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Posts Tagged ‘breathing’

I’ve been asked by a number of different people why I meditate. When someone asks a question like that, it’s usually backed up by a lot of their perceptions or beliefs about what meditation is. Most people don’t have a lot of exposure to meditation outside of movies or TV shows or spiritual superstars or charlatans. That kind of exposure will obviously color your attitude toward something.

The thing is, I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. I think it’s because I don’t know what kind of answer the person is looking for. Are they expecting me to answer like I’m Yoda or an ancient master from some kung fu movie? Are they asking because they want to know my personal reasons for choosing to spend an hour a day literally doing nothing? Are they considering meditating and looking for information from practitioners? Are they just trying to make conversation? Isn’t it amazing how one simple question can have so much attached to it? Especially if you’re someone like me who has to analyze everything (EVERYTHING) before answering?

  • “Not one good answer, could I give, but many to this question yes?”  — OK, the Yoda approach doesn’t work.
  • “I meditate in order to be reminded of my interconnectedness to the universe.” — The happy sappy spiritualist answer doesn’t work either
  • “I sit to be like the still water” — I’m never going to be a kung fu master
  • “The clouds drift by the mountain but the mountain sits — observing all, grasping at nothing.” — That sounds cool but I could never pull that off
  • “I sit because I sit” — Does that answer even make any sense?
  • “Meditation is a path to enlightenment” — That just leads to more questions I’m not prepared to get into
  • “I don’t know.” — I could pull that one off easily enough but it would be lying and not a good answer.

So, why do I meditate? I meditate for a few different reasons. I’m going to try not to geek out too much here but I make no guarantees. You have been warned. Let’s try to unpack some of those reasons. Ready…and go!

First, I meditate because it is a medical and scientific fact that it’s good for you. Meditation can be useful to alleviate pain and depression and stress and resetting your brain’s activity patterns to a healthy level. Through the act of meditation, I am essentially hacking my brain. Yes, I said hacking my brain. In order to understand where I’m going with this, you need to answer the following question: Are the brain and the mind separate or the same? The way you answer that will determine how easy it is for you to understand the rest of this post.

Is this your mind?

If you say they are the same, you’re going to have some trouble following me here. I used  to think that they were the same but over the past few years, I have begun to realize they aren’t. Scientific research has also begun to validate this view that they are not one and the same. The brain is an organ, albeit a very complex and amazing organ. The mind is not an organ: it is a sense—much like sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. The brain is a sensory organ for the mind and they do influence one another but they are not the same thing. When you exercise your mind, you actually cause physical changes in the brain. In this way, by practicing meditation, any number of things can be done to the brain to change it one way or another.

As we calm the mind in meditation, we cause a vast neural network to fire off in ways it doesn’t normally do. As we continue to do this with regularity, it becomes easier for the brain to operate in this fashion. We start to reprogram the way the brain works by having our mind change its focus. As we learn to do this, it becomes easier and easier to do. This way, when we want to start changing ourselves, the meditation cushion becomes the first place we go.

I don’t know about you, but the thought of rewiring my own brain to change the way it operates is exciting. This may be because my brain has some great things going for it that I’d love to improve and its got some patterns that really aren’t healthy and need to be changed for the better. Either way, those are some pretty good motivators to want to rewire myself.

That would be my first answer. I meditate because I want to hack my brain. Now that I see that in print, I’m thinking maybe some of those other answers weren’t all that bad. Maybe I should rethink that list.

Additionally, I meditate because it is good for my mental clarity and peace of mind. Through meditation, especially Zen meditation, you are forced to come to grips with your mind in a way that demands careful and thorough understanding of how it works. When you sit on a cushion and you aren’t reciting a mantra, hoping for the well being of all living things, focusing on an image or something in the room or going through a mental set of exercises you have nothing to keep you company but your mind. If you haven’t tried this before, be warned that your mind hates this. One of the functions of the mind is to run on endlessly throwing up thoughts and feelings and reminders and regrets with the same regularity that your lungs move air in and out. Sitting in Zen meditation is to your mind what holding your breath is to your lungs: after about 30 seconds, it gets a little uncomfortable. As your mind reveals itself, you also begin to notice things about it. You see the common themes and patterns that it runs over and over like a hamster in a wheel. With this understanding you begin to gain the ability to ignore it. This is a great way to do things like overcome anxiety, depression, fear, cravings or whatever else your mind may throw at you that is best ignored. The mental clarity I get while on (and off) the cushion is itself enough of a good reason to meditate.

