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Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

This evening I climbed the two flights of stairs to my third floor apartment as I do on a daily basis. Since I’ve gotten in shape, the climb is a simple matter that doesn’t bother me in the least. Once upon a time, I would have arrived at the top wheezing and gasping for air, wondering if my knees would ever be the same. However, that was fifty pounds ago, long before I became a not-quite-lean, mean, exercising machine. The climb up the stairs is no worse for me than the walk from my bedroom to my bathroom: short and sweet.

The event that caused tonight’s climb to fall way off the edge of the bell curve happened eight hours before, when I got dressed. I’d gone to the gym, had a conference call with a group from IBM, then rushed to get ready to spend the rest of the day with my kids. I saw the shorts, clean and folded, sitting in the drawer and I thought to myself, “I haven’t worn these in a while, I should put them on.” So I did. I ran down the steps, out the door and had a great day hanging out with the kids. The only sign of trouble was an occasional need to tug on my shorts, even though they were the ones that used to fit me so well. Used to. Don’t get ahead of me here, but I think we all see where this is heading. Just be patient.

Flash forward to a drive through construction clogged highways followed by some sort of police action in the block next to mine tying up traffic and you end up with a tired and somewhat frustrated person who just wants to get home. When I finally arrived at my apartment, I grabbed a handful of things I needed to bring in from the car. I also stopped at our other vehicle to get some things my girlfriend asked me to bring up because she couldn’t grab them when she got home. With hands just empty enough to hold my keys, I unlocked the door, shoved my keys in my pocket and began to climb up the stairs. Wait for it.

The first flight was uneventful. There was some slippage of the shorts, weighed down by keys, wallet, cellphone and the tug of gravity as each step jolted them around my now-more-than-ever-diminutive hips, but I was okay. I managed to hold them steady by jamming my left wrist tightly against the waistband. Then came the first turn and the hallway on the second floor. That’s where things really went wrong. That’s when I should have put things down and addressed The Problem. But, I felt tired and rushed so I kept going. This is called foreshadowing.

Halfway up the second flight of stairs, my old nemesis, gravity, finally gained the upper hand. With my arms full of bags and papers and things, I lost my balance and had to put my arm out against the wall to steady myself. Seizing its brief moment of opportunity, my shorts broke free of their bonds and dropped three feet toward the center of the Earth. Now, I’m halfway up a flight of stairs, my arms full and my shorts hanging around my knees. With nowhere to go, and nothing better to do, I put on a brave face and slowly and carefully made my way up the steps, around the last turn to finally place my belongings on the landing in order to clutch at my wayward clothing and yank it into submission.

It was with a great sense of relief that I finally opened my door and put things away, laughing at myself all the while. Losing fifty pounds is an accomplishment to be celebrated. Sometimes, though, these things come with a downside. A pants down side, in this case, but it’s an inconvenience nonetheless. Now, I sit here, my ego in check and my pride diminished, but I’m thankful. Thankful I’ve gotten to a place where this is a problem and thankful that no one came into the hallway. By the way, does anyone want a pair of denim shorts? They’re in great shape and they’re free to a good home.

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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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The other day at the gym, I was on the elliptical machine. It’s my favorite machine to work out on as it’s low impact but really efficient at burning calories. When I’m on the elliptical, I try to maintain a heart rate of around 150. For someone my age and weight, it’s a good speed. I spend 25 minutes on the machine when I use it and I find that the time usually goes quickly as long as I have some good music to listen to. Last week, I forgot my headphones. Those were the longest 25 minutes I’ve ever spent in the gym. I never knew how much music really contributed to my activity until I no longer had it. Instead, I had to look around the gym for lack of anything interesting to do.

In order to keep my heart rate at around 150, I usually move at about four miles per hour on the machine. This day, I was really pushing myself and was up to 4.3 mph and had sweat pouring off of me. I felt pretty good about myself, my progress and my ability. That’s when The Gym Guy showed up. TGG is a great person, I’m sure. When he goes home, his kids are probably happy to see him. TGG has a good job and he’s good at what he does, he just happens to also be really good at using elliptical machines. Probably because he’s there a lot. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. The Gym Guy steps up to the machine next to me and proceeds to move at a pace I didn’t know the machines were capable of. Because I had nothing else to do, I looked at the readout on his machine. He was going nearly 12 miles per hour! He was sprinting on the elliptical machine while I plodded along at about a third of his rate. I figured he’d slow down eventually but TGG just kept it up. I think he may have gotten faster as he got warmed up. TGG was master of the elliptical machine and I was getting schooled in what they were capable of. TGG was so good at it that he didn’t need to hold the handles I had to use for stability and to monitor my heart rate. TGG just moved while his arms pumped in much the same way as an Olympic runner’s. It was, to say the least, impressive.

