Posts Tagged ‘hope’

2012, I would like to say goodbye. We had a lot of ups and downs and I’ll always remember you and not always fondly. Some of the highest highs and lowest lows in one twelve month package, tied together like a nightmarish set of stacking dolls. The five skandhas might be empty but I feel each of them, heaped on me, their weight adding to my own. We may not have had the best relationship, but it’s over now and there’s nothing left but to pick up the pieces and move on. And so, I move on to 2013, no promise the next twelve months will be different—but still, strangely, full of hope. I will remember the good of the past and put the rest behind me, each scar a lesson of the pitfalls that might be ahead.

I accomplished what was, at your beginning, an unthinkable task: 70,000 words written across 200 pages in just 2 months. The work on the book is not complete but it is close.

My weight reached a level I had never seen, but I overcame it. Thirty five pounds in six months is a good start, and I will always remember what I saw on your final cold and snowy day: the only day of the year this scale started with a 2.

New Year Scale

I faced my demons and, in your closing, gained valuable insight into the ways they conspire to hold me down and keep me away from my best interests. I enter 2013 with the hope to conquer them before its close.

The future does not exist, the past is lost and the present moment is fleeting. There are an infinite number of present moments in 2013 and I strive to be aware of them all. It’s an impossible goal, but sometimes the goal isn’t what’s important: it’s the striving that matters.

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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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For a long time this summer I felt like I was doomed to return to my starting weight of 330 pounds and just keep going. At some point when you feel that way, you reach a place of hopelessness and enter into a vicious cycle where it doesn’t matter what you eat since you’re going to gain weight anyway. Once you have eaten whatever you want due to hopelessness, your weight goes up and the feeling that you’ll never have things under control gets reinforced because, sure enough, your weight has gone up.

Stopping that cycle was the biggest challenge that I had to face this month when I realized I needed to get things back on track. I have realized that I’m probably going to have to deal with this kind of thing for the rest of my life. It’s the way my mind is wired. I think that realizing this will help me to stop the cycle if I ever find myself falling into it again.

Just as there is a vicious cycle that keeps me gaining weight, there is another cycle that does the opposite. It happens when I see that I can make changes and that my weight is manageable. This encourages me to make better decisions and then, when my weight goes down, it reinforces the feelings that I can do this and that my weight is controllable. It leads to me making better choices with more frequency.

The real benefit of this virtuous cycle is that instead of giving rise to hopelessness, it is a breeding ground for hope. I find that once again I have hope for a lifestyle that is as healthy as possible. I have hope that I will reach a weight that will move me to much lower risks of the numerous health problems that come with being my size. I have hope that when I look at myself in the mirror I will be proud of what I see.

Here’s to hope.

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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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Even when we have the best of intentions to eat well and only eat at meal times there are days when we’re going to feel hungry outside of normal meal times. For me this usually happens in the afternoon when I’m sitting at my desk or after dinner a couple of hours before bed. I’ve written about some of the issues of craving things that I’ve been dealing with lately but those have mostly settled down again. If we are wanting to be mindful about what we eat and why, snacking can be a big challenge to that.

Once you begin snacking, it is very easy to just keep going. Mindfulness gets shown to the door and unceremoniously kicked to the curb. Then, once we’re done snacking, we feel a sense of loss or regret or anger or shame. We can beat ourselves up over why we gave in to a craving or why we didn’t resist more. It’s a vicious cycle and can easily lead us to feel like a failure. I used to loath myself every time I’d finish off an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in one sitting. That didn’t stop me from doing it though: it just made it worse. So, how do you snack mindfully without destroying your healthy lifestyle goals? What do you do when most snacks revolve around the holy trinity of salt, sugar and fat? Here are some things that I’ve learned and have worked for me.

