MACROBIOTICS – ART OR SCIENCE

MACROBIOTICS – ART OR SCIENCE

In a recent interview with Tom Monte, Michio Kushi mentions a lack of scientific understanding on the part of teachers as a primary reason for the slow spread of Macrobiotics in society. I am going to assume that what Michio means is that our culture is hugely influenced by what passes as “scientific fact” in the arena of health care and that we need to use the language of science to explain what we do. This is often sadly the case and we probably all do that at one time or another.
Michio then goes on to say that, “Some macrobiotic teachers have said that macrobiotics is not scientific, it is a philosophy, and write that in an article.” I fear I may be the man in question since I have written such an article on-line. If there is another among you stand and be counted. I am presenting what I said here so that the scope of the conversation can be broadened.
I feel very strongly that there are two issues at play here: 1) what is the fundamental goal of Macrobiotic practice in daily life? and 2) what is the relationship between Macrobiotic health care and scientific information? When I first published this article I received criticism that I was anti-science, a statement that I am sure a close reading will dispel. I do have my prejudices – as do we all – and I feel that these are fully, and unashamedly, disclosed.
The simple fact that there is now an increasing amount of scientific information that validates some macrobiotic conclusions does not make macrobiotics a science. That would be like saying that an atheist who agrees with the idea “thou shalt not kill” automatically becomes a Christian. It is the way that we reach our conclusions regarding health, diet and our way of life that makes Macrobiotics unique, not the results of our reasoning.
My attitudes toward science were formed long before my exposure to the writings of Oshawa, Aihara or Kushi. One of the things that attracted me to macrobiotics was the cautionary attitude regarding the limits of science in our society. This was something that grew in me with my reading, in the 1960’s, of the work of Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner and other voices that were raised to question the blind destruction of the environment through the corporate abuse of scientific technologies. This early writing on ecology formed a bridge to Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, and my reading of the Tao Teh Ching and other books on Eastern thought. Their ideas were links to my own abiding love of nature. These voices addressed the important connection between humanity and the environment – a bond that defines the best of what it is to be human. They also pointed toward a way of understanding life that was based on a more comprehensive approach than mere scientific analysis.
Let me be clear that I am not “against” science. I am, however, aware of how easily it can be abused, misapplied and manipulated. This is a very valuable field of inquiry for anyone practicing, teaching or counselling macrobiotics. How we use scientifically generated information is a major issue we all face in developing a society that is healthy and ecologically responsible. This is especially true since the world looks to science as offering redemption to all our problems.
Individuals may believe in Jesus, Allah, or Krishna but they also believe that science will save the day. It may be old fashioned but I feel that macrobiotic ideas and ideals offer a valuable perspective that is neither a science nor a religion no matter how much we try to make it one or the other.
Both the philosophy of science and macrobiotic philosophy (and theology as well) are simply ways of “seeing” the world. Ohsawa used that nice little metaphor, “The Magic Spectacles”, to describe the Unique Principle. What was it that made the principle unique? It was unique because it was different from scientific materialism – it was not analytical. There is a difference both in viewpoint and application in these “ways of seeing” and those differences have important implications for macrobiotic education.
I want to make sure that I am clear on definitions before I go any further. The word science is used in two ways that are associated but not exactly the same. The first has to do with the logic or rules of something. There is a science to boxing, to driving a car, to building a house. This is not the common use but is accurate. Several years ago I started doing some white water canoeing. There is an applied logic to approaching rapids – you read the surface of the water and it tells you what obstacles lie underneath so that you can adjust your course. It is perfectly acceptable to call this the science of canoeing. In this sense, Macrobiotics can be a science.
The more accepted definition of science refers to the use of the scientific method. You focus on a particular problem, you investigate all aspects of it, you analyse the information, form a hypothesis or theory and run experiments to see if you are correct. You have to have consistent units of measurement to do a valid experiment. Science demands consistent units of measurement. If the experiments can be replicated you have a fact on your hands. Science looks for consistency and facts. The stated purpose of science is to prove facts and increase human knowledge.
Science can provide amazing insight into the measurable universe. There is no question about that. I have friends and family that owe their lives to the intervention of applied science. This does not mean that I have lost my capacity to view the results of scientific method with caution or to recognize that there are limits to this way of seeing the world.
