Posts filed under 'Uncategorized'
December 28th, 2010
With the New Year right around the corner, there will be plenty of resolutions to get in shape or to drop a few pounds in 2011. If history is any indicator, a lot of that resolve will disappear within weeks and it will be another year of failed resolutions. To be fair, modern life does not exactly make it easy to meet those goals. But I contend that those resolutions shouldn’t have to be goals we explicitly make every year. One reason for this prevalence of weight and exercise based resolutions is of particular interest to me: the loss of a physical culture.
You hear it all the time: we lead a largely sedentary lifestyle. Many of us no longer have jobs which require any substantive physical activity. We sit hunched over desks at work and sit in cars to commute. Common leisure activities also involve sitting, like television and video games. If we go to the gym to get exercise, we might even sit on a stationary bike to do our exercise! We spend an inordinate amount of time sitting.
As a consequence, many people forget how to move their bodies since they spend so much time sitting instead of moving. That’s really a shame, since humans are designed to move and thrive when they move a lot. Exercise has a whole host of benefits, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Improving overall health and well being
- Boosting brain power
- Strengthening the immune system
- Counteracting stress
- Increased happiness
- Graceful aging
- Improves productivity
- Boosts energy levels
- Improved mobility and quality of life
Plenty of people go to the gym; yet, I would argue that many gym goers are not actually fit and move poorly. They are in the gym which is a good start, but going to the gym does not equate with physical fitness. In my opinion, there are fundamental flaws with a “gym culture” for our fitness needs. In particular, I see three major problems with the gym fitness atmosphere: (1) people don’t know what they are doing, (2) there are misguided attitudes about exercise, and (3) being physically fit isn’t correctly valued. Although the three are related, let us consider them individually.
People don’t know what they are doing. I see this on a regular basis both in gyms and when I teach martial arts classes. Since people do not move as much as they should, their bodies forget how to move properly. Possibly, their bodies may never have learned to move in certain ways at all. As a result, people frequently use poor movement patterns and terrible form while exercising (and probably also in everyday life). They lift with their backs instead of using their hips and legs, planks are done with a sagging back, bench presses are done with floating (unstable) shoulders, they use bad running mechanics on treadmills, lunges are done with misaligned knee positions, etc. People already have poor movement patterns from a sedentary lifestyle. Going to the gym will not fix that fact. It only means they will continue moving poorly in the gym until they either get injured or learn to correct their movement deficiencies.
People have counter-productive exercise attitudes. The primary example would be the “no pain, no gain” misconception. While striving for high level fitness is commendable, exercise is not supposed to be torture. The vast majority of people are not elite athletes, so constantly training with high intensity and volume makes no sense. In addition, the physical improvements from exercise actually occur during recovery rather than the active exercise. Training too much of the “pain” side of things means no recovery and no gains. Unpleasant workouts which only marginally improve physical fitness are unsustainable in the long term and ultimately counter-productive.
Related misconceived notions include “more is better” and “all or nothing.” Though plenty of people do not exercise enough, more is not always better. Exercise and activity is good up to a point. Just because some exercise is good for you does not necessarily mean that more exercise is better. The body can only do so much before it needs rest to recover. You can see this sort of misguided “more is better” idea with people’s New Years resolutions and with weekend warriors. Their gung ho exercise plans do not include proper ramping up of exercise load over time or sufficient recovery periods. Their jam-packed exercise routines are unsustainable and exceeds the recovery threshold; it eventually leads to over-training and burning out. The “all-or-nothing” idea that then takes over is an equally ludicrous extreme. As motivation for the unsustainable high exercise load wanes, the exercise stops completely. It’s not a binary choice between an all out effort at the gym or staying at home eating bonbons. There can and should be a moderate middle path.
Being physically fit is not correctly valued. People say they value fitness, but their statements do not match observed reality. If fitness is so important, why do we watch television so much more than exercise? Physical activity is so easily dropped from our busy schedules, which suggests that it actually is not valued much. So many things we do in daily life detract from being physically active: driving everywhere, taking the elevator instead of the stairs, skipping the gym because we’re tired, watching t.v. instead of taking a walk, playing video games simulating sports instead of playing said sports, circling a parking lot for 5 minutes looking for a close spot instead of just taking a spot and walking the extra 50 yards, etc. We opt for a passive solution in life where we could be incorporating physical activity. Rather than being a lifestyle priority, physical activity is treated more like a red-headed step child.
