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Archive for the ‘Impermanence’ Category

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.

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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.

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A Zen Proverb

My Zen Center recently posted this on their facebook page.

Once a student went to the Zen Master and said, “My meditation is horrible!! I feel so distracted…. my legs hurt… sometimes I fall asleep. It is just horrible!!”

The teacher replied, “Don’t worry, it will pass.”

A week later, the student came back to his teacher and said, “My mediation is wonderful!! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive. It is just wonderful!!”

The master replied, “Don’t worry, it will pass.”

 

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Hello again. Thanks for sticking with me. As you may have noticed, I’ve been distant lately. It’s not you, it’s me. Really. Let’s see what’s happened in the past month…

1. Found out the house we were renting was being sold and had we had to move.
2. Went on a huge vacation to the Caribbean and had a wonderful, relaxing time.
3. Got back and immediately had to find a new place to live.
4. Found a new place.
5. Schedule a moving date.
6. Pack, pack, pack
7. Moving day! Guess what? The movers aren’t showing up due to a scheduling problem.
8. Find new movers who happen to be available in a few hours and who won’t charge a small fortune.
9. Find an amazing company who does a wonderful job getting us moved to our new home just 1.5 miles from the old home.
10. Unpack, unpack, unpack.
11. It’s May. That means its the big final push on the major project at work. It goes live on June 14th and needs to be done. Lots of hours spent working.
12. Get new dog to go with new house. Why not, things aren’t crazy enough right?
13. Finish up with Cub Scout leader obligations.
14. Start Little League with my son. Games are three times a week. Better clear the calendar.
15. Juggle the normal day to day stresses of life.

That’s not an exhaustive list but it’s been an exhausting month! I literally haven’t had much time to think, let alone write anything. Unfortunately, when you’re trying to keep a crazy schedule and you’re dealing with massive loads of stress and things really seem out of control, old habits have a tendency to rear their ugly heads and you don’t have the energy to fight them off. That has happened to me. Since I have been eating on the go for most of the past month and it’s almost impossible to eat healthy when you’re always moving, I have put some weight back on. As of now, I am still down 36 pounds from when I started so I’m choosing to focus on that. I’m also choosing to focus on what I’m putting into my body and making sure I keep that body exercising. I had actually gotten back up (almost) to 300 pounds but I’m moving in the right direction again. I think that I have rediscovered my focus on my weight and am re-committing myself to live the way I need to.

Through all of this, I have somehow managed to maintain my practice in a very satisfying and beneficial way. I have been practicing Buddhism for almost a year now and have not been more grateful for it than I have been in the past six weeks. I honestly do not think I would have handled everything I have been going through as easily as I have without my practice. The clarity of mind that comes with a committed schedule of meditation and practice has been essential for me in gaining the insight I need to navigate through these rather rough waters. Impermanence, unattachment, emptiness and a committment to alleviate suffering of all sentient beings has been a major factor in my peace of mind. There have been a lot of ups and downs in the past month and I’ve gotten through them. I’m not sure the stress is going to go away any time soon but I also know that I have a set of tools that have prepared me to face them. Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, meditation and a desire to end suffering are a pretty solid foundation to build on. Sure, I struggle with my weight and I’d love to be much further to my goal of losing 80 pounds but the way I’m viewing it now is that my weight is a wonderful barometer that points to my own wellness. The better I’m doing, the lower my weight goes. I think that’s a blessing. How many other people have such a clear and easy to understand indicator that tells them how they’re really doing? So today, I am thankful for each one of my 294 pounds. They are 294 teachers all pointing me in the right direction.

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Winter in Maine is hard. That’s all there is to it: it’s hard. We’ve had feet of snow on the ground for months. The days are short and you can regularly tell someone the temperature by using just your fingers.  In the past few days we’ve crept up above freezing and gotten rain instead of snow. The spring thaw has begun.

