Wednesday, September 29, 2010

New Opportunities

So after my "fantastic" weekend, some awesome opportunities opened up for me.

The first I didn't know about until yesterday, but actually happened Friday.  Andy, author of the Bayou City Buddhist invited me to join in on the Buddha bus at the Bayou Buddhist Houston Belief site.  Of course I said yes, so that's in the works right now. <<<EDIT: It's up now>>

The second, and somewhat expected but still exciting, was the first leadership meeting we had at the dojo concerning the future developments my teacher wants to make for the school.  Lots of volunteering for various things occurred, one of the more notable for me that of dealing with organizing food for our parties.  The other was formally signing up to be instructors for private lessons as well as administrative duties, which should bring me some much needed cash.  We also intend to have Zen meditation to complement our class occasionally, so I was volunteered to (help?) organize that due to my experience.  So all of that's pretty exciting.

The last has to do with business at the zendo.  The Rohatsu Sesshin is coming up in December and me being without a job/money wanted to see if there was something I could do in exchange to be allowed to attend.  Seeing as I have yet to even attend a 1 day sitting, I though offering my services in the kitchen would be a nice transition into such intensive practice.  Since the preparation and service of food is formal practice as well, I won't really be missing out on anything but a little extra boredom and aching legs.

My offer was received with great enthusiasm.  It turns out the tenzo has held the position for two years and done most of the work all by himself so an assistant would be wonderful.  I was told today that someone had provided a scholarship for me to attend.  I kind of thought they came from the community as a whole, but it seems like I have an anonymous sponsor.  If that's the case, I may have a feeling as to who it is but know if they wanted me to know, I would so I'll just be grateful to the community at large.

I've also been asked to help in the kitchen for a couple other occasions before the sesshin that won't be as formal so I jumped at those as well out of gratitude and the opportunity for experience.

So once again, I'm grateful for the generosity of the communities I find myself a member of, inspiring me to return the favor.


I also applied for a job yesterday that I'm pretty excited about, but won't know anything about that for a little while

Monday, September 27, 2010

Well, It Is About Experience, Right?

At the beginning of the summer, I thought I'd learned my lesson.  Well, I'd learned a lesson, at least.

With the fifth Grave Precept traditionally being translated as having to do with avoiding, or at least not abusing, intoxicants, I discovered its reason to be the hard way.  I kind of let myself go since there was no driving involved, but I was basically hung over for the whole weekend.

So being more mindful, and armed with the memory of experience, I watched myself Saturday night and enjoyed the drinks I had at a friend's party for their flavor while socializing.  What I didn't realize, is the cumulative effect of alcohol over several hours even if you don't get drunk.  I had slowly poisoned myself over almost six hours.

That by itself would have probably been enough of a pain to deal with, but out of generosity I'd also donated blood Friday afternoon.  I had waited the twenty-four hours before consuming alcohol as told, but I think I went overboard starting at the twenty-eight hour mark.

So with a body low on vital fluids having consumed a rather substantial amount of alcohol, I woke up after a little less than six hours of sleep feeling not too bad, just a stopped up head.  But as the day progressed, it all went downhill.

The sinus congestion was the icing on the cake, reducing my oxygen intake by making breathing a chore, which wore me out even more.  But the heart of the matter was the body and stomach aches.  It felt like the flu.  We were out and about running errands, but I did my best to suck it and accept the consequences for what I'd done.

To describe any more would just be gratuitous whining about something I shouldn't have done in the first place so I'll stop with that.  I'm still not at 100%, but I'm getting better.  I just needed some juice and rest.

Have I learned my lesson?  Well, I learned another lesson and I know that I've got even more to learn.  Will I swear off alcohol?  No, for the same reason I still eat meat.  The Precepts aren't commandments and I'm ready to deal with whatever consequences arise from stepping outside of them.  Culturally, consuming alcohol and meat are acceptable, if not expected behaviors.

Would I miss them if I stopped?  Meat, hell yes, people are omnivores and to deny ourselves meat is going against evolution.  While I respect others and their contrary view points, I also respect the efforts of all forms of life to live according to their natures.  Alcohol, I wouldn't really miss it for it's intoxicating effects.  They're nice but alcoholic beverages also taste good.  I've never been a huge fan of how they make me feel, so I'd probably have a harder time giving up soda.  As long as I keep the spirit of the Precepts in mind and that they exist for a reason, practicing moderation isn't an issue.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Musubi and Timing: Proactive and Reactive

Last night we had an Aikido kyu review, which is basically a test/demonstration of techniques we've learned either since the last review or since our last promotion.  They're usually a lot of fun.  Everybody gets all nervous and does their best to overcome it.  Every once in a while some people will have a bad time and we'll take turns recounting our own bad experiences and try cheering them up and put things back in perspective.

To relieve the stress and celebrate the event we always either go out to eat or my sensei hosts a party.  Last night we went out to eat.

Although we do talk about other things, as the night wore down the topic turned more towards the philosophical aspect of our practice and it's life applications.  Just like texts written by Zen teachers, Aikido teachings can get a little abstract.  My post on marubashi and ikkyo being a good example.  Unless you approach it with the right mindset or have been pointed towards the deeper meaning, it's easy to miss.  We do get that Aikido is more than just it's physical aspects pounded into our heads rather often, but last night it seemed like some eyes were opened to see its full depth.

Most of what we discussed was similar to my post above since I found myself doing most of the talking.  It felt good to see it sink in but the last discussion was cut short as our waitress told us it was closing time.  I didn't really see the truth of the matter until I was on my way home so I'll put it out there now and hope I'm able to pick it up some other time.

It started with a comment about a physical aspect that some find troubling.  Like many of O-Sensei's students, many of my fellow students brought a lot of experience in other arts with them when they came to Aikido.  While the rest of us have to learn how to give appropriate attacks so that our partners can perform the techniques correctly, they already know how to.  They have issues with the way appropriate energy is being presented as throwing your balance if your target moves.

What I wasn't able to express was that I find this to be an exaggeration because more people are erring on the other side of not giving enough energy with the attack, so our teacher would rather we overdo it and reel it back in as we gain experience than undershoot it and have the attack be ineffective.

What I did express was that I thought it was because we're supposed to draw out the attack with a concept called musubi which has to do with making a connection with our partner that connects us with their center of gravity to influence their movement.  In a way, it's like hacking into their body and suggesting a new direction for their movement in a subtle way that provides nothing for them to resist.  It sounds esoteric, but it's really just body mechanics.

While this is true sometimes, we do occasionally take our opponents balance in the direction they're moving as they reach full extension, sometimes as in the case we were discussing, the opposite is true.

When someone attacks with a swinging motion, either from over head or from the side, there are only two points to make contact.  The first is when they wind up, at this point you charge in, irimi, like I mentioned before and push their balance before they change direction and swing towards you.  If you don't get the timing right, they are too strong and momentum is already built.

The second is after they swing and have missed, which they have because you got out of the way.  They will of course recoil for a second attack and this is the moment you enter to make contact.  With their recoil going back, you contribute the energy of your irimi to throw them back in the direction of recoil.  This was the preferred timing of whom brought it up.

At both of these points the strength of the attack, and its ability to harm you are at their least.  Aikido is full of this technique of over-correcting balance.  Your opponent wants to move forward, so you draw them forward until they change their mind and want to go back, so you let them and push them back until they've changed their mind to go forward again.  With each change of direction, the momentum builds until they can't maintain their balance.

But how does this tie into daily life?  The first, meeting the attack before its energy comes towards is you, is being proactive. The other, getting out of the way and waiting for it to pass before acting, is reaction.  In the full force of the attack, without sufficient strength, nothing effective can be done.

So in life, if we're able to see an unfortunate situation coming, we have two options.  Either charge in and meet it before it builds enough strength to manifest, or get out of the way to avoid its damage and acting to prevent it from happening again.  Sure you can just continue to get out of the way, but eventually a mistake may be made so it must be stopped.

The concept of musubi comes into play here especially when dealing with individuals.  I commented with the following in response to a post of Nathan's on Dangerous Harvests on his proposed list of ways to handle the downward spiral of confrontational discussion on blogs:

They bring to mind a list I'd like to share that I learned through Aikido, although it didn't originate there.

"How to harmonize with that which oppresses you.
1. Correct your position
2. Connect with the other person
3. Employ the spirit of yielding"

While it may sound formal and stilted, it's actually very practical.

To correct your position, you (as you stated) try to see where they're coming from. Give them the benefit of the doubt long enough to try on their shoes.

In doing this you'll be able to connect with the other person. Even if they don't return the favor at least you'll be on the same page.

To employ the spirit of yielding, admit to yourself at least that they're right at least from their experience. If they're not, banging on the door louder will only scare them into piling more furniture behind it.

Doing this, the worst you could come away with is a bruised ego and a lesson learned if you're wrong.
This is the daily life application of musubi, you connect with someone else to, hopefully, diffuse a situation before it gets out of control.  The reactive side of this is in making apologies.

After having gotten out of the way, by allowing others their opinions, we make amends by identifying with where they were coming from, remembering that they are humans also with egos to struggle with.

In the end, there are very few real truths in the world so everyone is going to disagree from time to time.  The best thing we can do when someone does is check our egos and apologize, at the very least state your sorrow at their holding that opinion and agree to disagree.  But provide a resolution to prevent it from continuing.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Vow for the September Moon

So today has been the September full moon.  I didn't do too bad last month and finished up only tossing some milk and a handful of grapes.  A couple stalks of celery almost didn't make it, but I sliced them up and pickled them by packing them in aka miso for a day.  I hadn't tried that before, but it was pretty good.

New month, new vow, fortunately, it was an easy decision. 

Since I haven't been running around waiting tables all summer, my activity level has not matched my caloric intake.  On top of that one of my classes was Plated Desserts, so yeah, that was healthy.  Plus, in keeping with last months vow, I had to eat things to keep them from going bad.

So this month, for my benefit and my girlfriend's benefit ("about time," she'd say) I'm going to watch what we eat.  This is essentially an attempt to live the fifth Grave Precept the way I see it: to not pollute the mind, body, or environment. 

We have the added benefit of me being enrolled in a class called Principles of Healthy Cuisine, so this should be easy.  I've already made progress through some of last month with cooking more often.  But a big help is thanks due to the federal government.

While I'm not the last person to get up and defend what the government does for us, I'm certainly not the first, but they've provided an unbelievably good service to citizens with  Everyone should go here and check it out.

While it's not news to me that a meal should include a starch, vegetable, and a protein, I wasn't really doing the balance right.  I've decreased the protein portions greatly, increased the veggies, and paid more attention to how much butter and oil I add.  Sometimes I'm even lucky enough to throw some fruit in there as well.

It's important for people to remember that lowering your caloric intake instead of increasing your physical activity is not an acceptable substitute.  You have to move to burn fat and if you don't, you trick your body into slowing your metabolism down.  This actually causes more weight gain when you lapse in your diet than if you'd just skipped the diet completely.  And on top of that you have to reset your metabolism in addition to everything else.

We'll see how it goes as I try to keep up last months commitment and implement this months.

So Many Teachers

At this point in my life I find myself with formal teachers in three aspects of my life. To count them I have two sensei and a handful of chefs.

In my culinary education, I have attended three schools. The first I don't really count because I didn't really come away with anything and it was just a stepping stone into seriousness. But between the latter two, I have had a dozen very gifted chefs as instructors. Each of them has dedicated their lives to the craft and business of food. Furthermore they have dedicated their lives to passing on that knowledge to the next generation of culinarians.

While I still find myself wavering in my dedication to the art, I would like to follow in their footsteps. I have learned so much with so much generosity, but unfortunately I don't have the desire to use it in the manner that it was intended, in restaurant kitchens.

For a little over a year of practicing Aikido, I have had a teacher to guide me in not just a physical practice, but in a spiritual way to help me deal with life's obstacles by confronting them with single mindedness and courage. Her long-held dedication to the art is apparent in the ease and joy she combines with the strict seriousness of each lesson. Sticking exclusively to either one would not only be against the spirit of the art, but remove the dynamic nature that is needed to perpetuate the desire to learn throughout life.

Somehow she has been able to juggle several interests while maintaining this dedication, showing that it is possible to be so committed to one thing but still live a well rounded life. She has served as both a role-model and mentor.

