Personal Sustainability – Mental, Spiritual & Themes

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Balancing Act

In this post I’m exploring the latter half of the four areas of personal sustainability, Mental and Spiritual, as well as sharing a few themes which apply to all.

Sustainability is defined as “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.” In this way I view sustainability as not just doing something as long as you can, but doing it in a way that promotes well-being (ecological balance) and prevents burnout (depletion of resources).

Mental (focus of energy)

When most people use the term burnout, I think they are referring to mental exhaustion. I don’t know anyone who intends to be burnt out by their work, but I know plenty of people who feel that they are. Here are some helpful ways I’ve found to address this:

90 minute working/computer sessions: I’ve written about this before, but after three years of trying to consistently limit any one computer session to 90 minutes, I am just now beginning to get the hang of it. I’ve found the first session of the day is quite easy: I have a good understanding of what I’m going to be working on, my music is queued up, and I feel fresh. The second and third sessions (if I get that far) are much more difficult to keep track of, as over time diligence can wain. A low willpower makes one susceptible to maintain the inertia of working well beyond the point of positive returns, and thus it is especially important to be aware of working later in the day.

Few supports for this intention:
-Physically getting up. Sometimes I allow my “break” to be checking facebook, reading news, watching videos, etc. but after such a pause I don’t feel refreshed, and thus, it doesn’t serve the purpose of a break.
-Starting at time intervals which are easy to keep track of. If I start a session at 9am, whenever I glance at the time I have a easily identifiable indication of where I’m at, versus starting at 8:52 which requires more effort to be aware of.
-Starting the session with a 3-minute breathing space. Every single time I have the diligence to do this I am glad I did.

Posture while working: This may seem like a minor point, but it isn’t. Many people spend the majority of their working day not paying attention to how they are using their body. Poor posture means over time more attention is being re-directed to aches and pains of the body; some minor, some serious. The most helpful posture guidance I’ve found is by exploring the Alexander Technique, through lessons and books . While working at the computer I use a laptop stand with an external keyboard and trackpad. I’ve recently been experimenting with a standing desk as well, and am finding it beneficial.

Diversity: When I was a child I discovered that if I ate just one kind of food I would quickly tire of it, but if I ate multiple types I could keep going. (I was kind of a chubby kid.) I’ve witnessed the same rule applies in other realms of life: reading is different from writing is different from watching. Varying the medium of consumption allows me to digest more and focus for longer.

Spiritual (purpose of energy)

I once heard enlightenment defined as simply remembering. Socrates put it as “All inquiry and learning is but recollection.”

When I began walking down a spiritual path I think I implicitly assumed that once I had been able to embrace a certain type of suffering then I would no longer need to be concerned with it again. I thought I could just “learn the lesson” and move on…in my experience this has not quite been the case :)

I am finding that each situation presents its own particularities which must be welcomed, held, examined, and released in order to be transformed. There is no one size fits all, no magic bullet, no secret. It’s simply showing up: minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, and being present, as fully as I can, with what arises.

Because each moment is unique, in order to sustain this type of energy I need to be constantly reminded of why I am doing what I am doing. Therefore it should come as no surprise that I find extended stays at mindfulness practice centers so rewarding! This work can be done anywhere, but some conditions are more favorable than others. Being steeped in an environment where there is an explicit directive to practice a path of compassion helps me to remember. I still forget, daily, but I am supported by those around me to keep coming back to my deepest intention…

To love.

Themes across all four areas (Physical, Emotional, Mental, Spiritual)

Under-estimating externalities of a single behavior change
When making a decision to change something, I am often surprised at how many unexpected considerations appear which need to be dealt with.

For example, last year I wanted to increase the amount of physical activity I engaged in…so I started running. In my mind I thought the +/- was simple: the benefit would be long-term health and the cost would be the time spent running and pushing past fatigue in the short-term.

After running for a while I saw much more benefit than I anticipated: I started having more energy during the day. I slept better. I built my physical endurance. I was able to more easily release mental tension. I begin to appreciate my neighborhood more. My connection with my parent’s dog increased as whenever I was home I would take her out with me. I started paying more attention to where there were sidewalks and how large they were. I started waving at strangers more.

I also saw unexpected costs. There were relatively harmless things like needing to do laundry more and buying more socks. There were also higher costs such as my ankles becoming sore and needing to invest in a physiotherapist. When I didn’t exercise I now felt lazy. Then when shopping for new shoes I found there to be quite a lot of contention on what types of shoes / support was best, and found myself needing to a lot more research to feel good about a purchasing decision.

