Hello, nutty-buttery-sweet-chewy-crunchy-fresh!

IMG_1577

I recently read that Battle Creek, Michigan is taking a beating due to shifts in eating habits. Yes, Kellogg’s is revising it’s sales goals after “a loss of $293m or 82 cents a share in the three months to the end of December.” I hate to add insult to injury, but Battle Creek, it looks as if I am saying goodbye to your “natural” brand Kashi.

For a few months my disenchantment with Kashi has grown. I was off-put by large packaging for little product, high cost and marginal taste differences between flavors. But I purchased Kashi without fail because I believed it was wholesome and I knew it was pretty good with my morning yogurt. My ennui ramped to discontent when I stumbled across the Internet preserved 2012 debacle claiming Kashi had tested positive for pesticide residue and GMO grains, as reported by the Cornucopia Institute. In response, Kellogg’s Kashi brand explained that bulk grain storage and processing could muddy their healthy intentions. Then they added two new USDA Certified organic cereals in December of that same year.

But this desire for change isn’t just about Kashi. I think Kashi products are a great options to Frosted Flakes and Pop-Tarts. What bothers me is that it is harder and harder to tell who is selling what product and what is in the food that we eat.

I thought, “Maybe I could learn to make my own cereal.” Despite a reputation for some intelligence, I wrote off the notion as too difficult and time consuming. Yes, lazy, I know.

Then a friend serendipitously sent me a granola recipe. The recipe was authored by Alton Brown (one of my culinary heroes) with a substitution by my friend, Meredith. Instead of the cashews in Alton’s recipe, Meredith substitutes pumpkin seeds and adds cinnamon and vanilla. I tried it Meredith’s way and the result was revelatory.

Until baking and eating this mix, I really had sub-par aspirations for how granola should taste. It was nutty, buttery, sweet, chewy, crunchy and FRESH. It has an incredible taste that packaged cereals cannot duplicate as that kind of yum is too difficult to preserve for long hauls to outlets, waits on market shelves and storing in cupboards before being consumed.

As for my fear that the process of making granola was too difficult? Hogwash. After making the recipe once, I had unintentionally memorized it. It was as simple as adding wet ingredients to dry, stirring and baking.

And if I grow tired of this taste combo, I can dream up any mixture of healthy grains, nuts, fruits and oils I enjoy and make my own recipe. It really is that easy.

(Sung to the tune of To Sir, With Love) But how do you thank a brand who has taken you from Eggos to Homemade? It isn’t easy but I’l try. If you wanted my health, You’ll be pleased to know that I’m closer with each day. You’ve lighted my way, to Kellogg, with love.

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/granola-recipe.html 

One time at Buddha camp

 

Recently I grasped the concept: “It is later than you think.” I decided to no longer put off things I really wanted to do. I set a vacation plan to visit friends in California I had not seen in 10 years and attend a Buddhist retreat. I knew I wanted to be in the Redwoods for the retreat, thus began the Googling. There were options, but the language of Vajrapani Institute’s website resonated, so I reserved a space at a 10-day partial silence retreat on the nature of true happiness and Lam Rim (a school of Buddhism). It was such an incredible experience that I decided to share some of the insights, learning process and laughter.

 

Day Two – Duhkha

The haphazard progress of almost 30 silent people trying to serve, balance, pour, drink and eat breakfast in a small dining room brought to mind a stage play stumble through. It was clear that some were not attending their first mute rodeo. Yet elbows, sides and backsides bumped. Eyes often unintentionally met, then disengaged in a coy peak-a-boo. One attendee seemed to have moved to a separate area code while others stared off, read or studied their plates. The scene had the feeling of kindergarten…busy with learning. Learning how to noiselessly move in synch with others. Where eyes should rest. How to sit so close to a stranger you often touched while not exchanging a word. How to handle silence.

Observing silence is an unexpected boon. Though roughly a galaxy from shy, I am a natural introvert. I had forgotten that. Removing chitchat from the daily regimen has freed up a significant amount time to recharge in thought. I never before realized the energy it takes to observe the niceties. Getting this break is like hearing your school called in the list of snow-closures. A holiday you dreamt of receiving but had no power to bring into being.

photo 3Silence also allows you to draw your own conclusions in your own time, avoid distraction of your voice or the voices of others, hear your heart beating, avoid being caught up in drama or spreading discontent, get a break from phone calls and nagging devices, listen to the world around you, enjoy your senses, focus better, etc.

Our retreat is only partially silent. Daily, we spent about four and one-half hours in class where we were free to ask questions, one hour in discussion groups, and about 30 minutes of functional silence during working meditation. Functional silence means that you may ask questions, but they must be associated with your task.

But silence wasn’t all ease. I learned I have a strong instinct to meet eyes. I assume this is a residual from the primal brain, a tool to help assess intent or develop bonds. Classmates who didn’t welcome such visual intrusion made it obvious with body language. But the observation made me wonder if my ebullient nature had ever forced intimacy on people when the option of non-engagement would have seemed rude. I think the possibility highly likely. I will be more cognizant of this in the future.

—————-

I learned about a thousand things today – including the intense wonderfulness of the Vajrapani Institute’s hollyhock salad dressing and that my teacher may be David Bowie in disguise and Australian accent.

I am not exaggerating about the thousand new bits of knowledge…the estimate is likely conservative. Information flows fast and substantial in our classroom thanks to our teacher, Glen Svensson.

One of the myriad things covered today was duhkha. (The five-year-old in me laughs whenever I hear that word.)

Despite my giggling, potty-humored child mind, I want to talk about duhkha because not knowing this word made me set aside a book on Tibetan Buddhism 30 years ago. The discarded book began with the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. The first of these four being, “All life is suffering.”

“Say what, Buddha? Sure life can be tough, but it isn’t ALL suffering. Take a chill pill, dude.” (Don’t blame me, that is how we spoke back in the day.)

Fast-forward 30 years. Today, I learned that duhkha means unsatisfactory, not the oft-translated “suffering” I had encountered.

