Category Archives: Blog Review
Last night my friend, Lauren, posted this article from MomLogic on my Facebook page. I am writing this post as a response for her, for myself, and for all Americans, though I am not in any way suggesting that I speak for all of us with this response. Reading this article, as well as several other responding articles, has confirmed for me that we in America are currently suffering from a cultural epidemic of utter disconnection. Our disconnection is widespread, and because it is rooted so deeply in our culture, it’s hard to see where we lost our way. However, it’s relatively easy to see the symptoms of this disconnection.
#1 Symptom of Disconnect: Common courtesy within dialogue has disappeared.
Throughout her article, MILF Mommy personally attacks and devalues people who are, apparently unlike her, size 12 and up. I think it is beneficial at this point to refer MILF Mommy (and everyone else on the Internet) to the Wikipedia page on Rhetoric for both definition and illustration of effective and courteous discourse. As long as we see ourselves as one (right, justified, whatever) and others, well as “other,” (wrong, stupid, whatever), we fundamentally have a conversation rooted in disconnection. I certainly take issue with MILF Mommy’s expression of her opinion and her actual opinion, but for me to debase and devalue her as a person makes me no better than she is. In the all the responses to MILF Mommy, I cringed at how embarrassing Internet Trolls are to the human race; and let’s face it: we’ve ALL been an Internet Troll at some point or another. We’ve all found ourselves caught up in some such debate, whether on the Internet or not. But there is a difference between arguing, debating, or attacking a “point,” and attacking a person.
My Courteous Response to MILF Mommy
When trying to communicate with people, it’s not ideal to begin with attacking the physical aesthetic of your audience as MILF Mommy did with her first point. Firstly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What MILF Mommy specifically says about women size 12 and up being unattractive is simply untrue. In some cultures, having a more rotund physique is a sign of wealth, and therefore desirable.
MILF Mommy’s second point about people lying to themselves may not necessarily be untrue, but the way she expresses it certainly doesn’t do her argument any favors. I agree that we as Americans are not actually “in touch” with how we really feel. If we were, then all those times we became winded walking from our car to the mall would actually motivate us to not have the meal or sweet treat offered in the food court. That MILF Mommy focuses on the size of the clothing as an indicator of health is where I think she went wrong in her second point. Just because a woman may be a size 12 (or higher), doesn’t mean she doesn’t have “toned arms,” or that she does have a “muffin top belly and huge thighs.” Depending on a woman’s height, a size 12 may, in fact, be the perfect size for her. Consider the women on this page. They are all so tall they put Amazon women to shame, but none of them have a “muffin top belly and huge thighs,” and I can guarantee you all of them wear greater than a size 12. Essentially, healthy size proportion is a crucial point that MILF Mommy missed when she based her entire argument on something as arbitrary as a clothing size. I wonder if it would freak her out to know that a size 12 in America is something completely different to clothing designers who typically use European sizing guidelines?
MILF Mommy’s last three points are all different iterations of the same argument; so I will address them together. There is no such thing as “one diet to rule them all.” Every person is different and has different dietary needs and restrictions. So, the simple caloric intake/burn method of dieting and exercising isn’t always accurate. It even changes depending on exactly what type of exercising you’re doing. I am a perfect example of this. When my physical activity was fairly limited to yoga only, I noticed that I ate things that were lighter and fresher, more organic and less likely to be cooked. As I have added running to my active life, I’ve noticed I need more dense foods, but less fibrous than with yoga-only activity. I need more cooked, full meals instead of frequent small ones. My daily caloric intake has definitely increased just so it can fuel my running activities. And the scale hasn’t changed one iota, but my size has gone down. I am living proof that MILF Mommy’s sweeping generalizations about diet and exercise are wrong.
Because every person’s needs are different, it’s false that skinny people “work harder” than larger people, or that they are healthier somehow, and a lot of it is directly connected with genetic makeup, contrary to MILF Mommy’s personal, unsubstantiated opinion. While Type II Diabetes is linked to lifestyle and obesity, conditions like Heart Disease and problems with cholesterol are deceptively stealthy killers because people generally think like MILF Mommy in that if they “look good” they’re healthy. Even if you’re under a size 12, you need to get your blood work checked to make sure you’re healthy. And anyone who’s suffered with juvenile/Type I Diabetes knows it has nothing to do with your size and everything to do with how your body produces insulin.
#2 Symptom of Disconnect: We use comparison to define our self-worth.
Probably the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves is create our self-image and find our self-worth by comparing ourselves to others. Here in America, we see life in linear and ladder form. We are born; we live; and we die; and that’s linear. We spend our whole lives working to get the best grade, graduate from the best college or university, get the best job, and make the most money so we can have the best house and car and clothes and so we can send our kids to the best schools to continue this cycle; and that’s the ladder.
