It’s so weird…

My meditation teacher’s own teacher, Ruth, died recently. In our last class, he spent a fair amount of time talking about it, which is exactly what made me apprehensive about attending. “This will be fun. He’ll weep. We’ll all have to sit there watching the weeping. My mind will inevitably wander to something inappropriate. I’ll feel guilty that I don’t take death seriously enough…”

The truth is that we’re all going to die, though. We each have equal claim to thinking whatever we like about that experience. When I think about how offended people get about death in all its forms, I wonder if I’m missing something. I mean, it’s coming. For all of us. For sure. So, really, why worry about it?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to die. I have kids who I’d like to see grow up and maybe have kids of their own. But one of us is going to die before the others. If I go first, I’ll be missing their graduation or marriage or kids or sweep of the Oscars. I only hope that whoever goes first doesn’t suffer (in both the pain and dukkha senses) too much on the way out. I only know for sure that I’ll suffer more if I spend any time dwelling on how unfair or poorly timed it was. Or worrying about it now.

Anyway, in class, the surprise for me was that we didn’t watch him weep. He smiled. He even laughed a little while muttering “it’s so weird.” Ruth lived, created some nice (and probably not so nice) karma, and then passed away. Not sad. Simple. Amazing. Miraculous, really.

We talked about the fact that, at least in adulthood, we go to sleep with a certain amount of joy and relief and have no guarantee that we’ll wake up. What’s the difference? When we go to sleep, we cease to be for all practical purposes. Why doesn’t that terrify us? Just because we’re pretty sure we’re going to wake up to live another day?

What if death could be accepted like sleep. I think it can, but it requires that we work hard to live in a way that doesn’t leave us lying in our deathbed saying “dammit, I wanted to go to Burma! This sucks!” How do we get there? Let go of trying to become someone else or waiting to do that thing that will make you happy and complete. Don’t hold your breath. You’ll turn purple.

Before I was born, there was nothing where I currently exist. I don’t think anyone cared much. My grandfather’s uncle’s dad was somebody who’s dead now. Things seem to be OK. In fact, most of the people who ever lived are dead, and yet we all carry on living without giving too many of them a second thought. Yet, we seem to feel guilty if we don’t really make a show of suffering about it when it inevitably happens.

I think all the terror around death comes from two things: the fear of the dying itself, and the fear of losing our “selves”. In reality, we fear all the situations that typically lead to death. Fair enough. I don’t want to be on fire, drown, suffocate, or whatever, either. Sounds unpleasant to try to meditate through– but it can be done.

Among the more extreme cases of mind control is the self-immolation of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in 1963 to protest the repressive regime in South Vietnam. What was so singular about this event, captured in haunting photographs that are among the most readily recognized images of the 20th century, was the calm and deliberate nature of his heroic act. While burning to death, Duc remained throughout in the meditative lotus position. He never moved a muscle or uttered a sound, as the flames consumed him and his corpse finally toppled over.
— Scientific American

But the losing our “selves” part is odd. If we didn’t exist before we were born, we’re not really a persistent “thing” to be lost. We’re experiences. I’m the aggregation of my senses, thoughts, and actions. When those cease to function, there’s really nothing left to lose. There isn’t going to be a Rian floating somewhere saying “Well, that was bullshit. Now I can’t have chocolate. Great.”

We come into being, live for a while if we’re lucky, and then go out. Like a candle. What’s amazing is that we live at all. The miraculous nature of finding ourselves experiencing any amount of conscious life and love on this rock in this solar system in this galaxy… is pretty spectacular. Ruth managed to leave behind some people spreading the word about the dharma and, as a result, helping many people live better lives. I’d call that a win.

Love people. They come; they go. That is How It Is.

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This is real. Why do we think we’re so important?

How about the Mantis Shrimp? I mean, c'mon.

How about the Mantis Shrimp? I mean, c’mon.

The Self in Selfishness

Anyone who’s studied Buddhism for more than a few minutes has bumped up against the idea of self/no-self (anatta). It’s often misinterpreted that the Buddha said we don’t exist. He actually explicitly refused to answer the question when asked. It seems he thought it was a “do you beat your child often” question. You can’t give the right answer. The question is the problem. Instead, he taught that we need to think more flexibly about the idea of self. Continue reading

Sit!: Meditation and The Voice In Your Head

But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head—the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember—was kind of an asshole.
―Dan Harris, 10% Happier

I’ve been meditating, on and off, for something like 30 years now. There was plenty of “off” time in there, and that’s generally when I’ve gotten into trouble. When I’ve had problems with my work and started blaming people, I wasn’t meditating. When I’ve found myself trending towards a could-this-be-a-problem level of alcohol consumption, I haven’t been meditating. And when I finally melted down, went to a shrink, and begged to be put on anti-depressants, I don’t think I’d sat in years.

During what I like to call The Dark Times, I first starting seeing a therapist because it was becoming clear to me (what had been clear to everyone else for some time) that I had attention issues. I’d struggled through school, always scraping by on stress and caffeine. I’d lived a life of lost homework, lost keys, poor attendance, and constant frustration with not being able to complete a task for being distracted by… SQUIRREL!

Not long after that, my marriage hit the skids. Well, the truth is, it had taken years of neglect, but we’d finally painted ourselves in a corner that we could no longer get out of. I had two young boys to parent, and the attention thing was now diagnosed by my shrink as “textbook severe attention deficit disorder” but wasn’t getting any better, unless I was on the drugs.

All of that led to a nasty bout of depression. I had officially become a depressed, single-parent spaz. Ladies, the line forms at the left.

The ADD medication was like a miracle drug. I had laser sharp focus like I’d never had. The basement got cleaned out, my files got organized, and I developed little systems to track everything– timers, lists, labels. I’ll admit that stopped taking the anti-depressants pretty quickly when I read that side-effects could include “premature ejaculation and seizures”. They were clearly not going to help anything.

Still, what was the scenario? That I take this stuff for the rest of my life? When I’d go somewhere, I found myself running back into the house to take a dose, just in case I didn’t get back in time, and I rarely even take ibuprofen for my headaches. No, I couldn’t see myself living on a diet of Ritalin and Bupropion for the rest of my days.

While I’d meditated as part of my participation in martial arts and always understood it as a necessary part of really learning to focus the mind on the moment, I looked at it as a tool– a way to “swing second, and hit first”. Even when I practiced kendo in Japan, I meditated more in the pursuit of the remarkable reaction times of my teachers than any sort of long-lasting benefit to the rest of my life.

Oddly, to me anyway, it was Eckhart Tolle who got me back on the cushion after so much time away. I say ‘oddly’ because I’m such a cynic by nature. Tolle’s “Power of Now” and “A New Earth” are full of the kind of stuff that Dan Harris calls in his book, a “riptide of bathos and bullshit peddled by the self-help subculture”.

But, I’d gotten to the point where I was willing to try anything, maybe even religious faith if need be, to get myself out of this funk. Right at that moment, my brother suggested to me that I listen to Eckhart Tolle, the latest self-help guru. Tolle had hit on a way to repackage Buddhism so that it was digestible to the Oprah generation. His approach to the material allowed me to take a fresh look at it. His example of people muttering to themselves on subways being just like all of us jabbering in our heads was like someone turning on a light for me.

Ultimately, I couldn’t get past all of Tolle’s “pain body” and “vibrational frequency” pseudo-science metaphysics, but there was a lot of truth in what he said. Cut it all down to the present moment, shut off the constant judging and comparing, and most of our problems go away. I recognized that this was really 2500 year old advice being reworked for a modern audience, and I’d heard it all before.

I went back to the source. Reading Buddhists like the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, and Yongey Mingyur and western mindfulness writers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield taught me to re-examine ideas like compassion and identity in a way that now made real sense, even to my cynical mind. I began to understand that meditation, mindfulness, and enlightenment were layers of an onion that I’d only seen the outer skin of.

Many of my attention and depression issues were rooted in my inability to stay present and focus on the moment rather than go off on tangents about goodness, badness, unfairness, better things to be doing, what was next, etc. If I could train my mind to stay on task, I could increase my ability to remember where I’d put things and why I’d just run into the kitchen. If I could learn to recognize when the voice in my head was telling me stories about how sub-par and unfair everything is, maybe I could let go of my road rage, resentment, and boredom.

The key to all of this was my old friend, meditation. So, 30 years after my first meditation in my first karate class, I find myself sitting again but for reasons that have nothing to do with defensive reaction time. I sit, usually for a half-hour a day, and practice a variety of approaches to rewiring my brain to run less on auto-pilot and a pissy narrator and more on dealing with what I know is real right now.

When things go right, I catch myself drifting off into an old, repeated complaint, regret, or George Costanza fantasy about what I’m going to say when I see that jerk from the parking lot again… and just let it go. My practice makes me happier, more observant, less likely to react, and able to find just enough space to recognize when the asshole in my head starts up.

Pema Chodron likes to compare it to John Nash’s experience in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”:

I still see things that are not here. I just choose not to acknowledge them.

I know that chattering voice will never go away, but meditation helps me choose not to acknowledge it, and that leaves me free to be a happier, more productive person.

CrossFit, Butt Berries, and Fear

“No sit ups tonight?”
“No… we’re going to work on some new skills.”
“OK, that’s good… because… I have these, um…” (pointing in the general direction of my backside)
“Butt berries, they’re called. Yeah, ouch.”

Turns out that they’re also called CrossFit crack or monkey butt. They are what appears to be two large red lipstick kiss marks at the top of your butt cheeks and occur when your clothing rubs against your skin while doing the full-range (i.e., all the way up) sit-ups in a CrossFit workout. You don’t really notice them too much until you take a shower, turn around, and the hot water hits them. It felt like someone snuck in and branded me like a cow. CF Ranch. Pshhhhssss… yee haw!

I think the butt berries were worse than the other noticeable side effect of my first class, the leg soreness. Actually, ‘soreness’ doesn’t quite do it justice. I’m pretty well into my forties; doing squats to failure without much prep left me able to walk the next morning but not much else. For the next couple of days, if I dropped something on the ground, well, I just didn’t have that thing anymore. Luckily, I had spare keys hanging at about shoulder height.

Still, when my son, looking a little confused, asks me “do you like it?”, I have to say ‘yes’. I like it because it’s hard, and before I went, scary. I’ve come to learn that regularly facing things that scare me, things that put me outside of my comfort zone, make me a better, more confident, more interesting person. Every time I suck it up and do that public presentation, take that class, or publish that personal blog post, there’s one less thing to be afraid of, one more interesting experience, and one less temptation to feel regret.

Now, I’m not the type to bungee jump off a bridge, necessarily. There are some things I don’t do because I just don’t want to do them. When I choose a fear to tackle, large or small, it’s something from which I think I’d derive some benefit, not just get a temporary adrenaline rush or endanger my life. I’ve done those things: jumped off cliffs into water, found the top-end speed of my motorcycle, gotten into fights. Exciting? Sure. Did I learn anything? Not really.

But my first public speaking gig at Internet World in New York City? Now, that was scary. When I applied for graduate school at a fancy university, I was terrified to send in my application. Moving to Japan with nowhere to live and a new baby was frightening as hell. So was showing up for kendo class in a Japanese city where, as it turned out, for the next year I would be the ‘international’ in the Kobe International Kendo Club. Taking a job where I’d travel every week, studying languages, performing in a ballet, quitting my job.

What those fears all had in common was that, first, I really didn’t know what I was afraid of. Embarrassment, mental or physical difficulty, or the possibility of financial loss, I guess. None of them were statistically likely to kill me. But they also held the opportunity to open up new avenues in my life– new friends, new skills, and new experiences that I just couldn’t have without pushing myself to do it anyway.

The truth is that you are far more likely to regret those things you don’t do out of irrational fear than those things you do. The reason is that once you’ve gotten up at that podium, you know. It sucked, or you crushed it. Either way, you know. But like a movie with an unsatisfying ending, if you don’t get up there, you’ll always wonder what might have happened, and you might not get the opportunity to find out again.

So, I’ll go back to CrossFit. I’ll flip tires, climb ropes, and jump up on top of boxes. And after a while, I’ll decide if I want to keep doing it or not. If not, it’ll be because I don’t enjoy it, it’s too expensive, or the schedule doesn’t work for me. It won’t be because I’m not sure if I can handle it. It won’t be because I was too scared to give it a try.

You’ve got one shot at any given moment in your life and there are only so many of those– fewer every day. Always ask yourself if there’s something there that scares you that you might want to try. Will it get you killed or ostracized by your friends and family, or are you really just afraid of some effort, change, or embarrassment? Embarrassment is temporary, like butt berries and sore legs. The confidence you gain by conquering your fears and the benefits of pushing yourself will last the rest of your life.