Oh, my kingdom for understanding duhkha back then! “All life is unsatisfactory.” Okay, still a big pill, but much easier to swallow.

Why did Prince Siddhartha come Buddha say life was unsatisfactory? Actually there are three aspects, or levels of duhkha to be considered. (I have also learned that Buddhists are extremely fond of enumeration.)

  1. Suffering (physical and mental)
  2. Change (all pleasure is temporal)
    1. Pleasure is based on external stimulus, so it is unreliable
    2. Pleasure is relative
    3. Pleasure – if pursued – turns into suffering
  3. All-pervasive (always the potential for suffering to arise)

Okay, Buddha. When you put it that way, I agree…all life IS duhkha. (Giggle) Please tell me about this second truth.

Thirty years have passed to get here. But, you can’t reclaim what is lost. Just use what is left to escape duhkha for yourself and others.

Day Three – Self and Consciousness

One part of Buddhism’s concept of consciousness (please forgive any upcoming mistakes by the student) is that it is a continuum of mental events rather than a thing moving through time.

Previously I saw my consciousness and I as indistinguishable. We were a bullet train plowing through the countryside night and day from my arrival point at birth (when my consciousness appeared in this world) to my destination of death (where my consciousness will cease). Or, if one believes in an afterlife, my consciousness would then continue into eternity.

In this new-to-me Buddhist construct, consciousness is more ethereal and impervious. A timeline still exists, but supple quick changes in the path seem more likely. Not being a hardened object, the consciousness would be more reactive (which could have both advantages and disadvantages). It also suggests that the path may be changed by even the slightest of internal and/or external forces. A tree could fall upon the tracks of my previous metaphor, however, that train would not be as responsive or subtle in its course alterations. In the Buddhist view, consciousness does not just materialize at birth then dematerialize at death, but continues its existence. In this way, consciousness is neither created nor destroyed…kind of a conservation of consciousness (for those of a scientific orientation).

—————-

Climbed the beautiful, winding path to Lama’s Ridge today where there are retreat cabins, a yoga deck, a commemorative stupa for Vajrapani founder Lama Yeshe, the peace trail and outdoor showers. One shower on Lama’s Ridge made the dorm showers superfluous. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays this girl from the swift climb to her appointed shower.photo 1

View from an outdoor shower

Day Four – Is there a schadenfreude of the self?

“An effect of immense happiness may arise from even a small virtuous karma. An effect of immense suffering may arise from even a tiny non-virtuous karma…(wait for it) Therefore, solidify the certainty that even the subtlest of virtuous and non-virtuous actions follow you like shadows and produce both great happiness and great suffering.” (There it is)

The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment

Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419)

I must admit that this thought has ruined a few perfectly good daydreams this week. Not only has it roused me to the reality that my time could be better spent, but that the subjects of these daydreams were manifestations of attachment that would not further, and may derail, virtuous growth. Yes, our actions have consequences. Whether you believe in one life or infinite lifetimes, our thoughts, words and actions follow us. For myself, I do not see those deeds following us as a boogieman or a fairy godmother waiting to attack or reward us. I see them as a sculptor working clay. The more faithful and earnest our efforts, the more the resultant image will resemble our best aspirations.

—————-

A great boost of creativity has accompanied my efforts this week. With it has come a spontaneous flow of cartoons around the subject of my experiences and misapprehensions here at Vajrapani.

SQUIRREL

-Chuck’s random thoughts

- She's out there

-Chuck’s random thoughts

Day Six: Me, Myself and I

My senses have grown keener…or I am now better able to notice and heed the reports they send. I believe this to be an outcropping of the silence. Since dialing it down from 11, my eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch have kicked it up a notch. I am now a shark using its lateral line system to avoid collisions and locate possible nosh. Seems that most of us are growing in this way, as mealtime now resembles modern dance.

—————-

I completely filled a 70-page notebook today. That has been a rarity in my educational training. Even more astounding is that I finished a complete notebook in only six days of study. I came here thinking that I lacked concentration skills. I have learned that I am quite good at concentration. It is that I need to narrow my focus.

—————-

Cognitive fusion was the break-through thought of the day. Previously, I had only bothered to imagine its manifestations in the world as worst-case scenarios. But today’s explication of the Four Opponent Powers brought into focus the insidious ill effects of cognitive fusion and how the guilt that accompanies it may quickly lead us into feelings of hopeless and depression.

Cognitive fusion essentially is fusing the act with the person. Such as: “Good boy!”, “I am depressed.”, She is an addict.”, “I’m tired.” Both positive and negative assertions of cognitive fusion are detrimental. One may be a steppingstone to hubris and believing ourselves above ethics and the other ultimately makes us a victim who is incapable of change. Either way, we identify the self with a transient action. In so doing, we welcome in a concept of ourselves as limited, less than others, worthless, or better than others, perfect, above the law.

By simply recognizing that the thought or behavior was momentary and not an expression of who we are, we keep identification with that behavior at arm’s length. Though it may be instructive in ways to change, it doesn’t penetrate our perception of our selves. This gives us the space and hope we need to make course adjustments.

As it was explained to us, consider regret versus guilt.

In regret we conceive that:

I — have done —–> a bad action or harmful behavior

In guilt we conceive that:

I —-> am a bad person

In the regret model, we understand that – though we are responsible for the bad action or harmful behavior and must seek a way to remedy it – we are not bad people, merely people who have done something harmful.

In the guilt model, we see the action as an expression of ourselves rather than the moment. We say, “I am a bad person.” And we believe it. Tell yourself you are a bad person long enough and you will only expect that what you imagine or do will be bad. Be told you are bad long enough and – if you are too young or unable to protect your psyche from the condemnation – and you will most likely choose thoughts and actions that live up to those judgments.

Once my eyes were opened to this trap, it seemed everywhere. We judge ourselves and others with barbed quips that equate person and action. We praise others and ourselves in the same way. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a person responsible for my thoughts and deeds rather than a person ruled by a false amalgamation of persona to deeds.