Another problem is that physical fitness has become valued in consumerist terms. Almost all aspects of our lives are driven by monetary value. Even the something as basic as staying physically active has not escaped commoditization. By basing exercise on a concept of monetary value, we have succumbed to a mistaken idea that physical fitness is like any other consumer product or service–something that can be resolved with a simple purchase. We spend money on trendy exercise programs, memberships to gyms with fancy new equipment, and a large variety of gear and fitness accessories. Being fit is central to our well-being, yet we find it necessary to pay other people to tell us how to move our bodies and sell us the equipment to make ourselves fit. People have maintained their fitness long before commercial gyms and exercise videos. People around the world without access to either gyms or equipment somehow manage to stay fit. Something has gone terribly wrong when something as basic as physical movement is dominated by commercial interests. Physical fitness has to be an inherent part of a lifestyle and not a purchasable quick-fix.
Now that I’ve painted this glum picture of the sorry state of physical affairs, is there anything that can be done? In fact, yes, there is a lot that can be done. Returning physical culture to our lives is readily achievable. Changing the mindset from a culture of sitting to a culture of moving would be a good start. Where possible, we can walk and bike instead of driving. We can choose to park far and walk instead of circling looking for a close spot. We can take the stairs instead of waiting for an elevator. We can shut off the television and spend time with others in movement based leisure. We can play pick up games instead of playing video game simulations of sports. We can take responsibility for our own physical fitness instead of falling prey to instant result promises of commercial products and services. We can reconnect with our bodies by moving more and experiencing the joy in moving. We can integrate movement into our lifestyles instead of making exercise an extra task to fit into our schedules. In short, we can re-instill personal and community value in physical activity. The return of physical culture to modern life is well within our reach. We just need to choose to bring it back.
July 5th, 2009
Popular music isn’t known for being a bastion of deep philosophical ponderings. Despite the image of superficiality and tabloid celebrity behavior, there are still examples of wise words from our musical muses. Here are a few that I like.
“Life’s a journey, not a destination.” – Aerosmith, Amazing
We are only capable of living in the present. We can plan for the future all we want, but in the end, we can only experience life on a moment to moment basis. Complete control of life’s twists and turns is impossible, and maybe not even desirable. The best we can do is get a rough idea of where we’re headed and enjoy our travels wherever life’s meandering path may take us.
“It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.” – Sheryl Crow, Soak Up The Sun
This is a popular lyric for anti-consumerism and de-cluttering; it’s almost a cliched phrase. But I still like the words and the meaning behind them. It’s not about ownership or accumulating. Happiness doesn’t come from “getting” and “having.” The act of acquiring and owning brings fleeting joy. True contentment will elude us until we learn to appreciate the gifts that already surround us.
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” – Bob Marley, Redemption Song
“There are miracles in life I must achieve, but first I know it starts inside of me.” – R. Kelly, I Believe I Can Fly
One key teaching of Buddhism is that suffering exists primarily in one’s own mind. Regardless of our circumstances–whether we are rich or poor, on top of the world or in the gutters–our suffering exists solely within the prisons we have built in our own minds. We exert control over our perception of suffering and over our own perceived limitations; when we come to realize this, we can free ourselves the the mental chains which bind us.
“There’s gon’ be some stuff you gon’ see that’s gon’ make it hard to smile in the future. But through whatever you see, through all the rain and the pain, you gotta keep your sense of humor. You gotta be able to smile.” – Tupac Shakur, Smile
The full lyric is a bit more colorful, so I cut off the last few words to keep this post PG rated. I admit that I’m not normally a big Tupac fan, but these words struck a chord with me. Despite leading a rough and tumble life that would ultimately result in his premature end, Tupac still managed to pen some sage words. This lyric falls in line nicely with the previous two lyrics. Even if the world turns its arrows against you, you still exert ultimate control over your suffering and happiness. You can either choose to be the victim or choose to shrug off whatever hardships are flung your way.
