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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Freestyle Rotary Breathing Advice

spicychia.com.jpg

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!

Mother Teresa is always right

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“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”  ― Mother Teresa

Most of our days we travel a path of obstacles and competing energies. We walk down the street concerned with making our next appointment on time, we look to our watch, quicken our step, replay the list of things to be accomplished in our head, and begin to beat ourselves up about everything remaining to be done.

In performing these motions and thoughts, we isolate ourselves. We become tied to our own minds…looking inward and missing the external. We send off signals that we are too busy or too important to engage with others. By tuning out the external, we often create unessential stress for ourselves and cut ourselves off from the soothing balm of social interaction.

So this week, I’d like to ask you to conduct an experiment.

No matter the load, the rush, the thoughts consuming you, make eye contact and sincerely smile at anyone and everyone coming from the other direction.

Not a smile of “I like you, but I am too busy to stop”, not a smile of courtesy, not a smile of obligation. Just a smile that radiates from your heart. A smile that says, whether I now you or not, we are connected and I love you.

If you cannot manage that at first, just try any smile. For smiling begets happiness, and soon each smile will become easier. Sometimes the superficial actually proceeds and cultivates deeper meaning.

Try to let go of your worries. You know what you need to do. Don’t dwell on your lists. If not actively thinking positively or solving things with happiness, push the to-do’s away and instead become curious about all that surrounds you. Don’t judge or get disgusted by the package. You never know how incredible a person might lie within that irregular shell. Aren’t we all irregular shells? If you have past grievances with someone, forget them and smile for the present moment of seeing one another. If you can really let it go, smile and turn a new page you can give the relationship a second chance to enrich your life.

A friend once told me that people are unfriendly and often hostile. I watched my friend closely after that to try to see the world through his eyes. Walking down the street, he scowled. Seeing a friend, he did smile, but often with a burden of his own thoughts or a tentative fear of a negative response. He gave few people unconditional warmth when he greeted them. After observing this, I shared what I saw and challenged him to try to make the move, to give the first smile. Let go of the monkey brain and the fear of rejection. Rejection does not exist if you give without expectation. It was difficult for him at first. He had created and become trapped in a chrysalis of fear. Fear of reaching out and fear of being ignored.

But if we face our fears and engage with the world, we can enjoy it and even change it. A smile will turn a hostile world into a welcoming world. If we can find the strength to bust through the clear walls of our chrysalis coffins and gain connection to others, there is nothing to keep us from making things better. It all starts with one little smile…and a “smile is the beginning of love.”

Tentative to tiger

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It was time for spin class, but I was in the middle of a project. The dogs needed to go out. My workout clothes were MIA. There was no bottle of water ready to go in the fridge.

“Excuses,” I told myself, “what’s the real problem?”

I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I shut off my complaining brain, took care of the essentials and bolted, making it to class only five minutes late.

I set up my bike and climbed on ready for another flaming failure. You see tendon damage in my elbows makes holding the handlebars painful and damage in my knee made me stop spinning all together from burning pain on the upstroke.

But my doc had administered prolotherapy in all these spots six days ago and they were actually feeling quite a bit better. So I started to cycle. “This is only a test,” I told myself, “Take it easy.”

For thirty minutes I tried to get inside my workout, but constantly monitoring how my joints were doing and waiting for the knee to blow, I couldn’t immerse myself in the motion.

Then something happened. I realized that I was spinning without pain. I upped the stakes…without turning the resistance too high. The knee still held. I did find the outer limits of the improvement, but it was incredible to let go of the monitoring and just dig in, just push my body, just get into the music and pedal my bike with all I had.

Lingering doubt tapped me on the shoulder a few times and warned, “Don’t get too excited. It will just make it more disappointing when the knee fails.”

Then I realized what had been wrong. Why I hadn’t wanted to leave my home to work out. My mind was stuck in the rut of failure. I had gotten my hopes up when the doc found a damaged bit of patellar tendon and treated it. My brain knew that if this treatment failed, my spirits would sink even lower, so my brain was trying to delay the failure. It was trying to protect me. But in doing so, it was keeping me down. Keeping me stuck in a place where things didn’t get worse, but they didn’t get better either.

