Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Get Yourself Into a Pickle!

One of my favorite things about living in Morocco was the family of sheep and goats that lived under my rooftop quarters. They were noisy as hell and didn't smell great, but there was nothing more satisfying than taking out my food scraps and seeing them happily devour them, without a crumb wasted. That plus the fact that there were no plastic bottles, cans, or packaging meant that my total waste from eating was essentially nil.

These days, I often end up with a situation like the one pictured here. I made a lasagna and salad for dinner, but I didn't need a whole cucumber, zucchini, or carrot to make the meal. So I had these halves left over. I usually try to put them in the refrigerator with the hope that I'll eat them in the next few days but that rarely happens, and I usually end up throwing out rotting, soggy halves of vegetables I really meant to eat but never got around to.

That was, until I found out how to make pickles!

Pickling is easy and fun. You don't need any special equipment, but if you have a chance, pick up a cheap pickling jar like the one shown in the photo above. It's a glass bowl with a heavy glass top that adds pressure to the pickles as they sit in the brine. But more on that later. For this batch of used veggies I decided to make two kinds of pickles. The first batch will be regular vinegar style and so I'll cut the pieces small, along with some very thin strips of ginger for flavor.

This type of pickle brine usually calls for:
1/2 cup vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2/3 teaspoon salt
ginger cut into small strips

But here's my secret if you don't want to bother with all that. Sushi rice vinegar! It has just about the same proportions of sugar and salt as the recipe and it's all already mixed. It works great but you might want to cut it with a little water if you don't like too sour a taste.

Put the cut vegetables in a bowl and, with your hands, rub them with about a tablespoon of salt.

This is part of the magic of making pickles. Getting the water out of the vegetable and replacing it with the yummy stuff.

After rubbing in the salt for about a minute, leave the bowl for 15 minutes... and...

... you'll see that the salt pushes the water out from the veggies. Separate the water and vegetables and it's on to the last step.

Gently squeeze the vegetables with your hands, kind of bruising them so that the vinegar will be able to get into all the nooks and crannies. Then place them in your bowl or pickling jar.

For the best effect you'll need a heavy lid that presses down on the pickles. The weight of the lid will draw even more water out from the vegetables as water is lighter than the vinegar. As I said before a 12 dollar (1300 yen) pickling jar is great, but if you don't have one I'll show you how you can make your own in the following recipe.

Now with the vegetables under a bit of pressure all you need to do is wait at least 24 hours. If you want the pickles to be eaten much later you should cut the veggies into bigger pieces. If you want to eat the next day, keep the size small and thin.

This recipe will give you a really typical "pickle" taste.

This time I decided to make another batch with a spicy chinese flavor.

3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
(or as before just use sushi vinegar for the last three ingredients)
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 small red pepper or red pepper flakes
ginger cut into small strips

Prepare the water, oil, and vinegar mixture.

Just as before you want to bruise the veggies a little by lightly hitting them with the flat side of a knife or something like that.

Mix the vegetables into the vinegar mixture and be sure to coat all the surface area on them.

If you don't have the special pickle jar you can just use two bowls that fit inside each other like this. To get the weight you need for the proper pressure, you can fill the top bowl with water or, like I did here, just put an onion or whatever heavy thing you have laying around in your fridge inside the top bowl.

So here are my two pickles. Regular on the left, and spicy Chinese style on the right. I'll put these in the refrigerator overnight and they should be pretty tasty tomorrow!

The next day, here are the regular style pickles. They really shrunk overnight and are packed with flavor now!

And here are the spicy pickles. Yummy!

Add a bowl of rice and I've made a meal out of what yesterday I was thinking about throwing out because it would probably end up rotting in my refrigerator. It's no substitute for a goat, but making pickles is a simple, tasty way to reduce your waste! Enjoy!


Yoga Garden

Friday, November 09, 2007

What Riding a Bike in the City Can Teach You

One of my favorite things about living in Japan is not needing a car. I have never been interested in cars, and I don't really enjoy driving. Sometimes Japanese people will tell me that one of their hobbies is "driving", but for me speeding down an asphalt road in a big hunk of metal with other bigger hunks of metal just inches away also moving at high speeds, it's just not my idea of relaxing.

Instead, I ride my bicycle just about every day of the year. I can get to any part of the city in under a half hour on my bike, often faster than a car. And over time I've learned a lot from riding a bike. These lessons also apply to a well-lived life, and so I'll share them with you now!

Lesson 1: Get off the rails! Back in the early 90's when video games didn't have a lot of processing power, there was a genre called "Rail Shooters." In these games you had a spaceship or a dragon or something, and you were traveling along a path through a stage, shooting at the bad guys. You could move up and down, and strafe to the left or right, but these only gave the illusion of freedom. In reality, you were just on a rail, like a Disney world ride. Here's one of the more egregious examples, StarFox.

Needless to say, these games sucked, and were eventually replaced by games in which you could fly any direction you wanted.

Driving in a car is very much the same experience for me. You're stuck on a track, looking through a big sheet of glass, watching the world go by like so much background scenery in one of those rail shooters. And you can't even shoot anything. Well, you could, but it would end up being a short trip.

