Wednesday, June 30, 2010
While taking care of your physical health should always be a priority, I’d like to dedicate a few words to discuss where the real battle takes place—the mind. Physical changes--whether reducing the amount of processed foods or increasing your activity levels—can be accomplished in a shorter amount of time if you push yourself hard enough. This is not the same for mental changes. Our perceptions of the world, ourselves, and the relationship shared between the two are learned over time. Through the process of socialization, we construct our mental foundation. The real difficulty with this, however, is that our subconscious has no idea of what is “real” and what is “perceived.” After hearing enough negative comments, we have the tendency to believe them—or at least I did.
It took me a long time to realize that what I was telling myself mentally affected me in ways far greater than I had ever imagined. I can’t speak for everyone, but it seems rather universal when I do bring it up—especially among younger people such as my students. As I mentioned in the earlier letter, “It’s All in Your Head,” we must learn to disregard that little negative voice that generates self-doubt. If we don’t, it affects every aspect of our being as social creatures. We feel and (far too often) capitulate to peer pressure. We allow ourselves to be shaped by and for our culture and all that it entails (shared language, religion(s), various ethnicities, etc). But is this necessary? Do we really need these cultural archetypes, or is it possible to transcend them and cut to the heart of the human condition and/or experience? I don’t know if I have any answers to these questions, but I can tell you who did—Nietzsche.
I like philosophy in general because it exposes humanity to questions of concern for all of us. It’s a learning exercise to read philosophy because you have to engage the text in a critical and responsible way if it is to have any meaning or bearing on your own life. While I wouldn’t consider myself the most widely read person when it comes to philosophy, I’ve done my fair share—and no one has ever puzzled me more than one of the earliest existentialists, Friedrich Nietzsche. If you’ve never read him, his aphoristic style is difficult to interpret at times and at face value many of his statements may seem blasphemous, ridiculous, or outlandish. I wouldn’t recommend sustained reading of his works, either; several years ago I read half of his works in a two month period and I was starting to question my own sanity. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve found that I continually gravitate back to his worldview, particularly that of the “übermensch.”
The übermensch is often translated as “superman,” but I prefer Walter Kaufman’s translations of Nietzsche who uses the term “overman” instead. Without getting into too much detail, a basic description of the “overman” is someone who is capable of letting go of cultural convention and archetypes. For Nietzsche, there was no such person. He felt that if humanity were to progress, we’d have to jettison a lot (if not all) of our preconceptions about life that culture is bound to create. Essentially, in order to be our most fully human, we must transcend. One of my favorite quotes about this is from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Zarathustra is a prophet who is preaching the coming of the übermensch, a person who would have the ability to live as authentically as possible. Here’s the quote:
But my fervent will to create impels me ever again toward man; thus is the hammer impelled toward the stone. O men, in the stone there sleeps an image, the image of my images. Alas, that is must sleep in the hardest, the ugliest stone! Now my hammer rages cruelly against its prison. Pieces of rock rain from the stone: what is it to me? I want to perfect it; for a shadow came to me—the stillest and lightest of all things once came to me. The beauty of the overman came to me as a shadow. O my brothers, what are the gods to me now?
I’d like to put this quote into context by sharing my interpretation of it. Nietzsche thought that a person was capable of great things through the exercise of will. In past letters I’ve already mentioned how important the will is if you’re ever going to succeed at anything, whether your aim be personal development or otherwise. What this quote means to me is that we can literally create who we are, or more importantly, who we are trying to become. We all know that that better person we want to become—physically, mentally, or spiritually—is already inside of each of us. All it takes is the will and the perseverance to see the transformation through. That “image” of who we want to become is what is trapped within the stone; the stone itself being societal trappings. We are so enmeshed within our own cultural context that it can be difficult to see outside of it. I am in no means advocating that you give up or destroy culture, either. I think that you must give culture the respect that it’s due, but not to the point that you are bound and defined by it (and we are much more than we think we are). Metaphorically speaking then, Zarathustra—and by extension anyone who wants to make real, lasting change for the better to his/her personal life—must escape from this prison, must break away the stone to unleash the true potential that lies within. In my estimation, the last line sums it up perfectly. Though “gods” can be taken in the literal sense, I see it again as a metaphor for the forces of society that give us a prescribed life, or at least a prescribed meaning for that life. Or perhaps “gods” could be the parameters that we use to restrict ourselves and our development as human beings. Either way, I’ve had my hammer in hand for almost two years now. There may still be a lot of stone that needs to be cleared away, but I have the will to see it through.
I’d like to return to the allusion of “becoming” that I made in the preceding paragraph. Nietzsche was originally a philologist, which was a forerunner to the field of modern linguistics. His specialty was languages from antiquity with a focus on ancient Greek in particular. Being a Classics minor myself, I can see why I gravitated toward Nietzsche because of my own admiration for ancient Greek society. At any rate, in several of his works Nietzsche paraphrases the poet Pindar by stating “Become who you are.” To me, that might be the most loaded and interesting four word phrase I’ve ever read. It’s not the same as recommending to someone “be who you are,” which would imply stasis. Nothing in this universe is in stasis; all we have is in the midst of change. “Become who you are” is so much more powerful because it is imbued with a sense of destiny and urgency. Almost as if there is something inside of us that is dormant waiting to be awakened and released. That better person that we want to become. More importantly, it is equally fascinating because it is impossible to “become.” In doing so, we are always required to push ourselves, to keep chipping away, to know there’s always room for improvement. Each day is a gift. We’ll never know how many we are going to receive, so why wait? Why not begin “becoming who you are”? If you are well on your way and have begun to realize some of these changes in your life—that’s spectacular! But you probably have figured out that it will take more work because we are never going to perfect ourselves. All we can do is strive. To keep reaching for that goal, whether it’s to lose weight, improve our patience, help more people, it doesn’t matter. It’s in the constant struggle to improve that we truly come alive.
One of the last letters I wrote during the school year was to my graduating seniors. In it I discussed the importance of this concept, of becoming who they are. They are about to begin a new leg of this journey we call life as they head off to college, and I couldn’t let them leave without one final word about what it means to strive. At the closing of the letter, I quoted the last line of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” as it summarizes a great deal of what I’ve said in this letter. Below you will find final five lines of the last stanza:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Friday, June 25, 2010
I hope you are well and have begun eliminating those three nasty processed food ingredients. If you have, you’re well on your way to the land of milk and honey. I’m not sure if why I chose that title had to do with keeping the Biblical allusions going, or the fact that I put all-natural peanut butter with honey in my organic skim milk for a protein shake this morning. Either way, life is delicious. Though I spoke at length about those three food ingredients in the last letter, I didn’t dedicate enough to the topic of organic versus industrial food or some of the other physical changes I had to make in order to get where I am currently.
Would you like to know the biggest reason I try to eat organic food? The taste. While some products do taste roughly the same, there are others (fruits are a great example) that have much more intense flavors. Granted, this may be in my head (literally) because now that I don’t get a lot of refined/processed sugars my taste buds are experiencing a renaissance. Taste buds do get overstimulated. Too much of anything will deaden flavors; even smoking cigarettes greatly reduces the effectiveness of the taste buds. I believe what deters a lot of people from switching to organic foods is the price, which can be a genuine issue for families who are on a specific food budget. This is one reason why obesity is more prevalent among the lower socio-economic demographic. Without having a large enough budget to eat well (I’m just talking basic fruits and veggies, even industrial produced ones), these people are forced to get the most for their money. If you watch those films or read the books I mentioned, you’ll see how the subsidization and commodification of corn then skews the true cost of processed foods. How can these people spend $3 on a few pieces of fruit when they can get a cornucopia of processed junk for the same price? The junk keeps the family belly full , doesn’t it?
But at what cost?
I won’t get into the reasons why we overproduce food in America, but we do. Again, read those books or watch those films—especially if you have a family. The primary reason that we got into this mess (industrialized food) has to do with World War II. Back during the war, large chemical corporations (Dow, DuPont, etc) were working on chemical agents for biological weapons to be employed in the war effort. With the advent of the H-bomb and the close of the Pacific theater, these companies now had to find a new use for these bio-weapons. Hence, they were re-engineered to be used as pesticides and fertilizers. The world’s first “Green Revolution” took place here in our own backyard in the late 1940s—and with it, the demise of traditional agriculture. Over the years, we’ve used more and more of these chemicals, some of which are known neurotoxins. Additionally, our food scientists also started creating GMOs, which stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Sounds ambiguous, huh? It is. Essentially, the biggest problem with GMOs is that we have no idea how they affect our health (nor the pesticides and fertilizers that are sprayed all over the food). GMOs would make Gregor Mendel proud. They are the result of modifying DNA in an effort to make the plant or animal grow faster, produce more, be more resistant to increasingly potent pesticides/ fertilizers/antibiotics, or whatever else needs to be accomplished. And yet we willingly eat it all.
Ever wonder why people in Europe eat food that is seemingly so unhealthful yet have no problems with obesity? 1) They eat normal sized portions (ideally each meal you eat should NEVER go over 800 calories, 600 is an even better number—some of the basic combo meals at fast food restaurants easily contain 1,200 calories); 2) they don’t have industrial produced food. Europe flat out banned GMO production on the continent and all products containing GMOs that are imported—namely from the United States—must be clearly labeled for the consumer. I know that agribusiness giants here in America would never let this happen, which is why it is all the more necessary for Americans to educate themselves about this issue.
The real question then becomes this: if you know that there are chemicals covering or mixed into your food—chemicals that are potentially hazardous to your health (let alone brain function)—why would you not eat organic food? It’s as if I were to say, you have two doors in front of you: one will have nothing behind it; the other will have the potential to dramatically affect your health adversely. Would really chose the second door? Of course not. Now, I know life is not a thought-experiment. But if you have the means financially to eat organically, you should do so. If you don’t, then you can still make the best choices with what means you have. Try to avoid the three amigos, HFCS, Hydrogenated Oils, and Enriched Flour. I think eliminating those from your diet alone can have massive ramifications for your overall health, fitness, and well-being. Eating organic foods are a bonus. Erin and I simply have made a conscious choice to put our food budget all in one basket. By limiting how much we go out to eat (it’s rare at this point) to restaurants, we have that much more money for our grocery cart. Moreover, it’s not like you have to go to Whole Foods and spend extra money just because it’s the fancy Wal-Mart of organic foods. There are issues with our organic food production that make it no more sustainable than our industrial food chain. Ideally, support local farmers if you can. Even if you were to get your fruits and veggies from a local farmer who uses pesticides and fertilizers, studies have shown they use far less quantities in their application and are subsequently a more healthful alternative to what you’d get in the local supermarket.
Though eating healthful foods certainly helped usher me into the land of milk and honey, there were equally responsible life decisions I made during my exodus that helped get me to where I am today—not the least of which was quitting smoking. If you’re reading this and you’re one of my students, past, present, or future, please don’t smoke. Every other non-smoking adult in this world will tell you the same, which is probably why you’ll want to experiment with cigarettes at some point.
