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Archive for March, 2013

The Joy of Completion

Back in November I started writing a novel. It was based off a story that I’d been thinking about since 2009. I decided to participate in National Novel Writer’s Month with the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. I surpassed that goal and ended up at 60,083 words and had the majority of the story written. It wasn’t finished, though, so I kept going. I took a lot of December off but got back into the swing of things and finished it the other night with a word count of 91,911 words. The story is 253 pages long and I’m actually happy with the way it turned out.

Throughout the process of writing, it always amazed me how if often felt like meditation. There were occasions where my mind was completely focused on writing and the words flowed out of my mind and onto the screen while I got to read them for the first time as the story wrote itself in front of me. The experience of maintaining a singular focus and putting aside distracting thoughts—and consequently losing ones sense of self-as-separate being from the universe—that I experienced while writing is only comparable to what I have found in meditation.

Writing, like meditation, is most rewarding when done daily. Both are practices that take few resources to do and both require a concerted effort and commitment to do them. While I go into the task of writing with a goal in mind, I find that I make the best progress on it when I don’t grasp at the goal or focus on it to the exclusion of the actual job of writing. When one sits down to write, the mind is distracted and wanders and must be brought gently back to the task at hand. Consistently returning to the same place, the same task, the same focus, strengthens the mind over time and one begins to have less distractions and fewer interruptions and the act of writing becomes more organic and enjoyable. Just like with meditation.

I find that writing also inspires a desire to do more writing, just as meditation inspires me to meditate further. Completing a novel has been such a rewarding experience that I’m already planning the next one and will start it as part of Camp NaNoWriMo next month. I’m only planning 30,000 words this time though because I foresee this as being a very busy month but I think it’s an attainable goal.

If you’re interested, more information can be found about Camp NaNoWriMo and my next book by clicking the image below. Full disclosure, this will take you to a sponsorship page.

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Surprises

You know that feeling you get when you’re thinking about characters for your next novel and you suddenly get a flash of inspiration for how two characters are connected that you would never have thought of on your own (though you obviously just did)? I love that feeling.

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The other day, I was reading an article on Buddhism Now about life as a monk in a Korean Zen monastery. I found this article interesting because I practice in a Korean school of Zen so there was a bit of familiarity with the descriptions that the monk wrote about. One part of the article really struck me as interesting when he mentioned feeling “full of emptiness”. This is a seemingly contradictory ide: how could one be full of something that is, by definition, empty? However, I found myself nodding in agreement and feeling a glimpse of recognition in his words.

In the past month, I moved about 90 minutes away from where I had been. It’s a temporary move but for now I am not able to attend meditation with my normal Zen Center. Instead, I have been practicing with the Portsmouth Buddhist Center and have been sitting with them on Sunday mornings. It is interesting to spend time with a different school of Buddhism and to see how those differences influence the practice of a particular school. In this case, on Sunday mornings, the meditation lasts for close to one hour without any type of break or transition from seated to walking meditation as it does in my school. This has had the effect of allowing me to have some different experiences on the meditation cushion even though my personal practice is the same (they do a mild “guided meditation” there but I do not follow it and instead, just sit).

The other day, I was sitting still, feeling the cool air against my face and allowing my thoughts to arise as they would and keep an otherwise clear mind. Lo and behold, after about thirty minutes of uninterrupted sitting, I began to feel “full of emptiness”. I was aware of my body and the various pulls and tightness of the muscles in my legs and I was conscious of the cushion underneath me. However, my body was no longer felt like the place where I keep my “self”. The border between me and “not me” had begun to blur as a feeling of oneness with the cushion, the floor, the people in the room and the building we were in began to gently take over. My mind was calm and clear and my senses were no longer impeding my perception. I felt full and empty at the same time.

As often happens on the meditation cushion, once the realization that this was happening came into my mind, it collapsed and I was back to feeling the way I did before the experience. For a few minutes though, I believe I was experiencing samadhi. It has happened a few times before and, I’m sure, it will happen again. The trick is to not go in expecting it when I sit because trying to chase after a goal is a sure way to “fail” when you meditate.

After my realization and subsequent collapse of the experience, I was left with the lines from the heart sutra that “Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.” stuck in my head. They seemed much more real to me in that moment than ever before because the distinction between them had so recently been obliterated. I was back in a land of dichotomies and differentiations and saw just how troubling making distinctions between “me” and “not me” can really be. A sense of oneness must be cultivated if one is to have compassion for every sentient being. After the hour was up, I got up from my cushion, stretched my legs and went back to my car to drive home through the snow. Somehow, it didn’t seem to bother me too much since I knew, for at least a short while, that the weather was not some other thing that I was opposed to. There was no “me” to oppose it.