And recently I have acquired a Zen teacher to guide me in my spiritual practice, to help me deal with life's obstacles with acceptance and compassion. This provides the yin to the yang of my Aikido.

While I have yet to get to know her well, just in my interactions on both a group and individual level, it easy to see that she has something special. Her dedication is easy to see in the joy she expresses interacting with others and in the intensity and openness with which she listens. I look forward to deepening this relationship as well.

In these three avenues, knowledge and wisdom has been passed to me with such generosity, that I really want to share it. I am seriously exploring the possibility of teaching culinary arts formally whether professionally in a class room or as a side job teaching individuals how to cook for themselves at home. As a "veteran" student I have had the joy of sharing many tricks with fresher students and even a couple with my teachers.

I am approaching the opportunity to teach Aikido in the setting of private lessons. While I have learned so much to share, I realize I still have so much to learn. But I have also realized how much there is to learn more about what I know in sharing it with others. I had often fantasized about what it would be like to teach Aikido as an instructor and though it's still a fantasy some of it may be realized some day. Until then I share what I can graciously, and hope I provide more understanding than confusion.

Although I only recently began my Zen practice, I do have almost ten years worth of learning about it that must be processed through the lens of practice. Formally teaching is even further than a fantasy for that, but I would like to think that what I share of my experiences helps others in some way.

In sharing what I've learned in return for such dedication, I am doing my best to live the vow of the eighth Grave Precept as I see it: to give generously whatever I can provide. This concept has always featured prominently in my life so I am happy to have found an ideology that embraces it.

In all of this, I must not forget that learning comes from so many other places than just those with titles. While I treasure the teachers I mention above, every interaction with others is the opportunity to learn from them, to internalize their own life experiences. My practice also reminds me of the opportunity to teach myself with each situation I end up in. I must remain mindful that the dharma gates are boundless and that I vow to enter them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How is Zazen like Scuba Diving?

Because it can take you deep! No no no.. but seriously.

Several years ago, my girlfriend and I got our Open Water Scuba certification. We haven't used it, regrettably, but thinking about it today inspired some thoughts.

In some ways Scuba diving is like zazen. For one thing you have to remember to breathe. In both, breathing normally will make you relax and more comfortable. When Scuba diving, breathing is very important since the volume of air in your lungs will make them expand like balloons as you ascend since the pressure decreases. The worst that can happen if you forget to breathe in zazen is lightheadedness and maybe loss of consciousness.

You also practice in a controlled setting like a pool before being let loose in the wild. Sitting in the controlled setting of a cushion prepares us for what awaits us in the world.

Most people who haven't Scuba dived don't appreciate the beauty of what you're actually doing when you suit up. You are basically strapping a submarine to yourself, but it's more than that. In a normal submarine, you're just a passenger, even if you manipulate the controls, physically you're just a passenger. When you put on your tank, regulator, and buoyancy control device/vest (BC, that vest thing you wear) you are becoming a cyborg.

I don't mean in some romantic sci-fi way, but in a technical way as a mixture of organic and technological. In a submarine, you have levers and switches to control depth by flooding and evacuating ballast tanks. When you Scuba dive, the BC is the primary ballast tank, but your lungs are full of air as well. Anyone that's ever sat in water that covered their chest has experienced this; you breathe in and you float up, exhale and you sink.

When you dive you aim for neutral buoyancy, neither sinking nor floating. (hey, look! a middle way) Because the volume of a mass of air decreases with the added pressure of progressive depths, you can't just set your buoyancy at the top and leave it, it requires constant adjustments. When you're in forty feet of water and not on the bottom, unknowingly doing either is pretty easy and can cause big safety issues. When you're swimming along the bottom, it can make diving unpleasant for you and everyone around since bumping or brushing a muddy or sandy bottom will stir up visually impenetrable clouds. For people with large lung capacities, this can be such an issue that a special Precision Buoyancy certification class is offered.

I experienced this first hand and thought I had it under control. When we were in the pool at the dive center, we were made aware of the effect breathing had on our buoyancy and were told how we can use it to make fine adjustments without adding or letting air out of our BC. Inhale a deeper breath than you exhale, you'll go up a bit. Exhale more than you inhale and down you go.

Unfortunately when we got out in the real water, the excitement of the situation overran my control. In the muddy water of the lake, you could barely see ten feet in front of you and make out detail at about five. Being neutrally buoyant is like being weightless, you can't feel which direction gravity is pulling you. (why they use Scuba diving to train astronauts for space walks) When you don't have a horizon, bottom, or surface as references all you see around you is a brown void of muddy water. Other than your depth gauge you have no way to tell where you are.

In my excitement, I lost control of my breath-based buoyancy and it caused frustration that distracted me from the wonder of the experience.

This leads me into what really inspired this connection. I had been sitting for twenty minutes everyday but I've been pushing for thirty so the difference in time between what I sit at home and at the Zen Center isn't so great. I had to work my way up to twenty minutes just as everyone should; sitting silently and still with yourself for that long is difficult without experience and discipline. Telling my teacher this, she urged me towards the thirty minutes putting into words some of the observations I'd made. Sitting for twenty minutes is just enough time for the mind to calm down, to get any sort of real benefit those extra ten minutes are needed. It's like putting a baby down for nap, letting them cry themselves to sleep only to get them up just as they pass out.

In the case of my Scuba example above, I didn't have enough time to get comfortable in my new and strange "body" to calm down enough to enjoy the environment it allowed me to exist in. As soon as I was beginning to, it was time to get out.

Usually when someone goes on a Scuba trip, there are several dives over the course of a few days. This would allow them to really get comfortable with their bodies and the environment so that after the first couple dives they would just slip into the experience as if it were natural.

I've heard when someone goes on a Zen retreat, after the first couple sessions, calming the mind becomes easier each time you sit. I could see how this is probable for the above reason.

When I sit in the morning, my mind isn't really awake yet so it hasn't had time to fill up with the days thoughts and worries. At the end of the day it's harder for me to sit since my head is full of all that stuff. On the other hand, sitting clears it all out for sleeping.

