Posts Tagged ‘peace’

This past weekend I was in the woods at a retreat with my Sangha from Northern Light Zen Center. It was a great experience and I am very glad that I went. It’s amazing what spending two days in meditation will do for your clarity of mind. This retreat was a mixture of sitting meditation and walking meditation. The walking took place outdoors in the woods and was an opportunity to see a lot of beauty in the autumn trees, the moon and the stars and the sunrise and sunset. It was also a time for me to experience practicing through some hardship. I’ve already gotten a post about that half-written but didn’t want to publish it yet since I want to focus on the positives of the experience before I start speaking about the challenges I had to overcome.

As with all Zen retreats, this one was designed to push the body and mind to their limits in order to quiet the mind so that it could focus more easily while in meditation. I think I spent at least five hours in sitting meditation this weekend and another four in walking meditation. I would have done even more had I been able to attend the full retreat but I had to arrive late because my wife works on Saturday morning so I stayed home to watch the kids while she was at her job. I arrived at the perfect time at the retreat though: right after lunch. I met my Sangha as they were walking back to the yurt we were using for meditation so I was present for the entire afternoon and evening sessions.

At first, I had a hard time concentrating on sitting because I’d had a hectic morning trying to get ready to go and deal with the logistics of everyday life and then trying to find the camping site in the Maine wilderness. Once you leave pavement behind, a GPS becomes a little less reliable when trying to reach a destination. Let that be a warning for you if you plan to come to Maine. We have a lot of unpaved roads up here. However, I did begin to finally quiet down my mind and began to focus. About three minutes after that, it was time to get up to begin walking. We spent 20 minutes wandering through the woods and I realized that even though I am in much better shape now than I once was, I’m not much of a hiker. All of the exercise I do is as low impact as possible so my feet are not used to being picked up and put down over and over as I exercise. This meant that I was pushing my body in a different way than normal and I began to wear out more quickly than I ever thought possible. Fortunately, it was only a 20 minute walk and then we were back to sitting for 20 minutes. My body was worn out so it took me about 15 minutes to finally calm down and get back into the calm state that is conducive to sitting meditation. Five minutes later, time for a walk. This went on for a few hours: sitting, walking, sitting, walking. My body didn’t quite know what to do and my mind was mirroring the state that my body was in. That evening, after dinner, my mind and body were quite worn out and in the last sitting meditation session, I found that I achieved a level of calmness and focus unlike any I’d ever experienced. My mind was at a point where it was too tired to wander around as my aching butt sat on the cushion.  I actually came out of that sitting session feeling better than when I had going in. I had turned the corner just in time to go on an evening walk under the stars.

The night sky was amazing. The moon was full and so bright in that clear sky that it hurt ones eyes to look directly at it. We didn’t even need our flashlights it was so bright. I’ve never seen shadows cast by moonlight as clearly as we had them on this evening. As we looked up at the stars (facing away from the moon), we could actually see space debris and satellites moving slowly in orbit around Earth. We even saw a few meteors flash across the sky as they burned up in the atmosphere. It was a perfect way to end the evening. My mind felt as clear as the sky we were looking up at. After the walk, we had a brief period of chanting meditation and then went to bed. I was asleep before 9:30. I was probably asleep before my kids at home had gone to bed.

The next day started at 5:00 A.M. I’m not sure why Zen retreats start so damn early but I think it has to do with keeping the body and mind worn out. That, or those who run the retreats are just a bunch of sadistic bastards. However, since I know the leader of our Sangha isn’t a sadistic bastard, I quickly dismissed that hypothesis. The day started with 108 bows. Once again, I entertained the thought about sadistic bastards but dismissed it again. Last week I did 108 bows for the first time. I was thankful that I had done it because I knew what to expect from this session. I did 107 half-bows and did the final one as a complete bow. This helped me from getting too sore but it was still murder on the muscles in my neck and back. We then spent time in sitting meditation and, once again, I was amazed at the clarity of mind I still had. We went out for a morning walk and then went back for a longer session of sitting while interviews were conducted.

On a Zen retreat, if you are with a Zen Master, you will be given a koan to answer. Since the leader of our Sangha is not a Zen Master, the interview process is a bit more laid back. For me, it was a time to see that Colin, our leader, was concerned about how I was handling the schedule and concerned that my being gone from home for a weekend wasn’t causing any problems for my wife or family. He was very concerned about this and he shared some stories about how he had to face the stress that came with going away for a weekend when his children, now in college, were young. After I had my interview, I was able to go back to the meditation yurt and spend the rest of the interview session in sitting meditation. That was about 40 minutes of uninterrupted sitting. It was the most amazing 40 minutes of meditation I have ever had. I was able to be present in the moment, with crystal clarity of mind and really feel my connection to the world around me and see my true self a little more clearly. This isn’t the self that we normally relate to, but our real innermost self. It was a liberating experience for me to know that I was having this experience without extending any effort as I had no energy left to extend. I see now, more clearly, why Zen stresses the importance of sitting just to sit and not being attached to thoughts or feelings or perceptions or impulses. Now, my goal is to learn how to achieve this state of calm without having to go away for days. The challenge I now face is to not get attached to that experience and to try to force myself to have it again. I cannot repeat the past and the next time I have this experience, it will be different. It will be a new and different experience but will be just as amazing.

