The Mind – Self-Entertainment

We know other people are a constant source of entertainment, from the things they do (cut in line) or say (stupid stuff), or wear (butt-cheeks below those shorty-shorts), and how they stroll and be-bop to their tunes. A seat at a coffee shop, alone, is the quickest way to observe your fellow human being.  Add to that a park bench or music venue or airport waiting lounge and you’re good for hours.
If you really want to be entertained, study yourself. Just like the omnipresent cat videos, your mind is always available.  However, don’t expect all of the joy you get from watching those cute, claw monsters terrorize dogs, shred toilet paper rolls or poop in toilets. Watching yourself doesn’t always feel so good. It can be challenging to be introspective, but if you have the right attitude, it can be pretty darn fun.
What’s it mean to “watch yourself”?  Of course, you watch yourself, you are yourself. But, really, most of our mental process is spent doing one of three things:  ruminating in the past, judging in the present or planning (i.e., worrying) about the future. This is common, normal and just what the mind does. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing. You’re human. What I’m suggesting is that you become a bit more curious.  Think of it as meddling in your own mind. Here are a few things to watch for:
The Past – Ruminating, we do it all of the time. We pick some injustice or difficulty (not always, but often) to replay over-and-over. (Note to self:  The way you remember past events is not very accurate.)  We also tend to avoid and push away uncomfortable thoughts. The past is over and excessive rumination is just crazy-making.  Practice: Notice when and possibly why you spend too much time in the past. Are they happy memories?  Are the thoughts beneficial to you right now?
The Present – Watch how much judgment comes up about yourself and others. We either like or dislike (love or hate) everything. There seems to be a need to have an opinion about the most insignificant to the grandiose. At the grocery checkout do you look at your neighbor’s basket with the 2 6-packs of Bud, jumbo Coke, frozen pizza and Dorito Nacho Cheese chips and judge? I do. Do you also mentally comment on the speed of the checker or their age or how long they’ve had the job?  You might. Practice:  See things and events just be the way they are without the mental gyrations of labeling. Is it possible?
The Future –  Get a load of how many stories you tell yourself about the future. Problem is that much of our future planning is fear-based.  Will I screw up? Will people like me?  What if it rains?  Notice.  What is the nature of your future-seeking thoughts?  Practice: Paying attention gives you a chance shift or, the word of the day, “pivot” your outlook. Begin to see the future in a more positive light.
Can you tell how you divide your mental time between the past, present, and future?  Does one dominate?  These questions are not to be solved; they are to be observed without judgment. It’s the noticing and awareness that the key.  It’ll take some practice as the mind doesn’t so much care for being scrutinized. It likes doing what it wants.
There’s one more thing. Observe your body. When you find your mind has wandered into no-man’s land, check in with your body.  Most times the body is physically reacting to the emotions the mind is creating. If you’re thinking about an event that was fearful, your body will begin to act as if it was “real” and happening in real time. Your body will begin to show signs of stress just from your thoughts.  Again, be inquisitive and see if you can find the corresponding change in your body with the varying thoughts in your mind.  They’re there if you look hard.
I hope you enjoy spending some time with your mind. Instead of looking at it as a chore, think of it as a source of entertainment. “Wow, look what my mind just did!!  Hah!! There it goes again!”.