  • Scuba diving: fun outdoors in the sun with interesting people, visiting exotic places and seeing exotic creatures in their natural habitat, kind of expensive
  • Zazen: sitting with yourself uncomfortably on a cushion staring at a wall experienced indoors in a dimly lit room where the wildlife outside is no more than an annoyance, it's free
But yes, they can both take you deep...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I had my first dokusan this morning, which you may or may not know is a formal discussion about your practice with your teacher. While that was pretty much about all it was, it was also a lot more.

I've known her now for almost nine months, but today was the first time I'd actually referred to her as "my teacher." It wasn't intentional, it just came out that way. Before it was always by name, or as "the teacher" or "the head teacher", but I guess the intimacy of this meeting changed that.

This wasn't the first time I'd discussed my practice with her so in a way it was comfortable, but the formality combined with the full attention of someone so experienced was intimidating. It was a very powerful lesson to feel myself as the focus of concentrated attention. In a way I could grasp onto the thought that if I practice longer, I too could posses such focus. But to do so would be to stop the mind and fixate on a goal. Instead I find it comforting to just know that it is possible to cultivate. If it happens, it happens.

For now, my practice comes fairly easy. I told her it's become a habit so the hardest part of just doing it is past me. From my experience with Aikido, I know that there may be plateaus in my progress, but my attitude is to accept them, to push through them. Practice is ongoing, I should enjoy the plateaus just as I should enjoy the easy spots for being comfortable and hard spots for what they can teach me. This caused me great difficulty when I tried to define what I considered ups and downs in my practice.

It was a little strange discussing my practice so openly since I usually try not to gush about it to other people who may or may not be interested and/or understand. After I'd left, I realized things I'd wanted to bring up or how I could have articulated something better. There'll be other times though.

I find the most difficult aspect of discussing practice is avoiding dualistic speech, judging and desires for its path. As these things came out, I knew what I was saying. Normally when I make some mistake similar to this and it's pointed out, I feel like I'm being told something I already know. Somehow when she pointed these things out, I still learned something else, something about how I perceived it.

All around it was a very pleasant experience. Sitting has had an observable impact on my life after such a short time. I'm happy to formally have a teacher and enjoy being a member of the sangha. It's nice to have a mirror that functions as both something to reflect what ideas you send out but also reflects similarities as well as setting examples of where practice can lead you.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why sit?

I've found myself proposing/defending/explaining why I sit often this last week. Since this is another one of those grab bag ideas I've had for a blog post for a while, why not go into it?

Do I sit because I want to be enlightened, see my true nature? Maybe I want to be a better person, develop discipline, focus and patience? Do I need an excuse to improve my posture? What about just wanting to do an activity to fit in with a crowd I'd like to hang with?

Honestly, I can't really deny any of these. But are they causes or effects of my practice?

Let's start with the last and most shallow reason. I've always been a bit of a loner. The majority of my interests and opinions have generally not been mainstream. While it can be painful to sit on the sidelines for having different views, it's something I've more or less accepted. I'd rather be myself than try to lower my standards. But when I find a group there's no reason not to join. I certainly didn't start sitting to join a group, it's not a group activity. It's something I now have in common with them. Yes, if I stopped I would be missing the part that's most important and I wouldn't really fit in, but that's not why I do it.

My posture used to be awful, so this was actually a reason I began sitting. This was one of the real reasons I went to the Zen Center in the first place. A book can tell you what to think and how to sit, but it can't observe and give feedback or adjustments. I got neither of these things, but I did get encouragement. My poor posture was mostly due to weakness in certain muscle groups. Forcing myself to sit upright for twenty minutes a day strengthened these muscles. Now my posture is better, which in turn has improved my technique in Aikido, a physical benefit that I have pointed out to beginning students when they ask me if I meditate like we've been urged to do. My hips are also very tight, making it difficult for me sit appropriately. This has given me a further excuse to stretch those muscles which will also benefit me in Aikido.

Now a little deeper. Better person? Discipline? Focus? Patience? No one is without these desires. Have I noticed improvement? Yes. I didn't come to the table wanting these things, though. I've already mentioned in previous posts my issues with discipline and a little about patience. I've also mentioned how it's helped me improve my life. Focus, though. That's something I haven't really mentioned.

Since I was very young, I've had attention issues. I was diagnosed with ADD before it was cool and had graduated beyond Ritalin before it earned the reputation it has with the kids on the street. I'd taken uppers and anti-depressants. Tried therapy. They all had their benefits, but they didn't fix anything in the long run. We were grasping at straws and nothing seemed to hold. I was always able to focus on things I enjoyed doing, often more than was healthy, but became easily sidetracked when doing something not so pleasant. Since high school, I've fought against medication mostly due to adverse side effects. I really didn't like how the stimulants made my mind race.

When I began Aikido for the second time, after high school, I had my intense focus pointed out to me in a way that struck something inside. I became aware of what really happened, being in the moment. While I was unequipped at the time to harness this, it laid the foundation for what was to come. Paying attention to what my body was doing also sprouted mindfulness.

The mindfulness to see that I was sidetracked was there but weak, or I didn't know what to do with it. The discipline was lacking and until I had that the mindfulness did nothing but breed guilt and regret. Developing the habit of sitting I mentioned in my first post is what has helped there.

So then, what about enlightenment and all that. We're supposed to sit without thoughts of gaining and these can become traps for the mind. Dogen's thoughts on this are that sitting itself is enlightenment. I've had odd experiences since I began sitting that I attribute to my practice, but don't see them any differently than anything else thanks to this advice. Do I expect anything special? Not really. I'll treasure it if it happens, but I'll also try to let it be "scenery on the road of life" as Uchiyama Roshi puts it. It's not why I practice.

So why then, do I practice? A little of all of those reasons may be true. My life has improved since I began sitting. So has my posture. I've also made new friends in a community of positive individuals. I understand the human condition a little better and my perspective on life has changed. I also don't mind getting up so early anymore, sitting in the morning makes me more alert and awake then the extra half hour I'm missing out on.

I enjoy the way my mind calms down when I sit. Now that I think about it. That may be what really brought me to it. When I performed techniques in Aikido, my mind feels clear, the way you want a piece of glass to be clear so you can see what's going on outside. I wanted that in my everyday life. I'd tasted it at times, but I wanted to cultivate it.

