Losing Weight, Gaining Life!

The Alternate Day DietLast night I ran into a friend whom I hadn’t seen since December. She was shocked at how different I looked. Since January 18, I’ve been following a program called The Alternate-Day Diet. I started at 225 lbs. (102 kg) and had a BMI of 33. A few days ago, I weighed in 202.5 lbs. (92 kg, BMI 29.9), a loss of 22.5 pounds or 10% of my starting weight in less than 13 weeks. And 20 lbs of my loss has been fat. I’m looking and feeling younger and I’m really looking forward to continuing the progress.

Why was she shocked? I’ve been obese now for a long time. I crossed into 200-pound-plus territory in 1998, never to return, except for a brief, ill-fated flirtation with the Atkins diet.

Until now, nothing else has helped me take it off. Several years ago, I tried Weight Watchers and found it decent for the strongly-disciplined, but I found counting points tedious and unendurable after a few months. Last year, I attempted the “mindfulness” approach described in I Can Make You Thin by Phil McKenna and The Gabriel Method by Jon Gabriel. It seemed dead-on in principle, but required a tremendous amount of time spent in mental conditioning, and the effort the constant mindfulness required was too difficult for me to keep with it.

The gist of The Alternate-Day Diet is to eat very lightly (really a modified fast) every other day. And on “up” days, eat just your usual amount. I’m keeping myself to around 500 calories on the short days … a few pieces of fruit and a protein bar, and another snack, like microwave popcorn or low-fat cottage cheese. I’ve found that as long as I spread my little snacks well throughout the day, I’m very seldom hungry unless I stay up very late.

The diet isn’t restrictive about what to eat at all… only that for weight-loss, you should limit your “down” days to about 25% of your typical intake. However, to use the diet simply for the benefits of the calorie restriction lifestyle, down days can be as much as 50% of regular intake. “Good” food is encouraged, of course, and the author says that most followers soon find themselves preferring healthier choices. That certainly has been my experience. On my up days, I tend to eat wraps and salads, heavy on vegetables, but often including eggs, cheese or fish. Sometimes I also enjoy a nice dessert. I’m losing my taste for many fried foods—I haven’t had or even wanted French fries since starting, and the thought of a heavy Chinese dish with fried rice actually repels me now. (On the other hand, I still have a weakness for tortilla chips!)

I’ve been blogging my progress on my review of the book at Amazon.

Since I’m training for a half-marathon in September, and I’m currently running about 10 miles per week, there’s a question of whether the weight loss is from the eating program or the running program. I believe it’s almost entirely from the eating program, because last fall I was training even more vigorously than I am now, and I didn’t lose a pound during three months of training. Seriously, my weight was as unchanging as a rock — 225, 225, 225 during the whole period, give or take a pound. More evidence is that in February, I was sidelined with an Achilles’ injury, and not running at all. I lost as much weight during that period as I did in March, when I resumed my running.

However, a mixture of cardio and strength training actually is part of the ADD, although it’s not emphasized and gets easily overlooked.

My goals? At first, I was thinking of shooting for a weight goal, 162 lbs (BMI 24), and possibly down to 145 lbs (BMI 21.5) which is where I stabilized when I got into great shape the first time. However, I’ve been reading about the advantages of Waist-to-Height Ratio over BMI as a fitness measure, and that, combined with the fact that I’m not being drawn to a low-fat diet like I was 20 years ago, makes me think a waist goal, rather than a weight goal, is more in order. My primary goal will be 34 in. (WHtR 49%), and then, I may decide to go further. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to many more celebrations along the journey: crossing the 200-pound mark, breaking 190, buying new pants, and so forth. But the main thing is just the newness, freshness, strength and vitality I feel. It frims!

My Other Marathon

Besides the marathon I’ll be running in March 21, I’ve signed up for another one of sorts as well. This one starts in just three-and-a-half hours. It’s called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short.

I’m not really sure which is the greater challenge … to build up to the point of running more than 26 miles, or to write a 50 kiloword first draft in 30 days. Well, actually, it’s got to be the latter. This will require a heck of a lot of discipline, every day or almost every day for the entire month. After work, writing will be my top priority. Fortunately, I’ve prepared myself a bit and feel (more or less) ready and definitely eager to take it on.

Inspirations I’m working with: The myths of Atlantis and Icarus, a setting in Mallorca and Barcelona, and the exciting possibilities of space and time.