Finding Middle Ground

It’s a continual struggle not to freak out about the state of our lives or community or the world. It makes you want to stay home, draw the shades, enjoy your ultra-soft 300-thread count sheets from Target, sip on your homemade chai and binge the first season of Netflix’s Ozark. But, really, you can’t do that, at least not for very long.
We are continually challenged to meet situations with grace and equanimity, even when the proverbial a-hole cuts us off in traffic. Conversely, watching your neighbor pour motor oil down the sewer requires some action on your part. There is a constant pull of hanging back and acting out. What’s in the middle is, well, the middle ground or middle path. It’s the intersection of doing and not doing.
Taking this concept onto our yoga mat, we have the Sanskirt term stiram and sukham from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.46.  Stiram means being steadfast, strong, resolute and courageous. Add to that balanced and grounded. Our yoga postures all have these qualities even in a common posture like tree pose or a complicated arm balance like astavakrasana.  Without steadiness, our practice can become dull, unstructured, off-balance and lack enthusiasm. All yoga postures, besides savasana, will have the quality of stiram.
Off the mat, Rima Rabbath, (2) a renowned Jivamukti teacher, say of stiram:  “[S]thira calls for us to have integrity. We don’t say one thing and do another. Instead, we show up for the people in our lives and for ourselves. We stand strong in what we believe in. When we connect to others we are fully present for them, and become somebody that can hold another.”
Sukham is translated, according to Dr. Robert Svoboda in his article for Yoga International (1),“happy, good, joyful, delightful, easy, agreeable, gentle, mild, and virtuous.” The literal meaning is “good space,” from the root words su (good) and kha (space). As opposed to stiram, sukham means comfort and ease. In our yoga poses, even difficult ones, there needs to be a sense of ease and comfort, even if it’s just the eyeballs!  It’s all too easy to make yoga difficult and hard, both in effort and form. Mostly I see students struggling to get the pose “right” with serious faces and gripped toes. This is not the middle path.
In all poses, there is an ability to relax even if it’s just the shoulders or face or toes and breath.  For example, in Warrior II, much of the effort is from the waist down with the legs being steady and strong. The upper half of the body can find the comfort and ease. Through both of these opposing actions, the middle ground is achieved and there is a sense of balance and calm. In each pose there is both simultaneously stiram and sukham–both exist. Your job (should you choose to accept it) is to balance the two.
Take this into your life outside of the yoga class.  Notice the situations that require courage and strength and at the same time ease and softness. It’s tricky and may take some practice. But, now that you know what to look for, there’s no going back. Can you find middle ground right between effort and ease in interactions with your child or your boss or partner? You want conviction and strength in your beliefs and values, but also a softness to allow room for new input and empathy. With too much effort you become rigid; too much comfort, you become apathetic.  Find the middle ground.
See you all soon. I always welcome your input.  We are a community, you know.  I’m at cheryl@cherylthomas.com.

(1) Dr. Robert Svoboda has a more inclusive and informed article at Yoga International which you can find here.
(1) http://www.soukofrima.com/

Diets Are Out

The pendulum has swung.  Dieting is out.  Healthy eating and being fit and strong is in.  Just like all pendulums, eating regimens tend to rest in equilibrium before another diet fad or scientific study comes along and starts it in motion again.  We’ve seen this dozens of times with eggs, coffee, red wine and chocolate.  It’s in, it’s out. It seems like the middle path is illusive.
Folks have become very rigid with their diets, which is a good idea, if that means limiting processed foods and sugar. But, taken further, some dieters refuse cooked food, animal protein, including milk and eggs, nightshades (tomatoes and eggplant), sugar, gluten, legumes, oil and grains. This would be considered “clean eating” and a certain NY City blogger with 70,000 followers found she was suffering from a serious eating disorder. Her periods stopped, her hair started falling out and her skin turned orange (from all the sweet potatoes and carrots). She was eventually treated by a psychiatrist for a serious eating disorder.
Not only are diets out, but fat is in. Both kinds–body fat and consumed fat.  Fat acceptance is everywhere aiming to alter the cultural biases and stigmas against the obese, like Roxane Gay’s NYT’s best seller, Hunger.  Fat consumption is making a resurgence with Atkins and Atkins-like diets which promote shifting the body into ketosis. Ketosis happens when you starve your body of carbohydrates, it’s preferred source of energy, and force it to use stored fat, resulting in weight loss.  High-fat diet allows ample eating of eggs, cheese, avocados, oils, butter, fatty meats, nuts. Recommended is even butter or coconut oil in your coffee or tea.
So, if one is to avoid “dieting” and strive for a healthy eating with a dose of exercise, what’s a person to do? While in the bookstore at Tassajara, the book The Buddha’s Diet, caught my eye.  I don’t think the Buddha was worried about squeezing into his 34 waist designer jeans, but he did try dieting. After leaving his posh life as a young man, he took on the life of an ascetic, basically starving himself. After realizing starvation was not helpful for enlightenment, he began teaching the notion of the “middle path” which is the cornerstone and Buddhism and can be the basis for healthy eating.  It’s said we should do everything in moderation, including moderation.
I like everything about The Buddha’s Diet book and if you’re on the weight-loss train, then you might also. This book is not about what to each but when. There is no counting calories or points. No green juice that gets delivered to your door or expensive tonics or shakes.  Meals do not become exercises in deprivation.  There’s no fasting like the monks.  You can eat anything you want but not when you want.
Have you noticed now often we eat?  We’re told a hearty breakfast is important (debunked) and not to skip meals.  We eat a snack between breakfast and lunch and then another between lunch and dinner and then more while watching West Wing or reruns of The Simpsons. Then there’s the boredom snacking while doing homework or chatting on the phone.  There’s even the fourth meal, introduced by Taco Bell (thanks a lot….).  No wonder we are consuming so many calories.  We were not engineered to eat all day and night long.
In the olden days eating a meal took effort and time– lots of time.  The makings had to be gathered or shot, cleaned, prepared and eaten.  Then there was the clean-up.  This was all done in the daylight hours which, depending on where you lived, was as short as 5 hours. There wasn’t time or refrigeration to eat whenever you wanted.
The Buddha Diet suggests a return to a more natural eating timetable. Next week I’ll explain more and share about my eating habits. In the meantime, if you want some homework, keep track of when, not what, you eat. I think you may be surprised.

