Friday, July 30, 2010

Sleepy Legs and Boring Zazen

While I was sitting this morning, my legs told me they fell asleep because zazen is boring and they figured if I wasn't going to need them for the next twenty minutes they were going to go back to sleep.

I didn't believe this, so I did some research.

Almost everywhere you read about sitting meditation, pain in the legs or legs falling asleep are mentioned. I wasn't really sure if it was something that would go away after time since some days I don't really feel any pain and some days my legs take longer to fall asleep.

At home, the "zabuton" I use is really a comforter that I've folded down and wrapped in a sheet. It's also on top of carpet. At the Zen Center, the real zabutons are a bit thinner and on hard wood so the pressure on my ankle's a bit more.

Because of these differences, sitting at home's a bit more comfortable. I don't sit as long at home either, but I've almost fallen down twice after sitting forty minutes at the Zen Center.

Research indicates squished nerves are the cause of my legs falling asleep. And while this site says pinched nerves in the knees are the most common cause in the legs, my knees feel pretty much alright, so I'm thinking it's more in my ankle.

The only thing I've tried is to put one of the little square support cushions under my lower ankle (I can't do the full lotus torture position yet) to help cushion it from the hard floor, but don't have enough attempts to form a conclusion.

As far as zazen being boring, yes, I can agree Buddhists may have discovered/invented the most boring activity in history. But is it really that boring or is the mind tricking us?

While, once again, these are my own speculations, I developed a few thoughts on this.

One of my favorite places to go, growing up in St. Louis, was the Science Center. It's not quite what it used to be, but there was (may still be) an exhibit that covered how our senses can be tricked through things like optical illusions and stuff.

One of the displays had a speaker that played two series of sounds: one kind of musical and interesting, the other a monotone beep every few seconds. After listening to the clips it asked you which you thought was longer. The trick question was that they were the same duration. The additional musical stimulus kept us occupied by cramming more information into each moment while the "boring" one kept us anticipating; making it seem longer.

I've often observed, the sitting periods that seem the longest are the ones where my mind is least focused and the shorter seeming ones, I'm able to stay in the moment.

Staying in the moment seems to remove the linear nature of time. It kind of frees me from thinking about how long it's been or how much longer I have to go. Usually my reaction to these thoughts are more along the lines of "I've set this time for sitting and that's it, once time's up I can get to other things."

Now I get one more aspect of what it means, or I guess implies, to stay in the moment. When we're in the moment, it becomes the most interesting moment, not to mention, the only moment. How can we compare whether or not that moment is boring if we have nothing to compare it to? In the moment = not so boring zazen.

Applying this to our daily lives can make the troubles of life more bearable. For example: Yesterday, while doing our hellish ab routine during warm ups for aikido, I noticed focusing on my breath made holding my position more bearable. Counting my breaths rather than seconds kept me from living in the pain. It sure got me to focus something awful, too.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


A thought that has struck me as odd concerning "enlightnement" is that the popular view, and from what I can tell, the view among some Buddhist traditions, is that once you have it, you have it. How can this make sense in an ideology that above all else, stresses the impermanence of everything?

I find myself practicing, and I guess following, the Soto lineage of zen which seems to place the least emphasis on the concept of enlightenment. I think the Soto way is the most fundamental bare-bones form of Buddhism in the way that handles concepts like this. In barely feeling comfortable in going over this, keep in mind, this is just how I understand these things right now, and don't consider myself in anyway authoritative.

The main expression of practice is zazen, which is seated meditation. You sit there facing a wall trying not to think. There's no real goal or focus, you just try to keep your mind from latching on to the thoughts that pop up. From all its being called a "natural state," it sure doesn't seem so. The purpose is to stay in the moment and not let our minds wander to thoughts of the past or future. I guess as advanced social creatures, our minds try to use the downtime to build a structure of reality around the present to give us a sense of security.

This sense of security is false, though. We can't revisit the past, and just as our prejudices cloud our view of the present, they further cloud our views of the past every time we recall them. Thoughts of the future are even more dubious because we haven't even seen what will happen. So seeing through this illusion could be called enlightenment, but you have to actually experience it, understanding it as a concept is not enough anymore than understanding that sugar is sweet lets you taste it in its absence.