This was the need in my life for something I couldn't put my finger on. I just happened to stumble across what I did at the right time and now I am where I am.

In trying to let moments be moments, this is what has happened.

So why sit?

Why not?

August Vow Progress

With only a few days left before the September full moon, I've looked back at how well I did with not wasting food.

I may have missed a couple things, but here's a list of what I ended up throwing away.
  • 3 peaches, they were in the fridge shriveling up. I was hoping they'd dehydrate themselves down to something like a date so I wouldn't have to toss them, but in the end they started to get the wrong kind of fuzz.
  • 1 serving of the chilled peach and yogurt soup that I made my girlfriend after she had her wisdom teeth out. She didn't really like it and I ran out of stuff to do with it so it just kind of sat there until I got the courage to take the top off and throw it out. I think there was a high enough culture count from the yogurt that it may have still been okay to eat since it didn't smell bad or anything, but I didn't want to take the risk.
  • a small bunch of grapes, they were probably on their way out when I made the vow, but whatever.
  • a little leftover polenta. We ate as much as we could, but I don't think I cooked it enough so it was a little difficult to eat.
That's not too bad. The only problem I had was I found myself eating more than I probably should have been to keep stuff from going bad. That's alright though, because it gave me inspiration for this next month.

Here's a couple food saving facts if you think something is getting close.
  • obviously, you can throw things in the freezer. Just don't forget they're in there.
  • hard boiled eggs get easier to peel, the older they are (to a point). Boiling them will give them about another week of opportunities to eat them. also, adding a couple teaspoons of vinegar to the water and shocking them in ice water after they're cooked help make them easier to peel.
  • right before milk goes bad, you can use it to make yogurt. You just need a little yogurt and a recipe off the internet and it'll keep a lot longer. Plus you won't have to buy yogurt.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Marubashi and The Spirit of Ikkyo

In my first post, I brought up my issues with getting to class. I'd either give up before I'd even started or just stopped in my car and sat in the parking lot. While I'm confident that this is no longer a problem, it is still an issue as I discovered the last two mornings I had class.

Getting up isn't an issue anymore. I may be tired, but I'm committed to my sitting practice. However, I'd get about halfway to school and that familiar feeling would come crawling up from deep inside.

I don't think that "fear" is the right word, but I can't really think of how to put it. The devil that sits on my shoulder has gotten smaller and quieter, but it's still telling me to go back home and go to sleep or just do anything but suffer through a loss of freedom for seven hours. That fear of losing my freedom is still there.

Since this is a "battle" I'm waging with myself, this post will be more about my Aikido practice. While it is pretty easy for me to separate the physical differences between my Zen and Aikido, their impact on my day to day life are like my right and left hands. I don't need both of them, they each kind of do the same things. But when they work together, I'm twice as equipped to deal with life.

First, two terms or concepts to define: ikkyo and marubashi.

literally means "first lesson." It happens to be a specific physical technique, but it has a deeper meaning that Aikido's founder Morihei Ueshiba, or O-Sensei as he is referred to, stressed as the secret to Aikido.

The technique of ikkyo involves entering into the attack (irimi) with precise timing (de-ai), distance (ma-ai), and energy (zanshin) to catch your attacker at the most advantageous moment to take their balance. This first lesson becomes the foundation for other techniques as they all require irimi for success and build upon it with added concepts. Without irimi, there is no Aikido.

Marubashi is a borrowed term from the Yagyu Style of swordsmanship and is translated as "bridge of life." Aikido is heavily based on the sword arts and employs several or their concepts. While straight blocking a weapons attack may be possible, getting out of the way is always the best option in case the block is ineffective.* Sometimes getting out of the way isn't possible and we must face an attack head on, as if facing an enemy on a narrow log bridge high over a river. There is no left, right, back or even hesitation as the sword comes charging at you.

My teacher's teacher and devoted personal student of O-Sensei, Mitsugi Saotome explains this in one of his books, Aikido and the Harmony of Nature:
Choosing life is death. The only path is the enemy's path. There must be no separation, but an exchange of time and space with the spirit of moving into the very heart of the enemy. This is the spirit of irimi (entering). When you extend your spirit into the future, the present is neutralized. Negative becomes positive; positive becomes negative. Past becomes future, and future becomes now. Only by abandoning attachment to time and space, attachment to life, will you attain the true freedom of choosing death. The bridge and life are the same. Heaven and hell are now, infinity is now. Choosing death is life. This must be practiced and become instinctive.
Alright, so this sounds all good and martial and all, but how does it relate to my issue above? Well, first of all, a lot of that probably sounds pretty familiar from a Zen perspective: opposites switching, past becomes future, infinity is now, must be practiced and become instinctive... Is it any wonder the warrior class of feudal Japan embraced Zen?

This is a guide as to how to live a good life, not how to take them. Our greatest enemy and the one that we face every moment of every day, is our self, our ego. It flaunts our desires in front of us like a carrot on a stick to lead us around. The death that we choose is the death of the ego. Choosing life for the ego is great initially but just around the corner are the karmic rewards of death, suffering.

My issue above is that of not wanting to give up the freedom of indulging the ego and its desires. I have to go to class. My ego is trying to convince me that I have a choice out of self preservation. Saotome Sensei also writes:
Giving up attachment to life and death is the refusal to be controlled by fear, the refusal to be controlled by the selfish ego, which clouds the spiritual eye. With no thought of escape, whether the threat is pain, discomfort, or death, you must continue in the Way with all of your might, not with the purposes of ego in your heart, but leaving your fate in the hands of God.
As I was driving along to school, traveling along the road of life, my ego met me holding the sword of freedom on the the bridge of life, my marubashi.

I met my ego with the Spirit of Ikkyo and abandoned my thoughts of escape and the threat of pain and discomfort (didn't have to worry about death, thank goodness).

I continued on my Way and cut down my ego.

It's far from dead, though, it is strong and persistent. The fingers of my Zen teachers and that of my Aikido teacher are only able to point me in the right direction, they can't take me there, but they are both pointing at the same thing. The ego is not going anywhere anytime soon so I'm greatful to have them all at hand to help me learn to deal with it.

