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June 16, 2017 - No Comments!

Alligators, Full Moon Gatherings, Savannah GA

We're moving again! This time for a few months down in Savannah, Georgia. Just exploring all the southeast has to offer - it's been beautiful and healthy for me so far. We still got out to some interesting events in Charleston before we left.

I had been looking for an alligator in the lake behind Alexandra's house since we arrived in Charleston and finally got to catch a few pictures of one.

Still Soul Studio helped organize a wonderful full moon gathering on a beach at Sullivan's Island. I was fortunate to be able to lead some meditation practice - all credit to the singular Young Katherine for taking many of these lovely photos! There was also yoga, chanting, and some journaling with a fire ceremony. Very special evening for me - my thanks to everyone who helped organize and came out for that lovely time.

Finally Alexandra, who's been our most gracious hostess with the most gracious mostest in Charleston for this last month, took us to see the final day of an art installation: Wade in the Water. A multimedia installation based on the subjective experience of people affected by climate change in a real way. It was a beautiful, non-invasive and non-chart laden experience to walk through - the artist, John Duckworth, is currently planning to expand the project into more cities. It made me a little sad to be leaving Charleston so soon, as I haven't had a chance to fully explore the artistic community, but it was simultaneously inspiring.

Finally - we went stand up paddle-boarding!

 

I know I said "more to come" on Charleston last time but life moves fast and so now that will become "more to come" on Savannah.

 

April 20, 2017 - No Comments!

Backpacking Big Sur

Arroyo-Seco trail, underneath Cone Peak and to the coast, then back. Around 32 miles in 4 days.

 

Day 1

 

Day 2

 

Day 3

 

Day 4

December 28, 2016 - No Comments!

Reality vs. Perception vs. Happiness

First a very important update: I've been wearing the same sweatpants and hoodie for several days now, and it's glorious. Merry Christmas.

I was fortunate to recently participate in some training at Ronin Athletics and in between getting strangled the head coach, Christian Montes, told me about how the Gracies used to sell laypeople on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is back in the eighties, before the emergence of modern MMA and when there were still karate schools practicing death touch and breaking boards. To prove Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's effectiveness as a self defense discipline they would have a prospective student lay down on the ground and put them in full mount:

From there the black belt would just tell the neophyte on bottom to try and get out, like their life depended on it, there was someone taking away your loved ones right over there, you have to get to them, etc. etc.

Anyone who has trained modern martial arts can probably guess what happens - the person on bottom will not be able to escape, inevitably and quickly become exhausted, and a realization sets in. That you had an perception of reality that was at odds with the way things actually are. I would bet a lot of us who train in BJJ had an experience similar to this the first time we stepped onto the mat.

How you take that new understanding and move forward is up to you. In my case the absolute decisiveness of the practice (you are in essence fighting for your life every time) and the depth of knowledge required to get good led to it becoming a borderline obsession.

Now I can give you this same experience, but for meditation or contemplative practices.

Just do this: Try not to have a thought. I'll wait.

Probably didn't take long. Meditation, like martial arts, is many things but awareness of thoughts and how mind operates is one major benefit of the practice. This is important because, arguably, identifying with thoughts and as thoughts causes roughly all of our problems as human beings on a day-to-day basis.

You can take this realization and cognize it, process it and think about it and that's fine. But in my opinion until you practice meditation regularly this won't become apparent in daily life.

Just like I can learn the escape from full mount, and that there are actually a couple of very easy ways to get out most of the time in the space of five minutes, but without practicing the technique over and over my mind won't fully realize it. Eventually you want it to become muscle memory (which is a flow state of mind and body unified) where it feels like you don't even cognize what to do next, you just do the technique and get out.

The same principles apply for contemplative practice - without taking the time out of your day to sit, pay attention to the breath or the body, and work with the ceaseless stream of thoughts that we think are "us", then we will not be able to have this awareness become muscle memory. In daily life, when we are upset, we will not be able to recognize (what a wonderful word by the way, re-cognizing) that upset is just a thought and pull ourselves back into a better frame of mind to deal with the situation. This can be done more and more effortlessly and quickly the more you practice paying attention and bringing mind back to a focal point.