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I just finished reading a very interesting and infuriating article that I highly recommend you read. It is by Michael Moss and is an adaptation of his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The article focuses on the way that food companies design and market foods to appeal to the consumer and to make sure they eat as much as possible as frequently as possible. It examines the way that the food companies intentionally manipulate their recipes to ensure that their customers can’t help but come back for more. In other words, how they design their products just like a drug. As someone for whom junk food has been a nearly constant companion for 35+ years, I can assure you that, yes, these foods are addictive and that breaking that addiction is incredibly hard. I’ll let the article speak for itself and encourage you to check it out. There are a few things that did strike me as interesting and I thought were worth commenting on from the perspective of a Buddhist and as someone who has suffered because of the way these foods are carefully crafted to encourage a consumer to eat more.

One of the food scientists that Mr. Moss interviewed is Howard Moskowitz. He was responsible for revolutionizing things like spaghetti sauce, Dr. Pepper and the MRE’s that are served to members of the Army. His approach is thoroughly grounded in research and experimentation. His models plot hundreds of data points in order to identify a range of configurations for these foods that people will enjoy and want more of. His work has influenced the entire processed food industry and it changed the way that the food companies formulate and package their products. When confronted with the negative impact that his research has had on the lives of millions of people, he had a very interesting defense.

“There’s no moral issue for me,” he said. “I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”

When I read this line, I had to stop for a few moments and take a few deep breaths. I have to ask, when did being a moral creature become a luxury? I understand the pain of struggling to survive. I grew up in a home that, while not in poverty, was certainly not affluent. Free lunches and food stamps were a part of my life growing up and I have struggled as an adult to provide for my family. It is hard to do, but at no time did I ever consider maintaining my morals to be a luxury. Two parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are Right Action  and Right Livelihood. These two components encourage us to end suffering in ourselves and in others by acting in a way that will not harm others and by choosing a profession that does not bring harm to another being. Mr. Moskowitz did not approach his career or work with this kind of mindset and, in so doing, millions of people have suffered from obesity, cancer, hypertension, stroke and early death or been effected by a loved one who did. Here we see the way that the actions of one person have had long term negative ramifications for more people than one could hope to count. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more stark example of just how important living according to the principles of the Eightfold Path are in relieving or preventing of suffering.

Frito-Lay spent $30 million a year to develop snacks that would appeal to changes in consumer tastes. According to the article, Frito-Lay learned that

Eating real meals had become a thing of the past. Baby boomers, especially, seemed to have greatly cut down on regular meals. They were skipping breakfast when they had early-morning meetings. They skipped lunch when they then needed to catch up on work because of those meetings. They skipped dinner when their kids stayed out late or grew up and moved out of the house. And when they skipped these meals, they replaced them with snacks.

In response, they developed snacks that would be more appealing as meal replacements. They worked with scientists, marketers and psychologists to design new snacks to appeal to consumers who were in a hurry. New flavors added to current product lines were designed to maximize “bliss” so that eating these new snacks would become a regular thing rather than an occasional thing. They created products that encouraged people to forget about regular meals and, as has been examined in other places (herehere and here) encouraged the decline in cooking and food preparation skills.

In this case, I believe that a lack of right mindfulness, right effort and right concentration on the part of our society as a whole allowed the food companies to replace cooking with convenience. We have lost the aptitude to take time for making simple things in exchange for constant movement and stimulation. Having foods that are easy to heat and serve or to open up and dig into make the effort of cooking superfluous.  Why make spaghetti sauce when you can open a jar and heat it up? I’m at the top of the “guilty” list for this kind of behavior and I have the physique to prove it. I went to culinary school and I find great enjoyment in cooking and preparing food but I still reach for the box or the jar or the can in order to save time. Here’s a basic recipe that I have used before to make tomato sauce. It’s very low in sugar because of the natural sweetness of the carrots and considerably lower in sodium than any pre-made sauce you can buy. The tomato paste is the closest thing to a prepared food item in the list and it is not really necessary and (at 1 teaspoon) is really just a flavoring agent and not a significant source of salt or fat. I prefer to use fresh parsley, basil and garlic but, if you are working on a time crunch, those ingredients can be found in “convenience” versions (pre-chopped, dried, etc.). This sauce takes 45 minutes to make, assuming that chopping the onion, carrot and celery takes you a long time. It’s possible to make this in large batches and set it aside in the freezer for future use. It’s also a fairly simple sauce and is the base sauce for a lot of other really delicious and nutritious options. The foods we eat don’t have to be from cans or boxes or bags, but we have to be willing to put forth the right effort to make sure we are not falling prey to the food giants any longer.

INGREDIENTS
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot or 1/2 large carrot, finely chopped
1 small stalk of celery, including the green tops, finely chopped
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes, including the juice, or 1 3/4 pound of fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 teaspoon tomato paste (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

METHOD
1 Heat olive oil in a large wide skillet on medium heat. Add the chopped onion, carrot, celery and parsley. Stir to coat. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are softened and cooked through.

2 Remove cover and add the minced garlic. Increase the heat to medium high. Cook for garlic for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, including the juice and shred them with your fingers if you are using canned whole tomatoes. Add the tomato paste and the basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low simmer, reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered until thickened, about 15 minutes. If you want you can push the sauce through a food mill, or blend it with an immersion blender, to give it a smooth consistency.

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