Posts Tagged ‘meditation’

Back in September of 2010, I hit a milestone of some importance. I lost 40 pounds. It was an amazing time and I was full of hope and joy at getting my weight under control and getting healthy. I’d been working very hard at it and things were new and promising. A few months after that, I was down 60 pounds and felt great. Twice, I had bought new clothes  because I was too skinny for my old ones. For the first time in a long time, I felt like things were under control and I was making progress on having the life I wanted. As often happens in life, it was at this point things got turned upside down when my marriage began to fall apart. It’s been a long and painful two years, but I’ve moved on. However, I have to undo a lot of damage those hard times inflicted on my weight and my health. As my life spiraled out of control, old habits came back and my weight returned to where it was when I started my journey. Actually, I hit 333 pounds (3 over where I was the first time) before I realized I couldn’t live with myself that way any more. So, in July of last year, I began to focus on my health again. I’ve progressed more slowly this time but in eleven months, I’ve gotten back to 290 pounds and once again feel the joy of having lost 40 pounds. Unlike last time, I’m not elated or dizzy from the accomplishment. Perhaps it’s because I’ve done it before, maybe it’s because I’ve been through the worst suffering of my life and am wary of happiness, perhaps it’s because I know I could gain it back if I let my guard down. Whatever the reason, I’m happy for myself but it’s not the same as last time. I’m more aware than ever how impermanent things really are and that’s probably a factor too. While I’m happy I’ve reached this milestone, I’m just not attached to the happiness like I once was. Eventually, the happiness will fade and I’ll be left with a choice about what to do. I can either continue losing weight and being healthy or I can chase after a faded happiness and suffer. This doesn’t mean I’m unhappy—nor does it diminish the importance of my accomplishment—however, my relationship to these feelings of accomplishment has changed.

Whenever we set out to do something hard, there are moments of fear and discouragement. Last November, I wrote 60,000 words of what eventually became a 92,000 word novel. At the beginning of the month, I had no idea if I could do it, and I was scared of failing in the attempt. However, each day I sat down and I wrote. I made the time and did what needed to be done. Now, I’m repeating that task by carefully reading through the novel, changing the things that need to be changed and fixing typos and gramatical problems. Even on days I don’t feel like doing it, I sit down and I edit and I rewrite and I add clarifications or cut extraneous words. I take it one day at a time and slowly and reliably make progress even though I still feel fear or discouragement. The same is true with my weight and my health. I’d been discouraged lately because the first thirty pounds came off quickly but it took me almost six months to lose the next ten. However, instead of attaching to the fear or discouragement, I’ve taken it one day at a time, one step at a time. Each day I choose to do what I need to do that day: I exercise, I eat well, I meditate, I write, I work. All of those days add up and I’m seeing results again.

I have lost 40 pounds and I fully expect to see the scale in the 280’s tomorrow or early next week. This is good. I am happy about this. However, the day will come when I am no longer happy and my only option will be to do what needs to be done that day.

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The other day, I was reading an article on Buddhism Now about life as a monk in a Korean Zen monastery. I found this article interesting because I practice in a Korean school of Zen so there was a bit of familiarity with the descriptions that the monk wrote about. One part of the article really struck me as interesting when he mentioned feeling “full of emptiness”. This is a seemingly contradictory ide: how could one be full of something that is, by definition, empty? However, I found myself nodding in agreement and feeling a glimpse of recognition in his words.

In the past month, I moved about 90 minutes away from where I had been. It’s a temporary move but for now I am not able to attend meditation with my normal Zen Center. Instead, I have been practicing with the Portsmouth Buddhist Center and have been sitting with them on Sunday mornings. It is interesting to spend time with a different school of Buddhism and to see how those differences influence the practice of a particular school. In this case, on Sunday mornings, the meditation lasts for close to one hour without any type of break or transition from seated to walking meditation as it does in my school. This has had the effect of allowing me to have some different experiences on the meditation cushion even though my personal practice is the same (they do a mild “guided meditation” there but I do not follow it and instead, just sit).