It started the same way for me as I’m sure it does for most teenagers—it’s taboo. Forbidden. And of course, this makes the allure of smoking all that more irresistible. I started smoking for cliché reasons and kept on doing it for the wrong ones. I felt independent. Self-assured. I was my own person. No one could tell me what to do. I didn’t know in my youth, perhaps even couldn’t know, that what I was doing wasn’t an exercise of will power but a capitulation to weakness. I thought it made me cool. All it did was deaden my tastebuds, stink up my clothes, hair and breath, yellow my teeth, and lessen my capacity to oxygenate my cardiovascular system that operates the rest of this complex machine that we call a body.
But smoking is no joke. Nicotine is addictive stuff. Luckily for me, I was never a tremendously heavy smoker. On average, I smoked about half a pack a day. On my days off when I drove around a lot, perhaps a whole pack. This lasted from age 18 until I was about 21. That was the first serious attempt at quitting. I told myself that I would go cold turkey and only smoke on special occasions. My friend Grant also made this promise—he’s the one who brought me into the fold, ironically. About a week into it, the both of us along with some other friends went out to dinner. Before we had sat down at our booth, my friend went into the bar and lit up a cigarette. I was dying for one and I asked him, “what’s the occasion?” He smiled as he took a drag through crinkled eyes and smoke and said, “It’s gotta be somebody’s birthday.” I gave in.
The next earnest attempt that I made was the day I bought my bike and began this entire journey. But I learned the first time that going cold turkey was too difficult for me. So I did the next best thing. Baby steps. Instead of trying to quit smoking, I first quit buying them. This alone was a good exercise in will power because it was relatively easy. I would try my best to abstain from them as well, even when offered to me. Sometimes I could, and sometimes I couldn’t. That was probably the most difficult step: going from social smoker to non-smoker. That phase of my life, in fact, lasted much longer than I wanted. But I was also young and still learning about life and coming to terms with it. For the better part of the last decade, I’ve been tobacco/nicotine free. My one relapse, however, was on 12/22/2003. I only had one that I bummed off someone in my excitement. The next morning I was upset because up to that point it had been a little more than a year. And so the counting began again. As of today, it’s been 2377 consecutive days since I’ve had a cigarette.
Alcohol was an entirely different matter. I’m 34 years old. I’ve done my share of drinking, but I would never consider myself “a drinker” by any standard. Especially since turning 30, I’ve noticed that my body doesn’t handle alcohol well, regardless of the quantity. Though I never drank a lot in any one sitting, once I began teaching I noticed that the frequency with which I imbibed spirits increased. It became regular for me to have a beer or glass of wine with dinner, perhaps another afterward too. Sometimes it was a cocktail. It never went beyond two on any given night, but I began to feel that it was affecting my health.
Two summers ago—just before this new/current phase of my life emerged—I was speaking with my uncle who, like myself, was never a big drinker. He had told me that he quit drinking because it was affecting his sleep and it made his body too achy the next day. Curious to see if this would do the same for me, I decided to stop drinking. Within a few days, I was waking up more refreshed than ever before. There are manifold reasons why I think drinking should be eliminated from your diet if you want to make the best of the vehicle for your consciousness, but here are the most important two: 1) alcohol is poison, literally. When you drink, your brain prioritizes getting rid of the poison from your system. Therefore, the calories that will be burned immediately for energy will be the ones in alcohol. Alcohol is no slouch, either. It takes 7 calories to burn off one gram of alcohol, whereas protein and carbohydrates only need 4 calories to process (fat takes 9 per gr). Meanwhile, any food that you eat will be automatically converted to sugar and stored as fat because the body is working off the alcohol; 2) alcohol severely reduces the quality of your sleep. I know there will always be people who tell you “I can have several drinks and fall right asleep” (sometimes you hear the same thing about caffeinated beverages), but while they may fall asleep they are not getting quality rest. And rest, like any other piece of the puzzle, must be in place in order to maximize the potential we can harness from our bodies.
I know this sounds like a lot. It is. This has been a beautiful, amazing last couple of years for me, but it took 11 years of trial and error to get here. I’m only putting all of this out there so that you, Nobody in Particular, can do something with your life if you want to. There is no reason to not be satisfied with the life you have. If you don’t like something about it, change it! I think too many times people get caught up in that culture of victimhood. It’s always something beyond your control, always someone else’s fault. Been there, done that. Not doing it any more. Whether it is eating more healthful foods, quitting smoking, or giving up alcohol—take your time. It’s just like I mentioned in “Top Ten Secrets,” all you have to do is keep chipping away. Every day is a new day and every single one matters. Use it to your advantage to take that extra little step. Have one less cigarette, drink one less Mountain Dew. In time you’ll find that your will power becomes honed and ready to buttress you in situations you never before dared to assert yourself. As your will grows stronger, you’ll be surprised how the once insurmountable obstacles seem so insignificant in light of your newfound strength. Keep nourishing it and soon you’ll feel as if you’ve reached your own personal land of milk and honey too.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
The word exodus comes from the ancient Greek phrase εκ όδος, meaning “the path out of…” So if my personal genesis began the day I chose to better myself, the exodus was the decade that followed. I too had wandered in the wilderness, and though it was difficult to see in the moment, it nourished me. It gave me not only knowledge, but in due time self-confidence and wisdom. Considering the impetus to this change was my unhealthy lifestyle, I should begin with the changes that I struggled with the longest—the physical.
By the time I moved to Florida in 1998, I was down to about 200 lbs. I felt good about myself and the direction my life was headed. I had moved down here to try college a second time and made working out a priority. Perhaps too much of a priority. After losing all of the weight, I found my cardio disappearing from my routine and being replaced with more weight lifting. By New Year’s 1999, I was back up to 240, but considerably more muscular. I probably ate about 5,000 calories a day on average back then to try and keep my weight up. I was strong as an ox and about as flexible as one too. Once I started training in martial arts again, I lost 20 pounds immediately and then vacillated between 200 and 215 for the better part of a decade.