Letting go of that security is usually referred to as an aspect of Buddhism's "unattachment." The present happens on its own and will never happen like the past again. (Like the metaphor of never being able to put your foot in the same river twice.) So, if practiced honestly, zazen can be seen as enlightenment itself even if thoughts pop up, because you are expressing the impermanence of the moment by letting thoughts go.

Now sitting is not the only time we're supposed to practice this, but it is good exercise in that we minimize distraction to build up our ability to make it easier to find that state when we're most in need like stressful situations.

How can I relate this to food? Well take the metaphor of the perfect meal. Think of the best meal you've ever had. Not just the taste of the food, but everything: the atmosphere, the people (or lack thereof) you enjoyed it with... Did it eclipse all the stress of your day so far, or compliment how wonderful it was going?

Now consider this: it will never happen again. No matter how hard you try, you can't orchestrate all those circumstances again, and even if you could, you would still be hampered by your expectations of how awesome it was the first time.

If we back up a bit, and limit the example to just the food, there's a reason we use the word "best." By definition, it can't be equaled, and to top it would rob it of that quality.

Your favorite food wouldn't stay that way if you ate it all the time, either. So, if enlightenment is the perfect meal, each meal is a moment in time, and we of course want each meal to be the best ever, we can't compare one meal to another. If breakfast was too awesome for words, and lunch doesn't live up to it in comparison, not only will the experience of lunch be tainted, but we'll lose some of the sparkle from breakfast. We might as well not even eat lunch if we're hoping dinner will be better or even compare to breakfast. What happens if breakfast the next day is awful? What will we expect lunch to be like? In the restaurant industry it's said that you're only remembered by someone for the last meal you served them.

Is this making sense? Just as we consume meals, we consume moments. Some moments leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied. Some over stuff us with pleasure until we want to burst. Comparing the present to the past or the future doesn't make sense since we can't re-eat a meal once it's complete or before its prepared. Our only hope of happiness is to consume the present moment without comparison and enjoy it for what it is. That right there is what I've come to understand is enlightenment.

And as far as enlightenment being permanent. We can't eat the same meal forever. Some meals may inspire similar feelings as others, but each time it will still be a different meal. Does this cheapen the meaning of enlightenment? I don't think so. I think it makes it more precious and not so exotic as to seem unattainable.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Birthday.. yay

Thursday was my birthday. I don't usually like to make a big deal out of it. It's just another day to me, personally, but everybody else tries to make it more, so I usually get stuck thinking bigger thoughts about it.

I mentioned how I wasn't really looking forward to it when I was last at the Zen Center and was told it makes for a good practice to contemplate my mortality. Not the best thing to think about, but necessary and it got me thinking about how I really feel about my birthday.

I know I tell myself thinking about my birthday makes me feel older, but when I really think about it, I don't. I think it's me just buying into what other people say. Fundamentally, I feel the same everyday, even if I understand I'm different each moment. Why do we have to use years to mark the passage of our lives? When I sit in practice, minutes and seconds seem to be all that matters as the pain builds in my legs.

I think I'm just in the habit of regretfully celebrating my birthday because I never really felt a sense of accomplishment for the year. Yeah, looking over each year, there were things I got done and made progress with, but the last year I actually did things I can count as successes and milestones.

Restarting Aikido, I earned two ranks, bumping myself to gokyu. I feel I've made a successful commitment making it a substantial part of who I am. I also started the zen practice I've been toying with for several years, making it a daily habit and helping to give some definition to what I believe and how I see the world, as well as reaping some benefits I've mentioned before.

I think the biggest thing as far as life in the "real" world is my success with school. I got back into culinary school after being kicked out of another for two years of awful attendance. Not only did I successfully complete the term, but I earned myself straight A's which I don't think I've ever, ever done.

So maybe next year's birthday will have a little more celebration to it. By this time next year, I should have graduated and gotten a real job. I'll be paying back student loans, but I'll be done with school by thirty.

Speaking of food and celebration, though. I was more or less dragged to dinner by my girlfriend and a friend of hers for my birthday and thankfully I did take the initiative and chose where. One of the classes I'm taking right now is Charcuterie, which to those that don't know, is basically the production of any meats ground or cured. It originally was a cuisine based on necessity, using all the parts of the animal westerners don't usually consider edible, mostly the different organs. These days, it's kind of frowned upon by most westerners since it's usually cured at temperatures in what's referred to as the "danger zone" which is between 40 and 130 degrees where bacteria is able to thrive. It's making a comeback as a dying art, so I'm pretty interested.

