Archives for February 2011

A Worldview Guided By Thought

I feel, therefore I think

Pardon my paraphrase of Descartes’ famous realization. Basically, it means we feel a certain way and that, in turn, influences our thinking.

This mentality pervades contemporary American folk philosophy. It leads to such statements as “I have depressed feelings, therefore my life is not worth living” or “I feel unlucky, therefore I know nothing ever works out for me.” I saw it back when I used to teach. “Mr. so-and-so gave me a bad grade (i.e. I felt unworthy), therefore he hates me.”

Such a line of reasoning encourages helplessness and victimization. Feelings, which are by their very nature irrational (I don’t mean expressing feelings, which is rational and good, but that we can’t help how we feel) control our rational side. Consequently, people are held captive by forces ultimately beyond their control and trying to take control often comes in the form of holding in feelings, only to have them explode later.

This is not a way to form a worldview, but it forms more of them than you may think. Take these statements: “A woman hurt me once, therefore I will never trust women” or “I felt mistreated by religion, therefore religion is unequivocally a terrible force for evil.” These are just a few examples.

I think, therefore I feel

In my opinion, this is the far better philosophy. It recognizes that feelings emerge from an intentionally cultivated worldview (or one our parent’s cultivated for us). This kind of thinking is found in phrases like “I know that tragedy is temporary, therefore I’ll bounce back when I’m ready” or “I am an attractive person, therefore I feel confident that one bout of “bad luck” doesn’t hinder me.”

In both cases, a proper way of thinking, leads to positive and genuinely realistic feelings. It allows them to be guided by a rational (I don’t mean coldly rational here), thoughtful, and affirming worldview instead of one created haphazardly from a slew of discrete feelings. It allows for resilience in not only individual lives, but also the world. And, this philosophy allows for change, a difficult one for sure, but at least it’s possible. It’s preferable to succumbing to the fate of feelings.

Creating Reality Begins in the Mind

I mentioned in yesterday’s post an insight I had recently: if you don’t create your own reality, someone else will happily do it for you. To get a sense of the meaning, it’s best to cue ominous music or mentally play Mr. Burns saying “excellent” in your mind when you start reading the second clause. In other words, if we don’t take charge of our destiny, someone else will control it for us. And they won’t always have our dreams in mind.

We are all held captive to others in some way and that’s not always bad. Being bound to others by culture, creed, etc., as long as they’re a positive factor, is not only necessary, but life enriching. Rejecting such experiences solely to be independent or allegedly free is hardly positive and not what I’m referring to.

I’m talking more about a mindless journey through life where one never questions circumstances or experiences and simply follows the lead of advertising, peer pressure, expectations, etc. (to say nothing of cultural and parental values). This mentality is commonplace and is the philosophical equivalent of the parent or teacher response: “because I said so.” We might as well be zombies.

That’s why part of creating our own reality comes through detaching from the numerous systems we’ve invested in. Detachment, as the great sages in every religion have realized, brings happiness because the anxiety is annihilated. For example, a person who has a lot of money can tell his jerk of a boss where to go more easily than someone living paycheck to paycheck.

Most people who talk about creating their own reality want to stop living paycheck to paycheck and want to create wealth. This is not a terrible goal. However, they’ve actually bought into another reality: materialism. Who’s to say that if these people were making 100,000 dollars a month that they wouldn’t still live bigger paycheck to bigger paycheck with all the accompanying dread of bills?

That’s why it’s important to truly create a new reality within ourselves, not just hope to manipulate the world around us for a better outcome. I truly believe in the law of attraction, but I think manifesting is primarily about new ways of imagining. We change the world by first changing our reaction to the world. We create new pictures, new images, within our minds, which create new brain wiring. And, not surprisingly, the world becomes a very different place.

This way of thinking is less flashy and marketable than the get rich quick themes of much create your own reality literature. However, it allows people to truly live in freedom and to forge a path of happiness and joy detached from the systems and people who create other realities primarily to exploit and control.

Raising a Millionaire?

I recently bought the book Young Bucks: How to Raise a Future Millionaire for a great price. Since my wife is expecting, I thought it looked interesting. The book, from what I can tell, is about raising a kid with an entrepreneurial attitude. A few years ago, I would have been horrified at such a book, and my visceral reaction would have been negative, but I  have been evaluating my view of work and education lately, as I am aware of my own prospects for job advancement, and the general work situation in America.

