious circle as we do less of what we enjoy and limit our diet. The more it doesn’t get better the more we search the internet for cures and causes and beat our heads against the indifference of the medical profession.

So I am here today to tell you that IBS can also respond, like the rest of us, to kindness and attention. Imagine your IBS is a friendly message from your gut trying to take care of you.  IBS is a symptom not a disease and it is usually a symptom that we’re overdoing it on an emotional front. It is a message from the gut to the rest of us to lay off the accelerator and stop trying to push through stress.

Sadly when the IBS plays up we treat it like an enemy that needs to be defeated.  When we are suffering we can get caught in an endless round of looking for ’causes’ and things to blame. ‘Maybe if I stop eating wheat? Maybe if I give up meat?’ Before you know it you have a long list of good things that you are not ‘allowed’ in case your IBS plays up. IBS then feels like an enemy – we make an enemy of our own nervous system!

So here’s my suggestion as a fellow sufferer : Try it the other way round. Do the things you like, eat what you like and if you notice your tummy is sending you warning messages, take a little extra care of yourself by making a risotto or a bowl of porridge or some other food that soothes you. This pro-active but positive approach can work absolute wonders and sidesteps the self-punishing avoidance diets that many of us in desperation adopt.

The kind approach is to stop looking for the villains of the piece (so called trigger foods) and to start looking for things that help. If you can feel into the difference in that approach you will already feel the sort of kindness that can help you. One way we feel under attack from within. The other we feel we need to listen a little more to our insides.

What can we do about the stress? Just accepting that something is stressful and that you are not to blame can reduce the symptoms substantially. When you’ve chosen a new job or a new partner or another exciting development it can be easy to blame ourselves when we find it stressful … and the blame adds another layer of stress. My last bout of IBS was associated with moving house and once I’d identified it as IBS (not the 4am bowel cancer) it responded very nicely to a little love and kindness. In fact it responded immediately to the realisation that it was probably about the traumatic business of losing one home and making another. I simply allowed myself to know that I was finding the experience stressful – even though I was moving somewhere wonderful that I had chosen.

So if you are suffering from chronic or acute IBS start by making a friend of your tummy. You are both on the same side! If there are difficulties in your life (if!) start by allowing that they are there and that they are causing you stress. Do not deny yourself things but make sure you do things that you know can help. But it is the allowing that really makes the difference. If you do a yoga class or take a massage to help with the stress it will help immensely if you don’t regard it as a deal : I have to stop feeling stressed after this. Keep an open mind. Allow your body to process all your feelings and your food in its own good time. It has its own wisdom. Treat it with respect and kindness. There is no limit to the amount of kindness you are allowed to give yourself.

Tomorrow a recipe for pasta with broccoli with blue cheese! Watch this space.

 

The Search for Honey

This is another story that tells of turning away from our habitual defences and the courage of trying something new. See what happens when we tread a different path : this is really the whole of psychotherapy.

 

At last I can wait no longer and I put on layers of clothing and open the door. I have to take off my gloves again to force the door which sticks and I hurt my hand getting it open. The wind near tears the door off and outside the bleak landscape is uninviting. My mouth is full of yearning and cursing; the hunger is insatiable now. My house was built long ago with wood from the tree of wilfulness and I leave it as little as I can. The tree still grows outside my door. Its fruits are bitter but I use the wood for the fire. It makes a poor fire but the wood is plentiful.

I venture out onto the hard beauty of the tundra and after a wearisome walk of some hours, encumbered by the thick clothes woven from pride, I find a small parcel of honey in a ruined building. I hurry back to the safety of my mean home where I give the honey to the children of my need and take some myself. The sweetness of giving the little ones honey gives way, when they are asleep, to the relief of filling my own mouth with what is left. The small fire has gone out. I fall asleep in the cold, bundled in most of the clothes I own, with sugar on my lips.

