Taking Back My Spiritual Practice

As you may have noticed (or the bruise to my ego is more likely that it has gone unnoticed by all but me) I’ve allowed my writing to fall by the wayside.  What has become more disheartening to me is that my spiritual practice has also fallen into obscurity as well.

This didn’t register with me right away.  I slowly became aware of my non-existent practice gradually.  Ironically, in conversations with others, I had convinced myself that it was in full swing.  But, of course, this was not true.  I always find it amusing how the Universe finds ways of pointing out your hypocrisy.

When I was fully engaged in my yoga practice (3-4 times a week) and sitting nightly for meditation I was rarely angry, I had a consistent feeling of peace, and I was much thinner. But, slowly, I started going to yoga less and less, mediation became a thing of the past, and I have creeped back up past the 200lb mark.

It has been anger and discontent that have been the most telling signs of my fallen away spiritual practice.  It is, as always, most telling when I’m driving.  I freely admit that I inherited my father’s lack of patience, especially behind the wheel of a car.  But, it has multiplied to the nth degree in the past few months.  I find myself screaming at drivers for the most ridiculous reasons.  How dare they drive the speed limit.  How dare they pull out in front of me.  Could they possibly go any slower as they make that turn?  I often feel that these actions are taken against me personally (yes, my ego is highly inflated as a result of not practicing).

I can no longer ignore the signals the Universe is throwing my direction.  This week I decided to take back my life and reignite my spiritual practice.  No more excuses.  No more, “maybe tomorrow.”  It is time for me to take control.  I refuse to allow myself to continue wallowing in anger, discontentment, and depression.  Let the journey back begin now.

Lighten Up Your Resolutions

I’ve never been one for making New Year’s resolutions.  I didn’t bother because I knew I would just wind up breaking them.  Resolutions tend to be large grandios dreams of what we would like to accomplish.  They become so inflated and detailed that we don’t follow through on them.

This year I will stick with my resolution of not making resolutions. I will, however, take heed of how I will continue to develop myself mentally, physically, and spiritually.  These are my areas of mindful determined improvement:

1) Writing – I love to write, but I don’t do nearly enough of it.  My favorite yoga teacher, Lezlie Laws, writes in her blog that artistic time should be scheduled regularly.  One of my favorite posts of hers discussed the widely held assumption that artists shouldn’t be hampered by schedules and time tables.  I don’t know about you, but I work better when my time, whether artistic, personal, or professional, is meted out for the most efficient outcomes.  I will not schedule myself to the point of impossibility.  I will layout a reachable goal that will allow a strong writing habit to be formed and nurtured.  I have many writing objectives I’d like to meet, but I will start small and build from there.

2) Physical activity – I am working to lose weight and get my health under control.  Of late, I have complained about aching knees, acid reflux, migraines, and myriad other ailments. Some of these come from work stress, but just as much comes from being over weight and out of shape.  So, last week I began taking matters into my own hands.  I began the Couch to 5K training.  My first few sessions have gone better than I hoped for.  It was quite a pleasant surprise.  But, unlike most resolutions, I did not set a lofty unattainable goal for myself when it comes to adding physical activity into my life.  I HATE going to the gym, I feel self-conscious and lost.  I do, however, enjoy walking around the downtown area.  I’ve been doing that already for the past few weeks.  So, why not add in some running?  I’ve always said I would only run if a murderous clown was chasing me, but the Couch to 5K training app has really put things into perspective for me.  I have also been lucky enough to have a great group of friends go out running with me.  Just last night five of us went out running together in our own little running club.  It made the 30 minute session fly by.  Having these valuable assists along the way is helping build a habit quickly. I’ve also set a goal to run my first 5K in March.  This will help me stick with it.

