Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Buddhism’ Category

Fog

Fog rolls in
Foghorn sounds
Danger, rocks ahead!

Sun comes out
Foghorn stops
Danger, rocks ahead!

Read Full Post »

The other day at the gym, I was on the elliptical machine. It’s my favorite machine to work out on as it’s low impact but really efficient at burning calories. When I’m on the elliptical, I try to maintain a heart rate of around 150. For someone my age and weight, it’s a good speed. I spend 25 minutes on the machine when I use it and I find that the time usually goes quickly as long as I have some good music to listen to. Last week, I forgot my headphones. Those were the longest 25 minutes I’ve ever spent in the gym. I never knew how much music really contributed to my activity until I no longer had it. Instead, I had to look around the gym for lack of anything interesting to do.

In order to keep my heart rate at around 150, I usually move at about four miles per hour on the machine. This day, I was really pushing myself and was up to 4.3 mph and had sweat pouring off of me. I felt pretty good about myself, my progress and my ability. That’s when The Gym Guy showed up. TGG is a great person, I’m sure. When he goes home, his kids are probably happy to see him. TGG has a good job and he’s good at what he does, he just happens to also be really good at using elliptical machines. Probably because he’s there a lot. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. The Gym Guy steps up to the machine next to me and proceeds to move at a pace I didn’t know the machines were capable of. Because I had nothing else to do, I looked at the readout on his machine. He was going nearly 12 miles per hour! He was sprinting on the elliptical machine while I plodded along at about a third of his rate. I figured he’d slow down eventually but TGG just kept it up. I think he may have gotten faster as he got warmed up. TGG was master of the elliptical machine and I was getting schooled in what they were capable of. TGG was so good at it that he didn’t need to hold the handles I had to use for stability and to monitor my heart rate. TGG just moved while his arms pumped in much the same way as an Olympic runner’s. It was, to say the least, impressive.

The problem with being next to someone like TGG is the inevitability of the comparisons between yourself and him. Without my music to distract me, I couldn’t help watching the show as it unfolded. I had to wonder if it were even possible for me to get the elliptical machine to move that fast. If I did, could I maintain a speed like that? If I could, for how long? TGG didn’t seem to be letting up any time soon. Then, I realized he’d already traveled much farther on his machine than I had on mine, though I’d been there much longer than him. If we were on a track, he would have given me a half mile head start and then passed me without breaking a sweat. TGG was good and I was bad. I’m not stupid, I learned that lesson fast. I learned it as fast as TGG was running on his machine.

That’s when I remembered something: I’m not The Gym Guy and he’s not me. TGG has been working out on these machines for a long time. TGG is in good physical shape. TGG isn’t trying to overcome a lifetime of obesity. TGG is not celebrating every pound lost. TGG is (probably not) monitoring every calorie and making sure it’s the best possible one to ingest at any given moment. TGG is good but I’m good too. I remember the lessons I learn on the meditation bench: the mind makes good, the mind makes bad. With no mind, there is no good and there is no bad. If I were to finish my exercise without a sense of failure, I had to let go of my thinking. Attachment to thoughts and illusions of “goodness” or “badness” had to be put aside. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply for a moment, watched my heart rate drop though I was still moving at 4 mph and let go of my mind. It was time for elliptical meditation.

TGG was still there when I finished my 25 minutes. He was still going strong and his arms and legs moved with speed and purpose. He was doing what his body needed him to do. I had completed doing what mine needed. The last ten minutes of my exercise passed as quickly as if I had my headphones on. Without the burden of thought and the struggle against my mind, time moved forward with ease. My body moved while my mind was still. I was no longer “bad” and he was no longer “good”. We were both two people using the elliptical machines and we both benefited from the experience. I wiped down my machine and felt good for TGG and hoped he would continue to keep his body in good shape and know the joy of having a mind as fit as his body.

