Monthly Archives: January 2015

Influences (pt.1)

lengua-pupA friend whose Mom lived to 99 told me about his Mom’s life and how she was healthy and vibrant up to the last week of her life.

Beyond having good genes, what influences made a difference in her life?

I started making a mental list of strong, positive influences on my life, the things that have served me well so far and which I’d do again. Of course saying yes to one thing usually means you’re saying no to something else, something that another person might think has more value, but this is my list. It’s also probably not complete and isn’t in any special order. Here’s the first half of my list:

– Be kind, ethical, and live in an evidence based world was great advice.

– Doing a Vipassana retreat recently was a useful experience that I’m still figuring out.

– I walk a lot. A guy  once said, “Why would anyone use a dog walking service? It’s like hiring someone to screw your wife.”

– Evolution is a great for evaluating modern life by using the lens of what and why our ancestors might have done during the previous 300,00 years or so.

– A daily 20-30 minute meditation practice is a positive thing.

-Marrying Tara.

– Knowing Brazilian Jui Jitsu is like having a super power. I wish I’d started BJJ as a kid.

– Some form of weight training, because a stong person is more useful and is harder to kill.

– I love biking in all it’s forms.

– Going to Copenhagen, Denmark in 2013, I saw a country of happy healthy people.

– Rescuing a young pit bull has been rewarding and fun.

– Being born and raised in New Orleans has some cachet and was interesting.

– Later, living for 13 years in Telluride, Colorado, a sweet town in possibly the most beautiful spot in North America, was great.

– Learning to surf is hard but worth every minute.

– The internet provides easy access to information without any gatekeepers.

– “The Whole Earth Catalog” was my internet connection growing up in New Orleans. It was  a periscope to the bigger world beyond New Orleans.

– Sex, Why do you think people have sex hundreds of times without any intention of reproducing? Nuff’ said.

– Living in Mexico is great – if I ever get a tattoo, it’ll be of Out lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.

The vision thing

buildingTuesday I had PRK corrective eye surgery, which is similar to Lasik, hopefully correcting my vision and eliminating glasses from my life.

So far, it’s interesting. My near vision is sharp while my distant vision is a bit fuzzy. The procedure usually takes a month or more for the vision to be finally corrected.Little by little it’s getting better.

Commonsense, cognitive therapy, and the Buddhists all put a lot of value in accepting things as they are, making your way through life much smoother. Seth Godin puts it this way which I think is clever:

..the way we respond to the things that we can’t change can instantly transform our lives. “That’s interesting,” is a thousand times more productive than, “that’s terrible.” Even more powerful is our ability to stop experiencing failure before it even happens, because, of course, it usually doesn’t. Happiness, for most of us, is a choice. Reality is not. It seems, though, that choosing to be happy ends up changing the reality that we keep track of.

That’s why I decided to say that, at the moment, my vision changes are interesting. I am after all typing this without glasses.

Training people

no restanceSince most people don’t like exercising on their own, I’ve somehow wound up training a few of my neighbors, a couple of times a week.

The people I train aren’t interested in being athletes, they’re interested in looking better in a swimsuit and feeling stronger.

Sure, they could do it on their own, but they won’t. I get paid a little bit and they have money to lose if they don’t show up. They see results pretty quickly and wind up having fun which together keep them coming.

There’re apps now for working out, but working out with a person you like can be dramatically better than self-service.

Here’s what I have them do. We stick to fundamental movements, mostly pushing, pulling, squatting, hinging at the hips, and lifting from the ground.  Keeping it simple, fun, and accessible even though it can sometimes be hard works. The focus is on effort rather than how much weight is moved. They’re cycles of strength development, mobility exercises, and fluid combinations.

The key thing to reaching a goal, like being ready for the beach by Easter, is to break it down into a series of small achievable chunks.

After a while exercising is not something my neighbors have to do, but something that’s  part of their lives with the potential of going beyond the temporary goals of losing fat/gaining muscle to “doing cool moves” like handstands.

Two of the easiest things I try to get the neighbors to do for their health are paying attention to what they eat and getting enough sleep.

Food is absolutely important. When I sit down with anyone to discuss what they can expect, I stress that “The one thing I really want you to concentrate on is limiting the amount of carbs that you don’t need. Avoid sugar, limit alcohol to two drinks, and cut back on grains.” There really is a six pack under the belly padding.

Sleeping enough is the easiest and cheapest thing you can do.

Finally, don’t sweat the cardio sessions. We do sprints up a short hill to build muscles.

Consider stuff you can buy if you have extra dough, high heels, a pickup truck or global travel, you can take a pass on that stuff and not miss a speck of happiness or life satisfaction. But getting healthy and strong and then not having it, you will miss that. Because working on being a better version of yourself, is such an integral part of living a better life, and being able to better handle hard times.

