Archive for August, 2010

Today when I got into the car, I was able to get reception from the only radio station in the area to play jazz. It’s a pretty low powered station but sometimes I can get it. As I turned it on, the DJ announced he was about to play a song by Thelonious Monk. He’s one of my favorite jazz pianists so it was great to get a chance to hear some of his music unexpectedly. I really love listening to Monk because even though he was a virtuoso player, he wasn’t driven to fill every song with as many notes as possible. Monk understood that not only were the notes he played important, the silence between the notes was an important part of the composition. He was so laid back when he played that he made it seem simple. It’s sparse and there is an emptiness in his music that can be deceptive. If you try to play a Monk piece, you quickly realize that there’s a lot more going on that you think.

Monk would often play slightly behind the beat and would leave almost uncomfortable pauses in his music. As you listen to him play you begin to learn to appreciate those pauses because they provide the structure to the music. It wasn’t just his notes that made him so amazing, it was the way he worked with pauses and spaces that made him a master. I get the same impression from those who have earned a title of teacher or master in the Zen tradition.

Zen is all about working with the silence and emptiness that gives structure to our lives. Sitting quietly in meditation or walking mindfully in meditation make us aware of how much emptiness is in our own lives. The normal response is to try to fill that emptiness up with thoughts or entertainment or work or food or anything else we use to identify ourselves. Zen won’t let us do that. Zen demands that we see ourselves as we really are: emptiness and all. Once we do this we begin to see that it’s not a bad thing. We realize that there is a beauty in emptiness. Our emptiness is a source of strength that we can draw on for sustenance. Just like Monk would draw on the emptiness between the notes to build up a work of art we rely on our emptiness to give form to ourselves. Without emptiness, we would have no room to grow. We would be a solid lump of stuff only identifiable by our outward appearance. Imagine a tree with no space between the branches and the leaves; without the emptiness inside of it, it’s not a tree and without emptiness inside us we aren’t ourselves. Learn to understand that our emptiness isn’t a drawback. It’s not an imperfection to be blotted out. We should embrace our emptiness and see how it adds shape to our lives. Then, we can become the beautiful works of art we really are.

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This weekend we were out-of-town visiting my wife’s Aunt who is staying in a shore house down in CT. The house is right on Long Island Sound and it is one of the most beautiful places you could ever visit. When you sit on the porch, you get about a 200 degree view of the water. There are boats and birds and waves and rocks and anything you could possibly want to assist in the task of relaxing. I spent the weekend sitting down relaxing. My relaxation was only interrupted with periods of naps, meals, swimming, walking, fishing or kayaking. No internet and no cell phone service meant I was cut off from everything. I was forced to be present in the moment and just enjoy where I was and what I was doing. I highly recommend that you find a place, or make a place like that for yourself. It’s so good to be able to rest from time to time. Our lives are so busy and our time is so filled up that we often forget that it is important to recover from time to time. The stress that we put ourselves under is killing us. If the kids didn’t start school and if I wasn’t working on a big project for my job I’d have gladly stayed for another day or two.

One of my more enjoyable experiences was sitting on the sea wall and meditating while the high tide hit the rocks below me and occasionally hit my feet with water. I have never found it so easy to be present in the moment with nothing clouding my thoughts or demanding the attention of my mind. There were birds flying overhead and waves beneath my feet and my son sitting quietly with me on the wall and I was absolutely absorbed in that moment alone. The beauty of a clear mind cannot be overstated. In that moment, I had no problems. At that time, I wasn’t worried about work or the state of my life or the world or my relationships with others or my weight or any of the thousand other things that demand my attention. I had reduced my mind to paying attention to a piece of seaweed that was floating on the waves and hitting a rock every so often. I believe that this is the type of clarity that people often pay a lot of money for when they go to a retreat for days. Now that I’ve experienced it, I can see why they do. I had no great spiritual epiphanies, I did not become enlightened, I did not transform into a higher level of consciousness: I was simply my true self for a few minutes sitting on a sea wall and experiencing a oneness with everything around me.

