3Q2016 Review

This is the third and likely last recap using the framework I started with, since what I set out to do is either mostly done or was dropped from the list. Meanwhile, new games are afoot.

Word. It started as integrate, but morphed into re-evaluate. As the year wore on I turned up some large gaps in my knowledge—not new enthusiasms, but topics that aren’t covered well by my accustomed sources of wisdom. So I’ve been dipping into different wells, mainly Buddhist philosophy, evaluating its core principles against what I know … and re-evaluating what I know in light of what it teaches, at least the parts which ring true to me.

Studies. Mindfulness continues to be my main study, but I think I am familiar enough with the basics, and have identified teachers who are not only solid but accessible to my extremely Western mind. My reference shelf is now in place, and I’m adding mostly personal histories—biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs—seeking glimpses of how it feels to move this knowledge from head to heart.

Meditation. I’ve continued this daily for 180 days now, but without heroic inclinations. I’m pleasantly surprised that sitting upright on a cushion for 25 minutes is possible and even pleasant—that’s all the encouragement I need. My top goal right now is to continue—what I accomplish during a sitting is less important.

But not unimportant. I experiment with different suggestions about how to detach sufficiently to observe thoughts, emotions, sensations, and even observation itself. Progress is slow, but the process itself holds my attention, and I’m certain enough of the path that I don’t need short-term payback to keep me going.

At some point I would like to take the plunge and attend a 10-day silent retreat. That’s an easy goal to set, though, because it will be many years before my responsibilities will let me be completely out of touch for 10 days.

Writing privately. None. But I’ve had an idea or two about how to get back to blogging regularly.

Handwriting. For copywork, I started copying a short book that I’ve read twice now and regard highly, Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs. Wow, it takes awhile to do just a couple of paragraphs, at least for me! I am nearly through the first chapter. I only do this sporadically.

My other practice is copying my Twitter archive onto index cards. About five years ago I began using Twitter to record favorite aphorisms, collecting a thousand or so before deleting my account. But I did download my tweets beforehand, and a few weeks ago I thought it would be pleasant to work through them by copying them onto cards. I also have some vague hope that a library of index cards with good thoughts will be of help in organizing my thinking overall.

Eating. The new normal continues to be highly controlled eating during the day, then a normal meal with the family at supper. I no longer skip breakfast, not due to hunger or because I missed it, but because I wanted to increase the protein in my menu, and a simple way to do that was eat a bit less in the afternoon and add a high-protein morning item.

First I tried a couple of hard boiled eggs, which are fine but not as protein-filled as I’d like. Then I learned that tofu is very high in protein, and it turns out I like it a lot, especially accompanied by just a bit of soy sauce/rice vinegar/sesame oil. I also added cottage cheese to the rotation, also high in protein. And in the afternoon I kept the apple but dropped the banana and grapefruit in favor of 1/4 cup roasted salted soybeans.

Posture. Nothing to report beyond ongoing gratitude to Kelly Cumbee for introducing me to the Gokhale Method, which eliminated my back pain.

Walking. I continued my daily morning walk until the heat became too unpleasant—and during my summer visit to El Paso, it was very unpleasant, highs over 100 for the whole three weeks. Since returning to Kentucky I’ve walked off and on, depending on the temperature, and now that it’s cooled off for good I’m walking daily for 30 minutes. Definitely a habit now.

If we define meditation broadly as practicing being in the moment, then I have begun experimenting with meditative walking. That is, I work at staying focused on the walking and the sensations it brings, rather than allowing a train of thought to carry me into the future or the past or just off into some fantasy.

Garden. The potato yield was disappointing, maybe 2:1, but the potatoes themselves are fantastic, full of flavor, dense rather than watery. Tomatoes as always were well worth growing, and not much trouble—early and diligent weeding kept the plot clear for the rest of the summer. We ate tons but had more than enough, with the first ones ready about August 15, and the last picked on September 30. I’ll be dreaming about them as I shift back to store bought in my salads.

I don’t know if we’ll plant garlic again this fall, since last year’s yield was so pitiful.

