Slender Threads

Dew on Spider Web by Luc Vlatour, Creative Commons.

“Sometimes a life can hang by such a slender thread.” – Kate Wolf

Yesterday, around dinner time, I took my wife to the emergency room with severe chest pains. This morning, a little before 9:00, she texted that she was going into surgery in 45 minutes. I hurried over, but had to drive to the roof of the parking garage to find a spot.

As I sprinted down the steps, I spotted an acquaintance, who I’d seen earlier in the week at a meeting, who did not look well at all. He was entering the oncology building. I called his name but he didn’t hear me.

By the end of the day, my wife was stable. Though not out of trouble or the hospital, her prospects are encouraging. Not so, I believe, the friend I saw. He’s elderly but notable for a heart that is both wise and kind. This is a man who clearly does not have much money. Exactly the kind of man that the oligarchs want to strip of healthcare.

I thought of what Buddha said at the end of the Diamond Sutra:

“So I say to you –
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

It was a sullen day, and windy, with a threatening sky. The kind of weather that reminds you of mortality, even without anything explicit on the horizon. Buddha didn’t flinch from difficult truths, but he did make clear, as the Dalai Lama continues to do today, that in the face of this fleeting world, nothing matters more than kindness to other living beings.

In the end – and we shall all make this discovery, sooner than we would wish – everyone’s life is a slender thread, and when it breaks, bank accounts do not matter. Nobility of soul does – very, very much.

Notes from 2017 – What is your innermost truth?

truth-2

I  started this post several days ago – in what now seems like a galaxy far away – with something different in mind. My title is paraphrases a question asked by Zen priest, Edward Espe Brown, at a retreat in 2011: “What is your innermost request?”

In the context of the retreat, I took his question to mean, “What is the deepest desire at the deepest core of your being?”  The word, “request,” implies not just desire, need, want, but something akin to prayer. What do we want our lives to be about? What would it take , when our time comes to leave this world, to exit with a sense of peace, victory, satisfaction?

I mean the same kind of thing with, “innermost truth.”  Not just beliefs, ideas, concepts, deductions, or any of the contents of consciousness, for they inevitably change. How many beliefs, ideas, concepts, and so on do you hold from this time a year ago, let alone 10 years ago, 20, or from childhood? What do you know more deeply than emotion and reason both?  Jack Kornfield, in A Path With Heart described this as something you know so deeply that if Buddha and Jesus both said, “You’re wrong,” you would answer, “I am not!”

It’s not an easy question, and there is no simple answer, but it has never been more essential to look to our truths, try to clarify and hold them close over time.

Knowing what we truly believe is an anchor, a center, a “know thyself” tactic at a time when the new president and his minions are trying to normalize lies as “alternate facts.”

The day will come when telling “a Spicer” is a synonym for “telling a whopper,” but until that happens, we need to guard our sense of right and wrong, true and false, as the greatest safeguards we have against the fascist administration that now occupies the White House.

voltaire

The Bell Tolls

Sometime during the first semester of graduate work in psychology, our clinical practice professor made an interesting observation. “The funniest people I know,” she said, “have all deeply experienced sorrow.” Her words came back when I heard we had lost Robin Williams.

They say he suffered from alcoholism and depression, both progressive, fatal diseases that  can be arrested. Interestingly, the media has done much to remove the stigma from both conditions. Ted Danson, as bartender, Sam Malone on Cheers, helped normalize an alcoholic abstaining and going to meetings. And the constant din of TV antidepressant commercials has probably primed millions to “Ask their doctor” about this oh so modern affliction.

Untreated depression, like untreated alcoholism, puts a person at risk for suicide, accidents, and poor health choices that end too many lives far too early. It’s futile to speculate on why some people reach out for help and others do not, but no individual, not you nor I, is a statistic. We are not bound by any kind of odds.

In this world where information is so easy to come by, it is my hope than anyone who sees in themselves the conditions that took Robin Williams from us may hit google and check out the mountains of information on what they may have and what can be done about it.

Notes on the Mind – Body connection

Subtle body from 1899 yoga manuscript. Public domain.

Subtle body from 1899 yoga manuscript. Public domain.

One of the key themes emerging for me this year, both in living and blogging, involves mental hygiene, in particular, watching what ideas and thoughts I dwell on. I tried to express it in posts like Guarding the Mind and The Wishing Tree Revisited. Cheri Huber a Zen teacher, sums it up like this: “The quality of your life depends on the focus of your attention.”

As I check out things online, I bookmark articles that look like they might lead to interesting posts. Several recent posts center on a parallel theme,  the intimate connection of mind and body.

The first comes from Julieanne Victoria’s blog, Through the Peacock’s Eyes. In a post called, Effect of Thought on Health and the Body, she describes a small book by James Allen, amazing because of its visionary nature – it was written in 1902 and published in 1920.

Nowadays we’re used to seeing people practice Tai Chi in parks. We find yoga classes at local gyms and hear of corporate executives learning mindfulness meditation. A discussion of the ends and means for lifting such practices out of traditional contexts is a topic for another time. The point is, general awareness of the mind-body connection snowballed in the west in the latter half of the 20th century. I think it’s just beginning, which makes James Allen’s conclusions, penned 112 years ago, all the more unique.  Check out Julieanne Victoria’s post. It is inspiring to read these words of a man who understood these truths before almost anyone else in our culture.

One manifestation of the mind-body connection that everyone knows about involves stress. Stress is bad and A-Types have it worst, right? What if you learned, as I did in a recent NPR article, that almost all of the studies that created “stress” and “A-Type” as modern words and concepts were funded by big tobacco companies, seeking to prove that stress and not cigarettes, cause heart problems and cancer? This article is an eye opener, and not because of this single topic. It’s illuminating to see how far money can go in creating the “truths” we try to live by.

The final post that caught my attention comes from the Scientific American BlogWhat does Mindfulness Meditation do for your brain. Leaving aside all questions of what might be lost in separating mindfulness practice from it’s Buddhist context, the benefits appear to be compelling:

“It’s been accepted as a useful therapy for anxiety and depression for around a decade…It’s being explored by schools, pro sports teams and military units to enhance performance, and is showing promise as a way of helping sufferers of chronic pain, addiction and tinnitus, too. There is even some evidence that mindfulness can help with the symptoms of certain physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.”

Beyond these experiential findings, the Scientific American post presents a powerful physiological finding. MRI scans of people after an eight week mindfulness meditation course show the amygdala shrinking. This is the brain’s fight or flight center, associated with emotion and fear. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex, “associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making,” becomes thicker. In addition, brain links are altered: “The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.”

These few posts are just the barest notes on a huge topic, but one I find fascinating. I’ll be posting more as I see more interesting stories along these lines.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams

How to Fail

“Don’t let reality control your imagination. Let your imagination be the user interface to steer your reality.” – Scott Adams.

How to Fail at Almost Everything is a quirky, funny, irreverent, and often inspiring “sort of autobiography” from the creator of Dilbert, that quirky, funny, irreverent, and often inspiring comic strip that lays out the truth of working in the trenches cubicles of corporate America.

This is not another collection of Dilbert cartoons or Dilbert philosophy.  It’s more of a Dilbert origin story.  We know we’re in for a different kind of kind of how-to-book when Adams begins by advising us to make sure our bullshit detectors are working before we take advice from a cartoonist.

He dismantles many self-help cliches in order to clear the way for fresh perspectives.  “Goals are for losers,” he says, and recommends strategy instead.  “I will finish my first novel,” is a goal. “I will write for an hour a day,” is a strategy.  Every day we don’t attain a goal is slightly depressing, he says, and soon after we reach it, the “what next?” question arises.  A strategy, on the other hand, brings a daily sense of satisfaction as we move in the right direction.

“I tried a lot of different ventures, stayed optimistic, put in the energy, prepared myself by learning as much as I could, and stayed in the game long enough for luck to find me…with Dilbert it did.” – Scott Adams

Adams gives a chronology of his many failed careers and entrepreneurial ventures. Shining through the story is a positive attitude that allowed him to find key lessons and life experience in every failure.  His optimism is gold, and he spends a lot of time writing of health, especially, diet and exercise, although he cautions that there is a “non-zero chance” that health advice from a cartoonist could be fatal.

“I’m here to tell you that the primary culprit in your bad moods is a deficit in one of the big five: flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet and exercise.”  The “big five” benefit mood, which builds personal energy, which is the driver of aspiration and effort.

Scott Adams shares his ideas at IBM Connect 2014.  Photo by Greyhawk68, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Scott Adams shares his ideas at IBM Connect 2014. Photo by Greyhawk68, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Adams packs an abundance of topics into his book. Not every one resonated, and several dragged for me, but much of my copy is highlighted and underlined, and I’ve reread several chapters already.  If you like Dilbert, you will value this story of the life twists and turns of his creator, and you will benefit from the lessons he learned along the way.

Wild Eating

animal house food fight

This post isn’t really about food fights in school cafeterias – some of us have matured (a bit) since those days.  Actually, the photo of John Belushi was a classic bait-and-switch, a ploy to draw you into a post about foods that are good for us.

At the end of November, I caught an interview on NPR’s Science Friday with Jo Robinson, an investigative journalist who specializes in science and health.  She discussed the way humans, since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, have bred the nutrition out of plants, and what the science of micro-nutrition has recently learned about optimizing our food choices.

eating on the wild side

The interview was a good introduction to Robinson’s bestseller, Eating on the Wild Side, and she led off with a discussion of corn.

Wild corn came with tough husks and only a few kernels per ear. It didn’t taste very good, but it was healthy, with 20% protein and only 2% sugar.  In contrast, modern corn has 2%-4% protein and sugar as high as 40%.  Still better than Ding Dongs, but headed in that direction.

At the core of this research are phytonutrients, molecular level nutrients that are natural wonder drugs.  Lab work over the last 15-20 years reveals that some phytonutriets increase resistance to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.  Unfortunately, they tend to make foods bitter, a taste we would rather avoid.

Taste hasn’t been the only factor in denaturing our food.  Carrots were red and purple until 400 years ago, when a group of Dutch growers, paying political homage to the House of Orange, used mutant yellow carrots to create the orange variety we know today.  Unfortunately, orange carrots have 16 times fewer antioxidants than red and purple varieties.

There’s good news on the carrot front; Robinson says we can find the older varieties in seed catalogs, and they actually taste better.  During the rest of the interview, she presented ways to maximize nutrition and the number of beneficial phytonutrients we eat.  Her suggestions included:

  • Eat the skins.  The skin of carrots of any variety contains half the nutritional value, so wash them but don’t peel them and throw the skins away.  Don’t skin potatoes before mashing them.
Blue Jade corn

Blue Jade corn

  • When choosing fruits and vegetables, a rule of thumb is the healthiest colors are red, blue, black, and purple.  There are exceptions, however, like artichokes, which Robinson says are among the best veggie choices.

  • Garlic really is a “wonder drug,” but it’s value depends on two substances combining after the cloves are cut or crushed, and one of these can be damaged if heated too soon.  The solution is to crush garlic then set it aside for 1o minutes before sautéing.

  • In one study three to four servings a week from the cabbage family (cabbage, broccoli, mustard greens, kale, and others) reduced the risk of prostate cancer in men by up to 60%.

  • Daily servings of Welches grape juice, made from Concord grapes, appears to improve the memory of seniors with early signs of Alzheimer’s.

  • The nutritional value of many fruits and veggies increases with cooking.  This includes berries, which makes berry pies and cobblers among the healthiest deserts.

***

Once, when I was younger, I lived as a strict vegetarian for two years.  At the time I was learning to meditate and tried out advice (which proved to be true) that a moderate diet and occasional fasting helps concentration.  My diet is different now, but I’m equally attentive to what I eat; my motive is overall health.

Wherever one stands on the issue of health care, no one can argue that the best way to stay healthy is not to get sick.  Next to quitting smoking and exercise, diet is a major behavioral variable we can tilt in our favor.  The effort is enjoyable to, in a mildly subversive way, like buying nothing on Black Friday.  In an era when the next big corporate move in fruit is patenting GMO apples that don’t turn brown, I find heirloom veggies like blue corn and purple carrots to be especially attractive.

Take a look at Jo Robinson’s website, eatwild.com; you’ll find it informative and inspiration.

***

PS:  Based on several comments, I’m adding links to possible sources of interesting seeds.

burpee.com:  For a long time, the seed catalog of choice.  Now online with info tailored to your climate zone.  I poked around enough to see that they have purple carrot seeds.

Heirloom Seed Companies: I found this link on Facebook. Haven’t checked it out yet, but it looks interesting.

More on Robot Surgery

In a strange synchronicity after my robot post yesterday, our Sunday paper business section carried an article called “Robot surgery faces lawsuits.”

The source for the piece is listed as Bloomberg News, and this appears to be original story, posted on their website March 5.  No cute robot pictures this time, and no comments from me except to suggest everyone read this: Robosurgery Suits Detail Injuries as Death Reports Rise