Buddhist practice, personal transformation, help for all sentient beings.
Who am I? Waking up in the morning looking out the tent door seeing the beauty and grace of a frigid wilderness morning listening to the song of birds, the rustle of squirrels, and the feel of a day just beginning. That moment of peace and reflection and stillness is who I am.
This past Fall, I started drawing. It was an attempt to get out of my thinking mind and into another space. Let me say, right here, that I cannot draw and have no real artistic ability. At the same time, I wanted to try something that, to me, was and is a huge challenge. In a sense, my attempts have been the path to letting go of all of that detritus of negative thoughts and emotions and just be in the moment of drawing with a pen or pencil.
Like most things I do, I took the most difficult path (without really knowing it) and dove right into a picture I took on my travels in Bhutan. I chose landscapes and then gravitated to buildings (which is where I am right now). I am drawn (no pun intended) to the architectural and design style of buildings and nature. The lines and shapes created in natural places fascinate me. I love then taking those images and turning them into something I interpret.
The funny thing is, my vision is my own and, to my mind’s eye, somehow missing something. I cannot grasp the exact curve or line of a space and it clearly shows, to me, when I produce the drawing. I cringe, actually, at my own lack of skill. And STILL I draw. It’s like I am trying to accept that part of my self that is somehow my own.
OK, yea, I’ve written about self and am well aware that I have no self in the terms many folks imagine “self” to be. I am a collection of thoughts, emotions, experiences, nothing more. What I think of my self are those collected identities that change over time. Maybe with the art/drawing, however, I can tap into a true nature. That connection to the world; a non-binary way of seeing things. Hmmm. Anyway. Here are my drawings.
So, what have I learned through these various permutations of drawing? Well, I can say I was completely in the world of drawing while drawing. I definitely dropped my mind. That one benefit – no mind – was my goal. I definitely achieved that one thing. Small glories.
Planning a long backpacking trip is second-hand to me at this point in my life. I’ve done a few backpacking trips (somewhere in the 100s at this point) and am comfortable in the wilderness. Going alone, however, is more of a challenge. Imagine that moment when you walk out of the car at the trailhead, your mind filled with all kinds of thoughts about animals, treacherous trails, crazy people, literally every kind of fear that CAN arise!
Using a paper journal, I planned my trip: food and equipment I had to take, a route plan using maps and the like, as well as thoughts about what I needed to do to be as safe as I could in the wilderness. All of these steps and all of these actions were built around the idea that I would find the kind of space necessary to “add wood to the fire.” To put myself in an uncomfortable place that would, simply put, stimulate my mind in ways that I couldn’t do in the world I’m in right now. This retreat was my chance.
As I planned and write and thought about the trip, I had serious doubts and concerns. What would come of me? About two years ago I faced a serious health crisis and I was, willingly, headed into the wilderness with no access to medical care, support, or phone service. I was, literally, going to be along in the forests of southern Colorado. If something happened, a health issue or whatever, I had not way of contacting anyone. I would be completely alone in the world.
Choosing this path is one that I both feared and relished. I wanted to test my mettle against the world as it was. I had no way to control the environment I was going to be in; I was completely in the hands of nature. Sure I made sure I had a tent, food, water and the like, but when it came right down to it, I was putting my life at risk.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche stepped out into the world with just a backpack a note telling his friends and family he was leaving. I stepped into this trip telling my family what was happening and what, likely, I would be doing. In a very real sense, I identified so much with Rinpoche on his journey. I read every word he wrote and asked myself similar questions about my purpose and point, the direction I was headed and what going into the “unknown” was going to be like.
Rinpoche’s father, early in Rinpoche’s life, asked his son “what makes you Mingyur Rinpoche?” I had that question for myself. What makes me Thomas Gentry-Funk. What characteristics or thoughts make up what I consider to be “me”? Was there a me at all? As I’ve come to uncover, there is not a self, a me, aside from the various thoughts and emotions that are cobbled together to shape a kind of me. But those thoughts and emotions change all of the time; one day I want this thing, the next that. One day I’m sad, the next happy. My thoughts and ideas come and go like the ocean tides. However, the tide is always there…it always remains even though literally everything around it changes: sand, the quality of the water, what’s on the tide and in the tide, all changes…hell even the strength and quality of the tide comes and gos. And. And the tide remains. That constant movement, that motion, reminds me of what Aristotle said about the soul “anima” or, simply put, what animates or moves us.
What was that thing that was moving me? My true nature? The collection of karma? The influence of Mingyur Rinpoche?