The only thing that perspective has done for our society is establish a class of generational wealthy elite who are so far removed from the average person that it seems impossible to find a sense of connection because there seems to be so many ladder rungs between “us” and “them.” When we’re always comparing ourselves to the people higher up on the ladder, we’re constantly devaluing ourselves in the process. Conversely, when we’re always comparing ourselves to the people below us on the ladder, we’re constantly devaluing others.
We would benefit from a more circular perspective on life. We all live TOGETHER. We have success only because someone else made it possible, and therefore we rejoice in our success TOGETHER. When we fail, we fall back on all the others around us, and we mourn and recoup TOGETHER. The saying, “it takes a village to raise a child,” really should extend throughout all of life, and we’d all be better off for it.
#3 Symptom of Disconnect: We have allowed our consumerism to turn us into zombies.
Because we are a culture of consumers, we have bought, eaten, and satisfied ourselves into a zombified stupor to such an extent that we don’t even realize how broken and disconnected we are as an entire culture. We are a society of generally overweight, unhealthy, unhappy people weighed down by our “pursuit of happiness” in which we willingly accept the debt, weight, disease, and mental illness that comes with the American, capitalist, consumerist culture. Because we think we can buy and/or own the means to our happiness, we think this is the only way to live. But, young padawans, there is another way to live happily, and it doesn’t involve the pursuit of anything at all.
A Cure for All that Ails Us
I know I’ve referred to mindfulness as the approach to fix a plethora of ailments, and I’ll reiterate it again. We’re all looking for a panacea to fix all our problems, but most people assume it’s something they can buy (like a pill or a diet book or a gym membership). I think the panacea for our cultural epidemic IS mindfulness, and you can’t price it because you can’t buy it. It isn’t a thing; it’s an action. It can’t be owned; it has to be done. Mindfulness may be a noun but its function is more accurately aligned with the verb class of words.
As it pertains to this post’s focus on dieting, in his most recent post, “The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring,” Leo Babauta from zen habits offers up mindfulness as a realistic, long-lasting approach to dieting. And really what he’s doing here is outlining the “lifestyle change” we constantly hear about from our family doctors as well as famous doctors like Dr. Oz and the coaches on shows like The Biggest Loser with specific and small examples.
When you start paying attention to all the minutia of your life, you’ll see how eating the #1 combo at any fast food restaurant hurts you as well as the local and global community. Likewise, when you start being mindful of your purchases, you find that you really do have the power of the almighty dollar to change the world. Are you going to buy this kind of chocolate that is only available to you in its condition and at its price because it was farmed for by the hands of child slaves in Africa? Or, will you spend a little more, thus requiring that you have the treat a little less frequently, and instead buy this chocolate that’s likely better quality, likely better for you, but definitely better for our world because you bought it from a certified fair trade farmer?
Taking a mindful approach to life will un-do all the damage of our epidemic of disconnect. It will help you with your diet, your domestic budget, your road rage, your marital relationship, your work-life….the list goes on and on.
Suggested Reading for Reconnecting
The book and PBS documentary, Affluenza explains our cultural epidemic of disconnect much better than I do and with better references that I have here, and it is what inspired me to take an “epidemic” and “symptomatic” approach with this post. We read the book as part of our required Biblical studies senior-capstone course (Christ & Culture) in college, and it challenged us to enter the world as recent college grads with the knowledge that we were about to enter an all-devouring machine, but only if we let ourselves be consumed by it.
David Korten, an American economist wrote, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth-A Declaration of Independence from Wall Street in which he proposes an alternative culture to the current Wall Street economy. His suggested culture is based on the Main Street economy of locally owned, community connected enterprise in which success has more than just a monetary or consumerist value. We read this book during our congregation-wide focus on economic justice at Church of the Savior in the fall, and we were charged with passing it along to other interested persons to continue the work of economic justice. So, if any of you locals want to read this book, let me know and I’ll GIVE you my copy!
Suggested Practices for Reconnecting
Breathing. Yup, that’s all I’ve got. Really, you can do lots of things to try to reconnect, but breathing is the easiest, cheapest, best way to get started. Just breathe. In and out. Slowly, or quickly doesn’t matter as much as paying attention to what it does in your body.
My friend, Aaron shared this link with me today, and asked for my thoughts. I doubt he wanted all of this, but I’ve been cooking these thoughts for a while anyway. Now is just as good a time as any to see how they’re coming along.