The problem with being next to someone like TGG is the inevitability of the comparisons between yourself and him. Without my music to distract me, I couldn’t help watching the show as it unfolded. I had to wonder if it were even possible for me to get the elliptical machine to move that fast. If I did, could I maintain a speed like that? If I could, for how long? TGG didn’t seem to be letting up any time soon. Then, I realized he’d already traveled much farther on his machine than I had on mine, though I’d been there much longer than him. If we were on a track, he would have given me a half mile head start and then passed me without breaking a sweat. TGG was good and I was bad. I’m not stupid, I learned that lesson fast. I learned it as fast as TGG was running on his machine.

That’s when I remembered something: I’m not The Gym Guy and he’s not me. TGG has been working out on these machines for a long time. TGG is in good physical shape. TGG isn’t trying to overcome a lifetime of obesity. TGG is not celebrating every pound lost. TGG is (probably not) monitoring every calorie and making sure it’s the best possible one to ingest at any given moment. TGG is good but I’m good too. I remember the lessons I learn on the meditation bench: the mind makes good, the mind makes bad. With no mind, there is no good and there is no bad. If I were to finish my exercise without a sense of failure, I had to let go of my thinking. Attachment to thoughts and illusions of “goodness” or “badness” had to be put aside. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply for a moment, watched my heart rate drop though I was still moving at 4 mph and let go of my mind. It was time for elliptical meditation.

TGG was still there when I finished my 25 minutes. He was still going strong and his arms and legs moved with speed and purpose. He was doing what his body needed him to do. I had completed doing what mine needed. The last ten minutes of my exercise passed as quickly as if I had my headphones on. Without the burden of thought and the struggle against my mind, time moved forward with ease. My body moved while my mind was still. I was no longer “bad” and he was no longer “good”. We were both two people using the elliptical machines and we both benefited from the experience. I wiped down my machine and felt good for TGG and hoped he would continue to keep his body in good shape and know the joy of having a mind as fit as his body.

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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 consider myself lucky. Actually, I think I’m very lucky. The fact that my weight is at an unhealthy level but I have not had to deal with the negative side effects of being obese makes me feel lucky indeed. When I think about all the things carrying around an extra hundred pounds can do to a person’s body, it scares me. However, I haven’t had to deal with diabetes, heart problems, GERD, high blood pressure or many of the other issues that come with extra weight. The question is, how long will my luck hold out?

I’m not stupid. I know that it’s only a matter of time before it catches up with me. I’ve known this for a while and it hasn’t been a big enough motivator for change. Lately though, I’ve been paying attention to the quality of life issues that being obese has already caused me. I have sleep apnea and have to use a CPAP machine to keep me breathing at night. I have knees that tend to be more sore than they should and I occasionally hear them make interesting popping sounds when I walk up stairs. My feet hurt a lot and I have to use inserts to provide the extra support that they need. Someone asked me the other day why I don’t wear my beloved Chucks any more and I had to explain that the inserts I use don’t work too well in them so if I do wear them, it causes my feet to hurt too much.

Some of my favorite footwear

I know if I want to improve my quality of life I need to get rid of these extra pounds. That’s why I’ve set goals that I can work toward other than just the number that pops up on the scale. I want to be able to wear my Chucks again and not feel pain after a couple of hours. I hope to be able to make it through the night without having a mask strapped to my face while air is forced through my nose. I want to be able to walk up a flight of stairs without listening to a creaking and cracking sound that is, when I think about it, quite disturbing. In the end, I’m not just trying to lose weight, I’m trying to have a better life. These are concrete and very real results that I can focus on and they help to motivate me to make the right choices.

Without these other goals, I would be trying to get to an idea. My weight hasn’t been in the lower 200s in such a long time that remembering what it was like to weigh that little is practically impossible. It doesn’t help that even when I had a healthy weight I felt like I was too big so I don’t have too many memories about what it’s like to be a “skinny person”.  That’s why focusing on weight alone isn’t going to cut it. Weighing less is a concept that is ephemeral and difficult to visualize. Not having sleep apnea is much easier to think about. Wearing black canvas shoes that come up past my ankles is concrete. Having the energy to do everything I want to do is something I can latch on to. When I think about it, this isn’t about weight at all, it’s about living the life I want. It’s about having the freedom to live a life free of preventable medical problems.