I can feel, in every moment I’ve been alive since November 7, 2017, a sense of being thankful for each day I have been alive. The gift of life is so precious. My gift, this year, as been revealed to me every morning I wake up and walk through the day. This precious human birth, so remarkable, so unique, is a gift that allows me to experience love in myriad ways.
Of course, I’m speaking here as a person who had excellent medical care in my moment of need. Many of us do not have access to the resources available to me on that blustery November day in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Many of us face huge hurdles in having basic care, never mind the medical aspects of such care. Just having clean water, a place to live, food to eat, and a life not filled, each day, with the question of life or death. I am, to say it mildly, lucky in this world.
At the same time, I am always in awe of my fellow human beings and their ability to withstand the storm. Facing the prospect of death, I too turned into the storm and faced the weather as it pounded my body.
My mind is drawn to that moment, sometime around 3:00AM, November 8th, when an elderly man was wheeled into the emergency room, the doctors racing to save his life. The flurry of activity as his arms were poked and prodded, a doctor administering electrical shocks to his body as they worked to revive this man. The team of nurses and doctors worked and worked to bring this man from the brink of death. And yet, he gradually died, his heart not responding to the measures brought to bare on his situation. I heard, as clearly as I can hear the wind gently blowing outside of this room, the last escape of breath. Too, I felt the deep release of his body and his life ended.
I sat, in meditation, offering what I could to this man, laying prone on the gurney, his very essence slipping into the bardo states. I will, for the rest of my life, remember this man and the end of his life as I sat a couple of feet away wondering at my own experience. Was this my time? Would I follow this man into the dark?
Of course, as I am writing this now, I give thanks to that patient, that man who did not see another day, another morning. Not seeing the bright sunshine of Albuquerque, New Mexico or feeling the soft, clear air, blowing through this valley, mountains rising 10,000 feet, the cloudless sky revealing the truth of it all.
Tonight, with the sun descending in the west, the light playing across the Sandia Mountains, the bright pink hue the wilderness is named for spreading across the folds of the mountains. The clear, light blue sky showing me that my mind is equally clear, open, spacious. This very moment I am thankful. Completely consumed with the feeling that, whatever happens in the next moment, this moment represents love – the expansive love that exists within us all.
It starts with me going back to a particular moment in time. The moment I said something, did something, acted on something that caused emotional pain for someone I knew. I recall each word I said, each action that led me to lash out in anger or resentment. I wonder at the causes and conditions that led me to say something rude or mean. Through my thoughts, I recall my state of mind and look, curiously, at the person who I was, in that moment, that caused such pain and anguish to one I knew and/or loved. As I examine, like an observer, my own negative thoughts and actions, I reach out in compassion and both that old self and the person aggrieved. I pray for forgiveness and fervently make the following statement: I will not use negative thoughts and actions to hurt another single human being.
To truly regret what happened in the past and to bring my mind to a place in which I will no longer cause pain to any human being, I have to regret those past thoughts and actions. I have to let go of my attachment to guilt, and to end the constant play of thoughts in my mind, perseverating over and over on the pain I caused. I have to have compassion for BOTH my thoughts and actions and the impact they had. Further, I have to offer my love and compassion to that person with no expectation of outcome. Simply put, I have to accept that I cannot fix some past wrong; what I can do is resolve, moving from this point on, to never cause such harm again.
These thoughts are in my mind today as I go back through my own past and wonder at what brought me here, to this point in time. The interdependence of our lives with others, our impact on all the beings we encounter, whether human or not, is deeply connected to our thoughts and actions. As I examine interdependence in my own life, I see the steps that led me to physical pain…the bad food choices, the decision to eat something I knew was bad for me, and, lacking the resolve to change, continuing the pattern until the choices made resulted in physical problems: being overweight, having other health problems, and the resulting self-recrimination and blame.
To break the cycle in my life, I had to do what folks have been telling me for years: to own your thoughts and actions. Without recrimination and guilt, accept what happened and resolve to change. The key, the one thing that unlocks the door to change, is regret and resolution. To clearly accept what I have done and then leave it. I come back, over and over again, to the words of Sogyal Rinpoche: to simple drop those thoughts and actions. To let them go. To not dig deeply in the shit of our lives, and recognize the problem and resolve to change it.
This past year, I have changed so many aspects of my life. It was the sense of resolution; the realization that I can change. The change, though, was not actions (Although actions are part of it). The change was in my own thoughts. I had to change my mind and not be held back by my own thoughts.
