Yoga Block

Much like writers block, I have recently been suffering from yoga block.  That feeling like I’m stuck, I can’t do my practice.  For months I’ve been finding reasons not to go to yoga.  Don’t get me wrong, I still love yoga deeply.  It is still a great driving force in my life.  As a matter of fact I’m working in a summer camp for middle school students and each day I start off by teaching a group of anywhere from 15-40 students yoga.  We work for 45 minutes first thing in the morning.  At the start of the program the students hated yoga.  They complained and whined the entire time; through every pose.  By the fourth day of the camp they were hooked.  Now students fight to get into the yoga program.  This excitement I see in them, as they beg to assist me in teaching, has grounded me more firmly in my love for yoga.  But still I wonder; why do I miss so many of my yoga classes?

I have been attending College Park Yoga in Orlando, FL for almost two years now.  There are amazing teachers and caring students that attend.  The first time I walked in the studio with my best friend I knew I’d found a home.  When I first began practicing I attended 3-5 times a week.  At the time I was 60 pounds over weight and I was depressed on a pretty consistent basis.  I could not comfortably do many of the poses but I didn’t let that stop me.  I’d show up and do my practice and each time it got a little easier.  My yoga instructors encouraged me, pushed me, and found ways to help me expand my abilities.  Within 8 months I’d lost 40 pounds and rarely suffered the depression that had been plaguing me.  Yoga literally saved me.  To this day I’m not sure Lezlie, Linda, Calvin, or Theresa (my yoga instructors) know how much their time and love has meant to me.

So, knowing these things I couldn’t understand why about 3 or 4 months ago I just stopped going to class.  I went two months without going to CPY and I rarely sat on my mat.  Before this I couldn’t imagine missing a class. What was holding me back?  I would find excuse after excuse not to go.  I would tell myself when I awoke in the mornings, “tonight is yoga, I have to go.”  By the time I made it home I would crawl into bed, take a nap and wake up too late to make dinner and get to class.

It wasn’t until I felt the need to go back to my doctor to refill my anti-depressants and I felt my old habits of anger surging back that I realized how much I needed to get my yoga practice back on track.  I knew it was bad when I got into a shouting match with an 11 year old, in class.  This verbal altercation ended with a figurative punch in the gut when the student stormed out of class, turned to me before he left and said, “real mature.”  I knew I had to get back on my yoga mat, ASAP.  Nothing like an 11 year old giving you a harsh reality check.  I didn’t realize how important yoga had become until it was gone.

English: Zen Habits Logo

English: Zen Habits Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I stumbled upon part of my answer when I started reading Leo Babauta’s blog Zen Habits that I really started to understand what was going on with my “Yoga Block” and why I couldn’t seem to get myself to practice.  He wrote a blog titled, “Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything.”  In this post he talks about changing how you look at habits you’ve created for yourself.  “Stop thinking of a habit as something you have to do, but as something you are allowed to do.”

This clicked with me instantly.  One of the things I like about Babauta’s blog is it’s Zen simplicity.  He cuts right to the heart of the matter.  I had turned yoga, something I loved and needed and was passionate about, into something I HAD to do.  I’m terrible when it comes to being told I have to do something.  That shuts me down pretty quickly.  But, when I began giving myself permission to go back to yoga, the switch flipped again.

I am not attending with the regularity that I have in the past, but I am definitely on the path to my old frequency.  I may not make it to as many classes at CPY as I have in the past, but I make up for that thanks to the summer program where I’m teaching yoga.  I practice right along with my students and their enthusiasm has reignited my passion for yoga.

Now that I am aware of the “why” behind my yoga block, I am using that mindfulness to ensure I don’t cut myself off from something that brings me such great joy.

What do you need to give yourself permission to do?  What habit do you need to “allow” yourself to perform?  Change your thinking and end your own personal blockage.  Don’t talk yourself out of the rituals and activities that bring you happiness and joy.  In today’s society it can be extremely difficult to find our passions.  Take Joseph Campbell’s advice, “Follow your bliss!”

Namasté

Matthew

The Case for a Compassionate World

In college I was introduced to one of the most brilliant writers I’ve ever read; Karen Armstrong.  My roommate at the time was reading her book, A History of God.  Knowing that I loved the study of religion she was asking me all kinds of questions about the book.  Since I wasn’t fully aware of what she was talking about I went out and bought it and began reading with her.  We started a mini book club.