On the other hand, on a bicycle the city becomes your playground. Everything is open to you... One-Way streets, red lights, back alleys, jogging paths, shopping streets, these all add to the fun. There is room for variation and creative solutions. I'm sure everyone has had the experience of driving, slipping into a kind of hypnosis, and snapping out of it, finding you have arrived at your destination without even remembering the trip. This has never happened to me on a bicycle. The mind is alert, working, and solving problems.

I think some people kind of have a life on rails. They've locked themselves into situations at work or at home where variation is impossible. Starting the studio was one way we tried to bring more freedom into our lives. Maybe for you the solution doesn't have to be as drastic as opening your own business, maybe just starting a new hobby, going to a place you never thought you'd like, or just putting the left sock on first will be enough to get the brain juices flowing again?

Lesson 2 : When seeking a goal, be flexible and keep the overall picture in mind. Let's say I want to ride my bike to Yokohama station. I always have in mind the arrival point of Yokohama station, but how I get there is not set in stone. For example, if I hit a red light (that I can't blaze through) I'll happily take a left or right and cross the street at another point when the light goes my way. Or sometimes it's just the opposite. The light will be green and it will look like a good chance to get closer to my goal, but by taking the light at that point I'll hit a mass of businessmen getting off the subway which will ultimately take longer than passing on the green and using another route. I've found that what looks like the most direct route on a map is often not the fastest.

When you have a goal, it will rarely turn out that everything goes your way and you can zip right to it. Be ready to take some right turns. Just because your not moving directly towards it doesn't mean that you're not still moving towards it! And also be wary of easy chances for quick gain at the expense of the overall destination point.

And lastly, speed isn't everything. Sometimes I will choose a longer route because it goes down a tree-lined street, a lively part of Chinatown, or past some graffiti I like. Enjoying your life is the ultimate goal after all!
Lesson 3 : Not being attached doesn't mean you don't try. I have written a lot in this blog about the Buddhist idea of "non-attachment" as the key to lasting happiness. But sometimes people take this to mean a laissez-faire approach to life in which you just float along in a kind of haze. That's absolutely the wrong way to approach this, and I've found a great illustration of this on my bicycle which I've been eager to share with people.

On one of my usual bike routes, there is a long street from which you can see the traffic light at the end from really far away. This happens to be a long light without any of those options to zig-zag that I discussed above. So, I can see from a few hundred yards that the light is green. I know that if I pedal hard I have a chance to get across, which will really help me out, as I can get to my destination faster and get on with my day.

So I dig in and go for it, weaving through pedestrians and narrow street like an X-wing through the Death Star. And sometimes I make it through just as the light turns yellow, but often the light turns red before I reach it, and I'm stuck at the corner.

Now here is where the attachment comes in. If I've really built up the idea that I'm going to make the light, get to where I'm going early, have more time to do my stuff, and therefore have a more fulfilling and relaxing day, when I hit the red it's a little upsetting, I might even curse under my breath. On days when my mindfulness isn't really engaged this often happens. But, on a more mindful day, I'll miss the light, and just let it go, coming back to the present moment (as opposed to that fantasy where I got there early and had a more relaxing day) and enjoy the sun, look at the things in the window of the corner shop, and watch the people on the other side of the street going about their day. Much healthier!

But you'll notice that in both situations, I still pedal hard to make the light. Being non-attached to outcomes doesn't mean you just throw in the towel and meander through the streets. Go for it! But if it doesn't go your way let it go just as easily as if you had made it. This is really tough and if you're like me you'll often find yourself almost faking non-attachment, saying to yourself "I didn't really care anyway" when inside you're still churning about the incident. Those times when you honestly and completely let go of attachment are so wonderful and good signs of progress!

Lesson 4 : Don't invest too much in the vehicle. I've never spent more than 120 dollars on a bicycle. Bikes get stolen, run over, and break down, especially the way I ride them. A bicycle or a car is just a way to get somewhere. Maintain them, be good to them, but don't cling to them.

Of course this is also a Buddhist idea, often formulated as "Leave the raft behind." The Buddha didn't want his followers to be attached to him or his practice too much. He compared the Buddhist path to a raft you use to cross to the far shore of a river. When you get there, you would be crazy to pick up and and start carrying the raft! You leave it behind, for it has served it's purpose and is no longer useful. This same light touch should be applied to our spiritual path, whatever it may be. As we can see any day from reading the international headlines, investing too much in your particular religion leads to violence and bloodshed.

However, some people take this to mean that their bodies are also just another vehicle that we shouldn't spend too much time on. Ascetic philosophies stresses this point a lot, with the idea being to transcend the impure, worldly body in favor of the pure mind.

For me, this is a serious mistake. You aren't a little person inside your head "driving" your body around, able to transcend it if you try hard enough. You are your body. I'll say that again, You Are Your Body. Your brain and the rest of you are completely interdependent. Taking care of your mind/body is the single most important thing you can do in your life. Part of this means exercise, part of it meditation, healthy diet, stress reduction, good sleep, and surrounding yourself with a good community of people.

A great way to get a headstart on all of those things is getting out of the hunk of metal with wheels and into the open air on a bicycle! So, see you on the roads, I'll be the one pedaling past you as you wait in traffic!


Yoga Garden

Monday, October 22, 2007

Where I've Been!

Hey all, sorry for not updating in so long. I've been spending a lot of time producing our videos for YouTube which you can find here. Check them out, give them a rating (rate it even if you hate it!) and leave a comment if you feel so inclined!

I'll be back soon with a real update and news from Yoga Garden!


Yoga Garden

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Yoga in Yamashita Park

Thanks to everyone who came out early to enjoy the earth and sky at our yoga in the park event. It was so popular we'll do it again next month! Check the homepage for information!

Yoga Garden

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Stop Saying This to Me!!!

I usually don't complain about things, but today, I'll share with you something that gets under my skin and has been happening a lot recently.

I meet somebody, I say, "Hello, what's up?"
They say, "Not much, how about you?"
I say, "I'm cool, thanks"
They say, "That's great, but you look so tired."

"Oh, you look so tired" I must hear that 4 or 5 times a week. I think I hear it more than most people because of a simple genetic quirk which you can see in this photo from my childhood:

Now in this photo, I am two or three years old, and you can see that I have little wrinkles under my eyes, with some dark shading under the wrinkles. I can assure I was not a tired, overworked 2 year old, and that this stuff under my eyes is just part of my face. Here's a more recent picture of me, and you can see I've kept the baggy eyes...
So I understand why people think I "look tired." And I think that usually the speaker is trying to say that I am a hard worker and it's good that I'm busy. But let's just think about the two possible outcomes of saying, "Oh, you look so tired"

  • Situation 1: You really are tired, you've been working your ass off, or your sick, or you're having some kind of tough emotional situation and you're not sleeping well. In which case, do you really want to hear that you look as bad as you feel? Would you ever say to someone struggling with their weight, "Dude, you look fat?"
  • Situation 2: You're actually feeling pretty good. Maybe like me you have baggy eyes, or you went to a great party the night before and are still feeling good. So you're bopping along, and suddenly you hear "You look so tired", which basically says, "You sure don't look as good as you feel." So you're thinking, damn, if they say I'm looking tired when I feel good, I must really look like crap when I'm actually tired!
So you can see that in either situation hearing the news that "you look tired" is a total downer. In both cases the net feeling is a (-). So why say it at all? I present now an alternative, which is to find something positive to say. Someone's always got a good point going on, be it their hair, their clothes, something good that has happened to them recently, or just the fact that you're happy to see them. Let's look at the situations again.

  • Situation 1: You feel terrible. But someone says, "Hey, that shirt really suits you." All of a sudden your whole mindset changes. Yeah, you're life is going down the toilet, but hell, you've got a shirt that really suits you! You're actually pretty damn cool.
  • Situation 2: You're feeling great. Someone says, "Those shoes are awesome, where'd you get them?" You're feeling even better! Of course she likes your shoes, what's there not to like, you're such a hip and happening person!
So, either situation results in a positive (+) outcome, just from a few kind words.

Of course we all know this. From childhood we're taught the lesson that "If you can't find something nice to say don't say anything at all." But I would like us to take a less school-marmish approach to this rule of thumb.

Really, it's all about Right Speech, one of the tenants of Buddhism's Eightfold Path to wisdom. Right Speech is much, much subtler than being honest, or not gossiping. It's about being aware of the implications of your speech, however small. In itself, "You look so tired" is not a mean thing to say, in fact it could come from a place of compassion. But we need to step back and try to consider how our words will be heard from the other end, like we've done in our Situation 1 and 2 above. This is moving towards mindful speech, which, if practiced daily, will transmute into Right Speech.

We all have our own communication styles that hurt others without us even knowing it. For example, when I am teaching a beginning yoga student I give them a lot of encouragement and positive feedback, but as they progress and get fitter and more flexible, I give them more criticism and technical details. As a result, one student told me recently that in fact he felt he was getting worse, when just the opposite is true, simply because I hadn't told him how great he was doing recently.

So let's pay a little closer attention to how our language affects those around us and try to introduce as many (+s) into the day as possible!

Now I'm going to sleep, cause, man... I look tired.


Yoga Garden

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Thanks For a Great Event!

Hi everyone, I just wanted to say thanks for all the people who came out this July 1st to celebrate 2 years of Yoga Garden! I'll let the pictures do the talking!

And if you're interested we made this short video on the veranda after the event!


Yoga Garden

Friday, June 15, 2007

10 Days of Hunger

This weekend I am entering a karate competition. Like most combat type sports karate tournaments have different weight classes, and I entered for the 65 kilos and under division. The thing is, I paid the entry fee and everything before I actually weighed myself. I roughly knew my weight, but that was from 6 months ago and in pounds, so my sensei brought in a scale to double check. A week and a half ago I got on that thing and it said... 67 kilos.

At first, I was like, "pshaw, no problem," because when I wrestled in high school I could lose 2 pounds overnight just by not drinking any water and spitting into a bottle a lot. Then it hit me... the damned metric system strikes again! 2 kilos over actually meant 4.4 pounds of heaviness! And 10 days left! In the language of my old wrestling days, I needed to seriously "cut weight."

When I wrestled, I had the hardest time with weight control. Like most teenagers I guess, just the fact that someone said I couldn't do something (like eating to my heart's content) made doing that thing just so irresistable. So it was doubly hard to diet. But I always made weight. One time I slept with my window open in the middle of winter because shivering helps shed a few extra ounces.

I decided this time wouldn't be any different. I was going to make weight. Besides, it was a perfect chance to try something that I had been thinking about ever since I heard of it, the CR diet. CR stands for calorie restriction, and it has been around since the 1930's. I won't go into detail but basically scientists found they could double lab animals life spans by restricting their diet to about 30% of what is considered normal. So imagine every meal you had today, and just eat one third of it. 1/3rd of that piece of toast, 1/3 of that spaghetti, 1/3 of that salad. Of course I am doing CR a disservice by describing it like this, in reality it's not just a matter of eating less, but of using your limited calories on the foods that will complete your nutritional needs. This funny, well balanced article describes the process very well and is full of good links if you're really interested.

So I decided to do "CR light" for 10 days, basically, choose healthy things and eat about 1/3rd of the usual amount. Also, I decided to only drink water to take off the extra sugar calories from the juices I usually drink. So, for the last week and a half I have been eating; for breakfast, half a piece of bread and an egg, for lunch, a vitamin bar, and dinner (when I have dinner), raw tofu with green onions and soy sauce. And if I get really hungry I will break down and buy a cheese stick. Mmm... string cheese...

At first it was hard as expected, but within 7 days I had lost the 4 pounds, and learned a lot of things about myself and my relationship with food, which I will share with you below.

  1. Being hungry isn't so bad. When was the last time you felt really hungry? I mean, not just a little rumbling in the tummy, but real gnawing hunger. I don't know if it's because I'm older now or because of zen training, but this week it didn't really bother me. It was just another feeling, which, if I didn't cling to, wasn't so terrible. Of course being chronically hungry is terrible and will kill you. But for just a few hours before my small cube of tofu, it was actually kind of a good feeling, a very alive feeling. Try it, you might see what I mean.
  2. Food is matter. Before, I just thought of food as stuff to eat. But when you start seeing a bannana as something that weights 30 grams, you get a new appreciation of it.
  3. I also learned that I spend a lot of time thinking about, preparing, and eating food. Suddenly, on this CR diet, I had so much free time! Before, I would spend 1 to 2 hours buying, cooking, and eating, but these last ten days that has all been condensed into about 30 minutes. That's at least an extra hour a day. I got so many things done that had been on my to do list for months. Plus, when you're hungry, you don't just want to sit around and feel hungry. You find something to do. Folding clothes, cleaning the toilet, catching up on emails, etc...
  4. I saved a lot of money. I didn't really think about this when I started, but cutting back to 30% of your regular caloric intake means cutting 70% of your grocery bill. And when a 120 yen block of tofu gets you through 3 dinners, the savings add up quick!
  5. Eating less actually gives me more energy. We have this kind of mentality that food equals energy, like adding gas to a car. But your body has to work hard to get energy out of that food, and, well, that can make you tired. Staying lean seems to strike a better balance betweeen the amount of work needed to break down food vs. the amount of energy gained.
  6. My sense of smell "improved". I put quotes around "improved" because I think that because I was often hungry I just noticed smells much more than usual. Biking around Yokohama there are so many delicious foods to smell! At first I kept thinking that it was a holiday or something because everyone seemed to be making so many wonderful smelling dishes.
  7. When you've lost some weight the desire to binge gets less and less over time. I thought that, like highschool, I would be spending all my waking hours fantasizing about food. But this time, the thought of an overly large meal just makes me queasy. I enjoy the small amounts I can eat, and when they're finished, I seem to just be able to let it go that I don't feel totally stuffed like I used to.
  8. And, of course, when the only thing you're going to get to eat for lunch is a nutrition bar, mindful eating becomes really useful. Small bites with many chews not only allow you to feel more full, but you get to truly experience the flavors of each morsel. If only we could eat like that all the time, obesity wouldn't be a problem. After about 30 minutes of working on just a small piece of food you don't want anything else!

Now I don't want to get a flood of emails about how I'm turning anorexic here. Let me be clear that after weigh-in on Sunday I will return to my normal diet, more or less. This was dreamed up entirely as a temporary kind of mindfullness training for myself, and not recommended for just anybody! However, my 10 hungry days gave me a lot of information about the role that food played in my life, and I am much better for having experienced it. My theory is, that, as organisms, we are suppposed to be hungry sometimes. Just as we are supposed to be happy, sad, bored, and excited at other times. It's an essential part of life, but a part that most of us in the modern world hardly ever feel. In the future my challenge for myself is to listen to my body, not the clock on the wall, for when it is time to eat something.

There are now more overweight people in the world than hungry ones. Technology has given us a huge gift, the ability to not worry too much about where our next meal comes from. We need to learn to control this power. Just as we try not to blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, we should avoid eating ourselves into the ground. So, next time your out and about, treat yourself.... skip a meal!


Yoga Garden

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Where the #$^% Are My Grounds!!!?

A few days ago I returned from a short trip to the US. I got back to Yokohama around 4:00 pm and had appointments straight through until 9:30 pm that evening. So I did all that and it was about 10:00 and I remembered that I didn't have any food in the apartment because I had cleaned out the refrigerator before my trip. So I went by the only place open at that time of night, a store with the implausible name of Don Quixote.

If you don't know, Don Quixote is like a very small Walmart on crack cocaine. The ten foot high shelves are literally sagging under the weight of anything anybody might want to buy. Steering wheels, kitchen knives, weight loss pills, ropes for bondage sex, dehumidifiers, disco lights, food... it really is an amazing place. The thing is all of this happens under a cacophony of thundering mismatched music. I guess in an effort to keep things funky, in place of a central music system they just put stereos on top of the shelves every 20 feet or so and turn those things up. And all the stereos play a different CD. So, it's like Heavy Metal, Japanese Rap, Balinese Gamelan music, all kinds of crazy #^&* punctuated every once in a while by the shrill maniacal Don Quixote theme song, sung by a Japanese woman trying to do a cabaret riff with the lyric "Don don don, don don, don Qui-ooooooote!"

So, I had been awake for like, 28 hours, and I just wanted some bread, milk, eggs, and coffee so I'd have something to eat for breakfast the next morning. I just wasn't feeling the Don Quixote ambiance that night so I tried to get out of there as quickly as possible, I grabbed the last bag of bread, a small milk pack, a half dozen eggs, and a bag of coffee that would get me through the next few days until I could get something better. I blistered through the place, hopped on my bicycle, and got home around 10:30. I didn't even brush my teeth, just went to sleep.

Fast forward to 4:00 am the "next" day. I'm laying in bed wide awake. Ah, the joys of jet lag. But I wasn't too upset about it because I had a lot to do and figured I might as well take advantage of a wacked out body clock and get some things done. So I stumble out of bed in the dark, turn on the lights, turn on the computers, put a coffee filter in the coffee maker, put some scoops of the coffee I bought the night before in the coffee filter, turn on the coffee maker, and go to the bathroom for all that morning stuff you have to do.

When I came out of the bathroom the coffee was almost done, and I noticed that it was a really thick and black. But I figured that would be as good as anything considering my exhausted/wide awake state, so I added my milk and sugar, and went to catch up with my emails.

But let me tell you, that coffee tasted nasty! It was too strong to drink. I kept telling myself it wasn't that bad, and got through about half a cup. But then I got to thinking that I had bought a new brand the night before and it must have stronger beans or something. I must have put too many scoops in. So I decide to try again. I got out the coffee, opened the compartment to take out the old filter, and what do I see? Nothing.It was just an empty filter. There weren't any grounds in it. There weren't any grounds anywhere. Not even along the sides where you can find them if the filter breaks or something. It was as if the water had gone through an empty filter and come out strong, sludgy, black coffee. So, I was a little freaked out. Sometimes, trying to be efficient, I take the used filter out just after the coffee is done and throw it away while it's still hot. Had I done that this morning and forgotten about it? And put a new filter in? But wait, the filter in the coffee maker was wet. So the water must have gone through that filter. But where the #*$& were my grounds!!? Maybe they had all been sucked into the coffee maker. Great, I'd probably have to get a new one. That would explain the bad taste at least. So I'm like turning the coffee maker upside down trying to find the grounds. Nothing. The only other answer had to be that I had actually taken out old filter, threw it away, put in a new one that had somehow gotten wet in the process. But I didn't remember doing that.

I felt like I was losing my mind. So I actually searched through my garbage can, looking for that original filter with the grounds. Nothing. So finally I'm just standing at the counter in the dark, in my boxer shorts, 4 am, totally paralyzed. Was I still dreaming? I always thought it was so stupid when people say that in movies, but I'll be less hard on them now, because when you're in a situation where nothing makes sense that "Am I dreaming line" becomes the only rational explanation. And if it was a dream, it was the realest dream of my life, and if I was going to have the realest dream of my life, why in the hell would I dream about this.
After a while I found the bag the coffee had come in, and everything became clear. In my sleep deprived state, I had bought instant coffee at Don Quixote. It came in a bag and looked just like regular ground coffee, but the back clearly showed an illustration of the coffee being stirred into hot water. So I had put instant coffee in the filter, the hot water had mixed in, and the whole shebang had dripped through and left a wet empty filter.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, I hope it's not too much of a stretch to say my early morning misadventure parallels the entire human experience. Most people, at some point in their lives, feel that something is missing. We have a million different ways of saying it. We're searching for meaning, for happiness, for the perfect job, for our destiny. We're trying to become a good person, a more peaceful person, a more important person. We're trying to get rich, or feeling guilty for trying to get rich, or feeling guilty about feeling guilty for trying to get rich.

This searching for that missing thing is neurotic. It makes us do strange things, like searching through the garbage at 4 in the morning. I would argue that every misery, jealousy, and violence stems from someone feeling like they needed something that they couldn't find. And here's the real kicker; that thing we are looking for is easy to find. My coffee grounds that I couldn't find anywhere were actually dissolved into the coffee I had been drinking. I had them the whole time.

So however you call it, peace, wisdom, god, happiness, whatever, take a few moments from time to time and ask yourself how much of it is already here. I'm not pitching the lame "don't take things for granted" line. The whole, "those summer days of my junior year, they were the best days of my life" crap. What your looking for isn't always sweet. Sometimes the coffee tastes really gross. But once you know you already have what you're looking for you can take some real action. For me, once I had a clear understanding of what had happened I could get out of the trashcan and get on with my day. Some people call this calm, clear understanding mindfulness. If you want to get some more of that in your life then go here.

Thanks for reading.

Yoga Garden

Sunday, April 01, 2007

My Little Friends

It's spring! Warm weather, blooming trees, life is everywhere. And that includes bugs.

People have a strange relationship with bugs. There is an instinctual fear of insects, which I think comes from the fact that they seem so different from us. Too many spindly little legs, small beady eyes, scary waving antennae. And they are so small, and so unlovable.

This difference in size and cuteness results in a lot of squishing. And some people take pride and joy in the squishing, especially of mosquitos and cockroaches.

But here's a different perspective. This is a chart of all of the Kingdoms of life today. Please enlarge by clicking on it if it's hard to read.As you can see, there are three main Superkingdoms, The Bacteria, Archaea, and Eucaryota, within these are the regular Kingdoms. Humans, of course, are on the Animals branch (animalia). Where are the insects? Surely they must be pretty far from the animals, maybe even another Superkingdom...?

Actually, they're Animalia too! So on that big tree, with all those lines, we and the insects share the same little branch. From this perspective, we're practically cousins.

One of the ideals of Buddhism is to reduce suffering in the world. Killing a lifeform results in suffering, so naturally Buddhists try to avoid killing stuff whenever possible. Notice that the phrase is reduce suffering and not eliminate suffering. To be alive is to cause, (and receive) suffering. Even as I type this, my immune system is killing viruses left and right. Everytime I wash my hands I kill off thousands of microbes and bacteria. And of course, sitting down to a healthy vegetarian lunch includes the decapitation of a head of lettuce, tearing away the life giving umbilical cord of a tomato, and ripping some poor carrot from it's underground home to be cut up into little pieces on my chopping board.

Of course, you could stop eating, take a drug to suppress your immune system, and never wash, but then you would die, which would just be more suffering.

This gets to the idea that to be alive is to participate in suffering to some extent. But we can make choices that reduce suffering in small ways. I think it's safe to say that chopping up a head of lettuce results in less pain than chopping up a cow.

Anyway, vegetarianism is a blog for another time, what I want to talk about here is bugs.

Don't squish bugs! Even gross ones. They didn't do anything to you. Take a closer look at them, and you'll see that they are amazing little animals that are really loveable once you get used to their little quirks.

I know this sounds crazy to some people, and these are the usual objections I get to my "don't squish bugs" sermon.

  • Insects are dirty. Actually, there are more germs in the human mouth than on a cockroach or any other bug. Cockroaches, for example, are really quite clean animals, on par with a cat.
  • Insects are pests and parasites. It's true, many insects use you for their own purposes. Dust mites eat your dead skin, mosquitos incubate their eggs in your warm blood. But let's put this into perspective. Jonas Salk, the man who developed the polio vaccine, once said "If all the insects on earth disappeared, within 50 years all life on earth would disappear. If all humans disappeared, within 50 years all species would flourish as never before." Who is the real parasite? I'm not saying that we should be exterminated, Matrix-style, just that in the big scheme of things, we take a lot more from this planet than that mosquito takes from us.
  • It's just one bug, what's the difference? This is true, squishing that bug doesn't make any difference. But challenging yourself to have compassion for even small ugly creatures will have a big effect on you. And it feels good when you take an extra 30 seconds and help a lost bug get to the outdoors!
I'm not trying to say bugs are more important than humans. The last time I killed a bug was in autumn when one mosquito had bitten me about 12 times all over my face, and had kept me up for about 2 hours. She was resting on the wall, full of blood, and I smacked her with a book. But before that smack I really thought about what I was going to do, and after it I wished the bug the best, and, now I know you'll think I'm losing it, but I shed a tear or two for her.

So, yes, if you run a risk of catching malaria, or if termites are going to destroy your home, or if locusts are going to kill your crops, do something to get rid of the bugs. But don't just squish them because they're there. We're all in this together on this floating blue ball in space, show some kindness to our little relatives this spring!

Yoga Garden

Monday, February 26, 2007

Lessons of the Jacket

I don't know why, but ever since I can remember, I have favored scruffy, beat-up clothes. My grandparents almost disowned me a few times for getting my new white tennis shoes intentionally dirty on their first trip out of the house. If I had a shoelace that could come untied, a shirt tail that could come untucked, or a sweater that could be stretched out, you can bet what would happen. Haircuts also remain one of my least favorite activities.

Gwen, however, loves the sheen of new things, which is one of the reasons we get along so well. We happen to wear the same size shoe and usually fit into the same jackets, so traditionally, when she wears out a cool pair of sneakers I get them, nicely broken in and looking sufficiently scruffy. With this system I have only bought two new pairs of shoes in 7 years! (At times, however, the system stings, like when my bicycle was stolen, so Gwen got a new bike and gave me her old rusty one)

Well, last Christmas, Gwen and I were doing some painting in the studio. It was cold and we were wearing our jackets inside. Gwen leaned up against a window frame, and when she turned around, skunklike, she had two streaks of white going down the back of her one year old down-filled Columbia Sports jacket. Ha ha, she was mad! But I knew that before the winter was up that jacket would be on my back! And the two streaks down the back were just the kind of character I like in my clothes.

So, I was really happy. That jacket was warm, light, and looked cool on me. And one of the best things about it was that in addition to a standard zipper it had magnets sewn into the lining that automatically went together. So, if you were just going out for a short trip you just let the jacket button itself up with the magnets. It even came with a hood that snapped on and protected you all the way up to your nose with mess free magnets. It was the coat of the future, and it was going to be mine, all mine, as soon as Gwen figured out that it was going to impossible to get white wall paint off of a dark gray polyester jacket.
So, this winter, as the weather turned cold I reached for Gwen's old Columbia jacket which she had of course passed on to me. Little was I to know that it would also be my curse.

It started with one of my bank cards, which suddenly wouldn't work in the ATM. I didn't think much of it, applied for a new card, and went on with my business. Then it was my point-card from the supermarket, and then my credit card which stopped working. These things were happening a few weeks apart so I didn't really put it together. One day the key to the yoga studio, which is kind of like one of those hotel key cards, stopped working. I took it to the landlord, and they explained sometimes the keys lose their magnetic charge. They recharged it, but a few days later it stopped working again. I figured the guy didn't put a strong enough charge on it the first time and took it back. After just two days the studio key stopped working again, on the same day as another bank card, all of which was on a busy Tuesday when I had to pay rent and do a dozen things before going to my second job. It made an already stressful day unbearable.

I went to the bank to try and get yet another new ATM card, my number was 316, and the current number was something like 290. I was really frustrated and trying to think about what was messing up all my cards. Was my apartment in the middle of some kind of high voltage zone? Was someone trying to steal my bank information from a remote scanner? Maybe it was the Suica train pass scanner that I used to get through the train gates, didn't those idiots know they were erasing peoples' data!!? Someone needed to write them a nasty letter!

So I was sitting there, stewing, when I noticed the metal chain that attaches to my wallet was sticking to my jacket. I had actually noticed this many times, had even played with it sometimes, seeing how hard I had to pull to make the chain come loose from the magnets in the lining. But this time I really noticed. Metal chain. Magnetic coat. Erased magnetic data. Could it be? The magnets in the coat were so small. And it's not like I went around rubbing my credit cards against my jacket.

Still I decided to pay close attention to the jacket in relation to my wallet (the studio key is also attached to my wallet by the way) For the next few days I tried to take note of how the wallet was interacting with the jacket. It wasn't long before I was paying for some groceries at the supermarket when I saw it.

The cashier was handing me some change, which I was going to put in the change pocket of my wallet. But having only two hands, I was pressing the wallet against my chest to better open the change compartment. See picture below...
...thereby pressing all the cards and my key right against the magnets, anytime I got change. And it was happening more and more often as the winter went on because I was wearing the jacket more and more. Mystery solved. I stopped wearing the coat, put on some extra layers, and haven't had a problem since.

What does this have to do with anything? Strange as it sounds, that jacket taught me a lot. Here are some of the lessons of the jacket, from least to most profound.

  • Beware of shortcuts in life. Having magnets on my jacket saved me at most, 1 minute of zipping up during the winter I wore it. Contrast that to the 5 or 6 hours I spent replacing cards and keys during the same time. The same thinking applies to the time you "save" eating fast food, in relation to the weeks or years that kind of food will ultimately cut out your life with visits to the doctor and time in the hospital.
  • Learning to love long lines. It was at about this time, when I was spending hours in lines to replace my erased cards, that I heard a zencast podcast with Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal in which he talked about how waiting in line is a great time to just be happy in the moment. He said when someone says to you "Sorry to have kept you waiting" try saying "Please, don't apologize, I was enjoying just sitting here." Sounds cheesy, but it really worked for me and continues to take the stress out of waiting in lines.
  • Finding some "bells of mindfullness" in daily life. In some styles of Buddhism, when you go on retreat sometimes they will ring the bell at a few random times throughout the day. When you hear the bell, you quietly stop what you're doing, take a few deep breaths, and come fully into the present moment. And of course, if you do this several times a day the mindfullness seeps into your actions even without the reminder bell. In that period when I was trying to figure out how my jacket could be affecting my bank cards, every time I was wearing the jacket and had my wallet out I was paying close attention, and, without planning it, I was coming back to the present moment. The wallet/jacket combo was a bell of mindfullness that rang a few times a day. Some other ideas I've heard include being mindful: everytime the phone rings/ everytime you stop at a red light/ everytime you hear the jangle of your keys/ everytime you hear a police or ambulance siren/ everytime you wash your hands/ everytime you hear your new email signal/ everytime you see a baby/ everytime you see a Volkswagon Beetle/ everytime you turn on a light. Really it's up to your imagination. Just make sure it's not something that happens too frequently or infrequently. About 6 times a day is good.
  • The universe is not malignant towards anyone. At my most frustrated I was actually entertaining the idea that someone was tampering with my wallet just to spite me. As soon as I figured out that it was my jacket, all that outward directed anger evaporated. In her book Everyday Zen which I was rereading at the time of all of this, Charlotte Joko Beck gives us a great image. Imagine we are out on a foggy lake rowing our new boat and having a wonderful time. Suddenly, out of the mist, another boat comes straight towards us and we collide. At first, there is a lot of anger. "Look where you're going! I just painted this boat! Don't you have any sense!" But then we see through the fog that the other rowboat is empty. In a flash all of that anger is gone, and we immediately relax. "Oh well. Stuff happens. I'll just have to repaint it." Joko Beck's point is that all of the interactions we have in our lives are with empty rowboats. If a child kicks you in the shin, or someone lets you down, none of these things are attacks against you. It's just the universe playing itself out. To go around constantly feeling put upon is not only useless, but sends your stress levels through the roof, and makes others around you suffer. So when things don't go your way, remember how crazy you look yelling at an empty rowboat.
All of these lessons from a piece of outerwear! Truly, wisdom is open to us every day and in every thing. Just be open and ready to hear it, and for heaven's sake don't always hold your cards so close to your chest!


Yoga Garden

Saturday, January 27, 2007

My Thoughts After the Chakra Workshop

I'm not sure when this change started happening to me, but every year I am becoming less concerned about what is true, and more interested in what is right.

Today we had a Chakra Workshop at the studio, and I eagerly attended, as I don't know much about that aspect of yoga and Indian spirituality.
I know a little more now, and I will try to explain it, in the absolutely non-technical and poorly referenced style that drives my discussion group members crazy in my graduate school program.

According to the Indian tradition, our bodies are kind of conduits of energy. Energy is divided into two types, the cool, feminine, moon type, and the hot, masculine, sun type. In our bodies these two wavelengths of energy come together in 7 places.

The interaction between the two energies creates a swirling wheel (actually a funnel) of concentrated energy. In Sanskrit the word for wheel is cakra, which, which over time becomes Chakra.

The 7 Chakras each have a different area of the body, mind, and spirit, to take care of. For example, the base Chakra...
...has to do with our basic survival and security instincts, while a few Chakras up the Heart Chakrais the agent of love, compassion and healing. (If you want to know more about the exact function of each chakra, you can check this excellent site out)

With stress, unresolved emotions, poor diet, bad habits, etc... one or more of the Chakras can become "blocked", I guess meaning it doesn't conduct the energy very well. So, if you're having trouble saying what you mean, your throat Chakra might be out of wack.

And that's only the preamble. If you succeed in really opening all of your Chakras, through a variety of methods you can begin to tease out your spirit's true power, which is visualized as a coiled snake at the base of your spine. This is the famous Kundalini energy, which if you can get it up through all the Chakras (it gets harder the higher you go) will unite you with the universe, the Brahman.

Here's Shanel explaining all this much better than me. Thanks for an awesome workshop Shanel!)

I am a very skeptical person by nature , and I'm not at all sure that I have spinning funnels of energy inside me. The Chakra system has a number of things which we could point out as nonsensical and inconsistent. And a few years ago I might have taken a kind of cynical delight in doing just that.

But the more I learn about these ancient systems the more overlap I'm seeing. Here for example, are two images of the Chinese Grand Chi Circulation system. This one goes down the body towards the tip of the spine...

And this one goes up to the top of the head...

According to the Taoist idea, our life force (chi) leaks out in our day to day activities, and when our supply is gone, we kick the bucket. But by learning to draw the chi up from the base of the pelvis and back towards the crown of the head we can conserve this resource and have happier healthier lives.

Here we have two highly advanced ancient cultures, operating thousands of miles away from each other, who come up with a system of alternating energies (in the Chakra system, Ida/Pingala, in Taoism, Yin/Yang) which conduct the essential energy (prana/chi) of the universe. Furthermore, this energy can be coaxed up through the spine area for better health.

I spend about 20 hours a week teaching, studying, and doing yoga and meditation, which makes me something of an "expert" in our world. But the people into this stuff in old India and China might spend 20 hours a day on it. And I'm going to tear down these ideas because I've read some science books and a Wikipedia article? No way man.

But more importantly, at today's workshop, the Chakra system totally worked for some of the students. Using it they were able to come closer to themselves, to relax, and to heal. For others it's tai chi, still others find that in a pew at church, or on a prayer mat facing Mecca. For me it's on a meditation cushion looking a wall. And, when you really think about it, these things are all ridiculous, but that doesn't make them any less right. We're all trying to make sense of the world, and in the end I think that all of these practices are metaphors pointing to the same thing.

This is a lesson I am glad to have learned. Because running around trying to prove everyone else wrong is exhausting!

Thanks to all who attended the workshop!

Yoga Garden

Here are some other websites that made getting all my facts straight for this blog much easier: