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Posts Tagged ‘social ties’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the precepts that one takes in Buddhism is to not take anything not freely given. Basically, this is a fancy way of saying don’t steal. This is kind of a no-brainer really. If you steal you’re going to cause suffering: not only suffering of those who lost something but suffering for yourself as well. As with most of the precepts, the really interesting stuff happens when you examine its corollary. What is that corollary? If one is not to take anything not offered the corollary is one should give without being asked.

Stop. Think about that for a minute. Really—stop and think, hard, about that statement. How do you react to that? What do you think about that? Are you challenged or threatened by that thought? What’s exciting or threatening about it? Is this a challenge for you? Is this something that you already do? What does it take for you to be willing to give? When you do give, how much do you give? Is giving to someone else ever a sacrifice or do you give just to the point where it isn’t an inconvenience?

Right now, I’m in a position where I find myself giving a lot. I have been giving to someone who is in need of a lot of assistance. I am also going to be giving my professional skills to a friend who needs to have their web site updated and changed in order to help them grow their business. In the next week or so I’ll be giving blood again and helping a lot of people who, like me, have a less common blood type (A-) and could be in desperate need of blood to live. I’m giving my time and energy to my son and his friends as a leader of his cub scout den. I have also been trying to find very opportunities to help others in whatever small ways I can.

When you begin to look for opportunities to give to others it changes you. It makes you feel good and it changes the way you see those around you. I don’t know of a better way to be able to experience the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness than through an attitude of giving whatever you can to everyone. Here’s the dharmaloss challenge for the day. Every time you interact with a person today, and try to define “interact” as broadly as you can, ask yourself what you can give them or what you can do for them to make their lives better. Be mindful of those around you and try to see how you’re connected to them. It will do wonders for your outlook on life.

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Believe it or not, I’m not an avid reader of Marie Claire magazine. I know: shocking. Last night, it came to my attention that there is a TV show called Mike & Molly. I’d never heard of it before and still don’t plan on watching it. Apparently, someone from Marie Claire wrote an op-ed piece making some disparaging remarks about obesity and people who are obese in response to this new show. Believe it or not, this didn’t go over very well with a lot of people. The writer then tried to apologize and retract some of her statements but this backfired on her too. It looks like her small post has gotten about 2000 comments so far and a ton of media coverage. That’s not a bad number when you consider I’m happy if a post ever gets 5 comments (including my own replies to others). Needless to say, I have a few opinions on this myself. Some quite strong. There are a lot of really good phrases going through my head that I really want to use to describe my reaction to this piece and some of the comments about it. However, I will refrain because I don’t think adding my rant to this “discussion” will do anyone any good.

Believe me, I could unleash a torrent of words about this subject that could burn your eyes if I allowed myself to let loose. Instead, I will attempt to state my thoughts on this issue as rationally as I can considering the vast emotional issues wrapped up in this topic.

First of all, as someone who is now just obese and not morbidly obese, I fully know the pain of being seen the way that this author views “fatties” as she so graciously refered to us in the title of her article. If you think it’s uncomfortable to have to see someone like me, think about how much more uncomfortable it can be at times to actually be me. I used to despise those plastic outdoor chairs that were always too narrow and somehow  magically buckled when I sat on them for too long. When a room of people turns to look and see what just happened as you pick yourself up off the ground and try to find a new chair to sit in, you feel every single one of those eyes and you don’t have to be a mind reader to know what they’re thinking. They very well may not be thinking what you assume but the perception of judgement is something you can never escape. When you are obese, you don’t need to read an article like this to know that you’re considered a second class person by others. However, articles like this do serve to put words behind the negative emotions that those of us who are obese feel.

The author makes a rather poor analogy between viewing the obese the same way she would a drunk or a heroin addict. While her analogy fails, she does hit on an important issue that needs to be discussed more: food is a drug. Especially the way that we eat food today. When was the last time you looked at a package of prepared food and actually knew what all of those chemicals were and knew what those long words meant. When food becomes more chemistry than cookery it’s an indicator that something is wrong. The food industry today does everything in its power to keep consumers consuming. It is in their financial interest to make these foods as appealing as possible. That means upping the fat, sugar and salt contents in a case of junk-food one-upmanship that has continued to spiral out of control. The largest drink offered at 7-11 actually holds more liquid than the human bladder can physically contain. Fried and salty fast foods assault our eyes and nose and mouth whenever we go out in public. Drive down a street in just about any town in the country and I’m sure you’ll see the same stuff offered by the same companies with the same negative impact on the health of the people in that town. Junk food is everywhere. It’s easier to get than drugs or alcohol and the unhealthy stuff often has the same hold on the brains of the obese as heroin or crack has on those who are addicted to them.