*There is no blocking in Aikido, btw. Instead attacks are met with receptive force and their energy is blended to a favorable direction by the attacked to diffuse the situation. I may go into that another time because it too has many daily life applications

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Colorblindness and the Illusion of Reality

When I decided to start this blog, I made a list of things to write about and saved them on my computer to have topics to use during dry spells. This one in particular has been staring me in the face for a while.

I happen to be colorblind; red-green specifically. Here are some good facts about colorblindness so I won't have to go into it. (I do get asked "what color is this?" way too often when I admit my handicap)

A couple of the facts:
#01 99% of all colorblind people are not really color blind but color deficient; the term color blindness is misleading.

#06 Strongly colorblind people might only be able to tell about 20 hues apart from each other, with normal color vision this number raises to more than 100 different hues.

#20 Colorblind people feel handicapped in everyday life, and almost nobody recognizes this.

#29 Some people get rejected from a job assignment because of their color vision deficiency.

#32 Red-green color blindness doesn’t mean that you are only mixing up red and green colors, but the whole color spectrum can cause you problems.

#41 The most often used types of color blindness tests are: pseudoisochromatic plates, arrangement test, and the anomaloscope.

Here's a Ishihara Color Blindness Test Plate that's just one of a few ways to test for colorblindness. I can just barely make out the number that's in there. As if someone turned the contrast way down.
In kindergarten, I used to color people green or brown because that was the closest color crayon I had and I didn't really see the problem. In first grade, I had labels put on my colored pencils for the red, green, and brown. Those dumb maps in geography, social studies, and history textbooks always pissed me off because, while I could tell the different regions were different shades, I couldn't match them up with the key. It causes issues.

But being the precocious introverted child I was, contemplating the way I viewed the world inspired deep thoughts. Were the different names we assigned colors arbitrary? Yes, we all agree that a given object is called by the same color, but how are we to know that the color of an object I see is perceived as the same color by another person? I understood the physics of why different objects appear different colors, but if my consciousness was placed in another body, would colors be the same?

What did this imply about my other senses? Does everyone really perceive salty the same way? What about hot and cold? What about animals with other sense organs like a snake's ability to sense the infrared or a sharks ability to sense electrical impulses, what are we missing out on? What did this imply about the true nature of reality? And I was just in grade school!

Skipping to Buddhist terms, this is what is meant by the "five skandhas are empty." Skandha is translated as heap or aggregate in English. They are the things that make up an object we perceive.
They are:
  • Form - the internal or external matter that is defined by the senses. This is different than the Western idea where form exists independent of ourselves with properties for our senses to observe. An object has different forms attached to it for each of our senses.
  • Sensation - the raw sensing of an object independent of thought. Sensations fall under the categories of pleasurable, painful, or neutral.
  • Cognition - the organization of form through sensation by thought. The mind gets involved and starts to sort the raw sensation.
  • Mental formations/Volition - cognition triggers impulses and opinions arrive based on previous experience. Re-cognition
  • Discernment/Consciousness - this is awareness without conceptualization. Becoming conscious of something for what it is and is not. Most popularly the dichotomy between "self" and "other" or "good" and "evil."
These are "empty" in the Buddhist sense because they are all dependent upon the perspective of the individual. They have no independent permanent properties, no permanent "substance" to fill them. It's not they don't exist, we just can't perceive their "perfect" nature because our view is incomplete. Uchiyama Roshi uses the example of two people observing a cup from different perspectives, the light will be different and each will see different angles of the same cup, so neither can tell the true nature of the cup.

So my little philosophical crisis really opened the door and waited for this concept years later. Where exactly does color exist? Is it form? Maybe. Pretty much everything, every physical object at least, definitely has some sort of property that we observe visually.

What about sensation? For the most part color is neutral, before cognition at least. We either sense something has color or it doesn't. This would be where my colorblindness changes the game for me, since there is a difference in the way my sensors (eyeballs) receive data.

Cognition is the first step where the mind is involved, our brains as computers organizing the raw data from our eyeballs. Different people have different brains, so color could be interpreted differently in the brain. The physics and the chemistry are all the same here, but there's no way to tell how the brain organizes the info once it's in there.

At the mental formation stage, we now label a perceived and recognized color as what we've agreed it should be called so any damage that could be done by the emptiness of color is done.

Discernment is a problem for the colorblind since our perception of color leaves us with difficulty discerning (see it's right there!) what color we see. In my case the red-through-brown-to-green is an issue as well as the red/purple/blue. While I can tell red is not blue and green is not red, yellow is not purple, those two spectrum blend like white/gray/black. Just as normal people may have trouble telling where gray becomes black, I have trouble telling where purple becomes blue. When side by side, it's easy, but hold up a dark purple shirt towards the blue end of the spectrum, I may not see enough red in it to discern that it's purple.

I always had trouble with what emptiness in a Buddhist context really meant, bringing my own ideas of what the word emptiness means. After looking at it in the context of the five skandhas with this example, I think I have a better grasp on it.

So form is empty because we can't perfectly/directly perceive true reality. But emptiness is form because there is something to perceive. But nor is either of them true because they are creations of the mind, which is the sixth sense.*

It was comforting to find this as a teaching and to know that while I thought so at the time, I hadn't lost my grip on reality before entering high school.

*In Buddhism, the mind is considered a sense because the world of our thoughts is just as real as what's "outside" our selves because there is no line separating the two worlds. You either get it or you don't, I don't want to go into explaining it here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

If Only I'd Known

I hear a lot of my fellow students complain about test anxiety. For the most part I'd rather take a test than do homework. (which I almost never did anyway) There was a time when I struggled with one particular test and that was what I think was my first taste of living in the moment, or at least being told to.

When I was in second grade learning multiplication tables we had a series of worksheets with all the permutations of 1 x 1 up to 10 x 10; 100 problems total. The kicker was it was timed. What a thing to do to a kid.

So of course, only being like seven and not the most confident of children, I freaked and clammed up. 100 problems is a mind-blowing number for someone so young.

The way my mom told me to deal with it was for me to cover up all of the problems I hadn't done and just focus on the one at hand. Sure I was pretty precocious, but this was still a pretty high concept.