I think it's great because it's a respectful way to treat an animal, you don't just take the steaks and chops and bacon and toss the rest as dog food or compost. It helps to fully appreciate the gift of a creature's life. The fact that it usually tastes great is just a bonus.

Most of charcuterie items I've had were of the more refined type, prosciutto, serano ham, terrines and fois gras, but the restaurant we went to was more rustic and I had pork cheek and black pudding for the first time. The pork cheek was served with marinated wild mushrooms and had a texture that pretty much resembled that, kind of like a pickled portabella mushroom. The black pudding was a little more extreme a food. Black pudding is basically a sausage but it gets it's color by using the coagulants in blood as a binder instead of pork fat as its binder to hold it together. Having never had it before, I can only assume it was good and that it just wasn't something I really enjoy. Fat in sausage definitely has a better, more moist, feel in the mouth. The black pudding was a little drier, but at least I can say I've tried it.

Sorry to any vegetarians who might take disgust, but I don't have a problem eating critters and feel grateful for their gift. I'll talk about that some other time.

Happy birthday to me

Monday, July 19, 2010

Why Cooking?

To contrast the theme of my first post, I'd like to go over what I like about cooking and why I chose food as a career (still not sure if it chose me, though).
For one thing, I really like to cook on a personal level... or rather, I like to be able to cook, there are definitely days I don't want to cook. Analysis of cooking ranges from the primal idea of throwing some meat on a fire and provide for yourself and family to the scientific ideas of what actually happens on a chemical level.

I think everyone should know how to cook a a few specific things. Having to rely on others for sustenance is a crutch. Not everyone should have to cook for themselves anymore than everyone should have to build their own houses or fix their own cars, but complete ignorance is just a sad thing.

As far as cooking for others, I find it can be a very intimate gift. People need food, water, and air as basic minimums for survival, so to provide one of those can feel pretty good.

I enjoy working with food in general, both serving people and cooking for them. Serving provides many different things. Everyday you meet new people and never know what to expect either good or bad. The good is, well, good; the bad provides an opportunity to grow, to be a/the better person rather than take it personally. Every interaction is a unique opportunity.

Cooking food professionally is a different story, though. There's a reason kitchens use a brigade system modeled on the military. A kitchen functions as a crew and the conditions are usually hot, wet, and greasy with fire and sharp objects all around. The satisfaction derived from working a shift in the kitchen is also very different. You prepare and get slammed, then you get to clean up after, unless you work as a team everything will fall apart. Not everybody likes each other, and some are better than others, but everyone is necessary and everyone has to deal with it and can form a good bond.

They each have their drawbacks, though. You can't always depend on the money from waiting tables like you can getting paid hourly in the kitchen, but it's less monotonous than working in a kitchen. You also rarely get to see the satisfaction your guests receive from what you've prepared for them when you work in the kitchen.

But I still enjoy it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Discipline and New Habits

Since I set this thing up a couple days ago and haven't really done anything with it, I guess my first post should be about discipline. This ties in nicely with my zen practice, culinary school.. and well, a lot of other things in my life.

One of the reasons I'm still in culinary school after four plus years is due to a lack of discipline. I missed a lot of class the first couple years so I had to repeat a lot. I don't want to make excuses anymore and it doesn't really matter anyway, but discipline was pretty much the problem. It was too easy for me to make excuses that I could accept as suitable reasons to either just stay home, drive all the way there and not get out of my car, or just drive around. I've dealt with this for waaaay too long, but I'm fairly confident I've broken that habit. I didn't see it as being lazy, because I really struggled with it. I cared that I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing, I was just better at making and accepting my own excuses.

And habit was a big part of it. For many years I've halfheartedly looked for some sort of meditation practice to incorporate into my daily life. I'd tried different moving and sitting forms of meditation, but never really stuck with it. I knew the benefits of such things from my previous experience with aikido. Most of it's benefits were from focusing and staying in the moment, but I had trouble taking those things off the mat into daily life. And of course the reason that was my previous experience is because once I started to lose interest, I gradually stopped going. It had been a hobby, but not yet a habit yet. Every time I was given another chance, I'd psych myself up that it'd be different this time, but I just wasn't able to follow through.

