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Posts Tagged ‘depression’

Halfway

Today I stood on the scale at the gym and balanced it at 283. This means I’ve lost 50 pounds (the status over on the right says 247 because I actually regained weight and started losing again from 333). At that moment, I reached the halfway point of my goal to lose 100 pounds. It’s been a long and hard journey to get this far (I was here once before) and I’ve been reticent to write about things as much this time around as I fear I’m going to somehow regain all the weight a second time. It’s an irrational fear, but it’s mine.

Just yesterday I found some papers I received just a few hours before my life turned upside down and I ended up spiraling downward into depression and obesity again. It was sad for me to look at those papers, through the eyes of the present, knowing that on the same day I achieved a hard won accomplishment I would have my entire world crumble around me. However, that was two years ago and I’ve picked up the pieces and rebuilt a life that I am happy with and, for the first time in years, feel fulfilled and content. So, in spite of my knowledge that joy can be extremely fleeting, at the present moment, I’m elated.

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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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The other day I was searching through some digital archives looking for a document. It turns out the document I needed wasn’t in the archive but I found some things there that shocked me. I came across some before/after photos that demonstrated how much weight I had lost and how I looked after dropping 60 pounds. I couldn’t help but look down and realize that I look far too much like the “before” pictures than I would like. I also realized when I looked down at the scale I saw a lot of old numbers staring back up at me. Sure, in my “after” photos I was 270 pounds but I looked downright skinny compared to where I started at 330. I remember thinking at the time how I would never be over 300 pounds again. I had done it. I had won! The problem is, if that is winning, I was once again in a position of losing and failing. Needless to say, getting trapped in that kind of thinking is a recipe for disaster (and don’t get me started on recipes).

It’s difficult to stay motivated when you feel like you have failed. Especially when you have a brain that transforms the thought, “I have failed” into “I’m a failure”. That’s what happens to me when depression tries to get the upper hand on my life. I’m sure it manifests itself differently in others but we all suffer in our own way right? I may have allowed those feelings to get the best of me for a few hours and probably made some poor choices in response to them, but, because I’m aware of how my thoughts and responses work, I was able to stop before things spiraled out of control. Disaster avoided so it was time to move on right? No. It was not time to move on. Moving on would be the biggest mistake I could make.

I think it is part of the human condition that we try to avoid lingering on unpleasant thoughts. Call it pain avoidance or whatever other label you want but it is what it is. It makes sense that we should want to avoid painful or troubling thoughts. After all, who wants to intentionally inflict suffering on themselves, especially mental suffering? We believe we are in control of our minds and that we are in charge of them. Maybe we can’t do much about external factors that make us suffer but at least we have this spot in our heads where we have a say. “This is my space. Keep out.” It becomes our mantra against negative thoughts, feelings and emotions. We strive to tend the garden of our mind and pounce on weeds of negativity and suffering and stamp them out before they take root. We try to meditate on and radiate good thoughts and emotions and feelings in order to overcome suffering and to alleviate the suffering of others. We call it metta or mindfulness or whatever-touchy-feely-positive-thing-you-want meditation and focus on good things. In my case, that is pounds lost and a lifestyle that is healthy and free from the pain of obesity. While it’s nice to focus on and think about those things, there is a time and a place for it and it’s not all the time and everywhere.

When we have an experience, we judge it to be good, bad or neutral. We tend to focus on the good, avoid the bad and endure the neutral. We cultivate good and attempt to maximize it. In the end, that leads to more suffering instead of less. In my case, I felt like a failure and I needed to face that feeling. I had to let the feeling of failure do what it had to do and it was time to learn from it. If I tried to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, I would be fighting a losing battle against my mind. I’d sweep things under the rug but the negative thoughts would still be there waiting for another day to surface. When we have negative emotions, it is not our job to negate them with positive ones. We cannot cultivate a life free of suffering by wielding positivity like a sword that cuts down negative thoughts.

So, I sat with feelings of failure. I meditated while my mind tossed and turned and railed against my body. I saw the negative feelings rise and I attended them with loving kindness. My mind is wounded. Feelings of failure are how this wound shows itself. When the negative feelings arose, I didn’t just sit and let them be there, I was mindful of them. In the end, I chose to recognize the feelings of failure and to “give them the floor” to have their say. I won’t go into the specifics but I got a lot of insight into my own feelings of failure and the reasons for them. By confronting and accepting those feelings when they arose I was able to learn more about myself. I gave them the room they needed to have their say and I listened objectively with an open heart. Once they had their say, I was able to examine my situation in a better light. I could face my perceived failure and deal with it without wallowing in it. I didn’t suffer by grasping at positive thoughts while wishing the negative ones would go away. I was realistic about things. I was open to both the good and the bad.

