Bill Tara has been involved in macrobiotics for many years and is considered one of the leading senior teachers. He worked at Erewhon in its beginning days in Boston, started the Community Health Foundation and Kushi Institute in London, and has been involved in many businesses and ventures in the United States and Europe. Julia interviewed Bill on The Taste of Health cruise in March 2013.
Bill, how did you get started with macrobiotics?
I started through my roommate, Paul Hawkin. We had a studio in San Francisco, Paul was a photographer and I had a small theater group and we did a lot of things together, such as rock and roll dances and light shows. In 1966, Paul was introduced to one of Ohsawa’s books and he decided that he was going to cure his asthma by eating this diet. When I read the book, I was absolutely thrilled! I had read the Tao Te Ching as a teenager and after reading Ohsawa, I thought you can actually do something with this philosophy! At the time, I was living a destructive life style and had duodenal ulcers. The doctors said I would have to have surgery, but I started macrobiotics and the pain went away completely. When I went to my doctor and explained what I was doing, she became really upset.
Really! She wasn’t happy for you?
She said it was mumbo jumbo and that I would probably be back for surgery. Her response actually made me curious; if it hadn’t been for her response I would probably have continued doing what I was doing.
When did you move to Boston?
I moved to Boston along with Paul and a number of other people who became influential in Erewhon in the early days. I lived in Boston for about 10 months until Michio suggested that I go to Chicago and help start a center there.
That soon? I thought you studied with Michio in Boston for years?
It was a short period of time really. I told Michio I didn’t know how to teach or start a center. He told me to just do what he was doing, after all, I had been driving him around and watching him work.
Was this before the Kushi Institute?
Yes, this was years before the KI. I spent 9 months in Chicago and got a little center going which Ron Kotsch took over when I left. Then I went to Los Angeles with Aveline and opened up Erewhon West. We started importing food and selling macrobiotic supplies up and down the California coast from LA to San Francisco selling food and giving lectures.
When did you go to Europe and London?
I returned to Boston in 1969 and for a while worked as vice president at Erewhon. Michio worked out a deal with those of us that were with the company from the very beginning with an option of either travel or cash pay out. I wanted to see the world, so I looked up a number of Ohsawa’s students in Europe, had a little adventure, and went overland as far as India.
When I got back to the states, Paul and others were thinking about expanding in Europe and wanted me to check out the feasibility. I went back to England but unfortunately, Erewhon ran out of money and couldn’t do it. I decided to stay. I managed Ceres food shop in London for the Sams brothers and then joined Peter Bradford to form Sunwheel Natural Foods. We bagan manufacturing and distributing macrobiotic food in the UK. I also started lecturing and doing workshops. In 1975, we started the Community Health Foundation in London, which was what I really wanted to do, that is, more teaching than business ventures.
What all did the Community Health Foundation do?
We controlled the lease on the this large building and had an East West Center for macrobiotic education, a restaurant, a bookstore, and a nursery school, all run by the macrobiotic crew. We also leased rooms to other organizations such as the acupuncture association and a natural childbirth group. In 1976, we started the Kushi Institute there—it later opened up in America and Amsterdam.
Do you have business degree? How did you pull all this together?
It was all bootstrap business that started with about a thousand dollars. I walked into the bank and told them I had a lease for this empty building. They were willing to double my money and I got rent free for 6 months if I fixed it up and protected it from tramps moving in and burning it to the ground. There were some great people who worked there; for the first year, we had all volunteer staff. I don’t think you can do the same thing anymore, but what I found is that if the vision is strong, people get excited.
Is the Community Health Foundation still going on?
It is, in a completely different form. Now it operates as the Concord Institute and there is a macrobiotic core curriculum and other personal development courses. Bodywork too.
Is there shiatsu?
Yes, we started the first shiatsu school in Europe at the CHF. I was doing shiatsu treatments before the CHF, I learned from Shizuko.
Did Michio Kushi design the program?
Michio, Aveline, and I sat at my kitchen table and designed it. Michio sketched the general curriculum, and I fleshed it out. I wanted a place where students could come and teachers could rotate through. There were so many good teachers who came like Marc Van Cauenbergh, Rick Verbatim Vermuyten, Adelbert Nelison, Denny Waxman, Murray Snyder, William Spear, and others. The students were great too; the first course in London had 85 people in level 1 for the 3-month program. We developed our own teachers there as well, Jon Sandifer, Donal Cox, Simon Brown, Anna Mackinze, Marion Price and Mario Binetti among them. I was there about 4 or 5 years and then in 1981, Michio asked me to come back to Boston. The Kushi Intitute there was using the curriculum that we developed in London and he wanted to expand to a residential facility.
How long were you in Boston at that time?
Another short period of time. Macrobiotics began shifting at that time. Michio and Aveline are were such a gift to the world, and Michio was perfect for that time. He had the romance of being an Oriental philosopher and the charisma and intellectual snap to appeal to young western minds. Things changed a lot when cancer came on the scene; the tenor changed and shifted away from personal development into a therapeutic and specifically, a physical-health-oriented discipline. It changed the feel of the macrobiotic community.