The article also makes the often-heard but grossly wrong statement that the obese could change if only they put their minds to it. We know this isn’t true of smokers, alcoholics or drug addicts and for the reasons I’ve stated above, this is true for those addicted to food as well. My weight was a symptom of a bigger issue in my life: depression and anxiety. No amount of will power would ever change my brain chemistry to allow me to no longer use food as a drug to self-medicate. There were times when all I wanted to do was stop eating but I couldn’t. I knew that eating all the chips or ice cream or candy or soda was wrong and bad for me but I had as much chance of stopping myself as I would stopping myself from falling if I trip down the steps. Many of us are obese because we no longer have the ability to make the choices that would allow us to make these changes on our own. For me, it took hitting an emotional wall where I was considering suicide and had chest pains and was suffering from such severe sleep apnea that I couldn’t even take a short nap without a CPAP to keep me breathing. Only then did I seek professional help from a doctor who helped me to see the underlying factors behind my weight and emotional state that I was able to begin to make changes.

The changes I made weren’t small either. I radically threw away my old lifestyle and embraced a new one in order to develop the habits I would need to break my cycle of eating and weight gain. I happen to be blessed with the Aspergers-like intensity that only a hard-core geek could have to make those changes. I used the same things that contributed to my situation to fight the effects that it had on me. Fortunately, most people aren’t like me. They don’t have something weird in their brain that gives them the ability to focus on one particular thing and learn everything possible about it to the level of obsessiveness that borders on madness. I’m one of the few lucky ones who just so happens to be able to throw myself into the deep end and learn pretty quickly how to float. I would never be so arrogant as to think that anyone else would be able to do what I have done the way that I have done it. Still even with that intensity, I would have failed without a lot of external support and assistance. Needless to say, it is very hard to make long-term lasting changes that will start to reduce ones weight. Having support and compassion from others is critical. Judgemental articles like this one do not help.

To answer the final question the author poses in her post, I do think she is being an insensitive jerk (her words not mine). However, she is also ignorant of a lot of facts about obesity and is lacking the understanding about what it takes to fight it. Having to look at a person who is obese should not be revolting. However, given the way that society does judge those who have been sucked into the obesity vortex our society has created, her attitude is in no way unique. What we need to do, as a society, is recognize how our choices have impacted not only ourselves, but everyone else in the world. We need to become more compassionate to those who have been labeled as “different” or “other” or “defective” regardless of what character trait, physical trait, preference or emotional issue may be causing them to be labeled that way.

Once upon a time, illness was pretty easy to understand. Germs and bacteria and viruses were the things that caused people to become sick and to die. Today, medical advances have made these issues much less severe. That has not made illness go away. Rather, it has made room for a whole new set of sicknesses to become the leading killers of people in the U.S. Depression, obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. are all modern problems that should be treated with the same response that once fought tuberculosis, mumps, polio, measles, diphtheria, dysentery and cholera. Obesity is a sickness that has its own set of challenges and problems and if left untreated will cause an early death. Instead of turning a blind eye to this problem, I ask the author of the Marie Claire post and others who feel like her to rethink your own opinions of obesity and learn about ways to change our society for the betterment of all instead of pointing fingers and calling names. We know we’re fat. We do care. We are trying to change. We’re not the sole holders of responsibility for our present state: everyone is responsible. Just like the cost of treating obesity will fall on everyone, the challenge to make changes that will end it will also be the responsibility of everyone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to lock myself in a small room and rant at the walls and then go eat a salad.

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The other day, I read a great post by Jack Daw on his Zen Dirt Zen Dust blog. You really should read it. In case you’re not wanting to read anything more than my blog (and I can’t blame you if you do) the very short and condensed version of the article is that when someone practices compassion or charity or peace in the name of something else, in this case Buddhism, they are being deceptive and manipulative. Jack makes a great point that compassion and peace and charity are things that we should be doing regardless of who or what we are or what spiritual or religious path we are on. Whenever we help someone or perform some act in the name of something else, what is it we’re doing? In reality, we’re performing a kind of bait and switch. As someone who has been on the giving and receiving end of this type of action, I truly understand the seriousness of what Jack is saying in this post.

