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(Personal) Accountability Report, February 2017

Self Improvement 150At the beginning of the month, I noted that while I hadn’t quite achieved a perfect run on meditating and writing every day I had done pretty well for myself. There were a couple of days with Further Confusion where I didn’t hit my goal and a few more towards the end of the month, but overall I was building a pretty good routine for myself. For February, I had resolved to keep it going — write, meditate and count my calories every day. I had identified a few things that were working to keep me away from the meditation bench, writing desk and calorie counting app, and had developed a few ways to get past those potential blocks. This month, however, was a major stumble. In just about every metric I failed to write or meditate every day, and I was exceedingly spotty with my calorie counting.

Write every day. This just didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons. I seriously got out of the habit here, and I’m not even sure why. I think a lot of it was just…pressure, in general. Work has been a little difficult, and the whole thing with my online math course for school happened, and work on “Stable Love” and the “Gift Exchange” finale proved to be a bit more intimidating than I had bargained for. There were a lot of days this month where I just didn’t have the spoons for writing, even though I should have toughed it out and wrote anyway. It’s been really difficult to balance those kinds of long-term goals against the day-to-day demands of what comes up in the moment. I’m really going to have to find a way to do that, though.

This month, I will set the same goal I did in February: I will write every day, working on either a blog post or a short story. March will be notably busier; my “Argumentation and Debate” class starts up with twice-weekly classes on Tuesday and Thursday, and I’ll be working on my “Elementary Statistics” textbook in an attempt to get ahead of things for that eight week class starting up in April. Somewhere in there, I’ll be hitting up Texas Furry Fiesta — that’s something I’m really looking forward to, but it’s also something that I’ll need to prepare for ahead of time. I’ll need to make sure that my schoolwork and writing is positioned ahead of time so I can enjoy the weekend without worrying about all of the stuff I’ve let slip.

Meditate every day. This also just didn’t happen. There were a few nights of insomnia that made it really difficult to get up in the morning, and there were a few mornings where I just ended up getting distracted by my phone instead of doing the things I should have been doing. So far this month I’ve missed eight days, mostly at the beginning, but it’s still not great. There’s not a whole lot I can do about insomnia, I realize, but I could also make it a priority to meditate as soon as I get home on the days where I’m just not able to do it in the morning.

This month, I’ll set the same goal that I did in February: I will meditate every day for at least fifteen minutes. Ain’t nothing to it but to do it, but I do think that I will need to pay better attention to my bedtime. If possible, it’d be best to avoid a lot of phone usage before bed and if necessary I’ll take melatonin at around 10 pm to reset my body clock. I should be getting tired right around then, and preparing to hit the hay. If I can manage to do that successfully for a while, it’ll be easier and easier to wake up at 5:45, meditate, then get out the door and kick ass at work.

Counting calories every day. This also didn’t happen, and was probably the thing I was worst about over the month. I think I’ve just gotten really bad at updating things through my phone, to be honest. I use it for games and chatting more than anything, and I just don’t think of it as a tool that I can use to be better at holding myself accountable. Being a bit more strict about my phone usage would be a really good thing; making sure that anything I’ve eaten or spent has been logged before I do anything else would be an awesome habit to get into! I am just not sure I’ll be able to pull it off.

In March, I will log every calorie I eat and every dollar I spend through my phone. This will help me reset my habits and idea of what the phone is for, and start pushing me towards making more responsible decisions for it. I’ll be trying to take better care of my diet as well, and maybe reinstalling Fitocracy would be a good way to look up quick bodyweight exercise routines or a circuit of stretches for the days when I’m not running. My phone needs to be more than a mobile entertainment unit or boredom eradicator; I’d love for it to be more of a digital assistant. It can get there, but I have to be a lot more mindful about its usage.

So there we go. In March, I’m still trying to build the writing, meditation and accountability habit. February was a step down from January; there were a lot more things working against me, but that’s likely to be true in March as well. I’ll need to work pretty hard to make sure that the right things are a priority for me this coming month and make better decisions to emphasize that.