Here you are, coming and going, and starting new things. A lot of people start something and get really attached to it. They can’t change with the times or shift. How is this for you?
My attachment is to starting things and leaving! We all have our attachments.
That is hilarious.
It is true. I like to see things continue, but I am a restless spirit. That is why directing theater was so good for me. I could direct a play, and the minute it opened I could think about the next project. I find things exciting at their inception.
I like to keep things moving in a general way. Everything I have done has been aligned with increasing awareness about who we are in the world, how we take care of ourselves in the world, and how we take care of the world. I like to experiment with new and effective ways to do my work.
Would you call this your vision?
Yes, this is what drives my life. Sometimes it is successful in a material way and sometimes it is not. Sometimes it impacts others and other times not. If we don’t develop new ways of communicating macrobioics it becomes stilted. The vision or goal can be the same but the means of achieving it will vary. I think if a person loses that vision of what they want to do, then they lose their life in the process.
When did you write your book, Macrobiotics and Human Behavior?
Around 1980 to 82. It came out of seminars that I had been doing for years in Switzerland, at the International Macrobiotic Institute, that were popular. Currently it is out of print. I had always thought I would rewrite that book, but then I wrote Natural Body Natural Mind, which has a truncated version of the first book incuded. Presently, I am writing my first book about food, Eating as if Life Matters, set to be published this year. It connects the dots between what we eat and our attitudes about society, culture, and the planet.
I don’t see how we can ignore the issue. For me, the reason that macrobiotics creates health is because it is aligned with environmental necessity. If we eat a diet that is ecologically sound and sociologically just, we would be healthy. You can yin and yang all you want, but when you get it down to the bottom line, it is how we live on the planet. The whole purpose of macrobiotics is to be in balance, but with what? With nature. But we have taken the word “nature” and replaced it with “universe.” I think this distances us from reality. When we talk about what is happening in the universe I bail out. We honestly don’t have the slightest idea what is happening in the universe; we really mean nature and the planet.
What is real in our everyday lives? How are these ideas going to help me, my family, and my work? People are concerned with these fundamental relationships, not philosophical concepts.
What about your family? Where did you raise your kids?
The younger ones in Boulder, Colorado, but my children are gypsies, they have experienced moving a lot. After I left the Kushi Institute, I went to Miami and worked with Sandy Pukel. Then in 1983, we moved to Colorado and started a new project, The Nova Healing Center. It was a terrible disaster.
We were in the mountains by Boulder and had a beautiful place. The educational part was activities were successful and many people come came for courses, but we had a motel and restaurant on top of it, and couldn’t get enough people in. There wasn’t enough clientele to support a macrobiotically orientated restaurant, especially given the seasonal nature of business in that area..
This was the only enterprise I was involved in that actually didn’t do well. It was a high-risk business, and had a lot of potential, but it was the only time I have really been depressed about a project, because we had some investors who lost money. I retreated to Boulder for 13 years. I continued to teach a little but got involved in other activities, such as working with Nikken.
How was that experience?
It is interesting that in macrobiotics, if you teach, you are kind of required to keep on teaching. I guess it is like a priest having a day job. If you do anything else vaguely connected with health, you are excommunicated. I was involved with magnetic products and water filters and people didn’t identify it as macrobiotic. I was still teaching and talking about food and health and I am was the same person I had always been. I just found some interesting products that helped some people, I thought could help me make a living money to raise my family. This was a time in my life where I changed some of my views about macrobiotics, taking it out of expectations or beliefs.
Herman seemed to emphasize macrobiotics as a form of self-discovery. Ohsawa talked about being true to yourself. There are people in macrobiotics who carry the idea that if the authority says something is okay or not okay, they will follow that. I don’t know if that is only macrobiotic, or if that is a human tendency.
I think it is human tendency. We want things to be consistent and explained to us. I think this happened in macrobiotics. If Michio didn’t say it, or Herman didn’t say it, or if it wasn’t in Ohsawa’s book, it wasn’t true. It is important to respect the teachers, but a person needs to respect their own mentality and judgment in the process too. After all, our philosophy is based on the fact that things change. Change brings the excitement and adventure to life. It is our capactity to adapt to change that defines physical, emotional and spiritual health. It is a lack of flexibility and a fear anxiety where people are driven to do something because they are frightened something bad will happen. This is terrible motivation. Fear can get you going, but it doesn’t sustain. You have to find a reason to live rather than a fear of dying.
This shows up in our attitudes about diet. Many times when people get into eating better, they hear contradictory voices about the fear of this or that. You can’t have oil, you shouldn’t have salt, you have to get your antioxidants. It makes nutrition and eating into a science project. I wonder about the science part of it, really, because if someone puts on a lab coat and stethoscope and says, “You should eat dirt, it will cure everything that ails you,” there will be a certain number of people who will get down on their hands and knees. I think, wait a minute, this guy is just looking at a pile of information and deciding what is important.