I guess what I’m saying is that we can change our thoughts; the very nature of who we think we are. We are, as Sogyal Rinpoche has said, not who we think we are. I am NOT who I think I am. I am a collection of impressions, emotions, thoughts, family, culture, race, class, sexuality, and a multitude of other things all smashed together and organized into some kind of coherent thoughts in my mind. My ego, that driving force behind it all, creates a voice that directs my actions BASED on all of that stuff in my mind. However, once I realize that all those thoughts are, in fact, not my own, I am set free.
My example of this crazy idea is something pretty simple: in terms of diet, I had heard for years that we must eat massive amounts of protein, specifically animal protein, to be healthy. My thoughts were collected around that idea and I ate food based on that principle. Those actions led me to a physical disability. I recognized, because of a physical ailment, that the message I had heard and incorporated into my thoughts and made into action actually was a masterful lie. Once revealed as an illusion, I was free to change my thoughts and actions, no longer bound by the voice in my head, the one that actually led me to experience physical suffering.
Once i realized that I was being lied to or that I had created a kind of delusion, I let it all go. As I released these thoughts, I found that I questioned just about everything else I had been taught, told, and held onto. I was, literally, free to take a completely new path.
So, my hope for everyone is two-fold: first that you come to recognize that your own thoughts are a problem in what happens to us in our lives. Second, that we all have the ability to fundamentally change our thoughts and break free from social conditioning. Once we can recognize those lies we hold dear in our own lives, once we realize that our thoughts are not our own, only then can we be free from suffering and help others find that same freedom.
On November 7th 2017, death reared its ugly head as I walked my dog on a trail in Albuquerque New Mexico. Jogging up a slight hill my breathing became labored, sweat poured from my body, and my throat felt like it was closing as if hands wrapped around my neck, squeezing the life from my body. I slowed to a walk and tried to catch my breath to no avail. I mentally stepped into meditation and forced my breathing into slow, regular breaths. I could a hear a wheeze coming from my lungs and airway as I passed people on the trail, trying to catch my dog, Kona, zipping between people and dogs.
Fear rose in my mind and I frantically searched for the causes of this condition. Anaphylaxis? The classic symptoms of a heart attack were not present. No chest pain. No radiating pain down my arms. No numbness or other effects of that dreaded event. I deliberately slowed my walking to a very timid pace, deliberately taking one step at a time.
I called my partner and asked her to pick us up. I was about a 1/4 mile from the trail exit. I felt a bit more calm, but the tightness in my throat did not subside. We drove home and I sat outside on the porch, pouring water down my throat. I took a benedryl thinking this pill would alleviate what I thought was an allergic reaction. After three glasses of water, I felt a little better.
And then. I cannot explain the feeling exactly. I knew, completely knew, that I was going to pass out. The feeling in my head was like a kind of blurry sense of self; I was feeling the onset of syncope, as I was told later. I told my partner to call 911. She did. I passed out.
I was A+Ox1. Verbally responsive with a grunt, clutching my throat, breathing heavily. Then, in about a minute, I was back. I felt better. Not just better, restored. The fog lifted, the tightness in my throat gone. Just as I woke an ambulance appeared, then two, then a fire truck, sirens blaring. Paramedics came up to me, asked me questions, and fitted me with a blood pressure cuff, and set up an EKG. The paramedic searching for my pulse said, “He doesn’t have a pulse.” Dude. Really? I am moving, talking, responding to questions and I don’t have a pulse? Not likely. The EKG looked roughly normal; maybe a depression, maybe arrhythmia. Inconclusive results, as they say. They asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said, very clear, yes.
The short ride to the Heart Hospital included taking 4 baby aspirin. I was hooked to an IV, fluids poured into my veins. The paramedic talked about what was happening, radioed “probable MI”. I arrived, and doctors surrounded me. More questions. Blood taken. Within about an hour, everything was normal: heart rate, EKG, BP slightly elevated. One doctor said, “He converted on his own.”
The hospital stay was quick; I sat in the ER for about 24 hours while they decided what to do. Found one marker in my bloodwork that showed a possible MI. Heart cath. Stent. Sent home the next day.
Since that day, I have felt like death is following me around. It’s a completely new feeling, but one I should have been aware of much sooner. My Buddhist practice is all about the reality of death and how we do not acknowledge it or prepare for it. We go about our days oblivious to the fact of death. Some see this focus as nihilistic. Instead it’s very much part of life.
In my artery, the so-called “native artery” I have a lesion. It’s blocking some percentage of that artery. It’s in the artery known as the “widow-maker.” My doctor said to me, “It’s just a matter of time.” Isn’t that so true? Just a matter of time for us all.