After I listened to and learned from my feelings, I was able to focus on the reality of my situation. Being realistic means embracing both the positive and the negative and that is what I did. The fact is that today, right now, the numbers I see on the scale are smaller than the ones from last week and the week before. Sure, I look like I’m closer to the “before” than the “after” but I’m moving in the right direction again. This is not failure, it is success. I went through a lot of pain and hardship to lose that weight the first time and those lessons have not been forgotten. I am applying them again, this time as experience. I’m not having to write the rules as I go. Once again, clothes are starting to get loose and I’m having to grab things from the back of the closet. Not from the very back where my “skinny” clothes are, but the transitional clothing. I haven’t had to wear it for quite some time but it is fitting me once more. I’ve lost 17+ pounds again and it is visible when I look at myself in the mirror. It’s hard to keep a mental picture of what I looked like at 330 so it’s a good thing that I still have those “before” pictures to act as a gauge that I can measure my progress against. Instead of seeing things from the perspective of weighing 270, I need to look at them from 330. Where I find myself today becomes framed by the perspective I chose and the fact is, I’m not at 270 any more so I can’t own that perspective. I must earn it again and, once I do, only use it to look forward at the 260s, 250s, 240s, etc. Looking backwards is not what those perspectives are for: if I do that, they become fun-house mirrors and distort reality beyond recognition.

And so, by embracing the negative feelings and emotions I was able to work through them and find myself, once again, in a place of positivity. Real, authentic positivity and not forced or coerced feelings with a veneer of the positive. I allowed feelings to do what they will and to rise and fall of their own accord. That is what it means to really meditate and to observe ones mind. Detachment is not denial, nor is it nihilism. Detachment is a state of objectivity that allows one to look at the positive and negative for what they truly are and to see them as equals. Do I have regrets at regaining weight? Sure. Who wouldn’t? Do I have despair over it? No. Not anymore.

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It’s not often that I have a visceral reaction to a game. I’m a gamer and I play a lot of games (it’s not a topic I touch on frequently here). This small “game” will take about three minutes for you to complete. That’s it. You should go play it. It’s easy and quite powerful. I don’t think I’ve ever been practically moved to tears by a “game” and all I’ve got to say in response is, “holy shit!” After you’ve played it, pop back over here and post your thoughts in the comments.

http://www.necessarygames.com/my-games/loneliness/flash

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I started to write this and it blew up to over 700 words and I was just at an introduction. I realized that to spare people from reading a huge post, I was going to have to make this a multi-part series.

I’ve been asked by a number of people from various backgrounds why I have chosen to follow a Buddhist path. After all, here in the western world, Buddhism is a little outside of the ordinary. It seemed so strange to so many people that I often find myself trying to come up with a good answer as to why I chose this path. The reality is that the experience of Buddhism is so profound that I cannot find good words to answer the “why” question. So, here is a bit of the story about the experience. I hope that it does a good job of answering the “why” question or at least making thimgs a bit clearer.

The problem of suffering had always been one that bothered me. That so many people in the world suffered so terribly and that the world seemed set up to destroy the lives of so many of the people who inhabited it struk me as particularly cruel and wrong. The faith that I grew up with, Christianity, attempted to answer some of these issues but I always found those answers to be lacking. If there really is an all powerful creator who is motivated by love for that creation, his sitting by as horrible things happened so frequently that no one bothers to notice them struck me as heartless and cruel. A promise of a better life in some heavenly realm for those who were lucky enough to pray the right way and believe the right things just didn’t seem to be a viable answer. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that if God exists, when it comes to suffering he is either impotent, indifferent or vindictive in relation to that suffering. If God wants to do something about it but cannot, for whatever reason used to give him an “out”, he’s impotent. If he is able to do something about it but lets things happen anyway, he’s indifferent. If he’s actively participating in the events that lead to suffering and death, he’s vindictive. None of those three options seemed like a very good reason to believe in or worship God. In the end, I came to the conclusion that God wasn’t any of these three things because God was an idea that we came up with as an evolutionary response to the many things that confused our ancient ancestors about the world. That is when I entered a period without faith in anything in my life. This was a hard time for me as I wanted to believe but found the object of belief to be unbelieveable. This period lasted for about 2 years. Throughout it, I kept active in my church and living a life that went through the motions of faith but it was mostly because I didn’t know what else to do.

Eventually, I realized I couldn’t keep living like that so I withdrew from the faith that I grew up with and studied and had, at one point, chosen to dedicate my life to. I cut myself loose and was living a life outside the confines of faith. I was no longer going through the motions of ritual and attempting to feel or experience something that wasn’t there. I had seen other people have deep, meaningful and fulfilling spiritual lives and it had always eluded me. I no longer chased after that. I was “free”.

Except I still wasn’t free. There was still the problem of suffering. I was suffering, my wife was suffering, my kids were suffering, everywhere I looked I saw suffering. Life sucks. That is reality for so many people. Sure, religion wasn’t able to do anything to really deal with the pain and suffering in the world but it still needed to be dealt with. I was just as lost without faith as I was with it. Through all of this, I kept dealing with depression and my own lifestyle issues that caused my weight to keep going up and up. I was miserable, fat, had nothing to believe in and saw very little in life that was worth living for. It was a very dark period of time for me and one that I’m thankful to have put firmly in my past.

How I did that will be covered in part 2.

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Form does not differ from emptiness
Emptiness does not differ from form
— The Heart Sutra

The first time I encountered the heart sutra was on June 23, 2010. That was the first time I went to the Zen Center to see if exploring Zen would be as interesting in practice as it seemed in my mind. For someone with a mind as analytical and ultra-rational as mine, the above statement reeked of contradiction and absurdity.

emptiness

Emptiness

When you first read the statement that form is emptiness and emptiness form, how does it strike you? Seriously, does that even make sense? To me, it seems pretty obvious that those two things are about as opposite as you can get. In this corner, weighing in at 300 pounds, we have Form! In this corner, weighing in at zero pounds, we have the challenger, Emptiness! Doesn’t seem like a fair fight does it?

Even with this apparent contradiction thrown at me as part of one of the first activities of the evening, I decided to keep an open mind and allow the contradiction to slide. I figured there had to be some bigger mystical meaning behind it. After all, they really didn’t mean that form and emptiness were one and the same.

It wasn’t until a little later that I learned they really are saying that form and emptiness are one and the same thing. What I dismissed as an apparent contradiction that was obviously some sort of metaphor or deeper statement is pretty much to be taken at face value. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Deal with it. How am I supposed to deal with that?

This statement forced me to confront my attachments to name and form and to emptiness. In my rational and analytic state of mind, I built up various objects and concepts and things and I categorized each one and put them in their proper place apart from each other. In other words, I was creating a world in my mind where I existed over here and everything else in the universe was over there. In Buddhist terms, this is called ignorance. It is also considered the primary cause of suffering. When we build things up in our mind and think that they are separate from us, it leads to clinging and attaching and to suffering.

I won’t dig any deeper into this subject in this post but it’s amazing how much ink has been spilled over the centuries examining these concepts. However, at some point, the contradictions and confusion about the concepts of form and emptiness went away. It no longer strikes me as a strange concept. I think I really started to get this concept over that past few months when I was really dealing with a lot of depression. One of the problems with depression is a serious feeling of emptiness. I had such an overwhelming feeling of emptiness that I really did realize that it had a form all its own. Emptiness had form and that form was emptiness. I know that this isn’t the assertion of the heart sutra but it was the catalyst I needed to gain the insight into this that made it seem much less a mystery.

What I now understand is that the Buddhist concept that we attach the English word “emptiness” to is not a nihilistic or negative word. Instead, it means seeing things as they really are without constructing a lot of extra stuff around it. If you allow a blade of grass to just be a blade of grass, it’s going to have the form of a blade of grass. However, without a lot of mental baggage about that blade of grass, “it’s green, it’s long, it is the same color as the leaves on the tree” etc., it is “empty” So, even though it appears to be a contradiction at first, the phrase really does capture a deep truth. Brad Warner, writing about this phrase in his book Hardcore Zen had this to say about it and I will give him the last word.

This kind of understanding cannot be expressed symbolically in words used in the usual way. To the extent that it can be expressed symbolically, the phrase “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” really is as clear as it gets.

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I’ve been gone for quite some time and am surprised to find that I am still getting visitors to the blog on a fairly regular basis. I’ve been absent for a number of reasons but the short version is that I’ve been going through an extremely painful and challenging period in my life. For the past seven months I’ve found myself in places I never expected to be. To say that my life has been stressful would be an understatement of the highest order. In response to this stress I have seen my weight go up again and I am just now getting to the point where I can think about addressing this.

The scale has sat on my bathroom floor unused and unloved for a few months now. I have an idea of where I am in regard to my weight but it’s just a guess. I know that I am not back to where I was when I started but my weight has definitely gone up since the last time I stood on a scale. Perhaps I’ll hop on tomorrow and see where I find myself.

Regardless of the reasons for and causes of my absence , they are in the past. I plan to leave them there. I am, once again, focusing on the moment I find myself in. Holding on to the past and my attachments to the causes of my suffering will not allow me to move forward. As long as I dwell in the past I will be anchored to it. If I want to move forward, I need to let it go.

Even though I have been through a painful and stress filled period the past few months, I’ve also had some really great experiences. For instance, I took a glass blowing class and learned how to create beautiful cups and ornaments and paper weights. It’s been one of the cooler things I’ve done in a long time. I went on an amazing Zen retreat and got a lot of insight into the way that my mind works and I experienced peace and tranquility unlike I’d had since before my life got turned around. I have started to learn how to play the guitar. That’s been a lot of fun and I have the numb fingertips to prove it. I have deepened my practice and have really begun to see the benefits of meditation and “together action” that takes place within the Sangha.

It’s good to be back. One of  the informal goals I have set for myself in this process of moving beyond this place of pain and suffering is to write on a regular basis. I am also going to be getting back to exercising and eating in line with a healthy lifestyle. Through all of this, I will be relying on my practice to give me the insights I need to get beyond my old habits and patterns. With that in mind, I’ll be back tomorrow. Promise.

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