The other day, I was sitting still, feeling the cool air against my face and allowing my thoughts to arise as they would and keep an otherwise clear mind. Lo and behold, after about thirty minutes of uninterrupted sitting, I began to feel “full of emptiness”. I was aware of my body and the various pulls and tightness of the muscles in my legs and I was conscious of the cushion underneath me. However, my body was no longer felt like the place where I keep my “self”. The border between me and “not me” had begun to blur as a feeling of oneness with the cushion, the floor, the people in the room and the building we were in began to gently take over. My mind was calm and clear and my senses were no longer impeding my perception. I felt full and empty at the same time.

As often happens on the meditation cushion, once the realization that this was happening came into my mind, it collapsed and I was back to feeling the way I did before the experience. For a few minutes though, I believe I was experiencing samadhi. It has happened a few times before and, I’m sure, it will happen again. The trick is to not go in expecting it when I sit because trying to chase after a goal is a sure way to “fail” when you meditate.

After my realization and subsequent collapse of the experience, I was left with the lines from the heart sutra that “Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.” stuck in my head. They seemed much more real to me in that moment than ever before because the distinction between them had so recently been obliterated. I was back in a land of dichotomies and differentiations and saw just how troubling making distinctions between “me” and “not me” can really be. A sense of oneness must be cultivated if one is to have compassion for every sentient being. After the hour was up, I got up from my cushion, stretched my legs and went back to my car to drive home through the snow. Somehow, it didn’t seem to bother me too much since I knew, for at least a short while, that the weather was not some other thing that I was opposed to. There was no “me” to oppose it.

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I just watched a great TED talk from Andy Puddicombe about the importance of and usefulness of taking 10 minutes every day for meditation. It’s a great intro to mindfulness.


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I guess we know the answer to that koan afer all.

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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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What happens when you start something, make great progress, redefine what a “normal” life is and then lose it all? That’s a question I’m asking myself lately because that’s what I did. I lost over 60 pounds and felt better than I had in a very long time. The next 40 pounds seemed like a small bump in the road compared to the hurdles I had already crossed. Losing weight was second nature at that point and I was going to coast to my goal. Then my life got turned upside down. Then it got turned upside down again and again and again. I spent 2011 and the first part of 2012 just struggling to keep my head above the emotional waters I was drowning in. I was in survival mode and all the progress I’d made evaporated. Sixty pounds down, sixty-five back up. The clothes that were stuck in the back of the closet never to be worn again made their way to the front and even they started to feel a little tight. I didn’t have the energy or the emotional bandwidth to focus on being healthy or mindful. I was still meditating and that helped me to stay focused through the turbulence and make decisions that reduced the suffering of myself and others but I wasn’t able to draw strength from it to be mindful of what I was putting inside myself.

And now, here I am. Back at square one. I watched my scale go over the 33o mark and not stop. I lost hope of ever losing again. I figured I was doomed to a life of medical complications from obesity. I had failed. Then, at this very low point, I remembered that this is how I felt when I first started to lose weight. I re-read some of my old posts and saw that I was repeating 2010 all over again. I realized if I did it once, I could do it again. I talked with a friend about the need to make positive life choices and started to focus once again on doing that. The emotional turmoil I was dealing with has mostly subsided and I have learned how to cope and with things and process issues as they arise. I could do it.  I will do. I am doing it.

I’ve started exercising again. I haven’t had soda for a week. I’m paying attention to the food choices I make and I’m trying to plan ahead to have healthy foods when it is time to eat. I am focusing on why I eat what I do and asking myself if it’s a good idea to eat it. I’ve already lost seven pounds. There is a saying in Zen, “Correct Situation, Correct Function, Correct Action” and I’m trying to put this into practice when I sit down to eat. At a meal time, the situation is to provide my body the fuel it needs to be healthy. The correct function is to eat mindfully and be aware of how my body responds to eating. The correct action is to eat foods that are healthy for my body and to stop once I’ve provided the fuel my body needs. When I find myself craving sugar or fats or unhealthy foods I am asking myself what the correct action and correct function is for the situation I find myself in. Ten times out of ten, the correct function and action is to not eat the unhealthy food or drink the sugary drink. I haven’t made healthy decisions every single time but more often than not I am. When I do make the wrong choice I am making it a point to have compassion on myself and to pay close attention to the long-term negative effects of the bad choice rather than the short-term reward of a quick fix. Reminding myself that after the soda there is a crash and being mindful of that crash makes it easier to resist the next time around. Last night I wanted a soda so bad I could taste it. I chose to focus on the task that I was supposed to be doing instead and sent a text message to a friend for support and a reminder that I’m making the right choice. It was just one small victory in a long chain of good decisions that will lead me back to good health.