The trip was also sad for us because this is probably the last time that we will be able to do this. The house had belonged to my wife’s grandfather and he passed away earlier this year. My wife’s aunt is there for the summer cleaning it and preparing it to be sold. The upkeep and taxes on the property are just too much for our family to be able to keep the house. When you know that you are about to lose something that brings you so much peace and joy, you are going to be sad about it. It’s a part of our nature as humans that we don’t want to lose something we see as beneficial. However, nothing is permanent. If we were to try to come up with a way to hold on to this home, it would cause our family and my wife’s extended family financial hardship, arguments and in the end create suffering and strife. We realize this but it does not make the loss any less painful. Impermanence is a blessing when it comes to suffering: we know that it will not last forever. However, it feels like a curse when it means that things that bring us joy must also go away. Even though I have only visited this house four times in my life I already feel an attachment to it. I can’t even imagine the loss felt by other members of the family who grew up visiting the house or spending significant time there.

That’s why rest is important. Even though the weekend was tinged with sadness, there was much more joy in it as we relaxed and rested on the shore. In those restful moments or in my moments of mindfulness and meditation, the attachment to the house lessened and the suffering caused by its impending loss was not there. This weekend was beneficial to me in so many ways: it strengthened my resolve to live mindfully, it showed me how beautiful the practice of meditation can be, it gave me more motivation to continue to lose weight and exercise, it taught me about impermanence and attachment, it gave me a time to disconnect from the things that demand my attention, it provided me with an opportunity to say goodbye. We’re back at home now and I’ve already spent the morning struggling with a difficult problem at work and I’ve had to deal with the phone company who had not yet made repairs to our home phone line and I’ve had to deal with the stress of over sleeping and not having time to exercise or eat a proper breakfast. However, I’m remembering the weekend and the peacefulness that I experienced and I’m trying to keep that with me through all of it. I feel much more prepared to handle these thing than I was before we went away on Friday. I hope that everyone reading this finds the rest and relaxation that they need to continue to face their daily routines with peace and happiness.

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Last night, I went out and bought new pants. It was time that I did and I ended up spending a lot more than I intended since I needed now jeans and pants for work. It was great being able to get them off the rack and not have to go to the Big & Tall department or go to a specialty store to get them. My waist is down at least 2 inches and I’ve already noticed that my new belt only has one extra hole for me to move to. When I originally got it, I had 2 extra holes to use.

Today, when I went to the gym to exercise, I was able to complete the entire circuit. That means that I lifted weights and worked on my legs, arms and trunk muscles in one session. In the past I’ve only been able to do the bottom or top half of my body without feeling too tired or sore to keep going. I’m sure I’ll pay the price tomorrow but I’m OK with that since my plans for tomorrow include sitting on a porch looking at the ocean, fishing, walking along the shore and spending time with family. We’re going down to CT to visit my wife’s family and we’ll be there all weekend. It’s an amazing home right on Long Island Sound and if the day is clear you can actually see the big buildings of NYC way off on the horizon. It’s an amazing place to visit and so peaceful and refreshing.

Both getting my new pants and completing an entire circuit in one session was a big reminder of the positive changes I’ve been making. It also reminded me that I can change my language about some of the things I’ve been doing. I no longer have to use the word “yet” as a qualifier for buying new pants and working on all of my muscles in one session. The word yet is a powerful one. So often, when we evaluate ourselves, we see the negative and we want to correct it and then we state the fact and put a period at the end of our statement. We say things like “I haven’t lost ten pounds,” or “I can’t lift that many weights,” or “I don’t like to eat salads”. Our desire could be to lose ten pounds or lift that many weights or to like eating salads but the way we speak really says a lot about our perception of facts. When I want to make a positive change, I always make sure to include the word yet before the period in the statement. “I haven’t lost ten pounds yet“, “I can’t lift that many weights yet“, “I don’t like to eat salads yet“; are all more positive ways of approaching the same three statements. The former way of speaking reveals that we are fixated on the permanence of our current state. “I can’t, I don’t, I haven’t” are left hanging in our minds reminding us of our failings and coloring our perceptions so that they become “I will never be able to…“. When we change the sentence to include yet, we transform the way that we perceive those facts. We embrace the impermanence of the states that we are in. It puts us in a positive and proactive relation to our desire to change and improve. That one simple word implies that things can change and that they are changing. Just yesterday I was speaking with someone who was about to go riding their bike out on the hilly streets in our town. I told them that I have a nice bike and I enjoy riding but my body isn’t in a condition to be able to handle anything but a flat surface. I then added that I haven’t built up my endurance enough yet and the person getting their bike ready smiled and said “I like your attitude.” She understood by my adding that one word that I am working on building up my endurance and I’m planning on being able to do what I want to do (ride my bike). I wasn’t bemoaning my current state, I was celebrating the changes that I’m making and looking forward to the positive results. Instead of fixating on the falsity of permanence I admit with one word that change is possible and that I can realize that change. If you are wanting to change something, make sure you start to include the word yet in your speech and your thinking about that thing. You may not be there yet but you will be sooner or later. It’s a great way to transform your mind.