Read Full Post »

Back in September of 2010, I hit a milestone of some importance. I lost 40 pounds. It was an amazing time and I was full of hope and joy at getting my weight under control and getting healthy. I’d been working very hard at it and things were new and promising. A few months after that, I was down 60 pounds and felt great. Twice, I had bought new clothes  because I was too skinny for my old ones. For the first time in a long time, I felt like things were under control and I was making progress on having the life I wanted. As often happens in life, it was at this point things got turned upside down when my marriage began to fall apart. It’s been a long and painful two years, but I’ve moved on. However, I have to undo a lot of damage those hard times inflicted on my weight and my health. As my life spiraled out of control, old habits came back and my weight returned to where it was when I started my journey. Actually, I hit 333 pounds (3 over where I was the first time) before I realized I couldn’t live with myself that way any more. So, in July of last year, I began to focus on my health again. I’ve progressed more slowly this time but in eleven months, I’ve gotten back to 290 pounds and once again feel the joy of having lost 40 pounds. Unlike last time, I’m not elated or dizzy from the accomplishment. Perhaps it’s because I’ve done it before, maybe it’s because I’ve been through the worst suffering of my life and am wary of happiness, perhaps it’s because I know I could gain it back if I let my guard down. Whatever the reason, I’m happy for myself but it’s not the same as last time. I’m more aware than ever how impermanent things really are and that’s probably a factor too. While I’m happy I’ve reached this milestone, I’m just not attached to the happiness like I once was. Eventually, the happiness will fade and I’ll be left with a choice about what to do. I can either continue losing weight and being healthy or I can chase after a faded happiness and suffer. This doesn’t mean I’m unhappy—nor does it diminish the importance of my accomplishment—however, my relationship to these feelings of accomplishment has changed.

Whenever we set out to do something hard, there are moments of fear and discouragement. Last November, I wrote 60,000 words of what eventually became a 92,000 word novel. At the beginning of the month, I had no idea if I could do it, and I was scared of failing in the attempt. However, each day I sat down and I wrote. I made the time and did what needed to be done. Now, I’m repeating that task by carefully reading through the novel, changing the things that need to be changed and fixing typos and gramatical problems. Even on days I don’t feel like doing it, I sit down and I edit and I rewrite and I add clarifications or cut extraneous words. I take it one day at a time and slowly and reliably make progress even though I still feel fear or discouragement. The same is true with my weight and my health. I’d been discouraged lately because the first thirty pounds came off quickly but it took me almost six months to lose the next ten. However, instead of attaching to the fear or discouragement, I’ve taken it one day at a time, one step at a time. Each day I choose to do what I need to do that day: I exercise, I eat well, I meditate, I write, I work. All of those days add up and I’m seeing results again.

I have lost 40 pounds and I fully expect to see the scale in the 280’s tomorrow or early next week. This is good. I am happy about this. However, the day will come when I am no longer happy and my only option will be to do what needs to be done that day.

Read Full Post »

I went back to the gym today for the first time in much longer than I’d like to admit. I’ve been walking around the city a lot since I moved here a month ago but I felt I needed to set aside some time specifically for exercise on top of the normal walking and climbing of stairs that I’ve been doing. Needless to say (though I will anyway), my legs are so sore I can’t even sit here at my desk comfortably. I just have to keep reminding myself that nothing is permanent even though it may feel like it. The pain, like my extra weight, will eventually go away.

On the up side, according to the scale at the gym, I’m down to 291 so I’ve got that going for me.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Since I started writing this blog, I have never hidden the fact that one reason I overeat is because of depression. I have blogged about depression many times (at least sixteen according to my tag list) and I still find new ways to say something about it. For me, getting my depression treated is the single best tool to combat my weight and ensure that I live a healthy lifestyle. Obviously, it is not the only thing I focus on in order to live a healthy life, but without dealing with the depression, nothing else I do will be effective. In fact, if I don’t deal with the depression, I’m not willing to do anything else.

Learning to recognize depression when it hits has been one of the hardest things I have done in learning to live differently. Depression is not just a feeling of sadness or feeling “down”. Feelings like that happen to everyone, it’s a part of life. There is a lot more to depression than just feelings—it’s a collection of issues that range from mild to severe. Any one of them, on their own, aren’t enough to equal depression, but if you have a number of them, it should be a matter of concern and be addressed, preferably with the assistance of a professional.