After breakfast, we went on a “five-mile hike”. The goal of the hike was to reach the top of Frost Mountain and to eat our lunch up there. The five miles was actually only the distance to the top of the mountain and didn’t include the five miles back to camp. I’m not going to write a lot more about this here because much of the other post I am working on includes my thoughts and feelings while on this trip. For now, I’ll leave it at the joyous news that I made it to the top and back and received a round of applause from my Sangha on my return to the camp site. Once we got back, we had time for one session of sitting and chanting. Then, it was time to clean, pack and go home. We all agreed that we would love to stay for one more day but clinging to the experiences we’d had on the retreat would not be a good thing so we reluctantly got into our cars and headed home.

I got home and fell into bed and slept until it was time to go to dinner with my family. It was a great dinner and I loved being back at home with them. After putting the kids to bed, I started to work on a blog post but I was still exhausted and went to bed earlier than normal. I was surprised to find that I wanted to sit and meditate before going to bed but I knew I needed to give my body some rest. Instead of meditating, I just lay in bed and watched a bit of a movie and then fell to sleep. Now that it’s all said and done and I’m sitting here with a sore body and a clear(er) mind, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a weekend separated from my family.

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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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I’ve had nearly 130 posts on this blog and have not yet used the phrase “Zen and the art of….” I was proud of that but today I think I really did learn about that. When you work for the IT department of a hospital, there really are issues where technology breaking is a matter of life and death. I’m lucky that in the web department where I work we don’t have that kind of pressure. We do have that attitude though because it is a part of the IT/IS culture. We take our work very seriously and everyone works very hard to keep a lot of complicated systems working smoothly and cleanly. For this first time since I started this job, I have been given the On-Call pager. This means that if there is a problem with a web site, web server or anything that has a name that starts with “http”, I’m they guy responsible for making sure the problem gets fixed. I got this honor because my boss decided that for the first time in three years he’d like to take a few days off without having to worry about having his pager go off while he’s in Florida trying to relax.

I also inherited a few high priority projects that my boss just didn’t have time to complete because most of his time is now spent in meetings instead of writing code. That’s why it’s 10:00 P.M. and I’m just getting around to writing today. Today has been a little crazy. There were family obligations that required I get in to work a little later than I would have liked this morning and they also required me to get home early. Unfortunately, I didn’t get home early enough and wasn’t here when the school bus came by to drop off my kids. Maine has been getting slammed with rain today and this caused the traffic on the highway to be so heavy that a normally 20 minute drive took me 35 minutes. I ended up having to frantically call the school and arrange a place to pick up my kids. Fortunately, they weren’t upset with me for making them have to ride the bus for the entire route and they got some ice cream for their troubles.

As I said, I have a few high priority projects I’m trying to wrap up and while I’m busy writing code as fast as I can, the on-call pager keeps going off with issues that may or may not actually need my attention. However, I can’t ignore it and each time it goes off, I spend at least ten minutes trying to verify that there really is or is not an issue that needs my attention. When you have that many things going on at once, your mind is pulled in any number of directions at the same time. That’s how I found myself stressed, missing breakfast and working through lunch. That’s a recipe for disaster if I’ve ever heard of one.

If you’re still with me, this is where the whole “Zen and the art of” thing kicks in.

One of the important factors of Zen is being in the present moment. Living each moment as if it is your last moment on earth is the focus of Zen training. Living in the future is anxiety. Living in the past is depression. Living in the present is peace. It may not be bliss, but it’s peace. So, while I’m being pulled in five different directions at once, while my stomach screamed out in hunger, while my kids rode around town on the bus, while my pager went off with one problem after another and I felt the demands of life bearing down on me I remained in each moment. I focused on my breathing. I took one thing at a time. I didn’t worry about the next time the pager was going to go off. I didn’t beat myself up for getting in to work later than I wanted to and starting off the day behind schedule. I focused on whatever task I had to do at the time I was doing it and did the best I could at it. Once I got home and got off of a 30 minute call that was totally lacking in any productive or useful result, I began to think about addressing my hunger. Because I was mindful, I didn’t raid the pantry or the fridge and eat whatever I could find. I stopped, evaluated what I had, planned out a recipe and then went to the store to get a couple of things to allow me to make something filling and healthy. I ended up having a wonderful dinner that was filling for my stomach and good for my mind. It was my take on a black bean quesadilla recipe that I originally saw featured on the savvyvegetarian.com website. Then, I spent a few minutes with the kids and wife and relaxed. After that, I went to the Zen Center and was able to spend a good hour and a half in meditation.