In Training

I’m in training. For a marathon! Yeah, you read that right, and it still sounds as unbelievable to me as it does to anyone reading this who knows me.

Sure, I wrote earlier about starting a running program; I began running again this spring rather stupidly. I just started jogging, and tried way too quickly to extend my runs. I didn’t begin by getting my body to get used to the idea of moving first, by walking, then gradually adding jogging, and slowly, smartly building up my bones and muscles from those of Internet potato to jock wannabe.

And after I finished my 5k race in May, I slacked off, and stopped running again, although with geocaching as a hobby, I’ve been getting outside and moving a bit more than I used to.

images.jpgFast-forward to the present: Almost everyone on my team at work (yeah, fellow geeky Web developers and engineers!) has been reading either Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, or The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer by Whitsett, Dolgener and Kole, or both.

The first book is about ultra-marathoning, and deals with the subject on two levels. First, it’s a brilliantly-written account of its practitioners, from the Tarahumara people of Mexico, to some of the most colorful characters in the the States that you’ll ever read about.

The second level is a examination of the science of running, which is no less interesting, and to me, was even more so. One mystery that McDougall was intent on solving, is why US distance running capability has been decreasing since the 70s.

Over the course of his investigation, with discussions ranging from sport science laboratories to casual conversations with extreme runners, a pattern emerged that running injuries exploded proportionately with the advent of running shoes, and a rapidly-growing segment of doctors, coaches, and runners are eschewing shoes for barefoot running or minimal footwear, such as Vibram FiveFingers.

The results (for many people at least) have been remarkable. Some people with debilitating running injuries have been quickly able to surpass their previous abilities, and there are coaches now who insist their athletes train barefoot to prevent injuries.

I had decided to order a pair of FiveFingers long before reading Born to Run, and the book only increased my interest. Last week, I received my VFFs and the feeling was amazing—exactly like being barefoot, but with protection from the glass, stickers, and pebbles that make city streets foot-hostile. Alas, my shoes were a size too small, but I’m looking forward to getting the right size later this week.

nonrunnerguide.jpgMeanwhile, I’m following the Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer. It’s from 1998, so naturally doesn’t have the latest and greatest information about footwear, but it seems a sane (though still scary) guide to get a non-runner like me to complete a marathon. The marathon-training program is 16 weeks long (about the length of a college semester, which is where this approach was developed originally). There’s also a more basic 10-week program to prep complete non-runners to have the strength and stamina for the training program. Needless to say, I’m in that preparatory phase.

All in all, this is pretty amazing stuff. More and more, we’re realizing that the corporate-controlled running shoe industry is slowing us down and killing our feet, that our God-given arches and natural pronation is the best shock absorption possible, and that what we’ve had all along is all we ever really needed.

footprint.jpgThis renewed attention to the bare foot makes me think of one in particular: the empty footprint. As Karen Armstrong wrote, the first symbol of Buddhism wasn’t the Buddha-image, but the Buddha’s footprint. That, to me, is a wonderful illustration of the impact of spirit and mind upon matter, more distinguished by what’s not there than what is there.

No-Mind and Love

I’m going through a book this year which I bought long ago and never read: The Old Hermit’s Almanac by Fr. Edward Hays. It’s an unconventional book of days, full of delightful fun and deep wisdom. Here’s part of today’s entry for January 15, Non-Spectator Day:

As the Zen masters say, "When you eat, eat; when you walk, walk." Living in the present moment as fully as possible helps satisfy the itch to monitor yourself and still be yourself. As in theater, so in life — the true artists are those who are so fully possessed by what they are doing that they have no time to watch themselves.  When they forget to be possessed in this way and give into the temptation to observe their wonderful performance, then they usually stumble.

Practice today the virtue of self-forgetfulness, which is at the heart of making love — being totally engaged in what you are doing or in another person.  Those who make love daily by self-forgetfulness find ectasy in celebrating the love they have been making day by day.

 

Tien, and a few other notes

I’m reading my first novel in Esperanto, now, a book called Tien, by Claude Piron, under the pseudonym "Johano Valano." It’s ostensibly a science-fiction story, but really it’s about spiritual transformation… really surprising how some of the (co)incidences are lining up between things in my world and it right now… kind of like the movie "23."

The "subtle lesson" is continuing. I’ll write more about that soon, after I do enough processing to figure about how to put it into words.

And a question… are phone books now a complete waste of paper? Two different stacks of phone books have been delivered to my apartment building. I think one person (out of the six of us) has picked up theirs. I haven’t—I’m not even sure I ever used a phone book last year… what about you?

