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.

Do You Like Yourself?

How do you begin to repair your life when you don’t like yourself very much?  Many new age and positive affirmation gurus can often be heard saying, “How can you expect someone to love you if you don’t love yourself?”  My question goes even further: How can you love yourself when you don’t even like yourself?  This sets you back even further.

This question could easily be seen as the over dramatic rant of an attention seeking masochist.  But it isn’t.  In fact, I suspect it is the foundation of the psyche of many of my fellow human beings, whether they are consciously aware of the fact or not.  It can be seen in the choices we make.  The unhealthy, destructive, or abusive relationships we hold onto because we only want someone to “love” us.  The lack of fulfillment we experience from our lives; career, hobbies, relationships, etc.  The excess weight we can’t lose, the excuses we make when our passions are ignored.  Can you recognize this in your own life?

I’ve experienced them all.  Some of them I’m still experiencing.  So often we are shocked by the truth we have ignored.  It lashes out at us when we least expect it.  Like a frightened caged animal.  We do anything to feel better about ourselves.  Which usually equals more poor choices made.  These choices are often addicting.  We make a choice, we feel better, momentarily, and then the feeling is gone.  We seek to recapture that feeling with further choices that do not lead to our fulfillment.  It becomes a vicious cycle. Repeated one night stands, gorging on food, spending money, drinking too much, illicit drugs, whatever your emotional drug of choice may be.  The high is always followed by an even deeper low than you were catapulted from.

Sadly, I do not have the answer to loving or liking myself.  I know that all I have been learning over the past year and a half is a light unto my path.  Mindfulness is the key.  I cannot allow the despair that I so often feel become the lock to my prison of self-loathing. Each day must be a further step to liking myself.  Each day must be a choice made not to accept my further self-destructive behaviors.  Let mindfulness be your guide.  Allow it to give you pause long enough to make the choice that leads to your higher purpose.  Each day you can learn to like one part of yourself.  Each day that you can make a choice that serves your higher good is a day closer to the ultimate prize of finally liking and loving who you are.

Stop, be mindful, make the choice for your higher good; start now.

Namasté
Matthew

What Right Do I Have?

First, I have to start this post by saying, I am living a blessed life.  I have never truly wanted for anything.  There has never been a night where I’ve gone hungry (being 40 pounds over weight proves that).  I have always had a roof over my head.  My mother was able to get me through college without me having to take out a single loan.  I have a career, I own a house, I have a family that loves and supports me, and have a great group of friends that are always there when I need them.  I. Am. Blessed.  (I just wanted to reiterate that.)

So, who the hell am I to be depressed?  I’ve spoken in many of my posts about my depression.  I am on medication, yes.  I do, from time to time, feel overwhelmed by the sheer weight of my depression.  But, what right do I have?  I have everything I could possibly need.  How do I allow depression to take such hold over me?  As a teacher I have borne witness to the lives of my students.  I have heard stories from them that have made me go home and cry.  I have listened as they tell tales of suffering that no human should ever endure, sufferings that I could never come close to experiencing with the strength they have mustered.  So, again I ask, what right do I have to allow my depression to hold me hostage?

Science tells me that it’s nothing I should be ashamed of; we cannot expect to conquer a chemical imbalance in our brains.  So, I should be ok that I often feel lonely without a “partner” by my side.  So lonely, that the empty feeling in my chest threatens to rip me open and reveal a heart unworthy of love.  So, I should feel ok that some days I don’t feel fulfilled in my life.  I worry about losing the people I love.  This is selfish when people are losing their loved ones every day.  Children lose their parents, husbands lose their wives, fathers and mothers lose their babies.

My thinking needs to reversed.  Perhaps it is not chemical imbalance in my brain.  Perhaps the imbalance comes from my way of thinking.  One of the major tenants of Buddhism is that human beings suffer because they desire and grow attached.  As I’ve learned and practiced my Buddhism more, I have struggled with how, as a human being, I can work, and make money, and own a house, and want a partner but do it all without desire and attachment.  I have obviously not learned the lessons completely or I don’t believe I’d still suffer from the depression that often grips me.  But, isn’t the first step recognizing the issue and working from there.

My desire to be loved causes me to suffer.  Whereas the gratitude I should show for the people that truly love me already, we heal this suffering instantly.  The desire for a new more lucrative and glamorous career mires me in pain that I would not need to endure if I could recognize and be grateful for the lives I shape every time I step into a classroom. The fact that Buddhism, as a faith, has been teaching the cessation of desire and attachment for the last 2500 years does speak to its staying power and validity.  Now it is time for me to embrace these teachings further, to rid me of my scourge of suffering.

The compassion I feel for my students that are in pain makes me stronger and hopefully offers them some solace.  The gratitude I feel for the friends and family that love me and whom I love fills those empty spaces in my chest.  Going forward, every time I hear myself say, “I want…” I will change that to, “I already have…” and fill that in with someone or something I am grateful for. And when the loss I so desperately fear comes, I will be grateful for the love they gave and the love I will always feel.  I will fight this chemical imbalance by putting my thinking and my compassionate love into balance.

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

Discipline

I have come to realize recently that I have no discipline.  I take on so many tasks and hobbies thinking I will love them and they all peter out.  I’m so gung-ho but have no follow-thru.  I don’t know if it’s that I lose complete interest or if it just loses the “fun” for me.  I think if I knew the answer to that I’d have a better understanding of why I can’t hold on to my infatuation with a new ambition.

I have had three major undertakings of my life fizzle out in 2013.  I began the year with a subscription to Rosetta Stone online.  I was determined to learn Italian.  I’m still determined to learn it; how, I’m not sure since I rarely go on the site anymore.  It began as a grandiose dream to one day reside in Italy.  I’ve had this dream for years, since I first saw the movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun.”  I have devoured every travelogue about Italy I can get my hands on.  It is my favorite subject.  I even had hopes of moving to Italy this year for work, but that fell through.  I sat with that disappointment and saw my desire to learn Italian diminish.

That’s not a fair statement.  My desire to learn is still quite alive.  My desire to do the work that goes along with it has diminished.  I’ve begun to think of myself as lazy or possibly incapable of actually following through with something, no matter how much I love it.  I end relationships, I stop my healthy eating and living, I have faltered in my writing, all but extinguished my yoga practice, fell behind on my ambitions to be a stronger teacher.  To me this all leads back to my lack of discipline.

What is worse I overwhelm myself with disappointment over my fall from each of the pedestals I’ve placed myself upon.  I began this blog and had so many hopes for what it would become.  I started like gang busters.  A post written every two days.  Then it was once a week.  Once a month.  Now I have to talk myself into writing.  I still have ideas.  I still want to write.  But the thought of actually doing it depresses me.  It’s the same with yoga.  I began practicing yoga 3-5 times a week.  I lived for it.  When I had a bad day yoga was there to pull me up.  The yoga transitioned me into my Buddhism.  Now?  The last time I was at yoga was 6 weeks ago.  The desire to go is there; the will to actually get off my ass and do it…poof…disappeared.

My meditation practice has fallen away as well.  I used to sit daily for 20-30 minutes.  Now, I just light the candle on my alter and nothing.  Yoga was my meditation.  Sitting before my alter was my meditation.  Now, I have nothing.

I have been on medication for anxiety and depression for a few years now. It’s nothing I’m ashamed of, it was a conscious choice my doctor and I made together.  My depression wasn’t debilitating it was more that I couldn’t get my mind off the depressing thoughts.  I have been much better since taking it.  But I often wonder if this lack of discipline is more rooted in my ongoing battle with depression than it is with my inability to follow through with my passions.

I wanted desperately to perform on broadway, to live in Italy, to be a writer, to follow my creative passions.  Every single time I’ve been thwarted by my own apathy.  But the secret here is, I’m not apathetic.  I am paralyzed.  Paralyzed that I will fail, paralyzed that I’m not any good, paralyzed that I will succeed and fizzle out.  These racing thoughts are what the medication is supposed to help counteract.  It doesn’t always.  So, I rely on my mindfulness to help.  Then the catch, I’m not practicing my mindfulness anymore.  I’m faking my way through my own life.  How do I get off this roller coaster and take my life back?

I have made so many lists for my New Year’s resolutions.  They were becoming overwhelming.  But I have dwindled it all down to one.  My resolution this year is to regain my discipline.  I am going to take control again.  Fear and depression will not stop me.  I don’t want to be held back anymore.

Just writing those words gives me a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach.  My inner critic starts chattering away about my past failures.  It is telling me I can’t.  “You will fail.”  “You have failed.”  “You are a failure.”  My inner passion must gain the upper hand here.  My confidence must win out.  That is my goal.  That is my drive.  That is my discipline.

Bring on 2014.  I’m ready.
Namaste
Matthew

There Will Be Times…

…when your meditation practice feels stunted. When your concentration falters every few moments. When you stare at the timer wondering to yourself why it doesn’t appear to be any closer to the end then when you looked at it three seconds ago. Does that mean you stop the timer, turn off the music, blow out the candles, douse the incense? My answer to that is no. You keep sitting. This lack of concentration can be a test to your practice. Can you continue to sit, even though you aren’t feeling successful? Can you lean into your feeling of failure and stay with the moment? You will never know if you get off your cushion before it’s time. As I’ve said in previous posts, you sit with the body and mind you have at this very moment. You do not try to make it something it cannot be. The more you force the more difficult and frustrating the process becomes. Sit with the frustration, see the practice to the end. Go back to your breathing as often as you need to (that may be every ten seconds and that’s ok). Once your practice has ended, contemplate where your challenges lie. If it’s one time that you are distracted, figure out what has you off kilter. Not enough water? Too much going on at work? Fight with a loved one? Too much caffeine? Too full? Too hungry? Headache, stomach ache, or other ailment? Then know for your next sitting what you need to change. If this is a continuing issue you will need to explore deeper. What series of challenges are holding you back from full concentration? What can you change? Are you sitting too late at night? Too early in the morning? Are you getting enough sleep? Is there a major project at work that you can’t get off your mind? Are you and your spouse fighting on a regular basis? There may be one or several issues that you will need to drill down into to ensure you can concentrate on your meditation. Even if the problem cannot be solved during this contemplation session, you still continue to sit in meditation practice. Do not give that up. Keep sitting, every day.

…when your relationships will feel unfulfilling. Does that mean you give up on friends, family, a spouse? No, you do not. You must sit with this feeling. You must get to the root of the issue. Where is this lack of fulfillment coming from? Are you not spending enough time together? Are you not spending enough time apart? Is your emotional life suffering? Is your sex life suffering? Where do you sense the problem lies? Everyone knows relationships take work. You cannot abandon them just because a snag has been hit. Your first step is to explore your feelings as they pertain to your unfulfilled relationship. If you cannot pinpoint from whence your own personal issues stem, then your partner, or friend, or loved one has no way of meeting you in the middle. Once you have ascertained your basic concerns and needs the dialogue must begin. Discuss everything openly and honestly, without judgement and without blame. And above all else, remain present in the moment. Remember, the conversation is the relationship.

…when emotions will over power you. Anger will spark. Jealousy will ignite. Depression will drown you. It is how you handle each of these that will effect you. Anger often stems from feeling out of control. When you accept that the only person you can control is yourself, then the anger diminishes. You will still have bouts of anger, but you will not let them control you. Jealousy often consumes because we wish to possess someone. The sooner we learn that we cannot possess anyone the easier our relationships will become. Life is filled with impermanence. The more you try to possess someone the more they will slip through your fingers like grains of sand. You must sit with this feeling of jealousy and find its root. What in your past has occurred that makes you wish to possess someone? Why do you desire to terminate their independence? You cannot be fulfilled if your jealousy is the only thing that forces someone to remain with you. Find where it comes from and work to change your perceptions. Depression often feels as though we’re drowning because it becomes all we can think about. Often depression is a chemical imbalance and there are many ways to combat that imbalance through therapy and medication (I utilize both myself). But, that is not the depression I am thinking about. I want to focus on the depression that occurs when we don’t get the promotion we wanted, or a relationship ends before we expected it to. Often times our depression grows from a disappointment of not getting what we had hoped. Buddhism teaches us that expectations cause suffering. If you were expecting to be the next vice president of your company and you are passed over, you suffer. If your spouse leaves you after your expectation was “till death do us part” you suffer. The question then becomes how do you battle these expectations. I remember the advice I was given over and over by my mentor when I was looking to be promoted in my retail job, “don’t worry about getting the next position, show how amazing you are at your current position, that’s when they’ll know you’re ready.” This proved to be great advice and has stuck with me, even as I practice now. We all want the best out of life, and I’m not saying don’t go out and try to get it. What I’m saying is don’t get so caught up in your expectations of how it has to be that you forget to give your best effort in the present moment. Don’t forget, it’s the only moment you have.

The key to each of the “whens” I’ve written about is to remain in the moment with each. Stay present with your meditation. Sit with the disappointments. Lean into the anger. Delve into your jealousy. Discover the root of your depression. Explore your expectations. Embrace your lack of fulfillment in your relationships. You cannot run away from any of these; they will give chase, they will catch you, and you’ll still have to deal with them. When you ferret out the root causes you will begin to find your way back to the right concentration you need. Don’t be afraid, it may be painful, but it’s worth the energy you put into it.

Namasté
Matthew