So, here I am at the end of a long and stressful day and I don’t feel stressed. Yes, the day was long. Yes, the day was demanding. Yes, the day was stressful. Yes, the day was hard. However, because I lived each moment in the moment I still feel the peace that comes with living in the moment. Even after a long and hard day I can sit down and knock out nearly a thousand words about mindfulness and Zen. Once upon a time, I would have been cranky and angry and stressed out. I would have eaten a ton of crap and harmed myself in reaction to feeling out of control. I’m much happier with myself now and I have no regrets about how my day went. I’m prepared to do it all over again tomorrow.

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I’m very mindful of my breathing right now. In fact I’m so intensely breathing through my nose that my inner nostrils are starting to hurt a little. This is something that happens when I get frustrated. The reason for my frustration is purely professional. I am attempting to implement the changes requested to the applications I created and one of the changes is very difficult to implement. It requires melding three different technologies together in a way that I’ve never done before. This is easy to do on paper and in theory but because I did not design the application with this method in mind, it is much harder to implement in reality. This is one more reason why I hate getting requirements changed at the end of a project. I even got the application to work one time so I celebrated to myself and ran through it a second time. It was broken again. I’ve re-run my code a number of times now and it’s still not working. I have no idea why it would work once and then be broken every time after that especially when nothing changed between the run-throughs. I’ll keep reading up on the technologies and keep thinking laterally about how to get these things to mesh together. For now, I’m just trying to remain aware of my frustration and deal with it in a healthy way.

Instead of wanting to eat something, I really want to return to a state of calm. I know that in the past I would have wanted to return to a state of calm but my mind confused eating with calm and that was a contributing factor to my weight gain. Now, I’m asking myself the question, “what is this?” and trying to answer as honestly as possible. “What is this?” I’m frustrated because I want something to work and it is not working. “What is this?” it’s frustration that’s created from my desire to make these technologies do something they are not doing. “What is this?” it’s frustration caused by my desire to do a good job and make people happy. “What is this?” it’s frustration caused by my desire to move on to a new project instead of revisiting things that I’ve been working on for a long time. “What is this?” it’s frustration that comes from my inner desire for perfection. “What is this?” it’s frustration caused by my mistaken belief that things should be perfect. “What is this?” it’s my attachment to the illusion of control (or lack thereof in this case). “What is this?” it’s no big deal really.

I keep coming back to this process over and over. Every time I run through the application and it breaks at the same line of code, I feel the frustration welling up inside me and I have to stop and focus on my breathing. Then, once I’m calm, I dig a little deeper and think a little more, make a small change and see what kind of impact it has made to the system. I’m much closer to a solution now than I was at the beginning of the day and I have hope to have it solved before I leave this afternoon. Until then, I’ll keep breathing, keep thinking and eat only a healthy amount of food that will sustain my body. Mindfulness and awareness and breathing and maintaining my calm are all important tasks that I continue to learn about and continue to work on. When we’re frustrated, we should remember that it is the perfect time to put our practice to work.

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I noticed today how loose my belt has become when I put it on in the morning. I was already using the tightest setting for the belt but now when I put it on, I can fit my entire fist between the belt and my pants. I’m going to have to go out and get a new belt soon so that it helps keep my ever-loosening pants from falling down. This is a great problem to have. It’s just one more sign that I’m moving in the right direction and that I’m continuing to make progress toward getting to a healthy weight.

Yesterday, I found a new type of food that I can enjoy: tabouli. I’d never had tabouli before yesterday, but I had the opportunity to try it and I do not regret it at all. I had tabouli with oranges and sunflower seeds. It was served over fresh greens and was really delicious. Tabouli is made from finely ground bulger wheat so it’s not something that I will eat a lot of but it is better than white rice or refined white bread flour. It’s nice to see that I’m continuing to find new ways to eat healthier and enjoy my meals at the same time. After splurging on Saturday, I made it a point to eat mindfully yesterday and to go out and exercise. This had its desired effect since when I stepped on the scale today, I was back to 310 instead of the 312 I had hit on Sunday morning. It’s great to know that I’m able to allow myself to be sidetracked for a day and to then not feel defeated or hopeless after the fact.

Yesterday morning when I got up I made it a point to sit for as long as I could (read: until my kids came in to see why we weren’t out of bed yet) and was able to really enjoy the time that I spent in mindful breathing and meditation. It started my day with peace and I was able to keep that peace with me throughout the day. Today wasn’t nearly as nice. We were woken up by the sound of jack hammers tearing up the street outside our home at 6:15 AM. I’m trying not to carry the frustration around with me today and instead allow myself to feel tired without animosity toward those people doing their job. However, it’s not easy to do each time I yawn and remember being woken up early. For nor now, I’m just concentrating on my breathing.

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