Monday, March 29, 2010

Holidays as a reminder of prosperity

Lior and I are hosting the Passover seder this year. Passover is a Jewish holiday where families sit around the dining table for hours eating multiple courses of food while telling the story of the emancipation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt to freedom – or rather forty years of life in the desert – but no matter, it was still freedom.

Preparations for the holiday are arduous - from the thorough cleaning and de-cluttering of the home to the changing of plates and eating patterns to cooking delicious meals without any hametz, or leavened bread.

Matzah is a central point of the holiday. As the story goes, Moses worked hard to convince the Egyptian Pharaoh that he should let the Jews go from slavery. The Jews knew that Moses was working on it, and that he planned to take them on a journey out of Egypt to the land of Israel once the Pharaoh gave the go-ahead. The Jews needed food for the trip and so they were in the middle of baking bread when they received word that they had to leave quickly. It happened so quickly that they didn’t have enough time to let the bread rise. And so today, we eat matzah, and not leavened bread, as a reminder of the hardships that the Jews went through for our freedoms today.

I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad this year as I realized that I wouldn’t be able to eat matzah at the Passover table since I have celiac disease, an allergy to wheat, rye, and barley.

Some people love matzah, but I’m not a big fan – it’s dry, breaks easily, and not the greatest for digestion. I was veering away from matzah in the last few years anyway since it makes my blood sugars go really high as well.

But of course, I suddenly began romanticizing the whole concept of matzah probably since I couldn’t have it. This past week I was lamenting over the matzah brie that I wouldn’t be eating (fried matzah usually eaten with maple syrup).

Then, I read a quote in the March edition of Diabetes Forecast: “Focus on what to eat instead of what not to eat.” (p. 16)

A nerve was struck: This reminder came in real handy as I discovered that a box of gluten-free matzah is really hard to find, and when you do, it costs a whopping $30 a box. And it reminded me of what we do have: We did find gluten-free matzah ball mix (made from potatoes). Isn’t the matzah ball soup the best part anyway? But even more than the matzah, we are having multiple courses of absolutely delicious food.

And of course, I couldn’t help but extend that principle to all things – not only food – focus on what you do have, not on what you don’t. Seems like a formula for prosperous living!

So why was I focused on the one thing I couldn’t have? I suppose you can say that it’s human nature. Rather than looking at all the things that we do and can have, it’s natural to think about the one thing we can’t.

Whether you celebrate Passover or not, let’s allow the holiday to serve as a reminder that we are free. We are free to choose our thoughts and focus on the prosperity in our lives!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Finding certainty during uncertain times

What do you know for sure? How does it feel when you know something for sure? That’s the feeling I am trying to capture.

My life has been filled with uncertainty lately between health, family, recession, and so on. And I’d like to change that. While writing this blog post, I remembered that life is always filled with uncertainty, and if this is true, which it is, then staying true to my beliefs, I just need to figure out how to use the uncertainty so that it empowers me rather than sucking the life right out from under me.

When I feel uncertain, I get nervous. My mind fills with clutter thoughts like: What’s going to happen? I then attach possible outcomes to different scenarios, like ‘If I just eat apples and walnuts, then I believe my blood sugars will be okay’ or ‘if I don’t use artificial sweeteners, then maybe I won’t get cancer.’ My body then tightens because I really prefer the taste of peanut butter over walnuts and Splenda over Truvia. I feel angst in my stomach and my shoulders tighten. And I feel that I need a good massage, a vacation, or wine…That feeling of: I just want “to get away from it all”.

Don’t we all feel those anxious feelings of uncertainty sometimes? Although I like a good massage and love vacations, most days that’s not happening, and so I’d like to find a way to go through life feeling like I’m already on vacation – or well, at least feel like I don’t need one.

And this is where the power of choice comes in. Although very little in life is under our control, we do get to choose our thoughts, our words, and our actions to some degree. And our thoughts really do create the reality of our lives. If we choose to be anxious, then we’re anxious. If we choose to be happy, then we’re happy. Using this theory, I can basically wash away the thoughts of uncertainty and replace them with thoughts of trust and knowing. We all can.

So after reading an article by Deepak Chopra this week, I remembered that a good way to do this is to focus on the feeling of certainty, the feeling of knowing something for sure. How does that feel like to you?