Board games. The kids are interested in other things for now, which is fine with me since I’m only mildly interested in the games, they were just an excuse for a shared activity. But we have plenty of those.

2Q2016 Review

On New Year’s Day I wrote a post laying out some paths I expected to follow in the year to come. Three months later I wrote a first-quarter review, and now it’s time to recap the second three months.

Word. I don’t know now if integrate will be the word for the year. It served me well for the first four months, but as I worked on integrating what I’ve learned I also discovered some important gaps that needed filling, so I’ve focused more on that this quarter. Once I get comfortable with the groundwork I’m doing in those areas I may return to integration–but there’s no rush, since the groundwork turns out to be its own reward.

Studies. One of the items on the original list was mindfulness, and as I reviewed what I knew, I discovered I was ignorant of vast swaths of the territory. So I set out to remedy that, both in knowledge and in practice, by taking an extended tour of western Buddhist thinking.

I have no interest in Buddhism as a religion, only as a psychology and an epistemology. Fortunately for me there is a 50-year tradition of westerners who have approached Buddhist thought, stripped it of its religious elements, and translated the rest into a western-friendly framework. Writers I’ve found especially valuable for this are Joseph Goldstein, Stephen Batchelor, Mark Epstein, and Daniel Ingram. A good popular introduction is Dan Harris’s book, an entertaining memoir that gently but accurately conveys the basics of vipassana (insight) meditation and Buddhism.

Anyway, I’ve read a lot of introductory material about Buddhism, and my to-read stack is still pretty deep.

Meditation. Buddhist thought has a heavy practical/empirical emphasis. Over and over again you will hear teachers (and the Buddha himself) say, “Don’t take my word for it, try it out and judge the results for yourself.” Seems fair, so I began daily meditation (90 days ago, according to my timer app). I don’t have much to say about this yet, except that (a) I’ve found it worth continuing, even working at, and (b) without the practical experience I don’t think I would understand much of what the Buddhists are actually saying.

Some practical notes:

  • The moment I finished Dan Harris’s book I sat down for a 10-minute session, and have meditated daily since, so it goes on my short list of Books That (Actually) Changed My Life.

  • I started in a chair, and everyone says a chair is just fine. Although I generally use a cushion now there are times when a chair is more convenient, and the session is no less for it.

  • One reason I started in a chair was that I worried my back wouldn’t tolerate sitting on the floor. Now I find that I prefer the floor. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the year-plus I’ve spent on improving my posture using Esther Gokhale’s method.

  • Six weeks in I signed up for a beginner’s course meeting weekly in Louisville (two more sessions to go). I already knew most of what the teacher has said, but hearing it from a teacher in the company of students is different and has been helpful. It is also a good way to break the ice regarding group meditation, something that might be otherwise intimidating for a first-timer.

Writing Privately. None of this. Perhaps this is because I’m currently busy learning and digesting … or perhaps that is just an excuse.

Handwriting. I finished Fred Eager’s exercises for both calligraphic and cursive script, but since then have not worked on this, partly because the time I used to spend on it now goes to meditation and reading, partly because of laziness. I still expect to resume this, in the form of copywork, but not right away.

Eating. My eating routine continues to be the new normal—or, really, slightly below normal, since I have lost another 5 pounds over the course of three months, with a bit more still to go. I don’t think about it in pounds anymore, though I weigh myself daily as part of monitoring myself. What needs to go now are small deposits of fat here and there, a few pounds total (I’m guessing). And I really don’t care how long it takes for them to go, as long as they are going and not returning. I no longer prepare a separate supper for myself, but almost always eat whatever the family is having. But I still skip breakfast, eat a salad for lunch, and fruit in the afternoon, and I expect to continue that pattern from now on.

Posture. I don’t work on this actively, and there are parts of Esther Gokhale’s method I have not tried at all yet. But I continually monitor myself based on what I’ve learned from her method, and I think it has changed my posture for the better. I stand and walk differently, and am able to sit on a stool without a back for long periods without pain. And bouts of back pain seem to be a thing of the past.