There’s my second answer. I meditate because it allows me to gain mental clarity and peace.

The third reason I meditate will have to wait for part 2 of this post. I’ve already broken the 1,000 word count and I’m not done yet. It’s taken me days to get this far and the need to post something is beginning to outweigh my desire to complete this post. For now, if you meditate, why do you do it? Answer below in the comments. And try to keep the Yoda-speak to a minimum OK?

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No, I’m not revealing the secret to how you can lose 5 pounds in one week and get the guy/girl of your dreams. If I knew that secret, I’d charge for it instead of throwing it out here on this blog.* Actually, I’m thinking about the struggle to lose weight while your life is moving at high speed. I’ve been under quite a bit of stress at work lately as I’ve been trying to wrap up three projects at once. It seems like as soon as I’m ready to finish one of them, something causes me to have to come back to it and continue to make changes. This is normal for my line of work but it can be one of the more annoying things that programmers have to deal with.

Between that and my schedule at home ramping up, things can feel a little out of control at times. When that happens, things start to feel stressful and your body has a tendency to really let you know that it’s not happy with what you’re doing to it. Times like this are bad even under the best of circumstances but when you’re trying to live mindfully and lose weight, it is a very stressful time indeed. I’m finding that as I feel stressed, the temptation to “eat on the run” goes up. When I think I can’t afford the time to get up from my desk to go eat a healthy lunch I’m really on thin ice. Convenience foods have an appeal in times like these than they may not have otherwise. After all, they’re meant to be made and consumed quickly right? Huray for a dehydrated, frozen, microwaveable salt block that is fully cooked in only 2 minutes and gone in 2 more. That leaves an entire minute to suck back a cold sugary beverage in your 5 minute lunch hour. Doesn’t that sound great? Not to me either. So, why is it that this becomes tempting to us? At what point does this become a good idea? I’m still not sure but so far I’ve done a pretty good job of not falling for the trap of convenience.

I think that a lot of it has to do with stress. When we don’t manage our stress, our stress manages us. In case you’re wondering, stress is kind of like a 12-year-old boy with Aspergers holding a magnifying glass standing in front of an anthill. In this analogy, you’re the ant. Stress never has our best interest in mind. It’s only concerned with keeping your body moving at a hyperactive level. In order to do that, it wants sugar and endorphins and carbohydrates in order to create as much energy in as short a period of time as possible. Guess what a good source of these things are? That’s right, convenience foods! These things are packed full of stuff that gives us a short-term boost and gets our body moving. Unfortunately, they’re also designed and packaged in a way to maximize consumption on our part. We end up wanting to eat more and more and we get trapped in a vicious cycle that can cause us to quickly lose control of our weight. It’s not a pretty picture and it’s one of the biggest ways that people who are trying to become healthy fail. Stress is just too big to fight sometimes and unless we’re prepared to face it, we can easily get stomped by it.

I’m sure that my diet hasn’t been as good as it could be right now but I’m still making choices and decisions that are healthy. This is because I’ve worked very hard at identifying how my body reacts to stress and I have made plans ahead of time of how to deal with it. So, how do I deal with the stress and still manage to eat healthy and if not lose weight, at least maintain my weight where it is? I’ve come up with a few tricks that work for me. Your results may vary and not everything works for everyone. However, feel free to give any of these a try if you want.

  1. Don’t forget to laugh. Laughter is helpful for your body. Never be so stressed out that you can’t take a few minutes to find something to laugh at. One place I turn to for some funny stuff is fark.com. It’s a “news” site that is always good for a few laughs. Another thing is to make some time to watch a funny movie or spend time with friends and share a laugh with them.
  2. Don’t forget to breathe. An awareness of your breath is a great way to make sure that you are paying attention to your body. It is so easy to lose focus when you’re stressed and once you lose your focus, it is easy to make poor choices. I have a mindfulness bell program that I have installed on my iPod and I have it set to ding every 30 minutes. When I hear it go off, I take just a few seconds to stop what I’m doing and focus on my breath. It keeps me in touch with my body and helps me to calm down.
  3. Don’t forget to keep things in perspective. Stress will always screw with your perspective on things. The fact is that almost everything that demands our attention and keeps us moving at a crazy rate isn’t as important as we think it is in the heat of the moment. There are times when we face life or death issues but they are quite rare in our wealthy western world. Even where I am, working in a hospital, I don’t feel the pressure of life and death hanging in the balance of what I do on a regular basis.
  4. Don’t forget what makes you happy. When we lose the proper perspective on things because of stress, we often lose sight of the things that give us joy or that make us happy. There are so many good things in our lives and we need to remember them. It’s taken me three days to write this post because I’ve been so busy. However, yesterday I was busy spending time with my kids going to the bookstore and a movie and a slot car race track and introducing them to the joys of Chicago style deep dish pizza and taking them for lunch and ice cream at Friendly’s that I just didn’t have time to worry about the things that are keeping me frantic in life. I made it a point to be with my kids and I played with them all day. It did wonders for my stress levels.

