Category Archives: health thoughts

Why Buddhism is True — a review

Disclaimer:  I am not a Buddhist.  And by admission, neither is the author.

The main title, Why Buddhism is True, is a bit misleading.  Throughout most of the book, the author threads interesting, up-to-date, and digestible logic as to the (potentially huge) benefits of practicing mindful meditation.  As a beginning meditator, Wright’s reasoning was compelling enough to have me hooked from the start.

If only we could all start young with this practice.

But you don’t need to be attracted to meditation to be captivated by the book.  In fairness, Wright does provide an abundance of thought-provoking (no pun) data not only from science, but also from modern psychology which seems to coincide with basic Buddhists concepts of not-self/emptiness, liberation from delusion (how we see ourselves is largely an illusion), and our thinking mind’s “default mode network.”

If anyone is, (shouldn’t we all be), interested in understanding the mechanics behind how feelings shape thoughts, behaviors, and perceptions, and how, through practice, we can become aware of “things in our environment that affect those feelings,” than the book is well worth the investment.  Some feelings, he says “are good guiding lights,” while others can “push us around.”  He provides first-hand examples of how we might successfully manipulate the feelings that may not be benefiting us.

Even Newark’s airport has a meditation room.

Wright speckles the book with his own experiences, mainly with dry, relatable, yet subtlely perky humor.  I found myself laughing out loud several times throughout the book.

The value of meditation, he says, is its use as a fundamental tool, one that enables us to see the stories we build and how we can more clearly separate illusion from truth.  In other words, he says, mindfulness meditation helps us change our perception of the world, even with potentially simple annoyances like crabgrass, the buzzsaw of construction noise, or the impulse to respond to a pricky email.  He also describes the benefit of continued meditation as an evolving capacity of “seeing things with higher resolution.”

The key, he says, through daily practices of mindful meditation, is becoming more aware of “what causes what,” (causality).  But, he explains, the fruits of meditation is more than just awareness.  It’s active learning how to change negative into positive.

The crux of the book and Wright’s principal argument for our feelings, he outlines, is the  “conditioning” of natural selection, which is built into our core from millions of years of evolution.  But many “natural tendencies” which served our species well over time may also be working against us (in our relatively recent, densely populated global community).  He describes, through meditation, how we can “subvert the programming of (the undesirable aspects of) natural selection,” to achieve a measurable, positive impact in our lives and of those around us.  In effect, he is saying that Darwin confirmed the truth behind Buddhism.

After listening to his book (twice) it’s hard not to believe him.

An introspective life-changing question

That is, if you can remember to ask yourself — repeatedly.

The trick is keeping this short query-to-self in the frontal cortex and at the ready.

Is what I’m thinking that which is wholesome or that which is not?

I heard the suggestion listening to Mark Webber’s 15 recordings from his month-long Dharma retreat last year called “All About Karma.” (No I’m not a Buddhist, but the philosophy/religions’s most basic tenets “do no harm” is worthy embracing).  Webber says karma is causality, which is a different interpretation than most Asians or Westerners have.  Karma, he says, is the activity of doing, which is causation.  Karma is mental intent and the resultant activity.  The source is our thoughts.  To begin to see this, in his retreat Webber instructs his practitioners how to significantly slow down cognition.

To see, or recognize the causality of our thoughts, could make us healthier.

Apparently, what certain enlightened individuals in the metaphysical realm have realized thousands of years ago, and what our scientific community is recently discovering is that;

  1. Thoughts are chemical impulses with real consequences. Although thoughts are mostly stories (illusions), they are not innocent.  The chemical impulses, no matter how slight, create a cause and effect.
  2. Everything, meaning every human, animal, bug, plant, or thing on this earth is connected.

Is what I’m thinking that which is wholesome or that which is not? is a question one could ask of every thought, no matter how seemingly benign. Thoughts either spark a positive charge or one that is negative.  They either construct or destruct.  And while we may deem some to be neutral, every thought still produces a resulting consequence.

Of course, the topic is quite a bit deeper than a meager blog post could justify.  Listening to the retreat, more than 25 hours worth, left me realizing what an underdeveloped human I am.  Short of having the question on post-a-notes everywhere, most of us would need a lifetime of meditation to see causality as part of our stream of consciousness.