I was reminded of this today as I got into my car and heard birds that had not sung in our neighborhood for months. I spent a few moments soaking in their songs and looking forward to seeing grass again. It feels like the world is coming alive again.

I feel like I am too. I’ve made it to the gym two days in a row now and I’ve been eating healthier too. It’s so easy to lose track of good habits when you lose your daily routines. That’s exactly what happened to me. I got hurt in January and then injured myself again in February and both of these injuries kept me from exercising. That was the first real blow to my rituals that kept me going forward. Then, I started to deal with depression again. This was an even bigger blow to my motivation. My mood matched the weather: cold, dark and hard.

The batteries on my scale died so I lost the ability to monitor my weight and because of the previously mentioned issues, I wasn’t very motivated to change them. Strike three. I was out of control again and stopped taking care of myself. I let old habits back in and lost my focus on my goals.

Now,  Spring is coming and I am waking up. I’m once again following my routines and watching what I am putting into my body. Today as I was exercising, I was reminded of just how good it feels to work out. I felt a rush of energy and enthusiasm to lose weight again. I think that the change of seasons will be the perfect time to change my habits once again. Here’s to new life, new hope and new resolve.

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Ever since I saw Tron: Legacy, I have been more aware of people’s search for perfection and the lengths they will go to achieve it. The desire to create a perfect system, and the impossibility of doing that, was one of the driving factors of the conflict in the plot of Tron. Maybe it’s also a seasonal thing: everyone always wants to have the perfect Christmas so it’s a theme you see popping up in a lot of television and movies that we see this time of year.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe this is the tyranny of Martha Stewart rearing its ugly and perfectly sculpted head. For example, I caught the last ten minutes of a cooking show a few weeks ago where a chef was searching for the perfect Peking duck recipe that could be made at home. I was happy to see that he achieved his quest before the show ended because he kept failing to get a crispy skin of the right texture and flavor and everyone knows that Peking duck is all about the skin. The solution was simple too. It involved removing the skin from the duck and sewing it on to a rack and then smoking it in an oven for almost an hour. Simple, huh? Anyone can do that right? Even at my most adventurous and ambitious carnivorous period, I would never have attempted to reproduce this chef’s “solution” to making the perfect Peking duck at home. Seriously, how many people have ever thought to themselves, “If only I could sew this skin onto a rack and then smoke it using wood chips in my oven, it would be just right”? Personally, I would never get past the “sew the skin” part of the equation. But, hey, perfection is a demanding mistress so we do what we can.

I found myself doing something similar late at night on Christmas Eve. I had bought my wife a new printer so she could print photos from home instead of having to go to a store to have them printed. She’s old school when it comes to preserving memories and a photo in a book just feels more permanent than a bunch of ones and zeros stored on a disk. I can’t blame her since I’ve seen enough digital data disasters to be concerned about preserving our photos and movies. I found a great printer that I knew would do everything we needed and I couldn’t wait to see her open it in just a few hours. I wanted the wrapping on the gift to be as perfect as it could be. After all, this was a gift from the heart and I wanted the wrapping of said gift to reflect that. Before I go on with this story, I should add that I’m just not that good at wrapping boxes. I guess I missed the class on how to fold paper over a box and make it look good.

Anyway, I measured and carefully cut the paper managing to mangle it just a bit with the scissors. I had freed a sheet of wrapping paper from the tube! To thank me for freeing it, the paper kept trying to give me a hug. While I appreciate the affection, I just wanted it to lay flat. Was that asking too much? I didn’t think so, but it was. This paper kept rolling up every time I tried to make it go in a straight line. It just wanted to bend and curve where I wanted it straight and folded. After a bit of struggling and fighting I was able to get it wrapped around the box only to find out that the “measure twice and cut once” rule is a bunch of BS. There was a gap of about an inch between the start and end of the paper. I think this was the first time I actually started swearing. It wasn’t the last.