Then there is the macrobiotic community; one thing we have to offer is over 50 years experience with dietary change. We have created diets that work, as well as diets that don’t work. If there were books on things that don’t work, that would be very educational. Some things work therapeutically but are not sustainable. It is important that we respect our individual needs as well as have general principles to follow.
One of the big changes happened when many people came to macrobiotics because they had cancer. Michio and Herman came to the same conclusion—that if you put them on a no or low-oil diet and restrict salt (what some now indentify as a vegan macrobiotic diet) there is a radical shrinking of tumors. In many cases, this was the thing that turned the corner. The problem is that such a diet became defined as the best diet for everyone, and people who didn’t have cancer started eating that way.
Something that amuses me is that it is labeled a “clean” diet. It implies that if you aren’t eating that way, you are eating “dirty”. Me, I eat “filthy,” I put salt on my food, I use oil when I cook, and I play rock and roll when I am in the kitchen.
I use avocado.
Take that! It is bizarre that we take something that is quite beautiful and lovely and make it grotesque.
What did you do after living in Boulder for 13 years?
I moved to Scotland. I went to Michio’s 80th birthday party in Lisbon and decided to focus on teaching again. I worked in Portugal with the Macrobiotic Institute and managed the macrobotic health services at the SHA Wellness Clinc in Spain for several years. Now, my wife, Marlene, and work with Penningham House, out in the country in the Scotland where we do residential programs. I still teach a lot in Lisbon, Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona. Marlene has written a great cookbook, Macrobiotics for all Seasons, and does private classes.
I have looked at the website. Penningham house sounds awesome.
It is a beautiful place! It has a cooking school with individual cooking stations. Everybody in the program cooks every day with their own stovetop, cutting board, etc. It is entirely hands on. Most facilities are set up for show and tell, but you can’t really learn to cook that way. One thing that is really cool is that each person has the same ingredients, but things turn out different. People ask, Why does yours taste different than mine?” So it shows how little things like the flame or the speed of cooking or even attitude can make a difference.
It is so obvious. And on another level, they are learning tolerance and flexibility.
We are doing a coaching program too. Several years ago I started reflecting on the fact that I probably taught upwards of 5000 people at various Kushi institute courses, and out of that group of people, very few counseled. My feeling is that people need help to get started (both in counseling and in cooking). We have made macrobiotics sound difficult and many folks are scared to share their knowledge, afraid to make mistakes. Macrobiotics is simple really; people don’t need to know about their ancestors and what their grandfather’s condition was. People need to know how to select and prepare food, and how to make good decision about their personal health and life.
We started focusing on 2-week programs. Students learn to interview clients and find out what they need, to teach clients how to get started, and create a general health plan that is non-therapeutic but focused on general health. If a client has cancer or another life threatening disease, then they can refer them to someone who has more experience. Some students are out there right after finishing the program and putting out a shingle saying I am a health coach. We suggest that they don’t say call themselves “counselor” but a “health coach” is accurate.
It sounds like you are teaching them important things—how to cook and how to help others.
We want our students to be able to integrate this information. One of the things that has always hung me up is that people say, “I have a whole macrobiotic library, but I don’t have the slightest idea of what to do. I have a full time job, I am a single mother, I have 3 kids. How am I going to do this?” These are practical problems. So a health coach needs to sit with the person and say, this is how you can get breakfast every day. Take the grain leftover from the prior day (cook enough so you have leftovers) and put it in a pot with more water and make porridge in the morning. Here are some condiments that you can sprinkle on top. Many people think they have to cook everything from scratch. Miso soup? Make 3 quarts of dashi stock, put it in the refrigerator, take it out as you need it, and add miso. People need the practical advice or they fail.
Herman gave a lecture on the meaning of life that was quite inspiring. And it is inspiring to talk about your life, your vision, and your passion to help people become empowered. I have one last question for you. What do you think is the meaning of life?
There is a Monty python movie by that name, The meaning of life, which has helped me wrestle with those existential issues! You know, I do think there is meaning of life, and it has to do with evolution. My personal vision is that human life on the planet is not separate from the planet but has the capacity to become the consciousness of the planet. Everything we do is aimed in that direction. When we enhance consciousness where we can be really aware of this relationship. To me, it is the fundamental issue. If we don’t do that, then we extinguish life or we pervert it greatly.
Are you describing this as a merging with the consciousness of the earth?
There is this big theme in science fiction, Avatar and all that, but long before Avatar, there were many people saying the same thing. To me, all the great religions are built on unity of humanity and the rest of creation. But Nature is our gateway. If we can’t make peace with ourselves and can’t make peace with the planet, why would the universe want to do anything with us? How would we ever as a species come to any sort of revelation about what the universe is really about?
It often seems that macrobiotic teaching is focused on the specifics of food (which we refer to as mechanical judgement) and philosophical generalizations regarding spiritual development (supreme judgement). Why would we skip all those levels of judgment between biological and supreme? There is a lot of good stuff in the middle – the sensory, the emotional, the social, the ideological, should we pop it out?
It’s all about popping right back in and being here now.