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation. I have personally felt this one very strongly. When I start to feel this way, I immediately begin to look for other signs. On a side note, the Buddhist idea of impermanence has really helped me combat this feeling.
  • Loss of interest in daily activities. If you have little or no interest in things you used to enjoy doing, this is another symptom. In my case, I find myself doing things that I used to enjoy except they feel empty or unfulfilling. I spin my wheels doing things over and over without a reaction.
  • Appetite or weight changes. Significant weight loss or weight gain—a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month—is another red flag. Obviously, this is one that I deal with a lot. I sometimes wish I had the problem of not eating when depressed but, in all honesty, it’s just as unhealthy as eating too much.
  • Sleep changes. Not being able to sleep or oversleeping are both symptoms to watch out for. In my case, sleep is always an option when I am depressed. I know other people who lie awake at night staring at the ceiling and feeling miserable.
  • Anger or irritability. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your threshold of frustration is low, your temper is short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves. I’ve been fortunate that this hasn’t been too bad for me. I do tend to get more irritable when I’m dealing with depression but I’m so cynical that it’s not much of a difference from when I’m not depressed.
  • Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. When small tasks become exhausting or take longer to complete, it is matter for concern. Especially if you experience other issues on this list. I know that for me, this seems to tie in to the ability to sleep for extended periods of time.
  • Self-loathing. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt: you harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes. This is another one that I suffer from to an extreme. When coupled with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, it is a recipe for disaster. Struggling with just those two items from this list should be all the reason you need to seek help from someone.
  • Concentration problems. Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things. Obviously, this is more than just the occasional feeling of being scatterbrained or forgetful.

Another thing I notice about myself when I’m depressed is an overwhelming desire to eat. For me, this is the precursor to the appetite or weight changes. The last time I was dealing with depression, I had a dream that I went to New York City and ate every bit of food from every restaurant there. For those of you keeping score, that’s over 3500 restaurants worth of food. It was an interesting dream to say the least.

The interplay of all of the various components that make up depression have interested me since I started to think about them. As I think of how I feel and how those feelings give rise to other thoughts and actions, I notice just how easy it is to get stuck in a downward spiral of depression and despair. These feelings feed off one another and each gains strength from the others. Feelings of helplessness feed feelings of self loathing. My brain tries to compensate by craving food to make me happy. However, a loss of ability to derive pleasure from things prevents this from working and this amplifies my feelings of frustration and irritability. I eat more and, while it doesn’t make me feel better, it does make me tired and my energy levels plummet. All this feeds back into a feeling of hopelessness and I’m left wondering if the merry-go-round will ever stop.

It has taken me a lot of time to see all of this and learn how depression effects me. There have been hours spent in meditation where I have had nothing other than my mind to keep me company. Through meditation, I have learned how my mind works and I have grown to understand what makes it tick. Meditation is one way that I have found to combat the effects of depression on my thoughts. This, for me, is a side benefit of meditation and, while I do not sit with a goal of fighting depression in mind, I’m not going to dismiss if it happens.

The other thing I have done to combat depression is to go on an anti-depressant medication. Finding the right one can be a delicate balancing act and is a decision to be made between a patient and a doctor but, if you feel you may be suffering from depression, I would recommend talking to someone about the possibility of a course of medical therapy to augment dealing with depression and its effects.

If you are fortunate enough to not deal with depression, I hope that reading the above offering provides some insight into what depression is like and how it impacts those who suffer from it. If you do suffer from depression, I hope that reading the above will help you see that things are not hopeless but that they can be better. Depression is not a permanent state. The entire concept of “permanent” is an illusion but a powerful one. When one is stuck in the midst of depression, it feels as if there is no other alternative and the fact that others don’t feel the same way feels like a lie.

If you identified with the list above and you are not being treated for depression, I would urge you to speak to a professional who understands depression to get further evaluation to see if you may be effected by it. Getting out of the rut that depression puts us in is the first, and truthfully hardest, step. Once you overcome that initial obstacle, it does get easier. Additionally, I would suggest finding a sangha or a meditation cushion and start to allow your mind to learn to be calm and clear. Depression muddies the water of our thoughts and meditation is a wonderful tool for allowing it to settle back to clarity. It has worked wonders for me.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »