Posts Tagged ‘death’

As I said in my last post, my weekend was spent at the Providence Zen Center where I took my five precepts and formally became a member of the school. The Zen Center is a beautiful place and spending time there was a great experience. Sure, I’m sore from all the bowing and odd movements that my poor, still overweight, body isn’t use to but I can’t complain too much about that. I’ve got a lot to write about this entire experience but I’m still processing a lot of it and I’m sure it will come out over the next few weeks as I continue to write.

One of the more interesting events from this past weekend was an inka ceremony. Basically, this is the way that the Kwan Um School of Zen bestows the title of Zen Master on someone. This is a process that takes years to complete and is compared to earning a PhD. After seeing the ceremony firsthand, I can see why. For 30 minutes, the candidate for JDPSN (Zen Master) status had to sit while one person after another came up to her and asked questions meant to trip her up or confuse her. In Zen studies, these questions are called koans. Watching someone answer koans for 30 straight minutes and hit each one out of the park was nothing short of awesome. After seeing this, I have a much better understanding of why they call this part of the ceremony dharma combat.

After the ceremony everyone filtered out of the dharma hall and down the stairs to the dining room for an amazing vegetarian dinner of sweet potato enchiladas. I found an open seat at a table right next to a sign reading that the tables were reserved for those who could not sit on the floor. I figured I met that criteria as I was already so sore that I was having trouble getting my legs to cooperate with me when I wanted to do things like walk or stand or move them around.

While I was sitting there trying to taste each of the ingredients in the enchiladas so that I can reverse engineer the recipe, the newest Zen Master in the Kwan Um school sat down right across from me at the table. She thanked someone sitting a few chairs down from me for their kind words at her ceremony and started to eat her dinner. A few more people sat down at the chairs around us and, before I knew it and without planning on my part, I found myself caught up in the discussion that popped up at the table. Anne, the new Zen Master, lectures on science and environmental issues among other things. As we sat at the table eating dinner we discussed environmental science, the changing ecosystem in Florida where she lives, alligators and just how cool they really are, and the importance of actions to do whatever possible to make positive impacts on the environment. She had an amazing depth of knowledge about this subject and her compassion for all living things was palpable as she talked about her experiences working with various groups and research teams.

A few other people came to the table and they were not as inclined to discuss science and environmental issues so the conversation drifted to other topics. These topics were much more along the lines of generalized discussion that happens among people at a large group: things like travel plans, how long different people had been at the Zen Center already, the quality of the food, the experiences one had in the various ceremonies going on that weekend, etc. This was where I got to see just how down to earth a Zen Master could be. The fact that she had just been through an incredible ordeal and passed with flying colors never came up in any of the conversations. It was like it never happened. Sure, she was a Zen Master, big deal, there was an upcoming train trip back to Virginia to discuss since driving in the northeast corridor is such pain to do. It was almost an inconvenience when the time came for her to get up from the table to take part in a cake cutting to celebrate her accomplishment.

After we had all gotten our cake (and it was a delicious cake) we were back at our seats and a new person joined us. This was a person with a question about something someone said in the ceremony. It was a line that had not even really made an impact on my mind at the time but the short version of the story was that the conversation eventually led to the realization that Anne has stage 4 colon cancer and she stares death in the face on a daily basis. The ease with which she tossed out the phrase “it’ll get me some day” still leaves me in awe. She deals with the immediacy of her mortality on a moment by moment basis and has learned from it and become stronger because of it. It was at this point I realized just how amazed I was at this person sitting across the table from me. Her attitude and her humility and her courage were unlike almost anyone else I have ever met. Usually, you only hear stories about people like this. This time, I was experiencing it first hand. I was almost consumed with admiration for the person sitting in front of me talking about how she had tried macrobiotics for a while to combat the cancer but didn’t want to spend all of the life she had left in the kitchen cooking foods that meet the very high bar set by macrobiotics.

She was called away shortly after that by a group of people who hadn’t seen her in a while and she went to speak to them. I continued to have some conversations with those around me but I was still stuck mentally in the previous conversation. I had never seen that kind of clarity, compassion, courage and intellect combined in one person so well. I could not help but feel angry with the knowledge that she would not be a teacher and master in our school for as long as she should be because of the cancer. Then, because this was a Zen retreat, I was left with my own thoughts about why I was feeling this way and why I was thinking this way. I did my best to learn from the example she had just set and accept the reality of the situation for what it is and to be present in this moment because it is all we have. Sure, in some future moment she will no longer be a part of our school but that’s the business of that moment. For now, there were plates to be picked up and trash to be thrown away.

A few minutes later as I was cleaning up my dishes at the sink, one of the other people I met this weekend asked me if I enjoyed having dinner with three Zen Masters. At first I thought he was trying to trip me up with some sort of “gotcha” koan. Then he pointed out to me that the other people that I had been sitting with and talking with were also the same people who usually sit up at the front of the room during the ceremonies and that the reason they did that was because they were Zen Masters. Since things were all so new to me and I wasn’t used to seeing these people outside of the ceremonies yet (I had only been there for 24 hours at that point), I didn’t even realize who some of the other people I was eating with and talking with were. How’s that for down to earth and low key? There was nothing to differentiate these Zen Masters from me, a guy who was there to take step 1: the five precepts. As my new friend laughed at me, I let the lesson sink in. I’m still trying to learn from that moment. I have a feeling I’ll be learning from that moment for a long time to come.

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How often have you been doing something and totally lost track of time? This usually happens to me when I’m doing something I really enjoy or when I’m working on a difficult problem. I totally space out and am unaware of the passage of time and do not perceive the world around me in the normal way. Why does this happen to us? It’s because we are caught up in the moment and ignoring all other demands for our attention. This is one of the states that Zen encourages us to exist in no matter what we’re doing. We often talk of losing ourselves in the moment and that is exactly what happens: we lose our sense of self in these moments of hyper-engagement. I remember one beautiful mid-afternoon day when I got a call from my wife while I was at work. She asked me if I was going to be coming home soon. I told her I didn’t think so as it wasn’t time for me to leave for another few hours. That’s when she told me it was after 6:00 P.M. I looked around and everyone else’s desk was empty. I was alone in my office and didn’t even realize how late it had become. I saved my work and left for the day.

I could tell a lot of other stories about times that I have lost myself and make more analogies about how this is some sort of mystical Zen-like state where everything is bliss but that’s not where I’m going with this.

The idea of a self that you can lose is one that Buddhism challenges. When you face this challenge, you often hear about the five aggregates or attachments or a bunch of Sanskrit words that I’m able to recognize now but not necessarily define well enough to write about. That’s a bit closer to where I’m going with this, but, still not quite there.

For me, my self is often the voice that is inside my head as manifested by my thoughts. I spend a lot of time in contact with that self and most of the time it’s a pretty good thing we have going. My self has a great ability to analyze things and understand abstract concepts in a fairly comfortable way. My self keeps me company when I’m alone or in the car or reading a book or sitting in meditation. It’s a companion that is always there, in the back of my mind and it is more familiar than the most comfortable pair of clothes ever could be. There’s only one problem I really have with my self: it is a hyper-critical and judgemental creature who will point out mistakes, perceived mistakes, chances for mistakes or mistakes that I didn’t make but could have if things had gone differently. My self is so caught up on attaining perfection in everything that it can drive me a little crazy at times. OK, maybe not just a little crazy, but a lot crazy.

When I was struggling with some of my worst depression, my self was probably at its strongest critical level ever. I really did hate myself. A lot of it had to do with the illness of depression and I’m aware of that now so I have been able to forgive myself of my past feelings. However, there was also a component to my self-loathing that was directed at my weight and physical appearance. The pain that goes along with being as obese as I was can be quite overwhelming at times. The other day as I was getting ready for work I remembered just how bad one of those times was.

I don’t remember how long ago this was but one time when I was home by myself, I was feeling really down. The critical voice in my head was as loud as I think I’d ever experienced it. I’m not sure how, but I found myself in the kitchen; probably with the intention to eat something, but that’s not what I did. I’d had enough of the critical voice and I didn’t want to have to put up with it any more. I was convinced I was a failure, I had no hope, I hated everything about myself. So, I opened up a drawer and grabbed a bottle of pills. At that point, my self took over and started to figure out the number of milligrams per pill times the number of pills and factor in my weight and calculate if this would be enough. The fact that I’m here today with a different outlook on life and a healthier lifestyle kind of gives away the end of the story so I’ll spare you the drama and the details about my inner turmoil and thoughts. In the end, the bottle went back in the drawer and I never did that again. I didn’t even really think about this event too much until the other morning when I spilled some pills and saw them all sitting in my hand as I picked them up. That’s when I went back to this very dark time and thought about just how sick I really was. I was so tired of the critical voice in my head that I have so often called my “self” that I was willing to die to get away from it. That’s a pretty messed up sense of self.

As I have practiced Zen, I have come to learn about the Buddhist perspective of the self. It’s quite different from what we in the west usually consider to be the self. When we speak about losing ourself in the west, we really do mean getting wrapped up in our ego. Buddhism has the opposite view: we lose our connection to that which we normally identify as our “self”. In the past, I wanted to lose my self so I thought the only way I could do that was through death. Now, I know that the thing I considered to be my “self” is not my ultimate reality. Instead, I am something altogether different. I don’t know enough yet to really put it into words the way I would like to but I have come to realize that I can lose my self and be even freer than I have ever been before. I don’t need to die to become detached from my self. Rather, through meditation and working on developing right view and right understanding, I can learn how to really allow my self to be something that is me but not-me at the same time. I can lose my self in a non-violent way that will allow the true me to emerge. I can practice self-destruction but I never have to worry about mistaking that for death ever again.

This has been the hardest post I have written on this blog so far. As I read it over again, I’m questioning whether I was able to effectively communicate my thoughts. The fact is, I have learned that I am not my thoughts. I am not my obesity. I am not my failures, be they actual or perceptual. I am so much more than those things could ever be. The path to discover what this really means is open before me and I’m anxious to begin the journey but scared at the same time. For now, I’ll just put one foot in front of the other and go where the path leads. It’s nice to know that I have a path to follow and that it will lead me to a better place than where I have been. I’ll leave my self behind and somewhere on the path, meet my true self. I’m sure it will be like greeting a long-lost friend.

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One of the things that the book Savor touches on in a few places is the power of food advertisement and how it impacts our desire to eat things that aren’t good for us. One thing that I’ve done to try to make positive changes in my life is to seriously cut back on the amount of TV I watch. I guess that’s why I hadn’t seen this commercial or not been aware of it until recently. I’m not sure what makes me madder about this commercial: the message that it’s presenting or the fact that it’s aimed at kids. If I weren’t getting so many new visitors to the blog thanks to the generosity of Savor’s Facebook page linking to me, I’d unleash a stream of profanity at those responsible for this commercial that could burn holes into any monitor it appears on. The commercial in question is for McDonald’s Happy Meals®. I used to love getting them when I was a kid and they were a brand new concept in marketing food to my generation. I guess we’d gotten tired of listening to some clown and his cohorts dance around the screen on Saturday mornings interrupting our He-Man and Smurfs cartoons telling us to go out and buy more food. I can still hear my brother and I thinking, “if we go to McDonald’s, we can get a box with a toy and some food in it! Isn’t this great?” or, “If I go to McDonald’s, I get a toy!”.  Why is it that every major fast food chain does this? Because it works. Getting kids hooked on instant gratification and shiny new toys that break the day after you get them home is good for the shareholders. Who cares if they’re killing kids by making them fat right? Their bigger bottoms are good for a bigger bottom line so it’s all OK.

My kids are just like most others and when we ask them what they want for dinner they usually give us the name of whatever fast food joint currently has the coolest toy being hocked on TV. Right now that’d definitely McDonald’s because they have Star Wars skateboards and my son is just as crazy about all things Star Wars as I am. Most of the time we don’t do the fast food thing but reinforce the message that just because a toy looks like fun on TV isn’t a good reason to go get food. It’s become a lot easier for me to do this now that I don’t eat at McDonald’s any more (though I do crave a Big Mac every so often).  Recently, a lot of parent’s groups have started to complain about using toys to get kids to want to eat at these restaurants so McDonald’s is trying a different marketing tactic. Check out an example of it below.

How many things can we find wrong in that commercial?

  1. It’s got a catchy happy tune that’s designed to make you associate that feeling with the brand.
  2. It’s got a cute kid in it whose space man helmet is too heavy for his head. Once more, positive feelings = brand message.
  3. It’s got a doggie playing with the aforementioned kid. We have a cuteness overload here people! How can the brand not be wonderful just by association?
  4. The animation is interesting and well executed. It’s visually appealing and slick. It makes you want to watch it and listen.
  5. It’s got a mom giving her special little spaceman boy “all his favorite things”. That’s right, the food from McDonald’s is right up there with a mother’s love. Isn’t that great?
  6. The message. We can’t forget the message. “Joy is a gift. This is the box it comes in.” If you give your kids a happy meal, you give them joy. You wouldn’t want to be a bad parent and deprive your precious little snowflake of joy would you? Look how happy the boy is. Don’t you want that for your kids?

The message from this commercial is what really gets me angry. I feel like going of on a rant that would make Lewis Black hand me some blood pressure medication and remind me to breathe. Who in his right mind would be so evil as to come up with this piece of manipulative crap? Who would then take that evil to a new level and make a national advertising campaign out of it? Who approves all of this stuff and why am I not seeing more critiques of this piece of commercial filth? Telling people that eating fatty foods is joy is just plain wrong. There is no way to justify this. Telling people that feeding their kids fatty foods is joy is even worse! Equating positive and happy feelings with a specific brand that’s dedicated to creating suffering and death and disease is an outright act of commercial propaganda that we should not tolerate. I used to fall for this garbage hook line and sinker in the past and I’ve personally eaten more Big Macs and fries than I could ever hope to count. At one point in my life, you could have probably found special sauce in my blood work if I would have ever had it done back then. I know full well the power of how these advertisements work. I’ve been involved in marketing companies in the past and I know the methodologies used by them to create these branding messages. It’s sick. It’s twisted. It’s unacceptable that I have to constantly fight these messages that are bombarding my kids. We have done a lot to cut back on the amount of television that they watch but when McDonald’s runs a commercial like this every single time Nickelodeon stops for a commercial break they can’t help but see or hear the message. I also try to point out to my kids how the commercials are trying to make them do something. They’re getting better at seeing this stuff for what it is but I don’t know who’s winning the fight for their minds. What happens to other kids who may not have restrictions on how many hours of TV they watch? What if their parents don’t spend time critiquing commercials with them? What message do they pick up when they hear over and over that food is joy. This is just one commercial for one company. Every kids movie, every cartoon, every toy brand all have a special tie in with one restaurant or another to promote themselves. Some of the stuff they do is pretty cool too. I’ll be the first one to admit that. Hell, if I were still a kid, I’d be all over some of the toys offered in these meals. In fact, I’m looking at an Einstein bobble head figure that came in a McDonald’s happy meal that my son gave to me. It was a tie in to a movie and I love seeing it on my desk. I just don’t want to see any more kids grow up to become obese adults. I don’t want people to think that unhealthy food is a source of joy or that giving this food to the people that matter the most to them will bring them joy. It’s an outright lie and it’s killing us all. Even if you don’t eat at these restaurants we’re all paying for the extra costs brought on by treating the diseases that eating too much of this food brings. We’re all suffering because of it.

I think I’m done ranting for now. I still can’t believe this commercial and I hate it to the very core of my being. I’ve said everything that I can without going too far. I feel sickened by the thought of what this commercial is doing to us and our kids. I feel saddened about my own poor choices in the past from buying into these lies. I want the world to change and be better. I want others to complain about things like this in order to get it off the air. I hate the fact that McDonald’s is one of the better fast food companies as far as social responsibility goes and actually does make an effort to do the right thing (sometimes). They lose their moral credibility when something like this comes out. Pay attention to the ads that you see and listen and analyze their message. Think about how they effect you and others. Unless you fear that they might make you sick.

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It was with great sadness today that I learned of the death of Robert Schimmel. He was an extremely funny man and a great inspiration to many people. I had the opportunity to see Robert perform back in 2009. It was a great show and I laughed through the entire thing. Whether talking about his kids, his parents, surviving cancer or hosting the Adult Film Awards he had a manner about him that was able to highlight the absurd that greets us every day. Like many comedians, he had a hard life and it came out in his humor. He took his sadness and pain turned it into laughter and then shared it with others. I always admire someone who can find a reason to laugh in the face of suffering and that’s why I admired Mr. Schimmel. He understood that laughter is a potent medicine and it was the best way to face his suffering. I have tried to do that too in my writing and in my general outlook on life. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, what can we laugh at? If Robert were here, I’m sure he’d be making a joke about how he survived so much only to have his life cut short in an auto accident. It’s the funniest joke he’ll never tell.

“I’m proud to say that I licked the big C. And, I beat cancer.” – Robert Schimmel

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Today after our sitting we had a Dharma talk. In the course of the talk, the idea of impermanence came up and it was mentioned that a Zen master (I don’t remember his name) says that there are two types of people in the world: those who die sooner and those who die later and no one knows what group they are in. Until recently, I was convinced that I was in the former group and did not see any hope to escape an early death. However, with mindfulness practice and a grasp on impermanence, I am finding that I have hope for escape from an early grave. I’m still in danger at this time of many health related problems due to my weight and my past choices but I no longer feel trapped. Hope is a powerful thing and I am happy to have it again.

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