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Archive for February, 2011

Zen and Workplace Politics

It seems that as each month goes by I get a little more busy at work. We have a lot of high priority and high visibility projects in our department and they are demanding more and more of my time and energy. This is a good thing as it’s been a great opportunity for me to learn some new stuff and it’s also given us an opportunity to stand out as being able to get stuff done. However, it also means  having to deal with a lot of political issues and frustrations.

One of the biggest frustrations has been the “That’s Not My Job” complaints that pop up whenever we deal with people and groups who have specific roles and responsibilities. People don’t try to be difficult intentionally, the difficulty they cause is most often a byproduct of their own efforts to do their job to the best of their ability. Regardless of the cause, the fact remains we’re trying to finish up some projects and getting support for some critical steps has not been as easy as we would like (though things here are not as bad as I’ve seen in other places and stuff does get done eventually).

Today, one of my team members was relating a problem like this to the rest of us. He asked, with some exasperation in his voice, “Why does it have to be like this?” Without thinking about it, eight months of Zen studies kicked in and I answered his question by saying with a rather calm and non-sarcastic voice, “It’s snowing outside”.

Flowers in Springtime,
Moon in Autumn,
Cool Wind in Summer,
Snow in Winter.
 
 If you don’t make anything in your mind,
 for you it is a good season

He looked at me and politely asked me what the hell that has to do with anything as it was obvious we’re in the middle of a late-February snow storm. I apologized and explained to him I’d just had a moment of Zen clarity and wasn’t trying to cause any problems.

What I meant was this: we have as much control over other people as we do over the snow that was falling outside. The reactions and behavior of others is just as frustrating as the snow that was falling from the clouds. Just like the snow, no matter what we do, we cannot stop the annoyance caused by other people’s words, behaviors, actions, decisions or attitudes. The frustration that we feel comes from our own desire to control the situation. We want the snow to stop, we want the other person to accept responsibility for doing something, we want the guy in the next cubicle to stop sneezing, we want the dull pain in our head to go away: these are all the same. We suffer when we cling to the idea that we can, or should be able to, change things to be the way we want. People will do what people will do. It is never up to us to control them or their behavior: it’s not possible. The only thing we have control over is how we react to these things. Just like we deal with the snow falling from the sky we need to deal with these frustrations.

There is no great secret to be learned. There is no moment of clarity when the world opens up. There is only the slow realization that things are what they are and it is our place to experience them as they are. When I stub my toe or I’m hit in the head by a ball or I’m smelling a beautiful flower or looking at an artistic masterpiece, I  react. I experience pain or pleasure, joy or frustration and that is what I experience at that moment in time. Things happen and we happen along with it. This is the realization that hit me so hard in the middle of a meeting at work where we were discussing how difficult it has been to get things done. The snow is falling, my new tattoo is itching, others won’t accept responsibility for what needs to be done. Whatever it is, I have work to do and all I can do is focus on my work. Complaining will not change things for the better. Politics will be politics. Snow will be snow. Why does it have to be like this? It’s snowing outside.

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How I Spent My Saturday

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I commissioned some artwork from a local artist. What do you think?

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I Love My Wife

I love my wife. I couldn’t have gotten to where I am now without her love and support. Happy Valentines Day sweetheart. I love you.

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As of today, I’ve managed to lose somewhere around 60 pounds. I’ve also been exposed to a lot of new experiences and ways of living. A new life has been the best gift I could ever hope to receive.

One great new experience has been meditation. Another has been exercise. The most obvious one has been weight loss. These are things that will stay with me for a very long time. However, there are other experiences I’d rather not have again. Like all things in life, there are some new experiences with a down side. Usually, these experiences are ones where things don’t quite work out or ended in pain and tears. In order to help everyone else in my plus sized posse, I have put together a guide to these down sides so that they may avoid them. I call this my list of Things That Fat People Shouldn’t Do.

1. Snow Boarding – this was one of those things I really wanted to enjoy doing but in the end I spent weeks recovering from the aftermath of the application of gravity and snow to my joints and bones. Maybe when I’ve lost another 40-50 pounds I will be able to revisit this one.

2. Mountain Climbing – this one should be pretty obvious but stupidity, inexperience and denial are a deadly combination that can result in finding oneself halfway up a mountainside with a bunch of skinny Zen Buddhists panting and huffing and puffing while dreaming of the sweet embrace of death. Honestly, as a fat person, there were two words that should have tipped me off to avoid this activity: “mountain” and “climbing”. Live and learn, live and learn.