I would read for hours trying to devour everything Armstrong had to say.  I sat with a dictionary as I read to ensure I grasped every nuance of the book.  Since then I have read several other books she has written including, Holy War, The Spiral Staircase, Through the Narrow Gate, and I’m currently reading Buddha.  Karen Armstrong is not only brilliant she is extremely balanced, remaining completely academic.  I respect her ability to keep her own biases out of her works.

The reason I mention my love for Karen Armstrong is because this weekend I picked up her latest tome; Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.  This book serves as a call to arms to create a more compassionate world.  She makes the argument that society and religion in particular, have failed in spreading compassion towards others outside of one’s own group.

She delves further into this idea by pointing out that the common definition of compassion equates to pity.  Compassion is not pity, it is derived from Greek and Latin and literally translates to “to endure [something] with another person.”  This removes all connotations of one person being better than another when experiencing compassion.

This book was written and the ideas inside it were developed after Armstrong won the TED Prize for her Charter for Compassion.  She has made it her mission to spread compassion throughout the world, one person at a time.  The Charter for Compassion works in conjunction with Compassionate Action Network which works to create compassionate cities and communities around the world.

Since purchasing this book I have researched, quite intensely, the Charter for Compassion and I am hooked.  The idea is simple and brilliant and is written as follows:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others -even our enemies- is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings -even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

The beauty of the Charter made me sign it instantly.  This is part of my practice that I am striving for; I want to be more present and more compassionate.  I have been meditating more and more lately on how to ensure our world becomes less hostile, less angry, less divided.  And in answer to my thoughts and prayers I was guided back to Karen Armstrong.

I vividly remember meeting her several years back when she came to Orlando, FL and spoke at Rollins College.  She was unassuming, brilliant, and captivating.  I also remember watching her TED Prize speech and wondering when/if this charter was real.  But I wasn’t ready to fully appreciate what she was asking me to contemplate.  Now that I am ready, she has reappeared to teach me and others what we need to learn about compassion.

This former Catholic nun turned academic has taught me more about spirituality than all my years going to church and contemplating the nature of the divine.  I will always regard her as a great teacher; though she has no concept of who I am.  I am extremely grateful to her.

I was #96,679 to sign the Charter.  What number will you be?  Will you help the Charter break 100,000?  Will you follow the simple outline the Charter lays out?  Are you ready to help bring compassion back into the forefront of our lives?  Visit http://charterforcompassion.org. Read what it’s all about, make your own decision.  If you aren’t ready to sign the Charter, that’s ok.  Your awareness of the Charter is what matters for the time being.  As your awareness grows, so too will your understanding.  That is all that I ask of you.  Be aware of how you can create compassion in your daily life; compassion for yourself, your loved ones, your coworkers, and even random strangers on the street.  Remember, compassion is not pity, it is enduring something with another person.  Compassion is at the heart of, not only, Buddhist teachings, but all major religions.  Won’t you find the compassion that is inside you and let it out for the betterment of the world?

Namasté

Matthew

A Journey from Humiliation to Humility, by Corrado Pensa

This is an excellent meditation on humiliation vs. humility. I found it quite informative and enjoyable. I hope my readers will as well.

Namasté
Matthew

Buddhism now

Buddha Photo: © @BaganLodge I would like begin by reading a quote from Hubert Benoit, a French doctor who, amongst other things, studied, practised and experimented with Zen. He had a deep and creative way of conceptualising the core of the practice, and at one time he said, ‘All suffering, by humiliating us, modifies us. But this modification can be of two sorts that are radically opposed. If I struggle against humiliation it destroys me and increases my inner disharmony. But if I let it alone without opposing it, it builds up my inner harmony. So, when I start understanding,’ he says, ‘I begin to see that all my negative states, basically, are humiliations, and that up to this point I have taken steps to give them other names. Then I become capable of feeling myself humiliated and vexed without any other image within me, and I become capable of remaining there, motionless.’ He…

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Why Buddhism?

I have been pondering this post for quite some time.  It’s a little difficult for me to write, because I’m not 100% sure of the reasoning myself.  Hence why my blog is called “Accidental Buddhism.”

Let me start by saying thank you to those who have been reading my blog regularly and have left comments of encouragement.  I truly appreciate your support and love.  I write this blog to put my ideas and thoughts down, but it makes it far more fulfilling knowing I have a readership; even if it is small but loyal.

No less important to me are those who do not seem to understand why I choose to follow the path of Buddhism.  Some cannot figure out why I would abandon my Catholic roots to pursue this new faith.  I was asked recently, “are you involved in some kind of Buddhism?” As though Buddhism was some kind of cult and not one of the worlds oldest religions.

Up until recently I have kept my dabblings into other faith systems to myself.  They were no one’s business but my own.  I did not take them seriously enough my self to put them on display for the world to see.  Then, as I’ve described in other posts (Can Diets Be Buddhist In Nature) I came across yoga.  Yoga, like Buddhism, finds it’s roots in Hinduism.  In Sanskrit yoga is defined as “to unite.”  It is one of the six pillars of Hinduism.  But, Buddhists practice yoga as well.  Since Buddhism’s founder Siddharta Gautama was originally a Hindu prince before he became The Buddha, it is understandable that the two faiths merge in many ways (much like Christianity and Judaism).

For my own personal beliefs I use yoga as a form of meditation.  My yoga practice and my study of Buddhism throughout college and since naturally led me “to unite” with the Buddhist faith.

Of course this is not a complete story of “Why Buddhism,” but it is a beginning.  Now, hold onto your chairs because here’s where I get a little provocative.

Disclaimer: please understand that what follows are my feeling and are in no way meant to demean or denigrate anyone else’s faith or beliefs.

Above I mentioned that I had “abandoned” my Catholic roots.  This is a misconception.  I have not completely abandoned my upbringing.  I still feel a deep attachment to Catholicism. The rituals of the faith have always been compelling to me; most particularly the praying of the rosary (I still carry one with me).  I find it ironic that people assume I have forgotten my former faith, but I am attracted to Buddhism for many of the same reasons I am attracted to Catholicism.  Like the rosary the Buddhists have the mala; prayer beads also used during meditation.  This gave me my first sense of connection between the faith of my birth and my chosen faith.

If you can truly say that I abandoned Catholicism (or Christianity to be more literal) it is because I felt that they had abandoned me.  Christianity has become quite contentious over the last decade here in the United States.  Instead of being the all inclusive religion of love and acceptance that Christ espoused, it has become a religion of exclusion and heartache.  This hits much closer to home for me as a gay man. The pastor of the church I grew up in (who I served as an alter boy for) has published articles in the church bulletin and given homilies from the pulpit condemning homosexuals and  homosexuality on a regular basis.

This is not one rogue pastor this is numerous pastors throughout Christendom.  Because of this and other reasons I have long felt excluded from Christianity.  This is not to say that there are not open and accepting Christians in the world; there most certainly are and I have been blessed to know them.  But when the outspoken of the faith launch an all out war against any of it’s followers, there is something wrong.

Please know that I am not running to Buddhism because I’m upset with Christianity.  That is far from the truth.  I was led to Buddhism because it feels like home to me.  Buddhism is a very individual practice.  There is of course a community that practices together (known as the sangha); I have not found one as of yet since my practice still remains in its infancy.  I have a friend that always admired Buddhism and he used to say, “What I like about Buddhism is that they say, ‘I’ll be over here practicing and you can practice whatever faith you believe and I’m here to help you when you need it.'”  It is that acceptance of others’ beliefs that I like about Buddhism.  I also like that it can be seen as a philosophy and less as a religion.  You can be a Christian Buddhist, a Jewish Buddhist, a Muslim Buddhist, or even an Atheist Buddhist (there is not God figure in Buddhism – you believe in the higher power you choose to believe in).  [I will focus on God and Buddhism in an upcoming post.]  So, I have not abandoned my belief in God or the Goddess, or the Universe, or whatever anyone chooses to believe in as a higher power.  I think this is what scares most of the people who are confused by my conversion.

I believe the other element that people find distasteful is how public I’ve made this transition from one faith to another.  Religion is a private matter for many people; up to this point is has been for me as well.  The difference for me; I don’t write this blog to convert people to Buddhism, that is a path they must choose for themselves.  I write this blog for my own understanding.  Putting my feelings in writing is another form of meditation for me.  It keeps me grounded and centered and mindful.

So, I come back to the question, “Why Buddhism?”  And the only answer I can truly give is because it is the best faith for me.  I will always respect others’ faith of choice; all I ask is the same in return.  And no matter your feeling about what I believe know I will always love you and hope you can always love me.

Namasté

Matthew

Silence Truly Is Golden

Growing up, one of my favorite television shows was Northern Exposure.  It was the story of a high strung New Yorker that was sent to a remote area of Alaska to work off his medical school debts.  He runs across a number of eccentric characters while in Cicely, Alaska.  The character I enjoyed the most was Marilyn, his Inuit secretary.  She was a regular on the show but she rarely spoke.  Marilyn was silent; by choice.  She chose her words carefully and used them sparingly.  Joel, the New York doctor, could not understand how she could be so quiet.  It was maddening for him.

