Winning the Lottery

I would guess that it is a vast minority of people who haven’t fantasized about winning the lottery. (And I’d further speculate that this would consist mainly of those who, somehow or other, had never heard of it to begin with.) After all, what would (seemingly) be a more sure-fire, effort-free, way to solve your biggest problems in an instant? Winning the lottery could mean, for instance, never having to work at some job you hate, or even moderately dislike, ever again.

That’s worth repeating:

NO STUPID JOB.  EVER AGAIN.

I’d be willing to wager the price of one SuperLotto or MegaMillions ticket that that thought alone is enough to elicit a huge smile on your face (if not fill you with tears of unmitigated joy).

And yet – on a deeper level we (sort of) understand that winning the lottery wouldn’t really be the panacea we imagine it would. Perhaps we have read about those studies that conclude that, after six months or so, lottery winners return to right around the same levels of happiness they had before winning. We may even have heard tales of people who squandered all of their winnings (and then some), or otherwise ended up much worse off than they were prior to winning – that winning the lottery had, in fact, ruined their lives.

Even so, we’re quite sure that such a fate would not befall us in the same situation. We would be far more sensible, far more responsible, far more intelligent and judicious with our winnings. We wouldn’t blow them or waste them. We would be so grateful to have won, we would even be sure to use some of our prize to perform good deeds as well as take care of our own creature comforts and the people closest to us.

Right?

***

Well…what if it turned out you already have won the lottery? And you are as happy in your lottery-winning reality as you were when you first woke up this morning, or as you are now, reading this. Perhaps – though you are to some extent aware of your incredible good fortune – you have come, over time, to simply take it for granted.

It’s not so far-fetched, is it?

Given that one very particular sperm cell, among some hundreds of millions of its comrades, had to be the one to fertilize the egg that became YOU in all of your unique (even if you’re a twin) chromosomal glory, it would reasonably follow that you have, in a very real sense, already won the lottery just by virtue of being born. The lottery of life, as it were.

And just as winning the dollar-jackpot lottery does not guarantee you freedom from countless potential sufferings (such as physical pain, illness, anxiety, loss of loved ones, loneliness, and purposelessness, to name an outstanding few), so, too, winning the lottery of life does not grant you immunity from any of these things. In fact, it all but guarantees them.

However, this does not take away your status as a winner and overcomer of truly incredible odds. You, if you’re reading this, have hit the jackpot!

So, seeing as how you are a lottery winner, I have a few questions:

•   Are you putting your winnings to use wisely, or are you spending them more frivolously/mindlessly than you thought you would?

•   Are you as philanthropic with your winnings as you imagined you’d be, or are you mostly hoarding them?

•   Do you fully appreciate your good fortune (even with its accompanying, inevitable difficulties) or have you come to take it for granted?

Life is difficult, even in best-case scenarios. Even for lottery winners. Difficulty just comes with the territory. Yet, most would agree it is a privilege to be here. And most would tell you that a lottery winner is a lucky person indeed.

Posted in Philosophical Musings | Tagged , | 2 Comments

You Are Protected. No Problems Detected.

Recently, I had Internet security software installed on my phone. Ever since, each and every time I press the button to activate my home screen, I am greeted with the following message (next to the green icon):

You are protected

What an interesting couple of lines to take in numerous times a day! Knowing the power of advertising (and suggestion), I can’t help but wonder if, through enough repeated exposure, these words might infiltrate my subconscious to the point where I truly and unequivocally believed them.

Imagine! All of this time, I’ve been operating under the presumption that I am prone to an endless variety of potential illnesses, injuries, infringements, slights, accidents, insults, heartbreaks, disasters, travesties, and tragedies, when, all along, it turns out I have always and actually been completely protected. And those things I’ve considered to be “problems” have also been illusory, a mere matter of my own misperceptions, misinterpretations, and misjudgments. After all, from the perspective of Absolute Objectivity/Ultimate Reality, no problems can be detected.