Even when I viewed myself as being relatively healthy, I still didn’t realize how much what I was eating affected me. Fast food is a great example of this. If I were to go to Taco Bell—which I often did—I would rationalize my decision by telling myself, “Well, at least I’m getting the chicken soft tacos…” Or, I would write it off as no big deal because “I work out.” The truth of the matter is that once I eliminated fast food from my diet, that “stubborn” weight that I could never seemingly shed began to disappear.
But it’s not just fast food!
It’s processed food, all of it. My brother Brad used to get so irate when he’d see me eating certain foods, telling me about GMOs and all sorts of industrial agricultural secrets that America is luckily beginning to wake up to. He was several years ahead of the curve, but he piqued my interest and I began to read up on what he had been telling me. The first book I read—and I would highly recommend to you—is Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. I think it’s safe to say that most people eat fast food out of convenience, then perhaps taste, price, and everything else. I can’t imagine people preferring a fast food meal over something made at home. Be that as it may, what makes fast food so insidious is the propaganda these companies use to sell you the idea that their food is tasty, healthful, or what have you. When you pull back the curtain to look the wizard in the eye, though, it ain’t pretty. I won’t go on forever about fast food, but let’s put it this way. In the last year and a half the only fast food I’ve eaten is Chick-fil-a. It’s probably happened fewer than half a dozen times. And even then it was only the sandwich on a wheat bun.
Another great book that provides perhaps an even greater in-depth look at the types of food chains available to humans is Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan explores the way that Americans eat and how they procure that food. He begins with industrial agriculture, which is essentially what you’d get in almost any regular restaurant, fast food or otherwise, or from the large chain grocery stores. Pollan next tackles organic food, both large and small scale production, and finally does some hunting and gathering to round out the book.
If you don’t have time to read, or if you prefer the visual medium instead, I’d urge you to watch Food, Inc, which is a 2008 documentary that covers much of the material in both of the aforementioned books (both authors are in the film, too). If you’d like a thorough documentary about corn, check out King Corn, a great little film by two young recent college graduates who are curious about why our country grows so much of the stuff. Either of these films is an excellent choice and both provide insight as to why I—and America at large—had struggled with weight…it’s the food.
Since learning about all of this food business, I radically altered my diet. As I mentioned earlier, I do my best not to eat any fast food whatsoever. It’s rather impossible to not eat industrial produced food, but you can still make sound choices when you are at the grocery store. Here are a few absolutes to avoid. It may mean extra label reading on your part, but you’ll find without these few items in your daily diet you’ll discover greater levels of energy and probably feel a lot better in general.
No HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup)
HFCS is bad news. This is the form of sugar that is derived from corn (one of the 2 billion uses, I’m sure). People might think it’s not so insidious; after all, it’s corn! But that’s where it gets tricky. It’s also sugar—the worst kind, too. With ordinary sugar (sucrose), our bodies are only able to handle so much at a time. When I was a kid and Coke was still made with regular sugar, if you drank two whole bottles (8 oz. back then) you’d be begging for a stomach ache. That’s the body’s signal telling the brain “STOP IT WITH THE SUGAR ALREADY!” While it is true that HFCS is metabolized the same way as regular sugar (after all, this is what they tell you on those Sweet Surprise commercials on television—the same commercials sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association of America), the single fact that they don’t mention is that HFCS never triggers that signal. So the sugar keeps getting chugged and chugged, creating a diabetes and obesity epidemic that is out of control. It’s no wonder I was so heavy. I used to drink Mountain Dew all the time, at least 60-80 oz per day. There are 52 grams of sugar in one 12 oz can; that’s between 300-400 grams of sugar every day. The suggested total carbohydrate consumption for an average 2,000 calorie day is 300. And on top of the soda was the pizza, the Chinese food, the Taco Bell, the McDonald’s or whatever else. The truth is most of us minimize the detrimental impacts of our eating habits on our health. It only takes a few choices to turn it all around, though.
No Hydrogenated Oils (Partially or Otherwise)
To me, hydrogenated oils complete the one-two punch of processed foods. So many of the products we buy at the grocery store contain either this or HFCS or both in combination. Essentially, these are standard oils that are bombarded with additional molecules that transform the oil to a semi-solid state. Peanut butter is a classic example. If you eat all-natural peanut butter like I do, you’re used to seeing it as a suspension. The peanut oil separates from the ground peanut paste and you have to mix it back together. Jif, Peter Pan, and other types of “standard” peanut butter are made with hydrogenated oils to give it that processed, er, I mean, perfect texture. What makes these so bad is that they are extremely difficult for the body to break down due to their synthetic nature. Additionally, hydrogenated oils are specifically responsible for those “Trans Fats” that are now so common in all foods. And don’t be fooled by the labels, either. Many people will stop and point to the label and say, “See! These don’t have trans fats.” The truth is many of those same products do in fact have trans fats, but our toothless regulatory agencies such as the USDA and FDA allowed food processors to only list trans fats if the product has more than ½ gram per serving. Here’s a great example: many store-bought cookies state that they have no trans fats. In reality, many of them have slightly less than the half gram per serving—but the serving is one or sometimes two cookies. If you eat six, you may have consumed several grams of this stuff. Trans fats are being used less in many processed foods, but there are still enough of them out there to make sure you double check the label for hydrogenated oils. If it’s in the product at all, that means there is trans fat no matter what the label says.
No Enriched Flour
Enriched flour is your basic flour. This is what you’ll find in most white breads, some imposter wheat breads, cake mixes, cookies, and just about everything else requiring flour to create. Enriched flour may sound like it’s good for you, but it’s not. It is whole wheat flour that is good for you; enriched flour was once upon a time whole wheat flour, but it had the unfortunate circumstance to be bleached and have every other healthful benefit stripped from it. The real issue with consuming enriched flour, then, is what happens after it hits your digestive tract. It has a high glycemic index, which is a fancy way of saying that it taxes your system because it is converted to sugar. Most processed snack foods have high scores on the glycemic index, which makes them dangerous because the body can’t burn off all of that excess sugar. So what does the body do? Convert it to fat for future storage. The only unfortunate thing about this evolutionary trick is that we are no longer hunter/gatherers who go days without eating. It’s not feast or famine in America; it’s feast any time you want.
What all of this means taken together is that if you want permanent change that will affect every aspect of your life, it means no more junk/processed/fast food. At least 50% (probably much, much more) of what lines the shelves at the local grocery store is nothing but empty calories. I’ve discussed the following phenomenon with my students a great deal over the past school year: Why is that in America people will pay top dollar to have that bigger house, or that latest sports car, or the designer clothing, but will subject their bodies to the cheapest, crappiest food they can find? Food is what sustains us. Food is the fuel that drives the engine of our lives, and yet we take our food for granted. Again, it’s tempting to minimize the detrimental impacts of our food consumption on our overall health, but we can’t afford to live like this any longer. 1 out of 3 children born in the United States after the year 2000 will have children’s onset diabetes. For minorities that rate will be 1 in 2. This is all part of a systemic problem that some Americans are beginning to realize, but if you’re reading this you can start today.
Ever since I significantly reduced my consumption of the three devils, I dropped that last 20 pounds that I could never shake. My weight now fluctuates between 180 and 185, just depending on how much good food I ate the day before. Though I don’t eat completely organic, my wife and I try to purchase as much as we can. Yes, it is more expensive, but this is a topic to which I will return in the near future. I can guarantee this, however, if you do completely cut out the HFCS, hydrogenated oils, and the enriched flour, you’ll probably find yourself having a lot more energy. I laugh when I see those 5-Hour Energy commercials about that “2:30 in the afternoon feeling.” I don’t ever have that now that I eat small meals frequently that aren’t loaded down with excess sugar or that will be converted to sugar. Whether your goal is simply to lose weight or eat more healthfully, with a little research and label reading you’ll be feeling better about yourself in every way. I am fully convinced that there is a synergistic effect between a healthy body and a healthy mind. Because the more in shape I became physically, the more I could feel myself being altered for the better mentally.
Though it took me more than ten years to make these changes permanent, I can tell you honestly I will never go back to eating the way I once did.
Happy healthful eating!
Friday, June 18, 2010
That's me, age 22. It wasn't too long after that picture was taken that this all began. It's been nearly 13 years to get where I am today and though it took patience and persistence, it was worth every step of that journey. I guess the specific moment I snapped was the morning I went to my mother's house to do my laundry. Out of curiosity I stepped on the scale in her bathroom. I had to lean over to look past my stomach to see that I weighed 257 pounds. I had no idea how I had let it happen.
When I graduated from high school, I probably weighed about 215. I was stout, but I at least engaged in some sort of physical activity. Whether it was playing basketball in my friend's driveway or bowling after school, I managed to keep my sloth in check. This all changed when I graduated and went off to college. I didn't learn much the first time I went to college because I majored in pretending-to-go-to-class-by-going-to-the-mall-and-playing-video-games. Add to this lifestyle my preference for power-eating entire boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese while slaking my thirst incessantly with Mountain Dew and it's easy to see how out of control I was. But that's not the whole story.
The truth of the matter was that I was miserable. Looking back on it now, I don't know the exact cause of my depression, but that's surely what it was. I went from being a fairly adjusted high school graduate to a college newcomer who hated his school and just about everything else within 6 months. During my senior year, I had been the vice-president of our school's chapter of SADD (back then it was just Students Against Driving Drunk) and had never even sipped alcohol. By the time I got to winter break of my first semester at Rhode Island College, I was drinking regularly and smoking cigarettes. The only thing bigger than my wasitline at that point was my apathy.
I withdrew from college by the middle of the spring semester. I worked full time for a few years and continued to gain weight due to my horrible eating habits, lack of exercise, and smoking. That morning that I got on that scale, though, was a wake-up call. I snapped. After getting off the scale I marched down the hall and furiously took my clothes out of the dryer and threw them disgustedly into the basket. I went out to my car and slammed the door, rolled down the window, and lit a cigarette.
As I raced down Nate Whipple Highway, I smoked like a chimney. I had about half a pack of cigarettes left that I intended to ceremoniously inhale and as I pulled into the bicycle shop parking lot I flicked the last butt out the window. I walked in and looked around for a few minutes before I saw a Mongoose mountain bike hybrid that I liked. Without the least hesitation I slammed my credit card onto the counter and told the gentleman behind the counter that I wanted "that bike." He helped me out and I stuffed it into the backseat of my 84 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
When I got home about half an hour later, I ran into the house and quickly changed. I came back outside, unloaded the bike determined to ride from my house to the border of Massachusetts and back--what amounts to a massive five miles. I remember thinking as I left, "What's five miles on a bike?"
When you're 75 pounds overweight and a smoker--a lot.
As I got to the border of MA, I was dying. Rhode Island is nothing like Florida when it comes to terrain. RI is a continuous series of hills and valleys; FL is flat. In another stroke of brilliance, I decided that I should take a short rest by walking my bike across the street (apparently I still thought I was 7 years old at the moment); this was the worst mistake I could have made. In between all the pumping and churning of my legs, I hadn't noticed the queasiness in my stomach. As soon as I took my feet off the pedals, I threw the bike into the grass and started dry heaving. It was a solid 5 minutes before I could control the retching. When I was done, however, I was still determined to finish and I sped home as fast as I could. By the time I got there, I was so exhausted that I opened my sliding glass door, placed the box fan in front of the screen, and passed out from utter fatigue on the living room carpet.