Somehow I got through it, but even today as I write this I can remember very recent examples of me being overwhelmed by a heavy To-do list. Like building my sailboat, I'd spend tons of time planning out what I'd do the next opportunity I had to work on it. I'd get out there and just stare at it. That big project helped me grow a lot in that way. It's still not completely done, but it's been out on the water twice. (maybe in the water is a better description)

While it's been almost two years since then and I haven't been overwhelmed recently, I don't even try to assume I'm over it. My practice has definitely influenced my ability to deal with situations, sure, but it's a hard habit to break.

Just like AA taking one day at a time, learning to take these stressful situations one step at a time is what practice is supposed to help with. The hesitation and fear of entering into situations I must face but can't control will still stick with me no matter what, it's part of being human.

Second grade was a long time ago and that lesson has taken a lot longer to sink in than it took me to memorize multiplication tables, (which I still have to calculate every once in a while) but it's been far more valuable.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Re-(Not)Thinking Sitting

I've noticed a few changes in my practice recently, like what goes on while I'm sitting. This nice post got me to re-examine my practice so I'd like to go over it a little bit so I'll at least have something to look back on.

Pretty much from the beginning, when I'd sat, my mind was a little like a TV screen with my thoughts-of-not-thinking taking up most of the screen and my thinking thoughts scrolling across the bottom like a news ticker. Sometimes I'd get caught with what was passing by on the bottom, but then come back to what I was supposed to be watching.

This seemed like a pretty good setup. I wasn't intentionally blocking my thoughts, just being aware they were there and letting them go by. It wasn't an intentional contrivance, it would just present itself that way. Guess I watch too much TV.

Other times I would find things a little differently. My breath would be like the waves on the beach, in and out without effort or stopping. Thoughts would wash up like crabs or seaweed and soil my pristine beach. Instead of tracking all over the sand to throw them back, I would just let the out-breath wash them back out to sea. Sometimes it would take a few waves, but they'd leave eventually.

These aren't really visualizations, though. They're closer to metaphors of just how it works. But with both of them thoughts were pretty concrete, the longer I practiced, the more concrete the thoughts became. It got to the point where coming back to the present was as solid a feeling as waking from sleep to find my dreams dissolved into nothing.

Recently, though my thoughts have become sneakier. They've learned how to ride the waves and interject like commercials. Like enjoying the clear blue sky only to realize you're contriving shapes from the clouds. They're quieter as they slip in and sit there like they're supposed to belong.

While I intellectually understand all the lessons I should have about this: not judging my practice, not getting frustrated by change, new opportunities, blah, blah... it's still a little annoying.

Honestly, while I've been sitting regularly for between three and seven months (depending on your definition of regular) if I were to judge my practice, I'd say I was doing better when I'd just begun. The only thing that's gotten better is my flexibility, improving my comfort level. Whether that view is tainted by the passage of time or not, I don't know. But I have stuck with it and it's most definitely a habit.

With these new developments, one new perspective has illuminated itself. In my comment of the post linked to above, I stated my issue with letting the time pass during zazen. A few days after making that comment, I realized what I was really acknowledging: impatience.

This was a little bit of a shock, since I pride myself on being pretty patient. I know it's not always true, but still... I can pretty much tell out of habit when about twenty minutes has passed and since I've started trying to sit for thirty at home, when that's passed. I think sub-consciously I'm just telling myself, "good effort, that's enough zazen but you got finished too fast and now we have to wait until time's up," like I'm taking a standardized test or something.

Surrendering to a timer is still surrendering in the way surrendering is giving up this way. While I freed my mind from the responsibility of deciding when enough was enough, I wasn't addressing the problem of being impatient.

So now when I sit, I have to be mindful of this. Come back to what my body is telling me after I've decided enough is enough, because enough is never enough. All I've accomplished is the ability is to sit for twenty minutes, not to sit in the moment moment after moment. In Opening the Hand of Thought, Uchiyama Roshi urges us to "sit for ten years, then for ten more years, then another ten years." But I sit for twenty minutes, then twenty more, and another twenty when I should just be sitting.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Just Keep Swimming...

Last week I started a new semester at school, hopefully my second to last. The week before that I had finals for the summer semester. While I passed everything, the summer still had its way with me and I still have room for improvement.

I've started looking at my classes a little differently now, though. Rather than just trying to pass them, I'm trying to make myself stand out for my teachers since I would like teach there myself some day. My original hope was to get a lab assistant job this semester so I wouldn't have to get a real job before doing my co-op in the spring, but that didn't work out.

Basically a culinary lab assistant does stuff any other lab assistant would do, except it's with food. They worry about sorting and organizing requisitions so that all the raw product is ready for the students to cook. While I would like this experience, it was really more of a way to get my foot in the door for further employment.

Now I'm taking a class in which we we form teams that take turns working different spots in the kitchen and dining room for a "restaurant" that serves the public. This class also has a teaching assistant to help some in the dining room which is starting to appeal to me.

After our first "practice" run, I see that this class should be interesting. My patience has been tested in many classes by inexperienced or lazy students that won't step up and let/make me do all the work. Some of my fellow classmates have never worked in kitchens, let alone dining rooms, so tt was something else to watch their nervous faces stumble with just what's really expected of them. Having done both, with far more experience waiting tables, I made the comment of not knowing whether it would be better knowing what I know and seeing where we were failing (and probably frustrating myself trying to help) or being oblivious to all this and struggle with my own confusion.

While I can hold my own in the kitchen, after years of dealing with guests as a server, I'm far more comfortable in the dining room. But even experienced servers get several days of training before being let loose on the public and we only have one more practice run before that happens.

This will be a great opportunity for me to practice patience as well as an opportunity to endear myself to the instructor. I'm hoping my experience and performance will help me if I decide to apply for the lab assistant position again.

All of this time, I've been wanting to teach things I'm somewhat passionate about, like food safety and sanitation or purchasing. I hadn't even considered how rare dining room management skills are for a chef or culinary instructor. Most instructors have only done tours of duty in the kitchen. While the chef occasionally makes their way to the dining room, it's usually a toss up until they face the guest as to whether the experience will be an ego stroke or savage complaint. (people are always trying to get stuff for free)

Customer service stops at the kitchen door for almost every kitchen position. Anything more than that makes up the nightmares of cooks. The next time you eat somewhere, especially fast food, pay attention to who's cooking and who's taking your order and ponder how different your experience would be if they switched.