3. Walk – OK this one needs explaining. What I mean is walking on the uneven brick sidewalks we have in Portland, Maine. One beautiful summer day, I was walking down the street enjoying the beauty of the world around me and I just didn’t see that dip in the sidewalk. I had no idea I was going to go down like a ton of bricks but that’s exactly what happened when my foot went to step on a brick but landed on empty space. Bricks hurt when you land on them. They hurt your body and your ego as you sprawl over the sidewalk in front of a large group of strangers. Ouch.

4. Snow shoeing – This one needs a basic understanding of physics to get. Apparently, I don’t have a basic understanding of physics since I tried it anyway. The idea behind a snow shoe is that it distributes your weight across the surface of the snow to keep your body from sinking into said snow. When you’re fat, this doesn’t happen. They’re not magic shoes: they can only distribute so much weight before they sink in to the snow and you find yourself knee-deep with large, useless, snow shoes strapped to your feet acting more like snow anchors than shoes.

5. Plane rides – Just ask Kevin Smith about this one. Planes weren’t meant for one of my girth or one of my height. From now on, I’ll take the train. It’s much friendlier to people with my dimensions.

6. Roller coasters – see above entry about planes. There is nothing quite as embarrassing as trying to get the bar of a roller coaster down and not having it click into place. This was one of the first things I noticed about losing weight: I fit in roller coasters again. It’s still a tight squeeze but at least I can do it.

7. Pole dancing – even if you’re just messing around being silly, there’s no easy way to pick yourself (and the pole) up off the floor. If you’re lucky, the head wound isn’t too serious and the bleeding stops quickly.

8. Go shirtless at the beach. If you do this it can cause issues months later when your three-year old son asks basic questions about the anatomical differences between men and women. As it is explained to him that only women have boobies, he’ll be confused. Especially when his older sister insists that daddy has them, “Oh yes he does! I’ve seen them myself!!”

Everything above comes from personal experience—even the pole dancing. Notice a trend among the list? Most involve gravity. A few of them just involve trying to put a large round peg of a person into the small square holes built by the skinny people. Whatever the cause they have all happened because I became a person too big to live comfortably. Now, I’m working to undo the damage and improve my life. Slowly but surely, I’m getting there. For now, there is still a list of things I can’t do. What other things should be on this list? How has your weight impacted your life? What are some of the other things that fat people shouldn’t do that serve as motivation for us to transition from fat people to skinny people?

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I like to read. A lot. I try for a book a week but don’t always hit that mark. This week I’ve been reading a decidedly non-Buddhist book called Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. It’s the best Buddhist book I’ve read in a while. For those of you who know who Richard Dawkins is, I’ll give you a moment for the cognitive dissonance to clear before going on.

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OK, all better? No? We should continue on anyway. Allow me to explain what I mean. Richard Dawkins is a leader in the “new atheism” movement and has written books highly critical of religion and faith in opposition to reason and scientific knowledge. He is an evolutionary biologist by training and a vocal advocate for science and science education. Needless to say, he’s not very popular among certain groups who feel threatened by his positions. He’s a polarizing figure to say the least.

In Unweaving the Rainbow, he is answering those who claim that science sterilizes and destroys the wonder of creation. The title is taken from criticism of Newton’s experiments with light by John Keats. The argument, as Keats put forth, was that by breaking light up into its separate components and explaining how a rainbow is made that the mystery and beauty of the rainbow were somehow lessened and robbed of its inspirational beauty. This is still a charge leveled against science by many different people from diverse backgrounds.

Dawkins argues that science does not rob something of its beauty or mystery but that an understanding of science leads to even deeper and more profound states of awe and amazement. He makes a clear and focused argument that learning how something works (a flower, a rainbow or a blade of grass for instance) only leads to bigger and deeper mysteries that need to be unravelled. The universe is an infinite place and there are always new things to explore and wonder about. According to Dawkins, there is always something to be amazed by.

I happen to completely agree with Mr. Dawkins about this. The beauty and wonder of the universe is as limitless as the universe itself and science is a wonderful tool to explore the rich depths of that beauty. The fact that I agree with Richard Dawkins on this did not surprise me at all. What did surprise me was just how much some of his statements and claims line up with those of Buddhism. For instance, in talking about the ways that lead up to the real miracle of our actual existence, he says the following.

Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

He adds

The lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to where it doesn’t bear thinking about.

And then, the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness is hammered home

…the humblest medieval peasant had only to sneeze in order to affect something which changed something else which, after a long chain reaction, led to the consequence that one of your would-be ancestors failed to be your ancestor and became somebody else’s instead. I’m not talking about `chaos theory’, or the equally trendy `complexity theory’, but just about the ordinary statistics of causation. The thread of historical events by which our existence hangs is wincingly tenuous.