I definitely get behind the science of rewiring the brain. If Pavlov could do it with a dog, then of course humans can condition (and recondition) ourselves. As an example, in my junior year of high school, I was taking Psychology. Our teacher paired us all up and had one person charged with monitoring heart rate, and the other charged with jumping at the sound of his hand banging on the desk. After three repetitions, we were told NOT to jump, but to continue measuring our heart rate, which increased despite the lack of jumping. The experiment showed that we can influence physical performance using an external stimulus and conditioned physical response. If this works on a cardio-vascular level, then why shouldn’t it work neurologically?
The ever decreasing malleability of our brains is the reason children need lots of stimulation and nourishment, especially in early development stages. Evidence of this malleability continues into early adulthood, and can also work to an individual’s detriment (e.g., younger prisoners tend to accumulate more criminal education than rehabilitation throughout their incarcerations). I also see how practicing mindfulness is a great way to keep the brain receptive and open to further development.
Yoga as Mindfulness Practice
Learning mindfulness, for me, wasn’t something I initially learned in practicing Buddhism, though it is probably more known as a Buddhist practice than it is a yogic one; learning yoga was just a better vehicle for me to learn mindfulness. Because practicing yoga requires a certain amount of breath awareness, it naturally causes the yogi to mentally focus on an involuntary physical process that we likely never think about. Ever. Putting your attention on the breath means you can’t think about your grocery list or upcoming weekly events, or the snippy thing someone said to you earlier. You have to let all of that fall away to actually focus on the breath. Adding the process of holding a specific physical pose makes it all the more challenging. Building these very early practice skills trains the yogi’s body and mind to know what “calm” feels like, and what “stretch” is. From there, I learned how to use my breath to propel me through more physical poses/transitions, as well as how to bring my heart rate back under control once I’m finished with those poses and need to move on to something requiring balance (and calm). With this physical conditioning, I was able to start practicing seated breathing meditation, and now I practice seated Buddhist Metta meditation. It uses the same principles of physical conditioning, but it directs mental focus toward relationships instead of physical processes.
Beginning directed at the self, Metta (lovingkindness) meditation develops love, compassion, and equanimity for the practitioner (“watering the seeds of well-being”). I practiced this stage daily, up to several times daily, for several weeks before adding the other stages. The second stage introduces us to developing lovingkindness for others, specifically our benefactors. I’ve heard this stage is the easiest, and it was the easiest for me, also. I bet you could probably think of at least 3 positive influences in your life right now. Isn’t it easy to generate compassion and peace for them?
The third stage is to direct Metta toward a neutral person. This is typically difficult because how many of us hold people in our hearts and minds “neutrally?” We typically ascribe some sort of value (whether positive or negative) toward most people. So, this third stage of Metta challenges us to send lovingkindess toward someone we typically see as invisible (a grocery store clerk, a bank teller, a janitor). In my case it was the yoga teacher who sat at the desk before my Friday class. I found practicing Metta for her encouraged me to smile more at her when I signed in, and it gave me a genuine interest for peace and happiness in her life. I came to know she was studying in school, and I began asking her how she was doing on every interaction. When she had completed her program, I found myself being quite proud of this near-perfect stranger. So, practicing Metta in this third stage was particularly transformational for me.
The fourth stage of Metta is for difficult people or adversaries. For me it is most difficult to prevent conjuring up the MOST adversarial people in my life, and that is not the goal. The goal is to progress up to your greatest sense of challenge. Can you imagine wishing peace on someone like Hitler? This stage forces me to face all the ways I have defined people as “other” and somehow undeserving of the same happy, peaceful life I would wish for myself. This fourth stage of Metta, where I am practicing now, cultivates the skill of equanimity and leads to practicing Metta for all sentient beings in the fifth and final stage.
Other Buddhist Practices
Metta practice has also laid the foundation for learning about Dependent Co-origination or Transcendental Dependent Arising (TDA). This is just another iteration of re-conditioning, this time involving lots of introspective investigation, and it further aids in the alleviation of suffering. I am still just learning about this particular practice and therefore not educated enough to offer experiential evidence yet.
I believe it is Transcendental Dependent Arising Mr. Tingen is referring to when he writes about embracing our suffering with mindfulness and Right View. I am encouraged when he says, “If we don’t embrace suffering with mindfulness and with Right View, we will almost inevitably be caught in habitual suffering. But if we embrace our suffering with Right View and mindfulness, and stop the thoughts that trigger it, we can transform the energy of our suffering so that it becomes available for our well-being.” If we want to get out of our “victim” rut, then we need become skilled at embracing our suffering without wallowing in it.