Forty minutes without knee pain and even lingering doubt left the spin studio. I poured it on…cautiously…feeling the sweat and memories of pain leave my body. I realized I was happy in a way that I have not been happy for nearly two years. The room full of cyclists merged into one powerful force all driving the pedals of my bike round and round. My body found the beat of the music, my mind thrilled in the challenge and my lips parted to sing lyrics as I focused singularly on the task at hand.

I savored every syllable as I sang, “seems I’m not alone in being alone.” Just then, I remembered a quote a friend had shared the night before. “You don’t sing to get to the end of the song.” I wasn’t counting down the minutes until the end of class and I definitely wasn’t singing to get to the end of the song. I was the moment and I was the song.

This is the feeling that had always fueled my work outs…the happiness that made me push to better my abilities. It never was cheering crowds, awards or even bragging rights. My joy in working out has always been about the joy found in abandon and movement.

So thank you brain for your honest care, but it is now time to get back into the rut of success.

RUNNING “STREAK” UPDATE:

3/24/2013 – 2-mile run – Elliptical – 9:45 min/mile pace – resistance 9

3/25/2013 – FIRST-EVER 1-mile run on a treadmill. I am doing better on the treadmill, but still my stride shortened and I ended up toe running…which caused pain in those little toe bones (technical term). Resolution: I will master treadmill, but I will lay off off it until I get the extra weight off and this little pain alleviates. 

3/26/2013 – 1.6-miles on asphalt, concrete, and cinder path – flat

3/27/2013 – 2-miles treadmill – 10 min pace – resistance level 7

3/38/2013 – This is the day my “streak” ended. Today I saw my doctor and he found a bad spot in my patellar tendon. The choice was clear…prolotherapy to hopefully repair the weakness/void (which would mean a minimum of five days off from running) or keep going until it got worse. I chose prolotherapy. A streak can start any old day. A knee is not something to destroy for the sake of anything. But I promise to be back because I did love the disciple and lessons of the streak. Stay tuned. 

 

Trash Talking

ImageEliza was five when she challenged me to race her to the top of the climbing wall. Despite surpassing her by over three feet and decades, I was not convinced that odds were in my favor. As the climbers ahead of us began to descend, Eliza got quiet. She caught my eyes and performed a series of hand gestures whose meaning was clear…I was going down. Now it was my turn to be quiet as I tried to comprehend what had just happened. I started laughing in disbelief – perhaps a bit nervously – and remarked, “I’ve just been trash signed by a five-year-old!”

Trash talking may have been new to me, but this was a good kind of non-verbal challenge. In throwing down her gestilcular gauntlet Eliza taught me that if you are going to call it a race, you better bring everything you have.

Trash talk – when done with the wrong intent – is cruel. But Eliza helped me realize that most trash talk is playful. It is a means of upping the stakes. It is a way one athlete provokes another to make them both perform better.

I have a friend I have known since we were both in our early double digits. Though we weren’t competitive back then, his trash talk now makes me go that extra mile…literally. I don’t know why it started. One day our spin instructor set a task, and my friend dared me to join him in adding extra resistance. In return, I prodded him to kick up the speed. Once we started, we couldn’t stop. We were hooked on trying to find the level of difficulty that would make the other cry, “Uncle!” Now, that friend and I smile eagerly whenever we happen to arrive at the same class. We know our brand of trash talk will guarantee us both a great workout.

But there is an ugly side to trash talk. The worst negative speech doesn’t come from our friends, or even our rivals. The most hurtful brand of trash talk comes from ourselves.

There are the obvious verbal self-saboteurs. These are the folks who speak streams of negation without seeming to notice they are closing doors of possibility by simply pairing an action verb with the word no.

But at least those who say, “I can’t” are responding to an entreaty. The very worst trash talk happens when we run ourselves down without any impetus to do so.

I heard a women proclaim, “I ran a mile!” I was happy for her and was about to share my enthusiasm. But before there was time, she added, “If you can call it running. I mean, I’m really slow…and I did walk a few steps, so I guess I shouldn’t say I ran-”

“How awesome that you ran a mile! Where did you run?” I cut her off, feeling empathy for her self-abuse.

I was hoping to interrupt her compulsive redaction of success. I wanted to return her mind to that moment of pride and let her enjoy her achievement.

Self-negating talk disturbs me because I used to be a great at it. I hear someone talk down their abilities and I remember all the years of work it took to stop trash talking myself. You can shake the Etch-A-Sketch, but if the buttons still only move side to side and up and down, it takes a great deal of work to draw circles.

