Dan Siegel, psychiatrist and director of Mindsight Institute, talks about optimizing self-organization for mental health. He says that well-being seems to come from this process of integration – linking all the different parts of a system or, in this case, of a person. The whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. He identifies five features of this harmony that comes from integration of all parts. The acronym he gives it is FACES: flexible, adaptive, coherent (holding together dynamically over time), energized and stable.

The interconnectedness of various aspects of a person’s mind, body and consciousness is this kind of spacious flow of being. Integration creates the capacity for optimal regulation both in the body and in relationships, as relationships are where our mind emerges.

When this kind of self-organization is impaired, you get chaos and rigidity.

FACES called out to me. How I craved flexibility and adaptiveness, coherence and stable energy. I desperately wanted these words to be part of what defined the energy that I transmitted internally and to the world at large. And yet I knew I was caught in chaos and rigidity.

Our behaviours indicate our internal state of being – all the little daily habits and routines we don’t give a second thought to, all tell a story of what moves us. Usually they are more obvious to those around us, as we live out our lives in a state of numbed oblivion.

I had been vegan for about 10 years. I fed my body from a place of controlled rigidity. This does not need to be the case for every vegan, but for me something that had blossomed from a desire to relate to animals and health in a more peaceful way had actually become a point of strict control, as friends pointed out. It was a desperate need to control what I could, when so much of life seemed to be out of my hands, tenuously uncertain and unpredictable.

I believe now it was a reflection of other parts of my personality which didn’t know how to bend like the bamboo and yet not break. I did not flow like water, sorry to say, Bruce Lee. Rather, my internal chaos led to harshness and inflexibility.

Interestingly, it was at this time of internal upheaval that my veganism waned. It had been important and part of what defined me for about 10 years, and yet that stirring within was touching even this aspect of my life too.

I had already begun eating eggs again, and for the months prior to this trip to the coast, I had been craving fish.


It had begun with a day at the beach with a friend that had finished at an excellent seafood restaurant. You walked in and the first thing you did, even before being seated, was check out the display of all the fish caught that day – so many varieties and colours and sizes. Having made your choice, the fish was sent back to be grilled and you sat down to wait.

What does a vegan eat at a typical Portuguese fish restaurant? Soup. And salad. A white lettuce and a couple of tomatoes kind of salad. Oh by. So. Exciting.

So there I was with my vegan fair when my friend’s fish arrived fresh off the grill, and I remember as he began eating it he said “Mmmmm, sabe a mar” – it tastes like the sea. I was eating tasteless lettuce and he was eating the sea. The wide open deep blue sea. Jealousy is what I felt. I sat there eating my pathetic salad, and tried to get excited about the fact that the soup had a few more veggies to fill me up, but he, on the other hand, was eating the sea. The sea! And I thought, “I want to eat the sea.” Instantly I was horrified at my vegan heretical thoughts, and promptly set them aside.

Oh, but what you resist, persists. That thought, once it had a little foothold, decided to grow, and over the next months I would find myself imagining eating fish and seafood.

These recurring desires were accompanied by a steady settling into the acceptance of Portugal as my home.

I don’t know how to explain it more than that. For the 12 or 13 years I had already been living in Portugal, I was constantly restless, always craving a change and feeling I needed to get out of there and get on with life, because it should have only been a one-year pit stop in my journey around the world to all sorts of adventures. I had never been able to truly feel that I had my feet rooted down in Portugal. That year, though, the restlessness transformed into an identification with Portugal as my home. My love affair with the sea had much to do with that calming of my wandering soul.

And with that identification was this budding desire to eat from the sea. “Sabe a mar. Sabe a mar. Sabe a mar.” I wanted to be the sea and have the sea in me.

Serendipitously, life put in my path the podcast of Alexandra Jamieson – the vegan “guru” who had done the film “Super Size Me”, where she had used a vegan diet to cure her then boyfriend from the ailments of fast food. She shared about how at 35 her health had been going downhill after having her son and then going through a breakup. She tried everything within the vegan diet to try to get her health back but nothing was working. Then she all of a sudden started craving meat. She felt betrayed by her body, horrified, guilty, scared, and sad.

First she tried eggs and her body felt so much better. She felt even more betrayed by her body, which didn’t seem to be cooperating with her values. Eventually she snuck in a hamburger and her body was extremely happy with that. She knew she’d have to make a choice and she listened to her body’s cravings, leaving veganism behind and losing many followers and even friends in the aftermath.

She had my full attention as she talked about cravings being our body’s way of communicating a need to us and how we needed to listen to them and try to understand what the underlying idea was. Self-compassion and respect for our bodies and their wisdom was what she tried to get across.

So all this was swimming around in me as I spent my days by the sea those last days of December and beginning of January. When I had revealed my “heresy” to a friend, she told me that the year before on retreat, a therapist, also a macrobiotic cook, had asked her if she could only choose three foods to eat the rest of her life, what would they be? One was fish and the others also had to do with water. The therapist told my friend that her choices showed the need to focus and orient herself and belong to a group. And also, water was yin.

This reminded me of what another friend of mine, a Chinese medicine practitioner, had recently told me about winter and yin – cold, dark, slow and inward energy. She had told me that during winter we need to rest and look inward and reflect through meditation, reading, writing, and spiritual practice, connecting to our inner selves.

That inner reflection was why I had come to the coast – to focus and orient and look inward, focusing my energy before the new year. All of these synchronicities came together: my seeking retreat, craving eating from the sea, coming to accept Portugal as my home, hearing that water was that inner orientation energy and knowing that it matched the yin energy of winter.

I decided to eat fish.

It took me about an hour at the restaurant to get up the courage, texting my friend about what fish I should eat as a “virgin” pescatarian, and looking them up on google because I had no idea which fish was which! The waitress for sure thought there were some screws loose upstairs, as she kept coming back and I kept sending her away, saying I was still deciding.

That was probably the most conscious and aware eating experience I have ever had. And I thanked the fish, the sea, the seaside village, and Portugal for how blessed I felt at that moment, and how much I felt I belonged in all of this flow.