I have started questioning the way work “works” in America right now. With a majority of Americans unhappy with their jobs, corporate greed, non-profits squeezing every last drop from their employees, and increased government hassles and regulations, a lot of people just plain aren’t happy with their current job or job prospects. Incomes and benefits are dropping. Our first inclination is usually to blame the individual job or company, so we change  jobs, but then find there isn’t much difference between faceless company A or faceless company B. The same is true of Non-Profit A and Non-Profit B. No matter where we work, it seems like we end up giving the best ideas and time we have so that somebody else benefits (whether the stockholders or institution), and we hope and pray that they give us our fair share (such as raises, benefits, etc), and don’t lay us off when the economy gets a little bad. Basically, we don’t have simple human autonomy. We move far from friends and family just to find that one perfect job, only to find it isn’t really that perfect.

Most of my friends are very frustrated with work. Perhaps it is just a little Facebook over-dramatization, but most aren’t looking for riches, but instead a job that pays fairly and gives them the autonomy to live their lives (e.g. having time with their kids, etc).

One answer to this problem is to resent business, schools, non-profits, etc, and this is the solution many people take (and that I used to take). However, I am convinced now that the answer is not resentment (which only hurts you, not the company), but starting new systems. Instead of working for a bad system, or even changing the system from within, the solution to me is to start something better and compete with the bad: Plant a new tree*. Instead of resenting the financial services sector, start a financial business that does things right and ethically. Instead of lamenting the way stores treat their employees, start a store selling something great and treat your employees right! Instead of complaining that non-profits are inefficient and always begging for money, find a creative way to increase efficiency and get more money.  One of my long-term dreams is to start an energy company that takes advantage of the “crack” in gasoline refining costs, and passes savings onto the consumer so that all the local gas stations aren’t charging the same price (how is that for real competition??). I would love to be the local supplier and station that is always 10 cents or more a gallon lower than the competition.

Ultimately, I don’t care if my child is a millionaire. I want him or her to be happy and have autonomy in life. Research shows that small-business owners are happier than average workers, even though on average, they make less money. I don’t want my child thinking that work=scraping by giving her best for somebody else. If that is what she wants to do (work quietly and happily for somebody else), then I will support that. However, I don’t want this to be the only option. He shouldn’t have to look around at adults hating their jobs and job prospects and think “that will be me someday, beaten down by the very system I am supposed to look forward to.” Whenever someone asks her what she will do when she grows up, good answers will be “in charge” and “happy.”

* – note that for some institutions, I think fixing things from inside is best, as opposed to starting something new. Religions and governments are an example where constant splitting has caused problems. There is value to unity, however not the point of virtual enslavement.

The Conforming Power of Education

Me: If I can help it I’ll never work for someone else again
My teenage step-daughter: Then how will you ever get a job?

Such a reaction would be absolutely hilarious if it wasn’t actually so tragic. The notion that we must do the bidding of others is so engrained in the minds of many, that the thought of actually starting one’s own business or forging a new path is completely overlooked. It reminds me of an insight I had a few months ago: create your own reality or someone else will happily create it for you.

I don’t want to make this a post bashing compulsory public education, but I wouldn’t expect a movement dedicated to de-Catholicizing Catholics to give independent thought a, well, second thought. Instead of promoting American Civic Religion, it seems much of high school education today turns people into intellectual conformists.

While the blame can’t be laid at the feet of teachers, I think the system bears quite a bit of fault. But, then again, education hasn’t changed much since the telegraph took social networking to new heights. Forward thinking tech geek entrepreneurs have altered the way society thinks and acts with their ideas and hard work, but our educational experts have merely replaced the chalkboard and overheard projector with a smart board and chalk and overheads with Power Point.

Although most teachers would be horrified to know they’re creating zombies ready to do the bidding of corporate masters, they’re in a system designed for just that. Everyone sits in rows quietly. Everyone does the exact same assignments in class and basically learns the same material. The questioning or the rowdy (who are really asking questions with their behavior, like why the hell am I wasting my time?) are marginalized. It’s nice preparation for a life where a person is expected to work a job he or she hates, retire, then die. Oh, and let’s not forget the layoffs, stagnant wages, and so on.