There wasn’t enough paper left on the tube to start over. I would have to improvise. I ended up cutting a strip of paper out that was a little bigger than the gap and carefully taped it over the gap. Then I realized the pattern on the strip was upside down in relation to the pattern on the paper around the box. Oops. The little Christmas trees were pointing toward me on the little strip while on the big sheet they were pointed away from me. This would never do. I started to remove the strip and that’s when the thin paper started to rip and tear. This was the second time I started to swear out loud. It’s a good thing I was in the basement.

I made the decision to forge ahead and try to keep the offending strip on the bottom of the gift so that it wouldn’t be visible while sitting under the tree. I only had one more step left in the battle of the wrapping paper: the sides of the box.

I’ll spare you the gory details here but needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. I believe this is where I finished my rum spiked egg nog in one gulp and threw myself back into battle with the fierceness of a mongoose fighting a cobra. Remember how I measured twice and cut once? I really didn’t think there should have been a gap in the paper and while picking the box up to get at the sides I realized that the paper had folded over on itself while I was wrapping the box and now I had an extra inch of paper on one side. It was an extra inch that was creased and ugly and totally out of place in the location it was. This is when I contemplated giving her the printer still in the giant yellow Best Buy bag. I realized this would be tacky and I couldn’t let a piece of paper beat me. I moved ahead with the cutting and the folding and the creasing and the taping and eventually, I had a box that looked like it had been wrapped by a bunch of hung over elves coming off a three day bender. It looked like shit. Once again I told the box and paper what I thought of it and then moved on to wrapping the special photo paper that I had gotten to go along with the printer.

I’d like to say that the smaller boxes of photo paper were easier to wrap but they just mimicked the mess I’d already made but on a smaller scale. Eventually, I brought three poorly wrapped boxes upstairs and wearily placed them under the tree.

The next morning my beautiful children, oblivious to my suffering and pain and struggle the previous night were kind enough to allow us to sleep in until 5:00 A.M. I think the neighbors were woken up by the sounds of their protests as they were told, under penalty of death, not to touch the gifts or disturb us again until 7:00 A.M. Eventually they accepted our bargain of being able to keep their gifts in exchange for letting us sleep another two hours and left to do hard time in their rooms.

7:00 A.M. came faster than we thought it would and the kids were in the room in time to watch the clock roll over to 7:01. Our time was up and the madness would now commence.

It was an amazing flurry of paper and ribbons and boxes and hugs and “thank you’s” and cats. The poor cats. They had no idea what was going on. The little still gets jittery every time he hears paper crinkling. As things began to die down, it was time for mom to open her gifts. She went over to her poorly wrapped big box and, without stopping to critique the wrapping paper or notice the creases or bad folds or bulges of paper in the corners, opened her gift and was overjoyed by it. The paper I had fought so hard with was nothing more than a crumpled up ball on the floor soon to be moved into a trash bag. The battle was over and I had won.

Other than how bad I suck at wrapping, what have we learned from this story? For me, I learned that perfection is another one of those illusions that we love to cling to. My desire for the perfectly wrapped box led me to behave in a way I’d never behave in public. It drove me to drink. My wife never noticed all the little imperfections that stood out to me because they were different than my mental image of what it should look like. To her, it was a wonderful gift that was thoughtful and perfect. See that word in the last sentence? She thought it was perfect. I couldn’t see the perfection of the gift because I was too fixated on the appearance of the wrapping paper. She focused on the gift itself and the thought that went into it. That was where the perfection was to be found.

The entire idea of perfection is an illusion. It’s a lie we tell ourselves is attainable. One of the major foundations of Western thought, the philosophy of Plato, is built upon the desire to obtain “the Platonic ideal” of perfection. We build our cultures, our society, our lives on top of these lives and then we cling to them as if they are the supports holding up the structure of our existence. I see and hear the idea of making something “perfect” every day. I’m seeing more and more how that is only laying the groundwork for further suffering.

