You are what you eat (Part II)

monastic life in the hills of Sezze-Romano

We are what we eat – and see and hear and feel and think. Experience, conscious and unconscious, has been accumulating in our body-mind since before we were born, influencing the perspectives we have and the choices we make and that continue to make us. Maybe that’s why I miss home so much these days. I have traveled so far from it.

I came to in Italy in 1990 and have been here ever since. I wanted to understand meditation and deepen practice. When graduate school became an option, I decided to live in a Buddhist monastery instead. It was the “graduate program” I really wanted to do. I started out in the monasteries supervised by Ajahn Sumedho in the UK because the teachers were trustworthy, and the food, language and climate wouldn’t be obstacles like other more exotic locations in the world. I could learn and grow and see what happened. It would get back to baseline and reset my inner clock.

It was a good choice.

The daily routines in the monastery strip away at the veneer of life as you knew it before you enter. You feel comfortable and grounded and the process of exploring who you are and your expectations for life slowly bubble to the top. There is no pressure. You wash dishes, mop floors, eat one meal a day and wear the same set of clothes for every occasion.

One day the abbot invited me to go to Italy. There was a “start up” monastery project and I am Italian-American. There would be the same daily routine, intensified by living in close quarters with just one other monk. It dug more deeply into my core. It began chipping further away at expectations. It was intensified by a foreign language I didn’t know. It also presented new horizons and possibilities for exploration.

When I left the monastery a year later, the transformation, was far from complete. l had no money, no home; but I had a clear sense that I was just where I needed to be. So I stayed in Italy to build a new life. It was the American Dream in reverse.

Thirty years have now passed and each little chapter since has felt like a new training, a new opportunity, small transformations. Choosing life outside the monastery, remaining in Italy, beginning a new profession, learning a new language, navigating marriage, fatherhood, in the framework of unfamiliar cultural norms and expectations, have been obstacles and opportunities for growth.

And all have helped me to refer back, over and again, to lessons of mindfulness learned, in the controlled retreat center and monastery conditions and in the laboratory of life. Tweaking here and modifying there, my intention has always been to incline toward the best version I could imagine of myself, by paying close attention to indications here and now.

These last few years, the death of one parent and the aging of the other has created new perspectives, new challenges and new ways to be mindful. I have traveled to be with ailing parents and meditated in hospital waiting rooms. I have watched my in-breath and out-breath by their bedsides and done walking meditation in the corridors while they slept; and I returned again and again to that far away country where I wasn’t born, where I didn’t grow up, that has become my home, to continue to observe where I am right now.

This is my practice and this is life.

We all deal with things in our own ways, using our own particular skill sets and intuitions. For this, I feel particularly grateful for the mindfulness tools I have metabolized over a lifetime. As we say in NY, “You wanted baseline? You got baseline.” For me that means balance, breath and clarity to examine, not getting too up, not getting too down. Mindfulness has provided me with powerful and stealthy tools to confront where I’ve been and where I’m going – by stopping where I am right now. And in these last few years of life, nostalgia and memory have been useful mindfulness tools as well.

Memory is a powerful force. We spend lots of time thinking about things. If we are paying attention to our thoughts, if we are reflective and there is a quality of letting things flow without getting too caught up in one thing or another, this is a kind of mindfulness. If not, it just might be daydreaming. Researchers say two things about daydreaming: 1) that people spend as much as half of their waking hours in this distracted state and 2) it’s not very good for your overall health. Think about your own experience for a moment.

We are probably all familiar with that dreamlike fuzziness we experience when we’re not paying attention. It feels like something that happens to most people, and we generally snap out of when we notice it. If it’s frequent, quite intense and time-consuming, it’s daydreaming. It might even be dangerous if you’re behind the wheel of a car or operating heavy machinery. It’s also a distraction in relationships.

If you’re dealing with difficult interpersonal issues or your health, you know what that kind of daydreaming is like. It seems like an endless loop of thoughts and feelings, with no clear solution or way to escape. It too may be quite common in people’s experience. It can also be an added layer of suffering on top of an experience that is already unpleasant.

Then there is daydreaming that is obsessive, difficult to understand and manage, and anxiety provoking. This kind of daydreaming can be alarming and is also both the source and a symptom of suffering.

Daydreaming can be seen as a general tendency many have for zoning out or time tripping into the past or the future and not being in the present. It can be a subtle wishing things were different than they are right now – even when they’re not that bad. In any event, daydreaming is the opposite of being mindful.

Sometimes people find being mindful difficult. It brings us face-to-face with the contents and energy of our daydreaming; and it can provoke a sense of agitation or sleepiness while we trying to pay attention to ourselves. Aside from the obvious lack of productivity associated with being distracted, researchers are starting to understand that daydreaming is really just another form of unhappiness. But if we start noticing, if we start learning how to be more mindful, moment to moment, something gradually happens: our abilty to focus on the present get strongers and with that, a sense of joy and fulfillment comes to light.

Being mindful, simply listening to and observing our experience, and allowing what has been accumulating in our body-mind since to rise to the top, is an uncomplicated and very natural way to regain influence over ourselves, our perspectives and the choices we make. Another more active way is to consciously bring to mind feelings and memories that we would like to explore.

Spending so much time with family these last few years, in concentrated doses, has brought up this feeling of nostalgia I mentioned above; it has also led me to experiment with using memories to reflect on what has been and what can be in the future.

Sometimes I look at pictures like the ones above of me as a boy and ask, “What did that young kid want from his life? What were his hopes? How did the people and events of his family and friends affect him and his ability to plot a course through life? Was he able to stop and listen clearly? What/who was he listening to? What did he hear? How did he get from A to B?”

Then I look for signs of suffering and/or freedom.

Suffering is when we feel something contract, an inner feeling of friction or defensiveness. Freedom is the sense of opening and compassion that can arise for myself or for the people and events of the past. Suffering is a closed state while compassion is expansive. Compassion and understanding can be foundations, we can build on them. That is why they are associated with freedom in mindfulness practices.

Considering these distinctions, I also use memory, nostalgia and the thinking mind to ask myself specific questions to see what happens. “How can I be freer? How can I not be prey to old, conditioned tendencies and habits that may no longer be appropriate or helpful for me now?” I am not looking for answers so much as to see how I feel and if the needle points to suffering or freedom.

The idea of freedom is something that people have been considering for centuries. Over the last half century, neuroscience and genetics have given us other perspectives on what it means to be free.

I find the work of Robert Sapolsky in this area very interesting. You may find the things he discusses familiar and intuitive; maybe they are things you have learned from your own “teachers” over the years. My own sense is that mindfulness provides the direct contact necessary to further clarify and define some of the issues he raises and to help perceive the subtle and not so subtle layers that influence our experience and how we can change our futures for better.

In Star Trek, changing the future happens because of some fluke or a technological glitch or a gateway to change. But in this multiverse, we must stop and listen to the present. If we hope to go anywhere or develop ourselves in any way, we can only start from where we’re standing now.

Check out Sapolsky’s TED talk here.

And let me know what you think in your comments below.

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