Beyond Diet and Exercise!

Over the years I have learned a lot about diet and exercise. I am, for the most part, conscious about what I eat. For the past year I have stayed away from simple carbohydrates (especially sugars in its many forms,) and gluten. It’s meant I have to forego some wonderful desserts, breads and pastas. But I have also dropped almost 15 kilos, I feel better, I have little back pain and pain in my knees and hips has all but gone. I have been going to the gym regularly as well, following a balanced program that uses free weights, exercise machines and cardio equipment to tone up my muscles. Someone commented jokingly at the beginning of the pandemic that we would come out of it as, chunks, monks, drunks or hunks. I’ve opted for the final option. No, I’m not going to be competing in any challenges or looking to participate in an Ironman competition. Nor am I trying to look like I drank at the fountain of youth; it’s a personal challenge to look the best that I can for myself, to be in the best physical condition and the best health possible for myself.

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I am not alone. There are many who extol the benefits of avoiding things that are detrimental to our bodies and all others in moderation. And there is no end to excellent information on-line with respect to improving and maintaining our physical health.

We are not just our bodies: we are also our minds. I have to ask myself, am I doing the same to build up my mind, and my thinking as I have done for my body? Do I seek out positive ‘foods’ for my mind, moderate some and avoid others? Am I making sure that I am exercising my brain by what I read, watch and listen to?

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I work hard to keep a strong and healthy body. Can I say the same for my mind? Do I guard my serenity and happiness with the same fervor as I wear a seatbelt and follow driving rules? Do I guard against the negativity that abounds in my social media as well as the news media? Do I protect my mind as well as my body? Do I allow random thoughts access to my head and give them access to peace of mind?

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For many people, the answer is an unfortunate no. Regardless of where we go, we see people ‘connected’ via their phones to social media. We have a moment of spare time and we dive into Instagram and Facebook, only to realize that an hour has gone by and we’re still scrolling the feed. Or we have the 24 hour news channel on the television playing in the background. Everywhere we are being bombarded by mostly trivial information. As I heard one person share last month, we have a device in our pockets that gives us access to all of the knowledge that humans have gained in the whole of history and we use it to look at videos of kittens.

If your body is important to you, then I suggest that you be as vigilant with your mind. It’s up to us to look after our physical health. It’s also up to us to look after our mental and emotional health. Be as discriminating about what you read and watch as you would with how you eat and exercise. I’ve discovered that I can get along just fine knowing about some of the facts that happen in the world. I don’t need to know all of the details. As much as we would like to see and read about more ‘good’ news, it’s not going to suddenly appear. We all know that breaking any of the ten commandments sells newspapers and attracts viewers. I can’t control what happens ‘out there’.

I have little control over what happens outside of my small circle of influence, and within, it’s pretty much a full-time job keeping track of my mind. Regardless of what’s happening around me, I can control what I let into my mind and how it affects my emotional state. Just because a thought comes into your head doesn’t mean you have to act on it.

I believe that we are integrated beings. I can’t focus on only one aspect of who I am, my body, and ignore my mental state. I am committed to work both my body and my mind with a steady diet of what’s good and positive, and exercising them both to keep me at my best possible condition. It’s my responsibility.

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Discovering Happiness

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the highway to heaven is littered with suicide, addiction, anxiety and fear. Why is it so hard for us to find our heaven, nirvana, happiness, and serenity? Why do so many people fall by the wayside while trying so hard to find it?

“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”

Eric Hoffer

We don’t find heaven, we don’t find nirvana, we don’t find happiness or serenity. They are not places that we can travel to, nor destinations or goals. How many of us seek a goal with the idea that happiness will come at a certain moment in the future. When I graduate I will be happy.’ ‘When I find the love of my life, I will be happy.’ ‘When I get the promotion, I will be happy.’ We look forward to a magical, mystical moment when, I don’t know, we think that the sky will open up and the bluebird of happiness will land on our shoulder. But that doesn’t happen. We graduate, get married and get the promotion and we do feel momentary happiness but then, it’s fleeting pause is over and we work for the next moment of happiness.

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There is also, of course, the obverse. Not everyone graduates, finds their soul mate or ever gets more than an entry level job. Are we living in a society where people will never attain a true feeling of Heaven on Earth? Is the seeking of that feeling of happiness the source of our own despair? When we reach a goal, we do feel that momentary jolt of ‘Yes, I did it’, which fades quickly. Like the wonder of Christmas fading before the week is out, we push toward the next ephemeral moment.

Perhaps our challenge is not to seek happiness. Perhaps what we need to do is to define what actually causes us to feel the emotion of happiness? What would give you not a momentary but a continued sense of wellbeing, contentment and serenity? Few people can answer that question. Sure, they can tell us that a party makes them happy, or a wedding or a birth; events and goals. They can tell us that being with other people and making them happy leads to happiness, but even this is an interim fix; what if they can’t make others happy? I don’t think happiness is a temporary state of excited emotional bliss, a goal or destination. Then what is it?

