Stroke is a devastating life event and the healing process can be overwhelming. Stroke survivor Dave Aquilante is living proof that you can heal your brain. He suffered a stroke after 45 years of working as a world-class chef in the high-stress culinary world. To regain his ability to speak, read, and move, he began practicing meditation and mindfulness as taught to him by monks at a Buddhist monastery. Today, Dave talks about the process of nurturing and healing oneself as he walks us through his traumatic journey of healing from stroke and how he is wholly embracing it.
Listen to the podcast here:
Healing From Stroke: The Process Of Nurturing And Embracing Imperfections With Dave Aquilante
I want to share with you what I’ve been up to. I saw a documentary called The Game Changers, which was produced by James Cameron. It goes through professional athletes. They had Olympians on there. They had people fighting in the UFC. They had people in the NFL. All of which had transitioned to eating a plant-based diet for performance reasons. That means they stopped eating meat and dairy. They stopped eating any animal products. Essentially, they were vegan without using the terminology vegan. What I’ve noticed is people are steering towards plant-based because of vegan tends to incorporate more of a lifestyle versus plant-based seems to be more indicative of just nutrition. The documentary was eye-opening looking at plant-based eating from a health and wellness and performance perspective rather than simply a diet shift.
What we’re able to show was these athletes who were featured on the show, were all reporting increased levels of performance, energy and feeling good. They broke down all the different elements of changing your diet like this. One of the biggest myths they went into busting was that if you’re not eating meat, you can’t get enough protein. They cut to the scene of this bodybuilder. He was wearing a shirt that said, “Vegan badass,” cut to this bodybuilder who’s probably over 300 pounds of solid muscle, but breaking world records in bodybuilding while being on a plant-based diet. This inspired me to start experimenting with a plant-based diet in my own life. For the last few weeks, I haven’t been eating meat, dairy and any animal products. I’ve been noticing the shifts and changes that happen in my own body.
The biggest thing I’ve noticed so far is the recovery time after a workout. I went to a jiu-jitsu class and got my arm wrenched. I went back to my car to drive home. My shoulder was in pain trying to turn the steering wheel. I was like, “This sucks. I wonder how long this is going to take.” Usually, if you’re sore like, it takes a day or two to start to go away. I was at home, sitting on the couch and three hours later, there’s no pain. My body felt zero soreness at all. I felt like I had the energy to go do another two-hour class. To me, that has been the biggest shift. It’s having these elevated energy levels and crazy fast recovery times.
It’s been interesting and I’m not saying that’s going to be across the board for everyone. We’re all at different places in our diet and nutrition. That’s where the conversation goes with our guest, Dave Aquilante. He talks about becoming more instinctual around food and what you’re eating. He talks about his process of healing from a stroke and using the foods to help him heal, but also learning along the way how to be more connected with his body and be more into listening and discovering what’s working and what’s not working. One of the examples he gives is he had been a vegan. He had lived in a monastery and he gives his example of healing from his stroke. He was getting this instinct to eat more eggs.
He did a bunch of research on the internet and he found that one of the major ingredients in eggs is choline, which is very helpful and beneficial to the brain. He started incorporating these local organic eggs from a farm near his house. What I get out of this movie and talking to Dave and speaking with many people in health and wellness around nutrition specifically, because it’s one of those most hotly debated topics in health and wellness, is that it’s so personal and so vital to take the time to understand why you’re eating the way you’re eating and tuning in to how that feels in your own body. I know everyone is different. Everyone’s going at their own pace. The most interesting thing from the documentary was it doesn’t matter.
As opposed to, “All or nothing,” their whole slogan for this film is, “All or something,” meaning that you don’t have to go all the way. Arnold Schwarzenegger talks about it in the documentary. He says, “It doesn’t mean you have to quit meat.” He said that if you stopped eating meat once a day, you’ll notice the differences. For me, the way for us when we’re creating shifts in health and our life is to do it incrementally, “Let me try this out and let me see if it works. Let me see if it feels good for me.” Check out the film, The Game Changers, and listen to my dear friend, Dave Aquilante and all the wisdom he has to share with us.
