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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

Fog

Fog rolls in
Foghorn sounds
Danger, rocks ahead!

Sun comes out
Foghorn stops
Danger, rocks ahead!

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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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Zen Pooh

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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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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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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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I saw a story over on openbuddha.com about the Occupy protests that have been taking place in Oakland. Obviously, the protests in Oakland have been some of the more eventful ones and there have been things done on both sides of the events there that are inappropriate. Since I’m on the other side of the country from Oakland, I’m not going to attempt to add a lot of commentary about it. My only awareness of what has been going on has been what’s been covered on the national media and I’m sure that means I’m too uninformed to be able to make any type of valuable contribution to the discussion. However, I did see some pictures from the events in Oakland that I found to be very moving and wanted to share them here. These are all available to be seen on Flickr

I found these images to be very moving. There have been a number of times when I have heard Buddhists being accused of not being active in addressing social problems. While I do not necessarily agree with that accusation, I do understand how it can sometimes appear that this is the case. After all, when you see someone meditating, it’s not all that exciting. If you have not meditated, you could ask quite reasonably what is the point of it. However, if you have or have ever had, a regular meditation practice you understand that meditation is a powerful tool for transformation. Through the act of meditation, you are forced to confront your own mind and you begin to cut through the illusions that our minds construct to define the world. The important part is that, when you leave the meditation cushion, you take that clarity and insight with you. An active meditation practice means that you have an active interest in transforming the entire world. When I am more aware of the way my mind works, I am more prepared to deal with others in a way that is less self-serving. I see others in a more positive light and am more concerned for their well being. The clarity that one gets from meditation can and does put you in a place where you want to help everyone possible.

Meditation is powerful action that we can take to bring about change. As you view the pictures above, consider the emotional impact that they have. These two men (there were others meditating also) are making a powerful statement without saying a thing or raising a hand against anyone. I look at this picture and wonder if I would be able to sit in meditation while the person sitting next to me was being arrested, all the while knowing I was next. Probably not.

If you have never meditated, I highly recommend giving it a chance. Find a quiet place and sit in whatever way you are most comfortable. Allow yourself to relax and focus on your breathing. Allow your mind to do what it will. Eventually it will quiet down (a bit). Keep focused on your breathing and clear your mind. Even 5 minutes is enough to get started. Eventually, you will start to see small, positive changes taking place in your understanding and your outlook. Then, you’ll understand just how important an activity meditation can be.

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I don’t know if I’ve ever blogged about this or not, but one of the many geeky things I like is anime. I’ve never dressed up in a costume and gone to a convention or anything but there are a lot of really great anime shows out there and they really do deserve to have a wider audience. Last week, I finally caught up on an anime series that I should have watched a long time ago but never seemed to get to. It’s called Afro Samurai and stars Samuel L. Jackson as one of the baddest dudes ever to hold a sword. The show is full of violence and language and graphic images but if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, I highly recommend it. Besides the great story line and beautiful artistic direction in the show and its follow up movie, there is a great example of what Buddhism often calls the “monkey mind”. In a nutshell, this is the mind that jumps around from one topic to another and constantly chatters and makes a racket and distracts us. The other day I used an analogy for this kind of mind where I compared it to a puppy who runs around chasing everything.

One of the characters from the show is named Ninja Ninja. He is the travelling companion of Afro Samurai and is also voiced by Samuel Jackson. Ninja is the personification of the monkey mind. The way that he moves and constantly chatters, attempting to distract Afro from his cause (usually that means killing someone) is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of demonstrating the activity of the monkey mind. Afro’s ability to allow Ninja to do whatever he is going to do is also a great example of how best to deal with the monkey mind. He rarely engages it and usually only tells it to be quiet or to go away. He doesn’t worry about it or try to argue or rationalize it away. He remains focused on his journey and what he needs to do. I found it to be quite inspiring when I thought about it. Below is a short clip of the interaction between Afro and Ninja that takes place in the movie that was made in response to the popularity of the original 5 episode series. I am including this particular clip because it shows very well the point that I am trying to make and doesn’t include material that could be considered R rated (as a lot of this series is)

If you do want to watch this show, it is available on Netflix and over at Hulu for free.

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I’m sitting here in the early morning, drinking my coffee and watching the sun come up. It’s slightly foggy outside so everything is just a little soft around the edges. The fog is catching and reflecting the colors of the sunrise and generally making this a beautiful morning. In a very short while, the fog will burn off and we’ll have a clear, crisp autumn day. The way the fog is behaving reminds me of something that is said in our school about keeping a clear mind. A clear mind is like a mirror, when red shows up, the mirror is red, when blue shows up the mirror is blue. A clear mind reflects whatever is in front of it at that time. That’s what this fog is doing. Reds and yellows and oranges come and the fog reflects reds and yellows and oranges. When I see this, I find great beauty in it. Why do I find beauty in it? Fog is usually something that has negative associations. If someone is feeling foggy, it’s a bad thing. If someone is confused, we say they’re in a fog. Yet here I am enjoying the beauty of this early morning fog. I am finding beauty in it because the fog is doing what it is supposed to do. It is reflecting whatever light hits it.

A clear mind is also a thing of beauty. It reflects the world around it and does not interfere with it. When we encounter clear mind, we encounter beauty. I think this is because we innately admire a thing when it simply does what it is intended to do. A clear mind is not a complicated thing. A clear mind is easy to understand. A clear mind is what it is without pretense or posturing. A clear mind eats when it is hungry and stops when it is full. A clear mind does not feel the need to dip into a pint of ice cream to change its mood. A clear mind doesn’t have “moods” in the way that we understand them. This is why I spend 40 minutes a day in meditation: to develop a clear mind. And now, with my mind clear from my morning meditation and my morning coffee (hey, drinking coffee can be a type of meditation too!) I am ready to go out into the day and face each moment as it comes.

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