In the meantime I have changed my diet (plant-based), excluded oils, dairy, and all meat from my eating plan. Watching triglycerides (they can be a problem even on a vegan diet) and monitoring my blood work. Too, I am on a self-proscribed exercise plan doing what I love to do: riding my road bike. Last weekend, one year since the great unfortunate event, I rode about 62 miles in the Day of the Tread. I planned to go just 50, but felt good and decided to make it longer.
Here I am. A survivor. Someone who is attentive and aware of what I face. Someone who, in the face of all of the potential gloom am seeking out the silver lining; the sun light in the midst of the rain.
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
William Wordsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798
Over the years, I’ve read The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva. I have the text and commentaries written by people like the Dalai Lama and have heard talks about this text that reveal the profound teaching that this beautiful poetry describes. Yet, I’ve been less and less likely to incorporate these teachings directly; mostly, I struggle with taking something in this text and finding a way to make the ideas fit within my proscribed mental formations…it’s like I understand the words but missed the meaning.
Into this morass of confusion came Pema Chodron’s text No Time to Lose. Her writing and commentary have reopened my mind to the ways in which Shantideva transcended the teachers he encountered and helped transform what we understand as Buddhism.
In particular, Chodron’s commentary helped me better understand an idea I really thought I knew: bodhicitta. This idea, bound up in the very heart of vajrayana teachings, is the core principle that opens the mind to the possibility of enlightenment and awareness. Without this one thing, no dharma teaching our reading will do anything for you. It’s like I have experienced: reading the words but missing the meaning.
In her text, I am pausing on bodhicitta. Why this concept today? Well it’s pretty much the place I need to be right now. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this feeling, but I’ve hit a proverbial wall. I cannot move my mind any further in any direction without this teaching. As well, without incorporating the essence of bodhicitta and compassion into my thoughts and actions, I’m missing a key to breaking the pattern of samsara in which I am trapped.
Here’s the money quotation from Shantideva,
For like the supreme substance of the alchemists, it takes the impure form of human flesh/ And makes of it the priceless body of a buddha. Such is bodhicitta: we should grasp it firmly! (Chapter 1, verse 10)
Ok, so stay with me here. Paolo Coelho’s book The Alchemist really spoke to me when I first read it. The idea that what we seek is not at all what we need. That virtually every distraction and obstacle will get in our way until we unlock the awareness of our minds. Like Shantideva is saying, we can take our own form and create from it a buddha. Unlike Shantideva, however, Coelho’s awareness comes from connecting to the Soul of the World. Maybe that could be a kind of buddha nature? A nature we all share? Hmmm.
Anyway, Shantideva is finally speaking to me through Chodron’s words. In particular, I loved her words on how bodhicitta is like a great fire, burning away all negative tendencies. She says, “Ordinarily we buy into our negative habits, acting them out or turning hem against ourselves.” In may own case, the idea that we take those negative thoughts and actions and turn them against our own best heart is so much of my own tendency. Her language really captured my attention and helped me redirect my thoughts. Rather than acting out or repressing these negative energies, we stand in the fire and allow the pain to connect to those around us.
The fact is, experiencing the pain of negative thoughts and emotions is, actually, a KEY to making the connection to bodhicitta. What a profound and wonderful way to look at it all.
The complexity of living by research and a constant stream of information is overwhelming. We are bombarded by advocates for one approach to living or another. There are moments in which I am stymied with the massive amount of information I am given. Which story is accurate? Is coconut oil the silent killer? Can I really consume 60% of my diet in fat and be healthy? If I meditate one hour a day, I will remain calm and at peace all day long. Which author is revealing some truth? It is so challenging to figure out which way to go in terms of living a healthy, happy life.
A Healthy Life is Just 30 Days Away!
On my path to be physically and mentally healthy, I’ve run across so many statements about changing your life. In fact, after a review of information about the Whole30 diet, almost every web site made this claim: “let us change your life!” or “change your life in 30 days!” or “your best life now!” From the Whole30 Program web page, “millions of people have successfully completed our Whole30 program with stunning, life-changing results.” Wow. Stunning! Life-Changing! The claims of personal satisfaction and transformation were alarming and hopeful.
Yet that healthy life, you know the one, where your children are always happy, your partner oozes with gratitude and support, and your body and mind are at one in union as you all flow on the path together. Yea THAT life. Does not exist.
Evidence-based living brings us to evidence-based anxiety and frustration. Writers offer contradictory approaches to diet, exercise, medicine, mental health, and just about everything else under the sun. WHAT is a person to do in the midst of it all??