For me, I know that really knowing something for sure – and I’m talking about something that isn’t under my control – I get a gut feeling. I just know it, and I can’t describe it in words. It’s just the opposite of that tension I feel in my stomach when I’m nervous and filled with mind clutter. There is a feeling of spaciousness, a feeling of joy, and it stops me in my tracks. I sense a connection to greater purpose and presence, and the more I have practiced it, the more I have become attuned to it. And as a result, I have experienced greater certainty, knowing, and trust in my life.

Deepak writes that life is meant to progress. He’s right. At one point in my life, I didn’t know where I would go to college. But after doubts, questions, research, applications, visitations, waiting, and some more waiting, I did get into college, a good one actually, and I had a great time, met wonderful friends, and oh yeah, learned a whole bunch. And now I know that life does progress, questions are answered, and hopes can become certainties. At later points in my life, I didn’t know that I would be able to get my A1C below a 7, or that I would get married, or that I would find a good job, but I did and I have. And looking back, I realize that all of those times were also filled with the anxieties too during the process of getting there.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we just trusted the process to begin with? If we just trust that everything does resolve, answers do surface, and more often than not, situations work out for the best, wouldn’t life be so much happier, less stressful, and more vacation-like? We can use that mind energy toward other things – like being creative, exploring, learning, taking action. The point is that once we trust that life is meant to progress, then we can lead our lives with greater certainty during those challenging times that seem insurmountable. And we can apply those feelings of certainty and knowing every step along the way.

I am not saying that I have mastered trust during uncertain times, not at all. I’m learning. Just as in life, finding certainty during uncertain times is a process. What I have learned though is that I can trust the process because life progresses. And I know this for sure. I’m certain of it.

To delve deeper, click here to read Deepak Chopra’s article entitled, “Learning How to Live with Certainty in Uncertain Times” on Chopra provides a certainty to-do list on page 2 which I personally enjoyed.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Discovering the realm of possibility

I am slowly reading a book called The Pathfinder by Nicholas Lore; as the title suggests, this book provides a way of thinking about finding one’s path in life. I was reading the chapter on “the seven key elements” of choosing a path yesterday when I stumbled upon a way of thinking about the realm of possibility that I hadn’t really thought of before.

He writes, “There is a difference between options and possibilities. Everyone has options. Your options consist of a fixed set of predetermined scenarios, points of view, perceived limitations that already reside in your data bank. They are the different things you could do and remain in the same box you live in now. When you ask, ‘What are my options?’ you are really asking ‘What is the contents of my box?’…If you depend on your options to formulate your future, that future will be no more than a rearrangement of your past.

“Possibilities are completely different. When you ask, ‘What is possible?’ you must stretch your imagination out of the confines of the familiar. You have to stretch your wings, get out of the box, and look around.” (p. 194)

I definitely connected with these two paragraphs. I have often led my life thinking about my options rather than my possibilities – starting with the most basic things in life.

Here’s a part of my routine: When I am about ready to eat lunch, I open the fridge, stare at its contents, and assess my options. This is really quite pointless since I wind up eating one of four or five basic meals almost every day. I base my lunch choice on what I already know.

I actually think to myself, ‘What’s there to eat?’ I then scan blankly and will probably think cheese even though I’m not even looking at cheese. Then I’ll pull a few pieces of bread and some cooking spray from the pantry – and, well, that’s a grilled cheese. I eat those at least three or four times a week. I’ll scan some more - tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, and celery. I’ll then pull out the olive oil and a lemon – and well gosh darn it, that’s a salad.

That's how I approach lunch pretty much every day of the week. Simple variations may include tomato soup, peanut butter sandwich, and sometimes even a turkey sandwich or eggs. I’ll pack those meals up on days that I eat in the office. I never really thought of this before, but it’s kind of boring, don’t you think?

It’s my comfort zone. It’s what I know. And I rarely stretch beyond it.

How many of us look at the fridge and think in terms of possibilities? Forgetting what we’ve eaten time and time before, letting go of meal routines and patterns. How many of us open the fridge and say, ‘What’s possible for lunch today?’ I don’t think I’ve ever done that!

I bet I can take this example and apply it to many scenarios in life. Can you?

And then there’s the realm of possibility. I really love to travel, and Lior and I often go on road trips. Now that I think about it, I have noticed that every time we’re already on the highway on our way to our chosen and planned destination, I will sometimes think, ‘What would happen if I just drove somewhere else? If I didn’t stick to the planned route? What would I discover?’

I have gone off the beaten path many times during travel, and you know what - it always turns out to be a wonderful, fun, and enriching experience. It stretches my way of thinking outside of the predictable, planned, comfort zone in a healthy way.

You may say, ‘Ophir, you’re traveling. But come on, how can you do that during day to day life?’ I do kind of expect to go off the beaten path on a road trip and discover new things, but I bet we can extend this to the mundane as well.

This week, I plan to ask myself ‘What is possible?’ instead of sticking to the same, old routine based on the options that are in my comfort box. Let me know if you will, too. I’d love to hear about it! Who knows what we’ll discover?

Monday, March 8, 2010

The ups and downs of transforming negativity into positive stuff

I am in training – ‘calming the mind’ training – and am practicing taking delight in its ups and downs.

You may remember from my last post that I am on a goal driven, applied Buddhism kick lately. I am in fact putting into practice last week’s lessons on calming the mind and transforming negative into positive, while also listening to more Buddhist teachings. Now I’m listening to teachings by Pema Chodron during my commute where she talks about how calming the mind has its ups and downs.

Pema Chodron is the first female, Western Tibetan Buddhist monk and is just really great at applying Buddhist philosophies for Western audiences. In her teachings, Pema says that there will constantly be ups and downs with everything in life. She continues to say that by being mindful and then taking delight during the ups and the downs, you can live life more fully. So in other words, when a down occurs, be present, feel whatever feeling arises, and you can take delight by being thankful that you have the wisdom to do that. This method is easier when an up occurs, but it's still important to be mindful when good things happen. Be sure to rejoice during the ups and be thankful for those uplifting moments!

So as I wrote last week after my visit to the Buddhist meditation center in Lambertville, I am trying to apply all of these teachings to real life. I am starting by training my mind to stay calm with something relatively small that I know triggers samsara, a repetitive circumstance that triggers aggravation or disharmony.

I chose all things traffic-related. Merging onto highways really stresses me out because I lost some of my peripheral vision when I was 19 years-old as a result of diabetic retinopathy. Although I do have some vision in my right eye, it is very limited and fuzzy. Although I manage, I do get nervous while driving. I am scared of killing myself or getting into a car accident or hurting someone else.

The thing is: Our minds are able to think about and do many things at the same time. Yes, I can drive AND listen to music AND sing AND think endlessly about whatever mind chatter exists at the moment AND be nervous AND scared AND trigger samsara AND merge. What I'm not doing is being present.

So on my first day of ‘calming the mind’ training, I shut off the car radio at around 8:55 am. I approached the highway entrance and turned the wheel with the course of the ramp. I inhaled and exhaled a couple of times. I turned my head to the left to see if any cars were approaching. I saw a car driving quickly and realized that I would have to merge after he passed. I assessed where the lanes begin and end. I sped up and merged after the first car and before a car that was following after him.

I’ve merged well before (or else I wouldn’t be here, right?), but this time I was fully present while doing so and only a little nervous. I was present while merging and so the nervousness didn’t have the space or the room to implode.

There are ups and down to this process though. Samsara is a repetitive circumstance that triggers aggravation, right? That night, on the way home, I was nervous and didn’t merge so smoothly. I cursed the short ramp and the heavy traffic, and then I noticed that my mind was filled with clutter. I began to inhale and exhale frantically, but by then it was too late, and I was sitting on the ramp at full stop praying for an opening. And then it came; a car moved to the middle lane providing me with space to move.

So I’m not transforming overnight; it’s a process. Amazingly enough, I listened to Pema Chodron immediately after that experience, and it put it all into perspective. The ups and the downs are totally natural and are there as a lesson - to be mindful and take delight in our wisdom.

Some days I am able to merge with calm mind and rejoice with a “YAY!” in my car. And yes, I go back to cluttered mind two seconds later. But I’m aware of it, and I am grateful that I have the wisdom to notice both. So, I shall try again tomorrow. I’m in training, after all.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Transforming negativity into positive

I went to a Buddhist meditation center on Sunday morning in Lambertville, New Jersey for a meditation and workshop on the topic of samsara and transforming negativity into positive. No matter what your religious or spiritual beliefs may be, I found the instructor’s teachings to be quite beneficial for any life situation, and so I am using this blog to share some of what I learned with you.