Walking. This is now a daily morning routine, 30 minutes in Frankfort and an hour in El Paso, walking the neighborhood. I don’t fret about missing a day when the weather is bad or the timing is inconvenient—rare enough occasions—but I never skip a walk out of sheer laziness. Part of what has helped me stick with it is that I don’t view walking as a calorie-burning activity—I do it for general health, maintaining flexibility, getting some fresh air, having an enforced break, trying out concentration techniques, etc. I’ve come to enjoy it.

Garden. The potatoes grew like crazy, and the vines are beginning to die back one variety at a time. We’ll probably be digging the first ones in a few weeks. Our homegrown seedlings, on the other hand, did not grow properly. Fortunately Maggie had some extras from her own garden which she contributed to ours, so we have fifteen plants which need to be staked in the next few days. None of the greens made it, but Elizabeth loves to grow basil so I picked up some seedlings for her at Lowes, and they are doing well. The horse manure composted well and we’ve been using it on the garden. Chris is away for the summer, but when he returns I expect he will haul multiple loads to the house so we’ll have it for next year.

Board games. These have tailed off, with the kids forgetting as they find other things to occupy themselves with. But I keep myself available on Sundays, and when they remember I play a few rounds with them.

One thing at a time

I mentioned in an earlier post that an anecdote from The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh had stuck with me for the 20+ years since I first read it. Truth be told, I don’t remember if I anything more than the first five or six pages at that time. Probably not, since I didn’t pursue mindfulness as a discipline in any way.

But in those first pages I came across two ideas that deeply influenced me. “Unlimited time for myself” is one. “One thing at a time is another.” Here’s the passage.

There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.

At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

If while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.

In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

This helped me in a number of ways. I stopped reliving the past—I mean, I would review past events when there was something to be learned from doing it, but otherwise I let the past go. And I stopped worrying—I mean, I would plan for the future, but only until the plans were sufficiently refined, and beyond that I refrained from living in the future, whether through worry or daydreaming or some other kind of speculation.

Later this practice helped me resist the fad for multitasking (which seems to be experiencing a strong backlash recently). I am often scattered and unfocused in my activity, but I see it as a hindrance rather than a help to getting things done, and when I notice it I work hard to get back to doing one thing at a time.

And as I’ve rediscovered mindfulness, and the practices which cultivate it, I’ve found deeper levels at which I’ve tended not to be present to life as it is in the here and now. More about that in another post, perhaps.

All that said, it’s too tempting to turn a truth into a belief. By which I mean this.

Mara, the demon who plagued the Buddha, was passing through a village one day with his entourage when he saw a man walking down the road in deep meditation. Suddenly the man’s eyes lit up as he leaned over and picked up an object.

Mara’s entourage asked, “What did the man find on the ground?”

“A piece of truth,” Mara explained.

“How awful! Doesn’t this bother you when people discover a piece of truth, O evil one?”

“No,” Mara replied. “Soon after this they usually make a belief out of it.”

“One thing at a time” is a truth, but not the whole truth, and it is a mistake to construct a system based on it. This anecdote is equally true:

So one day a student walked into the Zen Center kitchen where Zen Master Seung Sahn was eating lunch and reading a book.

The student was taken aback: “Master, you said that when eating we should just eat, and when reading we should just read; but here you are eating and reading!”

The Zen Master replied, “When eating and reading, just eat and read.”

1Q2016 Review

On New Year’s Day I wrote a post laying out some paths I expected to follow in the year to come. Three months have gone by, so I thought it would be good to take time for an update.

My word for the year is still integrate, and much of my time has been spent doing that. I’ve been reviewing what I’ve learned over the years, identifying what appears to be valuable, filling in gaps, and working to match theory with practice.

Studies. I wrote that I expected to focus on

  • Zen and Christianity (especially presence and mindfulness)
  • disciplines for building Christian character
  • non-sacramental approaches to Christian living

That has happened, in large part because one item on the list leaped to the front and absorbed most of the time I’ve had for study. Looking more deeply into mindfulness ended up bringing the rest along with it—presence, disciplined character-building, non-sacramental aspects of Christian life—by pushing me to understand and digest what Buddhists have known about life and the mind for 2500 years, much of which is poorly addressed in Christian writings, much of which is not in conflict with Christian beliefs.

