Thursday, December 31, 2015

Formerly Forbidden Foods

How many times in my life have I encountered a table laden with “appetizers” before a meal? That same number of times have I partaken of “appetizers” to the point that I’m completely stuffed when the meal begins (including on Christmas Eve at Tom’s mother’s house in Sacramento). (Present were Ann and Tom, Steve and Julie, F. and myself. Very pleasant, peaceful Christmas. No gifts exchanged, except for Steve giving us all his beautiful annual family calendar.)

While I was sick with mono, I lacked the energy to cook, so I relied on food you don’t have to do much of anything to other than eat it, and I allowed myself treats I don’t usually have in the house because I sooner or later binge on them, such as English muffins, vanilla ghee, and peanut butter. For a couple of weeks, I had very little appetite and didn’t have to worry about overeating, but as soon as I began to feel better, I was polishing off six English muffins here and nearly a whole jar of peanut butter there.

Per long-established practice, I gave the rest of the too-tempting food items to Tom. Once I took a jar of mayonnaise up to him and he said, “Fine, but can I show you something?” He opened his cupboard to reveal six jars of mayonnaise I’d previously given him.

I was lately remembering an advanced workshop put on by the Overcoming Overeating ladies. At the beginning of it, one of them asks, “Why is it so hard to stop—?” and I was positive she was going to say “overeating.” Why is it so hard to stop overeating? But her final word was “dieting.” Why is it so hard to stop dieting? It seems nearly impossible to stop dieting, to lose the idea that certain foods are forbidden, and every time I eat six English muffins slathered with vanilla ghee and then give away the rest of the English muffins and ghee, I reinforce the already very solid conviction that those foods are bad and that I can’t be trusted to have them around.

As the mono waned, there were several binges and corresponding divestments of food. I found myself eating a shocking amount of toast drenched in olive oil. I hadn’t gotten rid of bread because it’s a key component of salmon salad sandwiches, and of course one cannot live without olive oil. I’d gotten rid of every other tempting thing and that is precisely why I was eating so much olive oil toast: it was the only good thing in the house. I like everything I eat, but this was the one treat. I realized I needed more treats, and made a commitment to myself that I will always have five different kinds of treats in the house.

I aspire to eat when I’m physically hungry—it’s very easy to overeat if one is not hungry when one starts eating; if there’s no signal to start, there’s no signal to stop—and to stop when my body has had enough, but when I read while eating, it’s extremely easy to eat way past the point of being full, so, along with my five-treat promise, I decided to try again not to read while eating.

I expected the “mindfulness diet” to fail just the way it has I’ve tried it every time in the past, since it is, after all, a diet, and diets always backfire sooner or later. But so far, it is working quite well. I get hungry, I sit down, I eat mindfully—without reading, at least—and I usually or at least fairly often stop when my body has had enough. I figure that while it’s best to stop eating when physical hunger has been satisfied, if I don’t eat again until I actually feel hungry, it comes out more or less the same. I attribute these changes to my five-treats commitment, and also to the greater calm and clarity afforded by my samadhi-oriented daily meditation practice.

When I decided always to have plenty of goodies on hand, I bought quantities of cashews and macadamia nuts, and it was a couple of weeks before I ate even one of either, whereas in the past I would have eaten all of both within hours of returning from the store. One day when I was not feeling hungry, I had a single cracker with cashew butter on it. There was no need to eat the whole package of crackers and the whole jar of cashew butter because I have at least five kinds of treats. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t eat all the yummy things at once, so I might as well not try. So I had this one cracker with cashew butter on it. I hadn’t been hungry, but soon after I ate it, I noticed that I was quite hungry. It had stimulated my appetite. An appetizer! Aha!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Seeing That Frees

A note posted to the email list for Eugene Cash’s San Francisco sangha recommended the book Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising, by Rob Burbea, a teacher at Gaia House in England. I looked it up on Amazon and saw that Joseph Goldstein, in the foreword, calls it “remarkable.”