Dave, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
I am wonderful. How are you doing?
We’re doing great. We’re excited because we see you on Facebook all the time dropping words of inspiration. It’s a pleasure to finally have you. For anyone in the audience who’s not familiar with who you are, can you give them a quick who you are?There's a whole world inside of our brains that we can tap into. Click To Tweet
My name is Dave Aquilante. I had an ischemic stroke a few years ago, right before Christmas. It knocked me out. I had lost the right side of my body. I’m pretty much paralyzed. I could not speak. I lost all my sense of almost everything. I had pretty much teaching myself how to speak and learn my ABC’s. I’m still learning how to read and improve on that. That’s where I’m at with that. Prior to that, I was a chef for many years. A few years ago, I was at work and I had a stroke. For many years, I had experience with meditation. I left my jobs and lived in two different monasteries through the Zen Buddhist monasteries. One in New York and one in California. That’s where I learned mindfulness. It saves my life in many different ways. I had surgery on my neck and thereupon, I got addicted to some pain pills. I tried to get these things out in my system and found that I was depressed. I found a lot of anxiety. I didn’t know how to deal with any of that. It was very prolific how bad it was. I sought out some therapy and that’s where they taught me mindfulness.
It did save my life to the point where I found a teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has a couple of monasteries here in the States. I started to go to them. I enjoyed it so much that I joined there as a lay practitioner. I moved there in New York for a couple of years. As I can exchange my services as a chef and cook and the other duties, they would train me in mindfulness. That went very well. I moved to California at their monastery there. That’s where I started to become a pre-aspirant to become a monk. At that point there, I decided to leave because I thought my practice was strong enough that I could go back into the community and start to teach mindfulness to other people. I’m thinking this was such a powerful intrinsically healing thing for me. I wanted to lay this on other people in the world. I did start teaching mindfulness at some yoga studios from California and then back to Pennsylvania where I used to live. That doesn’t pay the bills. It’s very rewarding but monetarily, it’s not the case.
In your words, Dave, what is mindfulness?
A lot of people think that it’s about trying to quiet the brain, that may be a result of some meditation. What it is, is a way to entering the quiet that’s already there in your mind and in your own body. This quiet I’m speaking about is I can reckon it to the quiet that I had when I woke up in the hospital after my stroke. It was a very deep peace. I only have words about that. I know if there are a lot of stroke survivors that are reading this, they know about that quiet that I’m talking about. The quiet here that we’re talking about is where you can find your true nature. That’s what we attempt to do every day is sitting every day in the morning and in the evening to slow down, to get some peace, looking inward into our brain and being able to take care of our energies. Those energies, my teacher used to talk about them being like seeds inside our brains. There are many seeds inside of our brain such as love and there’s hatred also. It’s up to us to take care of those seeds. We do that through mindful meditation.Mindfulness is a way of entering the quiet that’s already there in your own mind and your own body. The quiet is where you can find your nature. Click To Tweet
In that analogy of there are seeds in your brain, through the practice you get to choose what you water?
Yes. Some will come to you as well. Sometimes they come around behind the wall or underneath the floor. Sometimes it hit you very strong. In my case, when I woke up, all I can do is breathe and knew that I was breathing. That’s the first thing that I was taught being a practitioner of meditation is I was breathing in and I knew that I was breathing in. I can breathe out and I knew that I was breathing out, but that’s all that I knew. I did not know what a bottle of water was. I had no idea what a pen was. I didn’t know where I was, what I was doing. I had no feeling on my right side of my body. It was a whole different world. I was thrust into just a moment. I had no idea what had happened. All I knew in my brain, somebody had said the word stroke but I had no definition. That’s what it was like. There was no ground underneath me. I was there sitting in a bed and I didn’t know how I got there. I didn’t know how to go from there back into life because I knew I had something. What did I do? I started to breathe. That’s been serving me mindfully and it’s been serving me very well in a few years now since I had the stroke.