But sooner or later pride and wilfulness are not enough to keep the need at bay and I must brave the journey once more. Each time I must go further. Each time there is the fear that all the honey is gone. Each time the children cry harder.

And then, after years of such journeys a different thing happens. One day the needing takes me further from home, further into the cold than I have ever been before. The fear is great. I may freeze before I get home again to the cold comfort of the drafty hut and the smokey fire. I worry even more about the children.

My steps are heavy in my old boots and I pass the many ruined buildings where I have found sweetness in the past. These ruins are my friends and lovers of old and I pass them quickly for they hold nothing for me now. Their sweetness is exhausted.

After miles of slowgoing I can see another barn or such like ahead. Out here I am so far from the settlement that it is unlikely already to have been raided and my spirits lift with unbearable hope. My breath is short and my steps quicken. I do not feel the cold; I can see already the smiles of my children as I hand them the honeycomb later tonight; I can feel the stickiness on my tongue, the fullness in my mouth, the brief orgasm as I swallow. Don’t think about that.

And I am in luck. In a forgotten corner of this hay-barn is a jar of the sweetness I so badly need, the sweetness I do not know how to make. There is a relaxation within as I know that the need will shortly be assuaged, that my mouth will be full. I secure the jar in my top coat, tighten my scarves around my face, put on my gloves and step outside once more.

This way lies home. But see, the other way, the snows of make-believe autonomy and wilfulness run out and the bare earth is showing. I have never seen the earth before lying naked and unprotected by the snow. Here it is not frozen to stone as it is where I struggle every year to plant the terrible vegetables we must live on. Here there is mud instead. I am fascinated and I walk a little further away from home to see what I can find.

But the mud turns to mire. A man-made hell of unwanted rubble and shit emerges. Junk lies in dark oily puddles and there is scarcely anywhere to put one foot after another. I will never get my boots clean again. This is where I keep my blackest thoughts, thoughts of shame and murder and revenge and hope and self-harm. It is ugly here beyond imagination. This is why I live in the pristine snow where the suffering is less. 

I am pondering this long-forgotten decision when, beyond the mud, I see a fence. It has no doors or gates in it but it is a temporary fence such as builders erect around their work to keep out trespassers. The panels of the fence are not solid, nor are they heavy but every metre or so they are held in place by metal blocks of unimaginable weight. Each panel bears a picture of me and in every weight I see a refusal to forgive. I stand in the black mud and worse and contemplate the fence. Each weight had to be forged from the metal of unforgiveness and dragged into position. I remember each instance with an effort, each instance where I closed my heart with deliberation and turned away from forgiveness, away from the awful suffering of compassion. 

The sad work of erecting that fence took years and I called it growing up. 

Eventually I think to lift my eyes from the ground at last and I am overwhelmed to see, above the fence, the pink and gold domes of San Marco. The warmth, the pleasure, the plenty of Venice awaits there, within sight. I can hear music and laughter, like a party. Venice is like a party and I recognise that this is my heart, my journey’s end. The pink and gold domes sparkle in the sunlight with an inexhaustible supply of honey and I remember that within it is dark and private. Inside the cathedral there is the glimmer of the everlasting flame reflected in the ancient, gold mosaics which celebrate the deeds of the saints. There is the jewelled altar screen and an eternal holy singing and the smell of incense as the Blessed Sacrament is offered for adoration.

I begin to pick my way through the mire towards the singing. 

Feel the love

brownie

‘When we arrive in the world after a taxing journey into the unknown, the comfort of another human being awaits each one of us. Warmth, holding, safety, love if we’re lucky, are accompanied by and communicated through food. This is our first act on earth. ‘

This is how my post called ‘Comfort Eating’ began nearly a year ago and I want to revisit this intimate connection between food and how we feel inside because it lies at the heart of our obsession with food. It is implicated in the psychological knots we tie ourselves in about what we eat and what we should look like. If things go well in our earliest days, eating and love and the comfort of contact with another become inextricably bound together in our brains as they grow. This becomes part of what we call reality and however bad your childhood was, if you’re reading this you somehow got enough food to get by and you likely got enough love to get by as well … and maybe more. We are very good at feeling wistful for the love we yearned for and didn’t get. It is often difficult to feel the love we did get because we are angry and sad about what was missing.