Since Joseph Goldstein had praised it, I asked Modern Times to order it for me and I am working my way slowly through it. It is not as exquisitely written as Joseph Goldstein’s own exceedingly lucid works, but is perfectly clear and understandable, the more so due to Burbea’s helpful and frequent use of examples.

An early stumbling block was the author’s recommendation to orient formal practice toward samadhi, or concentration, though it is wisdom—insight—that ultimately liberates us from suffering. It is often explained that a collected mind more easily sustains its attention on phenomena for the purpose of gaining insight; Burbea mentions that, plus several more reasons why concentration practice—via metta practice or using the breath or whole body as an object—is beneficial.

This was a stumbling block because for the past year and a half, I’ve been practicing in the style of Sayadaw U Tejaniya, who emphasizes being aware of our relationship to whatever we’re observing, and how cause and effect are operating, rather than aiming for a steady attention on whatever the object is. He suggests that if you pay attention to the breath, you’ll know all about the breath, but won’t necessarily know how suffering is created and ended.

Accordingly, in my daily sitting practice, I simply sat down, noticed whatever I noticed, and noticed my relationship to it: did I like it, not like it, want it to go away, want more of it? To some extent I used my chest and belly area as an anchor, and I made a point of noticing if I was noticing anything or not—if I was tuned in or drifting off into thought—but by no means was I attempting to steady my attention on any particular object.

And I didn’t want to, because I have loved this Tejaniya-style practice, and I know that I am easily influenced: if I were to start conducting my practice as Burbea recommends, soon Tejaniya would be but a memory. However, there seemed no point in closing my mind to Burbea’s advice at the very beginning of his 421-page book, so I decided just to do what he said and either I will return to Tejaniya later or not.

I took my whole body as my object but was initially attending to the breath enough that I was getting headaches, which is what always happens when I attend to the breath, but Burbea emphasizes a playful, experimental approach, and I settled into a very agreeable practice of sensing the whole body in a general way, now and then reminding myself that my goal is relaxed, spacious, continuous awareness—words from Tejaniya—and always remembering that I’m not going for any particular experience, but simply to know my experience moment by moment. Continuity of knowing, regardless of what is known. In a way, it’s good when there is an unpleasant body sensation, as is frequently the case, at least in a minor way. (Howie lately observed, “The body has a ton of unpleasant sensations.” Yes, it does.) It’s good because it’s harder to ignore. It naturally draws the mind.

So far I have noticed three fruits from this practice: I feel much calmer during the rest of the day. My dreams at night have much more extended storylines, rather than a little snippet of this and a little snippet of that. (F. calls this “cinematic power dreaming.” As always, I have high hopes for my lucid dreaming practice.) And I finally have an understanding of what is meant by “appetizer.” (To be explained in next post.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


The second, third and fourth photos are of the building in the first photo as seen in a reflective surface across the street.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Monday, December 21, 2015


A recent shift at the soup kitchen was particularly exciting. When it’s time to serve the meal, I like to stand near the volunteer who usually calls the numbers on the day I’m there. I chat with the guests or just try to project a welcoming air. Usually I wait until the volunteer gets to 120—he goes by tens and it goes pretty quickly—and then go inside to pick up a bussing rag and a plate to wipe crumbs onto. While I was standing around on this day, the volunteer called, “Bugwalk—come here.” I rushed over and he said, “If you feel comfortable, could you ask the guest with the python to go back outside the gate? Tell him we’ll bring his meal to him.”

This guest indeed had an immense snake draped around his neck and seemed initially a bit disgruntled when I asked him to step outside, but I assured him that he would get his meal. I asked what he wanted: Soup? Salad? Bread? What kind of bread and how many pieces? Water? Then I brought everything out to him, in two trips.

Also hanging around outside the gate was the very first guest I ever chatted with, B., who remains one of my favorites. He is visibly declining week by week, both physically and mentally. A few months ago, he had a ghastly wound on his elbow and ended up being admitted to the public hospital, but left against medical advice and also stopped taking his antibiotics. It just is impossible for him to follow any sort of instructions, or do anything that has to be done on a schedule. The wound healed, but his elbow is heartbreakingly lumpy and misshapen, and now one of his feet has an infection. How many body parts can you lose, or lose the use of, before you can’t go on?