My lesson here was to start expecting the unexpected, knowing that a small change may trigger many unforeseen considerations. The best way I could prepare was by being open for them.

Processing capacity
Having sufficient capacity to process that which arises in experience is a necessity for sustained well-being. The more capacity, the faster the processing, the cleaner the system, and the more it can take in. If things aren’t processed, even if they are accumulating slowly, they can get ‘stuck’ and soon no more will fit. A blockage.

In a physical sense this occurs with exercise; after a good workout your body is more efficient at processing food.

Emotionally, if you are feeling worn down your ability to be there for others, and yourself, is clearly limited. Mentally if you are feeling fresh you are likely to respond better to an unplanned surprise at work.

The ability to process an experience requires being in touch with what is actually happening inside in each moment, and acting from that place of awareness.

This can be difficult at times.

Meditation can help in expanding this capacity for awareness over time. At first it may take weeks to process something ‘bad’, then days, then hours then minutes and then eventually, perhaps, no time at all.

Investing energy in core versus expansion
When deciding where to spend energy on any dimension, I noticed I was often faced with two choices: doing more of what I’m already doing or trying out new experiences. Some examples:

-Physical: Current exercises vs. new exercises
-Emotional: Current friends vs. new friends
-Mental: Current music vs. new music
-Spiritual: Current mindfulness practices vs. new practices

Of course the answer is a bit of both: investing too much in existing activities comes with a risk of stagnation, investing too much in growth risks stability

By observing my activities over time I recognized a tendency to invest more in new experiences, and as a result, often feeling unbalanced. By digging a little I uncovered a fear underneath this impulse that said what I had wasn’t good enough. If I could only find the next-big-X then I would be happy. But, of course, mindfulness practice teaches that there are more than enough conditions to be happy, just as we are. That doesn’t mean new experiences are bad, far from it, but it does mean than placing happiness on a future condition is likely to lead to disappointment.

To put it another way, if you haven’t found something meaningful in this post yet, then you’d better stop now :)

Sitting with Thay

Sitting with Thay

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Sitting with Thay

Bell

Line forms, patiently waiting

Shuffling of feet, clinking of bowls, heaps of deliciousness

Stepping outside, inhaling freshness

Walk

The sun, it shines

Entering the hall, seeing a path, straight ahead: emptiness

I’ve arrived, I’m home

Sit

Breathing in, breathing out

Opening my eyes, directly in front, I see Thay

Posture straightens, thoughts abound

Breathe

Present moment, wonderful moment,

Following my breath, curiosity steadily rising, who are you?

Zen master, reading contemplations

Eat

Consuming energy, digesting freedom

Looking at Thay, I crave acknowledgment, who am I?

Be free, my friend

Stand

We turn, we bow

I stall awkwardly, hoping that perhaps, we might speak?

He passes, without words

Calm

Woman approaches, announces suffering

Asks for support, my heart opens, I am here

Deep listening, loving speech

Care

She bows, I smile

An insight manifests; Thay isn’t gone, he’s within me

No discrimination, no discrimination

Peace

dessert in the desert

Benefits of Mindfulness

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dessert in the desert

“If you come to mindfulness just expecting benefits, sooner or later you’re going to be confused.”
-Michael Carroll

If you Google “benefits of mindfulness” you will find hundreds of recent scientific studies. There is proof of mindfulness meditation’s effectiveness at strengthening attention in schoolchildren, creating more resilient business leaders, increasing brain density of the pre-frontal cortex, improving the functioning of the immune system, and plenty more. But most seasoned mindfulness teachers will tell you that while all those benefits may be true, they are side-products of the process and not to be focused on as the “goal.”

Three years ago I was speaking on the phone to Michael Carroll, the founder of an organization which focuses on sharing mindfulness to business audiences. We were talking about a new initiative I was involved with, and while I was extolling the numerous benefits of the program he stopped me and said, “If you come to mindfulness just expecting benefits, sooner or later you’re going to be confused.”

I was admittedly confused. Continue reading

Wake Up OI

2014 Aspirations

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Wake Up OI

New Year, New Me. This year I have three primary aspirations:

1. Observe the fruits of practice

On October 15th, 2013 I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, the core lay community of Thich Nhat Hanh, and given the practice name “True Garden of Faith.” No one is quite sure how names are chosen (except those who choose), but it is generally accepted that your name is an assignment, an indication of how you can grow in your practice of mindfulness, of understanding, of love.

Faith, as defined in The Art of Power, is confidence born from observing the fruits of practice.