In addition to some of these things, I also have hobbies that I enjoy that help me to fight off stress. I love to cook and I love to write. I also have been having fun playing with my new Droid 2 phone and learning how to make it do some really cool stuff. I go to the Zen center every week and spend time with my Sangha and in meditation. Sure, stress can push us around, but we can push back. Hopefully as things calm down again, I can return to writing more frequently than I have the past week. Other than the stress, it’s been a great week and I’ve got a lot to share if I can ever find the time to do it.

* Actually, I do know it and will be happy to send you my new book about it if you send me three easy payments of $19.95

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I’m very mindful of my breathing right now. In fact I’m so intensely breathing through my nose that my inner nostrils are starting to hurt a little. This is something that happens when I get frustrated. The reason for my frustration is purely professional. I am attempting to implement the changes requested to the applications I created and one of the changes is very difficult to implement. It requires melding three different technologies together in a way that I’ve never done before. This is easy to do on paper and in theory but because I did not design the application with this method in mind, it is much harder to implement in reality. This is one more reason why I hate getting requirements changed at the end of a project. I even got the application to work one time so I celebrated to myself and ran through it a second time. It was broken again. I’ve re-run my code a number of times now and it’s still not working. I have no idea why it would work once and then be broken every time after that especially when nothing changed between the run-throughs. I’ll keep reading up on the technologies and keep thinking laterally about how to get these things to mesh together. For now, I’m just trying to remain aware of my frustration and deal with it in a healthy way.

Instead of wanting to eat something, I really want to return to a state of calm. I know that in the past I would have wanted to return to a state of calm but my mind confused eating with calm and that was a contributing factor to my weight gain. Now, I’m asking myself the question, “what is this?” and trying to answer as honestly as possible. “What is this?” I’m frustrated because I want something to work and it is not working. “What is this?” it’s frustration that’s created from my desire to make these technologies do something they are not doing. “What is this?” it’s frustration caused by my desire to do a good job and make people happy. “What is this?” it’s frustration caused by my desire to move on to a new project instead of revisiting things that I’ve been working on for a long time. “What is this?” it’s frustration that comes from my inner desire for perfection. “What is this?” it’s frustration caused by my mistaken belief that things should be perfect. “What is this?” it’s my attachment to the illusion of control (or lack thereof in this case). “What is this?” it’s no big deal really.

I keep coming back to this process over and over. Every time I run through the application and it breaks at the same line of code, I feel the frustration welling up inside me and I have to stop and focus on my breathing. Then, once I’m calm, I dig a little deeper and think a little more, make a small change and see what kind of impact it has made to the system. I’m much closer to a solution now than I was at the beginning of the day and I have hope to have it solved before I leave this afternoon. Until then, I’ll keep breathing, keep thinking and eat only a healthy amount of food that will sustain my body. Mindfulness and awareness and breathing and maintaining my calm are all important tasks that I continue to learn about and continue to work on. When we’re frustrated, we should remember that it is the perfect time to put our practice to work.