I know this post is a tad on the cranky side (maybe fully there) and part of it is my own anger that I am thirty-two years old and even after completing high school, undergrad, and getting my Masters, was still as clueless as my daughter only six months ago. She is more than welcome to work for someone else her entire life. But, at least I know, no thanks to the schools, she has the knowledge to choose otherwise.

A Fiesta, Not a Feast

As I continue with my exploration of Mindful Eating, I am  now reading a new book, Eating the Moment by Pavel Somov. I am enjoying it so far. Somov recommends 141 tips to be more mindful at meals. I am only finished with 1/3 of the book, but I have already gleaned some interesting tips. One is to have a fiesta instead of a feast. Somov tells us that the word “fiesta” comes from the Latin word for “joy.” His point is to take a holiday, and instead of revolving the whole thing around food, make a non-food activity the “main event” of a holiday.

As I pondered this tip, I realized how many of our holidays revolve around food. I don’t think we would know how to celebrate a holiday without food at the center. However, there are millions of joyful activities out there, it is just a matter of finding them. After our huge meal, Jonathan and I always take an annual Thanksgiving Day hike, if the weather permits. We have done this for years, and often the weather is so nice it is kind of like an Indian Summer. The muted browns and reds of nature from those hikes are deeply burned in my consciousness. The conversation is great, and it is a time to catch up. Looking back, while I appreciate the Thanksgiving meal my mother and grandmother prepare, the hike stands out more than just about anything. The reason is that I typically overeat at the Thanksgiving meal, and end up feeling tired and foggy-minded. Granted, this is my own fault, but my point is that while the meal is good, the hike is invigorating, and not weighed down by the side effects of eating too much.

My point is that who says we couldn’t have an annual Thanksgiving picnic and hike? It always gives me joy. We wouldn’t get rid of the Thanksgiving meal; it just wouldn’t be “about” the meal. The meaning I experience hiking could be the source of joy, rather than the meal that often gets the best of us. More joy and less bloat, mind-fog, and body fat? Sounds like a winning tradition.

Winning the Battle, Losing the War

When I was in high school my older cousin was on (yet another) diet, and he said, “you know, with our genetics, I realize I will have to battle with food everyday of my life. It is just that simple.” This was 15 years ago, and he is still obese. He must not have had the fight in him. Either way, I agreed with him, and for the sake of my physical, emotional, and social well-being, I decided it was worth fighting the battle. That idea stuck with me: I would fight food, and win.

I was thinking today about a concept I came across while reading Mindful Eating. It is an idea from the Buddhist tradition that essentially says that whether you have a strong desire or strong hatred of something, you are still tethered to it. It made me realize that I have been “tethered” to food since I was 11 or 12. Whether it has been anxiously overeating or purposefully undereating, food has had a grip on me. I consume food, think about food, worry about food, but rarely, if ever, really enjoy food.

Over the years, I have won many battles, but lost many too. I have been a “yo-yo” dieter, reaching a high of 195-200 lbs in 2000, and again in 2006, to lows in the 150s-160s in 2002 and now. For the last 5 years, I have been winning the battle with food. I really have. I am the healthiest I have ever been. I am running 30 miles a week, and eating healthier than I ever have. My blood pressure is normal, my pulse is in the athletic range, and my mind is sharp.

But, I am questioning the point of battling food at all, because I know that there will be losses ahead, because there always are. The whole idea of battling food seems baffling now. Why in the world would I choose to “battle” food every day for the rest of my life? Who spends everyday battling something that he can never conquer? What has food ever done to me?  If anything, eating can be a great experience, where each bite is a unique mixture of complex tastes, smells, and textures. The total experience of food even surpasses the mere taste: food can be prepared artfully, served regally, and be an accompaniment to some of the best social interactions ever.

I have decided to enter a rapprochement with food. I am laying aside my arms. I am battle-weary, and I am going to try something I haven’t tried since I was a child (when I was thin without trying): I am going to enjoy food. I mean really enjoy it. I don’t mean rush through it in a blur, eat to the point of getting bloated, and then “wake up” from  my narrow food trance. I don’t mean gulping down dinner while surfing the net or watching TV. I am going to savor every flavor, smell, and texture, and every moment that comes with food. The irony is that as I stop worrying so much about food, and I slowly sever the tether, I will probably find that reaching my ideal weight will simply happen. Enjoying food and losing weight? Now, that’s a win-win situation!

Have I Ever Enjoyed a Meal??

Over the last few months I have tried to analyze my relationship with food. Why is it so troubled? Ever since I was around 11 or 12, I can remember being driven by food. Food. Food. And More Food. In 5th grade I took a great field trip all over the area, visiting steamboats and historical sites. I even got to drive a steamboat for a minute. However, I barely remember caring about any of that. All I cared about was where we were eating on the trip. My brother and I went over the itinerary in our minds before, during, and after the trip, and all that continued to come up was the food. I can still remember where we ate: Western Sizzlin Steak House, and the John Henry Restaurant (both long-closed).  This was the same year the cafeteria cooks knew me on a first name basis, because I was such a great customer. In 8th grade the process continued. We took a school trip to Florida, and all that seemed to matter was that I had 30 (yes, 30) packets of sprees for the trip. I certainly wasn’t “packing light” for that trip!

You would think that all this obsession with food, which I admit continues to this day, would mean I actually appreciate food. Those who overeat know this isn’t true. In fact, the opposite is true. Most of the time when I eat, I go into an altered state, a kind of food trance. I do not savor anything. Rather, I scarf down food as quickly as possible, with as little enjoyment as possible, and I can literally feel my body tensing up as I eat. When I finish, the tension gets relieved somewhat, and I feel bloated and my mind becomes foggy. This is not enjoying food. So, what  is the answer? Well, I think one possible answer is mindfulness.

I have been reading about mindfulness lately, after I picked up Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are. Mindfulness is simply being present and aware, non-judgmentally, in the moment. It is, basically, living in the present to the fullest extent. This got me thinking about the whole idea of mindfulness and eating. Why do I go into a narrow-focused trance state every time I eat? Why do I scarf down meals but don’t really enjoy them? Why can’t I appreciate the whole experience of food?

I decided to buy a book called Mindful Eating. I highly recommend it. I am working my way through it and the result has been pretty much revolutionary. It has made me realize I probably haven’t really enjoyed a meal in a long, long, time. According to the author, Jan Bays, mindful eating is basically being aware of the experience we have while eating. It is being attuned to our own hunger and experience of food. Mindful eating has us asking questions such “why am I hungry” and “how am I hungry.” It has us paying attention to the tastes, textures, flavors, colors, smells, and experience of a meal. In essence, mindful eating has taught me to slow down and actually enjoy a meal, and to live in the experience of eating a great piece of food or glass of liquid. Yes, we can even savor water! According to Bays, mindfulness is the best seasoning!

I have been using the techniques and I am very excited about it. Lately I have been saddened that I just don’t enjoy coffee like I used to. I grab a cup in the morning, at work, and in the evening. I gulp it down while I surf the net, talk to my wife, or drive. Even though we use good Arabica bean coffees (such as Starbucks Pike’s Place and Thanksgiving Blend), all the coffees were tasting the same to me. Recently, I decided to be aware of the experience of drinking coffee. Just aware. No thinking, no judging, and no rushing. I was amazed. I hadn’t enjoyed coffee like this in a long time! I have said how much I love coffee a lot over the last 3 years, but honestly, I haven’t really meant it, until now that is.

Last night I decided to eat dinner the same way. Bays mentions that it is okay to play with your food, so instead of eating at the table or in front of the TV, we decided to “have a picnic” in front of the fireplace. We put a blanket down and faced each other. The cat sat in between us, while the flames kept us warm. My wife made spare ribs with a tomato sauce, over whole wheat noodles. We enjoyed our meal slowly, and became aware of the experience. We talked some, but left plenty of time for just being aware. The flavors and experience came alive! Each bite was a little different, and the blend of spices and texture made it a great experience. While doing this, I became attuned to my stomach, and realized that I was full fairly quickly; I even left some food for later. As I looked up out the window during the meal, I noticed a strong orange and blue hue shining in, as the sun was setting outside our house. I realized that THIS is the way a meal was meant to be. The alternative, staring at a TV screen while inhaling the meal, now strikes me as a virtual waste of time.

I am planning on eating at Chipotle on Friday, and I literally cannot fathom how I will eat the whole thing (even though I usually scarf it down). The thought of eating that quickly makes me a little sad actually, looking back at how many meals I mindlessly ran through. Instead, I will mindfully enjoy it, and whatever is left, I (or someone else) will eat later.

I also think this will help my battle with weight gain. One principle of Mindful Eating is to recognize different types of hunger, and satisfy them. Some types of hunger can be satisfied with things other than food. For example, eye hunger (desiring a food because it looks appetizing) can be satisfied by looking at something beautiful. Who would have thought that if a piece of nicely decorated cheesecake on a dessert tray at a restaurant is calling your name, a simple glance at the sunset outside might satisfy your hunger? As someone who has struggled with food for years, I am starting to think that this mindfulness thing might be the answer. And I can tell you that living mindfully in other areas of life has transformed me as well.

More on Green Tea and Weight Loss

For obese individuals with metabolic syndrome (which I am guessing most obese people have, to some degree or another), drinking green tea resulted in 5 lbs of weight loss in 8 weeks, with no additional lifestyle changes. Most people I know would gladly drink a little extra tea to lose 5 lbs so easily. This is yet more evidence that green tea is mildly helpful in helping a person lose weight. I don’t care for the taste, so I take a green tea extract pill a few times a week before exercise.

I should note that it is probably good that a supplement is only “mildly” helpful in weight loss. If a substance is highly effective at causing weight loss, we have another name for that substance: a poison! This illustrates why the public’s demand for a magic weight loss pill is contrary to our basic biological nature. For hundreds of thousands of years humans evolved to more effectively gain weight (which is why our bodies become more efficient and nearly “shut down” when starved), and yet for the last 50 or so, Westerners are getting too much food. I would be suspicious of a pill that caused dramatic weight loss.

Wow….A New Post!

It  has been awhile since I have updated this blog, which is ironic, given the continued importance health, finance, and the other topics of this blog have become to me. 2010 was a great year for me, and 2011 looks to be even better. Here is a little update for those that are following this blog (maybe I am just talking to myself!):

– I am finally up to running 10 miles, 3 times a week. It has been a long haul, and I remember a few years ago when 4 miles, 3x/week, was a big deal, but chipping away at getting in shape for 3 years has really paid off.

– I decided to stop using free weights. I was making progress with them, but when you add a 10 mile run to time lifting, it was taking up a large chunk of my evening. Instead, I bought a Gold’s Gym set with a chin-up bar and perfect push up units. I can now use these tools (along with an ab wheel) any time I like. This is much more convenient than lifting at the Y, and the look I am getting is more “thin-toned” than bulky.

– I am much more aware of the power of the mind. Most of my reading lately has centered around the brain , the mind, and that sort of thing. I have particularly enjoyed reading about the possibility of the “quantum brain.” Evan Walker, Jeffrey Schwartz, and others, believe that our “will” (dare I say “soul?”) might be a component of quantum reality.

– Related to the above post, I have looked into viewing eating differently. I have tried to identify the reasons I like to eat so much. I think food is really a comfort thing for me. I don’t have many addictions, but food comes close. I find it kind of humorous how many people I know have outright disdain for alcohol or tobacco, and will express this while scarfing down unhealthy types and amounts of food without seeing the irony of the situation. I am perfectly willing to admit I have a problem with food. Now that I admit this, I can deal with it (and I have!).

– I view life a lot differently than I did since I last posted. I try to live life in the present, not worrying so much about the past or future. This is called mindfulness in Eastern traditions, but Jesus taught the same thing (the birds of the air don’t worry, yet they do just fine). I have missed so many present moments in the past that I am pretty much done with living like that. Life is good, and I enjoy waking up every day and seeing the possibilities. I know this sounds hokey, but it is better than the alternative, just getting by on autopilot, waiting for somebody else to come to your rescue with a good job, better house, or whatever.

– I reconnected with an old friend whose life was also on autopilot. Fortunately, he broke free before he worked himself into an early grave. I wish more people would question the “work 60 hours a week so you can earn money you will never get to enjoy” model. Fortunately he realized this before he reached his (early) grave. It has been awesome to rekindle our friendship.

– The winter is almost over, and spring is coming! I can’t wait. As usual, this means running outside, more golfing, etc. I am at peace with the winter (although the truce is sometimes uneasy), but I am welcoming the coming thaw. The above image is from last spring. I took it on a very warm April day.