Sunday, July 29, 2012

Moderation Is the New Extreme

People remark on the amazing discipline I have shown—the self-restraint in sticking to my extreme weight loss diet while others around me gaily ingest all manner of delectables. I repeatedly respond by saying that I do extreme behavior exceedingly well, it’s moderation I find a challenge. What brings that up this morning is that today is Tisha b’Av, literally the ninth day of the month Av on the Hebrew calendar, a day in which we commemorate a litany of tragedies that have befallen our people over the ages, and a day of fasting. So here I am, in the midst of a 16-week “fast” taking it to a new level, going from 960 calories a day to zero.

I awoke with the same question that frequently has run through my mind since and even before this all started, “After the crash diet, will I be able to maintain the moderate diet required to sustain the weight loss?” The answer may come from reframing the question. For maintenance, the experts recommend a behavior consisting of daily meal planning, recording of calories consumed, regular exercise, etc. That is anything but moderate. It requires extreme vigilance. It demands absolute consciousness, determination, commitment, and discipline. It may be deemed “moderate” in the sense that large quantities of high calorie meals and snacks are abandoned in favor of more modest amounts, but as changes in behavior go, that’s anything but moderate. It is a radical transformation. It is extreme. Therefore, I say, “Moderation is the new extreme.”

It has crossed my mind more than once that they are taking a population of people for whom food has been an obsession, and not ridding them of the obsession. They are merely asking us to obsess about food in a different way.

As I further contemplate the discipline that this will require I think of one of the assistants at Kol Zimra, the recent workshop I attended on Jewish chanting. As we all did, she selected a middah[i] to focus on in the next six months. As one who sees herself as a free spirit who is embarking on a new field of study in a rigorous academic setting, she realized that discipline was the big challenge and the path to her success. I can relate to that. So she selected discipline as her middah.

It got me wondering about the middot of all the other attendees at Kol Zimraawareness of God’s presence, courage, devekut[ii], faith, flow, generosity, inner calm, lightness (the middah I chose), mindfulness that life is good, openheartedness, openness, rest, self-love, self-trust, surrender to God’s call, trust. Is there any one of these I would not aspire to? I should think not. Those of us in Kol Zimra have added the daily practice of holding one another in our hearts and praying for all to attain their aspirations. Why not accept all of these middot into my heart for myself as well? This reminds me of the long list of blessings I developed for my family as part of my ethical or spiritual will.[iii] After penning all those blessings for them I realized they were really blessings I would like in my life. Perhaps that’s the way it works—we confer blessings on others and we too are blessed.

If it is lightness that I pursue in body and in spirit, it may require similar discipline for bothan extreme commitment to daily, conscious, loving, and moderate actions.

[i] Quality of Presence, viz. previous blog, The Incredible Lightness of Being,
[ii] Devekut, deveikuth or deveikus (Heb. דבקות, Mod. Heb. "dedication", traditionally "clinging on" to God) is a Jewish concept referring to closeness to God. It may refer to a deep, trance-like meditative state attained during Jewish prayer, Torah study, or when performing the 613 mitzvot (the "commandments"). It is particularly associated with the Jewish mystical tradition.
[iii] viz.,

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Incredible Lightness of Being

This one may be hard to explain, and like most of my writing I will try to explain it to you so I may better understand it myself (the true sign of an extrovert). Then again, what we’re dealing with here is not for the rational mind. What I am about to describe exists in a non-rational state I almost want to call grace, although that’s not a word I recall ever using before. What’s this about? I just returned from a week of deep spiritual practice in Albuquerque New Mexico.

First of all, as I soon understood, this is the Land of Enchantment. I had some apprehension about heading to the desert in the middle of the summer. Not that it wasn’t hot, and not that the San Francisco Peninsula isn’t a desert as well. It’s just different. I may actually appreciate the overused expression “dry heat” for the first time. There were moments when it truly felt like a sauna—in the best sense of the word—in a therapeutically satisfying and nurturing sense. Maybe it’s the meditation talking. Albuquerque is beautiful.
We took occasional walks to an oxbow in the Rio Grande.

The workshop I attended was the first of a four-part series entitled Kol Zimra, led by Rabbi Shefa Gold, each a week long, separated by six months. I had read all the descriptions of the workshop and had heard about it from others, but nothing prepared me for the actual experience (I suppose like most things). My Hebrew’s not so great, but I believe Kol Zimra translates to Voice of Song. This is a Jewish chanting workshop. I now appreciate what draws people to Eastern chanting. (I just grieve that so many people left Judaism to find it.) I confess I had more a sense that this would be about singing because I had never experienced chanting in this way before. Chanting, as differentiated from singing, brings with it a very different focus and intention that I am familiar with through meditation. The lessons of this first week, as described on Shefa’s website, are, “Forming the container for Sacred Work, Clarifying our Intention. The Basics of Chant - Exploring the Uses of a Sacred Phrase and the Variables that Effect Consciousness. Cultivating Middot, qualities of Presence.” I suppose I had read that before, but still had no idea what I was getting into.