The next day, I did it again. Over the course of that spring, 5 miles a day became 7. Then 10. Then 12. Then 15. By mid-June I was riding my bike 20 miles a day. Some days if I felt I had the energy, I would do 20 miles in the early morning before work and then do another 20 when I got home in the evening. It got to the point that if I could take my bike somewhere rather than my car, I would. One day I even went to my friend's office in Foxboro, MA, which was at least 30 miles each way, maybe more. I started to eat better (or what I thought was better, back then) and slowly began to lose weight. In the first three months I lost about 25 pounds, but I was still heavier than I had been when I graduated high school. Over time, though, I managed to get where I wanted to be.
Anyone can do this. Whether it is losing weight, quitting smoking, extricating yourself from a bad relationship, we all have the power to change--especially ourselves. And it won't happen overnight. If you are committed to change, you have to also be committed to perseverance. I believe these are inseparable, perhaps even symbiotic. There is so much that I have learned about life in general and myself specifically since that time. Nearly 13 years have passed since that I day I stood before that mirror, pissed as hell at what I had let myself become. When I left that bathroom I knew I never wanted to see that person again. Not because I was overweight; that was a symptom of the problem. My real problem, my real enemy, was my apathy. But that deep urge to change is what saved me. What started out as a bike ride for health ended up being the impetus to my metamorphosis. The genesis of a new me...
But the way out of my former life, the exodus one might say, was a much longer road than I had anticipated. It certainly was a struggle filled with sacrifice, but success sure is sweet.
Keep chipping away,
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
For the first time this year, I hung a poster in my room with a short list of recommendations for my students called “H’s Top Ten Secrets to a Successful Life.” These little maxims helped carry me through tumultuous times, and I hope that they can do the same for you. Each of these aphorisms represents a grand idea in many ways and perhaps deserves its own letter, but that is not my intention at the moment. I’m sure that in time I will explain each of these in greater detail either by dedicating a letter to the subject or relate it to one of the many life lessons learned recently.
10) Do Your Best and Forget the Rest
I’m not going to deny it, I stole this one. As cheesy as it may sound, this actually comes from a workout program that I completed last summer: P90X. Though Mr. Tony Horton means this in the physical sense as it relates to exercising the body, I happen to think it’s a great all-encompassing dictum for life. If you always put forth your absolute best effort—no matter the endeavor—the outcome doesn’t matter. Sure you may lose a game, perhaps even fail a test or bomb an interview, but if you can honestly look yourself in the mirror afterwards and know that you had given it your all there is no reason for disappointment. All I ever ask of my students is for their personal best. I think this is all we can reasonably ask of ourselves in any given moment. But asking yourself for your best and actually putting forth that effort are two different things. So whether it be play, work, study, whatever—you must assiduously apply yourself.
9) Every Day Matters
I love this one. I stole this one too. This is a little carved wooden phrase that my mother keeps on top of her entertainment center in her living room. I think it is so important that we recognize how tenuous life really is. We know that we are finite beings in the sense that one day we all will wrestle with and submit to death, but we never know when that is going to happen. It could happen in 50 plus years for me, or it could be tomorrow. I know this may sound morbid, but it’s not. In all actuality, by facing one’s finitude a person is able to find all kinds of courage. Moreover, it only reinforces number 10 on the list. If you don’t know when your time is up, you’re best served by consistently applying yourself and giving your best efforts all of the time. When it is put into this perspective, it is easy to see how literally EVERY DAY MATTERS. Each day when we wake we have been given a new opportunity to try harder, to climb higher, to be a better person, to give back to the world. Whatever the case may be, living each day in the awareness that you could not be here tomorrow makes you want to give your all. When you believe that every day matters, you’ll also have the added benefit of finding joy in small moments and happiness in events that you might have once thought dull or trivial. Believe me, I laugh a lot more since I figured this out.
8) Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way.
This too is common sense. One of the ingredients to accomplishing anything in life is willpower. As I mentioned in “It’s All in Your Head,” there initially has to be that deep urge to initiate change in your life. But to sustain that change you need willpower. And, just like anything else, the more your exercise your will, the stronger it becomes. Now, this isn’t to say that the use of the will should go unfettered; I’m not advocating imposing your will on others or anything of the sort—rather I’m suggesting that you impose your will on yourself. Simply having the desire to effect change will not make it manifest, you have to will yourself to create that change. As you can see, each of these maxims is predicated on the other. If you always do/give your best, your willpower will undoubtedly grow stronger. Add to that the persistence that comes with knowing that every day matters, and you can see how this is the becoming a recipe for success with each of these ideas being one component to a delicious life.
7) Don’t Meet Your Goals—Exceed Them.
Put simply, don’t be satisfied. We often set bars for ourselves, whether high or low. More often than not, unfortunately, we meet them and become complacent. I think this happens when we set our goals artificially low knowing that we can achieve them; or, worse yet, when we rationalize our outcome to fall in line with our goal. On the other hand, don’t demand the impossible from yourself. Be honest, set realistic goals that will push you to demand the best from yourself every day, and if at all possible, surpass them. Sometimes it may be something simple like the amount of push-ups you want to accomplish during a workout, or something more complex such as backing a charitable cause and raising donations. If you go into either of these tasks with success at the forefront of your mind, you’ll at least meet your goals. And if you exceed them? It just means your new goal will have to be a little bit more. In time, you’ll come to find that what you can reasonably demand from yourself is much more than you initially thought.