As you mentioned you’re first coming to and feeling this sense of peace, I’m wondering, as you started becoming more awake, was there any sense of fear within that of, “What’s going on?” Did you feel that your mindfulness practice was carrying you through that moment?
There’s a tremendous amount of fear. It’s this beginning for so many negative things. That’s a very strong seed that we have to take care of. I immediately start to take care of that fear with mindful attention. I knew I was in fear. I could feel it throughout every cell in my body. What am I? Where am I? What are these things and objects in the room? I had no language. I had to go from somewhere and that somewhere was in a state of fear. I was living in not a good place. I had to calm myself and take care of that seed that we call fear.
We have a lot of people within our community and there are many people out there who either go through stroke or some other traumatic incident in their life. When you talk about nurturing the seed of fear, it sounds very counterintuitive. Would you care to explain a little bit deeper about what the process of nurturing that looks like?
The best way I can explain this would be it was like a seed. Let’s give the image of a child. Let’s say we have a child in our hands and it’s our child. We love this child and we want to nurture it. We want to give it everything that needs to grow properly. My teacher would always say, “This fear is also a child of yours.” We have to take care of that seed or that child that we call fear. What you do is you try to comfort it with compassion. The first thing I had to do is give myself compassion and start to send love to what happened to me. What I had become and what I will become, send love and compassion. Eventually, I didn’t know at that time that I had no joy in my life for almost the whole year. I had to manifest that as well through mindful use of meditation and things like that. We look at all these seeds also as children. We take our child, our babies. We put it in our hands, take care of it, cuddle it and we talked to it. A lot of people want to throw away and reject the suffering, especially in the case of a stroke and any other life-altering situation.
What I was taught was to take care of it. That’s the only way that we can transform it into something that’s useful to us. There goes the term, “No Mud, No Lotus.” That’s what that’s all about. You can’t have a flower without the mud. In a way in meditation and in Zen, we can’t throw anything away. Any of our mental formations or thoughts or emotions, they’re there for a reason. It’s our job to explore them and become deeper and deeper into our true nature. That’s what meditation is all about. It’s finding what our true nature is. When we go at the bottom of all of this, ultimately what most Zen masters have found is that we all come from love. That’s what I was finding going full circle to the emotion when I first woke up in the hospital. I was looking face-to-face with the eternity, with the universe, with the source. What I felt was love. I’m like, “This is weird.” I almost died. I wake up and the first feeling I have and the conclusion was love. I couldn’t add it all together until I started putting it all together over a few years. I saw the reality of our existence in that which is love.
Many Zen masters had said this before. I’ve read and heard this in many Dharma talks about this over the years. I’m thinking, “I saw the cloth or the fabric of reality. I couldn’t believe that this was revealed to me in this situation.” In a way, the stroke is a rebirth. I don’t throw it away. I accept it as much as I can. I take care of it with that fear and all the other emotions and thoughts that come with it. I’m here to reserve all of this and see what it is making me rather than trying to do something with this fabric. It’s going to build me and it’s going to make me at the end. We do this together in mindfulness.
What you’re talking about there is in common culture, a very challenging idea which is to go through traumatic experiences of a stroke and wholly embrace it. It’s almost bringing it into who you are and accept it. The way you say that it’s a rebirth, what’s your message to anyone out there who’s going through something traumatic? Let’s say stroke because that’s what you are most familiar with. What’s your message to them to start to bring this idea of embracing and rebirth into their own life? It is a very powerful seed and a very powerful idea but it’s challenging. It challenges our base assumptions.