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Happy Rohatsu

Today is the eighth day of the twelfth month. In Japanese, that’s what Rohatsu means. Why is that important? Because it’s also Bodhi day. This is the day where Buddhists commemorate the historical Buddha gaining enlightenment. The Buddha had spent the previous few years living a life of extreme asceticism where he practically starved himself to death trying to gain an understanding of why there is suffering and death. Before that, he had spent years studying meditation and spiritual matters. He had been so successful in those studies that he was asked to take over the schools of his teachers. He chose not to follow that path either as studying deeply did not answer his question.

Eventually, after having tried extreme spiritual practices and extreme ascetic practices he realized that the answers he was looking for were not to be found there. This is when he realized that there had to be a better path, what became known as the Middle Way—avoiding extreme materialism or asceticism. At that point, the story goes, he decided to sit under a Bodhi tree and meditate until the problems of suffering and death were finally solved. According to many accounts, he sat for 49 days in meditation and finally received enlightenment and the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path were revealed.

As will happen with any tradition that is over 2000 years old, a lot of other stuff gets added on and the historical accuracy of some of the stories can often be hard to come by. Whether this is a completely accurate account of what happened or not, it’s been a consistent enough story for two and a half millennium that I feel comfortable with the story as it is traditionally told.

For me, Rohatsu is special because it reminds me of the importance of the Middle Way. I have found in my own life that this is extremely important. I have tried dealing with my suffering through excess indulgence. All it got me was an extra hundred pounds of fat. I have tried living a life of extreme spirituality and found it to be lacking and unfulfilling. When I walk the Middle Way, I find balance and peace. I may never gain enlightenment but I can still walk the path and follow the teachings. I can meditate and choose to live a life in peace and harmony with the world around me. In this I have found a way that makes sense, a way that actually addresses life just as it is, a way that doesn’t push me to extremes of imbalance. I will go through today and keep in mind the importance of walking the Middle Way and of pursuing it until I find the way to save all sentient beings from suffering.

On another note, Rohatsu is in December so, when someone wishes me Happy Holidays, I consider this to be the one they’re wishing me happiness for. What holiday you choose to be happy on is up to you.

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This is the second part in a multi-part post about why I started following a Buddhist path.

As I said in my last post, I had left my faith behind but I still had a lot of questions about suffering and the nature of suffering. I was still suffering and was dealing with depression, excess weight, a host of family problems and a general pessimism about life that made living seem almost unbearable.

Cover of "Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful ...

Cover of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life

Eventually, I reached a point where I broke down. I could no longer go on living the way that I was. I knew that if I didn’t make some serious changes in my lifestyle that my physical and mental health would deteriorate rapidly and I would find myself dying early. As bad as my outlook on life was, a basic desire for self preservation would not allow this to happen. When I broke down, my wife shared a book with me that she had recently picked up. The book was called Savor. It was written by Thich Nhat Hahn and Dr. Lillian Cheung. The book was looking at the problem of obesity from a Buddhist and a medical perspective. As I read through the opening chapters, I began to see just how important the issue of suffering was to Buddhism. Eliminating suffering was the foundation of the entire Buddhist perspective.

I had studied a bit about the basic beliefs of Buddhism in college as part of a World’s Religions class. I had a basic understanding of what Buddhists believed but this was the first time I had ever seen Buddhist principles put into action. It amazed me at how simple and straightforward the application of the Four Noble Truths could be.

The other thing that struck me at that time was the almost single minded focus Buddhism put on the world as it really is. There was no mystical magic being to relate to. Buddhism always brought things back to your self. In the Buddhist perspective, there is no external world that exists outside of the self. The mind is the final arbiter of the world that we perceive. Everything in the world comes to us through our five (six in the Buddhist view) senses. We then add meaning and context to that sensory information and start to relate to it. This is how we build up the world and this is where suffering begins and ends. Finally, I had found a reasonable explanation for what causes suffering and what can be done about it.