Many of us are not comfortable with silence.  We do not like gaps in conversations, we don’t like being unsure of what we should say.  We are so uncomfortable with silence that we will often begin talking before our conversation partner(s) have finished what they are saying.  We also find those that are silent to be disconcerting.  We aren’t sure we can trust them.  We often wonder what they are thinking, why they don’t talk us, are they secretly judging us.

The person I’m currently dating is actually extremely quiet in public.  When we are one on one he chats non-stop.  When another person is added to the mix he becomes very quiet.  Part of this is due to his shyness.  His silence often confounds our friends.  They are all very outgoing and big talkers.  He is anathema to them.  He and I have discussed his silence.  He is shy and his silence is often a wall he puts up to not “embarrass himself.” (His feeling, not mine.)

There is another part to his silence.  He likes to observe.  He can recount everything that happens when we are out with a group; right down to the smallest aspects of conversations. His silence makes him a great listener and observer.

I, on the other hand, talk too much.  I like the sound of my own voice.  I often joke with my students that the reason I became a teacher was because I like to talk so much.  (That’s only partly a joke.)  I like to talk so much that I have been guilty of talking over my students as they are giving me answers in class or asking questions.  As my practice has progressed I’ve taken note of how I interrupt students and have made every attempt to curb this.  I want to listen to my students.  I want to listen to my loved ones.  I want to be present with them and part of that presence is knowing when to be silent.

Now, the motivation of the silence is what’s important.  Why are we talkative? Why are we silent?  I talk because silence has always made me uncomfortable.  I worry that I’m not connecting with the person I’m conversing with.  I also worry that the discomfort I feel because of the silence will spill over to the person I’m talking with and then we’ll both be uncomfortable.  So, my words become my wall.  The person I am dating is the exact opposite.  His silence is his wall.  He is silent so he doesn’t have to engage or look silly to those he is talking to.

The reason I liked Marilyn on Northern Exposure so much was because her silence was genuine. She didn’t speak because she chose not to speak.  When she had something important to say she would say it in as few words as possible.  It is what I would like to strive toward.

When I teach my students about the history of Ancient China and Ancient India I go in depth into Buddhism.  When we discuss Right Speech I tell my students that Buddhists will not use words that harm others and to keep from harming others Buddhists choose their words sparingly and carefully.  Keeping in mind that it is difficult enough to see shades of gray; it’s helpful to know that 6th graders tend to see the world in black and white. So they take this idea very literally.  As we get older and “mature” we know there are many gray shades.  We know that when I say Buddhists choose their words carefully that I am in no way being literal, that I am speaking of what Buddhists strive to do.

I don’t strive to be utterly silent.  I enjoy talking.  I strive to be silent when I need to be more present and a better listener.  What do you strive for?  Do you find you talk too much?  Why do you jabber on?  Do you find you are silent when you know you should be using your voice to engage with people to make stronger connections?  Why do you hide behind your silence?

Talking or choosing silence are neither good nor bad; each has their benefits and pitfalls.  The key is to recognize which is most effective for the situation we are faced with.  Next time you catch yourself rambling start by quieting your mouth, then the mind will follow.

Namasté

Matthew

Overtaken By Anger

Today I let anger overwhelm me.  It began as a simple inconvenience that snowballed, rather quickly I am ashamed to say, into a blinding anger.  In his book, The Buddha Walks Into A Bar…A Guide To Life For A New Generation, Lordo Rinzler calls these “afflicted emotions” The Incredible Hulk Syndrome.  The Sanskrit word is actually klesha (not in any way to be confused with the pop singer Ke$ha – don’t laugh the first few times I read the word I was convinced he was talking about her).  

I was in the mall today and I was ready to leave when a typical Florida thunderstorm dumped sheets of sideways rain.  I was trapped in the mall.  In the grand scheme of things this is no big deal and an expected occurrence on any given afternoon during the Florida summers.  But, I was headed to meet the person I’m currently dating and I didn’t want to keep them waiting.  So this minor set back began to irritate me and make me apprehensive.  I finally ran to my car, getting quite wet in the process, which started the tiny snowball rolling down the mountain. 

It just got worse from there.  I hit every red light between the mall and home. No matter what lane I traveled in I was behind a slow driver.  The snowball gained in size and momentum.  By the fifth red light I became aware of my anger bubbling.  By the eighth red light my clothes were starting to rip and my green skin was starting to show.  When I finally met my date I was in full Hulk mode.  It was when I snapped at him in the first five minutes of being together that I realized I had to take a step back.  What was I so angry about?  I needed a few minutes to myself to figure this out.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, “Why Am I Angry?“, my anger generally stems from a perceived lack of control.  And I was definitely not in control today.  I couldn’t control the rain, I couldn’t control the other drivers, I couldn’t control the traffic lights.  The only thing I could control was my reactions to these uncontrollable forces, and I failed in that arena as well.  The Incredible Hulk was in full swing; tearing up my emotional stability.

When I finally stepped away, I took my dogs into the back yard and I stood on my back steps.  I always know I am out of control with my emotions (anger specifically) when my dogs irritate me.  If I’m mad at them I am being completely irrational.  When I yelled at Lizzy, my black poodle mix, because she wasn’t going to the bathroom fast enough, I knew I’d reached my breaking point.

I stopped everything.  I apologized to my dogs, I closed my eyes and took three deep breaths.  I filled my lungs completely and emptied them.  The breaths were slow and deliberate.  I tilted my head upward and opened my eyes toward the sky.  I tried to bring all five senses to bare in this healing meditation.  I allowed myself to feel the concrete steps under my feet.  I could feel the grit and the heat of the day on my heels, toes, and the balls of my feet.  I felt the breeze on my skin and I saw the trees billowing as the wind rustled through their branches.  I smelled the rain on the air and watched as the dark cloud floated across the sky.  I forced myself to stay in the moment.  When I felt the anger trying to push forward I looked back to the clouds and took another slow deep satisfying breath.

Within five minutes of beginning this gentle meditation the rain clouds had drifted out of my field of vision to reveal a clear blue sky.  Just as quickly as the thunderous clouds vanished so had my turbulent temper.  I should have taken a brief moment to clear the anger earlier but my judgement was clouded.  I went back inside with the “girls” (my dogs) and I apologized, rather effusively, to my date.  Luckily he is a reader of my blog (and often my proofreader and critic) so he understood and forgave me easily.

I am lucky to have forgiving people around me.  If I did not my anger could lead me to lose the people I care about.  The lesson I take from this is to make sure I douse the flames of my anger quickly.  I need to make sure that my Bruce Banner doesn’t have the chance to become the Hulk.  The easiest way to do this is to find your breath and find your perspective. Very rarely is the object of our anger worth the lack of control we suffer.  I know for me it is not.

How to you stop your anger from getting out of control?  How do you control your Hulk?  Don’t let anger or any emotion cause you to lose control.  Our emotions are neither good nor bad; positive nor negative.  It is our reaction to those emotions that take on good or ill connotations.  

Always try to remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice, “Smile, breathe, and go slowly”.  This can extinguish your emotional flames before they are uncontrollable.

Namasté

Matthew

Give Back To Your Community

I often feel like a complete failure as a teacher.  I am tough on my students.  I set high standards and I do not change those expectations for them.  I expect them to meet or surpass the goals I’ve set.  It is a regular occurrence for students to tell me how much they hate me and how mean I am.  Often teaching feels as if I’m getting beaten down over and over again.  When my students aren’t mad at me their parents are calling me asking why I’m failing their child; instead of asking why their child has earned the grades they’ve received.  

As frustrating and stressful as teaching can be it is equally as rewarding.  Teachers are not paid very well, but most of us do not go into teaching for the money.  We go into it for the interactions with our students.  Seeing them succeed is a reward in and of itself.  Now, please don’t think that I am bragging about being selfless or some kind of perfect human being that gives of themselves wholeheartedly.  That is far from the truth.  I often get frustrated and angry with my students (I’ve already admitted to this short coming in the post “Why Am I Angry?“).  And as mentioned above I often feel like a complete failure.  I have left teaching twice; complaining about burn out.

It was in the midst of one of these low points that a former student of mine sent me an e-mail.  He was a challenging student that barely passed my class.  I was tough on him.  He was charming and knew how to talk his way out of anything.  I would often tell him how important it was to study and work hard because high school teachers and college professors would not accept his lackadaisical attitude.  He always laughed it off.  Then, on the eve of his high school graduation the e-mail pinged in my inbox. My former student, who I hadn’t spoken to since he’d left middle school felt compelled to e-mail me about how important I had been to him over the years.  He told me I was right about everything: how hard he needed to work, how demanding his teachers were, and how important everything I taught him proved to be.  He let me know that he was going in the Air Force and on to college.   As I read this e-mail I began to cry and blubber.  I’d never received anything so heartfelt and sincere from a student.  It made my career choice seem worthwhile.  I felt validated.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling this story when the title of my post is “Give Back To Your Community.”  The answer is: teaching is my way of giving back.  I teach middle school and I work with the YMCA in their after school and summer programs.  My life is devoted to kids.  Again, this is not always selfless; but over the years I’ve realized how much I can affect my community by working with these kids.  My high expectations allow these kids to maintain high expectations for themselves.  In my life as a teacher I have found that ensuring my students become open minded and kind has been more vital than teaching them the subject matter of my class.

This is how I shape my world.  It has taken me a very long time to come to terms with the fact that I am an educator and I am good at my job.  Far too often I saw this career as a place holder in my life until I found what I “really wanted to do.”  Now I recognize that this is how I choose to give back and create a better world.  I know that sounds awfully grand and conceited, but it’s the small acts done by many people that make our world a better place.

So I ask; how do you give back?  What will your small act be? Where do you see room for improvement in your community that your involvement could help change?  It is cliche but Ghandi was correct, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  The first step is to get involved.  Volunteer at an animal shelter.  Read stories at a children’s hospital.  Donate clothes to a homeless shelter.  Help prepare meals at a soup kitchen.  Find your strengths and pass that along to others.  Encourage friends to volunteer with you.  My devotion is to education and my students.  What is yours?

I encourage you to comment here with your ideas for giving back to your community.  The more ideas that can be generated the more people will begin to implement those ideas; then the change happens quicker.

Namasté

Matthew

Being Present Can Vastly Improve Your Relationship

When I was in the world of retail I used to read leadership books for pleasure.  (I’m a nerd at heart and love to read.  My passion for reading is insatiable.)  One of the books that I enjoyed the most and actually learned a great deal from; specifically for my personal life, was Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations.  The main reason I liked this book was Scott’s insistence that being present in conversations, no matter how challenging or difficult, can vastly improve your relationships.  Scott came to this conclusion through research.  I came to this conclusion through my Buddhist studies.  Fierce Conversations just help me cement what I was already beginning to understand.

In the book Scott uses a personal example of a husband and wife that asked her advice about improving their relationship.  The husband, like many in the past and present, complained that all his wife wanted to do was talk.  It bothered him that she wanted to have a conversation about everything.  He complained to Scott, “How can a conversation help a relationship?”  Scott’s response was simple and eye opening, “The conversation is the relationship.”

I literally read that sentence over and over again.  “The conversation is the relationship.”  It’s simplicity was beautiful.  It’s brilliance was stunning to me.  If you aren’t invested enough to have the conversations that create the relationship, you aren’t invested in the relationship.

Now, keep in mind that Scott writes for those in the business world with the understanding that the advice she offers can easily spill over into the personal lives of her readers.  Her strongest advice is to remain present in the conversation.  She advises business leaders, husbands, wives, children, to stay in the moment of the conversation.  As I read her book the connections to Buddhism just kept clicking into place for me.

I’ll admit it can be diffcult at times to stay in the moment; especially with all of the distractions life has to offer.  My biggest challenge is detaching myself from my cell phone.  I am terrible about picking it up while out to dinner with friends or finding an excuse to use it during conversations.  I recognize that this has to change for me to remain in the moment with loved ones.  But ultimately it is a simple fix; keep the phone in my pocket or leave it in the car.

The more difficult challenge to staying in the moment is shutting off your mind.  As we all know our minds can go in a thousand different directions just performing every day tasks like reading, making dinner, or worse, driving.  How many of us have gotten to our destination and not remembered any part of the journey? (Guilty)  We also know that it’s so easy to remove ourselves mentally from the moment and lose the entire thread of a conversation.  The first step is, as always, to recognize and acknowledge that we are checking out of the moment with someone we care about.  The next step is the hardest: remain present.

How do I do this?  I ask myself this question quite often.  How do I keep my mind from taking its mini holiday when someone else is speaking?  One of the most helpful techniques for me is looking the person in the eye.  This is challenging for me, at times, because eye contact can be intimidating.  But it improves my relationships twofold.  It helps me remain with the conversation that is happening with the person in front of me (who is important to me).  It will also adds a level of intimacy between me and my partner.

The remaining step is to actually listen.  Actively listen.  I try not to think about the next thing I’m going to say; no matter how brilliant I think it’s going to sound.  I do my best not to jump ahead of my partner to try and figure out the path of the conversation.  I stop and listen.  One way I attempt to ensure that is to breathe.  As with meditation my breath becomes my center point.  I also lean in so my partner knows I’m are truly listening.  When a natural break occurs in the conversation I repeat the finer points and ask questions that help further my understanding.  Above all I avoid letting myself get distracted.  Nothing is more important than this moment, right now.  I want my partner to feel this.  The more they feel that from me the stronger my relationships grow.

Buddhism is all about living in the present moment.  We cannot worry about the past and it is foolishness to stress about the future.  The now is all we have.  It is the same with the relationships we develop and nurture.  If I constantly dwell on what my partner did, said, or what I believe they should have said I start to feel resentment.  I don’t like to play scenarios in my mind about what my partner might say or how they will react to what I’m going say.  It paralyzes me and then I don’t have an open conversation with my partner.  Instead, I focus on the moment I’m in.  Even the hard conversations can be beautiful and nurturing when I show I care enough to stay in the moment and see the conversation through to the end.  Am I always successful?  Most assuredly not.  Do I do my best to recognize my shortcomings?  Yes.

Ultimately life is the connection of small moments linked together.  Stay in the moments.  Live them.  Nurture them.  Send your love into every moment you inhabit and you will strengthen every relationship, no matter how temporary or permanent.

Namasté

Matthew

Can Diet Programs Be Buddhist In Nature?

Now, let’s start by admitting that many of us diet so we can look good in our bathing suits and feel better about ourselves.  There is nothing wrong with that, but too much focus on the outer appearance and feeding our ego is not in line with Buddhist teachings.  I’ll admit that my venture into the world of weight loss was fueled by a desire to look better but also a desire to nurture a healthy body.  It is the latter that I wish to focus on.

At my heaviest I weighed 215 pounds.  I am only 5’9″ and as you can see from the picture I was overweight.  I was at a friend’s house when I stepped on their scale and saw the 215 pound truth staring me in the face.  Needless to say I broke down crying and sat on the floor for several minutes before I could compose myself again.  I mean, so what that I’d been feeling like I didn’t fit in my body.  So what that too much walking winded me.  So what if I had avoided going out because I was ashamed.  After reading that scale though, I couldn’t avoid it any longer.  That’s when I decided to take my weight loss seriously.  That of course means I waited another month and a half before I went to see my doctor.  I talked to her about weight loss and the related issue of severe acid reflux that I had been suffering of late.  She told me that one of the easiest ways to fight acid reflux is to eat less.  If you stuff your stomach it leaves no where for the excess acid to go but up.  This seemed quite logical to me, so I made a conscious effort to reduce the amount of food I was eating.

It was difficult at first to tell myself to stop.  But I did it and within two weeks I was eating 1/2 of what I’d typically eat.  Around that time I returned to my doctor for a follow up visit and discovered I’d lost 12 pounds.  To me that was a miracle.  I hadn’t changed what I ate, just remained focused on how much I ate.  This was when I started going to yoga on a regular basis.  I was going like it was my new religion.  Three to four days a week were spent on the yoga mat sweating the pounds away.

I wanted more.  I wanted to keep the pounds dropping.  So, after watching Jennifer Hudson, literally, sing the praises of Weight Watchers, I joined.  It was extremely helpful.  I downloaded the app so I could process my points anywhere.  I bought a scale to measure out food amounts; I bought into the program completely.  I drank the Weight Watchers Kool-Aid and it only cost me 2 points.

I found I enjoyed the process and even more I enjoyed losing the weight.  But, what got me thinking about weight loss’s connection to Buddhism was the attention I pay to what I eat. On the program I mindfully plan my meals.  I weigh out every ounce.  I eat more slowly. I am cognizant of every morsel that goes in my mouth.  I can recognize when I am shoveling food into my mouth and I am aware when I need to put the fork down and step away from the food.

Devout Buddhist monks have an even more strict version of Weight Watchers (no I am definitely not comparing myself to a Buddhist monk).  When they arrive in the monastery they are given their robes and a small bowl.  Each meal they eat must fit into the small bowl.  It is the only amount they can eat.  Many monks will even go as far as begging for their food to fill their bowls and they will only eat one meal a day.  This limitation on food is not so they look more attractive in their robes; it is to ensure their mindfulness while eating.

This is why diets can prove successful.  When you are mindful of your intake you lose the weight.  When you cease being mindful the weight creeps back on and you go on another diet.  This is why so many diet programs (or lifestyle changes as they prefer to be called now) focus as much on how you eat as what you eat.  There is a great book called In the Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore that talks about taking life more slowly and deliberately.  The suggestions in the book regarding food are to put your fork down between each bite.  Make sure you don’t eat alone, in front of the tv, or playing on your cell phone or computer.  The more social the atmosphere the less likely you are to shovel the food into your mouth.

The slower you eat the more mindful you are of your “fill line.”  It takes the stomach roughly twenty minutes to signal the brain that it is full.  If you are mindlessly eating and shoveling you are packing 20 minutes of extra food into your stomach.  Pay attention and slow down.  Trust me; it helps.

Mindfulness is the most basic tenet of Buddhism.  We practice the mindfulness of breath, the mindfulness of walking, and yes, even the mindfulness of eating.  The key to so many aspects of our life is to slow down and pay attention.  Be in the present moment.  It can improve your relationships, your work quality, and even, I posit, your weight.  My favorite quote from Thich Nhat Hanh is, “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.”  Such a great way to remain aware of the present moment we are living in.

Namasté

Matthew

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Are Unlimited Choices Our Best Option?

We love our choices; more than love, we demand them.  Especially those of us that grew up in the heart of Western Culture.  Look down any street in any town and you’ll see restaurant choices, grocery store choices, tech store choices, even choices for your Super Stores.  That doesn’t even cover the choices you have once you walk inside these places.  

Are we overwhelming ourselves with choices?  Here’s a story to help you decide.  Now, before I tell it, remember that I was told this story in a college psychology class.  The details may be a little blurry, but the gist of the story is what’s important.  After Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, left the company, presumably to enjoy some sort of retirement, he was called back in the nineties to help the company he founded survive bankruptcy.  What he found was Wendy’s was offering its customers too many choices.  The menu was one of the largest in the industry.  Now, Dave Thomas had a close particular knowledge of this issue, because he had been brought on at KFC several years prior and found they were in the same predicament.  When Dave came back to Wendy’s his first task was to limit the number of choices on the menu.  That, of course, is not the only way Dave Thomas brought his company back from the brink, but it was one of the largest contributions he made.  It was clear to him that customers were becoming confused with the number of choices they were given and they chose instead to stop dining at Wendy’s.  When the choices were limited customers came back and Wendy’s is now one of the top fast food chains again.

Another way choices can overwhelm is a little more close to home for many of us; the world of dating.  There are so many choices it isn’t even funny.  There is speed dating, meeting in bars, meeting through friends, online dating, and so many more.  The online dating world has sites for Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, Hindus, not to mention those over 55, those under 35, those that are hipsters, those that are straight, those that are gay and lesbian.  If you can imagine it there is a dating site for it.  There are now apps for your phone where you can find the person that is the closest in proximity to you (if you can’t be with the one you love; love the one you’re near?).  It was into this world of choices that I delved after my break ups.  In the beginning it was exciting because I was the newest guy out there; so many people wanted to talk to me.  Then, as choices grew and I was online for a while, I became less interesting and less popular.  Then I fell into the dating trap.  Someone would ask me out, or I would ask them out and we’d go on a date or two but nothing would come of it.  I didn’t understand.  We both seemed to have fun when we were together, but neither of us made much effort beyond that.  

Then the apps and the websites updated and became more “user friendly”.  You could now flip quickly through photos of potential matches.  If you weren’t satisfied with someone’s nose, or their eye drooped slightly, or you didn’t like the way their mouth twisted downward when they smiled, you could move instantly on to your next choice.  While I was sitting one evening doing this very thing it hit me, of course no one can find the right person, they’re too busy wondering if they next choice will be better.  

How can we ever know if the choice we are making is right if we’ve already moved on to the next choice?  How can we ever get to know the person we are with if we are not in the moment getting to know who they are?  We cannot be worried about all of the different choices in our lives to the detriment of the relationships we are trying to nourish.  Choices are ours and it is important for us to have them, but it is important that they do not overwhelm and overtake us. Do not let go of someone or something amazing because you think that you should have made another choice.

The husband who leaves his family because he thinks being single is a better choice for him.  The wife who leaves her husband because she believes she made a terrible choice.  The couple that does not choose to work for their relationship because the choice of not trying seems easier.  Wondering what the future with someone else could be like and spending our time dreaming of other choices we could have made disconnects us from those in our lives that are there now.

I am not saying that you will not move on from one another.  People come and go in our lives after we have learned the lessons they are meant to teach us.  And some remain a constant. But do not give up on who is in front of you for a “what if”.  Times get tough, relationships hit rough patches, but looking for the escape hatch has led us to the highest divorce rate in the “civilized” world.  Stay in the moment together.  Nurture your shared pain.  Make decisions together that are best and positive for you both.  Work toward each others’ highest good.  Don’t give up on something that has been amazing because the choice of not trying seems easier.  Do not try to bring back the past, it is gone.  Do not try to live in the future, it is not here yet.  All you have is the now.  Live there; it is all you have.

Namaté

Matthew