The thing is, it’s hard NOT to feel like a failure at everything. In this world crowded with mantras of how you need to do this thing or that thing, how the only way to good health, eating, marriage, relationships, kindness, wholeness is to follow THIS approach! Truthfully, it’s all a kind of madness. I’ve come to the conclusion that all of the noise is trying to drown out one internal scream: the of the fear of death. That soundless scream is the thing that drives us to ruin; personal ruin or otherwise. As I make choices that are clearly against my best interests, whether it’s food or whatever, I’m running as fast as I can away from the truth of my existence: that I am dying and will die.
So, the ads claiming vitality, a better sexual experience, or finding the perfect mate are all distractions from the fact that whatever you choose distracts you from the inevitable.
Now, this diatribe is not a message of depression or a nihilistic view of the world. It’s the fact of impermanence. Everything changes and will change constantly. One moment life will be a glorious, joyful moment…the next a failed experiment in living. On my recent trip to the Grand Canyon (not so much a trip as a quick visit via Flagstaff), I experienced impermanence as it happened: the light moving across the canyon, the vistas slowly disappearing in shadow as the light of the sun descended over the horizon.
The light faded and I watched as the day changed to night, the canyon fell into darkness, the image permanently transformed. The light I captured in that photographed lasted seconds. Literally in a moment it was gone.
Trying to live our lives using all of the evidence around us is, in part, a good thing. To be aware of knowledge that can effect your personal outcomes is positive. At the same time, evaluating these pieces of information and forming those ideas into a coherent plan of action is a completely different process. Let’s take on these ideas one at a time.
Diet: a plan for eating is a good thing. Keeping track of what you eat and understanding that what goes into your body can profoundly affect your health. This one change is a real step in the direction of having some measure of control over your life. At the same time, it’s sad but true that the phrase “everything in moderation” is a killer. From my perspective, based on my understanding, there is no amount of meat that is safe to eat. The evidence against the consumption of meat has been building for years. While some folks argue that eating meat in reasonable quantities is OK, you will find a lot of evidence against that approach. Again, not a diatribe along the lines of “meat is murder”….a statement of fact based on scientific evidence. Briefly, adding meat (and the fat that goes with it) to your diet increases the levels of LDL in your bloodstream leading to a buildup of lipoproteins that will line our arterial walls and create serious problems for our bodies. Finding a diet that prevents such a calamitous event is important…deciding which one works for you the work that will take a while (for me a couple of years).
Stress: finding a way to deal with the daily onslaught of stress is a huge part of living a healthy life and stories abound of ways to achieve this outcome. Yoga. Meditation. Quiet time. Reading. Chilling. So many choices and paths to choose to lead you to a calm, more stress-free existence.
When it comes down to it, dealing with stress is about changing your mind. Literally, the way mind works has to be transformed. That, my friends, is a huge challenge. We have habits that are ingrained into our minds; like trail ruts of wagons that passed on the Oregon Trail, our thoughts are trapped in a sequence we have settled on years ago. To break free of these thoughts and emotions carved into our minds, it takes a huge effort. From my perspective, a transformative effort.
First, we have to realize that some of what we have been taught is fundamentally flawed. Here’s my thing: we have to abandon the idea that we can create happiness for ourselves. Yea, I know. We all hear the stories of how doing yoga everyday brought happiness to that one person on Instagram and therefore happiness is achievable through yoga. OR all you have to do is meditate each day and you will find the source of happiness. I think something got lost somewhere when folks attributed Eastern philosophy with happiness. If we were really paying attention, we would already realize that happiness is not something you create inside your own mind; it’s something you give away in acts of compassion. Serving those around you and not focusing on one’s own happiness leads to, well, something akin to happiness. So, want to end stress in our lives? Focus on helping someone people in your life. My daughters came up with a pretty simple idea: make food bags for homeless people and give them out instead of money. Simple things lead to positive results for those around you.
Last year the Rigpa Sangha heard the news that Sogyal Rinpoche was entering a three-year retreat. Faced with mounting concerns about his personal behavior and forced to confront a physical illness, Rinpoche stepped down from his leadership role in Rigpa.
My reaction to the news of possible misconduct was one of concern for all involved. The people who questioned Rinpoche’s actions I respect. Their letter was thorough and specific.
After reading the letter and participating in a series of listening sessions, I was conflicted. Rinpoche brought me to a place of understanding and awareness of the dharma. At times, his teachings were transformational and I was personally and, quite literally, transformed by his words and insights. At one retreat in particular, he singled me out in the audience and spoke to me. The words he spoke went into me and made a difference in my practice and education.