At some point I’ll put together a short list of resources that can take Christians on a fairly safe tour of Buddhist thinking. This is a good example of content I would like to populate my braindump website with. So far, however, I’ve spent very little time developing the site itself.

Writing privately. I’ve done very little of this, mostly because I don’t know yet how to approach the task. I’ve kept a journal, starting out with daily entries but recently moving to less frequent updates because so far it is almost strictly a record of what I’ve done, something I’m only mildly interested in having. Since I’m writing in the journal regularly but not at any depth, at least I know there’s nothing burning to get out! At some point I will think about ways to actively dig for such material, and whether I should make the effort or not.

Handwriting. This has gone surprisingly well. I haven’t had the time or the urge to practice it daily—the explicit lessons, I mean, which take 30-45 minutes—but often I will do several days in a row, and if I miss more than a couple of days I will feel (and succumb to) an urge to get back to it. I’m practicing italic script with an edged pen now, what Fred Eager calls calligraphic script, and and am close to embarking on what he calls cursive script, a smaller hand with connected letterforms that can be used for everyday writing.

Copywork. I’ve done a little bit of this, but since I’m using calligraphic script right now it takes quite a while to get a little done. (Mostly what I’ve copied is some excerpts from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.) Once I get cursive italic script under my belt I expect to do much more, some combination of scripture and good writing that I’d like to emulate.

Health. I continue to eat well, and feel now that my routine is the new normal. I’m now down 95 pounds, with another 5 or so to go—I’m guessing, since I don’t go by the number on the scale but the remaining areas of flab on my body. And I reintroduced walking, starting with a daily hour-long walk during my last visit to El Paso, then continuing at a local church walking track when I returned in mid-February. And now that the weather is better I’m walking the neighborhood again.

Garden. More ambitious this year, but still not extremely so. Last year was primarily tomatoes, plus garlic over the winter. This year the major additions are potatoes, both in the ground and in barrels, and greens (lettuce and kale). Chris has taken charge of planning and execution, though we’re all pitching in. The plot is expanded, but still right out the back door to serve as a constant reminder. One priority this year is to enrich the soil, so we’ve begun composting in earnest. We save kitchen scraps and add them to a compost barrel. Chris has found a source of horse manure only ten minutes from home, as much as we care to haul. And since our home-made compost won’t really be available this year, we bought a pickup truck load of already-composted racehorse manure.

Board games. True to my word, we’ve played them every Sunday afternoon this year. For the first two months it was Catan after lunch and Carcassonne after supper. Then in March we added Ticket to Ride to the mix, alternating it with Catan.

Unlimited time for myself

This anecdote has meant so much to me in the 20+years since I first read it that I am surprised I haven’t posted it here before. It appears at the very beginning of The Miracle of Mindfulness, where writer Thich Nhat Hanh recounts a visit he had with his friend Allen.

“Is family life easier than being a bachelor?” I asked. Allen didn’t answer directly. But I understood. I asked another question: “A lot of people say that if you have a family you’re less lonely and have more security. Is that true?” Allen nodded his head and mumbled something softly. But I understood.

Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”

I don’t remember if this was a brand new thought to me when I first read it, but it was close to that. I don’t know if it was the anecdote itself that radically changed my thinking about how to live life properly, but it came at about the same time that my thinking changed. Regardless, it encapsulates two things I came to believe deeply:

  • Life is all about living for the sake of others
  • That’s where you’ll find your happiness

Follow the directions

I mentioned before that one of my projects for the year is to improve my handwriting. I’ll write a longer, more detailed post about the process at some point. The first step was to work through the last book in the Getty-Dubay Italic Handwriting Series, which we’ve used to teach all our kids. That was quite enjoyable, and cleaned up my handwriting quite a bit.