Diets Are Out (Pt 2)

All of us have at some time have dieted.  It may have been the Tab and cigarette diet in our teens or the Atkins, The Mediterranean or Grapefruit diet.  Weight loss is incredibly complicated and I’m not suggesting that I have the end-all cure, but each of us attempt to reconcile our weight in our own myriad of ways. There seems to be no one-size-fits-all.
My last post (here) introduced the book, Buddha’s Diet, which advocates limiting the period of time in which you eat.  Instead of counting calories or points or living on cabbage soup or apple cider vinegar, you merely lessen the hours in which you eat.  Sounds easy and it is.
We not only eat too much but we also eat all the time.  Many folks eat right up until bedtime.  You may be surprised to find that you eat up to 16 hours a day. The first step of the Buddha’s Diet is to close that window to 12 hours. If you have coffee at 7 a.m., your last bit of food or drink is at 7 p.m. Done.  You can snack, if you must, but be done eating 12 hours after you start.  Continue with this eating schedule for 2 weeks. Then, shrink your eating window by 1 hour, so 11 hours.  Do this for 2 weeks before doing it again, until you are at a 9 hour eating window.  You can choose to push your breakfast forward or dinner earlier. That’s it, simple, don’t you think.  I know there will be days that this is just not feasible–business or family obligations, etc. That’s okay, but just limit these “slip” days and get back on schedule.
There’s more juicy nuggets in the Buddha’s Diet book, like What to Eat, Meat or Potatoes?, Buddha’s Whiskey, and Did the Buddha do Crossfit.  What I enjoyed was most of it was common sense and not dogmatic about “good” food versus “bad” food.  It also covers the value of saying grace and meditating for your body and our complicated relationship with our “temple”.
Along with the Buddha’s Diet, Ayurveda also recommends limiting the eating hours. It recommends avoiding eating between meals. The theory is that the digestive system works most efficiently when it is hungry and eager for the food. Digestive juices start flowing, food starts smelling and looking inviting and your body says “I’m hungry, let’s eat!”. This is the best time to eat. Throwing food unnecessarily into the system all day long only hampers and tamps down the digestive fires and the urge to eat. Wait to eat until you’re really hungry and just eat until you’re full (that means eating slowly to give the body time to register the food). Avoid snacking and notice if your hunger is just dehydration. Grab a glass of water (not soda).
People of normal weight, myself included, diet. It may not be a formal diet, but we do watch what we eat and make adjustments when necessary. When I feel a need to clean up my eating habits and knock off a few unwanted lbs. I do one of two things.  One, I take a liquid-only day.  Monday is usually easiest.  I’m very liberal with “liquid” and it can include a yummy shake and a glass of wine. This forces me to notice how many times I reach for something to put in my mouth, which is often. Two, I don’t eat after 6 p.m. This is similar to what the Buddha’s Diet advocates. If I feel a need to have something in the evening, I make it very small, like a cracker or warm milk–nothing substantial.
Regardless of how and what you eat, be thankful for the amazing bounty of food we have at our disposal.  I hope you’ve enjoyed these two posting on dieting. As always, I love to hear from you so send me some feedback, won’t you?

I Suck and You Should Too

There are things we do well and things we suck at.  We suck at math or remembering names or carrying a tune.  Almost everyone sucks at learning a new language (or at least you think you do).  But, what about the things we don’t suck at?  Perhaps you’re an excellent cook or superb golfer (although most golfers suck half of the time) or you strike an impressive downward dog?

When we were growing up we sucked at a lot of things. Think walking. Eventually, we could not only walk but run and then do the moon walk. We couldn’t ride a bike, then we could. Learning an instrument or chess or mountain climbing took a bit more time.  We sucked at all of these things until we practiced and got better. This goes on and on as we add more skills to our lives. With each new task, our brain changes and responds by adding more neural connections.  These connections are strengthened each time we perform a task.  

At some point in our lives, especially as we age, we quit learning new things.  Oh, I’m not talking about learning some new “revelation”, as if it’s any surprise, about our darkening political climate.  I’m referring to really new and hard skills or tasks, like playing the ukelele or Suduko.  Venturing into new territory as an adult is hard because we don’t want to suck or look silly or, heaven help us, fail. We avoid frustration and pain.  At some point, we default to do what we do well and avoid new challenges.