After completing the Ngondro and feeling like I was on a clear path, I heard the news of misconduct. There was absolutely no question of my support for those hurt by his actions. While I do not know these people, I offer my support, care, and anything else that helps in the process.
The complicating factor, here, is the role of the teacher and the lessons in Vajrayana. Does one abandon the teacher in the face of such conflict? Are we to simply move on to the next teacher with the idea that one is bad and another is good? I really dug deeply into this question. For example, does knowing that Gandhi was abusive or the Martin Luther King Jr. had extra-marital affairs invalidate their teachings? What difficult questions!
In the midst of all of this I faced my own health crisis and the chance to rebuild my body and mind in a new way. As I went through this very personal, emotional, and physical process, I latched on to an idea. What if I carried Rinpoche to his own good health and well-being. What if I took on the role of student, embracing the idea that everyone deserves support and compassion. What if I, in returning to my own good health, took on the role of taking care of Rinpoche and all those involved in the situation. What if I carried Rinpoche on my back?
In this process I imagined literally taking Rinpoche and all those who have alleged to have been hurt in the process and place them firmly on my shoulders and back. As I worked out, changed what I ate, settled into meditation, I would have each and every person in Rinpoche’s circle carried by me. I would give to Rinpoche all the support I could muster; to all those who were or felt abused I gave my love and compassion and, as a part of my own recovery, they were buoyed by my improving health and wellbeing. That I was the person bringing them along to their own personal happiness.
So, as I rode my bike on one of my training rides, I imagined them all on my back, giving to those who needed my support all the good health I could pass on. Through my physical and mental actions I could change the script as it had been written. I would by force of will and exertion change Rinpoche’s life and trajectory. I would help rewrite the story of abuse and aid in the recovery of all individuals.
This idea, though became a cornerstone of my experience. I was motivated to work out harder, eat correctly, speak correctly, meditate correctly. That somehow through my actions everything that had happened could be made whole.
As I think about it all, I have embraced the practice of Tonglen and made it an essential part of my being. That whatever happens to me in the short or long term, that my giving and taking becomes a core of my being and that, through my actions, I can lead individuals to happiness and the causes of happiness.
OK. So this post deals specifically with how I am losing about 1 pound per week on a plant-based diet. After testing the waters with this diet since November, I’ve figured out what works and what limits weight loss in my body. Hopefully, this information will help someone in need of such a plan.
First and foremost a few pieces of advice: have your blood work checked consistently. For many of us it’s a once a year thing: check it, make adjustments and done. For me, I’ve had blood tests 3 times since November 2017. I am diligent about checking for a few very specific blood markers: lipids (HDL, LDL), overall cholesterol, C-Reactive Protein, Homocystine, Glucose, Triglycerides, and what is called the Common Metabolic Panel. Further, I have done more in depth tests on my lipid levels as a result of my concern for Lipo A, B, and C and how they contribute to plaque buildup in my body. Everyone has specific things they are looking for in their blood work…find a doctor that treats your body wholistically, like a system of interrelated parts, rather than a doctor looking for one or two specific things.
Further, learn as much as you can about your body. I did not investigate what was happening for years and that was a huge mistake. You can come to understand how your body works and what is beneficial and what is not. For example, I now know how to turn on and off the weight loss engine in my body. No joke. I can coax my body to lose weight based almost entirely on what I put into my body.
Exercise is, of course, a factor in weight loss and good health, and, generally speaking, you cannot work out enough to drop lots of weight. Sure it’s possible to work out a ton and lose weight, BUT at some point, if exercise is your only solution, you will stop losing weight. (Please understand I’m speaking from my own experience.)
Finding an eating plan that you can stick to and believe in is also a key piece of the puzzle. Whatever you choose, you have to want to wake up, everyday, and eat your way to good health. In my case, after a number of failed attempts and a huge failure with what some call the ‘paleo-diet”, I found a plan that worked for me and fit with what I learned about my body, my blood work, and my health. I did research on the various scientific studies on health and eating.
When it came down to information about eating, I avoid studies that claim to find a single eating plan. Those studies, while important, are sometimes skewed to fit a certain perspective. My advice is to look at the science. In most cases, solid scientific studies are very specific in examining the role of one or two variables. The role of saturated fat from animal protein and its impact on LDL, for example. Most scientific studies are looking for correlations between one thing and another; to take an hypothesis (saturated fat impacts LDL) and reveal whether or not such a correlation exists.