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Last night I was at the Zen center and had a really strange experience while meditating. It wasn’t like anything that I’ve ever experienced before and I’m still trying to process it. I’ve been practicing regularly now for three months and with this practice, I’ve been able to quiet my mind a bit more than I could at first. For some reason, it has been particularly easy for me to switch off my thoughts this week. A few minutes after starting my meditation last night my mind finally quieted down and I began to feel like my body was slowly spiraling upwards for about two feet. It was a very strange feeling since I could see that I was still sitting on the floor. I focused on my breathing and made sure that my mind was quiet and focused. After that, I began to feel the entire room tilt. This was even weirder than the spiraling feeling. I made sure that I was sitting straight and not leaning but still I felt the room tilting. Eventually it stopped and I realized that it felt like I was sitting upright while the entire world was tilted. It was an extremely odd sensation to feel. It kept up for most of the remainder of the evening. Even after we had stopped the first round of sitting and done walking meditation I still felt it for most of the 30 minute second session of sitting. Has something like this ever happened to anyone else? I mentioned it briefly to one of the Dharma teachers and she said something like that’s happened to her before but left it at that. I haven’t had an opportunity to sit again since last night and I’m pretty sure that I won’t have the experience when I do but I’m also not going to try to think about it or to force it because that would defeat the purpose of why I sit in meditation. Any comments would be appreciated.

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One of the first things I did when I decided to lose weight and get healthy was to see my doctor. I needed to know what I was up against and I needed to get my CPAP replaced and that started with him. One thing he helped me realize is that I was depressed and needed to address it. I started medication for it and I must admit that it has helped a lot. Unfortunately, it’s not a magic pill and I still have to deal with depression issues from time to time. This week has been like that. I’ve been busy at work and haven’t been able to exercise as much and I’ve really been craving foods that aren’t good for me. I haven’t put on any extra weight but I’ve not taken any more off either. It’s been a bit of a doldrums kind of week.

Fortunately I am aware of these feelings and I’m not surrendering to them. I’m trying to spend time focusing on my breathing and being mindful. The problem with depression is that it makes your mind sluggish. It’s more of a struggle to get to a mindful state and to maintain it. I’m fighting my own biology and that’s a hard fight. I’m glad I have medication and a loving family and friends and a goal to help me fight it too. I’m not in this alone and I can’t afford to lose. I’ll keep blogging and keep eating healthy and keep meditating and keep exercising so that I can continue to lose this extra weight. Depression is a hard thing to live with, especially when you’re happy and content like I am. It doesn’t seem fair to have something making your brain turn against you and push you to do the wrong thing. I have the four noble truths and the eightfold path and a comfortable meditation pillow so I’ll keep practicing too. I’ve come too far to go back now. Hope is a great tool to fight the depression with.

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Last night I had half of a fried cheese stick. I haven’t eaten anything like that in a while and I have to admit it was really good. Even though it was cold it was very tasty. I figured that I’d like the flavor of it but what I wasn’t expecting was what came next. About 5 to 10 seconds after swallowing it I felt this wave of euphoria pulsing through my brain. I could actually feel my brain release endorphins in response to what I had just ingested. I couldn’t believe how strong my reaction to it was. I would occasionally feel that kind of response from coffee or soda in the mornings when I had my first cup but I’ve never experienced it in response to food. I know that there is still some debate about whether one can really be addicted to food but my reaction has convinced me that I am an addict to high fat/salty/fried foods. I’ve said here a number of times that what I’m trying to do is to change my lifestyle and I know that means making long-term changes but last night I realized just how much of a commitment that really was. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat some of the things I used to enjoy so much ever again. Much like a person who is trying to quit smoking, I am trying to quit unhealthy foods. I have actually experienced a craving today for more. I badly wanted to walk down the street to the burrito restaurant and get myself a big hunks of meat and cheese and beans and salsa and fried corn chips and potatoes all wrapped up in a tortilla. I called my wife on the phone so that she could give me the encouragement I needed to not do that. I ended up going to the cafeteria and getting a salad as I usually do for lunch. Even there, it was really hard to walk to the salad bar instead of getting a burger or pizza or ravioli or soda or ice cream or candy. I considered each one of these things today as I walked through the cafeteria. After all, who would know what I had eaten? No one is keeping me on this path except me. Instead of giving in to these cravings though, I stopped and really focused on my breathing. I spent a little time in mindfulness and I went to the salad bar and got the food that I knew would be the best for me. If I weren’t on a path of mindfulness and meditation, I would never have been able to stand up to the cravings that my brain was throwing at me today.

When I was standing there, surrounded by wonderful smells and sights all tempting me, I remembered back to something I used to do when I was out of control: I would eat in secret. This wasn’t something I did a lot of but occasionally I would get off of work and go through a drive through and get a fast food meal and a soda. Then, when I got home, I’d eat dinner with my family. They had no idea that I was on my “second dinner” (Honey, I know that you’ll read this before I get home to see you so I’m sorry I never told you). I was never happy with myself when I did this but I felt so hopeless and lost at the time that I just didn’t care. I knew that if I got the foods that I was craving that I’d be doing what I used to do: eating in secret and then covering it up. In this case, I knew that it’d also mean having to lie about what I ate since I knew my wife would ask me what I had for lunch when I got home. This was the motivation that I needed to stay away from the cravings. I had an enjoyable lunch and was filled and satisfied with my salad when I left.

