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Archive for the ‘Mindfulness’ Category

Fog

Fog rolls in
Foghorn sounds
Danger, rocks ahead!

Sun comes out
Foghorn stops
Danger, rocks ahead!

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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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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.

 

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I just watched a great TED talk from Andy Puddicombe about the importance of and usefulness of taking 10 minutes every day for meditation. It’s a great intro to mindfulness.

 

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Today was an easy day for being good. I had a healthy breakfast, an amazing jerk tofu wrap from a local vegetarian friendly restaurant by my office and drank a lot of water. This evening, I went with the kids down to York Beach. It’s a very touristy area of Maine but it’s also a lot of fun. We played games and walked around. We went to a candy shop and we ate dinner. Since I’d been so good with everything today, I was going to get whatever on the menu looked good for dinner. I’m trying to not starve myself because that’s not a healthy choice either. However, the choices I’d made throughout the day added up to a much smaller amount of calories than I should have if I want to lose weight gradually. It really felt nice to walk into the place we had dinner and know that regardless of what I chose, I’d still have made all the right decisions for the day.

When I looked at the menu I saw a large collection of food designed for the American palate: foods high in fat and sodium and sugar. There were combinations of meat and eggs and cheese and potatoes in so many different ways it boggles the mind. I could have anything on the menu and not feel bad about it. That’s why when the waitress took our order I proudly requested the vegetarian burger. That’s right, the vegetarian burger. After only about a week of trying to be aware of what I am putting into my body and to make healthy choices, I really wanted that vegetarian burger. That makes today the first all-vegetarian day I’ve had in a long time. I ended up being “good” even when I knew I didn’t have to. It was like a switch has been thrown and I’m really wanting to do the right thing and I’m excited to be doing it. Since I really did want to allow myself to indulge in something I tried an egg cream for the first time. I’ve got to say I can see what all those New Yorkers rave about. It was a really great drink and, because it was a specially made item, didn’t come with free refills. It’s a little hard to go overboard on things if they don’t keep topping off your cup every time they walk by! In the end, I left the restaurant feeling like I had just won a big battle that I wasn’t even aware I’d been fighting.

That’s why I find myself writing a post when I should be getting ready for bed. I am pleased with what I’ve done today and feel encouraged to keep making progress as tomorrow. So, when breakfast comes, I’ll make a good decision and have a healthy breakfast. Then, I’ll follow that up with more healthy choices throughout the day and we’ll see if I can make this a 2 day in a row streak.

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I just got back from an early morning 1 mile walk. I love the smell of the air on a crisp winter morning. It’s so fresh and pure up here in Maine and it still amazes me even after being here more than 2 years. Add in the beautiful colors of the sunrise and you have an almost perfect environment for walking. There’s just enough of a bite to the air that you want to keep moving and it’s relatively easy to work up a sweat.

Today as I walked I tried to keep a clear mind and really experience each moment as it happened. The single note of a bird just waking up, the sound of water running through the gully below me, the crispness of the air, the scent of a fireplace from one of the homes that are nearby but invisible because of the woods, the pinks and oranges and reds spreading out over my head in all directions; all of these things became a part of my walk. And I became a part of all of them. I’m not going into a lot of detail about that. Take my word for it. Spend time meditating and studying Buddhism and you’ll see for yourself.

Now, with my body having had its exercise and my mind getting primed and cleared, I’m ready to face what is the busiest day of my week. And now, it’s time for a hot shower and a spicy bowl of oatmeal.

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I don’t know if I’ve ever blogged about this or not, but one of the many geeky things I like is anime. I’ve never dressed up in a costume and gone to a convention or anything but there are a lot of really great anime shows out there and they really do deserve to have a wider audience. Last week, I finally caught up on an anime series that I should have watched a long time ago but never seemed to get to. It’s called Afro Samurai and stars Samuel L. Jackson as one of the baddest dudes ever to hold a sword. The show is full of violence and language and graphic images but if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, I highly recommend it. Besides the great story line and beautiful artistic direction in the show and its follow up movie, there is a great example of what Buddhism often calls the “monkey mind”. In a nutshell, this is the mind that jumps around from one topic to another and constantly chatters and makes a racket and distracts us. The other day I used an analogy for this kind of mind where I compared it to a puppy who runs around chasing everything.

One of the characters from the show is named Ninja Ninja. He is the travelling companion of Afro Samurai and is also voiced by Samuel Jackson. Ninja is the personification of the monkey mind. The way that he moves and constantly chatters, attempting to distract Afro from his cause (usually that means killing someone) is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of demonstrating the activity of the monkey mind. Afro’s ability to allow Ninja to do whatever he is going to do is also a great example of how best to deal with the monkey mind. He rarely engages it and usually only tells it to be quiet or to go away. He doesn’t worry about it or try to argue or rationalize it away. He remains focused on his journey and what he needs to do. I found it to be quite inspiring when I thought about it. Below is a short clip of the interaction between Afro and Ninja that takes place in the movie that was made in response to the popularity of the original 5 episode series. I am including this particular clip because it shows very well the point that I am trying to make and doesn’t include material that could be considered R rated (as a lot of this series is)

If you do want to watch this show, it is available on Netflix and over at Hulu for free.

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