Do you need a physical?

adutlikeThe short answer is that you probably don’t need an annual physical.

Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel is an oncologist and a vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania. His article in the NYT called “Skip Your Annual Physical” was really interesting. Read the whole thing if you’re keen, but if not, I’ve shortened it below a bit by leaving out some citations and minor bits.

Around 45 million Americans are likely to have a routine physical this year. There’s a problem: From a health perspective, the annual physical exam is basically worthless.

In 2012, medical researchers analyzed 14 randomized controlled trials with over 182,000 people followed for a median of nine years evaluating the benefits of  doctors visits for general health and not prompted by any particular symptom or complaint.

The unequivocal conclusion: the appointments are unlikely to be beneficial. Regardless of which screenings and tests were administered, studies of the exams from 1963 to 1999 show annual physicals didn’t reduce mortality overall or for specific causes of death from cancer or heart disease. And the checkups consume billions.

This lack of evidence is the main reason an independent group of experts making evidence-based recommendations about the use of preventive services — doesn’t have a recommendation on annual health checkups. The Canadian guidelines have recommended against these exams since 1979.

It’s hard to change something that’s been recommended for more than 100 years. Plus, there’s skepticism about the research. Almost everyone thinks they know someone whose annual exam detected a minor symptom that led to the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer, or some similar lifesaving story.

One explanation for the annual exam’s ineffectiveness in reducing the death rate is that it does little to avert death or disability from acute problems. Injuries and suicides are, respectively, the fourth and 10th leading causes of death among Americans. And it does little for chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s, the fifth leading cause of death among older people.

Screening healthy people who have no complaints isn’t an effective way to improve people’s health. Screen thousands of people and maybe you’ll find tens whose exams suggest they might have a disease. And then upon further tests, it’s really only a few individuals who have something. And of those, maybe one or two actually gain a health benefit from an early diagnosis.

Some others may have discovered a disease, but one that either would never have become clinically evident and dangerous, or one that is already too advanced to treat effectively. For instance, early detection of most thyroid cancers leads to surgery, but in many cases those cancers wouldn’t have caused serious problems, much less death. Conversely, if an annual exam uncovers esophageal or pancreatic cancer, the early diagnosis might extend the time they know they have cancer but is unlikely to extend their lives.

Some healthy patients undergoing an exam sometimes end up with complications and pain from further screening or confirmatory tests.

So get flu shots, a colonoscopy every 10 years, eat a balanced diet, and get regular exercise. These are proven to reduce morbidity and mortality. I won’t be getting an annual exam, freeing up countless hours of doctors’ time for medical problems and helping prevent a doctor shortage as more Americans get health insurance.

Impressions of the retreat

iphone-comp-2014-01Here’s the last of three blogs about the retreat I went to. This part is about my impressions of it.

This was a silent Vipassana meditation retreat with no verbal, visual, or physical contact with other attendees until the middle of the tenth day.

I was surprised by the number of 25 to 35 year olds that were there, and for many it wasn’t their first retreat!

I’d assumed before going that most attendees would be middle-aged or older because ten days is a long time to live a monastic existence if you’re not a monastic. Maybe there’s a trend happening among the 25 to 35 demographic.

This is sort of random and insignificant, but at least half of the men were sporting facial hair of some sort.

I was  the only American (I think). So it was cool seeing 65 Latinos interested in Vipassana meditation. Several of the women attendees were dropped off and picked up by their parents, kinda like at a summer camp. That’s probably due to the tendency of Latinos staying with their family longer.

Goenka is the voice of Vipassana. He’s an interesting speaker, although some of his stories are quaint, and he seems a product of his Indian culture, there were a couple of references to reincarnation. But his English is clear and sophisticated, if a little accented.

One thing I had a hard time with was his singing in Pali, the language of ancient India. I guess he’s trying to keep the teaching as pure and true to the original as possible. The method has been passed down unchanged and effective for 25 centuries. Still, his singing was distracting and confusing to me. Each time, I felt like I’d wandered into a backstreet karaoke bar in Tokyo where a drunken Japanese company man was slurring through a song I didn’t know. Apparently I’m not the first to feel this way, people who’ve attended more than one retreat say that Goenka’s singing grows on you.

Something I need to dig into is the mind/body connection. I don’t understand completely how calmly observing (both pleasant and unpleasant) sensations (occurring in your reality) right now, and noting how they dissipate (arising and passing) leads to getting rid of internal feelings of “unsatisfactoriness.”