Early on babies do not distinguish between love and food and what we learn about love and food we mostly learn unconsciously when we are newborn babies. Small wonder then that when we need love many of us look around for something to put in our mouths. There is no right or wrong here, just observation. This is how being human works. If we can stop punishing ourselves for eating the ‘wrong thing’ or ‘too much’ and just notice how much love we really need, that can help. If we can pledge to provide it for ourselves we take a big step towards forgiving the person who didn’t give us enough.

Promise yourself right now that whatever else you do you will not shame yourself around food and weight. That is a huge step towards bringing love and self-control into the same room. Refusing to shame yourself can liberate you from the tyranny of food : what should I eat, how much, have I ‘earned’ it? We don’t eat because we ‘deserve’ to. We eat because we need to. The more we listen to our bodies with an open mind the easier it is to find out what we need to eat and when.

We are not here on earth very long but long enough to find out how to feed ourselves with kindness. Does that sound like a good plan?

Ultimate Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Gary Rhodes’ recipe)

10 ozs caster sugar

4 eggs

8 ozs unsalted butter

3 ozs cocoa

3 ozs plain flour

8 ozs plain chocolate

4 ozs hazelnuts or pecans, chopped

4 ozs white chocolate in chunks

Whisk eggs and sugar. Melt the butter and add. Then add flour and cocoa. Melt the plain chocolate and add that. Then the nuts and the white chocolate.

Grease a shallow tin and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into very small rich cubes. Eat with creme fraiche and raspberries adjusting the ratio of cake to fruit according to your situation.

 

 

 

 

Gut Feeling

Do you ever wake up feeling like a bad person, full of nameless dread and no idea why? If this happens to you and you are of an enquiring sort, interested in your body and the meaning of life, you may mull over what these feelings mean and get nowhere. If, God help you, you are of a psychological bent, you can spend a lot of time on this and still find out nothing much. Imagine my delight then to read the following passage in a very jolly book by Dr Giulia Enders called Gut, the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ.

‘It is now generally accepted in scientific circles that people with certain digestive problems often suffer from nervous disorders of the gut. Their gut then sends signals to the part of the brain that processes negative feelings, although they have done nothing bad. Such patients feel uneasy but have no idea why.’

So, let’s take it slowly. This doctor is telling us that our brain cannot distinguish between bad feelings that come from malfunctioning digestion and bad feelings that come from having done something we consider morally bad. Signals of uneasiness, the urge to make amends, even the terrible urge we seem to have to punish ourselves, may be a consequence of indigestion! Now you are aware of that, maybe you, like me, can ignore those feelings when they arise. Just say to yourself, ‘I probably ate too much‘ or ‘That midnight cheese sandwich was a mistake‘ and give it no more thought. You may need to take better care of your gut and what you put into it. (Are you drinking enough water? Do fresh fruit and vegetables figure prominently enough etc etc.) But you don’t need me to tell you what is good to eat because every magazine, newspaper and TV programme seems to be full of it. You may need help disentangling the confusion which links what kind of person you are with what you eat and what you look like. You see gut feelings can be very misleading!

Guts

Giulia Enders book was brought to my attention by a friend suffering from diverticulitis (ouch!) and it proves to be extremely entertaining with cartoons drawn by her sister and a determined attempt to demystify the gut and to do away with embarrassment about poo that gets in the way of our health. She tackles insensitivities and allergies and draws attention to the far reaching effects of ignoring your digestion. It’s a great read.