Let me fast forward a bit—not skipping, just moving the recording to at least 5x on the DVR. We arrived strangers. We departed siblings. If I had not been there the rest of the class would have been able to say, “We departed sisters,” because, as it so happened, I was the only man in a class of thirteen women. Not a situation I am unfamiliar with to some degree going back to art classes in high school, being the only guy in a design firm back in the ‘80s, and just being a “sensitive” dude in general. None of this will shock my children. And none of this bothered me or, seemingly, my classmates. Okay, I’ll admit it—I rather enjoy being the only guy. (If need be, some refuge could be taken in the company of Shefa’s partner in delivering the workshop and in life, her husband Rachmiel O'Regan.)

We laughed. We cried. We shared. We chanted. We danced. We drummed. We prayed. We sat in silence. We created art. Your typical week at summer camp.

Back when I studied Transcendental Mediation in the ‘70s I remember Maharishi Mahesh Yogi explaining that we do not meditate for the experience of the meditation. We meditate for what the meditation will bring to the rest of our life. That is a mantra I use for all education, all mind expanding practices. So too for Kol Zimra. As truly pleasant as this week was, it is only valuable for what it may bring to my life going forward—otherwise it is just a “vacation.” The specific channel for affecting our lives after the workshop is the selection of a midah (midot, plural cited above as qualities of Presence). Each person selected a midah before departing the workshop with the intention of paying close attention to developing that particular quality of presence between now and when we gather again in January. As you may well imagine, the selection of such a focal point of self-development becomes a transformational act in itself. Moreover, all fourteen participants plus our two leaders and their two assistants shared our midot with one another with the express purpose that we will all provide prayerful support for one another every day, visualizing each other as successfully achieving this quality of Presence.

There are many areas in which I might want to develop myself. Nonetheless, my midah came relatively quickly, aided in no small part by a walk and talk I had with a classmate who had been assigned as my “spirit buddy.” We will be checking in with each other regularly during the next six months—“chanting in” to coin a phrase. I selected lightness as the quality I am pursuing. I selected it for specific reasons, but also because the word has such broad applications—lightness of being, lightness of bodynot carrying a heavy burden, ridding myself of unnecessary baggage, simplifying parts of my life,  (starting with the clutter in my office—in one day devoted only to bringing order to the storage closet in my office I have already filled three large garden bags with stuff for Goodwill and another bag and a half for recycling).
My "spirit buddy" Judy and I pose before Kabbalat Shabbat.

Months ago I spoke with the rabbi about ways to connect the huge physical transformation I am undergoing with the spiritual transformation I anticipated by engaging in Kol Zimra—two 18-month pursuits that overlap for the most part. I had not anticipated that a single word would unite them as aptly as does lightness. Lightness in body and lightness in spirit—what these practices have in common is that neither will be accomplished in a day, yet commitment to them came in a single timeless flash of clarity. Neither has an end point either. Regardless of how quickly I shed pounds, or clutter, or other unhealthy, unproductive attitudes and behaviors, the work is never done. Maintenance is key. As I stated in my previous blog, “Relapse is the rule,” and as Shefa warned us, the pursuit of a midah invariably gives rise to its shadow opposite. But this does not deter me. These are big challenges that energize me. As it says in Pirkei Avot:
The day is short, the task is abundant, the laborers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it altogether.

And as Tom Bodett would say: "I'll leave the light on for you!"

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Relapse Is the Rule

Debbie has close to forty years of experience as a mental health nurse. From time to time I’ve heard her say, “Relapse is the rule,” and asked her about it as I contemplated my actions of the past week. What kind of week has it been? One in which I went “off plan” –some more or less as anticipated and planned, some most definitely not anticipated or planned.

Before I go further, it occurs to me that my perspective on what constitutes out of control eating may have shifted. I have seen enough television and read enough articles on eating disorders to know that there are differences among people on how they gauge a quantity of food. I am not suggesting I have an eating disorder—at least not at the anorexic end of the continuum. I merely look at that as an extreme example of how individuals might look at the same modest portion and one sees too much while another sees too little. I suspect that my “bingeing” this week would have barely registered on the seismograph of my old eating behaviors.  