The description of “awakening” that’s often attributed to the Buddha is saying it was the release from “suffering,” but I’ve read that a more accurate translation is the release is from “unsatisfactoriness.” That makes more sense to me.

Was attending this ten-day meditation course worthwhile? Yes.

Will I go again? Not soon. But maybe it’s like asking a woman who’s just given birth if she’s ready to do it again. Probably not soon. But who knows how you’ll feel after some time passes.


The internal part of the retreat

spear-500x759This is the second of three blogs about the retreat I went to. This is about the internal part.

Unfortunately meditation suffers from bad branding, probably due to the mysteriousness surrounding what it’s about. Meditation is just a technique for calming your mind so you can live in reality as it is right now, not how it was in the past or how it might be in the future.

The retreat was a Vipassana meditation retreat. It’s non-sectarian, non-religious, and there’s no agenda being pushed. Atheists and religious folk both can take something away. You don’t have to believe in anything to try it.

This reminds me of a story. A journalist interviewing the Nobel prize winning theoretical physicist Niels Bohr noticed Bohr had a “good luck” horseshoe on his office wall. The journalist was surprised and asked Bohr why an esteemed scientist would have such a thing. Bohr said “The way I understand it, is that it works whether you believe in it or not.”

The retreat participants are silent. But the Vipassana technique is presented step by step via audio tapes by S.N. Goenka (he died in 2013). He was a wealthy businessman who got a lot from Vipassana and spread (shared) the technique in its most pure form which had been preserved in Burma.

Basically, 2,500 years ago the Buddha took three existing techniques and refined them, creating Vipassana meditation, which is what he used himself and taught.

The first part is to be moral. As a temporary monastic for ten days, attendees do this by default.

Next is concentration meditation. Over the first three and a half days you focus your attention on your breath as it’s happening. Each day, you focus on a progressively smaller area surrounding your nostrils.

Starting on the fourth day, using your now refined ability to concentrate your attention, you begin scanning your body head to toe, part by part, over and over, using a calm, objective awareness of any sensation you encounter in that moment.

You’re probably thinking that sounds boring at best, right? But it’s not as boring as it sounds because your attention level has been increased. As you detect sensations, whether they’re pleasant or not, you notice that each one arises and passes away, each sensation is impermanent.

The genius part is that our minds, conscious and unconscious, demonstrate craving and aversions by manifesting subtle and not so subtle sensations in the body. So by noting these physical sensations in a non-attached way, they pass away just like they arose. That’s how I understand it.

The directions during the retreat are clear, and the best thing to do is to try implementing them without any hacks you think might help you. It’s a very old technique that’s honed and has been effective for many.

The external part of the retreat

house old plain houseThe site’s been quiet lately due to holiday busyness, and because I was on a ten-day meditation retreat. I’m back, and here’s the first of three blogs about it, the external part.

How was it? It was like third grade on a Texan, long and hard.

First, there’re ten days of silence, including no visual or physical contact. The men and women were segregated to their own halves of the campus. Days started at 4 am and it was lights out by 10 pm. All of the food was vegetarian but tasty, eaten during a five-hour window, breakfast at 6:30 and lunch at 11. Walking was the only exercise and the longest route I found on the campus took about seven minutes.

What about cell phones, computers, books, or writing? Forget about it. You’re on your own. The days were taken up with ten hours of meditation, in hourlong blocks with breaks or meals in between. It’s all about creating a monastic environment for ten days, minus weird hairdos, outfits, or rites and rituals.

The whole thing was non-sectarian and was attended by people ranging from atheists to strong Catholics, all just there to try out a meditation technique called Vipassana. It’s the same technique the Buddha figured out 2,500 years ago. The technique was preserved in its most pristine form in Burma all these years.In modern times, S.N, Goenka, a wealthy businessman, who’d stumbled across it, began sharing it.

Because as the saying goes, “the mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master,” the aim of the Vipassana technique is taming the monkey mind that’s jumping from thought to thought, and back and forth between past and future.

All retreats are free and staffed by volunteers who liked the course and are returning the favor by serving at another retreat. When you complete the course you can make a donation, but it’s not expected or encouraged.

There’re now Vipassana centers all over the world. The one I went to was the first in Latin America. It’s in the mountains, about an hour and a half from Mexico City, so the nights were cold but the days were sunny and almost warm.

Because it’s centrally located in Mexico, the center gets lots of traffic, there were 65 women and 60 men. I was the only gringo, but there were people from other countries, though most were Mexicans. How do I know that? In the middle of the 10th day we started talking again. So you’re able to finally chat with the other attendees about whatever you want.

That’s the external part of the retreat in a nutshell. I’ll talk about the internal aspect and my general impressions in the next two blogs.