But now we come to Sunday Tomato Eggs which I found in the Financial Times Weekend magazine some months ago and which is attributed to Marcus Samuelsson. It’s a killer when you have weekend guests or when you just want to pamper yourself with a different kind of Sunday lunch/brunch. You can nearly make it with the contents of your store cupboard if your store cupboard contains that minced or chopped chorizo you can buy in airtight packets and which lasts for months in the fridge. Don’t worry about the celery if you have the other ingredients. You will hardly miss it but it is nice if you are shopping specially for this recipe.

Sunday Tomato Eggs

serves 4

115g cooking chorizo chopped

1 onion finely chopped

2 tbs celery finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

400g passata or tinned chopped tomatoes which you have simmered for 10 minutes with some olive oil, salt and pepper

1 tbsp capers

5 black olives chopped

1 chipotle finely chopped or chilli flakes to taste (I recommend 1 level tbsp)

60ml water

1.5 tbsp horseradish (freshly grated or out of a jar)

8 large eggs

 

To serve: 4 slices country bread toasted, formal frais or burrata, basil leave

Saute the chorizo, celery, onion and garlic in olive oil in a large pan until the onion softens. Add the water passata, chilli, olives and capers and bring to a simmer for about 5 minutes until the sauce is quite thick. Stir in the horseradish and season to taste with salt and pepper. Adjust the chilli. You can now leave this mixture until you need it.

When you’re ready to eat just heat it up and crack your eggs into it. Cook over a medium heat with a lid on until the eggs are set how you like them, then serve on the toast and add a spoonful of burrata or fromage frais or thick yoghurt to each dish and a few torn basil leaves.

If you don’t eat meat you can add avocado to the toast before you put the burrata on. Surely this will make you feel good to your core.

 

Let your heart do the eating and give your brain a rest.

Now this post does not have a title that trips off the tongue easily but hear me out. This is about the mind and the heart and how we may get the best out of them. In this context the heart is not some sloppy sentimental old dear hanging like a millstone around the neck of that great warrior, the mind, and rendering it less efficient. It is the winged Sufi heart, a warrior in its own subtle way. The Sufi heart is a thing of great beauty and wisdom, a connector between body and mind, a temple within which to worship which reveals that where ever you turn, there is God’s face.

Unknown

Did you know the Buddhists do something handy when they are meditating. If they are distracted by discursive thought they simply label it ‘thinking’ and return the attention to the breath. It’s a great technique. No fighting, no arguing, just name it and return to the present. Thinking is pretty much how we run our lives here in the West. It has had a great press in these parts since the Enlightenment, so much so that we seem to have forgotten all other ways of being. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is a wonderful tool and it does things we cannot do without. Following a recipe springs to mind. Reading instructions for your new chainsaw (aargh!).

Our minds are a bit like the government. They tend to hog all the credit for what happens when it goes right and to blame the rest of the system (the body, the heart) when things go wrong. Yet the mind is wrong about all of that for our actions are rarely, as they seem, the end result of careful consideration. We now know that the body is preparing for the action you have committed to (lifting that glass of wine to your mouth) way before our minds know we have ‘decided’ to act. Monitoring our physiology reveals that the brain is already enjoying dopamine to the reward pathway while you still think you’re deciding whether to have the drink of not. Our conscious decision-making and careful weighing of evidence is not quite as linear a process as it feels. If you don’t believe me take a look at The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

So the mind is not quite the action hero we thought. In addition, things not even accessible to my mind crop up all the time it’s just that the mind is very reluctant to acknowledge them. They may be of the elevated philosophical kind (the infinite nature of the universe, the apparently localised nature of time – what’s that all about??) but they may also be personal and hum-drum. Shall I go to my brother’s birthday party even though I am upset with him? Shall I tell my friend I don’t like the way her boyfriend treats her and of course he’s like the last boyfriend? The mind has a strong storyline about these things but the logical conclusion may not feel right. The heart has its reasons, said old Pascal, that reason knoweth not and while he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want at a party, he had a point. He was no slouch in the mathematics department, young Blaise, but he knew the limits of thinking. In tricky areas I have to ask my mind to take a step back and engage with my Heart instead.