Day Seven – A Different Kind of Thanksgiving

“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”

                          – Albert Einstein

My first reminder of Thanksgiving was classmate Sam (in fancy dress) drawing my eyes to a note he had situated atop an upturned book. It read “Happy Thanksgiving!” Even in silence, we find ways to celebrate…especially Sam.

(BTW, one quick insight into silence. Since we entered silence the night we arrived, many of us did not know one another’s names. In this case, I didn’t think “especially Sam.” I thought “especially fun guy who is really present.”)

The lesson for Thanksgiving day serendipitously began with the concept of exchanging self with others, or – more familiar to our ears – dismantling our selfish attitudes and replacing them with cherishing others first. Not cherish as in soft words and sympathetic smiles disconnected from action. But cherish in ways that are best for the other person’s short- and long-term needs and happiness.

We practiced “tong len”, or giving and taking. Tong len is a meditative practice of mentally taking suffering from another, purifying it, and giving them our happiness.

—————-

I am not good at being in two places at once. Absorbed wherever I am, it often takes a pause to think deeply of those elsewhere whom I love. A failing? Perhaps. I always assume the best possible things are happening to those I love and they are as engaged where they are as I am where I am. Today, I took a pause to think of my family and friends. I pictured them laughing and hugging and telling stories. I wished them all the greatest happiness and the least of the reverse.

The only thing left to make this Thanksgiving perfect – after a decadently incredible lunch – is a bit more tong len and a short snooze in the Redwoods.

—————-

There was one cloud this Thanksgiving, quickly cleared by work meditation buddy Leslie while we cleaned the dinner dishes. (Hey, they said working silence and we were working.) I confided that as a new meditator I was struggling to hold onto joy while trying to meditate for the 45- and 60-minute sessions we were undertaking. I could not preserve focus that long. With Leslie’s assurances, I decided to invite in steadfastness…a favorable condition for joyous effort. In non-retreat vernacular, I was applying the wonder twin powers of: finish what you start and don’t bite off more than you can chew. I would set a goal of a shorter focus time in my pre-mediation intention. It worked. The goal was exceeded and – for the first time this week – my back stayed straight for the full hour.

Day Eight – On the Road to Shamatha

Today, the weather is no warmer, but I am. There is a pleasant chill at the level of my skin, but internally I remain cozy. Shocking as my circulation tends more toward the reptilian. Systems working better?

—————-

In silence, notes are passed. Loved ones leave messages. You have a question. You want to show support. In silence – without computers – all this message transfer is accomplished old school with writing implements and scraps of paper. I was pondering this when I walked to the Gompa (main hall) and to my study desk. Perched there, was a tiny origami book gifted to each of us by a classmate. Paper, again.

I rather enjoy seeing notes circulate. I know my thoughts flow more articulately at the computer. (I think it has to do with the percentage of the mind required to form symbols long hand versus tapping the symbol at a keyboard.) Still, there is something significant and weighty about people committing words to paper by hand. (Crazy, the world in which we live.)

I saw a classmate bending over pages of paper, slightly swaying as she read. Her hands caressed then refolded the pages before carefully placing them away. The reverence articulated in her movements was epic. Instantly, my mind clothed her in gothic hat and copious robes trimmed with fur, an academic master of antiquity, cradling sheaves of important and (often scarce) paper while she sat for her portrait.

I cannot remember ever touching my computer with that level of reverence. However, since I am an Apple user, a certain level of reverence is required.

NOTE: This evening we learned the source of our little books. Classmate and placid joy and fixer, Glendon, had folded them. Each book has 26 unique folds and a healing mantra was said over each fold. Thank you Glendon for turning paper into healing wishes.

—————-

Thinking deeply while on retreat has re-awakened a delight, an energy that has been hibernating. I had allowed constant work-work-work to transform me into a somnambulist. We need balance. Thought without action lacks worldly good. Action without thought accomplishes nothing remarkable.

Day Nine – The Artist Formerly Known as “Me”

I folded the blankets with which I had been shrouding myself during class and meditation. There was no need of them. I have somehow become warm from the inside.

—————-

Today, I am grateful for the Literary Criticism class that twisted my brain years ago. One such twist was the work of philosopher Michel Foucault, specifically his theories of distinction between linguistic signs and plastic elements as well as the equivalence of resemblance and affirmation. In literary terms this implies that there is no tether connecting an object to a visual or verbal representation. There is no intrinsic meaning in any word, syllable, or character. There is no ur-symbol or ur-utterance with the ability to convey meaning directly or be interchangeable with a visual or oral phenomenon.

Foucault’s theory made sense intellectually. However, my blinding love of language fought the knowledge. I was caught in thrall of the seeming control that language granted…to describe with finesse subtle shades of thought. The concept that words – objects in which I had placed so much love and effort – had neither intrinsic meaning nor physical grounding pulled at the structural load block of my psychic Jenga tower.

Sensing my crisis, friend Fred (knowing I am a visual as well as a verbal) asked me to close my eyes. He started to describe a painting titled The treachery of images (This is not a pipe) by René Magritte.

margritti-this-is-not-a-pipe

(Text translation: “This is not a pipe.)

Funny, the necessity of including this translation proves a portion of Foucault’s argument.

As I visualized the artwork, it was all too clear. The word “pipe” (and any other word) is an arbitrary label assigned from of a need to communicate within a system of symbols and sounds.

Perhaps the effect induced by Magritte’s juxtaposition of the representation of a physical object with language negating that object would be better felt by English speakers this way.

This_is_not_a_pipe_by_kaciukas

When I was able to grasp a smidgeon of Foucault’s message in this way, my previous theory of language and meaning was eviscerated. What was left was a purple neon sign pointing down a rabbit hole. It wasn’t just that the word pipe that had no meaning. There literally was NO pipe. Break the “pipe” down to its component pieces, leave it whole, draw an image of it, search wherever you please, you will find no “pipe” anywhere. Indeed, all that exists is the “pipeness” we project upon an image, a word or an object.