Dear Madeleine

 

Madeleine L'Engle, copyright Random House

 
 

Madeleine L’Engle has passed on. Although really the most appropriate thing to say would be "Congrats!", I do find my eyes getting a bit moist thinking about it. Why? Well, that’s a long story, but I’ve got plenty of time.

Let’s wrinkle back in time to about nine years ago. I was still a new convert to Catholicism and was just beginning to really deliberately follow a Christian mystical path. A friend of mine whom I hadn’t spoken with for a long time asked me to think what was the one thing that got me onto this path. There were so many factors affecting me in the few years before that—discovering Jesus’ call for social justice, reading The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, and having had a crash-and-burn experience with some distorted beliefs. I answered that there wasn’t any one thing, but I continued to think about it for the next few days. Yeah, it was true that there wasn’t any ONE thing, but many, but there was one author who really cleared the way for me to be more receptive to everything that I would later encounter. Her name was Madeleine L’Engle.

 

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

 
 

To understand that, let’s wrinkle further back in time to around 1972 or so. There’s this fifth-grade kid—let’s call him—well, "Jon." Jon’s considered a bright lad and shows a bit of creativity—likes to draw, loves to read—but he seems a bit one-sided; all of the books he checks out from the library are about animals, science or geography. One day, much to Jon’s chagrin, his teacher forces him to read a fiction book. He protests that he doesn’t want to, but she insists. Later, at home, he reads "It was a dark and stormy night…" and soon encounters worlds in A Wrinkle in Time which he couldn’t have dreamed of otherwise.

Over the years, many things happened to Jon, but one thing Jon doesn’t lose is his imagination. As well as becoming a born-again Christian, he becomes an avid science-fiction reader, and always has a conviction that there’s more to life than what meets the eye… He even comes across a couple of books that suggest that science and spirit aren’t entirely separate things (The Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Tao of Physics), and later, he finds a book that truly ignites his soul, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

 

 
 

To his delight, this was by her, the woman who wrote A Wrinkle in Time so long ago. In it, she explained to Jon what it was like being a Christian who couldn’t accept the limitations on love that the Church so often placed, nor its frequent distrust of the imagination,   of science, and changing understandings of reality. She described a kind of faith going back centuries (she specifically mentioned the Cappadocian Fathers), a kind of faith that amazed Jon for he had never heard of it before, a kind of faith that he would later call "Christian mysticism."

(Wrinkle forward)
No, there wasn’t one thing. And there were many, many other authors who influenced me besides this kindly gray-haired lady who seemed to breathe out books like she breathed in God, who even made titles that were poetry and initiations in contemplation: A Circle of Quiet, A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A House like a Lotus, The Young Unicorns. Yes, many others, but I wonder what my life would have been like if I had not encountered L’Engle’s soulscapes in the forms I did at the times I did. God has his ways, but I’m sure it would have been quite different. Thanks largely to Madeleine, I enjoy science-fiction and fantasy not as mere escapes, but as expressions of truth where it’s not quite the same thing as fact.

 

Dear Madeleine,

Congratulations on your new home. I hope you really enjoy it, and you deserve some time off. But don’t get too cozy there. C’mon back soon and give us some more. We need you.

Love,

Jon

 
 

 

Hofstadter and this last week

This week has been good. To explain it, I’m going to have to start with my college days. During my undergrad years in El Paso, I was in an extremely conservative congregation. My desire to know God had been subverted, as it is with so many of us, to know “about” God, or more accurately, to know the teachings of a single religious perspective about God and become ever more deeply immersed in it, distrusting everything else.

geb.jpgHowever, I discovered a wonderful book that kept my mind from being completely nailed shut: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by the mathematician Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s book was written for the layman, and was entertaining. funny, and delightful. True to the title, he referred frequently to the works of mathematician Kurt Gödel, artist M.C. Escher, and Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The theme was the principle of what Hofstadter called “strange loopiness”—patterns that turn themselves inside out or strangely embed themselves within themselves, and this was years before the first popular books on chaos theory or fractals would appear.