There are a lot of things that we’re going through here and a lot of times you don’t want to deal with it. We get stronger and progress in our recovery process. We’re going to get a lot of bumps in the road. That message is don’t quit. I’ve seen a lot of people in these stroke groups who have admitted that they’d rather be dead. That’s not the reality of it all. That’s something to deal with. I’ve been there myself. I had thought about that in the hospital. I looked at a window and said, “If I could open that window and jump out of here, I would.” I knew that wasn’t rational. It wasn’t who I was. There was a reason that I’m still alive. I had to go face to face with the reality that, “I did die for a moment. There was no air in my brain but I am alive.” In it itself, that’s a miracle. What do I do going from here to go forward, whether I want to go back to be a chef, a Zen teacher, a guy that takes out the trash or stocking shelves or a runner for the rest of my life. That’s up to me.
I found that there’s a lot of space that I have a whole clear plate in front of me. I could put the food on it. I have a whole piece of paper here that I could write on. I could put on that paper what could be my future. There’s a lot of opportunities. I know it sucks right now and it’s going to get better. We have to trust in that. That’s what I had to do. I had to trust in my own body to recover. I had to trust in my nutrition and when I got strong enough to get into a gym and exercise. I trusted my mind and my brain to recover. I couldn’t even speak. I can read but not very well not like I used to read books two or three a week. Now, I’m lucky to read 5 to 6 pages.
A lot of times, we are all dealing with lack of energy. We take care of that and budget our energy throughout the day to make sure because I live on my own. I’ve got to get up and feed myself three times a day. I’ve got to do my speech therapy. I’ve got to get into the gym, I’ve got to walk and I’ve got to try to teach myself how to jog because that’s where I want to go with that and to get myself to places. I have to budget my energy. I’m saying to everybody who are in a very bad place right now, it’s going to get better. You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe that your life right now is a testament to your survival and your strength.
Within that, you started to mention nutrition. You had to teach yourself to cook again but you also had to go beyond what was being offered to you in terms of nutrition and find your own way to start healing the brain and body.
As much as the doctors are there to care for us, they’re not going to be here every day. I asked a lot of doctors, my neurologist, my cardiologist and my regular doctor about a good diet. There was a big lack and it’s sad to say that because they are specialized in certain things but they have never been taught anything about nutrition. I hope my neurologist doesn’t see this, but he’s huge. It’s not wrong to have a big person but it’s obvious that he doesn’t take care of himself. He’s a brilliant person. I’m like, “There’s a lack here. Where is the information about nutrition?” He says, “Go home and eat a pizza. Have a burger or grab something, whatever.” That didn’t suit me because I lived in a monastery. I was vegan for years. I had to delve into this a little bit and know that there has to be something more to this. I started to look into and find an interest in my own nutrition. With that, I started to rebuild a diet because a lot of things came to me through instinct.
It’s like an instinct to eat eggs. I hadn’t eaten eggs in over twelve years and I’m thinking, “Where is this?” I looked up, “What’s in eggs?” I used to be in the meat industry. I used to work in a slaughterhouse. My family owned a slaughterhouse. I saw the suffering of the animals. That was one of the reasons. I used to kill animals for a living at a very young age. That put a seed in my brain too. There are a lot of layers of suffering in me before the stroke. I had to take care of that. I’m thinking, “What’s this message here?” I’m thinking eggs. I look at the nutritional value of an egg. I see that it has choline and it is very important to the brain’s health. I was like, “There has to be something here.”If we can take care of a little piece of our suffering, we can make somebody's life a little bit better. Click To Tweet
I live here in Southern Delaware where there are a lot of chicken farms. I found a guy who has organically raised chicken. I made a deal with him and let him know where I’m at and I got my chicken eggs. I started putting that in my system and I start to feel better. There was something that my instinct told me and it serves me quite well. I don’t eat eggs every day but it opened my mind to say, “There’s more than one way of healing and it’s not the pizza.” It’s not just the fruit and vegetables, which I love. That’s the foundation of my diet is fruit and vegetables. I do eat meat right now because I realized that the fat in that helps the brain and I don’t overdo it. I only eat meat once every seven or ten days. I know and realize that it’s there for a reason.