I decided that I should give Buddhism a try. The approach was so simple and pure and the practice was designed to integrate into ones daily life. It was a practice with a purpose. It meant I would have to learn how to meditate but I figured that having tried so many different ways to deal with suffering that one more couldn’t hurt. I did some research and found that in the town just north of me there was a Zen Center so I gave them a call and arranged a visit. My experiences with Zen and what I thought about the experience will have to wait for part 3 of this series. However, before I end this, I’d like to share a quote from Brad Warner in his book Zen Dipped in Karma Wrapped in Chocolate about his experience in discovering Buddhism. He’s a great writer and his words capture my feelings better than my words can.

When I say that Buddhism worked, I don’t mean that it was a magic solution to my problems. Nor do I mean that any miracles happened or that I was able to erase all doubt and fear from my mind through some kind of special power. What I mean is that Buddhism…provided the most truly realistic and practical way of dealing with life. It isn’t spirituality, but it isn’t materialism either…Buddhism does what no other philosophy I’ve ever come across is able to do. It bridges the gap between these two forever mutually opposing ways of understanding reality. It negates both spirituality and materialism yet simultaneously embraces them. And it’s more than just a way of thinking about things. There’s a practice involved — zazen. You cannot separate the philosophy from the practice. If you don’t do zazen practice you cannot ever hope even to come close to comprehending the philosophy.

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I just got back from an early morning 1 mile walk. I love the smell of the air on a crisp winter morning. It’s so fresh and pure up here in Maine and it still amazes me even after being here more than 2 years. Add in the beautiful colors of the sunrise and you have an almost perfect environment for walking. There’s just enough of a bite to the air that you want to keep moving and it’s relatively easy to work up a sweat.

Today as I walked I tried to keep a clear mind and really experience each moment as it happened. The single note of a bird just waking up, the sound of water running through the gully below me, the crispness of the air, the scent of a fireplace from one of the homes that are nearby but invisible because of the woods, the pinks and oranges and reds spreading out over my head in all directions; all of these things became a part of my walk. And I became a part of all of them. I’m not going into a lot of detail about that. Take my word for it. Spend time meditating and studying Buddhism and you’ll see for yourself.

Now, with my body having had its exercise and my mind getting primed and cleared, I’m ready to face what is the busiest day of my week. And now, it’s time for a hot shower and a spicy bowl of oatmeal.

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There have been numerous scientific studies done on the benefits of meditation. This morning I saw yet another article publicizing new findings. It turns out that “meditators seem to be able switch off areas of the brain associated with daydreaming as well as psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia”. Personally, I find this to be very interesting. I don’t know if I’m an “accomplished meditator” yet but I’ve spent enough time in meditation to no longer know how many hours it has been. I do know that when I am meditating I do notice that my brain does seem easier to understand and I am able to work with my mind in ways that I cannot when I am not in a meditative state.

The most apparent this kind of change meditation can have on the mind came to me in October when I went on a Zen retreat. It was two days of meditation and when I left the retreat, I was amazed with the clarity and control I had over my mind. The experience was incredibly motivating for me to continue in my practice and to continue to meditate as much as is possible.

Personally, I am also using meditation as I deal with depression and the mental fog that comes along with it. I am taking medication to treat it but I have found that when I combine it with meditation, I am much better equipped to handle the twisted reality that depression presents to those who suffer from it. There are times when I am feeling particularly down or feeling miserable about things and I remember to stop and to spend time in meditation.

A place of healing for the mind

As I breathe in, I focus on whatever is causing me pain. I breathe in the pain or anger or sadness or whatever else I’m feeling and breathe out a long, cleansing “Don’t Know” in response to that pain. This “don’t know” meditation is encouraged in the Kwan Um School of Zen in which I am a member. It serves as a focal point to bring my mind back to its original state. I repeat this process four or five times and this brings my mind back to a state where whatever I am struggling with seems much more manageable.

I am personally very interested in finding out more about the meditative influence on disorders like Asperger’s and Autism. As a parent of a child with Asperger’s, I am always on the lookout for things that may allow our child to process the world that they see and to deal with it in a way that allows them to integrate with it. Meditative techniques may be another tool in our arsenal of ways to bring our child out of their shell.

I think the verdict is in that meditation is healthy and beneficial for a well balanced life. Now, the evidence just keeps piling up in new ways to demonstrate just how beneficial it can be. If you do not have a meditation practice, I encourage you to find one. You will be thankful that you did.

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