Sitting in meditation, I begin to shatter the illusion of perfection and it becomes easier for me to accept the messiness of life. Real life can be ugly. Reality can be harsh. Reality is anything but perfect. And this is OK. Really, it is. Doing nothing in the face of demands for perfection is the appropriate response. Anything else will end in suffering as perfection is grasped at only to slip away. The next time you feel the need or the desire to be perfect, remember this. Accept the reality of the situation and set aside the desire to be perfect. I’m not saying don’t do your best at whatever you do: if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Just don’t get upset if the results fall short of your expectations. Release your expectations and take joy in what you have made or done. You’ll be better off in the long run and you will get more joy out of living life just as it is.

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As I’ve mentioned here before, I usually weigh myself on two different scales and they are almost ten pounds off from one another. This has caused me some frustration as I try to split the difference between them to get a more accurate picture of where my weight really is. Lately, things seemed to have gotten even worse. My bathroom scale now has me under 260 while my Wii fit tool has constantly had me over 271. This morning I made it a point to pick up the Wii Fit board, blow on the feet a bit to make sure nothing was lodged in the sensors and really do my best to make sure the board was on a level surface. When I got on it today, it said my weight had gone down by 4.4 pounds and I was now under 270. Once again, my scales are both showing me losing weight at about the same rate regardless of what the actual number is. I don’t know if one of the sensors on the Wii balance board was malfunctioning or if there was another issue but a measurement that is more in line with what I am expecting to see is a welcome change. Even though I was not getting discouraged about a lack of any real change it was beginning to make me wonder if I was going to have to make any more drastic changes to keep losing weight.

With the 270 mark now in my rear view mirror, I am in the final quarter of my original weight loss goal. I’m down 61 pounds and have 19 to go. As I continue to live in a way that is as healthy for me and the environment as much as possible, I see the weight loss as a natural side effect of this effort. That’s been one of my goals all along: to change myself so that weight loss is a natural and organic component of, my life. If I were going into this with just the intention of losing weight, I would fail. Attachment to being healthy can be just as bad as being unhealthy. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Being on vacation really allowed me time to just relax and think about things that I normally don’t have time to. There’s something about having a couple of cross country flights to really give you time to think. Plus, there was the time change to get used to: I kept waking up around 4:30 A.M. for the first couple of days and this gave me pleanty of time to sit quietly and think as I waited for the exercise center to open at 6:00.

Attachment is a hard subject to really wrap your mind around. We do it without realizing we do it. Attaching to things, people, ideas, goals, desires, dreams, concepts and aversions are all a part of our mental makeup. We either want to get something or keep something away or we want to be something or control the actions or thoughts of another and in each case, it leads to suffering. Two parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are right view and right action. These two parts really help us to deal with our attachments and to see them for what they are. When I first started to lose weight, getting healthy was my only goal. I wanted to be a different person. I had a lot of misconceptions about who and what I was. I was attached to my old lifestyle and I was attached to an ideal that I could never achieve. It is only as we practice and begin to examine things as they really are and attempt to see their true nature that we begin to see our attachment for what it is. My attachments to my overweight and my attachment to a skinny and fit body that I could never have were making me crazy. When we attach to something, we think of it as a part of us. We define it as our “self” and we have a hard time picturing it any other way. When we say “I” we refer to our mental image of what we are and this includes all of our attachments that we hold on to like so much baggage.

The reality of the situation is that we are not our attachments. We are not the self we think we are most of the time. It takes a lot of introspection to realize this. Letting go of our attachments and assumptions about the nature of reality is no easy task. I’m just getting the smallest glimpse of what that means lately. I’ve been working on this post for almost a week now. I’ve been sick and I’ve been busy and I’ve been preoccupied with a lot of things that have demanded my attention. However, throughout the stress of travel and sickness and busyness and distraction, I have been aware of my relation to these things. I have had an easier time of not attaching to them because I’m learning to apply the right view of them and take the right action in regards to them. So, this is where I find myself: weighing less, feeling better and feeling freer. It’s a nice place to be and I’m enjoying the experience. Now, if I can just keep from getting attached to it…

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