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Archive for December, 2010

Dreams

You know those dreams where you’re trying to design an algorithm to solve a difficult problem but someone keeps changing the meaning and nature of the variables halfway through? No? Me neither but if I ever had a dream like that I’m sure I’d hate it.

OK, maybe I did have a dream like that. So what? Is it a big deal to be so frustrated with the changing nature of the dream’s reality that you wake up at 5 A.M. fully aware of the dream and what it might mean? No, I didn’t think so either.

To borrow a question from the Internet’s favorite double rainbow guy, “what does it mean!?” Unlike double rainbow guy, there isn’t an easy answer to this question when it comes to dreams like the one I woke up from about 90 minutes ago.

The first (and most obvious) answer is that it’s my subconscious mind dealing with stress. I’m sure there’s a component of this in my experience but it is definitely not the entire answer.

In my dream, I was trying to design an algorithm that would look at a picture of a building and return the optimal number of windows to put on the front of it to be aesthetically pleasing and energy efficient as well as provide a functional component from inside the building to ensure that the view when looking through a window would be unique and significantly different from all the other windows. Since most of these variables are subjective, I was having a hard time solving the problem because the interpretation of aesthetics and uniqueness of perspective kept changing. Yeah, not only do I speak nerd, I dream in it. Wanna make something of it?

With that background about the dream does its meaning become any clearer to you? No? Ok, how about this?

A second way of looking at the dream has to do with how I feel about perceptions and interpreting them. This is something I have to do every day. In my line of work, I don’t have the blessing of working with hard, concrete materials that can be transformed in to something. I get concepts, ideas and suggestions and opinions and have to make something out of them. Needless to say, this can often be a frustrating experience.

This is getting a little closer to the meaning behind my dream but I don’t think it’s the entire explanation of it.

When I woke up at 5 O’something this morning I knew exactly what I was dreaming about and why. This dream really had to do with my own ideas and perceptions rather than other’s views. In the dream, I was trying to design the algorithm but I was also the person looking out the window wanting a unique perspective. I was the committee responsible for guiding the project by defining the terms of success and deciding what things mean. I was dreaming about my own interpretations and perceptions of reality.

I could add a lot more to this but instead of trying to explain more of my subconscious mind’s workings, I’ll leave you with a bit of a Christmas koan: when you’re on a fast moving train, how do you experience stillness?

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At the risk of sounding like a broken record, depression sucks. Not just a little bit, I’m talking major suckage here. When you’re dealing with depression, your own brain turns against you. You don’t have a lot of control over it and it will seem totally normal for a long time before you ever realize something is wrong. I think I’m dealing with another round of depression even though I’m still taking my medication for it. Apparently, it is possible for the benefits of the medication to wear off after a while. Talk about unfair! I’ve been dealing with a lot of cravings lately and I think it has to do with my brain trying to balance out its chemical levels.

I have nothing to be sad about. This isn’t about being sad or feeling down or anything. Depression is a real medical problem where your brain isn’t producing the right things in the right levels. Anti-depressant medications work by restoring the balance of chemicals in your brain. That’s why depression can effect someone in my position: losing weight, living better, enjoying my job, feeling fulfilled and generally well off. None of that matters when you suffer from depression. It’s like getting the flu. You don’t say to yourself, “I don’t know why I have the flu, I don’t have any reason to be sick.” Unfortunately, mental illness doesn’t get that kind of a pass. The fact is that the brain is an insanely complicated organ. It does everything to keep us alive and relating to the world around us. Complex systems fail in complex ways and I think that’s part of why it’s so hard to think of mental illnesses like we do physical illnesses. If a nose is stuffy, it’s pretty easy to understand because a nose only has one or two jobs. A brain does hundreds of different things every minute and when it gets “stuffy” we can’t recognize it as easily in ourselves or others.

I finally realized I may be dealing with more depression again when I went to the store the other day and returned with a bunch of stuff that are bad for me: chips, dip, salami, ice cream, egg nog (a seasonal favorite I used to consume by the gallon) and more. I proceeded to eat a bunch of stuff to the point of giving myself a stomach ache. I felt miserable after I did all of this and I didn’t even care. When I’m dealing with depression, my general attitude changes to something that is best described as, “fuck it”. Name it and that’s my general response to it. Fortunately, my wife was here to talk to me after I’d done all of this (I binged on stuff while she was unaware of what I’d gotten). It’s a good thing to have someone to call you on your behavior and hold you accountable for your mistakes. She helped me realize what I’d done and she did it in a loving way. I didn’t eat anything for the rest of the day because I wasn’t hungry until breakfast time today. With her help and encouragement, I’ve been able to get back on track and I’ve had a good day today.