Let’s break it down:

Observing: Shining light on what is occurring without judgment, without expectation. Steadily bringing attention back over and over and over to decipher what is truly there. Continue reading

Bros on the rock

Reflections on 2013

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Bros on the rock

It’s that time of year again, to reflect back on the unfolding of the past and prepare for the blossoming which lies ahead.

In this post I’ll share an assortment of  insights from nurturing my four 2013 aspirations (integrity, names, humor and sustainability) throughout the year:

1. Integrity
Integration of thoughts & speech: I’ve always been a relatively communicative guy (this blog is prime evidence), but this year I took as a practice trying to share my thoughts and feelings verbally when they felt cloudy and muddled. I have the tendency to want to share with others only once I’ve already transformed suffering into a beautiful lotus, and not when I’m waddling around in the mud wondering where to go next. The reality is, much of my time is spent waddling. Continue reading

Pops & Son '96

Fame

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Pops & Son '96

I’d like to introduce a new feature in this space: ‘transmissions’.

These posts will each contain one or two sentences that a wise friend once personally told me. Over time these words have served as guiding principles for how I live my life, and in that way I reflect on them as wisdom which has been transmitted to me.

It is in this spirit that I’d like to transmit them to you, here, as perhaps someday they will be useful to you in your journey. To begin, some wisdom from my father:

“Early on in life I knew that I would only be famous among the people I cared about…and that was okay with me.”

A couple years ago I was in the midst of a career change, and found myself talking with my dad about fame. Recognition from others has always been important to me, and for most of my life I viewed ‘being famous’ as something to work towards.

My father shared that in his early twenties he chose to raise a family instead of going to a prestigious out-of-state college, and knew from then on he wouldn’t achieve fame in the conventional sense.

This prompted me to ask myself why I desired fame among people that I didn’t know? I reasoned that it might help provide some external assurance that what I was doing was worthwhile. But this was a flimsy excuse: fame is hardly correlated with ‘worthiness’, and besides, I had all the assurance I needed within my own experience. I was stumped. I kind of still am.

Re-defining fame this way allows me to recognize I’m actually already famous. What else is there to seek? Thanks pops; you’ll always be famous to me too.

Zeppelin, timing, and the desire for control

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Stairway

My joy is like spring so warm, it makes flowers bloom all over the earth,
My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans,
Please call me by my true names, so that I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
So I can see, that my joy and pain are one.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

During my junior year of college I was introduced to Led Zeppelin. I had listened to music before, but this band transformed my experience of merely listening with the ears to actually hearing with my whole body. I had their Greatest Hits CD (this was before Spotify, and even iTunes didn’t yet carry Zeppelin), and for my birthday my girlfriend at the time bought me the entire Led Zeppelin collection. Whoa; celebration day! With so much music at my fingertips, a question arose: how can I maximize my experience of listening to all this music? Continue reading

Who is playing the piano?

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DubaiPiano

Was it you?

She asked politely.

That expression of beauty, serenading, masquerading in the form of sound?

Looking deeply, I search for an answer…

There is a piano before me.
But this piano is born of plastic, metal and wire constructed by people I’ve never heard of.

There is a sheet of music facing me.
But this music is born of genius, effort and persistence by people I’ve heard of but will likely never meet.

There is technique within me.
But this technique is born of lessons, guidance and feedback by people I’ve met but which are not me.

How can I say it’s me?
It’s more like the piano, the music and the technique played itself.

2013 Aspirations

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Liftoff

A lot can happen in a year if you pay attention.

I intend to continue the cycle I began last year of setting yearly aspirations and then reviewing them at year-end.

The spirit of most aspirations will be to shine the light of awareness on a topic of interest by making a concentrated and structured effort to explore it throughout the entire year. At times it may also be appropriate to make a highly specific and measurable goal.

Ready? Let’s dive into 2013. Continue reading

Reflection on 2012

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2012 Reflection

At the beginning of this year I established a set of 4 aspirations to examine in the months that followed. Soon after, I discovered that the act of (publicly) setting this intention provided additional energy for me to look deeply into each of these areas and learn from them. It also provided a reference point to return to during the inevitable frustrations of daily life. The reminder that these were practice areas aided my acceptance of those qualities of myself I’m not so open to at the moment.

In this month’s entry I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned about these aspirations over the past year.

This entry is a tad longer than most, so I suggest digesting in stages and/or starting with the section which speaks to you most (click to go directly to section). The 4 aspirations are as follows: Continue reading

a brand new day is before me…