As a Buddhist I try to be aware of the problems caused by attachment to things, desires or dreams. It is possible to have a goal and not be attached to it but it can be hard. If I am to succeed again in losing this weight, I will need to set goals without attachments to them. Eventually, I’ll have to set other goals and have other things to keep me motivated to stay healthy. Being aware that eventually I will have to throw my current goals away as I achieve them is one way to refrain from attachment. I am also trying to be cognizant of the reality that having a healthy weight and having a better quality of life will not do a thing to change my situation. My self, my true self, will not have changed at all. My self will come in a smaller package but it’s still going to have all of its desires and demands and suffering and delusions. While goals are great for getting a better body, I need to maintain a perspective about them that won’t weigh down my mind. If I’m not willing to take the Chucks off my feet once I can wear them again, I won’t be spending too much time on the meditation cushion. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but meditating with shoes on is very uncomfortable.

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I have so many things to be thankful for. Even though I weigh more now than I did last Thanksgiving, I’m back on track and I’m making progress. A healthy lifestyle feels like it’s within reach again. I’ve gone through one of the darkest times in my life and been able to get through it. I am thankful for the newfound strength I have because of this.

I am thankful for all of the new friends I have made over the past few years since I moved to Maine. Moving a thousand miles from my home and family and friends was a difficult thing to do. It was another challenge that helped me to change and grow as a person.

I am thankful for my kids and the joy that they bring to my life. Their humor and energy and joy is contagious. I learn as much from my kids as they do from me. Being their dad is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

I am thankful for my practice and my sangha. I have found in my practice a real and practical way to address the challenges and struggles that life presents. I have made many new friends and am thankful for every one of them.

Speaking of being thankful, I’m thankful for the people who visit this blog. I was remembering a discussion I had a few years ago with a friend and he was encouraging me to start blogging. I actually told him that I wasn’t one of the kind of people with egos big enough to think that others may want to read about what I had for lunch. Now, I blog about what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Seriously, if you’re reading this, it makes me happy. And if you’re wondering, I had a big plate of bacon. It’s thanksgiving so I’m not worrying about it too much. Everything in moderation. I didn’t have anything else with it but a cup of coffee.

There are so many other blessings I have in my life that I lose track of them all. Sure, life is hard sometimes and there are things about it that I would like to change but when you add everything up, the good far outweighs the bad.

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Bliss

Last night I had the opportunity to do something I hadn’t done in almost 20 years. I was able to play with Pan Fried Steel, a community based steel drum band based out of Yarmouth Maine. The high school I attended was fortunate enough to have  a steel drum band and I spent countless hours practicing and playing those drums. It was some of the most fun I ever had playing music. It was great to listen to and fun to play. Audiences always loved it and it taught me just how amazing music can be. Since leaving high school, I have really missed playing. Now, I have found another opportunity to have this great experience.

I was amazed at how quickly it came back to me. I haven’t read much music since I was forced to stop playing back in college. I still knew every note and all the musical notations felt like old friends. I think the best experience was being able to hold my own on two of the songs. I had no expectations of coming in and being able to play but these two particular pieces were simple enough that after a quick overview of the music and a survey of where the notes were on the drums I was playing, I was able to keep up and feel like I really played and participated in the group. After I left rehearsal, I was lightheaded with happiness. It was like a drug. I’m still smiling as I think about the experience.

I played drums like these

This was an experience I wasn’t planning on having. I didn’t specifically go and seek it out. It was one of those things that just happened. One day, I saw a flyer for upcoming performances at an event hall and noticed that there was a steel drum band from Yarmouth playing. I had no idea how they operated or if I could even participate. On a whim, I contacted them and asked about what it takes to be a member. It turns out, all that was needed was a willingness to play. I’ve got that in abundance so I attended the rehearsal last night and had a blast. As I said in my previous post about learning to play the guitar, focusing on music is an amazing meditative practice. I had a very similar experience to the one I wrote about in that post but much more intense. The single mindedness that comes when playing music is the state that a Zen practice cultivates. When playing music, you are just playing. You are with a group of other people who are of a similar mind and are just playing. It is the most visceral example of what Zen Master Seung Sahn called “together action” that I have ever experienced. While I was playing and reading and experiencing music I wasn’t worried about work, I wasn’t struggling with depression, I didn’t feel the need to stuff my face with junk. I just played and it was the most natural thing in the universe. I lost sight of my “I, my me” mind. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing Samadhi. Now, I am forced to leave that behind as it was in the past. If I try to keep holding onto it, I will only suffer as the rest of my experiences don’t add up to it. I cannot build up expectations of next week’s rehearsal either as it will set me up for suffering if things do not go according to all of the imaginary scenarios I have made. Each practice will be its own experience. Just as each moment is its own moment. Last night I had a beautiful experience and it made me happy. Today, I sit at a computer and type. What is the difference?

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