Diane, our meditation instructor, led us first on a calming of the mind meditation. Basically, we sat together, and as in most Buddhist meditations, we scanned the body for any tension, released that tension, and then focused on the breath. The breath is considered the basic focal point for staying present.

To be honest, I was calm for a good part of the meditation, as I’ve been practicing meditation for a number of years, but it is only natural for a person’s mind to wander. And yes, my mind did stray at times. I couldn’t help but sing “So What” by Pink over and over again in my head. Diane knows that the straying mind is true of everyone, and so she would occasionally bring us back and ask us gently to focus on our breath once again.

After Diane so wisely helped us calm our minds, she introduced the Sanskrit term, samsara, which she defined as the cyclical nature of life. Diane continued to say that samsara can also be thought of as a repetitive circumstance that aggravates us and arouses a negative reaction. She used the example of how we react when someone says or does something that totally aggravates us, and our minds spin in anger, jealousy, fear or any negative emotion. Believe it or not, the person who aggravates us isn’t the issue; a similar reaction could result if another person or event triggered the same feeling within us.

And so, Diane suggested, “Look at each challenge, each aggravation, as an opportunity rather than as a problem. This whole process is about training the mind to stay present and not attach judgments, feelings, or emotions to things in the outside world.”

I could definitely relate to what Diane was saying. We all go through cyclical patterns in our lives such as waking up in the morning, brushing our teeth, and drinking a cup of coffee. And we all go through emotional cycles as well. Meaning, how we react to certain emotional triggers. I know that I get aggravated any time someone tells me what to eat or what I should, could, shouldn’t, or cannot eat. This is samsara – a circumstance or situation that arouses a cyclical negative reaction. I typically get defensive and annoyed and then think for hours afterward about how someone else said or did something wrong in relation to me and food. But the person who said it isn’t the problem; it’s actually an opportunity to stay present and respond with a calm mind.

Then, Diane touched a nerve and said, “This doesn’t only apply to when people aggravate you. The same is true for illness or disease. The illness isn’t what’s bad. The illness is just that – an illness. It’s our reactions, feelings, thoughts around the illness that are thought of as bad. For example, pain can sometimes be considered a good thing. The Olympic athletes practicing for hours…They’re in pain; they’re pushing past pain. And in this case, the pain is considered good.”

I pondered: The diabetes is neither good nor bad. It is simply diabetes. It’s my emotions or feelings around the diabetes – my frustration with blood sugar fluctuations, getting annoyed by what I can or can’t eat, or feeling restricted by what I should or shouldn’t do to stay healthy. Those feelings are what make the disease good or bad. On the good feelings side, diabetes has allowed me to become more aware of my body and take better care of myself.

As I told you, I’ve been meditating for some time, and have been introduced to these concepts before (although it is very helpful to hear them again and again). BUT, where I have the real issue is applying all of these teachings to real life. When I’m in the midst of living, minding my own business, going with the flow, and suddenly something comes out of nowhere and just aggravates me.

In those moments, I am not thinking about samsara and the cyclical patterns of life. I am not thinking about Zen and the Art of Food Relationships. I am not able to undergo a calming of the mind meditation for ten or fifteen minutes in a quiet atmosphere before each daily event.

So I asked Diane after the workshop, “How do I apply this to real life when I’m just living life and the moment is happening?”

She said, “Start training the mind with something small, something that only mildly triggers aggravation.” Train the mind to see each moment as an opportunity to stay present and respond with a calm mind.

Diane could tell that she touched a nerve and she repeated herself, “Don’t start with the big things.” She continued, “And then, in meditation later, ask yourself, ‘Why is this event or situation causing me to become aggravated?’ Chances are that it’s always the same thing causing the aggravation.” She smiled, "And then you will find yourself enjoying life, living peacefully, with a calm mind."

And only I can know the answer to those questions as they pertain to me. We all have our own cycles, our own samsara, to learn from, to transform from the negative to the positive. And as Diane said, it’s an opportunity. So I’m grabbing it!

So what really aggravates you?