It’s amazing the kinds of things that your brain will do when it is craving something. The appeals to logic, emotion and threats of pain can be quite intense. I found myself thinking “I’ve lost 35 pounds already. Isn’t that enough?” The one that made me laugh was when I thought to myself, “I’m really suffering here. Don’t I want to end my suffering? I can do that if I grab a slice of sausage pizza and some hot wings”. The appeal to the Four Noble Truths to end the suffering of my cravings was quite amusing. Fortunately, because focused on breathing and be mindfulness I knew that it would be a temporary easing of the craving but it would end up causing even more suffering in the end. When the food drug comes calling, I’m glad to know that I have a few weapons to resist it. It’s also good to know that I’ve had some success and that I can continue to do so. I’m looking forward to this evening when I go to the Zen Center and I spend time in meditation. I think that focusing on my breathing and sitting quietly are exactly what I need right now. I also think I’m going to go to the store on the way home and pick up some fresh spinach for a salad. Unlike lunch, I’m looking forward to dinner.

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Right now, I’m reading three books. I’m still reading Savor plus I’m reading The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and I’m reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. In all three of these books, the topic of breathing comes up again and again. It can’t be stressed enough how important an awareness of breathing is to living mindfully. It focuses our minds on the here and now and anchors us to the moment. Whenever you feel yourself becoming anxious or fearful or lost, stopping whatever you are doing and taking a few moments to breathe and to focus on your breathing will help restore clarity and calm. I have found this to be true in my own practice and it is from an awareness of my breathing that the rest of my practice flows. Today at lunch, I had three moments where focusing on my breathing and being mindful and present in the moment allowed me to practice deeply.

First, I was practicing mindful eating. I was able to enjoy my salad and really focus on the flavor and the texture and the experience of eating. While I was eating, I began to wonder why I haven’t grown tired of getting salads every day or why I haven’t grown tired of oatmeal for breakfast every day. I realized that it was because when I eat my breakfast and lunch I am being mindful. Even though I am eating the same thing every morning and afternoon, each experience is unique and special and different. Mindfulness has allowed me to see each moment for itself and I have been able to continue in my healthy eating because of it. An awareness of my breathing while I eat has kept me from falling back into my old habits.

While I was eating, an older woman at the table in front of me got up to leave. She grabbed her tray and garbage and walked away from the table. Because I was trying to be aware of everything around me, I noticed that she had left her bag behind. I got up from my table and grabbed her bag and caught up to her at the trash cans. I was able to return the bag to her and she was quite pleased that she hadn’t lost it. Because I was aware of myself and my surroundings in the moment, I was able to prevent someone from misplacing an important item.

After I was done with my lunch, I was walking mindfully out of the cafeteria. There was a nurse in front of me who was obviously in a hurry. She had grabbed her lunch in a couple of to-go containers and was balancing a small can of Coke on top of the containers. I noticed that she was trying to check her watch to see if she could make it back to her station on time and that her Coke can was about to fall down. Being a parent of smaller children, I’ve been able to work on my skill of grabbing falling objects before they hit the ground and I used them well today. I jumped forward the few feet that she was in front of me and was able to grab the Coke as it fell off her soup container and before it hit the floor. She was very happy that I had been able to catch her can since if it hit the floor it could have spilled or caused a lot of problems when she tried to open it. Because I was aware of myself and my surroundings in the moment, I was able to prevent someone from potentially losing their drink and adding extra stress and pressure to an already busy day.

These aren’t big things. They’re quite small really but these small things add up. My presence of mind allowed me to act to prevent the suffering of two other people and it has worked to prevent me from falling into my old habits and furthering my own suffering. This mindfulness isn’t an easy thing to cultivate. It does take work and dedication. The good news is that the thing you have to work on and be dedicated to is something you do every minute of every day whether you are aware of it or not: breathe. When I meditate, I am intensely aware of my breath. When I’m not meditating, I’m intensely aware of my breath. Through this awareness, there is no dichotomy between meditation and not-meditation. Breathing is meditation.

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