Lessons from Herman
by Cynthia Briscoe
Herman Aihara was a wise man, very much a philosopher. Not the kind of philosopher that tangles the mind by chewing endlessly on purely intellectual argument, but he was instead an “untangler of minds”. He possessed a constellate ability to connect the dots of being human in a relative world with universal natural law expressed within macrobiotic philosophy. He applied macrobiotic principles to many subjects of interest to him: fishing, healing, eating, breathing, chemistry, and more. No matter the subject, life provided a pulsing adventure with plenty of opportunity to ponder the meaning of life and what it means to be human.
How does one align oneself with this natural orderly movement that gives rise to all phenomena, including we humans and how we conduct ourselves? The Unique Principle in macrobiotic philosophy provided Herman a guiding polestar, a point of reference amidst a sea of change. His lectures often followed a spiralic pattern of thoughts traversing the rungs of creation from One Undifferentiated Unity to the bifurcation of Yin and Yang, and onward to ten thousand expressions. Eventually, he would land a haiku-like punchline. With just a few sage words, he often gifted students the kind of knowledge that gives good counsel during the best and worst of times.
Finding your Limitations
Herman was not the type of teacher who placed himself on a lofty pedestal just beyond the reach of ordinary persons. He often humorously shared what he had learned from his own indiscretions. I recall attending my first formal macrobiotic lecture in Kansas City with Herman as the teacher. I was very much a newbie to macrobiotics. The gist of his lecture was: Do not become too healthy. This blew up my high ideals regarding macrobiotic practice, striving to adhere perfectly and rigidly to a macrobiotic approach to diet, admonishing myself if I strayed.
Herman’s wry idea was that if you become too healthy, it coincides that you also develop an over-poweringly healthy appetite for life and all the abundant, exuberant choices it offers, including unhealthy food. Once you reach the zenith of health, you forget how you achieved health, and then this huge appetite takes over and draws you back to consuming everything, including foods that may return you to sickness. So he humorously suggested that one find a balance, not in a perfect practice, but somewhere just below this, such that you maintain a core appetite for macrobiotic foods without becoming too narrow in your diet or inflexible in your thinking. Embedded within the expression of Natural Order is that once something reaches the apex of contraction or expansion, that climactic force naturally cycles toward its opposite. Therefore, conscious moderation is more sustainable, and leads to more balanced health and happiness.
As an example, Herman retold his famous cheesecake story. He was invited to give lectures at a large gathering of 500 people. There were some Japanese people there who invited him out every evening after the lecture. The first night, he had cheesecake. It tasted so delicious, and the next day he suffered no negative repercussions. Lecturing was fine. The second night, also cheesecake. It was so delicious the first time, why not have it again! And fortunately for the second time, there was no problem. The third night came along, and his generous hosts knowing how he had so enjoyed the previous two nights’ cheesecake, insisted Herman enjoy it again. Having cheated fate two days in a row, Herman thought, “Why not?!” However, after the third night of cheesecake, he lost his voice the next day and could not lecture! So Herman shared the humbling lesson he learned from this experience: two pieces of cheesecake were OK, but not three! He thus humorously shared his foible as a lesson regarding finding your limitations. To me, Herman’s cheesecake story tickles that childlike place within us that needs to test boundaries in order to define ourselves. Even as adults, despite our best intentions, we often push boundaries beyond what is best for our own well-being.
Regarding limitations, Herman lectured about homeostasis. Homeostasis refers to the range of balance our physiology must maintain in order to sustain life and normal bodily functions. For example, we have a normal range of temperature, centered around 98.6F. If we go too far on either side of this temperature, problems arise, even death. The same thing is true regarding the pH factor of our blood and inter-cellular fluid. We must maintain an acid-alkaline balance centered around 7.4. Herman famously taught much about this and how to maintain a healthy, slightly alkaline balance. In his view, slight variance into increased acidity of body fluids underpins almost all illness. The body has many mechanisms used to maintain a healthy equilibrium of homeostatic barometers. We must find our balance.
Being human in the physical world means living in the condition of vacillation between the poles of yin and yang. We originate in a unified field of Oneness and are born into this most interesting world of complementary opposing forces. Yes, we have physical and biological boundaries that maintain life, but in many areas of life we are afforded great freedom to choose. In aspects of choice, we are the captain of our ship and must learn to navigate an undulating ocean of yin and yang. We can improve our judgment and navigational skills through study with great teachers like Herman, but even more so through personal life lessons acquired by trial and error. Herman often said, “Physically we are unfree, spiritually we are free.” (Please see his Definition of Macrobiotics in this newsletter.)
On Travels to Infinity
During the final meal of each study program at Vega, Herman and Cornellia would join students and staff for dinner. It was a time to share food and friendship as well as to cast about thoughts and ideas. One evening, Herman, who was always the fisherman, cast his line upstream musing, “At night I go (to) Infinity. Morning time, I come back.” Then he patiently let that thought float along with the current, keeping a little tension on the line as he paused at each set of eyes searching for nibbles of recognition.
Then another cast arcs through the air, “Why do I come back? I think (it) must be boring living always in Perfect Oneness.” How could one not be hooked by his mischievous smile and eyes twinkling like a child who had just delivered the punchline to a hilarious joke?
During lectures, when Herman pondered a thought seeking how to coalesce some complexity, he often braced his hands on his lower back and tipped sharply backward from the waist, casting his gaze skyward, searching. Then he would snap back upright and reel in, landing an inspiration from some realm above and beyond.
In 1997 Herman was fishing in the Feather River. Without warning, a great deal of water was released from the dam. The river rose quickly and Herman was swept downstream, almost drowning. He was wearing tall fisherman’s wader boots that were steadily filling with water, and like any true fisherman, he managed to hang onto his fishing rod despite the deluge. He was naturally panicked, but the more he struggled, the more his waders filled with sinking water. He related that he then heard the steady voice of his beloved teacher, George Ohsawa, advising him, “Relax.” He did so and immediately began floating on his back. He said he felt so peaceful looking up at the clear blue sky. Another fisherman saw him, extended a branch and towed him safely to shore away from the swift current.
When David and I first began teaching macrobiotics in Kansas City, a conflict arose with a couple who had previously been teaching there. In an article David had written, he referred to Herman as one of his teachers. This person responded rather defiantly suggesting that David could not claim Herman as his teacher. David contacted Herman regarding this conflict. Herman’s simple response was, “Let Heaven be the judge.” In other words, in the highest realm of judgment, truth is singular in the unification of opposition. If what you are doing is sound, then all will be well and you will succeed. These words have been invaluable during times of conflict to unify opposing forces into peaceful resolution. Trust in the natural order because therein lies truth.
The Naming of Vega
Perhaps there are some of you who heard the full story directly from Herman as to why he chose the name “Vega” for his and Cornellia’s macrobiotic study center in California. All I recall, is him saying something like “polestar.” So I did a little research.
In 12,000 B.C., the star Vega was directly aligned with the north axis of the earth. As the earth’s axis shifted, Polaris became our current polestar. In the larger celestial movement, Vega will once again become the polestar in another 12,000-13,000 years. It’s the second brightest star in the night sky (read David’s article on Herman’s view about being second in the upcoming memorial edition of Macrobiotics Today) and the closest star to the sun.
To ancient mariners, the North Star provided a steady guidepost in the ever-changing celestial night sky. The steadiness, the stillness of that point allowed navigators to return back home to their loved ones. I believe Herman considered that singular point of reference to represent the highest level of judgment also known as the Unifying Principle in macrobiotics. This principle can guide us with navigational surety to bring us home when we have lost our way and traveled too far off course.
When Herman leaned back, searching to unify his thoughts, or gazed at the sky while floating down the river, he found peace and unification, just like an ancient mariner utilizing the polestar. Humans have always drawn lines connecting the dots of stars to form images and constellations that relate to the human condition. Herman as a teacher guided us to connect the illuminating points of life experiences to discover pattern and alignment within the backdrop of heavenly forces. The universe lies within ourselves and amongst each other, giving context to the world around us and what it means to being human.
Knowing how to locate a polestar or even that one exists, affords us the comfort to relax, to accept ourselves for who we are as individuals and collectively as humans. We can play and explore how best to resonate with the vibrational patterns that gather up matter and form it into human beings. Each of us represents a unique individual expression of this Unique Principle, contributing to the collective evolution of human existence. If we travel too far from home, we know how to return, guided by a star directly overhead.
I wonder now if Herman is bored having returned to the infinite World. Or maybe he travels here from there just for grins and twinkles, or maybe to catch a 49’ers game or maybe to simply go fishing.
As Herman would often say upon return from leaning backward, “Life is veerry in-ter-rest-ing…”