One of my problems with science, as commonly practiced, is the apparent lack of interest in how discoveries are used. It may be unfair to expect scientists to be as excited about discovering facts as to how those facts are applied, but science has no moral standing. Much of science is now focused on tinkering with the chemical and biological structure of the planet as if it were a given right to do so. Since this is not the main point I want to address I will leave it there with the exception of one final thought. It is an easily ridiculed thought but here goes – are you ready? I think we know enough science right now to last us for the next fifty years, maybe one hundred years.
That’s right. Everything we need to produce a happy, healthy, socially just and ecologically sustainable society now exists. It is not a question of what we know; it is a question of what we do with what we know. I truly believe that if we could have a moratorium on scientific inquiry and simply apply ourselves to the intelligent use of what we now know, we would be better in the bargain. This will not happen and I know that, but do you disagree?
We know how to prevent the majority of degenerative diseases by changes in diet, lifestyle changes and cleaning up the environment. We know how to eliminate or dramatically slow the progress of infectious diseases in the world, including AIDS. We have enough food to feed the world; no one needs to die of hunger. The money exists to finance localized farming and industry so that people can earn a living rather than being driven into poverty and the arms of extremist religious, ethnic and political violence. I would challenge anyone to argue with the above statements. What other “facts” could possibly inform our lives? We have the information. There must be something else missing.
You all know what’s missing – it’s what Ohsawa called judgement. Judgement describes the depth and breadth of our ability to see the whole and not simply the parts. When I first studied Ohsawa I heard a clear message that macrobiotics was about developing our individual judgement, our consciousness. Judgement was and is the central issue of macrobiotic philosophy and practice. Physical health is one of the major influences on that journey but it is not the destination. The implicit message to me was that as our judgement developed we could become more effective agents for positive change. To me macrobiotic thinking is a path toward expanded and deepened consciousness, a path that can enable us to better make a positive difference in the world.
That path is about seeing and experiencing the connectedness of the world. It is only our macrobiotic philosophy that makes us really unique. It is a way of thinking based on the development of intuition not analysis, it deals with the energetic underpinning of the world not the material surface. This process is the complimentary / antagonistic partner of science. The goal is “macro” not “micro” it deals with contradiction and paradox as well as reason. It deals with the development of intuition as well as intellect.
Since we live in a world where science is the way that health is talked about, what do we do about scientific information? I will limit myself to nutritional information here since it is in this arena that the issue of science and macrobiotics mostly occurs.
We should consider the use of anything that we can from science, to illuminate our understanding of health and our ability to communicate our philosophy and practice to the broadest audience. When we do that we must also consider scientific information that is critical of our thoughts or actions. Our understanding of macrobiotics will be reflected in our ability to incorporate or reject this information and communicate it in a way that is consistent with our philosophy. Doing this will demand a spirit of non-credo and flexibility. It will demand the ability to change when needed and to resist change when it is motivated by fear or the desire to conform to a standard not our own. It will demand good judgement.
In doing this we must also be aware that science can be wrong. You can find a proof for just about anything if you look hard enough. Sometimes so-called “scientific facts” are used to justify dangerous practice and unsound thinking. This can be found within Macrobiotics as well as outside of it. Go to any bookshop and review the health and diet books – they are filled with science. Most of that science is “cherry picked”; you choose what fits the theory and ignore what doesn’t. They all claim scientific validity – so what. Do these facts make sense?
I think that macrobiotic counsellors who have an abiding interest in scientific nutrition should continue to inform the community regarding their reading and research. It is good to be informed and to learn from many sources. The issue becomes how do we decide what “facts” we use, what research do we validate? It comes down to judgement. If we are driven by fear or feelings that what we do lacks social acceptance or credibility we are making a huge error.
I saw the macrobiotic community flop around like a wounded bird when research showed that some people following macrobiotic diets had a B12 deficiency. Most of the anger and panic was from those with a vested interest in being right and trying to protect their reputations. Interestingly the observations had already been made my many in the community that there were some folks that needed to broaden their diet and eat some animal food.
Much of the argument revolved around nutritional studies. How could they be deficient if they were eating following a counsellor’s recommendation? The fact that there were women and children who needed nutritional assistance became secondary to the question of who was right. I understand that there are still ripples from those studies.