I’m going to have to spend some time trying to figure out what to do about the depression. For one thing, I’ll go back to my doctor and talk with him. I’ll also make it a point to make activities that are known to lessen the effects of depression a part of my daily routine. With the general lack of daylight, I’ve allowed myself to slack off on my exercising. I’ll also make it a point to get on my meditation cushion more than I have been recently. I’ve come too far at this point to allow this illness to stop me from moving ahead. It’s just too important to me to not move forward. I’m going to go back and re-read Savor for the third time as it has a lot of great insights on how to deal with some of these problems. I’m also going to continue to deal with the thought patterns and emotions of depression with mindfulness. To me, these seem like the only logical responses to the problem. I’m sure I’ve gained a few pounds in the past week or so but I’m going to keep weighing myself and carefully monitoring my progress. The one thing about my weight is that it’s a pretty good reflection of how I’m dealing with the depression. If I’m handling it well, my weight will continue to go down or stay where it is rather than increase. For now, I’ll just enjoy the ironic status of being the Internet’s happiest depressed blogger.

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On Rohatsu

Today is a special day for two reasons. One, it is the anniversary of the death of John Lennon. I was too young at the time to understand what it meant but I still remember the way that people reacted to the shock of the news. I still remember the voices on the radio talking about someone I didn’t know who had died. It was obvious they were sad and they were going to play his music. I still remember, word for word, what my mom told me as we rode in the car. “Do you hear that man singing on the radio? He’s in hell now.” And that was my introduction to John Lennon.

Eventually, as I grew older I would get re-introduced to John Lennon and his amazing body of work as I discovered the Beatles and became immersed in his music. I’d learn from his harmonies and style and I would absorb his message of love and peace (in spite of his shortcomings and personal failings). Today, I’ll listen to the Beatles and I’ll listen to John’s solo music and I’ll enjoy each song and think about how he influenced so many people and contributed so much to the music world.

However, as sad as the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s murder is, there is another reason this is a special day. It also happens to be Rohatsu. Just like so many other traditions, Buddhism also has a big day in December. This is the day when the Buddha became enlightened after having spent a week sitting in meditation waiting for enlightenment. This is the first time that I have celebrated Rohatsu and, honestly, I’m not doing anything special other than realizing that today happens to be a special day in the Buddhist calendar. I may also spend a bit more time than usual in meditation this evening but otherwise, it’s just another day for me.

But it’s not just another day. This is also a day that reminds us that we can also find a way to find a path to enlightenment. We are reminded that it is possible to get to the root of suffering and to move beyond it. This day serves as a reminder of why we follow the Eightfold Path and why we sit in meditation. We, too, strive to wake up from the illusions that have built up inside our minds. It is not an easy task to do and today serves as a reminder that it is not something that we can easily grasp at. You can’t pick up enlightenment at the store along with the eggs and milk. If one chooses to be serious in following the Eightfold Path, then one must be prepared for a long journey. Rohatsu is a day when we remember this.

Today I’ll listen to the Beatles, sit in meditation and think about the past six months and how many changes I have been through this year. I’m sure I’ll also look forward to the future and think about where I’m heading. But I’ll try to keep the lesson of Rohatsu in mind and do my best to be present in and mindful in this moment instead of being wrapped up in illusion or suffering or dreams. Happy Rohatsu everyone.

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I have the opportunity to meet with others once a week for meditation. This is a great time for me but there are many others who, for one reason or another cannot meditate with others. For me, that’s the other six days of the week. Fortunately, I found the Online Meditation Crew to keep in touch with. They are a group of people who are joined via Twitter and sit together a few times a day. They stay in touch using the hashtag #OMCru. Even though it is a virtual connection, it’s nice to know that there are others sharing their practice and its a great motivator to continue to sit.

One of my problems is that I’m pretty busy so I don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter. Ideally, I could configure twitter to send me SMS messages for when someone uses the hashtag #OMCru in a tweet. Unfortunately, Twitter doesn’t do this any more. So, being the inquisitive and tenacious geek that I am, I have found a solution to always stay in touch with the #OMCru tweets whether I can visit twitter or not.

1. I have an RSS feed for a search for all tweets containing #OMCru. http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=%23omcru

2. Using Yahoo.com feed alerts, I set up notifications for “as they happen”

3. When a tweet is posted with the hash tag #OMCru, I get notified so I know what’s happening and can take time to meditate if at all possible.

Three simple steps to stay connected with others that I can share my practice with. Additionally, this helps me keep in touch with everyone who is a part of this growing group since new members are always joining in and it can be hard to follow them unless you’re on top of the tweets. This gives me a better chance of making sure that I can use twitter to connect with others who I am interested in following.

Online Meditation Crew

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I’ve been reading the book Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagan lately and have really enjoyed it. The book’s goal is pretty much outlined in its title. It aims to present a clear and simple presentation of Buddhism using language that is easy to understand. Mostly, it succeeds. In the middle of the book, there is a discussion on meditation and the hows and the whys around it. As someone who has been practicing for six months, this isn’t something that I really need an introduction to but it is still a fun read to see how he presents the information about meditation. One thing he does cover is just how difficult it can be to begin meditation. The fact is that sitting quietly and focusing on the breath while doing nothing is boring and difficult to do. However, Mr. Hagen then follows this up with a passage that really struck a chord with me.

You will gradually learn to sit like a mountain. Though thoughts will arise, they are merely clouds passing by the mountain. The mountain need not be perturbed by clouds. The clouds pass on, and the mountain continues to sit— observing all, grasping at nothing.

This is a simple, yet profound, metaphor. When we first start sitting, we try to do it with a goal in mind. I know this is true for me: even if the goal is to just sit with a quiet mind. However, approaching meditation with a goal is not going to benefit us at all. If we do that, we turn meditation into just some other thing that we do. In all seriousness, if I sit with a goal in mind, I may as well use that time to sit on the toilet because that’s a goal that I can actually accomplish by sitting. So, what’s the point? Why do it?

To our Western minds, it is quite strange to approach something with no goal or purpose to it. Even when we do something for enjoyment or entertainment we have a purpose to it. Meditation, on the other hand, isn’t going to allow us to approach it like this. There are many benefits to meditation and there have been an astounding number of studies that have shown meditation to be beneficial in dealing with a number of things. Even though it is beneficial, Zen meditation isn’t concerned with those benefits, per se. When we meditate we are engaging our mind in something completely different from its normal mode of operation. There’s nothing like meditation to illuminate the true nature of our minds.

The clouds pass on, and the mountain continues to sit— observing all, grasping at nothing.

If you want to see just how incessant your mind can get with its chattering and constant jumping from one thing to another, spend 10 minutes in meditation. You’ll be amazed at the hundred or more thoughts you will have in that short time. It quickly becomes apparent why the normal state we find our mind in is referred to as the “monkey mind”.

However, when we continue to meditate, a subtle change starts to take place. Eventually, quieting the mind becomes a bit easier. Moving your mind from a state of constant motion to a place of rest becomes almost believable. The mind will never really give up doing what it has evolved to do but it becomes easier to let it to do its thing without being a distraction. Once we have reached this point it becomes easier to see the world as it really is. It becomes easier to not confuse our thoughts with our self. Personally, I’m still waiting for this to happen but I’ve been told by a number of people that this is the case. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of this and it is always startling when I do. However, trying to approach my meditation with the goal of getting another glimpse will guarantee that I won’t get it. Last night and this morning while I meditated I was able to get a glimpse of this and I was able to just let it be what it was. I was able to let the clouds pass by without grasping at them. It’s only taken about six months to get to that point. I figure I may have had about one minute out of thirty minutes worth of meditation in this state between the two different meditation sessions. It’s only a minute but it’s a start. Maybe I’ll get a few more seconds glimpse again soon. For now, I’ll just keep sitting and we’ll see what happens.

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The Christmas season officially hit our home this weekend. We got the tree, decorated the house and started to buy the gifts for the kids. A lot of Christmas music was played and hot chocolate was consumed with joy. I consumed a lot more than just hot chocolate though. After making it through the Thanksgiving holiday with no major setbacks and dipping below the 270 barrier and fitting into a 38 inch waist I got bit by the food bug. Bad. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am a food addict. Fortunately, I didn’t go too far overboard with things but I definitely consumed way more than I have been used to. Most of it was also not good for me either. I had candy, soda, hamburgers, fries, soda, chili, nacho chips, doughnuts and more soda. I completely ignored my usual food choices and ate pretty much whatever I wanted. I did it with full knowledge and awareness of what I was doing and I didn’t let that stop me. Even though I ate more than I normally would I didn’t consume the way I would have once upon a time because I can’t physically do that any more but it was definitely calorie overload. I’ve already put the brakes on this behavior and have stuck to water, coffee and salads for today and I plan on having a nice salad for dinner tonight but this weekend really was an eye opener for me.

My brain is wired to respond positively to sugar and fat and salt and even though I’ve made some big changes, this basic issue hasn’t changed. I don’t know why I was craving sweet things so much this weekend but I was. When I took the kids to see Tangled this weekend I enjoyed, and I really mean enjoyed, a bag of Reese’s Pieces and a large Root Beer. I haven’t had a sugar rush like I had on Saturday in a long time and I enjoyed it. After this little “exception” to my normal food choices, it became very easy to make more “exceptions”. After all, I’d already “blown it” for the day right? And on Sunday it was easy enough to make another exception since I’d “blown it” the day before. See how the reasoning of an addict works? As I look at it now I realize how ridiculous it is though at the time it seemed perfectly reasonable. It can be quite a shock to come to your senses in the middle of a “food bender” like this and that’s the shock I had yesterday. I actually had the shock while I was pulling into the drive through of a Taco Bell. I really wanted something full of greasy meat and cheese and a big ass Mt. Dew to wash it down. Fortunately, my wife was there to ask me if I was making a good decision and right then and there I realized what I was doing and instead, because I had the window down and was ready to order, I got a few of their “fresca” items which aren’t really too bad when you look at their nutrition information and a bottle of water to go with it. I made it a point to not eat junk food or snack for the rest of the day and enjoyed a nice tofu dish for dinner.

My biggest regret about the weekend was that I didn’t get to the ice cream before I came to my senses. OK, I’m kidding (kind of). Actually, I’m not beating myself up over it or wallowing in regret. I’m putting the past where it belongs and I’m focusing on the now. Regardless of what I ate yesterday, or the day before, or the hour before now, I always have a choice to do the right thing with the next meal. Being regretful won’t help me in any way and make it harder for me to continue on the path of healthy choices. Why is that? It has to do with my motivators for why I eat what I do. Since I have these addiction issues, my brain wants to lift my mood if I’m feeling down or upset so wallowing in regret will give my brain even more motivation to try to “lift” me out of it by consuming things that are bad for me. It’s a horrible vicious cycle that quickly spirals out of control. This is where the Noble Eight Fold Path really shines as a way to put an end to suffering. Since I’m practicing right view and right mindfulness and right intention I’m able to keep this in perspective and move on. Instead of feeling upset about my “failure” or trying to force myself to “behave the way I should”, I allow the feelings and regret to fall away since my focus is on the present moment and my experiences right now. This also makes it possible for me to open up to the entire world about something that would be a source of shame for me if I were nursing regrets. This is what the Buddhist concept of detachment comes in to play. I’m detached from the past and allowing it to be what it is instead of clinging to it. Often in the West, we read or hear about the concept of detachment and we see it in a negative light or as some type of nihilistic approach to life but it’s not really like that at all.

If you’re struggling with a “failure” of your own or you are kicking yourself over mistakes of the past, I hope you can take something away from this. I screwed up, made a few mistakes, felt regret for a short while, applied the correct remedy to it and acknowledged it for what it is. After that, moving on was easy. Telling the entire world about it was just as easy. My brain is still trying to push me to consume foods that aren’t good for me but my awareness is making it easier for me to allow my brain to rattle on and scream and beg for something bad and I am able to resist it. I’m not resisting through an application of will power because anyone who has ever struggled with an addiction can tell you that will power is useless to beat an addiction. Instead, I’m applying the correct remedy to the problem and making the right choices at the right time. That’s the most that anyone can ever do.

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As I’ve said in my previous two posts, I’ve been thinking about attachment a lot lately. As I examine my own thoughts, ideas and attitudes about attachment, I’ve come to realize that a majority of my attachments are to mental concepts and ideas. Sure, I have physical things that I have attachments to but if I were to categorize them into what’s called the realm of mind or the realm of eyes, more of my attachments would be to things in the realm of mind.