A bruised ego is no fun and a flat-out failing feels disastrous.  I hear there are courses at posh universities that actually have classes on how to suck and survive.  See the article in the NYT, On Campus, Failure is on the Syllabus, on failing well.  A student said “On our campus, everything can feel like such a competition, I think we get caught up in this idea of presenting an image of perfection. So to see these failures being talked about openly, for me I sort of felt like, ‘O.K., this is O.K., everyone struggles.e “

Trying out new tasks not only builds some grit but also builds our brains, which is especially important as we get older.  New activities do not just mean switching from fiction to nonfiction.  It means switching from reading to doing Tai Chi or biking to learning to play the guitar. You’ll be laying down new and reinforcing existing neural functions.  And, this is good.  

Lately, I’ve been practicing at sucking. Since relocating to Bend, Oregon, I’ve had the opportunity to do some outdoor activities that are new or newish to me. They say that failure builds character and I’m building plenty.  Take mountain bike riding. I started riding with a friendly, forgiving women’s group.  It didn’t take long until it dawned on me that I sucked. I was slow and walked the steep ups and the scary downs. Also, I’m not a very good paddler. My tennis game currently sucks, although, with practice, it is improving.  Regardless, I’m glad I’m sucking,  

With each challenge, I’ve  had the opportunity to practice being present and mindful and watch when feelings arise. Hello, frustration. I see you fear and pain and avoidance. What’s up with you ego?  I did a lot of self-talking-to with each of these feelings. With each arising thought, I made it a practice to sit back and observe was happening in my mind. Was fear was overriding ego?  Was ego speaking louder than pain?  Was avoidance the default?     

If you like this topic, listen to KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny.  The episode is 6/8/16 with Gerald Marzorati entitled Advice for the Aging:  Learning Something “Different and Hard”.  You can search for it at https://ww2.kqed.org/forum/.  One of the callers said he was learning Arabic, not for professional reasons but for curiosity.  After his morning run, he does 20 or 30 minutes of Arabic study and found it to be as much of a work-out as his run.  He says, “it’s a real strain on your brain and when you’re done you . . . had a good feeling of tiredness.  It’s a great way to start the day”  He felt he had given his brain a workout.  I’m guessing he probably sucked at it and maybe still does.  But that’s not stopping him.  

I hope you decide to suck a bit. It won’t kill you and could even make you stronger, so they say.  Check it out.

Needless Chatter

Do you find yourself jabbering on and on about nothing?  Do you exaggerate in order to entertain others?  Do you try to impress others with your “smarts” by talking about things you have limited knowledge, but wish you did?

Right Speech clocks in a No. 3 on the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. There are 4 virtues of Right Speech(1) and the final one is refraining from frivolous talk or gossip. Notice the time between when a thought comes up and when it’s out the mouth. Pretty short, huh. A short distance between brain and mouth is OK if you’re explaining quantum physics to a class of students–no problem. But,when you’re with your buddies and you’re catching up on the latest gossip in Mayberry, then increasing the time between the unkind/unnecessary thought and the boca is a good thing in order to avoiding frivolous or unnecessary talk.

It all comes down to intention (as does everything). Sharon Salzberg, Insight Meditation teacher, suggests that we imagine a time when we’ve felt the need to gossip.  Initially, neither act on the desire nor push it away, but rather sit with the feeling, wait. Think “will saying what I have the urge to say right now really serve my goals in relationship with this person and in my life?” If the answer is “yes,” go ahead, but if the answer is “no,” you haven’t said anything to that point so there’s a gain to staying quiet. The key here, I think, is to take that moment (the gap) to evaluate your intention for what may be frivolous talk or gossip.

I’ve tried to notice when I’m just jabbering.  If I truly become aware of my speech and avoid useless chatter, I don’t talk very much.  And, for me that feels odd.  For extroverts, talking (with our hands) is what we do. It’s a bit uncomfortable to be quiet. It reminds me of the Pulp Fiction scene where Uma and John are in the diner sitting across from one another:

Uma says:  Don’t you hate that?
John: What?
Uma: Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?
John: I don’t know. That’s a good question.
Uma: That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the f*%@ up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.

Writing this article brings me to my time at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center where we practiced 24-hours of silence. That means no talking, during class or meals or passing someone on a trail. I’ve done this before at a 6-day silent retreat at Spirit Rock. It can be uncomfortable and jarring at first, especially at mealtime.  But, as time goes by, it gets more comfortable and actually welcomed the silence. It’s important to take a periodic break from the oral chatter which is often just an extension of the inner chatter.

So try (and it’s not easy) to notice what’s arising in the mind before you speak, the intention of the thought and the ensuing value in speaking. It may make you feel awkward at first and others may wonder what’s wrong with you, but check it out.  It’s a good practice to do to begin to be more mindful of your speech.  Let me know how it goes.