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Today I’m really sore. I got up this morning at 5:45, my new wake up time, and I went to the gym to exercise. Today was a cardio day since I lifted weights yesterday. As I began moving around I couldn’t belive how much my arms and shoulders and ab and back muscles hurt. I worked on my upper body yesterday and felt pretty good. Today I’m feeling every movement! Nobody told me that you’d hurt worse on day 2 than you did on day 1. That’s totally not fair. I didn’t let the pain stop me from going to the gym since I was doing cardio today and I spent 20 minutes on the arc trainer and 20 minutes on the treadmill. Not a bad day at all since I was able to burn almost 400 calories in less than an hour. However, now I hurt from my shoulders to my feet. Sitting or standing or moving are all unpleasant now. I guess that’s the price I have to pay to get healthy.

I have noticed something about pain: it’s an incredible consumer of mental resources. When I’m sitting in meditation or at work, from time to time my brain starts to wander. Usually those thoughts are fleeting and I gently bring my mind back. However, when I’m in pain, my brain keeps going back to whatever part of my body is not feeling good and it doesn’t like to gently come back to where I want it to be. If I’m meditating while in pain, I find that my mind refuses to be calm and rested. If I’m working I have a much harder time concentrating on writing computer programs and solving problems. I know that the mind’s response to pain is an evolutionary step that is intended to let us know that something is wrong and that we need to fix it but in my case, this pain is not permanent. This pain will go away soon enough on its own after my muscles have recovered from the workouts. While one part of my brain knows this, the part that’s hard-wired to fixate on pain won’t shut up. If I’m meditating or coding or watching TV and I start to think about what would happen if Iron Man and Batman got into a fight, I can deal with it. When I do those activities and my body hurts, it takes massive effort on my part to continue doing whatever I am working on.

What types of things do you encounter that makes mindfulness a challenge for you? How do you overcome whatever it is that consumes your mental processes? How do you get going when the going gets tough?

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Why do I do This?

Earlier today, I was exercising and was really felling bad. Today was a day where I was lifting weights and it was really making me sore and tired and sweaty and a little miserable. I began to ask myself why I was doing this. Was it really important that I do this? Then I looked down and saw my belly. Then I remembered that I’ve lost 10% of my body weight. Then I remembered the dream I had the other night where I was skinny. Then I put a renewed effort into my exercise and made sure I did each one to the best of my ability. It’s good to have motivation.

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I just finished cleaning up from a really good dinner. My wife asked me to go to the store on the way home from work and pick up some stuff for her and the kids for dinner. While I was there, I got myself a few things too. My wife loves the convenience of steam-in-the-bag-rice though I’m not a fan of it because I don’t like the flavor that much. When I was picking up her rice, I noticed that they also made brown rice that you could prepare the same way. I started thinking about what I could do with this since it is significantly quicker to make in the microwave than the 40+ minutes it takes to cook on the stove. I realized that I could use it to make red beans and rice and that would work great as the flavor wouldn’t be as big of an issue in a dish like that.

I found an organic red pepper grown here in Maine and an organic sweet Italian pepper grown down in VT. I picked those up and got myself a can of organic red kidney beans. Then, I remembered the ingredient that would make take things from good to great: vegetarian chorizo sausage. It’s called soyrizo and it looks and tastes exactly like my favorite Portuguese delicacy. When I got home, I spent some time cutting up the peppers and an onion and some garlic while my wife prepared chicken for her and the kids. After it was all cut up, I sautéed the veggies in some olive oil and after they were done I added the soyrizo. I let it brown for a bit and then added the red beans. While the cooking proceeded on the stove, I got the rice ready in the microwave. It only takes a few minutes to cook that way and then I tossed it into the pan on the stove. I stirred to combine everything and then added cayenne pepper, garlic powder, paprika and some liquid smoke. After they were stirred in I put half of it on a plate, the other half in a container for work tomorrow and sat down for dinner at the same time as my wife and kids. It only took about 30 minutes from start to finish and I couldn’t be happier with the results. It’s the first time I’ve really improvised an entirely vegetarian dish and been very pleased with the results.

On another happy note, when I went to the gym for the second time today I hopped on the scale and I was happy to see my weight is down to 297. That means I’ve lost 10% of my body weight. That’s all the motivation I should need tomorrow to go back into the gym and keep up the hard work.

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Tonight I had some steak.

This was the first time I’ve had steak in over 2 months. I’ve had some beef in the past 2 months but it’s been in hamburger form and never very much.

The problem was that we were at a restaurant that didn’t really have any vegetarian options. At all. Even the salads were meat based (FYI, not all salads need chicken or ham or turkey on them for crying out loud!). We were at a seaside seafood restaurant and they really didn’t have many other options than seafood. I’ve never been one to turn up anything that comes out of the water. I’ve eaten crazy seafood before. I’m talking sea urchin and jellyfish crazy. I’ve never met a seafood I didn’t like. However, as I’ve been trying to live more mindfully I’ve also not been eating seafood. I didn’t have much choice tonight. I was going to get some broiled fish but my seafood loving son was absolutely insistent that he wanted lobster and clams (keep in mind this is a 7 year old who will not eat hot dogs or PB&J but he loves seafood). I couldn’t justify spending that kind of money for him to get what he wanted so I ordered the 2 lobster dinner for me. I added a side of clams to it. He was happy and it cost me less that way. Plus, I got to have lobster and I’ve never been one to say no to lobster.

I chose to eat the lobster “naked”. That means without butter. That way I was only getting the meat from the lobster and not soaking it in a lot of questionable fat. However, it’s soft shell lobster season so that means the bugs don’t have nearly as much meat on them this time of year. It’s great because you can open them bare handed but you get less to eat than when their shells are nice and hard. Needless to say, one skimpy lobster sans-butter and without the fries that came with it wasn’t quite enough to fill me up. My wife, who was having a steak and lobster tail graciously offered me a small portion of her steak. Who am I to say no to a beautiful woman? It’s rude to do that isn’t it? So, I ended up with a small portion of steak in front of me.

I cut into the steak that had been carefully and expertly grilled to a medium doneness and took a bite. It was not the great experience I remembered. I tasted salt and carbon from where the meat had been grilled. It was tough, greasy and chewy and not very pleasant for me (though it was a good steak as far as these things go: I’m just talking about my perception of it). The next few bites were better but I still did not enjoy the experience of eating the steak all that much. Now, even though it’s over 3 hours later, I still feel it sitting in my stomach like a brick. A big fat meat brick. I didn’t realize that in only 2 months without eating steak that it would be this hard for my system to handle red meat. Even though I ended up eating both lobsters (my son could only eat the 24 clams so he wasn’t hungry for lobster when he had finished) I’m fine with those. If I wouldn’t have eaten the steak, dinner would have been a nice change where I enjoyed a rare occasion of eating animal protein. However, since I couldn’t say no to my beautiful wife, I ended up ingesting a not-so-beautiful hunk of beef. Now, I’m feeling the instant karma of stomach pain. It’s not a bad cramping, “I wish I’d die” kind of pain. Instead it’s a weird, “something is a little off and I can’t quite put my finger on it” kind of pain.

I think this has reminded me why I’ve decided to cut meat out of my diet as much as possible. I’m probably feeling no different than I would have back when I was eating everything I could get in my mouth but now I’m aware of the effects. In this regard, I’ve gotten enlightenment. No one told me that enlightenment would suck. They don’t put that in the books do they? They should stamp that on the cover: “WARNING: Enlightenment will make you aware of just how bad things were before. It will hurt and you will feel it”. Oh well. It’s like they say, before enlightenment, laundry needed to be done. After enlightenment, laundry needed to be done. So, I’m off to finish cleaning my gym clothes so I have no excuse to not exercise tomorrow morning. I can’t wait to get my hands on some lettuce.

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