In the B12 controversy it was not a need for science that was the problem it was empowerment of common sense. For whatever reasons, we were constrained as a community from using our judgement and intuition. We were trying to analyse what it meant to eat in a macrobiotic way and ended up with an inflexible dogma. The original goal of developing individual consciousness was being replaced by reliance on books and counsellors. Freedom of action was traded for slavery to concepts. Our understanding of yin and yang primarily develops through our personal experience. It arises from reflection on our diet, our activities, our relationships, our interactions with society and nature. It cannot be analysed by another. Someone else may point out the path and give useful hints for travel but it is up to each person to put one foot in front of the other.
That is why the teaching of yin and yang and its application in daily life is the central issue of macrobiotics. A person may need advice to help them start down the path of learning if they have a health problem but if they do not learn how to use the Unique Principle in some form, using their own judgement macrobiotics, as I know it, disappears. If we were to accept that the goal of macrobiotic practice is the development of consciousness, not adherence to a specific diet or even the establishment of “perfect balance” how would it change the way we teach and practice. This is a challenge we will have to face if Macrobiotics is to develop.
Simply because we classify foods according to geographical origin, climate, seasons of growth, shape and colour doesn’t mean that we can call it science. There are no consistent criteria, no consistent units of measurement. (REFER TO MKS BOOK) If we had a “ki-ometer” and could measure the yin and yang-ness of things we might be in business but alas we do not. There are too many contradictions. To bridge paradox you need something more flexible and versatile than science. We have a description of a process, not a consistent measurement. No consistent unit of measurement, no science. When we pretend that it is science, we do a disservice to the elegance of macrobiotic theory.
Science is materialistic by definition. That is why the outer fringes of physics and field theory are held at arms length by applied science and probably will be for many, many years to come. Macrobiotics is the study of energy, whether we like it or not. That energy is not measurable by any other method than the human mind/body/spirit. We are the receptor it is our higher function. If that is embarrassing to us or if we think it is quaint primitive idea we are in real trouble.
It is responsible to study science and reflect on it but that is certainly not what we all share. The application of diet for specific problems, comprehensive diagnosis and cooking instructions are not based on science but on a process of judgement that skips across various criteria. It involves connecting the dots even when not all the dots are obvious. These considerations don’t really matter if we are simply promoting a healthy diet. They matter very much if our goal is to introduce a new way of thinking that leads to different way of experiencing the world.
If macrobiotics is simply an exotic approach to diet, where counsellors tell people what to eat and how much gomasio to put on the rice, we don’t need to bother with how we come to our conclusions. Just get the best information you can, do no harm and get on with it. That’s business as usual. Macrobiotics is certainly much more revolutionary than that. If we feel we have benefited from our study of yin and yang and macrobiotic philosophy we owe our clients and students those same benefits. I think the world is in great need of better judgement – how about you?
To me macrobiotics is more accurately an art rather than a science. Art involves discipline, focus, practice and application but the driving forces are imagination, inspiration and intuition. I have had some of the most nutritious, tasty and fulfilling meals from cooks who had no understanding of the science of nutrition. I have gained the some of the most valuable information about living a good life from men and women who had little or no formal education. What they shared was experience in the art of living.
Science dominates the culture of the world. It pervades economics, politics, health care, warfare, industry and agriculture. With the exception of nature, when we look around us we see the artefacts of science. If we want more of the same we should promote more of that kind of thinking. If we have our doubts we had better embrace a different set of concepts to model our thoughts with. It may well be that the only hope for a healthy future for planet earth lies in learning from the past, learning how to think from people who attempted to consciously replicate the processes of nature in their lives.
If our guiding concepts rationalize a human-centric vision of the world, a constant struggle to control nature and worship only what we invent our children are destined to live in a bio-engineered world that holds aggression and dominance as the most valued qualities. If the information and technology generated by science is not guided by an ideology that values the life of the planet and the development of human consciousness as distinct from human knowledge, we are in store for a century of ecological, economic and physical degradation.
When we view our lives as a work of art we are giving ourselves permission to act beyond the “information”, we are aware of our emersion in the life process and not viewing it as an impartial observer. It is from that point that we can use the discoveries of science to assist in the creation of something quite different. It is beyond reason, it defies logic, it celebrates paradox and it very definitely requires wearing Oshawa’s’ Magic Spectacles. It may mean trading in our membership in the Amateur Science League and joining what Kurt Vonnegut claimed as his church – the Unholy Order of Our Lady Of Perpetual Astonishment.

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