May 11th, 2009
I have recently come across a couple of writings advocating a more barebones (or more specifically, barefoot) approach to footwear. The first is an article expaining how running shoes do nothing to reduce injuries; the second is a blog post by lifestyle design experimenter Tim Ferriss about his experience with Vibram Five Finger shoes. Both come to the conclusion that modern running shoes hinder natural foot biomechanics and usually lead to foot and/or lower leg problems. Since our body movement is more of an interconnected kinetic chain than isolated movements, the impaired function of the feet causes other parts of our body to compensate for the dysfunction at the foot. Ultimately, poor foot mechanics induced by shoes leads to knee, hip, back, and shoulder problems
I’ve written about the overly supportive shoe issue before in a previous blog post, and I have since then become even further convinced that shoes–particularly athletic shoes–are a major reason we have so many foot problems, lower leg injuries, and overall dysfunctional body mechanics. Thick soled, elevated heel, motion constraining shoes prevent the foot from moving naturally and reduce the feedback we get from our feet about our balance and body positioning.
Over time, our reliance on support from the shoe weakens our feet. I’ve noticed this in my own feet. I inherited the flat foot gene that permeates my dad’s side of the family. My feet were once so flat that I could step on a surface and tell how level it was by the feeling on the soles of my feet. I also sprained my ankles a lot playing basketball. After switching to thin soled aqua socks for several months, my feet became stronger, and my balance got better. These days I suffer far fewer rolled ankles since my feet better sense the ground and can react faster to protect my ankles and my balance. As an additional pleasant surprise, my previously completely flat feet now have a noticeable arch; not much of an arch, but enough to that my friends and family have confirmed that I’m not hallucinating.
I won’t deny that cushioned shoes are still useful; after nearly a year of my minimal shoe experiment, my feet still hurt after extended periods of pavement pounding. I’m glad that I no longer fork over gobs of cash for fancy shoes that ultimately do nothing for me other than weaken my feet. I don’t know if I can win over more converts to the minimal shoe/barefoot lifestyle, but I know I plan to continue minimizing how often I wear my cross trainers.
March 7th, 2009
Mind the gap.
Initially recorded in the days when digital storage was vastly more expensive, this pithy phrase wastes no words in its safety reminder. In three simple words, the phrase reminds British train passengers to pay attention to the gap between the train and the platform lest they trip and fall. In the hustle and bustle of a busy train station, even a sizable gap could go unnoticed by a distracted passenger. People regularly fail to notice things from not being in the present moment.
I watched a woman walk right through the wet cement of a newly paved sidewalk because she was too engaged in a cell phone conversation to notice the large orange cones, bright yellow warning tape, and the distinctively different colored cement. At an exhibit at the Tate, some people failed to notice a new art installation: a large 10-inch wide crack in the cement floor. In another example, busy DC metro riders ignored a virtuosic musical performance by world class violinist Joshua Bell. In each of these cases, people were oblivious to their environments because their attentions were focused away from the present.
Though we try to avoid zoning out, wandering (or otherwise distracted) attentions are natural and part of being human. Being perpetually in the moment is an admirable goal, but ultimately it is an unachievable ideal. Our attentions will at some point slip, and we will inevitably fall out of the moment. An important part of living mindfully is learning to recognize when we slip away from the present; we mind the gaps in our attentions so that we can bring ourselves back into moment.
Just as we can learn to perceive the gaps in our attentions, we can also learn to take advantage of other gaps in our lives. Being able to maintain sharp mental focus on a task often comes as a benefit of mindfulness training. With proper focus on a task, the task gets done much more efficiently. However, constant mental focus on a single task wears down your mental energy and functions as a set of blinders which take you out of the moment. The modern emphasis on constant productivity means we get fewer and fewer periods of downtime when we can unwind and return to just being. We move from one task to another and become so conditioned to being constantly “on” that we even structure our vacation time. Over the long term, the constant focus on getting things done and never savoring simple moments just wears us down.