It’s not only interconnectedness that is brought up in the book. Ideas like mindfulness also come up

There is an anaesthetic of familiarity, a sedative of ordinariness, which dulls the senses and hides the wonder of existence. For those of us not gifted in poetry, it is at least worth while from time to time making an effort to shake off the anaesthetic. What is the best way of countering the sluggish habituation brought about by our gradual crawl from babyhood? We can’t actually fly to another planet. But we can recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways.

Keeping that sense of “having just tumbled out to life on a new world” is one of the things that mindfulness helps us to achieve.

There are a number of other passages where he examines the ways that we fit into the universe and the universe fits into us. Throughout the book one keeps hitting on ideas that have a resonance with the teachings of Buddhism. It is there for anyone to see if they have an understanding of them. The fact that they come from Richard Dawkins is irrelevant. He has found, through hard work and study and dedication, the same things that Buddhists have found—also through hard work, study and dedication. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to see these two points of view converging inside this book. If you have any inclination toward science or you would like to see how familiar Buddhist thoughts can be expressed in new ways using new metaphors, this book is worth the time it takes to read. It’s not a long book, can be read in a few sittings and won’t take up too much time.

If I was trying to make money from this blog, this is where I’d have a link to purchase it on Amazon or some other book selling site. Since I’m not here to make anything from this writing, I’ll just urge you to find it from your favorite source for acquiring the written word.

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Zen is the Japanese word for meditation. So, “Zen meditation” is actually a bit of a redundancy. However it’s one that most of us don’t worry about too much. If you really want to sound all cool and in-the-know, you’ll use the Japanese word zazen to describe “Zen meditation”. See, hipsterism will rear its ugly head anywhere. Whatever you call it, the fact remains that it can be difficult, boring, painful, frustrating, rewarding, fulfilling and energizing. Usually it’s all of this at the same time.

Being just what you are right now is the very definition of success in zazen. 

I don’t know how many times I find myself sitting and wondering what I’m doing and why. Then I’ll have an experience like I did on Wednesday evening and it will change my attitude for a while but nothing is permanent and I soon find myself back in the same position I was before I had a super-special-extra-happy-blissfully-conscious-of-my-oneness-with-the-universe-and-everyone-around-me moment. There’s nothing like sitting in a semi-uncomfortable position trying to keep your mind from wandering back over the events of the day to remind you that zazen isn’t anything special.

Brad Warner writes a lot about this in Sit Down and Shut Up. Earlier today, I came across this passage.

See, if the goal of zazen were to achieve a heightened awareness, states of sacred bliss, or some such thing, then zazen on a bad hair day [a day when things just don’t go well or don’t “click”] might be considered worse than zazen on a good hair day [a day when one feels blissful awareness]. But zazen isn’t like that. Whatever it is is just what it is. If you can stay reasonably still and at least try to keep your mind focused on the task at hand for the time period you’ve allotted yourself, you get a gold star. Whether or not it works out the way you want it to is of no concern. Being just what you are right now is the very definition of success in zazen.

The metaphor of “good hair day/bad hair day” is something that he builds up in the chapter to describe things going well or going poorly. If you want to know more about it, pick up a copy of the book. It’s in chapter 21.  Metaphor aside, there is a lot in that passage. It doesn’t waste time with trying to make meditation something it’s not. It doesn’t promise anything special and it reminds us that sitting can only be done for the sake of sitting.

When I started to think about Buddhism last year I did so because I found in it a viable answer to some very pressing questions that I was trying to deal with. Issues of suffering and pain and loss and depression as well as my obesity were all dragging me down pretty bad. As I began to put Buddhist principles into action, some of these issues began to clarify and I was able to see things more clearly and to start to see improvements in my state of mind and my state of living. This was wonderful but it was also dangerous for my practice. Since I was seeing so much change, it was easy to tie those changes to the practice and to make those changes into a goal of the practice. I was meditating to lose weight. How’s that for ironic? “Learn the secret to weight loss through the power of sitting on your ample ass not doing a thing! Only four easy payments of $19.95!” What happens when results slow down or disappear completely? If you’ve tied your practice to a goal, you have defined “success” and “failure” for your practice. That will only make your practice that much harder when you face—and you will face it—your criteria for “failure”.