Except for a few individuals, most humans live with a busy thought voice every waking hour. The voice is usually too occupied to be interrupted for a self-evaluation.  But like the beauty of compounded interest, many tiny (positive) thought adjustments accumulate to much larger (positive) effects.  If, for example, just a couple of key times each day, especially those moments when someone does something we don’t like, or we must do something we don’t fancy, or when we are annoyed for whatever reason, we were to invoke this question-to-self and make small perspective adjustments from negative to positive, we could, without sounding dramatically gushy, contribute, in no small way, to changing our lives, and those around us, for the better.

Sweet Thais

In more ways than one.

As a generalization, the Thai people are more outwardly sweet than most cultures.  It’s evident in the way they greet others, including their own, by folding their hands while slightly bowing their heads.  They are typically smiling, pleasant, and respectful.  Compared to other societies, the sweetness of the Thai people stands out.  The Land of Smiles, while it may be an outward appearance, is one of the many charms of Thailand.

One of the other attractions is the distinctiveness of their food.  But, and it’s a big but, over the past couple of generations, Thai’s have embraced the use of sugar in most of their meals.  Almost every prepared dish has sugar as an added ingredient.  Even sautéed vegetables are sugared.  Most savory dishes have added sugar.  It’s a phenomenon.

These buckets of sugars (and msg) are at the ready for all Thai street food.

When I see young school-age Thai folk, it’s evident that a large chunk does not appear in ideal physical condition.  A bulk of them look out of shape, with more extra weight in the wrong places than young people should have, especially youthful Asians.  If I didn’t know better, I’d predict that Thailand is headed for a health crisis in the next few generations.

Out of interest, I took several Thai cooking courses at different Bangkok schools.  In each, the students prepare and eat their individual dishes.  In each, I declared that I  wanted to cook without sugar.  I was the oddball out in every workshop.  In one class, six students were grouped together to prepare a dish, but I was castigated on my own due to my sugarless request.  The chef in that school tasted the sugar-free chili paste, peanut sauce, and Tom Yam soup I had prepared and liked them all.  Of course, she could have been fibbing to be polite.  But then again she admitted she had eliminated sugar from her diet the prior year to slim down.  An instructor in another school disclosed that her sister, a doctor, recommended that she stop cooking with sugar because it was unhealthy.  (Hmm,…yet she continues to instruct cooking with sugar).

Pad Thai Noodles, may be prepared with a double dose of sweetness.

When I ask Thai chefs/cooks why they add sugar to most dishes, the answer almost uniformly is “it makes the food tastes better.”  Really?  Adding sweetness to already flavorful food so it tastes even better?  Couldn’t that be considered a form of crafty trickery?

As a fan of Thai food, it’s more than a little disconcerting to know that sugar is being added to most dishes.   To be clear, I’m not referring to desserts and sweet treats, of which, as in most cultures these days, there are plenty.  In Thai dishes, sugar is added to main meal dishes, those that typically don’t have, or need, added sugar.  Popular dishes such as Pad Thai and green papaya salad, (Som Tum) — both have added sugar.  Peanut sauce used for sauteés — added sugar.   Stir-fried vegetables — added sugar.  Savory soups — added sugar.

Stir-fried vegetables with sugar. Really?

The Thai food on the street is damn tasty.  But to order a dish with no sugar is a challenge.  When I do, the smile is replaced by forehead wrinkles.  If sugar is left out, the tendency is to add more msg, Maggie seasoning, and/or honey.  It’s become reflexive to add processed flavoring to the food.  There are so many natural spices available that adding a tablespoon or two of sugar and msg seems like overkill.  And indeed it might be.

Smart people who study cognitive neuroscience know that sugar is a deceptive drug and acts on the brain the same way that cocaine, opioids, and for that matter, any other pleasure substance does.  The more we have, the more we want, and the more it takes to satisfy us.  Credible researchers have shown that the world’s consumption of sugar has grown almost exponentially over the last few hundred years.  Concerning evolution, that means we’ve just started gorging (overdosing?) on sweetness.  During that same time, we’ve seen a parallel increase in lifestyle diseases, as well as epigenetic disorders (which we now know are hereditary).

In a savory dish, it can be hard to detect the addition of a teaspoon of white sugar.  Sure the dish tastes good.  Everyone in the world loves a subtle touch of sweetness.  We gobble down good tasting food without a second thought.  But if we are to believe an extensive body of recent evidence showing that processed sugar in our diet promotes toxicity and has detrimental long-term health effects, then it may be prudent to pay attention.  All foods have natural trace amounts of sugars.  So if food can’t stand on its own without the added sweetness, then the results may eventually turn slightly sour.

In the ideal world, we’d see a revolution in Thailand with the elimination of sugar as a key ingredient.  But given that won’t happen anytime soon, the Thai’s will stay double sweet.

Not to pick on Thais, this sign on 23rd Street in Manhattan last week says it all.

Free-range Humans

At one time we were.  And in some way, we’ve circled back, except that we’ve spiraled around and landed on a different prairie.

Our new free range is an amplified ability and willingness to stretch and distort definitions to suit a wide variety of purposes.  The hijacking of words and dilution of their authenticity has become commonplace.

Not long ago, a US president demonstrated our new grazing land when he said, under oath, “it depends on what the definition of the word is, is.”  The economic meltdown of 2008 occurred, in part, because financial institutions went as far as roaming off the range by packaging garbage, then labeling and selling that junk as triple-A solid, pixie-dust lined, investments.

Our free-ranging technique of twisting the truth is especially blatant in food marketing.  Two, of many, recent examples: 1) In 2009 Kellogs Rice Krispies claimed the cereal would “support your child’s immunity.”  2) Nutella ads stated that their hazelnut spread “is a nutritious part of a kids breakfast.”

With our penchant for free-ranging food claims, what could natural flavors mean as a food ingredient? Bull testicles and sheep lips are natural, so is arsenic and formaldehyde.  Our legal definition of natural flavors is wide open according to the US Code of Federal Regulations and could include the aforementioned items.

Exaggeration and hyperbole have been used since there was language.  But when accuracy is elongated to harmfully fool others, then those doing the bending are better off put out to pasture.

The marketing campaigns labeling chicken and eggs as free-ranging and cage-free is a more literal example.  We’ve grown a sizeable appetite for chicken.  A few short generations ago, chicken consumption in the USA per person was, at best, a poultry few per year.  Today we gobble down, on average, more than 27 bloated, steroid & antibiotic-infused, mega fowl per person annually.  That’s not counting eggs (w/added synthetic yolk colorants).

The same dynamic chicken euphoria is happening around the world.  Travel anywhere, to any airport, any major city, and there is no shortage of chicken anything.

Chicken is the cheapest, most efficient form of meat to produce.  Chicken producers want us to feel good about eating more fowl because production has turned intensive.  It’s estimated that the planet is pumping out at least 50 billion chickens annually.  But where are they all?  Hmm,…there must be a reason they are hidden, tucked away, and out of sight.

World population is growing strong, and so is our appetite for more chicken.  China is the chicken heavyweight.  Stats show they produce more chickens than the next four chicken producing countries combined (USA, Indonesia, Brazil, India).  The KFC outlets, saturated throughout most China cities, stay more jampacked with hungry chicken customers than overcrowded industrial henhouses.   The Chinese also produce a mind-boggling 500 billion eggs annually.  And those hens are not free ranging.

Not enough of us care yet about the quality of what we stick in our mouths.  Just keep the buckets of nuggets coming.

But in fairness, some do care, a tiny bit, which is why demand for free-range is on the rise.  But in fairness to fairness, this is just free-range marketing.  The image of chickens running around, foraging and pecking the ground as is their nature, living part of their life in the sun, makes (some of) us feel a little better about eating them and their eggs.  No problem, we are free-range humans.  We simply expanded the definition of free-range to include the addition of a popup window to a giant, industrial overpacked chicken coup, containing thousands of birds. As long as the window is open for a few minutes per day, even if only a hand-full lucky enough to be near the window have a glimpse of the outside, voila, we have free range chickens — and free range eggs, and a warm & fuzzy image as a bonus.

But soon, thanks to,

  • a growing movement to improve the environmental impact of industrial chicken production,
  • an eagerness to significantly upgrade food quality, and
  • a new, determined focus to raise the standards for the humane treatment of animals,

a good portion of the world’s chicks destined for meat and eggs will soon be free-ranging, roaming the earth for real….along with fairies, leprechauns, and free-range humans.

10% Happier,…a review

An Audible book review — 10% Happier, by Dan Harris

Stories have a way of capturing us.  Given that the author is in the story-making business, he creatively loops several facets of meditation, vis-a-vis a series of real-life tales, into a mainstream mindset.  Overall, I found 10% Happier entertaining and well worth the listen.

Admittedly, I didn’t know who the author was when I came across this book.  Being part of a major news network contributed a degree of credibility to the narrative, especially since he had the ability, and apparently, the desire, to interview a broad cross-section of leaders on the ‘spiritual’ side of the self-help business.  He, therefore, brings an objective, albeit at times somewhat inelastic, perspective to the concept of meditation.

It was slightly off-putting, for example, that he needed to dis Eckhart Tolle right out of the gate, even though Tolle’s book, A New Earth, which he admittedly read three times before he started his journey, opened the door into a life-changing, philosophical shift in his thinking.  His curious derision for Tolle seemed to be affected not only by concepts he evidently couldn’t grasp but also by his wardrobe.  Thankfully, Harris somewhat redeemed himself in the epilogue, reluctantly giving Tolle (some) credit.

At times, it seemed like he was writing the book for his colleagues at ABC, perhaps to explain spats of conduct as well as elucidate the logic for his path into the quasi-spiritual world.  Still, the book was highly engaging, with humorous bouts of self-deprecation and a partial inside view of the high-stress world of network news.

Apart from his highly skeptical nature — if there is no proof, and it’s not mainstream, then it borders fringe or beyond unless someone he respects provides scientific and logical evidence — Harris comes across relatively open, honest, with hefty doses of witty tongue-in-cheek, which adds to his likability.

For anyone wanting to increase their English vocabulary, I’d recommend the written book.  Because I listened to the narrated version, I was (slightly) better able to understand, if only in context, the abundance of unfamiliar flowery words and phrases peppered throughout.  Reading such a bounty of unusual words would have stopped me in my tracks more often than I would have liked (but that may be a good thing).

What I particularly liked about the book, besides the evocative anecdotes, is his method of spreading the value of meditation, which, because of his unique media role and presentation style, takes some of the mysteriousness out of an opaque topic.  I’ve been on the cusp of starting this lifestyle practice for too long.  After listening to the book, I’m a convert.  Meditation, as it’s evidently been scientifically proven, is an exercise with only constructive upside benefits.

Even though I was slightly annoyed about the Tolle dissing, (it was useful mindfulness practice anyhow), I found myself wanting more when it ended.  Hence, I’ve already pre-ordered his new guidelines coming out in Dec 2017.  I’m at least 10% more motivated.

P.S.
Suggestion: Harris closed the book with a self-developed list of ten useful “precepts.”  I’d recommend changing #1 from “don’t be a jerk” to “be kind.”  It’s easier to be something than not being something.  Besides, jerk is relative, and kindness precludes jerkness.

It was just another cloudy day

The sun hadn’t made an appearance from dawn to dusk, well covered by a fast moving cloud mass at both medium and high elevation.  Nevertheless, the sky was beautifully overcast, with a broad spectrum of gray hues defining a sort of polyrhythmic flow above.

Finishing our first year in college, a friend from high school, nicknamed E, and I, decided to head to Florida for Spring break.  Not that we knew much about spring breaks, we were just going to visit our friend Jimmy.  Neither of us had cars road-worthy enough of the thousand-mile trip, so we decided to hitchhike to South Carolina, where we hooked up with a friend K, who was attending college there and also had a school break.  And a car.

In high school, there was a gaggle of guys, and for some reason, we called ourselves (and still do) “great men.”  I think the origin started when any one of us did something daring or noteworthy (stupid?), he would be called “a great man” (even if we were still teens).  The term stuck.  Anyhow, this trip was a mini-reunion for four great men.

E and I hitched to the Carolinas, catching rides with all types of characters.  We were invited in the back of converted hippy vans to smoke pot and were even picked up by the Grand Marshall of the KKK as he was passing through Virginia going to his home in North Carolina.  Yes, that KKK.  He treated us to lunch at a roadside diner. The manner of his talk raised the eyebrows of two guys from north of the Mason Dixon who didn’t share his culture nor his beliefs.

After meeting K at his University, catching up on nourishment in the school’s almost vacant cafeteria, we headed south for another 12 hours, freed from the need to stick our thumbs out for a ride, arriving at Jimmy’s at dawn.

A few ‘great men’ gathering for lunch about 5 years ago.

To me, Jimmy was truly a great man.  He defined cool.  He was also good looking, with a sophisticated suave, yet down-to-earth demeanor, and at the same time charming, funny, engaging, and a downright damn nice guy.  He set us up with accommodations in the dorm of his quasi-military flight school, where he was studying to pilot planes.  After inviting us to breakfast we all went to the beach, which was directly in front of where we were staying.

I was exhausted, not having slept much during the past 36-hour trip, so I crashed on the beach, not able to participate in the catch-up banter that first day.  There is nothing like sleeping surf side.  Having spent time on the New Jersey and Maryland seashore growing up, dozing in the sand by the water was nothing new.  What I didn’t realize this time was that Florida is different, i.e., closer to the sun by an ever-so-slight a fraction that it matters.  So I took off my shirt and fell fast asleep on that somewhat windy overcast day, the image of the beguiling sky firmly imbedded in my memory before my eyelids took over.  I hadn’t planned to sleep the entire day, but I did, which proved to be a huge mistake because apparently, as I learned later that evening, the Florida sun can burn right through clouds.  I woke up as red as an overripe tomato and in pain that seemed to grow by the minute.  That night I could not sleep, not because I slept on the beach, but because my skin hurt so much.  Every movement hurt, even picking up a glass of water made me grimace.

Somewhere near how I felt after a cloudy day in the Florida sun.

I was down to my last five bucks, regretting to spend half of that on a can of solarcaine, a sunburn relief spray (prices were that different then).  I don’t remember if it helped much, but I’m sure the placebo effect did.  The sun’s torturous impact lasted at least two-full days.  Just as the pain was subsiding, our visit was over.

Jimmy died not many years later while piloting a commuter flight in New Jersey. He was barely 25.  In retrospect, at the time it was nice to have had those several days with him just hanging out, away from our homes.

I had been sunburnt before, but never like that day.  The experience was enough to gain a healthy respect for cloudy days in tropical climates.  That particular cloudy day also reminds me of a young guy and great man, who, having a much shorter than normal existence, still unknowingly left a positive influence.

Just waking up on the Jersey beach, in those teen years, yet un molested by the sun.

Do you have a cloudy day?  😮😀

Hacking

While it may not be the new verb on the block, hacking has morphed into a new comfort zone, shedding some of its bad rap.

When I was young, the ‘hacking’ I knew was messy.  Hacking a branch off a tree was sloppier than cutting it off.  Hacking was also the loud bursts of a spasmodic cough you could hear coming out of heavy cigarette smokers.  And of course, hacking was the description serious golfers gave to my golf swing.  The fact that I unintentionally hacked off a few plants at the roots with a gold club made me a hacker.

Could this have been the reason I was a hacker?

Then came personal computers, their coded languages, and the unauthorized access to other’s data.  Computer hacking was born.  If you hacked, you were a hacker.  Hackers were, and many still are, devious, spreading bugs, viruses and stealing what isn’t theirs.

Then at some point in recent evolution, we included building something quickly and being able to solve a problem using a shortcut, as part of the hacking definition.  Hacking became a good thing.  You can now find online life-hacking tips.  Dave Asprey, in his book Head Strong, discusses various techniques for hacking the brain to optimize its use.

One suggestion for brain hacking

Vanessa Van Edwards, the author of Captivate, outlines a multi-step approach to hacking the personality traits of others, for enhanced relationships.  I recently read a blog post by a doctor discussing the benefits of exercise hacking to improve workouts.  Hackety, hack, hack, hack.

Many of us are looking for shortcuts and tricks to gain an edge.  That now means hacking, which is okay, if, in the end, we are more productive, efficient, healthier, and good to each other.

If that’s the case, count me in.  I could be down for some serious hacking, wherever I can find it.

October 2, 2017 Update:

The Hacking of the American Mind, by Dr. Robert Lustig, maybe a hack worth considering.