Everything on this planet that the God, the source or whatever you want to call it, her or him put everything on this planet for a reason. I can’t rule anything out. It’s all here for a reason. Everything has a strong tie with our humanity. On that note, I started looking for supplements. What I did is I looked at my diet as it is and the nutritional value and all the vitamins that are in my foods. I started to notice that if I eat certain things, I was starting to feel better. Most of them were fruits and vegetables, especially broccoli and brussels sprouts. Cruciferous vegetables are huge for healing especially with your gut. I’m trying to do this research and I couldn’t even know how to read. The lack of nutrition taught me how to read and how to write and spell things. I couldn’t do any of these things. The lack of having information given to me by these doctors has been healing. This is really crazy. In that way, I’ve also found other things that I can couple together like a lot of greens.
If I eat 2 to 4 cups of greens every day, I started to get energy. I said, “I want to start throwing this stuff in a blender.” Here came my energy. “I got energy for the first time in two years, I was done.” I know you guys know what I’m talking about. I started eating a lot of greens and I started to feel energy every day. I will not use the word juice. I realized that if I juice something, I’m throwing out all the fiber and the fiber is part of your gut health. I blend everything. There’s value in everything like with an animal through the meat that it has. This mindfully cultivated nature is there for us. If we can use it right in a mindful way, it can lead to healing.
Thank you for going through all that. There’s an immense amount of value and what I picked up specifically was not just what you’re eating but how you’re approaching changing your diet or adding things into your diet. Coming into that from a more instinct level. This comes all the way back around to having these mindfulness practices in your life which is understanding the relationship to the food that you’re eating. Specifically, “I’m eating more greens and I’m feeling more energized.”
That’s all about being the observer. You have to be in touch with your brain and your body. You have to start seeing the messages that your body and brain have been sending. Had I been more acute before I had the stroke, I may have avoided this but that’s beside the point. I wasn’t using my mindfulness. I came back into work and I was wearing so many different hats. I was trying to be everything to everybody and I burned myself out.
Do you think that’s a common thing that happens with people who get into mindfulness and then they reached this point, “I think everything is good, I can handle anything?” They end up through that falling out of the practice and losing track.
That’s why I left the monastery. I thought I was strong enough to be on my own, “I got this already. You don’t have to teach me anything else.” However, my aspiration was to be a monk. They were the pinnacle of happiness. There’s no doubt that they are. Would I be able to cut it? I stayed there for 3 to 4 years or so and I loved it. I had to question myself, looking back, “Why did I leave?” It was because I thought that I was strong enough, that I could teach this on my own. My teacher used to say as far as being a monk, “A tiger, when he leaves the mountain, he gets caught or he gets killed and he gets shot.” Don’t be that lion or tiger that leaves the mountain. Stay up on the mountain. I climbed off the mountain apparently.
Do you feel like despite “climbing off the mountain,” in a sense you’ve found something you might not have found if you hadn’t had left?
This brought me so deeper into understanding the fabric of who and what we are. It’s hard to even equate this with language because I have aphasia and I don’t have the greatest language to express, but absolutely. I don’t want to say this is no regret but I screwed up in my life. I made some booboos in my life, eating meat and things like that and I was killing animals at one point in my life. Everything is here for an experience and for us to gain some information or knowledge what’s called wisdom. Everything has value and this has taught me so much about who I truly am and what we are and where we came from.
In my short years here, I’m only 27, I found that exploring different pathways and avenues in life is not about finding the one thing that works for you for eternity. To me, it’s always been about finding those nuggets along the way “I’m going to go teach yoga for a while. I’m going to be a chef for a while. I’m going to go live in a monastery for 3 to 4 years.” It’s not necessarily about finding that one place and saying, “This is my place. I found happiness. This is all good to me.” It’s so much about finding those moments but also exploring more possibilities to fill your experience.
I find everything is here for a reason and the reason why I’m here, I don’t know yet. I’m hoping to help other people through their suffering.
You’re certainly doing that. You said you wanted to take us through a little meditation. I’ll ask you one more question before we do the meditation and I’ll let you dive into it. My question, and this is what we ask everybody that comes on, is what’s your inspiration?