One thing I’m attached to is writing. It may look like I haven’t been writing as much but that is in part due to a renewed interest I’ve had in a personal writing project that I’ve been working on for about a year now. I don’t know what it is about writing that I find so enjoyable but putting my thoughts into words really does seem to do something for me. This project I’m working on is nothing like anything else I’ve ever written and it’s much more involved than anything you may read here. No, it’s not some great work of epic intellectual showmanship. In fact, it’s very likely the opposite of that: I’m working on a graphic novel.

I had the idea that planted the seed for this work last December and I started to take notes about it back then. After that, I actually started to write the damn thing instead of just thinking it would be cool to do “some day”. Eventually, I met with an artist and had a full-fledged project on my hands! As things turned out, the artist couldn’t do the work since the pay (nothing) wasn’t enough for her to invest her time in. I’ve continued to look for an artist but haven’t had much luck so in addition to revisiting the 68 pages of material I already have written, I’ve begun to learn how to draw comic illustrations and I’m working on the visual aspect of the project as well. I’ve written 66 pages and have almost completed illustrations of one page. So, I’ve got that going for me.

Since I’ve been so preoccupied with writing and learning a new skill the blog has taken a bit of a back seat to the other project. This is because of the particular way that I attach to things. As is obvious to anyone who spends time reading through some of my posts, I am a hard-core no-appologies-about-it geek. Part of what makes me a geek is my ability to obsess over something. I’ve been that way all my life: books, movies, music, television, comics, cooking, programming, theology, philosophy, optics, sci-fi, Star Trek, Star Wars, the Internet, World of Warcraft and many other things that I’m not recalling have all been subject to my almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge/experience of something once I set my attention to it. The end result of this is that I have collected an impressive amount of knowledge about stuff that nobody really needs to know. Seriously, you don’t want to play Trivial Pursuit with me (just ask my wife).

This is what I mean by attaching to things in the realm of mind. For me, writing is just another thing that I obsess over. The past week, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the story that I’m trying to tell and I’ve had ideas for plot, outlines, story arcs and visual elements that I want to work into the book. When I attach to an idea, I do it with everything in me. This has been a source of a lot of enjoyment for me over the course of my life but it’s also worked against me. Regardless of whether an attachment is good or bad or indifferent, having it can and will cause suffering in the end. This is because when we attach to something, we begin to identify it as part of our “self” and we see ourselves as being a part of something external and other. Whenever we feel like we can attach a label to ourself, “I am a liberal/conservative”, “I am a writer/artist”, “I am a male/female”, “I am this or that” are all attachments that cause us to lose sight of our true self.

With that in mind, I’ve been trying to stay aware of how I might be attaching to this latest iteration of geek obsession. It’s a fact that I love to write. It’s a fact that I am enjoying myself. It’s a fact that my natural inclination is to obsess over something to the point of harming myself. So, what am I going to do about this? I’m going to do exactly what you see me doing here. I will acknowledge it for what it is, I will be mindful and aware of my own behaviors and attitudes and I’ll do my best to remain present in the moment regardless of where I may find myself.

I think one reason that I am so apt to attach to mental constructs is that they can often be a way for me to block out the world around me. I often have a hard time trying to figure out how to deal with people and things so I think this is one way I limit my exposure to others. Who here thinks that it works or is a good idea? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? I didn’t think so. Usually, this just blows up in my face and I end up with bigger issues than I had when I first attempted to ignore them. My own weight is a great example of that: I spent years ignoring it until it hit 330. How’s that for blowing up? This time, I’m not going to ignore the attachment as I see it forming. Instead, I’ll try to apply the Buddhist approach and acknowledge it for what it is without judgement. I will not try to make it go away by force of will as that would not work anyway. This way, I will be able to allow it to run its course without causing undue suffering. The up side is that it should also let me continue to focus on doing other things that I enjoy (like writing for this blog). I’ll try to keep my progress with this self-experimentation updated here and record how it goes. One of the most basic tenets of Buddhism is to not accept anyone’s word for something but to experience it for yourself. That’s what I’m going to do with this latest budding attachment. Just consider me your friendly neighborhood Buddhist guinea pig.

My New Self Portrait?

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