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Happiness is not something that we can seek. It is not something that we can do. We can’t pursue it. We can’t buy it. We can’t attain it. Nothing ‘makes’ us happy.

Happiness comes from within. I think that discovering our own happiness is the true purpose in life and our true measure of success. The recipe for happiness varies from person to person. It results from our choice to live a life that is congruent with one’s principles and beliefs. People who are happy focus on the people that they care about, the things that they value, a conducive environment and activities they enjoy. It requires self-discipline and effort to create it and maintain it within oneself. I don’t find happiness when I get my diploma or promotion; I feel it as a result of doing what I need to do to achieve those goals. I don’t find happiness when I make a certain amount of money or win the lottery; I experience happiness knowing that I am being true to myself and my the things that are important to me. I don’t find happiness by trying to control all of the variable that have a part in my life; I find it by focusing only on those things I have control over, and those things are within me. My attitude, my judgement, my actions, my choices and my perspective are all within my circle of control.

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Happiness is within my control as well, it follows. If I feel happiness, perhaps I can analyze why at this particular moment I feel it. I can pay attention to those things that result in feeling unhappy and maintain my distance in the future. If I know that I feel happiness when I take a walk by the ocean or through the woods, then why not do that more often? If sharing a deep conversation with a friend invigorates me and brings a smile to my face, then I should seek out times to have those conversations. I have to do the work. My answers won’t magically appear. But with time and practice I can make the right choices for me and my happiness.

Finding Nirvana, Shangri-La, or Heaven, as well as their opposites is a very Earthly proposition. Despite of all I do, I will sometimes feel fear, anxiety and suffering. But I don’t have to stay in that misery any longer than I wish to. I have a choice. I choose to be happy.

Meditation…

I have tried meditation various times over the years and just couldn’t seem to get the knack of it. You see, I cannot fold myself into the lotus position, at least not without breaking at least one leg. And sitting cross-legged is also very difficult for me, especially after more that just a couple of minutes. So I figured if my body wasn’t designed to do meditation. I know this was just an excuse but I never really gave it much of a serious thought or any sort of a concerted effort.

There are many methods of meditation. As a teenager, I remember that Transcendental Meditation (TM) was big. Everyone who was anyone was taking the course and learning their mantras. For most North Americans, it was the first time Eastern philosophy was ever discussed and practiced. Later, other practices of meditation were sought out and taught. Some meditate by focusing on their breathing. Others focus on an object, or use prayer beads to quiet their minds. I like Eastern spirituality and I understand the appeal of Buddhism and its teachings. But the Buddhas, the gongs, the incense, its prayer wheels and flags, could not keep me in a practice of meditation. And yet, I knew that I wanted it, and probably needed it!

Why do people meditate? It relaxes the body and mind, thereby reducing the negative stress and anxiety that we experience. As well, scientific research is proving that it has a physiological effect on the body. It can change our body chemistry, releasing dopamine and other ‘feel good’ molecules into our bloodstream. Creativity, attention and memory are positively influenced. You don’t have to meditate for hours on end to enjoy the benefits and they last long after the quiet time we spend. Meditation changes you: body and soul! (Forbes Magazine: 7 Ways Meditation can Actually Change the Brain.)

So even though I knew about all these benefits, it wasn’t until a good friend of mine introduced me to a book by Sam Harris: Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, that everything finally clicked into place for me. I still haven’t finished the book but I appreciate his very practical approach to spirituality and to meditation. I downloaded the meditation app and started using its guided meditations. I think it’s about ten free sessions before they ask you to pay up, but for me, it is well worth it. I finished the 50, ten minute beginner sessions and now usually use the daily meditation, between 10 and 20 minutes long.

After more than three months, meditation is part of my morning routine, along with daily writing and, of course, coffee. Do I see and feel the benefits? While I can’t say that I feel my brain cells growing and changing, I can say that I appreciate the calm, the quiet, and the peace. Some days it takes longer than others to calm the thoughts and focus on just breathing. It’s common that I find myself deep in some thought and Sam’s voice will reach out of the silence to tug me back to this moment. There are days where I become mesmerized by the dance of colours that I see behind my eyelids. Fortunately, there’s no graduation from this practice. It is a daily practice that I invite you to enjoy as much as I do.

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Find what type of meditation works best for you. If you want to sit cross-legged and burn incense, that’s great, but it’s not necessary. You need only find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed for a few moments. And you can meditate at any time of the day. Hey, if you find that you really do ‘wake up’ at the end of the session, you won’t be the first to have fallen asleep. There is no wrong way. There is only the embrace of the stillness that is within us all.

I first heard this ‘prayer’ in the Waking Up sessions. I have incorporated it into my daily practice. And it is my wish for you:

May you be happy.   
May you be free from suffering.   
May you know peace.