Once upon a time, when I was in college, I took a class that was all about compassionate ministry. This class was concerned with how churches can help the homeless or those in need; usually in urban areas, but also in other areas where there are great needs. The class was led by a very wonderful and compassionate man who cared very deeply for those who were in need. One day, in a conversation, he said that it was his goal to get through life without anyone ever knowing he was a Christian. Saying something like this to a group full of people who so strongly identify with doing things in the name of their religion that they call themselves evangelicals is kind of like farting loudly in a crowded elevator. Everyone notices and nobody likes it. In the ensuing discussion, the teacher tried to make a point similar to the one that Jack makes in his post but at the time those of us who were young and morally certain and obviously dedicated evangelicals just didn’t get it. It’s a frame of reference that is so far removed from the evangelical mindset to be almost in a foreign language. The reason that we were learning about how to help others whs to get them in the door of the church wasn’t it?

A few weeks later, our class was in Washington D.C. and we were spending the day on the street. In January. Looking like homeless people. Smelling like homeless people. During that long and cold day hanging out with a bunch of real homeless people a church group came by to “minister” to us. Their idea of ministering to the homeless was to provide us with bowls of chili that was just a few degrees warmer than the air temperature. Unfortunately, they had run out of spoons so I just got a bowl of piping cold chili. Fortunately, one of the homeless guys was more than happy to share his spoon with me so I was able to enjoy my chilly chili. In addition to food, they were also giving out big warm blankets. This was something we were actually interested in getting because it was January in Washington D.C. and it was freezing outside. Before we got the blankets, we got the opportunity to be photographed receiving the blankets. The group was also nice enough to make sure that the tag bearing their name was visible so that it would show up in the picture. As I received my blanket, I was also the recipient of a speech from a guy telling me that even though he didn’t know my situation, Jesus did and he could make it all better for me if I’d just give my heart to him. I’m not sure what was more offensive: the fact that he thought that this was doing the homeless people on the streets any good or that he believed that if you were homeless it was because you were obviously not a member of his faith. I just mumbled a few things to him and kept quiet about the fact that I was a religion major playing homeless for the day so that I could actually learn what it’s like to have to live on the street in the middle of winter. After the group went off to the next batch of needy people, we sat back down on the lawn of the justice department and tried to keep warm under our new blankets.

After that day, I understood what our teacher had meant about wanting to help others without making a big deal about who or what I am. The fact is that all people in this world are hurting in some way or another. We are all dependent on one another to make it through our lives every day. When someone else suffers, it means that we are suffering too. Compassion shouldn’t be something we do, it should be something we are. Living with the awareness of the suffering of others will naturally give rise to compassion within us. No one group or religion has a monopoly on compassion. No political party, no philosophy, no country, no celebrity, no lifestyle has the ability to claim that they are the sole holders of a way to end suffering. When we try to make compassion a thing that we do to someone else in order to spread whatever message we have, we’re cheapening the value of our actions and really helping no one. Instead of trying to wave our flag or teach the Dharma to others under the banner of compassion or political engagement, we should just be compassionate and let the truth of the Dharma shine through in our lives. That’s the most we can hope for. If I address the pain and suffering of others with the same intensity and passion that I address my own pain and suffering, I will be doing more for them, and for me, than any contrived act ever could.

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I heard about this on NPR this morning and have now seen articles in Time and the New York Times about a study that was published in the peer-reviewed journal Public Library of Science. The study reviewed the results 148 other studies on social habits and have found that an increased level of social interaction is an important factor into determining overall health and life expectancy. While this is just one study and its findings are hard to quantify beyond the realm of meta-data, I have found that my own experiences mirror the findings of this study. My motivations for beginning this journey were to be the best father and husband that I could be. That means not dying early from complications related to obesity. If I did not have my family to motivate me, I would probably be still stuck in my previous lifestyle full of despair and depression.

One of the three jewels of Buddhism is the sangha, or spiritual community. The Buddha understood that we are all connected and that only through keeping strong ties to one another will we be able to work to end our suffering. I know that in the sangha I am associated with I have already begun to establish some friendships and have found them to be helpful for me already in staying motivated to keep up my practice. If you are attempting to put mindfulness or other ideas from Savor into practice and are having a difficult time with it, I would suggest finding a group of people to support you. I am getting support from my family and from my sangha. Without it, I would have already failed.

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