It all started, innocently enough, when I once again faced the challenge of attending a wedding on Sunday, July 1. This affair was very informal and truth be told, I probably could have gotten away without eating anything and no one would have noticed. But based on both my philosophy and my practical experience at that wedding a month ago, I decided once again to celebrate with others by participating in the wedding meal. A significant difference this time was that I faced a potluck buffet! The groom’s family hosted the event in their lush Pacific Northwest garden, and they also grilled salmon, steak kabobs, and chicken complemented by a vast array of side dishes provided by the guests. I went through the line with reasonable determination and discrimination, selecting a small skewer of beef and a small portion of salmon. To that I added some green salad modestly dressed, a spoonful of chopped liver and I just had to taste that deviled egg. Ouch! At the time my plate looked positively barren compared to most others at the table, but now as I write it down, I’m less impressed with my restraint!

Speaking of restraint, or the lack thereof, the real issue became the amazing chopped liver. I needed just another taste. And another. And pretty soon, well let’s just say I may have hovered over the chopped liver a bit too long, smearing it on a succession of little oval slices of French bread. A couple of bites of wedding cake later and you can see what I meant by “more or less as anticipated and planned.” But let’s put this in context. The previous night, after we had landed in Seattle, we went to a pizzeria (please note, this was with my buddy from my halcyon New York pizza days) where I had zero tastes of pizza and one Optifast chocolate mint bar and club soda. Moreover, there we were on the road and I worked out in the gym in our building each morning! Just saying.

Everyone in our weight management group knows that I had publicly declared my intention to have a hot dog on the Fourth of July. On the evening of the 3rd I went shopping. I read the nutritional information on nearly every hot dog in the store. Amazingly I found the Applegate Super Natural Uncured Turkey Hot Dog with no nitrates and only 50 calories. Moreover it tasted great! As planned I downed it with brown mustard, sauerkraut, Diet Coke, and owing to the minimal calories of the dog itself I bought a smallish bag of Tim’s Cascade Potato Chips to share—only 90 calories per ounce, so a small handful would fit reasonably into my plan.

It didn’t exactly work out that way. Close, but not really. Elliot put all the chips in front of us, and while I managed not to dump the whole bag down my throat with a single crunch, I did eat a few more handfuls than I had intended. Not to mention the corn chips and mango salsa Karen served. Other than a few bites of watermelon I resisted all other temptations that night and they were considerable, and I skipped two regular “feedings” to compensate for the other damage. Oh, wait, I forgot the deviled eggs. You see I had spent much of Wednesday packing up all the edibles in our house so that the house could be wrapped in canvas and lethal gas pumped into it to exterminate our resident termites. We couldn’t just dump a dozen eggs into the bags in which everything else was enclosed, so we boiled them. You see where I’m going with this—Fourth of July, heading to friends for grilled food, who wouldn’t devil the eggs?
Who wouldn't devil the eggs?

That brings us to Friday, the 6th—an unusual day. Given the house fumigation, Debbie and I took shelter Thursday and Friday nights at Karen and Elliot’s house (while they were in Southern California). The accommodations were superb, but the experience was still disorienting. In the weight management program we often talk about controlling our environment to be successful. These daysbefore, during, and after the fumigationmy environment was as out of control as I can imagine. Friday, I sat working in someone else’s kitchena kitchen that is well stocked under ordinary circumstances, but this day I had special knowledge of all the Independence Day leftovers. It was a ticking time bomb.  By the time I reached my midday feedings the leftover chips, salsa, chicken sausage, and sauerkraut had all emerged from cold storage and were being voraciously consumed.

Saturday, July 7, the Terminix tent having been removed, and fresh air having been reintroduced to our house, Debbie and I spent the day restoring order in the place in time to head for the San Jose Repertory Company. This was the last production in a series we had attended down there all year. We are well acquainted by now with many of the neighboring food establishments including one particularly enticing place with the yummiest Vietnamese chicken sandwiches. By this time I was in full justification mode. It had been a stressful few days surrounding the fumigation. It was a holiday week, etc, etc. I couldn’t get the darned thing out of my mind! I can say one thing: I ate that sandwich slowly and savored every delectable bite.
It had been a stressful few days surrounding the fumigation.
Now you have some understanding (I also must confess, I have not chronicled every indiscretion of the week) of why I asked Debbie about relapse being the rule. She explained that with most behavior change, whether relating to addiction or not, it is common for people to revert at some point to the prior behavior despite best intentions. The important thing is to look at it with compassion and not to judge, just to note it and move back to the new behavior. I did a little Googling about this and discovered that not all are in agreement with this concept. Some argue that to imply that relapse is “part of recovery” is flawed for a list of reasons, and that relapse needs to be considered as part of the original problem. Be that as it may, I’m choosing Debbie’s approach as much as possible. Today I executed the weight loss program flawlessly. Tomorrow is another day. As they say in the 12-step programs (ironically the subject of the play we saw), I’ll simply take it one day at a time.