Sweet!: The History of a Book

Five years ago, more or less today, I was engaged in writing a book. What started out as a book about home food production, took a sharp turn and became “Sweet!: The History of a Taste”. It was some 270 pages long, as I recall. The book’s premise was that, as a species, we’re obsessed with sweetness. We have done, and continue to do, crazy things (e.g., The Big Gulp) in a futile effort to quench our desire for this taste.

My book traced our relationship with sweetness from the earliest records of man harvesting honey to today’s incredibly complex (and crooked) political machinations that at once attempt to placate the corporate interests of Big Sugar while simultaneously trying to contain the massive health ramifications of selling out our citizens. It covered the slave trade, the theft of Hawaii, and the remarkable story of why stevia can be sold as a dietary supplement but not a sweetener. The more I looked into the subject, the more fascinated I became.

At the same time, I was struggling with the form that the book had taken. As my first full-length project, it flopped from voice to voice, the tone wavered from outrage to objective inquiry to comedy, and my own perspective dramatically changed from the time I’d written the first chapters. I’d started trying to prove that Americans are obese because we just love sweet stuff. I’d learned that we are, indeed, victims of a larger game that involves governmental and corporate complicity in giving us what we want and not what we need.

This entry from my old blog– courtesy the Way Back Machine– sums up my attitude at the time:

A Note From My Dad

Dear Readers,

Please excuse Rian for absence from his blog for these past two weeks. He has been very busy writing and deleting most of his so-called “book”. It has been much more difficult than he imagined, and that has driven him to remarkable heights of procrastination and depths of depression.

He has also had a cold for the last few days. It has made him intolerably cranky and not at all creative.

He promises to stop being such a whiner and get back to producing his book so that he can get it out of his system and start looking for a real job.

Signed,
Rian’s Dad’s Forged Signature

Five years ago, I was not comfortable putting my personal data out there in the cloud, and it wasn’t for privacy reasons. I had no idea if any of the existing services would disappear without warning, and internet access was still relatively spotty. No, I decided that I’d build use my own hard disk back-up system to store my research and writing when I backed it up off my writing computer. I had, at most, printed just a few pages out of curiosity about the formatting.

Then lightning struck. Literally.

One night, during a rain storm, a bolt of lightning hit close enough to my home that it blew a major power surge into the house. I came into my office, and my computer just wouldn’t boot. Just a blinky cursor on the screen. I was a little upset because I knew that I hadn’t been religious about backing up my data as often as I should. It was pretty likely that I’d lost at least a couple of days of work, and at this point, I was already struggling to stay engaged with the project because of my feelings about it and a host of personal issues coming to a head at that time.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about reproducing my work. The surge had, in fact, taken out a few things in the house– a stereo, an electronic clock, my computer, and… my backup drive. After hours of sweaty forensics, attaching drives to other machines, installing special software to recover the data, and digging through other places where I might have kept a copy, I realized that my book was gone.

Most people get a really sad, shocked look on their face when I tell that story. It’s a little like telling someone that you got a divorce. “Oh my god… that’s horrible!” They look as though they’re concerned I’m going to start crying at the end of the story because everyone’s heard that writing a book is like giving birth. Losing this book must have been like losing a child.

Not at all. First, I’m one of those annoying people who says “It is what it is” a lot. Because it is. Sure, there’s room for mourning a loss, dealing with a sudden, discontinuous change in expectations, but nothing any of us can do changes how things are right now. The book was gone. The only question was what was I going to do about it.

Second, I love my children. They are the most important, perfect things in my life. My book was so-so, even by my own estimation. I would guess that a skilled reader would think this was less my literary child than a shoddily-stuffed, legless scarecrow with a kid’s face drawn on it in magic marker.

So, for five years, I did nothing about it. Well, I told this story now and then, but I didn’t rewrite the book. I’m still fascinated with the subject, though. As someone who’s wrestled with addictions, including to sugar, my whole life, I get that it’s more complicated than a simple choice between a six-pack of soda and six-pack abs. We’d all take the abs if it were that easy.

But we don’t. I don’t. I drink juice that I know is no better than soda in terms of sugar. Right now, I have a couple of kinds of cookies in the pantry. I convince myself that a chocolate protein bar isn’t a protein-enhanced candy bar when I’m hungry at work. We are definitely complicit in this problem, but it’s not only us as individuals. There is a vast implicit conspiracy, there really is no other word, between government and corporate interests that put the farmer, the school, and the individual into a situation in which only people of particularly strong willpower grow diverse crops, serve nutritious lunches, and make it out of the store without sweeteners added to almost every packaged good in their basket.

So, I’m going to write the book again. I’m going to start from scratch and put my notes on a blog that I’ll set up for that purpose. I may not finish it, but I’m fortunate enough to be able to take some time off of my normal technical job to work on the project. I feel like it’s time to give it another whack.

So, stay tuned. I’ll put up a link when I get started.

Just Shut Up for One Second: How Our Thoughts (Literally) Blind Us to Reality

Yesterday, I went out for a run. It was hot and sunny, and I was listening to an audiobook (Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, coincidentally enough, as it turned out). As I approached Mt. Tabor park, one of my favorite destinations to sit and clear my mind (again sort of ironically), I had to stop at a red light.

I pressed the crosswalk button, and soon enough, the little green man showed up, and I jumped out into the crosswalk. I wasn’t three steps into the intersection, when I realized that the car opposite me at the light was midway through executing a left-hand turn, a maneuver that would have left me flattened on the pavement had he had his way.

I yelled, jumped backwards, and slapped my hands on the hood of his car. In a fraction of a second, he slammed on his brakes, and I jumped out of the path of his car. He drove a few feet past me then stopped and reached both hands pleadingly out of his window. I could see the look of realization on his face and read his mouth saying “Oh my god… I’m so sorry…”

How does this happen? How did I enter an intersection without looking for oncoming cars? How did he try to execute a left turn, the trickiest move in such an intersection, without looking to see if anyone was crossing? And how often do we do exactly these kinds of things and skate by only because of luck.

The answer is ‘constantly.’ We do these things because we are not, by physical limitation, multi-taskers. As Mr. Gilbert, himself, says:

“…when we ask out brains to look at a real object and an imaginary object at the same time, our brains typically grant the first request and turn down the second.”
— Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Typically. But not always.

In fact, when we focus our intention on the imaginary object or situation, and when the real seems so ordinary as to not require our attention, the brain gives way to the imaginary. We are left blind to the real world. Our eyes see, but our brain’s vision processing center is occupied with our imagination. We’re on lizard brain in a primate world.

We’re, effectively, sleep walking through our lives at that point. If you’ve ever come close to rear-ending someone in a traffic jam because you were off in your head, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Our attention drifts in and out like someone watching television and trying to carry on a conversation with someone in the room. Sooner or later, you confuse the stories or lose track of one entirely.

The confusion lies in our giving both of the stories equal weight. Whenever we’re talking to someone but can’t concentrate on the conversation because of the television in the background, another conversation at a nearby table, or our own imagination, our minds are re-allocating cycles from a real situation– the interaction currently taking place– to a fiction. The TV doesn’t care about us, the people at the other table don’t want us listening to them, and our internal dialog is the most unfocused, pointless, repetitive story of all.

It’s a common implicit belief that we should be worrying. If we’re not fretting, we must not care. There’s a part of most of us that feels like by merely grinding on our concerns, we’re doing something, and something’s better than nothing.

But, really, it’s not. Something is much worse than nothing because it occupies our resources, in this case, our visual and auditory cortexes. Instead of allowing ourselves to focus fully on what’s really happening, we time-slice our mental capacity and apply a portion to a pointless rehashing of the past or imagined future, neither of which we can control.

Don’t want to get run over or rear-end the car in front of you? Try this. Every time your brain is thinking about this posting instead of what’s really happening around you, take notice. You’re thinking of a story. Did this post make you mad? How dare he? I never do that! Or are you fully attending to how your body feels, the sounds and scents around you, or what the person in front of you is saying?

Every time it crosses your wandering mind, take a break. Feel your breath going in and out of your mouth and nose. Feel your feet against the ground. Let go of the background story for now. Smell the air, and feel the sun or rain against your skin. It only takes a minute, and you’ll feel like you’ve snapped out of a dream. The more of your life that you can live outside of the dream, the more time you’ll be productive and make real connections. You’ll enjoy your life more because it won’t be constantly competing with all the things that should have been or might be someday.

Best of all, you won’t get run over because you’ll look both ways before you enter a crosswalk. And that’s a win-win.