He asked for a bowl of soup plus a paper cup of soup to be brought to him while he waited in the medical van line, but when I brought the soup out, he was lying on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk. He said he also wanted two servings of salad, in paper cups, and he wanted four pieces of a certain kind of bread and two pieces of another kind. I walked in and out, in and out, getting everything he wanted, which soon ended up spilled on the sidewalk. For the third or so time, I wrote down my name and phone number for him, so he can call me when he’s in the hospital. I have told him I’ll come and visit him, but I am sure he loses my number minutes after he receives it.

While I was outside making one of my trips to bring B. something, a fight broke out, somehow involving B., who picked up a big pipe and starting swinging it. The main combatants were two other men, and at first, the fight was so volatile that I hopped off the sidewalk into the street to avoid accidentally being hit. Then the executive director came out and inserted himself between the two people, saying, “You can’t fight here, you can’t fight here.” They at first backed off, but then one became belligerent again and tried to push his way through the executive director, who has become a close friend of mine—he’s my walking friend—and who is 70 years old. He has poured everything he has into this work for 40 years now, and done without so much, living nearly as frugally as the soup kitchen’s guests do in many ways.

The guest was twice his size, but didn’t persist long with his renewed effort, thankfully. I was afraid he was going to injure my friend. I told him later that I had not enjoyed watching him in that situation, and he said he hadn’t enjoyed being in it. Certainly if the guest had started hitting him or had knocked him down, any number of people would have rushed to his rescue, including me, but premature intervention would likely just have made things worse.

I went over to stand with B., who was very agitated, now screaming at the executive director in his Arkansas accent, “You need to give this work up! You’re too stupid to do this work! Your brains are too fried! You need to give this up!” He was expressing the same anxiety I had felt, that the executive director would be injured. I think my friend understood that, too. He said to B. calmly, “Yes, I probably am too stupid for this work.”

Then all was more or less tranquil and a passerby drew abreast of us and started to reach into a large blue recycling bin with its lid open. B. warned him off: “Excuse me, that’s my stuff: I stole it.”

The passerby said pleasantly, “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought it was trash.”

B. replied, just as pleasantly, “It is trash.”

Thursday, December 03, 2015


One day on Market St. near Castro, I came upon a woman with an armful of clipboards with petitions. As I got near her, she started yelling at the top of her lungs, “Get away from me! Get out of here, you disgusting filth! Stop wrecking my country!” She was evidently yelling at a passing homeless man, who edged away from her. He had a scruffy grey beard, loose-fitting clothes, and a mild, almost timid, expression.
Busybody/do-gooder that I am, I rushed over to apologize, to try to erase any trauma before it set in: “Sir, I am so sorry you had to be spoken to like that.” Then, sympathetically, “Does that happen every time you pass her?” The man looked back at me and said, “Oh, I don’t think she was yelling at me,” at which point I realized he was not homeless.

I replied, partly to erase the sting of having assumed he was homeless and partly because it had just dawned on me that this might in fact be the case, “Oh, maybe she was yelling at me!” The man and I smiled at each other and shrugged, and went our separate ways.

This caused me to remember Judy S., who said something a few years ago about being careful with her attire so as not to be mistaken for a homeless person, which struck me as being somewhere between very unlikely and impossible—a curious and even irrational notion on Judy’s part. But I’m starting to be able to see it. My neighborhood seems now to be almost exclusively populated by affluent young tech workers and affluent visitors from Europe. When I shamble by in my baggy cotton pants, grubby tennis shoes, men’s t-shirt, and ancient cotton hat—I’ve lost track of this hat’s exact birthday, but I know I was wearing it on my first meditation retreat, which was in 1996—do some of those people think I’m homeless? I’ll bet they do!

I did my errand and had to walk again past the yelling woman, except this time she wasn’t yelling. She was saying, just like a normal petitions lady, “Look at petitions to sign? Look at petitions to sign?”