I’m curious about what the struggle is like for other people by this time of the year. Are folks still working towards fulfilling their New Year’s Resolutions? Or have we dropped them at this point because real life is way more complicated and antagonistic than we had anticipated? Does anyone have recommendations on what might help build a good habit?

 
 

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(Buddhism) Right Mindfulness

Buddhism 150Mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought. In order to realize your enlightenment, you must see it just as it is, through direct experience unfiltered by emotion or judgement. What’s really interesting to me about this is that it’s possible to have these moments where everything seems to click and you have this epiphany about yourself, or the world, or the nature of reality whether or not you’re Buddhist. That to me, is the realization; a small taste of enlightenment that arises when you’re fully engaged in that moment.

For Buddhists, those moments aren’t necessarily goals; they’re more signposts that tell us where we are in our practice. Mindfulness is not a state that we achieve and then do no more work with. It is a habit, a way of living, an action that we perform every moment of every day.

So Right Mindfulness is the sustained effort required to take the things we’ve learned so far and use it to clear away the cobwebs in front of our eyes, so to speak. So much of our daily experience is filtered through the lenses of our emotions, our judgements, our aversions and attachments. When we realize exactly what those are, and how they distort the reality we see them through, we have a better chance of recognizing, accepting, and eventually letting go of them.

Mindfulness is primarily cultivated through meditation — the act of simply sitting with ourselves and being present with what arises. I think that there is often a misunderstanding about the “goal” of meditation, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done the greatest job of describing it before. But here’s what it means to me, and what I get out of it.

Mindfulness meditation is a way of checking in with yourself, noticing the patterns of your own thoughts and feelings. This can often be very difficult — there are notions and emotions that we don’t like to confront for various reasons, after all — but sitting with them can teach us patience, compassion and empathy that we can then bring out of the meditation space and into the rest of our lives. Eventually, as you become more familiar with the ways you think and feel, you may find yourself detaching from them — and with that, a newfound ability to examine what arises with interest and tenderness.

That detached, amiable curiosity is a wonderful friend. With it, you can follow difficult emotions down to the root. You can shake loose these very deep emotions that may prevent you from engaging with something fully; that, too, is difficult work. I’ve often found hypocrisies within myself that make me feel ashamed, uncertain and like an all-around terrible person.

But you keep sitting. You allow these thoughts and feelings to spend time with you; you watch them dissolve after a time. And the more you do it, the longer you sit, the more you realize how ephemeral these emotional states and thoughts are. The pain in your shoulders arises, then fades. The embarrassment of that really stupid thing you said eases into amusement, then acceptance. Your mind begins to exhaust itself of the memories and thoughts and emotions that constantly bombard you. It begins to get easier to return to your breath, to focus on the simple physical act of inhaling and exhaling.

What mindfulness meditation has given me is the ability to see myself as separate from the emotions and sensations that arise within me, and the chance to step back to examine them before acting. Granted, it doesn’t always happen that way, but I feel a lot better about how I handle difficult situations in the moment on my better days.

Mindfulness meditation gives us direct experience into the impermanence of our existence. The things we think flit into our brain, and will just as happily flit out again if we don’t hold on to them. The emotions that come with them rise as well, and remain with us for a time, but fade again; they just might use a longer timetable. The physical sensation that often accompanies emotion will rise and fade as well, and even though these might feel longest and be the most difficult to sit with, eventually we see that they are impermanent too. Beneath all of these — thought, emotion, physical sensation — something separate persists. Our heartbeat. Our breath. It is a constant that we can use to remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of other things, that we are not what we think or feel, that we do not have to follow those things into immediate action.

For someone like me, who has let his emotions get him into trouble so often in the past, this feels wonderful. I still get depressed. I still wrestle with anxiety. I still have tremendous trouble with focus. But the more I meditate, the more mindful I become of the way these states feel and pass; the more mindful I become, the more I am able to see the truth of things beyond the filters of that emotion; the clearer I can see things, the better able I am to recognize what is needed at any given time and respond in turn. Being mindful is how we can move past the things that make us angry to recognize the reason they exist. We can acknowledge our anger, recognize its presence, but allow it to have no bearing on our reaction if it’s not needed. Mindfulness isn’t denying what arises — it’s quite the opposite. We hold it, give it its proper perspective, and then move on with clear eyes.