A very simple phrase spoken by Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha made me see the necessity of learning to draw those circles. The Buddha said, “What we think, we become.”

Trash thoughts lead to trash outcomes. To become better, we must think better thoughts. We must say no to the internal and external trash talk that limits our growth and say yes to the trash talk that winks while challenging us to break through old limitations to become who we really want to be.

Rehabilitation equals reformation

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I used to have a victim’s mentality about injures. When I got hurt, I asked, “Why me? Why should I get injured when I work so hard to be healthy?”

But recently, I have realized that no one’s fitness journey is without challenges. I now believe that no athlete has ever walked a path to glory that was free from setbacks.

Every four years – winter and summer – we join together listening to the back stories of incredible athletes who have fought innumerable challenges to make it to the Olympics. We thrill to see them perform and delight in talking about their journeys and successes. But don’t we cheer just a little harder for the Olympians with the biggest stories of comeback? Perhaps it is in overcoming these challenges that the winning spirit is forged. Isn’t it the sand that makes the pearl?

How can I be a victim if being sidelined is something everyone encounters?

Rather than, “Why me?” maybe it is time to ask, “Why not me?” Or even, “Isn’t it about time it is me?”

An injury is a glass ceiling. It tells us where our limits are. If we study the cause of an injury and move forward, we will break through to a new level of performance…and eventually our next ceiling…and then our next advancement.

Recently a runner friend was injured and was told to take several months off her favorite sport. Trying to be of some comfort, I realized that a doctor’s order to rest does not go far enough. Giving an injury a chance to heal is essential, granted, but we need more. We need scrutiny and prescriptives for our rehabilitation and return to our endeavors. We need someone with knowledge to assess what we have been doing, figure out where we have gone wrong and help us make a plan to come back stronger.

After months of rest, muscles will degrade. My friend will have to start back slowly. She will cautiously move through the milestones to earn her way back to where she started. But if her initial injury was owing to a muscle imbalance, a weakness in running form, the wrong shoes, or any number of things that can be corrected that are not being corrected by simply resting, she will likely be headed for another injury and another sideline.

Just as we keep encountering the same life lessons until we learn them, I believe that we encounter the same injuries until they change us or break us. If we do not ask, petition, insist on learning what has caused an injury and seek a remedy for the cause, we are just setting ourselves up for future pain and disappointment.

As prolotherapy slowly strengthens my frayed elbow tendons, my physical therapy has progressed from wrist raises to swimming a cautious backstroke. With each stroke, I learn something. I listen to my body in ways I never did when it performed perfectly. I have discovered – and am fixing – three possibly injury-provoking stroke flaws I never noticed before.

But rehabilitation is more than physical change. Rehabilitation isn’t just repair, it is reformation… a reforming of our behaviors and attitudes that makes us stronger. It is a chance to take a look at what we could be doing better…and doing it. It is about transforming ourselves internally and externally into better functioning human machines.

Most days the knowledge that I am repairing the cause of my injury rather than just the symptoms is enough to make me feel like a champion, though the effort makes my look more like Esther Williams than Michael Phelps.

But some days, the victim tries to creep back in. Some days the ego must be talked off the ledge when the flow doesn’t come, the pain sets in, or I am lapped by a nine-year-old while her coach-dad chastises her for “dogging it.”

On a day when things weren’t going well in the pool, a swimming buddy showed up. She noticed my lack of shine, and asked what was up. I told her that it was tough coming back.

She winked knowingly and pronounced, “Coming back is fun!” Then she repeated it, making clear she would not stop until I joined it.

“Coming back is fun,” I answered while rolling my eyes.

Undaunted, she looked at me and pointedly repeated, “Coming back is fun.”

I thought about her story. About the work and struggle she has gone through over 85 years of keeping fit. She had seen it all and was still fighting the fight. Who was I to complain?

“Coming back is fun,” I stated with a bit more conviction.

She looked at me steadily. I started to think of how I had recently noticed my bicep come to attention for the first time in more than a year. How my quads were slowly growing from all the prescribed wall squats. How these discoveries were as thrilling the second time around as they were the first time I began to get strong.

I smiled, really grasping what she was telling me. She smiled back and then we both started to emphatically chant, “Coming back is fun!”