From there it opens up. How far you choose to pursue it and integrate that into your life is entirely up to you. In my case the style of practice sort of found me, and I currently subscribe to the Tibetan Buddhist practices and general perspective on the practice. There are more secular alternatives if the very concept of religion freaks you out, but I would also argue that religion is just that- a concept, and of the spiritual practices available (that aren't a cult) Tibetan Buddhism has almost 3,000 years of creating contemplative masters.

You can completely ignore any magical elements and still receive extraordinary benefits by learning more about it. I'll plug a different book this time, I recently read Sam Harris' book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and would recommend that if you'd like a logical presentation of contemplative practice and Buddhism in particular.

We are being driven around by thoughts and emotions for most of our day. You don't need any sort of spiritual practice to see this is the case. Just try and not have one. Sam Harris used a great example in the above book - imagine you're in a room of strangers and you find your glasses. You might say out loud "There are my glasses" when you found them and no one would really react. Now imagine if you kept talking, "Oh, there are my glasses. I am always forgetting things. This is probably why Cheryl stopped talking to me. I'm such an idiot!" The people around you would probably be freaked out. But we do this in our own heads all day, without even realizing it most of the time.

I am much better off now because I am able to more fully understand the depth of this simple fact, by taking a little time out of my day and paying attention. Compared to when I began earnest meditation practice, I generally get 'hooked' less by thoughts and am able to better recognize patterns of behavior that seem integral to my being but aren't at all. I'm not great at it by any means, but any advancement is improvement and I try to acknowledge it as such.

So big thanks to Christian for bringing that to my attention recently, as I love to draw parallels between the different obsessions that I have and gradually become an even bigger nerd. If you want to learn more about any of that, whether related to strangling people or becoming more mindful just leave a question in the comments and I'll try to respond!

OmAhHum and Osssss

 

August 20, 2016 - No Comments!

On Rabid Monkeys, Yoga and Mindfulness

Rabid-Response

This week it was revealed that research scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have taken the Buddhist school's training your monkey mind concept to a new level by essentially trying to recreate the plot of 28 Days Later.

horror-28-days
But in the end, it turned out we were really the monsters. But also the actual monsters were monsters. 

By injecting the rabies virus into Cebus monkeys the researchers were able to trace an interaction between our adrenal medulla (located just above our kidneys) and the cerebral cortex. This is important because it's the first evidence that there is a direct connection between our body's reaction to stressful situations (the adrenal medulla secretes hormones like dopamine and epinephrine) and the mind.

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As in most things related to science, I just accept they're telling me the truth here. We could be made of Play Doh inside for all I know.

Basically it helps us cope with physical and emotional stress - when someone calls you a "Gross ginger with no soul" for example, it squirts out a little bit of smack into your belly to help you maintain your calm and not fuck up that person's day (which I absolutely will, so don't test me).

There are specific regions of the cerebral cortex that control the adrenal medulla, and this is the first time we're actually able to see what those regions are and how they relate. This matters because if we responded to stressful situations with a purely physical reaction we when a minor stressful situation arose we'd have an animalistic automatic action, kind of like the mini horses here at Ratna Ling do, which is to say, completely lose your shit and try to kick people for no good reason.

As one of the researchers, Dr. Strick put it:

"Because we have a cortex, we have options," said Dr. Strick. "If someone insults you, you don't have to punch them or flee. You might have a more nuanced response and ignore the insult or make a witty comeback. These options are part of what the cerebral cortex provides."

Baby if witty comebacks are a sign of a powerful cortex than I should be something something I don't know this isn't a comeback I've had too much time to think now stop pressuring me here look at these cute fucking bunnies:

bunnies
D'awwwww. 

What's interesting is these areas that activate are in the primary motor cortex, specifically the parts of the brain responsible for body posture and axial movement.

This is pretty big news for a couple of reasons:

  1. This may change the professional medical perspective on psychosomatic illnesses - there's now proof our mind can cause very real physical symptoms in the body.
  2. Training the body can have a verifiable impact on the mind, and vice versa.

From an article on the report by The Science Explorer:

This input to the adrenal medulla may explain why core body exercises are so helpful in modulating responses to stress. Calming practices such as Pilates, yoga, tai chi and even dancing in a small space all require proper skeletal alignment, coordination and flexibility.

Of additional note is these are the same regions of the brain that light up during mindfulness and meditation techniques. These are concepts that may make intuitive sense but this is a breakthrough study in that physical, biological evidence has been provided for the first time.

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One can also extrapolate this further. This article in Brainpickings breaks down the work of Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist recognized for his work in the field of trauma. His work is revolutionary in that he takes a holistic approach to treatment, integrating body work and body therapies alongside more traditional or accepted treatments, like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).

From his book:

The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communtherapeutic assumptions.

If stress is interpreted by the mind and passed down to the body, then it stands to reason that developing a clear line of communication between our body and mind would help us cope.

While van der Kolk deals primarily with more extreme levels of trauma and PTSD, this concept applies to all of us. The greatest tragedies in our lives are the ones we experience, even if we've been lucky enough to have a relatively privileged life. Not to mention the impact that another person in our space dealing with a trauma can have on the us, people around them.

There's an interesting concept in Kum Nye yoga that, when we are young, and acts of openness, creativity or vulnerability aren't reciprocated we respond by instinctively "protecting" ourselves. Usually by shrinking away, erecting a wall or withdrawing in order to not experience that feeling of rejection again. Untreated or unaddressed this creates a "blockage" or psycho-physical knot in our mind-body system that can manifest in all sorts of unpleasant and subconscious fashions.

Maybe you go to show your parents a drawing you made, they're busy stressing over a tax issue that has nothing to do with you and brush you off. That one instance, which is really no one's "fault" can lead to a walling off of that creative ability, and can manifest not only in a reluctance to draw or display creative acts but can also create a general negative attitude toward sharing, being open in relationships, social situations etc.

This is a small example of what is potentially a much larger psychic event in your life. Kum Nye yoga in particular attempts to address it by working to relax the body, which then allows these "knotted" or dense areas to release and start flowing again. It becomes harder to explain at this point because it's actually best experienced, but this relaxation can sometimes display itself physically as euphoria, nausea, crying, nodding off. Usually though you just feel pretty good. Kum Nye is not the only way to release these knots but it's an interesting way of thinking that I haven't seen specifically addressed or brought up with in any of the 30+ different yoga teachers/styles I've tried over the past ten years.

And it doesn't really need to be talked about, because just by doing the practice you're establishing that mind-body link. On a purely physical level, with this study we now know that just by working on your core (or probably putting the body through any number of axial movements or postures), whether that's doing planks in Pilates, squatting during Crossfit, or holding side angle pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana, or, Why I Can't Teach Yoga the Names Are Too Goddamn Long) you're developing your mind and altering how it responds to stresses in general.

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Namaste, bitches.

It's more about having some kind of body discipline, and how you integrate that with your mind that I think is important. I loved training in martial arts for that reason, and it's why I run to the river and back here at Ratna Ling, playing with my impulses and inner nature uphill the entire way back. It's not just a release of endorphins (though that is part of why it feels good afterward for sure) but there's a mental dialogue happening, a negotiation with the self and the mind to push on and keep going that I can then take into my daily life, work and relationships. The mind tells a story about the body, and during physical movement and strenuous positions you have an opportunity to notice the story and reshape it into a form that better suits your life.

So the bottom line is - just move your body through space and sometimes pick up heavy shit. That will make you a better, happier person. For sure. Science says so now.

Personally I find exploring this mind body connection endlessly fascinating, and through Kum Nye practice and study I'm learning more about how the Tibetan Buddhist systems approach and deal with it.

dealwithit

By the by I'm not pro-injecting-rabies-into-monkeys, but in the grand scheme of things learning how our mind functions is probably a more worthwhile endeavor than testing eye shadow. But the rabies virus is apparently very good at displaying neurons and how they connect, so it was the only choice. And it's a strange coincidence that we're learning about our monkey mind (as a metaphor for our out-of-control thought patterns and automatic responses) by viewing an actual monkey mind. With rabies.

Just food for thought!

Indiana_Jones_and_the_Chilled_Monkey_Brains

Till next time, fellow primates.