Then I moved on to The Italic Way to Beautiful Handwriting: Cursive and Calligraphic by Fred Eager, who is quite adamant in his book that you follow his instructions to the … uh, letter! I was skeptical of his insistence, but was in no hurry to get the job done either, so I determined that I would do just as he said.

The first section uses a broad round-nib pen to teach the letter shapes, tracing and then copying them. The grid is huge, three lines on wide-ruled paper for ascender/body/descender, and my hand is unsteady enough that I found this part very frustrating. The results were shaky and ugly to my eye. But I kept at it, eventually copying about twenty sheets worth of examples twice. What I could do at the end was much improved over where I started, but still shaky and ugly.

The second section of Eager’s book moves on to using an edged pen on a smaller grid. I had bought a suitable fountain pen awhile back, so this evening I assembled it and filled it with ink. I made a few strokes, then on a whim wrote the letter a. That turned out nicer than I expected, so I wrote the rest of the alphabet.


Wow, was I surprised! Written at proper scale with an edged pen, the results were majorly better. And as I formed each letter I could literally feel the payoff of all the frustrating work I’d done with the broad round-nib pen making letters 5 times the size.

A school for living

I’ve written about Navigators missionary Jim Petersen before, specifically about his book Living Proof, so it surprised me that I haven’t written about the anecdote from that book which affected me the most. I just located it and typed it in for the sake of a friend, and thought it was worth repeating here, along with my comment.

A Brazilian friend, Mario, and I studied the Bible for four years together before he became a Christian. As an intellectual who had read almost all of the leading Western thinkers from Rousseau to Kafka, he had blended together his own personal philosophy that was fundamentally Marxist–with Bertrand Russell as his patron saint. Why he kept studying the Bible with me for four years, or why I stuck with him so long, neither of us can explain today. But there we were.

Since he lived life on the philosophical plane, our Bible studies were often pitched in that direction. One day, a couple of years after Mario had become a Christian, he and I were reminiscing. He asked me, “Do you know what it really was that made me decide to become a Christian?” Of course, I immediately thought of our countless hours of Bible study, but I responded, “No, what?”

His reply took me completely by surprise. He said, “Remember that first time I stopped by your house? We were on our way someplace together and I had a bowl of soup with you and your family. As I sat there observing you, your wife, your children, and how you related to each other, I asked myself, ‘When will I have a relationship like this with my fiencee? When I realized the answer was ‘never’, I concluded I had to become Christian for the sake of my own survival.”

Now, I don’t think Petersen and his family were especially “saintly”. He says “I remembered the occasion well enough to recall that our children were not particularly well behaved that evening. In fact, I remembered I had felt frustrated when I corrected them in Mario’s presence.” I think he was likely living a normal Christian family life–or at least what was the norm in the early 1960s for a family of Christians, mother and father also raised by Christians.

Mario was drawn by what he saw to be so. Doctrinal study only closed the deal. I was converted in the early 90s, and not by what I saw in other Christians–at best it was by the possibilities for living I saw promised in the New Testament. And I hoped that by signing up for the program, by associating myself with the people and practices, that I would eventually see those promises fulfilled in my life.

They were, eventually, but not because of Christian practice or community, quite the opposite. For quite awhile I held onto a hope that participating would work its magic on me, but fortunately I saw that there was no reason not to pursue growth on my own at the same time. So I worked on things that seemed obviously necessary but weren’t being addressed by the church, mostly getting my character in order. I couldn’t have managed it without the hope I had that the church and the community would eventually play an important role. But it was a vain hope, they never did.

I think the crucial change was identified by Thomas de Zengontita in his book Mediated. Folks of Petersen’s generation, and every preceding generation, were shaped at a deep level by their community. They had no choice–there were no options. But that’s all gone now, never to return. All we have is options before us. And neither church nor community has yet figured out how to step up to the plate and guide us into choosing wisely under these very different circumstances.

Back when community did the social shaping the church could focus on spiritual direction. Now I think we’re in dire need of social direction, a School for Living. But I don’t even see glimmers of it, and don’t expect to see them in my lifetime.