It’s ultimately to take care of myself, but in doing so is to take care of everybody else in this world and universe because there’s a lot of suffering out there. If we can take care of a little piece of that suffering, we can make somebody’s life a little bit better. That was my impetus between reaching out to you guys because I know that you helped me a lot. Sean and Taylor, you have been helping me a lot. The first time I saw Sean’s videos on YouTube, because I’m looking for people that had a stroke that put themselves back together. They were on the road and it was the inspiration. I’m like, “There’s somebody that is putting themselves back together.” It’s a long road and I don’t know where this road’s going to lead, but keep the faith and keep doing what you’ve got to do. Don’t give up. That was your message. That’s my message to everybody out there.
Take care of a little bit of the suffering and we’re all going to make it. Dave, if you’ll guide us through a little meditation, that would be wonderful for our community.
We’re going to start out really easy. I know a lot of people don’t even know what meditation is and they think it’s maybe hokey. These are perceptions. What I could tell you is that there’s a whole world inside of our brains that we can tap into. I could never move my hand until I use my mindfulness to get my hand moving. I do the same with my walking and my leg. That’s the same technique is this mindfulness meditation that got me able to talk. It got me into the gym. This energy is something that’s very serious, but there’s so much in it. I believe in it is freedom and your healing. I don’t want to say too much about what meditation is because if we expose it to you, you could figure it out for yourself. That’s what my teacher used to say. He wouldn’t talk that much about it. He smiled at you. He knows it’s in you. It’s for us to teach ourselves and tap into that energy.
If you want to sit quietly in stillness, it’s where we heal. If you’re somewhere, you can close your eyes, relax into the seat or standing or laying, as the best as you can, close your eyes and relax. With each breath, this is going to be very simple because there are a lot of different people with difficulties. I don’t want to tax any of that with anyone, but know that you’re breathing in and take an out-breath, breathing in and breathing out. Know that you are breathing in and you are breathing out, breathing in, breathing out. Continue this, in-out. We’re not here to do anything but breathe and be aware of our breathing. You’re not trying to put yourself into this place in your brain. You’re not there to do anything but breathe. Resting here in this moment because resting in this moment is where your freedom and healing come. Breathing in, breathing out. When a thought comes to you, recognize it and let it go. Go back to breathing and focusing on your breathing and relaxing. If you finally think that you have a phone bill that you have to pay, take that thought, set it aside with mindfulness, with love and go back to continue your breath, in and out. Deep, slow, call, ease, smile, release, present moment, wonderful moment, in-out. That’s a small sample of what may lie within the corners of your mind when you meditate.
Thank you so much, Dave. I feel like I could drift right off to sleep right now.
That’s the idea because we all know how important rest and healing are to getting back to being a human being especially what we’ve been through.
You’re such an inspiration and an example to anyone out there who’s working on healing and bringing an incredible amount of validation to mindfulness. In a sense, embracing all of the aspects of who we are, what we’ve been through, what we’re going through and recognizing that they are all aspects of us and our story. As we embraced them, we become more whole. Through that, we get this sense of knowing and peace. You’ve planted an incredible seed for everyone reading, so thank you so much, Dave.
Thank you for the opportunity.
No problem. I appreciate everything that you share on Facebook. If you’re not following Dave on Facebook, follow Dave Aquilante. It’s wonderful because you share so much inspirational content and I know I’m always scrolling through and seeing it and I get lit up. Thank you so much, Dave, for coming on and sharing all your wisdom.
About Dave Aquilante
Dave Aquilante is living proof you can heal your brain. He suffered a stroke after 45 years of working as a world-class chef in the high-stress culinary world. To regain his ability to speak, read and move, he began practicing meditation and mindfulness as taught to him by monks at a Buddhist monastery.
He also realized that providing his body with the critical nutrients it needed to recover and thrive was critical. Whether you’ve suffered a stroke or want to improve your mental clarity, you can feed your brain too. It’s about what you eat and how you think.