  1. Find something healthy that you actually enjoy snacking on. For me this was baby carrots. I love the little things. They’re crunchy and healthy and satisfying. I also love to snack on fresh fruits or berries. You need to find whatever works for yourself as a snack food. Planning ahead for the times of craving or unexpected hunger really helps you get ahead of things before desire to eat even rears its ugly head.
  2. If you do snack, leave the bag alone! Don’t grab a container of anything and bring it with you. Measure out a few or a specific amount and put it in a small bowl or other container and limit your snacking to that amount. This way, if you do eat mindlessly, you’re still able to stop yourself from eating too much. This is a trick I used a few days ago when I absolutely couldn’t go without something sweet. I had grabbed a bag of Vanilla Wafer cookies and my wife gave me “the look” and reminded me of my rule. I grabbed 5 cookies, put them in a small bowl and put the bag back in the pantry. I got a little something sweet without destroying myself for the day.
  3. Don’t snack while doing something else. Keep snacking a separate activity so that it is easier for you to monitor what you’re doing. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen. It’s very easy to grab a snack and just eat while I work. I no longer allow myself to do this. If I have to snack, I do it in the employee kitchen/dining area that’s downstairs from my office. If I’m at home, I snack in a room that doesn’t have a computer or a TV in it. When you combine snacking with some other activity you lose your ability to eat mindfully.
  4. Don’t keep junk food in your home. This is a rule that I would like to follow more closely but the fact is that I’m not the only one in my house. My kids and my wife don’t have the same problems as I do and my will power is usually strong enough to resist grabbing the pretzels or cookies or chips or whatever is in the pantry. That’s why I have rule 2 above and it has served me well in the times when my willpower isn’t enough to keep me away from the junk food. If you do keep it out of your home, it is much harder to grab impulsively in the evenings.
  5. Don’t keep junk food at your desk/place of work. This is a rule that I do follow. I have a few packets of instant oatmeal here at my desk and I will also keep fresh fruit at my desk. This is what I eat if I’m at work and need to snack. Since I have food with me, I don’t feel tempted to pop coins into the vending machine in the employee dining area.

If you do find that you have failed in your desires to be healthy and have downed a massive amount of junk food remember that it’s not the end of the world. You are not a failure and you have not failed yourself. Instead of judging yourself too harshly accept what has happened and ask yourself why you felt such an urge to snack the way that you did. There could be many reasons: stress, anxiety, worry, sleepiness, anger, feelings of worthlessness or any other of hundreds of triggers. Remember that “I don’t know” is a valid answer to this question. Don’t be upset if you ate mindlessly for no good reason at all. It’s OK. If you do know why you snacked the way you did, spend some time planning for how to handle the situation differently in the future. Each one of the reasons I listed above plus more that I didn’t have all been triggers for me to want to snack mindlessly. Sometimes I’ve resisted, other times I haven’t. Once something is done, it’s done. We can’t go back in time and change the past. We have to accept what has happened and move on with compassion for ourselves.

Failure is a part of this journey. We will not be successful all day, every day. We will eat mindlessly, we will eat junk foods, we will lose our focus. Knowing how you will react to those times before they happen is a critical component of making the long-term changes that will create a healthy lifestyle.If you haven’t already done so, make a failure plan. Know what to do when things go wrong. It makes navigating the emotions and reactions to those failures much easier. It’s the difference between being lost with a map and a compass or just being lost in the woods. Use your failures to learn. Use them as opportunities to learn self-forgiveness and compassion. Use them as you would any positive experience or lesson. This is what I have done and this is why I am still losing weight even after seeing my weight creeped up a few pounds because I was struggling. Don’t lose hope and you will lose weight.

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This evening I made the sesame crusted tofu that I had found the recipe for earlier this week. It was as good as I thought it would be. The tofu was crispy and the sesame seeds were the perfect touch to give the tofu some really nice flavor. The ultimate test of just how good it was came when my wife told me that it smelled really good and she wanted to try a bite. I couldn’t believe it. She actually wanted to try tofu! My wife usually doesn’t want to get anywhere near tofu and she’s never tried any of the tofu dishes that I have made. Even better than her wanting to try it was when she told me she liked it and would like to try my BBQ tofu the next time I make it.

I think that was one of the happiest moments I’ve had since I started to make changes in the foods that I cook so that I can eat healthier. I know when I make and enjoy something good for myself. It’s really nice to make something and have someone else tell me it’s good. I’ve had to learn to use so many new ingredients and new cooking methods and it’s nice to get positive feedback from others who enjoy my food. Not only does it give my ego a bit of a boost (though I am making a point not to let it get out of control) but it makes me happy that I’m able to introduce someone to a new ingredient or show them that there is a “healthy” food that they really can enjoy. I used to like cooking for others because it meant doing something nice for them. Now, in addition to that, I’m helping them discover ways that they can make positive changes for themselves.

As people discover that they can enjoy eating healthy, it becomes easier for them to envision making the changes that they want to but haven’t been able to. This is a key to making long term changes. When I felt trapped in my own body and was hopeless to change, I was unable to think about eating healthy. Even when I decided to try to lose the weight and change my lifestyle I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it. Food is such an integral part of who we are and it’s something with deep seated cultural and emotional components. To change what we eat is to, sometimes, change who we are. I didn’t want to be some hippy wimpy vegetarian who ran from the sight of a medium-rare steak. I couldn’t imagine myself being a skinny vegetarian who could get blown over by a strong gust of wind. My mental image of eating healthy was as out of synch with reality as my weight was out of control. As I began to learn about new recipes and realize that I could make some really good foods that were entirely meat free I felt empowered to change. There was a lot of freedom that came with that realization and now I hope to be able to use my skills to help others feel the same. To cook healthy and to provide hope to others wanting to eat healthy is a wonderful thing.

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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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