Hofstadter explained not only what Gödel’s theorem was, but how its principle applied to the world at large. The theorem was a mathematical proof (and when something’s proven in math, it’s proven like nobody’s business) that it is impossible for any arithmetical system to be completely free of contradiction. For instance, in the set of positive integers, 5 – 7 is contradiction. To deal with it, negative numbers had to be created. (Remember when you were a kid how weird negative numbers seemed at first?) Taking it farther, in the realm of real numbers, the square root of a negative number was a contradiction. So enter the imaginaries, as if all numbers weren’t imaginary.

drawing_hands.jpgHofstadter playfully, lovingly, danced open invitations to a universe of contradiction, containing itself and looping back on itself; Möbius strips and Klein pitchers, Escher’s hands drawing themselves into existence, Carroll’s Jabberwockies gyring and gimbling in the wabe of Bach’s cancrizan canons inverting and reversing themselves, Zen koans turning assumptions inside out until there’s no-thing left to know.

After reading G,E,B, I continued as a zealous Fundamentalist for quite some time (before many spiritual morphings), but one thing had changed forever, and that was that I would never be able to fall for the idea that everything could be explained by reason.

Let’s fast forward a couple of decades: On January 22, 2006, I had a glimpse of the nature of the world. Yes, it was unsettling at first, but strangely empowering as well. But it didn’t last long: The actual glimpse was just that—a second or two—and the knowing (as opposed to thinking) of the “empty holodeck” lasted only a few days.

I Am a Strange LoopLast Sunday, I found myself missing it. I prayed to be able to see it again, to have a spiritual refresher. Thursday, I saw that Dr. Hofstadter has published a new book: I Am a Strange Loop. I sat down with it a while and saw, to my delight, that he’s taken it to the next logical level: ego, consciousness, identity, and what’s beyond. Like Steve Pavlina, Hofstadter is one of those gifted with using non-mystical and even non-religious language to teach some of the most sublime realizations.

That night, I dreamt I was on a planet called Cascadia, abundant with mountains, waterfalls and snow. I stayed there a while, but eventually decided to leave, and booked passage on a spaceship. The spaceship somehow became an elevator, and then I realized that Cascadia was inside the Earth, and that all the planets were inside Earth, like nested concentric spheres.

Then I awoke. And I knew that all the worlds are within. Within me, as Thomas Traherne wrote centuries ago, “it’s less that I am in the world, than that the world is within me.”

Let’s talk about it.

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Imagine (interlude)

I went to a peformance of The Mystical Arts of Tibet by monks from the Drepung Lobsang monastery in India. (A wonderful experience, by the way. If you ever get the chance, go see it.) After the performance, I went to the table in the foyer where monks were selling crafts, malas, and books to support the monastery. Among the titles: Imagine All the People: A Conversation with the Dalai Lama on Money, Politics, and Life As It Could Be.

More of us are Imagining!

Posts in this series: pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3, interlude, conclusion.

The Holy Grail: still missing the point

Holygrail.jpgI’m writing my reflection on The Da Vinci Code. As I write, what strikes me most is that Brown’s interpretation of the Grail comes so close in some ways, yet still misses the point completely!

The Grail legend is a wonderful confluence of symbols which have been (mis)understood in an amazing variety of ways… rich treasure, holy relic, magic power, historical artifact (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), sacred bloodline (The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail), sacred person (The Da Vinci Code). And yet they all miss the point!

Any mystical symbol must be understood mystically; and then it becomes obvious:

What is the object of the Holy Quest?
What vessel conveys the “blood of Christ”?
What is hidden where only “the worthy” can find it?
What is the most sublime goal to attain?
What is the ultimate power you can access?

The answer, in a word, is you.

Not the “you” you think you arenot the “you” that has an age, gender, race, and loves and hates. Its the “you” you really are. Your true nature, your source, your ultimate potential. All mystical traditions have their own names for this: Atman (the one Self within all beings), Buddha-nature, Christ-nature, Nirvana, Emptiness, the Tao, the Kingdom of Heaven, the imago Dei (the image of God), the Holy Grail.

I once heard a priest relate a Hindu parable: Because the gods feared man’s power, they decided to hide his divinity from him. One suggested hiding it in the heavens, but the others responded that man would build spaceships and find it there. Another suggested hiding it in the ocean’s depth’s but the others said that men would build submarines and discover it there. Another suggested hiding it deep in the earth, and that too, was voted down, due to the power of the human mind. Finally, a god said, let’s hide it where they’ll never find itdeep within their hearts.

A more familiar version of this story is the Tower of Babel: God feared that man’s genius would enable him to storm heaven, since he was “of one mind.” To prevent this, the Lord said “let us (plurality again!) go down and confuse their speech.” And so, our divided mind, full of unending, confused chatter, enshrouds itself around the pure simplicity of our actual being, keeping us from seeing it or even suspecting it.