So what has all this to do with eating? Put simply, it is interesting when you are contemplating what to cook tonight or put in your mouth right now, to try that Buddhist technique and label all that is going on within your head as ‘thinking’. Let your enquiry into what to eat become a kind of meditation from which a wonderful action can emerge. It can let the steam off the pressure-cooker of the brain and its constant efforts to do the right thing.

This very morning I ended up in the beach kiosk having a splendid breakfast, a departure my mind had all kinds of reasons for not making. Great decision, thanks to my heart.

 

And now finally, you’ve been very patient, a recipe. This is a great dish if you have mixed vegetarians and meat eaters at the table since it goes brilliantly with steak or roast chicken or fish but can also hold up its head on its own.

Mozzarella Stuffed Aubergines for four

You can make it a day or two ahead and bake it as needed. If you don’t know what time people are arriving, take the dish out of the fridge in good time and get your oven nice and hot. When they knock the door pop it straight in the hot oven for half an hour or so while they are having a glass of Prosecco and an anchovy puff. (I’m coming to those).

1-2 aubergines depending on size

2 packets of mozzarella

A large bottle of tomato passata

Start by griddling some sliced aubergines, lengthways, pretty much as thin as you can slice them. Brush your griddle with olive oil and either salt and drain the aubergines first or simply sprinkle a little salt on them as you take them off the griddle to cool. Now cut the mozzarella into convenient chunky strips and wrap each one in a slice of aubergine. Roll the aubergine up into a sausage.

aubergine

As each little roll is ready position it in a shallow oven proof dish. When the dish is full cover the lot in tomato sauce. You can either use a bottle of passata ready made from the supermarket, or you can use the same bottle of passata that you have improved.

How to improve bottled passata

Depending on how much time you have you can either :

  1. let it reduce slightly in a large shallow pan with some olive oil, salt, fresh basil and a smashed garlic clove. (Some people add sugar – you need to taste and decide.)
  2. or add roasted fresh tomatoes to the pan as well

If you have mozzarella left over you can put slices on top. If not serve the baked dish with fresh Parmesan. It makes great leftovers too. It is calorie heavy so make sure to eat it with a large plate of salad and a light hand with the bread basket if you’re watching the pounds.

Anchovy Puffs (Halloumi also works)

I hardly like to give a recipe for these since I serve them all the time and they are shamefully easy. Once upon a time I got the idea from a Victorian cookery book called Mrs De Salis’ Sweets and Savouries which I bought as a student. I also use her Christmas pudding recipe. However we will not be using Ruby the kitchen maid to make the puff pastry when she gets up to light the boiler. We will be using Tesco’s best.

Roll out your shop bought puff pastry (fresh is better than frozen but frozen will do). Cover the sheet of pastry with individual anchovies our of a tin or jar and cut round each anchovy leaving a margin of pastry so that you can make a parcel of it. Now brush round the edges with milk and roll them up into fingers or parcels – it is impossible to make them unattractive so don’t worry – and put them on baking parchment on a baking tray.

Brush with milk or milk and egg and put into a very hot oven (180 degrees) 10 minutes before you want to serve them. Serve with paper napkins as they are a bit oily and flaky as well as delicious. (You can put your Stuffed Aubergine into the same oven.)

Being Awake and the Sunshine Breakfast

I have been dipping into Pema Chodron’s writing again and finding, as ever, joy and wisdom there and above all an encouragement to accept myself with love. So I fell to wondering how this relates to what I eat.

PC is talking about meditation when she says ‘Whether you are caught up in […] thought for the entire sitting period, or whether you feel that enormous sense of space, you can regard either one with gentleness and a sense of being awake and alive to who you are. Either way, you can respect that.”

But what does this mean outside the meditation zone? When I get on the scales this morning and they give me a figure I do not like, can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of being alive to who I am? Can I respect that? If I wake up with a hangover and a sense of having poisoned myself (with food or alcohol or rage or hatred), can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of respect? And what happens if I do?