6) Make Your Dreams Your Reality
There are two key points to this statement: 1) you must pursue your passion in life. For me, my passion is learning. I can’t stop. It’s literally an addiction. I read a lot, watch documentaries, ask questions, all for the sake of learning something new. Now, this isn’t to say that this should be everyone’s passion—for you it may be playing a musical instrument, playing a certain sport, or transhumance (seriously, I think being a shepherd would be cool). I’ll explain this in greater detail in another letter, because following your passion is a necessary ingredient if you’re going to be happy in this life. 2) as I said in the preceding letter, you are what you think. The reality that you make for yourself is very much a product of your mind/consciousness/imagination/perception. By making your dreams manifest mentally, they become your reality through projection. I’m sure you can see the connection to the other secrets too: the need to apply yourself diligently, to do this every day, and to use your will to conquer personal goals, which culminates in your dreams becoming your reality. This again is a concept that will have to be explained in greater detail in another letter, but I think you get the gist of it.
5) There Are No Mistakes—Only Opportunities to Learn and Grow
This is the “reality check” clause of my top ten. Personal growth is never easy. In fact, a lot of the time it can be a learning process. Trial and error. We’ve all been there. This is why the other maxims precede this one. You need them to buttress your own sense of accomplishment because you will make “mistakes.” I don’t like calling them that because though there is the connotation that mistakes are accidental, whether the intention was there or not, the final outcome is ours alone to accept. This is why I tell my students that I feel mistakes are “opportunities to learn and grow.” Got a C on that last test? What mistake was made? Not enough studying? Not coming to tutoring? No big deal. Now you know what to do differently next time. Study more. Come to tutoring. Whatever the case may be, each “mistake” we make is—taken in the proper perspective—literally an opportunity to learn and grow. Mistakes help us accrue wisdom to be applied to other life scenarios. Intention doesn’t matter before the mistake is made, but once it’s made intention goes a long way if you’re willing to learn the lesson and grow as a person.
4) You Always Have a Choice
Let’s face it, we’re all existentialists. We all make choices about the lives we lead, whether good, bad, or indifferent. I think these final four statements represent who I am and what I stand for at this point in my life and it has taken me a long time to get here. Out of the final four aphorisms, this one needs to be explained at greater length and detail, so I promise to return to the concept of choice and its role in our lives very soon. For the time being, know that who you are as a person is the culmination of the choices you’ve made up to this point in your life. That’s a scary thought, but it is one that grounds us as well. By realizing that we are the sum of our choices—whether major or minor—we can remake ourselves in the image we want. We have such control over our lives and yet far too often externalize and attribute this control to outside factors that in reality have little or no bearing on who we are as individuals. Again, at the expense of making it sound cliché, you are what you think. The choices we make are part of what we think, which contribute to our sense of who we are. Suffice it to say for now, you have a choice in every facet of your life. Placing blame on others and playing the victim is a choice that far too many people make…but I discovered it’s also the easiest one to correct.
3) Do the Right Thing
I hope Spike Lee doesn’t mind me borrowing his film title. It took me a long time to really understand the importance of always doing the right thing in every given situation. I like to think I do, or at least try to. But it’s not easy. Sometimes doing the right thing goes against the grain. This is where you’ll be tested the most, especially over seemingly trivial matters (for instance when coworkers are badmouthing someone behind his/her back—should you stand up for that person or simply remain quiet?). I believe that human nature by default is communal/social, thereby making it necessarily altruistic. I hesitate to say that our nature is “good,” because that is hard to define and we often make choices that are not “good” for ourselves or others. But, I think our nature as social creatures creates a moral imperative for us to look out for one another. And if you start to string all of these maxims together and live them out, doing the right thing in all situations will start to become second nature. I guess in the long run these “top secrets” ideally foster a virtuous attitude within, which is how I’ve managed to turn my life around.
2) There’s Always Room for Improvement
This one speaks for itself. I like to push myself, to see how far I can go. It doesn’t matter if it is working out, playing basketball, reading, writing, thinking, or loving my wife. You can take all of the preceding statements and add them up and think everything is going great and then you get to this one. This is the one statement that I cannot live without. The reason I love it so much is because it keeps me hungry. Though I always strive for my best, I know that in reality the best can never be attained. So in addition to keeping me hungry, this dictum keeps me humble. We can always be better people, each and every single one of us. All it takes is a commitment to doing your best, making sound choices, and everything in between. And then, when you think you’re done or accomplished something of merit, know that if can do those things you can probably do more or better. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be satisfied or proud of your accomplishments, but personal growth should happen every day. You’ve got to keep pushing yourself, or as I tell my students…
1) Keep Chipping Away
Keep chipping away has become my personal motto. I even have it programmed into my cell phone as the greeting message when I turn it on. While this simple statement definitely will get its own treatment, I can offer a short explanation for now. Too many people talk about life as if it were a race. I think that metaphor works, provided you use it in the context of a marathon. Life certainly isn’t a sprint or a jog. The reason I choose to say “Keep chipping away,” however, is due to how I view life. To me, our lives are a work of art. A personal sculpture that is completely our own. Each day we are given matters because it is another chance to further refine our sculpture, our lives, and ultimately, ourselves. The good choices we make to promote personal growth are the minute improvements being made in our magnum opus. As mentioned earlier, we’re bound to make mistakes, but those are opportunities for further refinement. Sometimes sculptors need to buff out minor errors before they pick up the hammer and chisel again. Taking a step back and examining the list as a whole, I’m sure you can see how these “secrets” are all interdependent upon one another and ultimately lead to this conclusion—that we must give our best in every attempt and every moment in order to grow as a person, but that this transformation will not come easily. It will take lots of time and a tremendous amount of effort, so be patient and apply yourself with persistence. Genuine, permanent change rarely happens overnight; it is a long, arduous process.
And it’s totally worth it…
Pax vobiscum,- Ryan
Monday, June 14, 2010
Dear Nobody in Particular,
How are you? I hope that you’re doing well and this letter finds you in good health and spirits, perhaps even smiling at my corny introduction. If not, that’s fine too. I think many people I meet on a day to day basis are not in good health and spirits, to be honest. Personally, I’ve only begun to be consistently healthy and happy in the last two years or so. My hope is that the letters I write will offer some insight as to how I became this way; please feel free to take what information and suggestions I have to incorporate them into your own lives. I’ll do my best not to seem “preachy,” because one of the first things I learned about change in general is that you have to want it. And I don’t mean “want it” in the everyday, colloquial sense—I mean really want it. Almost to the point where the desire to change becomes a dire need, an unquenchable thirst. There has to be an urge deep within you to be willing to accept the cost associated with great personal transformation. It’s not easy, it certainly takes time, but it’s not impossible.
Have you ever seen The Matrix? It’s one of my favorite sci-fi movies of all time. I know that may seem like an odd question to some of my older readers, but I felt it needed to be asked because only about half of my students have ever seen it (can you believe that?). If you haven’t seen it, rent it. You don’t need to watch the other two because they are all eye candy and no story. The original film, however, has a great plot and is loaded with philosophical questions and religious symbolism. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen the film, or if you haven’t seen it in a while, all you need to know/remember is this—our world is an illusion. Not an illusion in the sense that it’s not really here or unreal, but an illusion in the sense that it is a product of our minds. I know to some of you that may sound like crazy talk, or that I’m being abstract, but I’m not. The world as we know it would not exist if it were not for our minds. Think about it. We name objects, people, events, et cetera through the use of language, which is a shared product of the mind of many people. And if our universe were devoid of people, or more specifically our minds (perhaps consciousness is a better term here), it wouldn’t exist. Existence itself is in some way wrapped up in our observation of it. In quantum physics this is referred to as the observer’s paradox, which essentially states that the observation of the event or experiment is subject to the interpretation of the observer. Essentially, our consciousness creates the world in which we live.
Let’s come back to the film. The protagonist, Mr. Anderson/Neo, intuitively knows he must transcend this illusory world. How does he do this? By first admitting to himself that he has the power to change (think of the “jump” program); until he realizes that actual, genuine change is possible through mental discipline, he thinks the rest of his compatriots are nuts (you might even feel that way about me at this point). Once he comes to grips with the realization that personal transformation begins in the mind/consciousness, he blossoms. Now, this is the point where the movie and real life diverge greatly. I really wish we could just “plug in” and download the programs that we need, but it is nowhere near that easy. But as I said earlier, it’s not impossible either. So, like Neo, you must begin by making the concession that life is very much a product of our minds. This realization, though, is only the beginning of what’s to come.
The second step in this process is to discipline the mind. I don’t know about you, but until I started to seriously discipline my mind, that thing was like a zoo. My brain would often be teeming with thoughts, all running wild in various directions, bouncing off one another, and rarely giving me a quiet moment. It was hard for me to stop thinking. And even when I thought I wasn’t thinking (if that makes sense), I still was. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is not wrong or bad. But untamed thinking is. You want to know why? It’s that destructive little voice inside your head. Do you know that one I’m talking about? The one that tells you not to take those necessary steps toward personal growth, or that you’ll fail if you try something new. That little negative chatterbox. One of the first things I learned to do was to SHUT THAT OFF. I mean, I can’t be the only one who has that—and if you’re reading these letters I’m guessing that you want to make changes too and perhaps even have a little negative voice of your own. It won’t come easy, nor will it ever go away. Sometimes it tries to kick up some dust in my head, but I’ve gotten to the point now that when I hear that voice I squelch it immediately. It’s no good for you, so get rid of it. I don’t know where it comes from, but my guess is that it’s a by-product of acculturation or peer pressure or both. No matter what it is or where it comes from, it can be tamed and controlled.
How does one do this? Well, for me, it’s meditation. I think some people get the wrong idea when they hear that word. They assume that it is strictly a religious practice from Asian regions of the world. It’s not. My meditation is quite simple and devoid of any dogma. I mediate for 30 minutes, every day. Do you know what I meditate on during those 30 minutes? For most of it, nothing. And when I say nothing I mean that in the most literal sense. I do my best to empty my mind. Some days are better than others. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to stem the mental chitchat. Believe me, if you don’t stare into the emptiness with complete vigilance, your mind will wander very easily. On days when I am having a difficult time completely vacating my mind, I focus on my breathing. Just feel the sensation of the breath entering and exiting your body. You might not want to start off with 30 minutes, either. Getting through 5 solid minutes without a single thought is still an accomplishment for me, but if you start in shorter increments and build up your endurance you’ll be up to 30 minutes in a few months. After you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll start to notice an increased attention span and focus. Even better, you’ll notice that after a while all that noise in your head—those thoughts that are always swirling around never giving you a moment’s rest—begins to quiet down. You’ll have more control over your thoughts. My mental discipline has increased so much that sometimes my mind will shut down in certain moments. People will see me staring off into space and ask what I’m thinking about. I look up, smile, and say “nothing.” And you know what? It’s wonderful.
So why all this information about the mind and our world being illusory? Because it’s a starting point. Once you realize that you create the world in which you live with your mind, the rest will come a lot more easily. I’m not saying that great personal change isn’t possible without mental discipline, but it will be a more arduous task without it. Nor am I prescribing meditation as the only way that a person can achieve mental balance. This is simply what has worked for me. I’m a pragmatic person by nature, so if you have an alternative route you’d like to try, go for it. Just make sure it doesn’t hurt someone else in the process. I’m sure I’ll return to this topic soon, because changing your mind is foundational to the entire process of personal growth. I’ll close with the same final message I gave to my students this year—as cliché as it may sound…you are what you think.