Another close parallel is attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas.

Jesus said:
If those who guide you say, Look,
the Kingdom is in the sky,
then the birds are closer than you.
If they say: Look,
it is in the sea,
then the fish already know it.
The Kingdom is inside you, and it is outside you.
When you know yourself, then you will be known,
and you will know that you are the child of the Living Father;
but if you do not know yourself,
you will live in vain
and you will be vanity.

Our consciousness is the consciousness of God in flesh.
Our bodies are the body of Christ
Our blood is the blood of Christ.
Our love is the Eucharist.
Our realization is the Holy Grail.

This is the quest. This is the desire of ages. This is the Holy Grail.

The highest of all things desired is to become God.

The center of the soul is God.

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Gnosticism? A few more thoughts on Thomas and Judas

Some of you requested I tell a little more about how I found my teacher, and I will return to that soon.

But right now, I wanted to discuss “Gnosticism” a bit. It’s one of those things that everyone’s talking about, but few people understand. Actually, it would probably be a good thing if we stopped talking about it, because Gnosticism is so broad a term that it’s practically meaningless. When we use a word like Protestantism, we’re talking about something that runs the gamut from Tennessee snake-handlers to French Huguenots, to most of the population of Papua New Guinea. What are we saying?

“Gnosticism” is even more vague. There were pagan, Jewish and Christian Gnostic movements in the ancient Mediterreanean and Middle East. If we think the term is analogous to “mysticism,” in that there are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim mysticisms (among others), we might be getting close, but my gut feeling is that some Gnosticisms were authentic mystical paths, but others had degenerated to mere religions.

While the Church Fathers inveighed against various teachers for widely different reasons, it’s important to remember that Gnosticism was never a single thing to them, even back then. On one hand, there was the school of Valentinius, who claimed St. Paul had taught Theudas “the wild things of God,” and that Theudas taught him. Valentinius’ works show a strong emphasis on theosis as many of the later Fathers would as well. In addition, Valentinius (like St. Paul), touched upon the “gnostic” idea of the “rulers of this age” (literally, the archons of this aeon), and emphasized that Christ frees us from them. But his emphasis seemed to be on the deep, transforming union with Christ, that leads us to become like him. But besides Valentinius, there were Marcion, Mani, Sethian Gnostics, Platonic schools of Gnosticism, pagan mystery religions, Mithraism, and more.

The Gospel of Thomas was tagged “Gnostic” because of its discovery in the Nag Hammadi library of mostly Gnostic writings, but nothing within it makes it so. But it lacks a Gnostic creation myth, has no exposition of “archons” or “aeons,” and shows no disdain for Creation. It simply records sayings of Jesus, many of which are familiar, and many of which are not. Most scholars have abandoned using the term “Gnostic” to describe Thomas.

The Gospel of Judas was published just two weeks ago, and seems to be a “Sethian” Gnostic work. It is mentioned by Ireneus, who wrote about it in 180 AD, hence it was composed some time before that, probably around the middle of the second century. Much of it it involves propounding a Gnostic creation myth, with elaborate geneaologies of spiritual beings, reminiscent of Paul’s injunction to avoid “myths and endless geneaologies” in (1Tim. 1:4, Tit.3:9). Paul warned that such stories were divisive and useless. It seems to me the product of a downward trend, from the simple belief that there are unfriendly spiritual forces at work in this world of appearances, to doctrinaire listings and the concretization of Gnostic mythology.

To me, the only interesting part of Judas is the last few verses, where Jesus essentially blesses Judas for doing his part, and says “you will free me from the man who imprisons me.”

Something rings true about that… not the actual scene or words so much as the the feeling behind them. Jesus’ teaching was not understood well by his disciples, let alone the masses. When he was resurrected and glorified, he had the ability to truly live within all who would call on his name. Being “freed of the man who imprisoned him” is a dramatic way to put it, but I wonder if it is dramatic enough for that unfathomable Love he had, longing to be with every soul, longing to be the Light that pierced our darkness. The Love that was “imprisoned” in one body, now can be in all.

I thank God, and also Adam, for the Fall so there could be Redemption.
I thank Jesus for offering himself up so there could be Resurrection.

I can’t thank Judas, but if Jesus did, that’s fine by me!

Adam and Judas were faithful to their parts. Nothing is amiss. Things are in divine order.

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