Given that a return to an idyllic society is highly unlikely, learning to take advantage of our precious moments of downtime becomes crucial. In a discussion with my teacher, we asked how he was able to stay collected and avoid burn out with all of his traveling and seemingly crazy schedule. His answer was that he learned to recognize his periods of downtime, and use those opportunities to be in the moment. These instances of being in the moment, no matter how short, were his method of rejuvenation. It’s these moments, between our frantic efforts of putting out daily fires, where we can relax and just be. We do not need to fill every single gap in our schedules with “productive” time.
Minding the gaps is how we cultivate our ability to live in the moment. The London Underground got it right with their three word recording. They just didn’t realize the full significance of their words.
February 3rd, 2009
“They say the means are after all just means. I would say means are after all everything. As the means, so the end.” — M.K. Gandhi
From time to time, we become so focused on the end goal that we lose sight of the path; the ends override the means. It’s rarely the case where the means are separable from the ends. Even if we can artificially extract one from the other, doing so leads to undesired consequences. We only need to look to recent history to see a prime example of the foolishness of justifying the means via the ends. Profit motive drove numerous questionable decisions in the trading of mortgage-backed securities in the financial sector. Focusing on the end goal of profit led to greed instead of sound business practice and eventually led to the sharp economic downturn we are currently experiencing.
That’s not to say that the ends never justify the means. There are unique instances where the benefit of the ends can outweigh the downside of the means. Arguably, the choice to use the atomic bomb in WWII saved many lives. At the same time, the atomic bomb was devastating for its victims and initiated a world fear of nuclear holocaust. Though the ends can sometimes justify the means, the means are still intimately intertwined with the ends.
Ultimately, it’s not a question of ends versus means. One necessarily affects the other. The ends and means are fundamentally interconnected.
January 24th, 2009
(CC) Creative Commons.
Growing up in a restaurant family, I’ve always been surrounded by good food and good cooks. Even after I left the restaurant life to pursue my education, food has been an important theme in my life. I’ve always felt it important to eat well and that food plays a pivotal role in our lives. We must eat regularly to nourish our bodies and thrive. What food we eat determines what nutrition we receive and how well we can maintain our health.
You are what you eat
We obtain the nutrients we need to live from the food we eat; food is an integral part of our being. Our health and well being is intimately tied to the food we eat. Unfortunately, what we choose to eat sometimes (perhaps too often) only loosely qualifies as food.
The hectic pace of modern life has made fast, convenience, and junk foods a fixture in our lives. Unfortunately, these industrialized foods are not designed for providing the highest quality and most nutritious foods. Rather, they are geared towards minimizing costs and maximizing profits. Achieving those goals means sacrificing flavor and nutrition in favor of transportability, shelf life, and lower cost (i.e. lower quality) ingredients.
The industrialization of our food has been a mixed blessing. Our food is now cheaper and more readily available. On the other hand, our food choices are now often less nutrient dense, higher in calories, more homogeneous tasting, contain artificial additives, and less like actual food. We do less food preparation ourselves than our parents and grandparents, and have become disconnected from our food. We have instead come to rely on the black box of large scale commercial, agri-industrial production for our dietary needs. This has given us a host of undesirable consequences:
- the prevalence of highly processed products full of high fructose corn syrup and all manner of industrial ingredients (preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, partially hydogenated oils, etc.). These “food” products are calorific and shelf stable, but otherwise nutritionally void.
- grain fed, antibiotic pumped meat unnaturally high in saturated fat and low in several nutrients (omega-3, vitamins, and various antioxidants).
- hormone injected dairy cows producing high estrogen content milk. Commercial dairy products are implicated in disrupting normal endocrine function and promoting cancer.
- industrially farmed and imported produce which is unripe, insipid, less nutritious, and more monocultured than locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Combine suboptimal dietary choices with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and it’s unsurprising that health problems are rising. We’re seeing high rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and food sensitivities among other disorders.
Healing power of food
Fortunately, positive changes in diet can be readily implemented and effect significant health improvements. Just as eating poorly throws a wrench into your system’s gears, eating well returns your body to the well oiled machine it was meant to be. Properly fueled, the human body has an amazing ability to heal itself.
Many of the diseases we suffer in the modern developed world are preventable with simple lifestyle choices–most notably diet and exercise. Just eating well has positive effects on digestive tract health, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, bone health, body weight, immune system function, mental alertness, and energy levels.
How do we go about eating well? There is already a cornucopia of available material on the subject, but I think a quote from Michael Pollan summarizes the general strategy nicely: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
(CC) Creative Commons.
Minimally processed whole foods are superior to the cardboard and plastic packaged convenience food. Finding these foods means shopping on the perimeter of a grocery store where the fresh foods are instead of towards the center where the processed, prepackaged, and artificial stuff usually is. If possible, it is even better to shop at a local farmers’ markets or grow some of your own food. With real food in hand, do as much meal preparation yourself as you can. By reconnecting yourself to the creation of your food, you will enjoy healthier, more nutritious, and more flavorful meals.
Not too much
Fast and prepackaged foods are designed for parting consumers with their money. They are nutrient sparse and designed to encourage overeating. They do not fully sate you or adequately nourish you, but they addict you to eating them; consequently, you become programmed to crave and eat more. That’s wonderful for corporate bottom lines, but not so great for your bottom (or midsection as the case may be).
In contrast, eating high quality, nutrient dense foods satisfies your body’s needs, requiring less consumption for satiety. After a few weeks of eating a nutritious diet of fresh, whole foods, portion control becomes more natural as you deprogram the commercial food cravings and truly satisfy your body’s nutritional needs.
Humans are omnivores with an amazing digestive tract that can derive our nutrition from a multitude of flora and fauna. However, we still need to remember to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables; just because we can survive on a carnivorous diet doesn’t mean that we should. The human digestive tract works optimally with plant food sources (e.g. fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, etc) and can be supplemented by animal sources (e.g. meat and dairy). A diet rich in plant foods provides essentials like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which help us stay healthy and thrive.
We cannot remain unaware of the source of our food, how it is grown and processed, and how it is prepared. To disconnect ourselves from the creation of our food means paying a hefty long term nutrtitional and health price. We must instead strive to be mindful of our food choices. Paying attention to our food reconnects us to the vital process of nourishing ourselves building strong, healthy bodies.
January 7th, 2009
Happy Buddha, Longhua Temple, Shanghai China (CC).
The past several months have been an unpleasant blur. I didn’t have a terrible car accident, lose my home, or anything most people would consider all that traumatic. The unpleasantness arose from my work. A few months ago, I moved and started a new job. The job was on paper a good job, but the practical reality of the situation was a starkly different. There were long hours stuck in front of a computer with no breaks, with the only human interaction coming from a boss who’s idea of being nice was letting you have lunch. The job was slowly but surely sucking away all my joy in life.
Despite the sluggish economy and fear of an unknown employment future, I left the job. Some people might argue that leaving a decent paying job in the midst of a down economy and bad job market is a terrible idea. But the rational person would counter that money isn’t everything. While my job was paying the bills and leaving me some discretionary cash, it was also the primary reason I was unable to spend quality time with my wife, develop ties to my community, interact with friends and family, exercise regularly, or even eat regular meals.
Many people willingly make these sacrifices everyday for their work. But is it a wise choice to substitute work for other aspects of our lives? The studies on what brings people happiness tell us that we derive fulfillment from a number of factors. Some people are driven to succeed and derive their fulfillment from work accomplishments, but others only derive their joy from endeavors outside of their professional lives. Plenty of people associate money with success and happiness. Money and happiness are correlated, but only up to a certain point. Money buys a lot of joy when it brings someone out of poverty and provides the basics to a comfortable life (housing, food, healthcare, etc). However, after the basics are met, the returns in happiness for greater income quickly level off. The results on work and money bringing happiness are mixed.
There are other factors affecting happiness which are not in dispute: health, family, and friends. Our parents (and grandparents) were right when they told us to pay attention to our health. Without a healthy mind and body, our ability to fully live life becomes hampered. Pursuits which hamper our ability to nurture ourselves and preserve our health only set us on a destructive path to self-injury. Willingly sacrificing health is a questionable choice since it accomplishes nothing of value and has pretty significant downsides. Actively staying healthy is the more fruitful endeavor; our health plays a significant role in our contentment, and preserving health in the present is much more effective than trying to regain health later.
Equally important to our feeling of fulfillment is our connection to others. Though we can survive as solitary beings, we thrive when we have positive interactions with family and friends. Humans are essentially social creatures. People are happier when they have strong family bonds, close friends, and ties to the community. In surveys by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, 40% of married people described themselves as “very happy” vs. 25% for the perpetual singles. People with 5 or more close friends are 50% more likely than those with fewer close friends to say they were “very happy.” Close bonds with our fellow humans effects our happiness; however, our interactions do not merely have to be with a close circle of friends and family. Research shows that even happiness from total strangers can rub off and boost your mood. The key element lies in enjoying the company of other people.
Over the past few months, both the basics of nurturing my health and building interpersonal relationships were notably missing from my life. It was no surprise that I was miserable; my job was actively depriving me of the fundamental elements which bring joy into my life. The New Year has brought the opportunity for a fresh start without the baggage of the less than pleasant past. Though the future is nebulous and just a bit scary, I am not fretting (yet). I’m enjoying the moments of contentment from rejuvenating my mind and body and reforging my connection with others.
Other Happiness Articles:
- Can money buy happiness? – Money Magazine
- Maybe money does buy happiness after all – New York Times
- Can money buy happiness? – The American
- Holding on to happiness in hard times – The Week
- Road to happiness lies in health, family and friends – The Age
- Your happiness could be contagious – MSNBC
- The only guide to happiness you’ll ever need – Zen Habits
September 21st, 2008
Illustration compliments of Lem Fugitt of Robot Dreams
In a prior post, I wrote about the value of thinking inside the box. Working from within the box, we can come to recognize the bounds of the box and begin to understand the framework it establishes. It is after coming to understand the box that we can begin to think outside of it. In a similar fashion, mindfulness training takes an inside to outside developmental route. Though there are a lucky few people in the world who can immediately reach enlightenment and perceive the world with unclouded vision, most people will need to journey through a path of self-discovery first.
Our minds are partly formed via luck of the genetic draw and partly forged through environmental and societal influences; our life experiences and interactions with family and community shape our identities. Starting from childhood, we discover patterns of understanding in our everyday existence and use our life experiences to form a framework for understanding the world. Formulating patterns from our experiences allows us to establish coping strategies to survive life. For example, we learn or are taught early in life not to touch hot objects or stay out of the path of large moving objects. On the other hand, we also develop mental frameworks which only serve to color our perceptions. For a multitude of reasons, we may come to like or dislike certain foods, people, style of clothing, etc. The mental constructs we forge become filters through which we perceive the world.
These mental constructs that we form obscure the true nature of the world we perceive. Our sense of self–our egos–assign labels and values to things based largely on preconceptions. By relying on preformed labels and values, we bias our perceptions. We can’t see with fresh eyes, listen with attentive ears, or taste with a cleansed palate. We constrain ourselves in what we allow ourselves to perceive. Our preconceptions form the walls of box which limit our ability to see things as they are, and our egos become the guardians of those walls.
Due to the imperfections of the mind, we are prone to revert to thinking inside the box. In mindfulness training, we strive to expand our awareness to perceive the world as it truly is, but the constraints of our boxes hinder our growth. Often, we may not even know that we view the world through tinted lenses. Part of the challenge in mindfulness training is to focus our attentions our thoughts so that we can come to recognize the mental boxes which bias our perceptions. After recognizing the box formed by our preconceptions, we can begin to understand the box and recognize the walls which trap us.
Recognition of the box and acknowledgement of our egos is prerequisite to breaking down the walls of mental ensnarement. Mindfulness training teaches us to recognize our mental boxes so that we may learn to look past them and perceive with greater clarity. Mindfulness starts from within and expands our awareness outward as we learn to let go of the mental frameworks that our egos so closely guard.