So what's different? What changed that allowed me to make new habits and break the old ones? Now that I think about it, it's not all that obvious. I think the credit rests with resuming Aikido. Last summer, I found a book (not in a store to be bought, but in a box in the woods, but that's another story) called Zen in the Martial Arts. I'd set it aside for a while but read it eventually and it got my interest back up to get back into Aikido. I'd never really lost interest in it entirely, it always kind of stuck with me and colored my worldview in some way, but now I realized I actually had the time to train. The instructor at the dojo I found required a one year commitment, which I did hesitate to commit to (fear isn't really the right word, but in sense it is appropriate).

Over the first few months I had some frustrations, but stuck with it since I was in for the year. Now I've always felt the need to share things I learn with people, mostly as a courtesy to what I've learned, so I've always respected people who teach. But I think the most important lesson I could ever learn was when my teacher told me that there were days she didn't feel like teaching us, but she did because that was the commitment she'd made.

I don't know why that had the effect on me that it did. Of course it was to be expected of her, she's only human; no one could be expected to really want to do anything four days a week with almost no break for years on end no matter how much they enjoyed it. But for some reason, this acknowledgment really struck a chord. I became more aware of the years of effort and dedication to reach that point and that without all of that she would not be in the position to teach us.

As someone who habitually adjusts interests time after time, this sort of dedication was brought into a new light. I couldn't help but see this revelation in the other parts of my life, my teachers at school for example, but not just them: anyone who was any kind of authority on anything had made the conscious decision to commit and follow through with it.

About this same time, I was reading an awesome book, Zen Heart by Ezra Bayda. I credit this book with me actually beginning my practice and will talk about that more some other time. My point, though, is that here was another person who'd dedicated themselves to something that hit home in me somehow. I'd put off actual practice for so long, but this book inspired me in a practical way to make the commitment myself.

Now there were other reasons to do it, and they are all legit, but in an idealistic move I cut my hair about as short as I could tolerate to mark this commitment. I'd needed something concrete that I couldn't ignore and it seemed an appropriate way to mark my commitment to my new life and new practice.

Now whenever I'd scratch my head in wonder about doing what I'm supposed to do, I get that nifty scratchy reminder. Plus, about once a month, I have to renew that commitment by cutting my hair again.

But discipline... yes, back to that. I had started sitting in the evening after my girlfriend went to bed, and that was fine for about a month. It was calming and became a little habitual. I followed what was laid out in Zen Heart for practice until I was able to take a free intro class at the local zen center. I've always been an evening person, but after sitting once early one morning, I learned how sitting can affect my day. I was actually somewhat awake and motivated.

I was fortunate enough to be given a scholarship for a deeper six week intro class to sitting meditation a month later and applied my new perspective on teachers and commitment. Here were two people teaching this class who had dedicated themselves to this life sharing their experiences with me, and on top of that, they had agreed to share it with me without charge. I had to take this seriously to honor this as a gift. It definitely paid off.

I committed myself to get up an hour earlier than I was accustomed to sit for twenty minutes everyday. For anyone who hasn't sat zazen, it's more than you'd think. Just sitting for twenty minutes? How hard can it be? It's pretty tough not just mentally, but physically as well. Discipline is needed to keep from stopping when it starts to hurt or when you get bored. Rather than have a watch in front of me and decide on a time I'd stop. I set a timer and refuse to look at it. I won't move until it goes off so there's no, "eh, that's close enough to twenty minutes.."

Sitting is so simple, and it's a great way to build discipline, among other things. I make the commitment and there's nothing else to do until the time is up. After six months, it has become a habit, and one that spills over into other parts of my life. Gotta go to school? Just go, it's more exciting than just sitting there, and I'm supposed to do it anyway. After enough days not missing: new habit! Don't feel like scooping the litter box, washing dishes, doing laundry? Won't take more than twenty minutes, and my legs won't hurt after doing it.

So the irony of the title of this blog and the title of this post: did I have everything I needed already? Did I have discipline? Well, no... I didn't, not then, but the past is the past. I've learned my lessons, and now, in the present, I do have more discipline than I did. I definitely had the seeds before, otherwise I would have just been lazy without a care of whether or not I did what I was supposed to do. So in a way I did have what I needed already, just not at that present, it was waiting for me in the future to learn my lessons and then I would be ready.

What an ungodly long way to make a point, but before starting this, I didn't have anything at all. So here's to new habits.