3) Spiritual growth – Today I began 2015 with an hour yoga session followed by 30 minutes of meditation at my favorite yoga studio.  For me, yoga has always been a form of physical meditation.  The asanas and focused breathing allow me to remain mindful and present.  Following this with quiet, contemplative meditation was just an added New Year’s bonus.  Meditation is vitally important to me.  It is also the task I often allow to fall by the wayside.  As I mentioned in another recent post I frequently make the excuse of not having enough time.  As I’ve told you before one of my favorite Zen proverbs is, “you should meditate for 20 minutes every day, unless you don’t have time, then you should meditate for an hour.”  Daily meditation is a goal I am setting for myself this new year.  I will not force myself into a certain time of day, but I will build it into my schedule the way I will build in my writing.

What resolutions will you parse out and whittle down from the grandios pie-in-the-sky dreams to manageable obtainable goals and habits?  Start your new year off right.  Set yourself up for positive self-improvement.

Namasté
Matthew

Breaking Our Habits

I was sitting in yoga class tonight and my amazing instructor Lezlie was talking about our posture.  She was telling us that our habit is to slouch and round our backs in.  Now, I have heard her tell us this many times.  That part is nothing new.  But, the connection came when I began thinking of my own spiritual practice.  Recently I have been reading a great deal of Louise Hay and don Miguel Ruiz.  Both of these amazing authors and teachers discuss the way life trains us to react to the world around us.

Ruiz, in his book The Four Agreements calls life and our “domesticated” reactions to it “The Dream.”  Growing up we have built habits of how we respond to the world, based on the “lessons” we’ve learned from those around us.  These reactions become ingrained habits that become difficult to break.

Louise Hay also takes on our deep seated habits.  She deals with the emotional baggage we carry with us.  She believes that our negative outlook about ourselves and our lives can lead to “dis-ease” of the body, mind, and soul.

Each author has different ways to battle the habits.  Hay uses positive affirmations and Ruiz uses the Toltec teachings of the Four Agreements.  Now, this isn’t a blog post to extoll the virtues of these two amazing spiritual teachers.  I do recommend that you read their books and teachings, but that is not where we shall be stopping.

Let’s take this back to Lezlie’s comments in class and how that got me thinking.  I’ll admit, I often have bad posture.  But, since I’ve been practicing yoga I have become much more aware of that posture and how it affects me.  Awareness is the first step.  As I slouch, I gently (or as gently as I can remember to be) remind myself to sit up, straighten my back, and improve my posture.

But, my worst habits are from my own mind.  I became very aware of how cruel I’ve trained myself to be.  We were sitting in a twist pose that we haven’t done too much in my 3 years on the mat.  The gist of the pose is placing one leg over the other and you twist to face behind you.  Now, twists are my absolute favorite poses in yoga.  They stretch out my back and I feel amazing going into them.  My problem came when I was placing one leg over the other.  The leg on top just would not reach to the ground as it should have.  And, I found myself saying over and over, “you’re too fat for this pose, just look at you, it’s pathetic.”

I berate and belittle myself quite often.  This is one of the many things I am working on to improve myself.  And, I’ll admit that both Louise Hay and don Miguel Ruiz’s books are helping me a great deal. (OK, we’re getting to the habit part.) When I caught myself saying these things I wondered, does this poison I’m feeding myself come from a true belief that I am not good enough, or is it merely a habit that I’ve fallen into?

So, here I posit this theory: if I can begin to recognize that my cruelty that I harbor towards myself comes more from habit than true feelings, then I believe it will be easier to break these habits and retrain myself to speak compassionately and lovingly.

Smoking is a habit that many work to break and so many are successful.  Biting my nails was a long time habit.  Thanks to regular manicures I have broken that habit.  My Diet Coke habit has turned into a caffeine addiction. This I have not yet conquered, but I shall.  I do believe that my emotional self-cruelty habit is more toxic and dangerous than any of these. We must find a way to be compassionate towards ourselves.  So, if we are ever together and you hear me mumbling to myself, I am probably saying one of the positive affirmations that Louise Hay has been teaching me.

Awareness is the first step to identifying the habit.  Don’t beat yourself up because you caught thoughts roiling, unbidden.  These habits have been developed over the years and are deeply rooted in our psyches.  Be gentle and compassionate.  That is the key to breaking all habits.  It reminds me of one of my favorite quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This includes you.  Don Miguel Ruiz talks about being spiritual warriors to battle the negative aspects of the “Dream.”  Well, I am a spiritual warrior and I will battle every day to bring myself closer to my true amazing self.  Will you do the same?