This is where Tibetan Buddhism turns it up a notch and makes me happy for all that struggle to understand Foucault. The Buddhism schools we are studying seem to share a similar “no intrinsic meaning” concept, but they target an object much more dear…the “me.” BAM!

“Okay now, it is all well and good for a pipe not to be a pipe, but I am sentient being. I have cognitive function. I may clearly see myself. I can see others. Therefore, I AM ME! I am not a pipe, a house, a deer, the stars. The concept that ‘me’ is not an independent entity, separate from others directly contradicts my sight, touch, reason and folkloric independent American sensibilities.”

Wait a tick. Buddhism is not metaphysical nihilism, claiming that there is no me. Just that there is no “independent arising” me. That my existence is dependent upon everything else and that my construct of an independent me exists nowhere except my own egotistical mind. I believe that Buddhism would assert that the “me” we each perceive is an illusion…a result of the subject-object view of existence. That all knowledge of reality based on the eyes, ears, nose, even our sophisticated scientific instruments cannot give a realistic report of reality because they ONLY see what they see, hear what they hear, smell what they smell, measure what they measure. They cannot conceive of what exists beyond their limits to observe.

Another trick of the object-observer model, which Buddhism seems to have figured out way ahead of the curve, is that viewing the world objectively leads us to believe that objects and individuals are unchanging because we may see them as unchanged over time. I am sitting here today, looking the same as I looked last week. Thus, we deduce that I (and all other bits of data we divide and categorize) move through time independent of everything around us. The trouble with that deduction – as particle physics will vouch – is that everything is in a constant state of change. Nothing is ever the same moment to moment, though we may perceive it as the same since we cannot readily observe motion at the subatomic level. Buddhism and science seem to agree that we (and all objects) are not moving through time, but existing on a continuum of change.

Before I make this next statement, I must stipulate that my understanding of Buddhism is nascent, so a correction of any misstep already stated or about to be stated would be appreciated.

I think it could be said that Tibetan Buddhism asserts that there is a distinction between perception and the nature of reality. A distinction that limits our ability to see the world and ourselves in that world as it and we truly exist.

This is a new twist to ponder. If true, not even the skills of Magritte could make that one self-evident.

surrealistplumber_0

Day Ten – Brood X

An algebra teacher once called me a combative learner (cognitive fusion) because I asked questions about why the formulas we were given worked. It seemed I couldn’t find the switch in my brain that would allow me to remember things without context or an understanding of how they worked.

Buddhism asks us to question and to consider. It is open source code. Not pushing us to blindly accept, but merely to ponder and – if anything we find helps – use it to make our lives better.

Buddhism’s encouragement of inquiry appeals to me. I love questions and their answers. I love my questions, the questions of others, answers by still more voices. They all enter my ears and fill my mind with imaginings. Some of these ideas change my mental model of the world and result in growth.

For example, would spaceflight ever been possible without people who questioned and put their reputations (and sometimes even lives) on the line to refute that the earth was the center of the universe? That all life comes from life rather than spontaneous generation? That beings have a right to be free?

Without questions why bother with thought?

I believe it is suppleness, not rigidity that aids our conviction. We must retain the willingness to share our ideas and to really listen to those of others. We must allow that our mental models may be improved by considering the thoughts of others. Even those ideas that are not ultimately accepted in the affirmative add depth to our understanding. Every new concept tests our core beliefs and either alters them or makes them rise in validity.

I know there are plenty of minds out there that can amass and apply information without quibbling about why it is so. But I need the superstructure, the reason behind, the evolution of the concept, the questions.

Thirty-four years ago a geometry teacher explained how and why the formulas he shared worked. To this day I use geometry with relative ease. As for the algebra that the teacher couldn’t or wouldn’t explain the year previous? Regrettably – and to my deficit – algebra is merely a jumble of X’s and Y’s.

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Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 4.06.54 PM

In 2004, I lived in Baltimore during the Brood X hatch of cicadas. The sky and trees were full of cicadas. The ground and squirrels’ bellies were full of cicada remains. I was dreaming of those cicadas when I woke this morning.

I think the cicadas appeared because I was feeling averse to leaving my warm bed, my new family of friends, the intensive learning, the yummy food, and the open air showers. This has been as restful and fulfilling a time as I can remember, and my mind knew there were struggles to come. Struggles to hold onto mindfulness, continue practice on the cushion, reinforce lessons, remove the habituation of stress rather than add to it. You know the score.

Those cicadas were in my mind because they too have to struggle. Brood X cicada nymphs live underground for 17 years before they crawl out, inch their way up vertical surfaces, attach themselves there and prepare to emerge from their larval skin, to molt.

I was drawn to these creatures and spent hours photographing, recording and reading about them. One thing I learned is that there are many obstacles to their survival. Fungi that mutate their development, birds and squirrels that snatch their bodies for snacks, some fail to escape their former skin, others have wings damaged by rain before they have a chance to expand and dry. Cicadas have to struggle to emerge. Cut open the outer skin to help a cicada break free and it will most surely die. It is the struggle that is necessary. The struggle that forges their strength and resolve to escape their nymph existence, expand their wings, harden and fly.

“The way is not easy,” the dream cicadas were telling me in their shrill, pulsing songs.

They made me realize how fortunate I have been in burrowing up from the ground, finding a good tree on which to attach and beginning the process of change.

—————-

I set my intent to really be here each moment of all ten days of this retreat. To do the work, know the people, walk the hills, and learn. I was steadfast and earned my own respect. So now, I would like to dedicate my effort to:

– Our teacher, Glen Svensson. You are not David Bowie in disguise, but you are a rock star. Your humor, kindness, patience and clarity are deeply appreciated. Straddling the cultures, languages and years for the sake of shared learning, your supple, encyclopedic mind shone a light on dark places and helped us achieve that which could not have been done alone.

– The help of so many.

– Venerable Drolma, Heidi and Glendon for having my back (and my dish duty) when I was overcome by duhkha.

– My discussion group. What a fortunate and lively mix of joyous, searching minds. So glad we were able to spend our daily hour in speech together.

– Leslie, my dish duty partner, joyous worker, confidant and beautiful soul.

– The kitchen staff of Vajrapani Institute. We said little, but your dedication taught me much.

– Vajrapani Director Fabienne. Though the time together was brief, your spirit is a tangible joy.

– 2013 sponsors of our 2014 retreat session. Your generosity filled our hearts and our minds with virtuous desire to continue to learn and practice. Many of us could not have made it here without your generosity.

– Two notebooks one and half pens

Thanks to all, I arrived at Vajrapani one small droplet of Buddhist academic knowledge and one small droplet practice. I leave a gallon jug of theory and one small droplet of practice…but now with aspiration and a straighter back.

—————-

Post Script:

Since leaving Vajrapani Institute and my new friends forged in silence (and a some whispers) a few things have changed.

  1. I have unsubscribed from every email subscription previously flooding my inbox, tightly restricted my Facebook alerts, and discontinued Active.com alerts about friends completing exercise. Though hearing the whistle blow when a friend completes a workout still feels like witnessing an angel earning its wings, the alert invades my thoughts. These changes have freed me from a great number of distractions and the loss of precious moments of life.
  2. I have continued to eat like a vegetarian. In fact, a strange thing happened on one of the planes coming home. By the time the steward came to my row, the non-meat meals had been claimed. I found myself asking if there might be anything that I could receive that didn’t contain meat because I was a vegetarian. It wasn’t a lie. As physically impossible as it may be, I think that my body managed to speak before my mind. I just feel so much better physically since leaving meat behind that my internal processing systems want to keep it that way.
  3. Ditto the vegetarian change with soda pop. I don’t want to get too excited yet regarding abstaining from soda as this has been a lifelong battle. But I am optimistic and filled with the desire to make this the last time I give up soda.

You can’t get what you want (Till you know what you want)

joejackson

A friend once told me that you keep facing the same challenges in life until you learn the lessons they are there to teach. Lately, my personal growth curriculum has forced my thoughts to the end of life. I seem to be okay with knowing my life will end and accepting of the dice roll that is physical deterioration. I know my relative ease with these ideas may be partially attributed to the statistical distance these events have from my current location.

However, when I think about all that is lost in death, I lose my cool. All the possibilities, the dreams and the embraces that the departed held just evaporate. No more chapters will be written. If they didn’t live in harmony with their truest desires, they will not get that chance again here and now.

I try to soothe myself with Tolkien’s observation that all our parts in this tale will end. “That each of us must come and go in the telling.” The coming is a thing of joy. The going is a foregone conclusion. But what is left undone or unsaid in the synapses of those on both sides of the divide grieves me beyond description. Perhaps their was nothing I can do to change the grief I have felt and will feel about what is left undone by others. But maybe I could change it for myself. Here was a lesson to be learned.

I realized that the thought of orphaned dreams bothered me so much because I have so many dreams to lose, and I assume that is true for others. I would like to blame circumstance for holding me back from the doing and the saying. But growth demands honesty. I have used circumstance as an excuse to avoid facing the unknown of the journey.

“Basta!” a fiery voice inside interrupted. Apparently, my inner self is an assertive Italian woman who has had enough. She was right. It was enough! Enough delaying…enough worrying who I might let down…enough waiting for a sign…enough financial roadblocks…enough sheltering…enough marching in place. It was time to move. Anadre veloce!

I started to think about which move to make first. For years, I have wanted to attend a meditation retreat, cruise along Route 66, enjoy non-virtual time with dear friends around the globe, finish writing those three books, play with friends each day, watch every TED talk, meditate daily, travel. Even my shortest list could exceed the remaining 33 years of average life expectancy afforded to a 47-year-old U.S. woman. What if my expiration date fell below the average? (By the way, did you know that the United States ranks 40th in life expectancy throughout the world? But that is an investigation for a later date.)

I started to do a writer’s meditation…stream of consciousness writing. Yes, it is an oxymoron. Tying fingers cannot keep up with the supercomputer speed and nuance of the brain. However, the technique usually helps me find something meaningful. I began transcribing my thoughts rather than directing them. In other words, I got out of the way of my brain. Suddenly, without consciously thinking it, I typed, “you can’t get what you want, till you know what you want.” Thank you, Mr. Joe Jackson. I stopped typing and asked myself which of my desires meant the most to me. Which actions – if taken – would allow me to contemplate my funeral pyre with satisfaction rather than regret?

I made my list. Then I added one more item. To say yes to any offer to which I might regret saying no.

Just then, I received an Evite to kayak with a group of awesome babes. In the past, I have largely opted out of these invitations in favor of work. In the present, I clicked “attending” immediately, then asked myself what was next.

In the week since, I have clicked and texted and replied “attending” to everything I really want to do and started doing them all. My life is already changing dramatically. I no longer feel stuck, frozen, frustrated and resentful. I am vibrant and glowing and energetic. I am constantly opening and discovering. I am largely in the moment. Life may end in death, but the knowledge of death is a push toward life.

Exercise-related Muscle Fatigue Advice

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QUESTION:
I am a 47-year-old man in good health. I started walking as a first step to a regular exercise schedule and a potential to start running. In the first few days I have noticed two consistencies and I am curious if they mean anything.
1. During the walk (total about 2 miles through wooded areas) I found that about 1.1 miles I started to sweat.
2. At 1.5 miles I start feeling fatigue in my legs.
ANSWER: 
Since you are just beginning this regimen, it is likely an issue of acclimation…an outcome of dehydration; dormant muscle activation; ramped up cardiopulmonary demand; or even the change-up of adding 30 to 60 minutes of movement to your day. Consider trying compression tights, compression socks or compression calf sleeves to give your vessels some support and better recovery odds while you push your fitness envelope. Bearing in mind the detrimental health impacts of excessive sitting*…which many of our work lives exacerbate…starting a workout program if you normally sit more than three hours a day is bound to have a shakedown period. So hydrate, begin your walk with dynamic stretching, practice deep diaphragmatic breathing, massage fatigued areas, elevate your feet after you walk, reduce stress, check your medications for related side effects, and ease back on the caffeine and/or alcohol if those are integral to your life.
That said and considering your observation regarding the fatigue setting in shortly after you start to sweat, I would suggest visiting your doctor if these symptoms continue or get worse over two weeks’ time. When bodies perspire, the sympathetic nervous system gets busy. The vessels of our circulatory system, respiratory system, and even our pupils dilate. Vasodilation of the circulatory and respiratory systems increases blood flow to our skeletal muscles and lungs allowing more oxygen and nutrients to be delivered throughout our bodies and more oxygen to be exchanged in our lungs. Increased oxygen, glucose and nutrient flow helps our bodies to keep up with the increased demands of our chosen activity…at least until we exceed our current level of cardiopulmonary health. Your current cardiopulmonary health level is the level of exertion at which your body’s ramped up efforts to meet resource demand is outstripped by the demands of continued activity. Good news is, with more exercise, your cardiopulmonary health will rise.
The fatigue you mention could merely be a sign that your cardiopulmonary health needs to catch up to your current activity challenge. If that is the case, the fatigue should resolve itself quickly with continued exercise. But fatigue could also be a sign of something amiss in one of the systems you are taxing, a failing in a metabolic process, or possibly an indication of infection. Vessels opening wide while the heart muscle constricts to pump larger volumes of blood, is akin to pressure testing a plumbing system. Small issues do not become obvious until the pressure rises.
By the way, a great second step to building a healthy lifestyle could be to switch from a seated to a standing desk if your work demands a desk. Decreasing sitting cannot only add years to your life, it is helpful in toning the muscles of the body, maintaining better posture and increasing cardiovascular health.

Freestyle Rotary Breathing Advice

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QUESTION:
This year, I decided to learn to swim with the goal of completing a 2.5-mile open-water swim leg of an adventure race. I am currently swimming 250 yards at a time, but my breathing is still an issue. I took lessons and learned to rotary breathe, but it feels as if I can’t get enough air and I also get water in my mouth when I try. Any suggestions?
ANSWER:
Swim Caps off to you! Learning to swim is an amazing accomplishment!
I love the images of babies “swimming” underwater…eyes wide, smiling beatifically. These aqua tots’ primitive reflexes and lack of over thinking the task enable them to hold their breath underwater while their legs and arms instinctively slice the surrounding brew. Though a baby’s propulsion system will not yet support their mass over distance, these babies are achieving one of the most central tasks of swimming….being relaxed in the water.
Like most new swimmers, chances are that you are not yet swimming in this blissful-baby state. Tension in the mind and body contribute greatly to swimming-related breathing issues. The more mentally apprehensive you are about getting enough air, the more your muscles tense, the more your form suffers, and the more your body sinks. The harder a muscle works, the more oxygen it requires. The more your form is compromised, the less chance you have logistically of accessing the air you need. The more you sink, the more fear builds…which completes and restarts this downward spiral.
The good news is that most of these breathing breaks may be remedied merely by time spent swimming. Every time you increase your comfort level in the water, you will improve your form, let go of unnecessary muscle tension, and – stroke by stroke – build confidence in your swimming competence. With the onset of the belief that your next breath while swimming will not be your last, you will glide closer to your buoyant baby self.
That said, there are drills to practice while you swim your way to Esther Williams grace. Swimming freestyle is taught with a body roll, or pronounced side-to-side rotation of the shoulders, torso, and hips together as one unit. This rocking motion brings one shoulder and the top of the torso above the plane of the water while plunging the other below and vice versa as you swim. Many problems with air intake while attempting rotary breathing stem from not rotating the body far enough from side to side. Reduced rotation means that your mouth will not clear the water well enough on a breathing stroke to allow for adequate air intake…and often will lead to water intake. Some swimmers will also not roll as well to one side as they do to the other, complicating breathing on one side of the stroke.
Both of these problems can be addressed with a kicking drill. You will not stroke with your arms in this drill. Roll your body (shoulder, torso, hips, and head) to one side and kick six times, then roll to the other side and kick six times, continue alternating sides. For this drill, the head should lock into and follow the rotation of the shoulders, torso and hips to be above water while the legs kick…with the majority – if not all – of your mouth above the water line. This allows you to practice taking in air while moving through the water. During each rotation, the head should roll with the body back down into the water and then up to the other side. This is a good time to practice exhalation into the water. Once you have mastered six kicks, move to three, then resume your freestyle stroke with rotary breathing. This method of buying time to breathe while you learn, will build the skills and self-reliance you need to breathe more easily when you are ready to force the pace.
Other tips Include: Close the lips together on the side of the mouth that is closest to the water on every breath stroke. Think about releasing
unnecessary tension from your mind and body as you swim. As you relax, you will become more buoyant, graceful, and less oxygen-deprived. Stay in the slow lane, there will be time to gain speed once you have mastered rotary breathing. Watch great swimmers swim. Start clicking through YouTube. Watching someone swim well can encourage their stellar swimming form to creep into yours. Often I find that focusing on a long exhalation underwater between inhalations is one of the most calming ways to spend time between breaths while swimming freestyle. Cultivate comfort by floating. Float on your back and propel yourself synchronized swimming style by waving your hands. This will increase your buoyancy and reinforce how little effort is needed to propel a buoyant, streamlined object through water. Make a realistic, long-range plan to increase your swimming milage in time for your race and be sure to practice in open water before race day.
Finally, though there are work-arounds such as snorkels and backstroke, I would really discourage jumping to those options unless you have a serious asthma or COPD issue. Snorkels and stroke variants will slow you down and – though they may help you feel more comfortable in the water more quickly – working around rather than through your breathing issues may increase your aversion to learning. Best of luck on your race…crush it!

Anti-Inflammatory Foods

A couple weeks ago, I was feeling sorry for myself because my knee and elbow seem to have plateaued in the healing process. Since self-pity is unattractive and gets you nowhere, I started to ask myself what more I could do to kick-start the healing process.

The question rattled around my brain, until one morning about a week ago. I awoke with an image of a food pyramid and some vague recollection of the phrase “inflammatory foods.”

I headed to my file cabinet and under “things to investigate” I found it…Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid.

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I studied the food pyramid. Despite working hard for years to improve my diet, my intake had little resemblance to Dr. Weil geometric devising. So I sat down and drew a poignant pyramid of my current eating.

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Laugh if you must…or even see yourself…but this pyramid shows a great improvement over my past eating. Still, agreed, there is a long way to go.

Perhaps I was stalled out on my healing because I was stalled out on my eating. Since sugars and processed grains are some of the biggest bogeys on the inflammatory foods hit list.

Trying to piece together a strategy, I researched inflammatory foods to discover which should go first. But each pithy top-six, top-twelve, or top-ten worst inflammatory foods list seemed to contradict another and leave out a whole universe of potential offenders.

So I looked a little further. Excuse me if my research was not exhaustive and if the results have any whiff of dubious new age shamanism. There seems only a small body of research to endorse the science of the Inflammatory Food (IF) Rating, other than the science of its component pieces. However, if trying an eating regimen that is balanced and can cause no harm may bring any healing, I will set aside my doubts and tuck in.

The IF Rating system was proposed by Monica Reinagel, MS, LN, CNS and IF ratings were first published in 2006 in The Inflammation Free Diet Plan. IF Ratings incorporate twenty factors that affect a food’s inflammatory potential, including: amount and type of fat; essential fatty acids; vitamins, minerals and antioxidants; glycemic index; anti-inflammatory compounds, and serving size.

The rating system is anything but simple, but if a food is rated with a negative number, its inflammatory properties trump its anti-inflammatory properties. But since the scale seems large and – at times – difficult to place mentally, a quick chart will help here.

Food’s IF rating                     Degree of inflammatory/anti-inflammatory properties:

200 or higher                        Strongly anti-inflammatory

101 to 200                               Moderately anti-inflammatory

1 to 100                                     Mildly anti-inflammatory

-1 to -100                                 Mildly inflammatory

-101 to -200                           Moderately inflammatory

-200 or lower                        Strongly inflammatory

A quick browse of the Internet led me to a link where you can look up a food’s IF rating. http://inflammationfactor.com/look-up-if-ratings/ To me, the online look up system could use some streamlining, but it seems comprehensive, if not entirely complete.

Then I found another link to an app called the “IF Food Tracker” for the iPhone or iPad. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/if-tracker/id356816950?mt=8&ign-mpt=uo%3D4 Not enough reviews to really gauge if this app is field tested enough to warrant its $5.99 download price, but it is quite intriguing. It seems to track caloric as well as anti-inflammatory consumption as well as provide the IF rating for a wealth of foodstuffs.

I realized I was falling down the rabbit hole. I could research for months and still not have any decisive data or the ultimate electronic tool. Sometimes too many variables can impede action. I had decided that an anti-inflammatory food plan could only improve my eating habits and might have bonus healing benefits. Now I just needed a plan and to move forward.

I studied Dr. Weil’s pyramid. Yes, it was limited, but from it I could construct a weekly menu to follow. I could refine the menu each week and research other foods to bring into the mix as I progressed.

So I made my menu and began eating it. Despite one regrettable smoothie experiment, I must say, I really liked my meals. And wonder of wonders (sarcasm intended) whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables really kept me comfortably filled up from one mealtime to the next. Only downside was that all those beans and vegetables sent me floating to the health food store for some alpha-galactosidase enzyme to relieve the bloat…and other flatulent results. On the upside, the storeowner told me that our bodies produce the enzymes needed to digest the food we eat. Since I had slammed into the change rather than phasing in the new foods, my body was unprepared and I was ripping – I mean reaping – the whirlwind. However, as my new food choices became a lifestyle, my enzyme production would adjust and the active ingredient of Beano would no longer need to be ingested.

While eating Dr. Weil’s way, I noticed that I had an incredible decrease in sugar cravings. I had been certain that bottoming out on sugar eating would send me on a Bugs Bunnyesque crack-up. But no looney tune cavorting, facial tics, or wild ravings were elicited. This seems miraculous as previously sugar was so primary in my diet. I did notice that after I had a diet soda to alleviate a headache, I craved sugar and baked goods for about six hours. Now, there is something to consider.

I also didn’t shame myself once in my eating in the past week. I didn’t stress about the calories added to my regular soy yogurt and Kashi breakfast by the addition of some acorn squash, chia seeds, diced almonds and flax oil. Instead, I contentedly envisioned the lubrication and healing that these foods would bring to my body and took comfort in the fact that their addition would leave me well sated rather than searching for snacks until lunchtime.

I had one other realization today while hiking with the dogs…neither the extreme uphill climbs nor the downhill jogs gave even a flicker of warning pain in my knee. Was it a fluke, a placebo effect or a week of anti-inflammatory eating? There is no way to be sure. But, I know that whatever you call it, it was a direct result of recasting myself as proactive hero from helpless victim.

SUPER YUMMY meals and foods discovered in week one:

Quinoa with crispy sage and crumbled walnuts

Soy yogurt with Kashi, diced almonds, flax oil, chia seeds and acorn squash

Edamame hummus and vegetables

Bob’s Red Mill 13-bean chili with ground chicken and bunches of hot peppers (I am considering making this again with fish or tofu)

Bob’s Red Mill 10-grain hot cereal with sour cherries, bee pollen, macadamia nuts, and (sigh) a little brown sugar

Peanut/Coconut Butter

raw cocao powder

Follow your heart

I was recently asked how and why someone would use a heart rate monitor while working out. An in-depth answer to this question would fill a pamphlet – if not a book – and would include loads of mind-numbing jargon, formulas and definitions. I am going to try to answer these questions as simply as I know how. 

Why wear a heart rate monitor? Primarily a heart rate monitor is used to gauge and take control of the intensity at which you train.

We can physically sense the intensity differential between an easy jog and a heart-pumping sprint. But a heart rate monitor allows us to precisely observe (and even record for later study) the more subtle gradations of our bodies’ absorption of oxygen and excretion of carbon dioxide through the beating of our hearts.

Knowing what speed our hearts are pounding while we exercise allows us to actively choose what our workout is achieving…as well as grant us the ability to vary the intensity of our workouts. Monitoring the beating of your heart and comparing that number to percentages of your maximum heart rate (I’ll explain HRmax in a minute) lets you know exactly what the physical exertion level you are undertaking is achieving in your body.  

Different percentages of our maximum heart rate will yield different training objectives. There are many labels attached to these training ranges (also known as Target Heart Rates), but the following are a pretty good guide:

Warm up/Recovery/Easy – 50% to 60% of your HRmax

(Low risk of injury and good return on fat burn)

Aerobic Development/Fat burn/Endurance/Medium – 60% to 70% of your HRmax

(Increases body’s aerobic burning ability on a cellular level and most efficiently burns fat)

Aerobic Endurance/Cardio/Hard – 70% to 80% of your HR max

(Increases how long your body can train with sufficient levels of oxygen to burn glucose aerobically and not accumulate lactic acid)

Anaerobic endurance/Very Hard – 80% to 90% of your HRmax

(Increases how long your body can train at high levels without oxygen to burn glucose)

Speed/power/VO2Max/Extremely Hard – 90% – 100% of your HRmax

(Functioning at body’s maximum output, short in duration and helps to increase speed, power and volume of oxygen exchange)

 

If the goal of my workout is to increase speed, I will never do it with a heart rate meant for recovery and warm up. If the goal of my workout is to burn fat most efficiently, I won’t achieve it by working at 80% to 90% of my HRmax. You get the idea.

Testing for your HRmax can be like stepping through the looking glass into a world of acronyms and sadistic-seeming stress tests. But let’s forgo extreme HRmax accuracy for now and just get to a best-guess number that you can refine through use.

Take a quick trip online and search for “maximum heart rate calculator” or visit http://www.racedaynutrition.com/HeartRate.aspx to calculate your HRmax and heartbeats per minute to match your target training zone. At this site, you will need to know your average resting heart rate. This is best measured over three days before you rise. Add the total beats per minute of all three days and divide the total by three. This is your average resting heart rate (RHR). Bear with me. Assessing your average resting heart rate is easy peasy compared to doing all the following calculations yourself. 

At the racedaynutrition site, type in your age, body weight, gender and average resting heart rate and hit the “Calculate” button. You will then be treated to a “personalized” chart displaying how many beats per minute your heart will make at each percentage of HRmax.

Here is where we get to the good stuff. Heart rate monitors do many things, personally I am still looking for the button on mine that makes breakfast. But the primary function of a heart rate monitor is to give you real time knowledge of how many times a minute your heart is beating.

Knowing how many beats per minute (BPM) your heart is making permits you to gauge what percentage of HRmax you are achieving. That sounds difficult, but it is easy. If I want to increase my aerobic endurance, I need to work at 70% to 80% of my HRmax. So, I follow the 70% to 80% lines across the grid to see the range of how many beats per minute my heart will be making at that level of exertion.  If I keep my BPM within that range I am training toward my goal. If my BPM fall or rise, I will move into a different training zone. By monitoring, I know which zone I am training in and I am free to control the intensity at which I am working to reach my training goals.

I must stress that these one-size-fits-all calculation results are great guidelines, but they are averages. The numbers they provide may be 100% spot on or they may miss the mark a bit. Olympic athletes in the same sport may vary by up to 60 beats per minute in their HRmax. Personally, I run about 10 to 20 BPM higher than my assessed HRmax depending on the calculation method.

To personalize your HRmax, you may search the web and explore the differing methods of testing HRmax by sport or you can customize the calculated HRmax by monitoring your body while working out.

Customizing is how I found my magic numbers. I ran with my heart rate monitor and after a long enough warm up to get all the systems functioning optimally, I started to see how fast I could run without hitting the wall. The best description I have for this sensation-wise, is the top speed at which I could run where I felt I could run all day with medium sustained effort. Once there, I looked at my heart rate monitor and remembered the number of beats per minute. Then I upped my running pace, watching the beats per minute until the effort became hard. At this new – more intense level – I felt like I could continue the pace, but it would be a slog. This told me I was breaking into the aerobic endurance training level. I did this testing over two weeks to assess my average beats per minute at each HRmax zone. Then I calculated my personal HRmax and my BPM at each target heart rate zone based on my real-time BPM.

Though these numbers can change a bit with your fitness level and age, they are awesome guides for really getting the desired intent out of each workout.

Beyond their primary function, heart rate monitors are also great for recording your effort at every second of your workout, corresponding to and even creating graphs that show exertion compared to terrain, distance and speed. You can upload your workouts and compare one to another to gauge your progress and analyze where you may need to up your game. I also never tire of using my heart rate monitor to gauge my recovery heart rate. After a speed drill or a tough workout, I love to see how quickly my beats per minute fall. The faster the fall, the more fit my heart is becoming. The faster my numbers drop, the more satisfied I am that I am doing the best I can do to make my life healthy and active.

A couple thoughts on heart rate monitors: If you decide you want to invest in a heart rate monitor, think about the likelihood you will continue to use this tool. I knew I would want long-term, reliable use, so I opted for a higher-end monitor with a chest strap (currently the most accurate heart rate monitoring method) rather than buying a less expensive model I would outgrow quickly. Also, many monitors actually let you know what zone you are in via a section of the monitor face. This is great if you don’t want to have to keep your numbers in your head. But it is best to know your real BPM numbers and program the watch to match your body rather than just accept the default settings. I love my Garmin, but Polar has been at the game the longest and has good base level watches under $100…and the Polar chest strap may be used with just about any cardio machine out there without the watch for use at your local gym.