To me it feels as though simply in making space for those horrible feelings (hating my body, hating my behaviour, hating others) eases my suffering. Simply by considering that I can be gentle and respectful of myself when I am full of rage, without having to change myself even when I feel hateful, there is balm. An outbreath. A letting-go.

If you are interested in meditation, do read Pema Chodron. If you are interested in your life, do read Pema Chodron. She has written a lot and it pretty much doesn’t matter which book you choose. The message is the same. It’s not complicated. I can be with myself (however I feel) with gentleness and respect, alive and awake to who I am.

And now, in the same spirit of simplicity, I give you :

The Sunshine Breakfast

sunshine breakfast

Arrange your peach or apple slices or both into a sunshine and pop a few berries in the centre. Now the sun is shining where you are.

More Fresh Ideas for your Kind-to-Yourself Lunch : get pickled

Well now, we all know about Prosciutto Melone (and if you need reminding, take a look  here) but I recently discovered a new twist on this theme which brings together the irresistibly sweet and the tongue-ticklingly piquant. When I was a child water melon was a mouthful of black pips but nowadays I seem to be able to buy them with tiny white edible pips which are much less off-putting and I’ve been feasting on water melon this summer. Add to this an urge to pickle something and, bingo! Sweet and sour lunch and as good to look at as it is to eat.

I guess water melon has some calories in it but it’s also extremely healthy and delicious. Cucumber, we all know, is as good as calorie free (and the pickling only adds a few teaspoons of sugar to a whole cucumber). That leaves whatever protein you fancy – this is very good with all kinds of ham and cold meat as well as clean cheese – by which I mean not the kind that runs all over your plate. Runny cheese is high on my list of delights but not with melon, somehow. Gruyere, Emmental, Ossau Iraty, the primo sale I mentioned the other day, halloumi, anything nice and clean and dry- but that’s just my opinion. I’d like to hear yours. This is the kind of meal that expands children’s tastes if you’re feeding the family and they usually enjoy the contrasts and the colours and the fact that it’s great finger food if you’re little. (In fact you can make very nice smiley faces out of these ingredients should someone need coaxing. Maybe you are someone who needs coaxing to eat?)

As ever taking the time to pickle your cucumber and prepare your melon and arrange the whole thing on a nice white plate is a simple and foolproof way of being kind to yourself, raising your self-esteem little by little and staying healthy. If you’re due a much bigger meal than this it can make a wonderful starter before your pasta, steak or your jam sandwich. Eat this first and you are much more likely to eat what you need afterwards rather than eat on autopilot at the fridge door. Yes, we have all done that! Lights on, nobody home. It’s not naughty. It’s unkind. Be kind to yourself by taking a little trouble and you’ll find it gets easier each time to do.

Water melon with Parma ham and pickled cucumber

pickled cucumber

Salmon Tartare with Pickled Cucumber

Making the pickled cucumber could not be easier. Just chop it into whatever shape and size you fancy and swish over some white wine vinegar into which you have dissolved some sugar. Chill in the fridge until cold and dip in whenever you’re peckish. It last a long time. In fact I defy you not to eat it before it goes off.

Tip : if you want to use your pickled cucumber for something formal like a salmon tartare, cut it into wafer thin slivers before pickling. Dill fronds can also add to its prettiness.

For the salmon, merely take the time to buy skinless salmon fillet as fresh as possible and then dice into tiny cubes. Marinade four hours or overnight in lemon juice, black pepper and some Maldon salt, a dash of olive oil, chopped dill and some finely diced shallot. Stir occasionally until all the salmon has been in contact with the marinade and has changed colour slightly.

Arrange on plates with the cucumber, some black rye bread and some yoghurt or labneh handed separately.

NB For this you do not need sashimi grade salmon because it is really a ceviche and not tartare. The raw salmon is ‘cooked’ by the lemon juice.