When we have developed the skill to investigate our suffering without succumbing to conditioned states previously associated with it, I think we have practiced a skillful knowledge of Transcendental Dependent Arising (“Right Mindfulness”). We have become aware of our suffering (as the Buddha had become aware), and we have alleviated it (with reconditioning, also as the Buddha alleviated suffering). I expect this will be a life-long skill development to be truly effective, hopefully moving beyond just an investigative perspective to one of true equanimity. That I may eventually learn to become friends with my suffering as I have become friends with my breath, well…that seems impossible right now. But, if I condition myself to maybe sit with my suffering…to call up my anger or rage or hurt without lashing out in response to it, well that seems like a good first step toward ending the cycle of suffering; and even if the larger goal is impossible, the smaller one is both possible AND practical.
In my case, as in most others I would imagine, I am learning these techniques to help me deal with suffering that has already happened. But the stories of people using mindfulness to get through difficult situations are also quite impressive. Dr. Tenzin Choedak was the medical doctor for the Dalai Lama, but before that he had been imprisoned by the Chinese. He served 21 years in prison, 17 of which Dr. Choedak endured daily physical and psychological torture. Because he had developed the ability to withstand suffering without succumbing to it as a result of his Tibetan Buddhism practice, Dr. Choedak came out of that situation with relatively little “post-traumatic stress” and much wisdom to offer others.
Eastern Suffering and Western Guilt
Where this Eastern practice (sometimes observed as a religion) teaches us how we are all connected with our suffering and how to improve our relationships with greater (more skillful) understanding of suffering, both personally and generally, the Western understanding of suffering has a much different focus. In the West, where the religious social movement of Christianity influenced a great deal of culture, guilt and shame are fundamental to humanity. Because of “The Fall,” men have to work hard, and women experience pain in childbirth and menstruation. Christianity explains why we suffer, but it doesn’t tell us how to cope with it. In fact, the Christian understanding of suffering further creates a sense of “other”—a sense of disconnect. Even those who have been restored to God’s favor are set apart as sacred believers, exclusive of the “Gentiles.” So regardless of our spiritual condition as either sinful or atoned, Christians are never actually connected to anyone outside of Christianity. Woe to the believer who is excommunicated! With the Western sense of guilt or shame merely for existing as inherently sinful creatures, is it any wonder we need to spend more time cultivating kindness towards ourselves in comparison with Eastern Buddhists?
The fundamental vision of a sinful and guilty humanity also explains how Christian perspectives encourage suffering. Christians are encouraged to take up their crosses. Martyrs have been beatified, and some medieval Christian devotional practices included flagellation. This identification with suffering is supposed to instill a sense of understanding of/with Christ. But I think this is where the Western philosophy falls short. Yes, we all suffer, and Christianity offers a detailed mythology for why and how. But aside from telling us to hold the faith and endure it with the strength of Christ (to whom we attribute superhuman/divine powers like rising from the dead), Western Christianity offers little instruction on how to actually LIVE with suffering. (The Book of Job does provide a helpful example, as do parts of Ecclesiastes, both of which are Hebrew Testament contributions to the Christian textual canon.)
In the traditional Roman Catholic focus on the Passion of Christ, we have the reward of death as the end of suffering with eternal life rising as victorious even over death. Though it’s quite the carrot on the stick, are we to truly believe this unsubstantiated promise of eternal salvation will get us through life? Many do. And when their parents die, or their children die, or their spouse suffers a horrible malady, or whatever horrible thing you can imagine, Christians often end up blaming God or themselves because of the fundamental focus on the why and the how of suffering as opposed to the question of surviving in the midst of suffering or even preventing future suffering.
Developing the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, whether learned directly through Buddhism or indirectly as a benefit to yoga practice, is a fabulous way to recondition ourselves and to take on suffering without feeling the need to pass it on to others in an attempt to rid ourselves of it. Where I think Christianity falls short in merely explaining the why and how of suffering, Buddhism teaches us to be with our suffering without being affected by it, not a cultivation of indifference, but a cultivation of fortitude. It requires both discipline and courage to consistently subject yourself to exploring suffering. But, the freedom that awaits is most definitely accessible in this lifetime with the eternal reward passing onto future generations as opposed to something we might hope for, some day, if and when Christian eschatology comes to pass.
I hope sharing some of my own experiences with mindfulness illustrates that physical and psychological reconditioning has physical and psychological (and social/relational) benefits. It’s definitely possible to rewire the brain and to change the way we relate to ourselves and to others. I also think it’s possible to change the whole world with a systemic mindfulness element to public education! To change the world, we must change ourselves and the ways we act in it!
As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to share your own mindfulness practices or tips in the comments!