Namasté
Matthew

What do I do for me?

I want you to stop and think about this question for a moment. Don’t continue reading until you’ve pondered it for at least one minute.

As many of you know I deal with depression on a consistent basis.  I need to insert a caveat at this point – I do not walk around my life in a cloud of depression.  I am on regular medication and thanks to my father I take some herbal supplements that help as well.  But, from time to time those things aren’t enough and I become mired in my own thoughts that drag me into a depression.

My recent bout, however, left me more bruised than in past times and I made a dinner appointment with my friend/therapist, Liz.  There are two people in my life that I can count on to give me no nonsense advice without sugar coating it, one of those people is one of my best friends, Justin.  The other is Liz.  Where Justin’s advice is often a hard slap across the face, Liz’s advice is more gentle but still gets directly to the point.

While we were eating she stopped me from talking and asked me a simple question “What have you done for yourself lately?”  I opened my mouth to respond to her but then realized I didn’t have an answer to that question.  I tried to play coy, “What do you mean?”   She smiled at me and said, “You know exactly what I mean.  What have you done for yourself?”

The pause was palpable.  I racked my brain.  What have I done?  I’ve been reading, but even that was diminished during my time in Purgatory with my depression master.  What had I done for me?  The answer was, “nothing!”

She looked at me, that smile playing on her face again, “You know, I’ve noticed you are less depressed and more able to be at your best when you take time to do things for you.”

Could it possibly be that simple?  Was my depression lessened when I took time for me? How is that possible?  Doesn’t Buddhism teach us to do for others?  In fact, doesn’t all religion tell us to do for others, sacrificing ourselves in that pursuit?

Please understand, I am by no means a religious martyr.  But, as a teacher my job is to give of myself, as a friend my hope is to give fully of myself, as a brother and son my desire is to give fully of myself.  And, I do endeavor to do just that.  So, what is this about doing for me?

It was a logical and plain idea.  Many psychologists have talked about the need to refuel yourself emotionally and spiritually.  Even Oprah has touted the necessity.  I am loathed to admit it but my emotional and spiritual tanks are on empty.  They still aren’t nearly full enough.  As I looked back at the recent months I completely understood where Liz was coming from.  I’d stopped going to yoga, I was just too tired.  I’d stopped meditating because I wanted to  try to sleep.  I stopped writing because it was mentally exhausting for me.  I even stopped reading my spiritual books and put them aside for books of a more secular nature.  I wasn’t doing a damn thing for myself and my batteries were drained.

It’s been about a month since that meeting with Liz and I have made some positive changes.  I’ve been reading some great books by Pema Chödrön and Dr. Wayne Dyer. I’ve joined Weight Watchers, I started running (though found that my knees have NOT liked that idea).  I’ve also shared my love of yoga by teaching it at my school a few times to teachers and students.  (I knew things were bad when I gave up yoga.)  And though I have not started back on a regimented mediation schedule, I have been taking more time to stop and breathe and be mindful.  I call these my mini-meditation moments.  It works for me and as a former English teacher I love the alliteration.

Am I still struggling?  Yes.  Am I on the right track?  Yes, again.  Now, I want you to think back for a few moments.  What do you do for you?  Maybe you don’t feel depressed, but I know you feel stressed.  Stress attacks us on many fronts.  It could be the joyful stress of expecting a new baby, or a wedding.  It can also be emotional stress; the change of a relationship status, the loss of a loved one.  There’s also physical stress, feeling tired, overwhelmed, ill.  These things take a lot of our strength, often without us even knowing it. So, what do you do to make sure you are replenishing your batteries?  Take some time for yourself, each day.  Even if it’s just for twenty minutes.  I guarantee it will help.  It’s helping me.

Namastè
Matthew

The Value of Pushing Ourselves

Often we are afraid to move out of our comfort zones.  We fall into a rut and find comfort there.  I have gone through many days, weeks, months, and even years in the trance I was lulled into by eating at the same places (still guilty – I love you Chipotle), traveling the same route to work, and setting up my schedule so I follow the same routine every day.  There is some value in routine.  As a middle school teacher I have learned that routine is what most children need.  For the lower income students that I teach routine can be the only form of comfort they have.  However, as adults we easily lock ourselves into “comfort” and allow life to pass us by.

I began thinking of this blog post last week when I decided to step up my yoga game.  My friend and I typically attend the beginners yoga class on Monday and Wednesday nights.  I have aspirations of becoming a yoga instructor for children some day.  So, I posed the idea of attending the earlier class that is more advanced.  I’ve been practicing yoga for almost two years now, I was ready for this next step.  Boy, did that moment of confidence get blown right out of the water.  It was one of the most difficult yoga classes I have experienced.  Within fifteen minutes my heart was pounding to the point I thought it would explode.  I stopped often, dropped to the pose of the child, and I would put my hand over my heart to ensure it didn’t burst out of my chest.  I couldn’t believe how difficult it was.

Now, yoga teaches the practitioner to listen to their body and not push it beyond its limits.  This is true.  A good yogi knows when the body needs a break.  At the same time no benefit would come if we did not push ourselves beyond our comfort limits.  I would not have lost forty pounds if I gave up when it got tough.  Pushing myself is one of the many things I’ve loved about practicing yoga.

Pushing ourselves is evident in the fitness and health industry.  There is a great Gatorade commercial (though I am a Seminole, I give credit where due) in which many physical activities are undertaken with a coach, player, or supporter continually yelling, “one more!”  This is the perfect commercial to show the success that can be gained by pushing yourself physically.  If you go to the gym but never work yourself into a sweat and achieve muscle exhaustion you won’t experience the benefits.  When dieting if you don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone of overeating the “unhealthy” foods you cannot lose weight.  When looking for recognition or a promotion at work, we have to step out of our comfort zones to improve our performance.  To experience life we have to step out of our comfort zones to travel beyond our city, our town, our neighborhood, or our four walls.   To live a fulfilling life, we must push ourselves beyond our routine contentment.

It is no different with spirituality.  I grew up Roman Catholic.  I wore my Catholicism like a badge for many years.  Even today if you asked me what my religion was my knee jerk reaction would be, “I’m Catholic.”  I have often found comfort in the rituals and traditions of the the Catholic faith (most especially the rosary, which I still carry with me to this day).  But, I was an unfulfilled Catholic.  I didn’t find a connection with what was being preached each week from the altar.  I couldn’t understand why I was considered a bad Catholic if I didn’t believe that Mary remained a virgin her entire life.  And I certainly couldn’t fathom why I was going to hell based on the gender of the person I chose to love, especially since Jesus’s primary teaching was love.  But, I found comfort in “being Catholic” and couldn’t find my way out.

During my time in college I became a religion minor.  I loved learning about all different religions, the major, the minor, and the ones considered “out there” by many.  I slowly began to cherry pick my beliefs.  This worked for me for a long time.  It wasn’t long before I no longer considered myself Catholic or even Christian.  I actually took the opposite view and began seeing Christianity as a hate filled religion that tolerates nothing outside of it’s narrow thoughts.  I would study and dabble in the new spirituality I was learning.  And when the question was ever asked, “what religion are you?” I’d take a deep breath, screw up my courage and proudly say, “I’m Catholic.”

I can happily say I’ve pushed myself beyond my narrow and biased view that ALL of Christianity is evil.  There are zealots that give it a bad name, just as there are in every religion.  I have known and still know many amazing Christians.  But, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and can now admit my true beliefs (and this blog has helped me in that).

Now when asked, “what religion are you?”  I can proudly answer, “I’m a Buddhist, sort of!”  I find much joy in Buddhism, but I still love cherry picking in my belief system.  So you see, there is a great deal of value to be found in pushing ourselves.  Step out of your comfort zone.  “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”  This is the only way you can have a life truly lived.

Namasté
Matthew

Yoga As Meditation

As you have read in past posts meditation has not come easy to me. It is something I still struggle with. Even tonight as I sat it was very difficult for me to remain in the moment with my practice. However, I have come to terms with many of the issues I was having with meditation that were holding me back. The moment I knew I could finally meditate was when I realized that the yoga I was doing three to four times a week was a great form of meditation.

From the moment class begins the entire focus is on your breath. My yoga teacher even goes as far as saying, “if you do no other pose during class, but you are still breathing mindfully, you are doing yoga.” Those yogis reading this may not agree one hundred precent but I love this statement. This reminds me that just as in meditation, the breath is paramount to all things. Yogis are encouraged to focus on the breath which leads all movement during practice. If the breath is lost or cut off; back off of the pose. The same is true in meditation. When the mind begins to wander and the breath is no longer the focus, nor is the present moment; back off of the thoughts and return to the breath.

In yoga there are resting poses that can be returned to when the yogi is completely out of breath, losing focus, getting frustrated, etc. The foundational pose in yoga (please understand that is from my perspective and my practice) is Samasthiti. It begins each yoga class. Feet together standing straight up, shoulders back and down, and hands with palms together at your heart center. Yogis are called to Samasthiti at the beginning of class. From this pose the breath becomes the focus. No further pose is attempted until the breathing comes in line. It is the same with meditation. You cannot move into a deeper form of meditation until the focus is ready. This is done by breath awareness.

As mindfulness develops and meditation moves into deeper practice, if concentration wavers, the practitioner always returns to the breath. This is similar to the pose of the child and simple seated pose in yoga. These poses are designed to allow the yogi time and space to regain their breath so they can rejoin the practice. Then of course comes the mother of all resting poses, Shavasana (the corpse pose). This is the final pose in yoga where the mind is released, the body is relaxed, and the yogi lets go. It is complete relaxation. It is in this pose that I often repeat mini-mantras I use when I meditate. “Breathing in I calm my mind. Breathing out I smile.” I also will each part of my body to relax. This gives me an even greater focus on the now. I mentally move to each part of my body and invite the hands, the feet, the chest, the pelvis, the shoulders, the stomach, etc. to relax.

So, we have the focus on breath. Important? Yes. It is the grounding that is necessary in yoga and seated meditation. It is also the way to refocus both practices. You cannot meditate if you are holding your breath and you cannot do yoga without the breath either. How else is yoga a form of meditation? Without your full, focused, mindful attention throughout the practice you will not be a successful yogi. I have allowed my mind to wander many times in yoga. During the standing series I often will lose balance, even in the simplest poses. Forget about trying to hold an actual balancing pose. When I teach yoga to my middle school students I remind them over and over again how important it is to keep their minds focused on the poses (especially the balancing ones). You may also notice that as your mind wanders so does your breath. And, once the breath is lost so is the proper practice of yoga. The yogi then returns to the breath through one of the resting poses and then begins again.

The key to both sitting meditation and yoga as meditation is to not beat yourself up when your mind wanders. You are not incompetent. You are not the worst yogi or meditator on the planet. The fact that you are on the cushion or on the mat makes you the greatest (though many yogis and Buddhists would say greatest denotes positive versus negative and those are not recognized in the practices). The point I’m trying to make is; come back to the mat as often as you can. Come back to the cushion as often as you can. Do your yoga at home and go to class to gain a sense of community. The same is true with meditation. Meditate at home but join a sangha or community of meditators to help you gain further insight into your practice. Each time your return to your mat or sit on your cushion with the mindfulness that is required to practice; you are meditating. And every time you meditate or practice yoga you are improving and that is all you can ask of yourself.

Namasté
Matthew

 

The Value of Teaching Children Mindfulness

yoga

yoga (Photo credit: GO INTERACTIVE WELLNESS)

This summer I worked in a middle school camp.  I taught yoga to a group of students that you would think would be uninterested.  A group of “baseball jocks” that fought to be my assistant during our daily yoga practice.  By the end of the camp each of them knew the names of the poses I taught them and could successfully lead a thirty minute yoga practice without assistance from me.  I was proud that I had instilled this love of yoga into these boys and the few girls who came to my classes.  They were focusing on their breath and on the postures and they were taking it seriously.  However, once they left the class, all their mindfulness was forgotten; as is expected with kids.

 

 

But, I began to become aware of a bigger issue overall when it came to mindfulness and how important it can be for our kids.  During lunch and after the program ended for the day we would sell snacks to the students.  I admit that these were not healthy snacks.  They consisted of ice cream, chips, candy, sodas, more candy, beef jerky, and even more candy.  The kids would shell out a dollar each for these sugary and salty treats.  Kids would come to the counter with a $10 bill and spend the entire amount.  I watched kids buy a soda, gulp it down in under a minute (not an exaggeration) and walk to the back of the line to purchase another.  They didn’t even taste the soda.  They would pop five or six peanut M&Ms into their mouths chew a few times and swallow.  Snickers bars would be eaten in less than five bites.  Kids do not, naturally, know how to go slow and savor.

Admittedly this is not just a concern with kids.  Adults do not move slowly and savor. But, I firmly believe that the mindfulness gained from slowing our eating process down could go a very long way in battling our country’s growing obesity epidemic.  I make that statement based on my own battle with weight.  When I mindlessly shovel food into my mouth the pounds creep on.  When I worked for nearly a year to lose forty pounds, my major strategy was to eat slowly and enjoy the flavors of what I was eating.  I found as much joy in a 1/4 of the portions I had been consuming mindlessly.  It takes as much as 20-30 minutes for your body to completely process satiety.  Your stomach takes that long to tell your brain, “hey, I’m full, stop shoveling it in.”  If you are not paying attention and eating too quickly you won’t know when to stop until you feel you are ready to explode.

Now, to turn this back to our children.  By teaching them a few tricks, we can teach our kids to slow down and enjoy their food and they won’t need as much. The kids that drink their coke in under a minute and are grabbing for another are not even noticing the taste of what they are drinking and on top of that they are packing on empty calories.  One trick I taught myself to stop guzzling or shoveling was to put down my glass or can between each sip.  This also works when eating.  Put your fork or spoon down on the table between bites.  To take it even further, share with your kids that they should place their drink or utensils down for 3-5 beats or bites.  In all honesty, this was a difficult task for me to learn and I have to remind myself often to do continue doing it.  But, if you begin instilling this habit in your children early it will become ingrained.  When the fork isn’t poised to bring another mouthful to the lips then flavor can be experienced.

Play a game with your kids.  Once they put the fork down, have them chew and savor the food that is in their mouth.  Then, have them describe the flavors to you.  Don’t let them talk with any food in their mouths; this will also ensure the slower eating.  In the beginning it’s ok if it’s a few simple adjectives.  Then, as they become better at it, ask them to be more descriptive (as a former English teacher I love the idea of teaching kids to be descriptive).  Do this when they drink as well.  What are they tasting?  The more time they spend thinking about what they are eating and drinking the slower they will move, the less they will eat, and the fewer pounds they will pack on.

Another great thing you can do with your kids is go on a walk with them.  Go through the neighborhood and get their perspective.  What do they see?  What do they hear?  Have them get in tune with their own mindfulness.  What do they feel when they walk?  What do they smell as they move through the neighborhood?  Ask them questions.  Listen to their answers.  This will not only help them be aware of their surroundings; it will get them active and moving.  If you make it another game they won’t feel as if you’re forcing them to exercise, they’ll see it as something fun.  Then physical activity will become second nature.

The joys of mindfulness are not just for Buddhists or yogis, they are for everyone.  We can all benefit from going slowly, staying in the moment.  Enjoying our food, enjoying the company we’re with, and enjoying our children’s perspective on life.  A slow mindful family dinner or walk will also allow you to make a stronger deeper connection with your children.  It will also form a great habit that they will ingrain in their own children in the future.  Start your kids on the path to mindfulness now; you won’t regret it.

Namasté
Matthew

365/259 "Mindfulness means...", Sep....

365/259 “Mindfulness means…”, Sep. 16, 2011 (Photo credit: ConnectIrmeli)

 

 

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

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

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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