If you dig into the research, you start to find credible studies that point to a specific direction for eating. For example, eating more fruits and vegetables contributes to better outcomes for people who eat those foods. Further, limiting dairy intake also offers positive improvements. As well, regardless of what many in the popular press have said, the science shows, definitively, that saturated fat contributes to many negative outcomes for physical health. In addition, eating simple carbohydrates and sugar contributes to negative outcomes as well. The science on these topics are well-researched and repeated over and over again. I’m not going to get into the various individual choices you can make….I will say that you can find something that works for you based on your own scientific study: your body!
In my case, I went from Paleo to Dr. Stephen Gundry’s eating plan to a plant-based diet. This change happened over the course of years. Why the changes? It’s pretty simple for me: diets filled with animal protein contributed, directly, to an increase in plaque buildup in my arteries and veins. How do I know this? Let’s look at the blood work: before my diet change: HDL: 46, LDL 98, Triglycerides 136, overall cholesterol 176, glucose 130. Those numbers come from the middle of my time on a paleo diet about four years ago. The numbers aren’t terrible are they? For me, they were an indication (that I did not realize at the time) of impending doom….plaque buildup in my coronary arteries. My weight loss, at first was rapid…then it stopped entirely.
Once I left the paleo diet on my doctor’s advice, I switched to even more vegetables, added back in fruit, and limited animal protein to just twice a week: the Gundry plan. On that plan, my numbers dropped to better results: HDL 43, LDL 76, Triglycerides 98, glucose 110, cholesterol 153. Improvement! Almost two years later, however, I had an MI. Weight loss stabilized and ended despite my exercise regimen.
Finally, switching over to a no-oil, plant-based diet based on the ideas of Dr. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, my blood work reached an ideal spot for me: HDL 43, LDL 40, Triglycerides 74, glucose 90, cholesterol 98. Weight loss has been a consistent 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per week.
At the same time, I noticed a very pronounced drop in my blood pressure. I have read, in a number of studies, that high blood pressure can lead to many vascular problems. The research showing a correlation between high BP and stroke is well-established.
The investigators found that vegans and lacto-ovo vegetarians had significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and significantly lower odds of hypertension (0.37 and 0.57, respectively), when compared to non-vegetarians. Furthermore, the vegan group, as compared to lacto-ovo vegetarians, not only was taking fewer antihypertensive medications but, after adjustment for body mass index, also had lower blood pressure readings. Another sub-study of AHS-2 examined hypertension in a black population and found that the combined vegetarian/vegan group had significantly lower odds of hypertension (0.56) compared to non-vegetarians.
In my case, my BP dropped from 140/78 to a consistent 115/60. In addition, my resting heart rate has dropped from a high of 72 to its current 53. Now, I’m exercising along with eating plants so the correlation between these factors and diet alone are not necessarily indicated in my own study; however, before I began the vegan/plant-based diet, my BP was 140/78 WITH exercise…so, I’m suggesting that the diet is the key.
Right now, I eat pretty much any plant I want with a few exceptions: no white flour, white rice, added sugar, and no oil…at all. I like whole grain cereals and eat whole grains, multigrain breads, and the like. I eat veggies, fruit, and do not have to limit my quantity of those plant-based foods.
As I mentioned earlier, however, I found out that I can stop the weight loss. If I eat more complex carbohydrates than I can reasonably burn through exercise, I stop losing weight. Here’s what happened: I like whole grain cereals with almond milk and fruit ( blueberries, strawberries etc.) Sometimes, because I am hungry, I ate two bowls of these meals a day in addition to all of the other stuff….my weight loss stopped (did not increase, just stopped). Once I removed the bowl of cereal in the late afternoon or evening AND replaced it with veggies or fruit weight loss returned. I discovered, exactly, what makes me lose weight and what does not…it took some trial and error, but it worked!
In terms of exercise, I added in two more days per week of some kind of workout. My goal is to reach between 2700 and 3200 calories burned via exercise over the course of a week. I bought a used Polar Exercise monitor (V800) and use a chest strap to measure my heart rate. This device also has a cadence monitor (that attaches to your shoes) and speedometer (for my bike). Using all of these pieces of data, I am able to track just about all aspects of my exercise plan. I upload the information to the Polar Beat/Flow app and use the Strava app to help understand what the numbers mean.
Very specifically, I exercise for at least 45 minutes every day of the week. So far that plan is working for me. I’m 6’3″ and I need to reach 200 lbs for my ideal weight…that means, for me, another thirty pounds of weight loss. Based on my current schedule, I should be at my ideal weight by around December. Of course, that all assumes I can maintain my current workout schedule and nothing else gets in the way!
As you know, there are so many factors in weight loss and physical health. I’ve been through it all, really. What I found is something that my Buddhist teachers have said to me for year…a piece of information that is key to it all: discipline. The word really sounds pejorative and in fact it’s pretty simple: follow a plan and stick to it regardless of what else is going on in your life. Sticking to a plan is, of course, easier said than done. My motivation comes from the fact that I will, literally, die if I do not stick to my eating and exercise plan. Yea, sure, we all die sometime AND we can ensure, to some extent, that we do not die by our own hands. This lesson I learned late in life, and I am glad I heard the message my body sent me. I hope for you that such a similar, wonderful smack upside the head happens to you.
Below are photos of a recent foray into buckwheat pancakes! Enjoy!
I’ve lost about 50 lbs since November 8th, 2017. On most days, that number simply does not make any sense to me. I don’t FEEL like I’ve lost 50 lbs. My physical activity hasn’t changed a lot and I’m doing pretty much what I did before I lost 50 lbs. That situation, in an of itself, is a fascinating thought. That a significant change in my size has not, necessarily, issued a corresponding change in physicality. I do what I have always done: bike, hike, walk, run, exercise pretty much everyday for pretty much an hour or two given the activity. I’m a little faster, I have better balance, and I feel good after exercise. That’s pretty much where I’m at, in this moment.
I’ve talked in the past about my diet: vegan, no oil. I’ve varied very very little from my plan. While I was traveling in Asia (Thailand, Bhutan, Japan), I made a few small changes. Otherwise, I’ve kept strictly to the plan with ONE major exception: I’ve added back into my diet and occasional avocado and some nuts.
My weight loss continues: I’m down to 237 on my way to 200. I cannot wear clothes I’ve worn for about 20 years and have had to buy a few new things like pants, shorts, and a shirt or two. The thing that has struck me in this process is that I did not know exactly how much weight I had gained. Honestly, I had no clue and envisioned myself about the same size I was 20 years ago. This particular delusion was a good one to destroy….I was certainly not the same physical size and, more importantly, my health had suffered (even though I did not realize it).
That’s where mental clarity comes into the story. As I have lost pounds, I have also lost delusion. I received a sharp wack to the head last Fall. I sometimes imagine myself sitting in zazen, a teacher wandering the room with a bamboo stick in his hands, me sitting quietly and then SMACK across the top of my back, pain stinging into my spine as I cringe at the pain. That smack was exactly what I received and exactly what I needed. I’ve come to find that being shaken to the core of our beings is the only real way to make significant change. Gradual, heart-felt change is a great idea and rarely accomplished…IMHO.
The mental clarity that came with a serious health scare propelled me to change almost everything. Now, I can see the delusion of my own self image. That image of who we are is formed from a variety of delusions in our minds. My particular delusion: I was healthy, working toward a clear set of goals, and that I was generally doing OK was my particular set of delusions. I wasn’t OK mentally or physically. I painfully uncovered the truth of my practice: that my practice reenforced my ego mind in a powerful way. Rather than destroying my ego-mind, my meditation practice had, in fact, reenforced it. My delusion and meditation become one thing controlled by ego.
Now I am much more vigilant in terms of what I eat, what I feel, and what I think. I have to analyze just about everything. I cannot let one thought go astray. If I do, I risk the same kinds of delusions I suffered from before. In a very real sense, I have to be brutally honest. Yea, and how do I KNOW I’m being brutally honest? Yep, that’s the trick, isn’t it? How to be honest when ego mind is always, always trying to change what you think to serve your own mental formations…ego reinforces thoughts that serve to recreate ego: Self-centered, selfish concerns and ideas.
How the process works, in my case, goes something like this: I analyze my food intake each day. Am I eating whole grains, vegetables, protein in the correct proportions for me? I measure these questions based on my experience and on a set of information provided by http://www.nutritionstudies.org. Further, I check my diet journal for past success…am I stay on track? For mediation and thoughts, it’s much harder but operates on a similar level: what thoughts are emerging? is there a pattern? What does that pattern tell me about those thoughts? How do those thoughts compare to thoughts I’ve had in the past when I am not consumed with anger, happiness, resentment, or joy?
These approaches may sound a bit too OCD or analytical, but there is a real truth to be learned here: that we often delude ourselves into doing something that is bad for us in some way. My goal, simply put, is to do my best NOT to follow those paths to suffering.
My next post is fully dedicated to food: some recipes I’ve developed that worked great!