When I worked in fast food, they always wanted girls to take orders since they should be natural hostesses able to soothe angry guests. The guys were always hidden away, cooking the food fitting the fast food employee stereotype a little too well. As soon as it was known that I had cash handling skills and could actually be polite, I was shoved behind a cash register, which I enjoyed infinitely more.

(The irony of this was that my next job, I applied to be server, but they shoved me in the kitchen due to my "experience" cooking. While this was a ridiculous and frustrating pay cut, I don't regret the experience.)

In fairness, all this may leave me coming off as arrogant, that I know so much more than my classmates, but I've got more than 10 years experience working almost every type of food service. On top of that I've been taking two years worth of culinary classes over the last five years with my poor attendance and incomplete homework being the only things keeping me from finishing. I may not have the motivation of some of the others, but I'm also not fresh out of high school. I should have graduated already and be teaching by now. I know my flaws that stopped me and that's what I'm working on now.

So I'll push on, with my head up and see what happens. Most of them are good kids and I'll enjoy sharing my experience and confidence with them, watching them grow as the semester progresses.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New Additions

I added a haiku page for stuff I've written and will write. I also put a couple links to haiku stuff down towards the bottom. As I add new haiku, I'll replace the recent haiku at the top of the home page.

I also added a page about some of my thoughts on cooking.

There's also a blog roll now with the blogs I read regularly. I'll probably add more as I get into some of the newer ones I've stumbled across.

I've got a couple more pages in the works to describe in more detail the other things important to me like Aikido.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Guitar Koan

Many years ago, I lived the life a student musician playing bass guitar. My teacher placed a large emphasis on jazz and improvisation and after struggling a little with letting go and just allowing myself to play he asked me an unusual question.

"What is the most important note you will ever play?"

I paused for a second and responded without thinking.

"The one I'm playing."

He was a little taken aback.

"I've asked you this before, haven't I?"

I assured him, that he had not. It just made sense to me. This was before I really knew anything about Buddhism so there was no intellectualization over it, I just kind of knew.

So then he asked me another question.

"What's the least important note you'll ever play?"

"The last note I played, of course," I responded.

"I have to have asked you this before... I'm sure."

"Nope. It just makes sense. You can't unplay a note, and if you're all worried about what to play next, you'll freeze up. You can't ride the groove."

None the less, my improv improved. While I understood, I hadn't implemented the idea. I practiced my scales until my fingers knew what to play when, and I improved.

Now I'm not trying to toot my own horn,(bad musical pun, sorry) but I think it's important to stress that we can have realizations on our own, independent of teachings. I'm sure I'd been told several times the very lesson he'd tried to teach me and I just hadn't gotten it before, but the way he asked it that time was my "stone striking a tile" or whatever.

We can read and listen all we want, but until the spot in our mind is in the right shape for the right shaped piece of information, it won't matter. The purpose of our practice is to exercise the mind, to stretch it out and make it more malleable so that it can receive the Truth when it appears. This is the "immovable mind"* that doesn't get stuck by thoughts with preconceived notions.

While I can't really get behind the idea of koan for the sake of koan, I do understand their purpose when used by the right teacher in the right way. I think the classics are difficult since they've been translated so many times they've lost their cultural relevance and they seem to require an encyclopedic knowledge of zen heritage. But I think the right modern teacher would be able to see in their student the shape of that hole in the mind and be able to give them the right shaped piece to fit it. Well, dharma gates are boundless after all.

I've recently come to the conclusion that zen is the ideology that asks me to make the least changes in myself for practice. The changes and means it asks of me also seem to very straightforward and of obvious benefit. I'm not sure if that's the nature of zen, or if it's just me. As I look back over my life, I've noticed other memories, like this one, that were obvious fingers pointing me in the direction of zen.

* I always found "immovable" tricky, but it's not immovable like the immovable object, it's immovable like the unstoppable force. If the mind is immovable, no thought can come and "move" it or make it stray from its path.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What Do I Cook?

There are a couple comments and questions I always get when I tell someone I'm a culinary student.

The first is usually, "Oh, so you want to open your own restaurant?" I don't really get this one. People don't ask law students if they want to start their own firm, or teaching students if they want to open their own schools.

In case you were wondering, no, I don't want my own restaurant. I don't even want to work in restaurants anymore, I have other goals. While Anthony Bourdain gives most of my reasons in wonderful, thought out, and colorful language not to own a restaurant in his now classic book, Kitchen Confidential, I really don't like the hours any more.

Another big question I get is "What do you like to cook?" I like to cook everything. I certainly have preferences, but they change all the time. Three main influences though: how much does it cost, how big of a mess does it make, and how long will I be standing in the kitchen.

I also don't like the perception that people, especially those preparing "home cooking," tend to think their cooking isn't good enough for me, that somehow I won't like it because it's "simple." That's far from the truth. A lot of care usually goes into preparing it and that comes through in the taste.

I like to explore other cultures through food. But with all the various techniques and ingredients, spices are the easiest to keep on hand for variety in the kitchen.

The most common things I do usually involve either pasta or rice, chicken, some vegetables and some sort of sauce. Just any culture you look at will have some variation of this and just the sauce ingredients determine its origin.

One annoying thing about making things up is people always want to know what you call it. Why does it have to have a name? Does it taste good? That's all that matters.

A lot of people find cooking intimidating, but they shouldn't. People have been cooking for millennia. In times like these, cooking is a very useful skill to have for yourself because it will save you money and allow you to control the nutritional value. If you have everything prepared before you actually start cooking, it can be enjoyable. Cut up all your produce and meat, have everything in front of you so you won't need to look around for some ingredient you forgot and accidentally burn something. This definitely includes reading a recipe a couple times and having it in front of you.

Cooking is definitely an art, but not everyone has to be a Picasso. It doesn't have to be complicated and difficult to understand. All that matters is that it tastes good. Just as any child can pick up a paintbrush and paint a nice picture, to some extent, anyone can take a few ingredients and prepare something tasty. You may not be super successful the first couple times, but confidence is just as much an ingredient as anything else. As long as you don't burn it, there's only so much damage you can do that will end up with something inedible.

So start simple, think it out, and have confidence. Don't be hard on yourself, it's an adventure and a journey so enjoy it.