Heirloom Tomato, Apricot & Cucumber Salad with Yogurt & Za'atar | On Balancing Energies

Hellooo there! It’s been a minute. Okay, it’s been well over a month since I last posted. I recently said, “It’s been a minute!” to this amazing kid who I used to nanny after not seeing him for awhile, and he responded with, “You say that a lot. Why do you say that so much?” It’s a funny feeling to get called out on pseudo-meaningless (or at least, not literally accurate) colloquialisms by a 12 year-old. Always good to be aware of your speech patterns though, right?

I’ve been struggling to find both energy and inspiration for this blog post for the past handful of weeks, sitting on the recipe and photos and not knowing what words to pair them with. Wanting all the writing in this space to be meaningful and resonant—to myself, yes, but especially to you. I’ve been mulling over the relationship between structure and creativity; thinking about the ways in which we can gently pull ourselves out of ruts, be they physical, energetic or creative in nature.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to TA a class in the Integrative Health Masters program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Called Mindful Health, the course offered an in-depth examination of how and why meditation and mindfulness are essential practices in cultivating overall health and wellbeing. We talked a lot about energy, suffering, self-compassion, ambition, burnout, the nervous system, the brain and, taking these all into account, the ways we can manifest our own vibrant health—and support others in doing so for themselves. One of the teachings that Megan, our instructor, shared with us has felt particularly resonant as I've struggled to show up in this space over the past six weeks. As such, it feels worthwhile to share with you here, now.

Let's take, for a minute, a more expanded notion of suffering than the extreme situations that the word typically brings to mind. Suffering as any state of dis-ease, be it a habitual undercurrent of anxiety; stress related to uncertainties or obligations in one's life; heartbreak or shattering disappointment of any kind; and so on. Early on in the class, Megan re-framed suffering to be defined not by our circumstances but by our relationship to them. I appreciate this framing so much because it gives us agency, which is absolutely essential in the path to self-love, self-worth and mind/body/spirit health.

In this iteration, suffering is not caused by undesirable events or circumstances that are inflicted upon us. Rather, suffering is caused when we try to control the things that are not in our control and when we don’t give determination to those that are. Unfortunately, all too often, there is a confusion about which is which. We need surrender and volition, both. Compassion and determination, both. And we need the ability to identify which circumstances require which approach—which is a clarity that mindfulness and meditation help us cultivate.

According to the Vedantic tradition (one of the world's oldest spiritual philosophies), everything in existence embodies three basic energetic states at all times: sattva, which is balanced and harmonious; rajas, which is active and impassioned; and tamas, which is resigned or destructive. Called gunas, these energies exist constantly and simultaneously in different degrees. At any given time, they can be in balance—aligned more with sattva—or out of balance. 

Oftentimes, the suffering we can experience on a daily level is reflected in one or more of these energies being out of balance. For example, too much rajas might feel like overstimulation, crazy caffeine jitters, or incessant multitasking. Overly-exerted rajas uses a lot of energy but not necessarily in an effective way. It also leaves little to no space for reflection about the tasks one is doing. This energy is tricky because our culture actually values and promotes an overstimulation of rajas, even though it can easily result in burnout, disconnection from self and dissatisfaction. When rajas is in balance, it looks like circulation, movement and change—which are often, if not always, good things!

On the other end of the spectrum lies tamas, which when overstimulated manifests as resignation or complete depletion. Out of balance tamas is the, "Fuck this" energy, the "What's the point?" energy, the drinking-to-forget or total crashing energy. When in balance, tamas is the energy that allows us to sit, reflect, recharge, process and integrate all the activity of our lives.

Whether or not you believe in these energetic principles, what I have found valuable in learning about them (and hopefully you will too!) is that they have enabled me to label my energetic states when I feel "off," not myself, stressed out or unhappy, and to then identify actions that I can take to help bring myself into balance—or, in other words, change my relationship to and reduce my suffering. Rajas and tamas are in opposition to one another; this means increasing one will help bring the other into balance. If I am feeling crazy stressed and overwhelmed, I can pause and actively choose to tap into tamas energy by taking a handful of deep breaths, doing some restorative yoga poses in my room, sitting in nature or journaling. If I am feeling aimless, unmotivated or physically depleted, I can integrate some active rajas energy to shake me out of my rut by going for a walk, dancing around my bedroom, or—hey!—even cooking something tasty to eat.

We are constantly in relationship with everything that falls into our lives—people, opportunities, failures, our phones, the news, our bodies, our food, our work, our free time, and even our histories. These things all have the potential to be a catalyst for suffering, to varying degrees, at any given point in time. It is essential to remember that it is our relationship to the thing that will dictate if and how much we suffer. By building the muscle that brings our awareness to the qualities of that relationship and beginning to act in ways that generate energetic balance, we can, little by little, begin to cultivate greater internal peace.

*Notes about the recipe: OH HEY, IT'S SUMMER! This basically means you don't have to cook at all if you don't want to, because everything is luscious and ripe and can be sunk into off the vine with your teeth (no silverware necessary). This salad is a celebration of the ease of summer eating and the inherent vibrant flavors that make the produce this time of year shine. It is a cooling salad with some Middle Eastern vibes because they're my favorite (full disclosure of cuisine bias here). The one ingredient with which you may be unfamiliar is za'atar, which is a Middle Eastern spice blend made of thyme, oregano, sesame seeds, sumac and salt. It's delicious! You can make your own or buy a jar at specialty spice shops or Middle Eastern markets. I've also used unusual varieties of cucumbers and tomatoes here, because they're fun and you can only get them during the summer! If you can't find them, don't sweat it; a normal, ripe, preferably relatively local cucumber or tomato will do the trick just as well. Enjoy!

Heirloom Tomato, Apricot & Cucumber Salad with Yogurt & Za'atar
Serves four as a starter or two as a main

Ingredients
3 medium heirloom tomatoes, cut into large wedges
4 apricots, pit removed and cut into quarters
1 avocado, cut into 1/2" cubes
2 lemon cucumbers or 1 painted serpent cucumber (or 2 Persian cucumbers, failing those), cut into 1" chunks
6 Tbsp. plain whole milk Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp. good quality cold-pressed olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 Tbsp. mint, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp. dill fronds
1 lemon
1 Tbsp. za'atar
salt + pepper

Directions
1. In a small bowl, mix together the Greek yogurt, 1 Tbsp. olive oil and a pinch of salt.
2. Spread the yogurt mixture on the bottom of your serving platter.
3. Arrange the slices of tomato, avocado, apricot and cucumber together on top of the yogurt. Scatter herbs and za'atar on top.
4. Finish off with a generous drizzle of olive oil, the juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper. Adjust to taste.

Whole Grain Blueberry Apricot Olive Oil Cake | On Living With a Heart Broken Open

There's a quote that I love by the environmental activist/scholar of Buddhism Joanna Macy, which goes: 

"The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe."

The moment I heard this sentence spill from the lips of a former mentor of mine, it immediately struck a chord. Like it was a sort of justification for my modus operandi as a deeply feeling and relentlessly vulnerable person. At that time, I interpreted it as referring to close or intimate relationships, indicating that if we give fully, love courageously, and show up with a vast openness, we by extension have an expanded capacity to notice, be present with and receive the intricate isness of the universe. 

When the quote floated into my head today, as it does on occasion, I unexpectedly began to consider it in a new light. What if the grandeur of this statement didn't exclusively relegate it to grand situations? What would it look like if we approached our lives in each tiny moment of every passing day with a broken open heart?

I have a vivid memory of an exchange I had with my therapist in London many years ago, on a day that I was feeling particularly defeatist about...basically everything. Prompted by something that I had said that I can no longer recall, she asked me if I thought it didn't matter whether or not I smiled at bus drivers as I rode my way throughout the city. I huffed a dejected, "No, not really." She sat, visibly aghast, and proceeded to earnestly detail to me why these seemingly insignificant interactions really, truly matter.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. As I stood in line at a small, local cafe, I noticed that the cashier was this guy who a friend and I had encountered in the same spot back in December. His expression was ceaselessly stern, unfaltering as he engaged with customer after customer; my friend and I found this to be, for better or worse, absolutely hilarious. Seeing him again, that same surly expression, I laughed to myself as I recalled our failed efforts to banter with him that day. Approaching the register all on my own this time, I couldn't help but utter something benignly jokey about his deadpan schtick. His initial response was vaguely defensive, perhaps simply based in surprise, as he rattled off justifications for his demeanor. But as our back-and-forth grew, a fissure was struck and he eventually caved into a good handful of smiles. 

There's nothing particularly remarkable about that story—having a genuine interaction with a stranger with whom you could have easily had a rote interaction instead. The remarkable bit is this: The following week, I returned to the cafe for a casual breakfast and card writing session (...because you can do that on a random Wednesday when you only work part-time). Halfway through my divinely comforting ghee drenched porridge, I felt a presence hovering nearby. "Hey"; I looked up and was surprised to find the guy from the register standing right in front of me. "You made me laugh last week," he said. "Uh...yeah, I did..." I mumbled, caught entirely off guard. "Thanks for that," he replied. He went on to say how easy it is to get caught up in the details and necessities of the job and consequently how important it is to be pulled out of that from time to time, to experience some levity and be reminded of his own and everyone else's humanness.

So yeah, apparently it does matter. And, needless to say, him coming up to thank me was definitely a highlight of my week.

A few days later, I attended a workshop about chakras, which are part of a fascinating energy system that I hesitate to oversimplify. For the purposes of this story, I'll quickly say that chakras are swirling energy centers in our bodies that filter physical and emotional energy. Each of the 7 main chakras reside in a specific anatomic location and are connected to particular qualities of being, i.e. creativity, material groundedness, communication, sense of purpose, sexual desire, and so on. They can be over-exerted, depleted or in balance at any given time. 

The heart chakra, which resides at the thymus gland (a bit below your collarbone), is the home of love and compassion. It works with emotions and is the connector between our physical and spiritual selves. In detailing the actions we can take to tend to our heart chakra, our workshop instructor encouraged us to volunteer, take ourselves on a date and...wait for it...connect to strangers. I couldn't help but smile.

So what if a broken open heart simply means moving through the world with presence, compassion, and vulnerability to the wonder that resides in the details? What if it means showing up in each moment with a willingness to connect, or a belief in the possibility that you might encounter some everyday magic? What if a broken open heart is the courage to acknowledge the humanity of another being through the simple act of eye contact and a smile? 

I don't have all the answers, but I think they're interesting questions to ask. It is so easy to move through our days with our attention turned inwards, caught up in our own dramas and stories and responsibilities, failing to be open and present to everything and everyone that simply is. But the fact of the matter is that we're all in this together, a seemingly disparate web of beings who, every damn day, collide. Maybe if we did so with broken open hearts, our collisions might be more rich, more playful, more surprising, more meaningful, more thoughtful and more beautifully human.

*Notes about the recipe: This cake has relatively few ingredients, is 100% whole grain and is ridiculously easy to make. It is adapted from this Rhubarb Almond Crumb Cake, which I made for a BBQ last weekend and wasn't totally happy with. I loved the consistency (white whole wheat flour is the WAY TO GO with whole grain baking), but it was overly almond-y and the rhubarb was too sour for my taste. Because I am a perfectionist and because I left that entire cake at the BBQ couldn't handle not having any leftovers for myself/my housemates, I remade it the next day with a few adjustments. Olive oil instead of butter because olive oil cakes feel fancy and are delicious. Apricots and blueberries because SUMMER FRUIT!...that isn't rhubarb. Half the amount of almond extract because balance. I wasn't even planning on sharing it on the blog (hence the lack of process photos/still lives of fruit), but it came out so damn well that I knew I had to. So here we are!

Whole Grain Blueberry Apricot Olive Oil Cake
Makes one 9" cake

Ingredients
2 eggs
1 cup raw cane sugar
1/2 tsp. pink or sea salt
1/4 tsp. almond extract
6 Tbsp. cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil (the flavor will come through in the cake, so quality olive oil is encouraged!)
1 1/4 cup white whole wheat flour (this is a variety of wheat that is lighter than traditional wheat. You can find it at Trader Joe's or in bulk sections of some health food stores)
1 tsp. baking powder
1 cup fresh blueberries
4 apricots, sliced into 1/8" thick wedges
1/4 cup sliced almonds

Directions
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9" round baking pan and line the bottom with parchment. Set aside.
2. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or with a vigorous arm), whip together the eggs, sugar, salt and almond extract on medium-high speed until light, fluffy and nearly doubled in volume, about 5 minutes.
3. Mix in olive oil.
4. On a low speed, mix in flour and baking powder until just combined.
5. If using a stand mixer, remove the bowl. Gently fold in blueberries by hand. 
6. Pour batter into prepared baking pan. It will be quite thick; use a spatula to even it out on top.
7. Starting in the middle of the cake, create a spiral with the apricot wedges. Sprinkle the sliced almonds around the perimeter of the cake.
8. Bake for 75-80 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean.