Selflessly Selfie

Rare is the request these days from the errant traveling couple “can you please take our photo?”  We’ve become a world of accomplished selfie takers.  Taylor Swift reportedly commented recently that no one asks for her autograph anymore.  A selfie request is the new signature.

To say that snapping selfies is a new phenomenon is like saying handheld devices are popular.  Yes sure, we’ve taken photographs of ourselves since cameras were invented and self-portraits painted for thousands of years.  But in just the last few, we are witnessing a self-image revolution.

A certain level of self-promotion is wired into our DNA. Nonetheless, the ingredients of the internet, the allure of social media, and functionality of handheld devices with high-end cameras have created a selfie-taking boom that is only beginning to mushroom.  Add to that the intoxicating desire for more, created by the instant feedback loop, and a large segment of humans have evolved to camera loving image specialists.  We are closing in on a world population of almost 8 billion people saying with frequency, “look at me.”

For every web article declaring that this recent self-photo rage is detrimental, there is an equal number arguing that imbibing in the act of frequent self-posing is healthy.  Smart people also disagree whether eating saturated fat is bad or good.  Like the eating fat argument, the health effects of selfie-taking is more complex than a blanket good/bad statement.  The wellness of a self-obsessed mindset may depend on the individual and the selfie purpose.  Narcissistic behavior to one is helpful self-branding and a networking tool to another.

The specialty of Asian girls – the pursed lips look.

Selfies, both the art of taking them and the frequency, will only continue to grow on its current exponential track, so why not get cozy with them.

Since there is no such thing as the ‘present moment,’ photos, especially a selfie, is the best example of us at a point in time.  So we might as well live for the moment and snap away.  We will then be able to review beaucoup selfies with proof that those moments (many, many, moments), actually existed.  Then, when we have ample future downtime, we’ll be able to sift through the stockpile to recall those fleeting micro-seconds.

Even monkeys have gotten into the act of a self-snap.

What would a selfie post be without a selfie?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Plandid — The planned-candid selfie.

The Plandid — Benjakiti Park, Bangkok, Dec 31, 2017

Gestalt-less

I first ran across the word gestalt in my early 20’s reading an Ayn Rand book.  I may have tripped over the term a couple of times since, not sure.  The last time of note though was from the surgeon who performed my delicate ‘foot in mouth’ transplant (actually leg in mouth).

Pain can be a welcome feeling.  It tells us when, and where, corrective action needs to happen.  During the time I submitted to a couple of surgical operations, each involving trach holes and feeding tubes, it was important that I was able to describe the pain.  The surgeon told me that I was unique among his patients in that I distinguish pain with gestalt.  When I asked him what he meant, he said, that unlike most patients, I could explain in detail, the pain composition of an area of discomfort.  Maybe that was his way of telling me I was making a mountain out of molehills.

Fast forward to last week.  For the past 10 days, I’ve had a low, dull thud of sensitivity when eating cold or hot coming from, I thought, a tooth with an old cantilever crown.  As a rule, cantilever crowns are not made anymore.  Since I’ve got to be more careful than normal about what is done in my mouth, I contacted a dental clinic in Asia where I had been before, as well as the Maxillofacial specialist in NYC.  Long and short, after several back & forth between the two specialists, it was determined from my description that a root canal was likely necessary and using the old crown was doubtful.  The evening prior to my appointment with the local Endondonist, I realized I pegged the wrong tooth.  I don’t think it was referred pain or radiating discomfort.  I simply misdiagnosed the sensitivity’s origin.  After a more professional analysis, my last minute realization was correct.  I didn’t need a root canal and the cantilever bridge didn’t need to be messed with.  After the appointment yesterday I felt relieved to come away with a composite surfacing over the sensitive area.  Yet at the same time, I was nagged by a sense of gestalt-lessness.  Could I, after a couple of months of meditation practice, be losing my sense of pain origin?  Could I have lost gestalt? (note to serious reader: this is parched satire)

Well-known gestalt image.

Having a gestalt view has its advantages, especially looking at units like a family, business, organization, or even a country. Groups (of people) act as living, breathing entities, with unique characteristics, distinct from the individuals who make them up.  This perspective works similarly when looking inwardly, to our own bodies.

Hmm,…I’m feeling gestalt-less.  I’d better get cracking and do something about that.

How is your gestalt?


What is meditation? 

As long as I’ve been on the topic for the past several posts, I thought I’d give the definition of meditation a wholewheat-spaghetti stab.

For the record, I’m no meditation o-tar-a-ti, nor an experienced meditator.  I can barely sit crosslegged.  Therefore, the following is a grainy summary of what I’ve gleaned from other smart people who are in-the-know on the topic.

First, a few givens, confirmed by science and other advanced fields:

  1. Thoughts are electrical impulses, with real cause and effects.
  2. A large portion of the thoughts we generate is illusory, or made-up fiction.
  3. Most humans on the planet live their waking hours in a state of perpetual thought, and most of us are guided throughout our lives by those thoughts.
  4. The energy transmitted by the thoughts of those around us affects us much more than we consciously realize.  In other words, it’s easy to be whipped into a judgment frenzy when we are bombarded by the forceful energy fields around us.

Granted, it may be hard to find the time.

Second, what meditation isn’t:  It is not a goal, an end, nor something to achieve.

So what is meditation?

Meditation is an exercise to create pockets of space around thoughts.  It is training to help create gaps in our stream of thinking.  Meditation is a practice to, even if a little, quiet the mind.  And it’s a process to become, and remain, an observer, a witness, to our own presence.

And the benefits?  What does having gaps in the thought stream achieve?  How are pockets of space around thoughts of value?  Why invest (time) to meditate?  Hmm,…following is a partial list;

  • Thanks again to science, we know that meditation practice significantly improves brain health, particularly the part of the gray matter responsible for memory.
  • Through meditation, we grow more “mindful” of the impacts of our ponderings.
  • Meditation practice enables us to convert detrimental and useless views into positive ones.
  • Meditation helps, bit by bit, untangle the passive conditioning built up over eons.  In other words, it helps clear (some of) the natural muck that clouds our perspective.
  • Meditation equips us to become more fundamentally aware of our feelings and emotions, what affects them, and how to temper them.
  • Meditation gives us the poise to (be able to) respond vs react.
  • Meditation improves focus.
  • Meditation reduces chronic stress.
  • Meditation brings a deeper awareness (present-ness) throughout our lives when we are not actively meditating.
  • Meditation helps (some of) us become nicer humans.
  • Meditation leads to more joy.
  • Meditation (can) lead to enlightenment.  (Whatever that may be).

    There is a multitude of ways to meditate.

And I’ll go out on a limb and say, because everything in our body is connected, that if meditation practice has been proven to improve cognitive health and reduce stress, then it has upside potential for enhancing overall physical well-being.

Not that I’ve turned into a meditation advocate, but in our new digital age, with almost everyone on the planet cruising through life spending much of their time staring into handheld devices, our thoughts are not only more actively competing for our attention, but we are also turning them over to a growing influence of artificial stimulation.  Meditation can help mitigate the digital stranglehold.

A Wholewheat Spaghetti Summary

Meditation is a healthy, perhaps vital, habit that empowers us to more frequently, genuinely, and gratifyingly, smile to ourselves and others, for the overall experience of being human.  

Hmm,…I’d better get practicing…

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.

Where did that thought come from?

It popped in from nowhere to grab my attention.

Before I could offer a reasonable objection,
I was whisked in an unknown direction,
following a theory that forked left, then right,
out of control and out of sight.

I could barely glimpse it morph and cohort,
and raising cain.  Was it half insane?

I was lost in the musing’s erratic wake,
when it circled back without mistake,
damn faster than the speed of light,
blasting everything in sight,
yet making sure I was alright.

The reverie directed its own screenplay,
imbued in the rumination,
a polished edge of anticipation,
and an alluring button called replay.

The outlook’s mirage cloaked in subtle fury,
slyly presiding as judge and jury.

But the clever impression was ripe for dissension,
slight nagging suspicions clouding the senses,
creating a hunch and a new speculation,
of egoic wit, masked in deception.

Then in a blink the marbles scattered,
a whole new topic was all that mattered,
replaced by another, less irrelevant notion,
the dreamy aim the same,
a beguiling spell of perpetual motion.

Even if the premise seemed all but real,
the resulting chapter had a fictional feel.

Forming an opinion was not my intention,
not with such limited discretion,
but the conviction’s goal seemed clear,
to plant a seed of apprehension.

So when it returns as it surely will,
I’ll embrace the belief with eager thrill,
smothering it with goodness and zeal,
trusting it will lose its appeal.

After all, there are thousands, millions, more,
poised like a readily armed corps,
not offering the prospect to sift nor choose,
nor win, nor loose.

fs

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.