So, I have been learning to sit without goals. Sit without attachments to sitting. Sit without expectations of the meditation session. This is so much harder to do than learning how to meditate or trying to change my lifestyle to be one that is conducive to weight loss and health. Part of this is due to human nature, part of this is due to my personality and part of it is due to my attitudes about things as an American. I belong to a culture that bristles at the thought of doing something for no good reason. Americans don’t want to do things the old way. We are, on the whole, an innovative bunch and finding newer, better, faster and more efficient ways of doing things is second nature to us. Zazen will have nothing of it. Zazen demands total commitment to the experience of zazen. Nothing more, nothing less. In the end, zazen promises a way to enlightenment but what will that get you? Honestly, not a whole lot. Even after enlightenment you still need to eat, still need to sleep, still need to go to the bathroom. Enlightenment is, for the most part, nothing special. This is what I’m learning as I sit. This is what I try not to think about before I sit, while I’m sitting and while I’m rubbing my legs trying to get feeling back into them while wishing the tingling would go away after I’m done.

If I keep following this train of thought here, I’m going to quickly find myself rambling among the weeds of “Zen-land” so I think I’ll stop here for the sake of everyone who has actually managed to stick with this post this long. My final thought about meditation is the same as my first. There is no rhyme or reason to why we sit. We sit to sit. No goal, no plan, no success, no failure. Meditate. Just meditate. That’s all we can do and it’s all we should ever expect to get out of the experience. So, get out there and sit. It’ll do wonders for your mind and you’ll find that sitting around in meditation may just produce results that you never saw coming (since you’re not supposed to be looking for results remember?)

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It seems like as soon as my leg healed,  I injured myself again. This time it’s my foot. I was running around with my son and his best friend and managed to hurt the bottom of my left foot. Once again, I can’t go to the gym because I can hardly walk without limping. There’s no way I can exercise with it feeling this way.

At least with a foot injury I can still meditate. Unfortunately, I’m finding it hard to sit for long periods of time. The other morning I went to sit for 20-30 minutes but couldn’t get past the 15 minute mark because of the pain.

Even though I was hurting, I had committed to going to the Zen Center on Wednesday evening. I planned on sitting any way I had to in order to get through the night. As we began sitting, I felt my body begin to relax into the calm concentration of zazen and I began to focus my mind on the present moment and dismiss thoughts that arose. It didn’t take long before the pain popped up along with thoughts about it. This can be quite distracting when you are trying to meditate. Usually, pain is caused by sitting with your legs or back or feet being held in one position for too long. That’s pretty easy to address by gently moving whatever needs to be moved. This pain wasn’t going away that easily.

We were only 10 minutes into the first 25 minute sitting and I was having a harder time than I thought I would. I wasn’t sure what to do about the pain so I focused on sitting and keeping a clear mind. The beauty of keeping a clear mind is that when you are meditating in a group with others, you are all of the same (clear) mind. It’s one of the few times when one has a shared experience of that intensity. As someone who used to play music and as Brad Warner says in his book Sit Down and Shut Up, it is similar to the experience of playing music in a band when everything is going right. It’s a great feeling to be that connected to others and this happened to me last night.

This is not something that happens to me every time I go to the Zen center. It’s not something I try to force because that would defeat the purpose of sitting. When it happens, it happens and it’s nice when it does.

As I sat there in meditation, I felt a connection with the others in the room and a strange thing began to happen: I felt myself gaining strength from my connection with them. As I felt more “oneness” with those in the room, the pain in my foot subsided. I began to, literally, transcend the pain I was feeling. It was no longer an issue for me because the pain in that foot was just pain in one of my feet and, at that point in time, I felt like I had 16 feet. Before I knew it, the first sitting was over and it was time for walking meditation.

This was really a concern for me going into the evening since walking was harder for me than sitting. I’m limping pretty bad because I can’t put much weight on my left foot. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to spend 10 minutes walking or if I’d have to stand aside while others walked.

My concerns and worries were unnecessary. The diminished pain in my foot continued through the walking meditation and into the next session of sitting. It was an amazing experience for me to be that connected to others around me in practice. I have read about it and have heard about it but I hadn’t experienced it to that extent before. I had felt this kind of connection in small doses in the past but this was the first time that I had felt that connection for an extended practice period. Even after we were done, I continued to feel a connection to everyone and everything around me in a way that I don’t normally feel. It didn’t last forever but it was nice while it did.

Tonight, my foot still hurts. I really want to get back into the gym and I hope to do that starting on Monday morning. The pain is slowly going away and I am moving faster and without as much of a limp this evening. I just wish that the relief I felt last night would have stuck around longer! But, one cannot force something like that.

I think that this experience has really helped me to see how important it can be to practice with others. Practicing alone or sitting by oneself is important as a daily routine is helpful. However, last night reminded me that to be a part of a community, a Sangha, is even more important and can be even more helpful. If you are practicing and not currently a part of a Sangha, I can’t encourage you enough to find one to be a part of. It will challenge you and encourage you and help you to grow in ways that you can’t on your own.

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