So many Zen koans are calls for this mindfulness. “What is Zen?” asked a monk to his teacher while they were shopping. “Three pounds of flax,” the master replied. No matter what you’re doing — meditating, chanting, or relieving your bowels — Zen calls for full, clear engagement with it. Practice doesn’t end when we leave the meditation space. Meditation is rehearsal for the rest of our day. Right Mindfulness is the spoke on the wheel of the path that lets us do that.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Notes From the Zendo: A Softening

Buddhism 150Last Wednesday I went to the Kannon Do Zen Centre up in Mountain View to hear Natalie Goldberg speak. A friend had invited me to see her, and when do you get a chance to actually meet the writer of Writing Down The Bones? Of course, I had to go.

It was a bit of a shock to see the Zen Centre right there in the middle of Mountain View, just a small way from downtown. The grounds were immaculate, the neighborhood was quiet, and everything there was geared towards one purpose — the practice of Zen and the encouragement of mindfulness. I was really impressed with it, and introduced to a community of practitioners who were all striving for the same thing.

We meditated first. My friend asked if I wanted to sit in a chair, and I told him I would probably be able to hang on a cushion. That turned out to be a big mistake. I meditate on a seiza bench at home; it’s basically a tiny little bench meant to hold your butt up off of your heels when you’re kneeling. I’m way too inflexible for half-lotus, and I’m pretty sure I’d break my legs if I tried full-lotus. (I’m still marvelling that anyone can manage that pose. It’s like they have cartoon noodle legs). Sitting seiza, though, is not the best without some sort of barrier between your rear and your heels. If you’re not tiny (and I am not), then it doesn’t take long for your lower legs to fall asleep. After that, any shift you make will send a horde of angry ants skittering from your ankle to your kneecap.

At first I could hang, but the second half of the meditation session was pure agony. I shifted out of seiza, awkwardly tried the half-lotus before I gave that up too, and just sort of ended up hugging my knees and resting my chin on my legs. It’s a horribly undignified way to meditate, but nothing brings you into the present moment quite like shame.

After meditation, there was a brief chant. I had never experienced anything like it before! We chanted the “Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Heart Sutra,” which is this:

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when deeply practicing prajna paramita clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering. Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this. Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, or consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight…no realm of mind consciousness. There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance…neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana. All buddhas of past, present, and future rely on prajna paramita and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment. Therefore, know the prajna paramita as the great miraculous mantra, the great bright mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, which removes all suffering and is true, not false. Therefore we proclaim the prajna paramita mantra, the mantra that says “Gate gate paragate parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

Something came over me in the recitation of this sutra. It felt like something came unlocked, this idea that there is nothing to attain because whatever we could strive for is illusory; and once you realize that, the very idea of holding on to something — or scrambling to achieve it — just doesn’t hold any weight. When you realize that, fear simply leaves you.

Fear is something I struggle with all the time. The past couple of weeks have shown me that I’m a very tightly wound person. I’m terrified of making mistakes. It frightens me to talk about something that means a lot to me and have it dismissed or rejected. I hate the idea of stretching myself out, of being in a place where I’m not certain. But that’s where life is; and as much as you strive for the comfort of knowing exactly where you are and what you’re doing, you will actually spend very little time there. That comfort, that stability, is illusory and impermanent; attaching so much of my emotional energy to it is a thing that causes me suffering.

Natalie spoke, after chanting and a period of silent reflection while a few associates navigated through technical difficulties. She talked about living in (and hating) Palo Alto, and how it taught her to be careful what you hate because so much energy goes into that act. She talked about being diagnosed with cancer and how it stopped her writing cold but channeled her creative output into painting. Her work there was interesting; warm, vibrant yet serene, touched by her New Mexico lifestyle while still capturing pieces of the setting she was in. Her self-portraits were the most interesting, capturing the fear, worry and sadness she couldn’t express in words.

I was impressed mostly by the softness with which she lived her life. She was very gentle with her words and her tone, as if she knew that she didn’t need to use pressure to get at the truth she was trying to communicate. There was a deep and abiding acceptance in everything she did, even when she spoke about the cancer that had frightened her so. That discomfort was something she knew intimately and embraced just as much as everything else.

Silicon Valley is not a place that lends itself to that softness. It’s a fast-paced, high-powered world, and it’s not conducive to slow and ponderous attention to one thing. It’s difficult to know how to attain that soft and gentle attitude. The current teacher of Kannon Do, Les Kaye, wrote Zen At Work and actually worked at IBM for 30 years before becoming a Zen teacher. I think he understands the unique challenge of marrying Zen practice to the tech sector, which is pretty neat.

The intimacy and care with which the community of Kannon Do related to the space and with one another is something I’ll remember for a long time. There are a number of things within my calendar right now, so I’m not sure if it’ll be possible right now to attend services regularly. It’s definitely something I will make time for, however. Just being there for one warm summer evening gave me an awful lot to chew over, and for that I’m grateful.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2015 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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Meditating Everywhere

Buddhism 150It’s taken me a very long time to understand what meditation is for. When I first started to practice, I assumed that the time I’d spend on the bench was in preparation for something else. By sitting down and counting my breath (one-in-out-two-in-out) my brain was being molded in a way that would manifest elsewhere. I assumed that meditation was a ritual, and that like most magic it would work in ways I wasn’t looking for, that it would surprise me with its effectiveness when I needed it to. An incredibly stressful situation would arise, and suddenly I would get through it with grace, focus and clarity without knowing how it happened. One day, just like Neo in The Matrix, my eyes would open and I would simply see everything for what it is. Instead of lines of code, I would see another person, sharing the same air that I was, wanting the same things I did, no different from me at all. I’d put in the time, and there would be a reward later, a mysterious effect disconnected from its cause by time and thought.

That’s a completely shitty idea. I know that now, of course, but I didn’t then. It took me a few years of sporadic meditation to understand that meditation isn’t a preparation for anything. It’s an act, it’s *doing*, and that you’re expected to take the focus and awareness you cultivate on the bench and carry it with you through your day. Meditation isn’t a ritual that pays dividends down the line — it’s the beginner’s version of how Buddhists are expected to move through life itself.

It can’t start out any easier. You simply sit down, and pay attention. The ideal thing is to pay attention to whatever is happening in the moment without attaching to it; when you attach to it, the thought carries you away from the present along a stream of associated thoughts and moods. When that happens, let it go, then return to where you are. It takes practice to maintain that presence, but the idea is that when you do you find yourself responding to what arises in a much more centered way. And the bench isn’t the only place where this happens. Meditation is a practice you can cultivate wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.

That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to focus on recently. My meditation practice is as spotty as ever, I’m afraid (I’ve never been one to develop good habits), but even when I don’t manage to sit on the bench I’ve been trying to really pay attention to what I’m doing when I do it. If I catch myself getting stressed at work, I take a moment to step back from that emotion, figure it out and move on. It really helps when you’re dealing with anxious or angry customers I’ve found; instead of taking a remark or behavior and being carried away by it, I can try to anchor myself and focus on a need that’s being expressed.

And that’s a huge deal to me. I come from a long life of depression, which is a pretty self-centered condition to have. You get used to thinking in circles around yourself; everything comes back to you, how you’re deficient in some way, how no one could ever love you, so forth and so on. Even managing it, it’s difficult to learn to step outside of yourself if you don’t work for it. That’s what meditation does for me; it provides me a way to step outside of myself, simply by being active in my awareness and focusing on my surroundings, other people, or feelings as they arise and fade. That helps me relate to people better, it helps me solve problems more quickly and easily, and it helps me to understand people and their perspectives without warping it through my own.

One of the reasons I’m talking about this is to try and explain my perspective in the hopes of encouraging people to explain theirs. Meditation helps me quite a bit, but I know a lot of people really aren’t into it. I’m curious about what other folks think about it — is it useful to you, if you practice regularly? Did you try it for a while, but find no good use for it? What do you do instead, if you have something that centers you? How does it work?

I think it’s important to have a way to remember the things that are important for you, no matter who you are and what you believe. Meditation is mine. What’s yours?

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2012 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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