Maybe life is just a simulation, a sort of high-tech virtual reality game. We believe our afflictions are real, and that danger (with death being the most extreme form of this) must be avoided at all costs. So we spend our time dodging as many bullets as we can, and clinging to as much “security” as possible, to prolong the length of a game that has to (by virtue of its program) end at one point or another. We strive to acquire as many points as we can while we’re playing, even though it’s pretty apparent they won’t mean anything once the game is done. When our avatar bites the dust the game, in fact, ends, but we (aside from maybe a blister or two, and/or some wounded pride) are fine. We are “protected”.

But what would be the point of such a virtual reality game? And why must we suffer so, believing that all of the sorrows and strife within it are truly problematic, if they really are not?

Well, what kind of game (worth playing) would not have obstacles, limitations, difficulties, and challenges to overcome? How engaging could it possibly be? And if you, the player, completely understood how the game worked, and knew exactly what to do in any one of a nearly unlimited number of scenarios, how much fun would it be? If you knew that it wasn’t “real” (and therefore, didn’t “matter”), how seriously would you take it? Would you give it your best?

Maybe better to ask yourself: how do I, as a player, approach this game? Do I enjoy it only if I “win”? Can I have fun while I’m learning how to play, even if I initially suck at it? Can I enjoy the process of fumbling through it, of learning as I go, of having an experience for its own sake?

Maybe a game such as this has no purpose other than to choose your own adventures and to connect with other players and the virtual world itself. Maybe the only real point is to, in the course of the game’s multitudinous challenges, develop certain character traits: patience, determination, wonder, courage, compassion, grit, appreciativeness, resilience, acceptance, creativity, generosity, and trust, for instance. And to have fun. A game should be fun.

When the game is over, maybe you get to play again. Maybe not. But, since it’s a game, and one that doesn’t last long at all in the scheme of things, maybe none of its dangers or problems are significant (at least not by the standards of Ultimate Reality). Maybe, as compellingly real as these dangers and problems seem while you are playing, they were all just built into the game to make it engaging, challenging, thrilling, and an experience worth having.

Maybe, if you stepped outside of the game long enough and looked at the program, you would find a message encoded within that reassured you:

“You are protected. No problems detected.”

Posted in Philosophical Musings | Tagged | 1 Comment

On Progress and Process

One of the greatest joys in life – in my experience and opinion – is the feeling of making progress, of getting better at something. Of being able to do something you, only a short while before, could not do (or could not do as well).

Examples are endless. A few that come to mind:

  • Practicing a musical instrument. Sometimes you can have the experience of being able to play something you previously could not (or play it significantly better) after only a single session of sitting down with your instrument. Certainly, regular practice only makes the experience of progress quicker and more frequent.
  • Building physical endurance or strength. Running, or weight lifting, for example. You gradually/systematically push your body slightly beyond what it has previously done. Then, after internalizing the gain through rest and recovery, you’re able to do even more the next time.
  • Overcoming a fear. Through repeated exposure, you lessen your anxiety about doing something you want to do (say, public speaking, or giving blood), and then feel good about yourself afterwards for having done it.

These are positively reinforcing experiences. They make you want to keep going. To continue making even more progress!

Now, of course, progress isn’t always linear. You are likely to have “good days” and “bad days”. You don’t always improve each time you do an activity. Sometimes, you even have the experience of feeling as if you’re backsliding. That’s normal. That is part of the process.

Progress and process are intertwined. In order to make progress at something, you have to surrender to the process. If you can learn to enjoy the process (and not just the tangible, verifiable progress you’ve made), you’ve won. The irony is that once you let go of your attachment to progress at something, you are actually increasing the likelihood of achieving it.

Whenever possible, and whatever the activity, my “goal” is to get better at enjoying the process, and not just my progress. After all, most (if not all) of life is process. Therefore, the best progress I can make at living is to increasingly enjoy – or at the very least, make friends with – the process of it.

Or, as Harry Chapin once put it in song: “It’s got be the going, not the getting there, that’s good.”

Posted in Philosophical Musings | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Bitten by a Radioactive Spider

My current job – a “temporary” job (as if there were any other kind) – is situated blocks from the beach in Santa Monica, and I often take advantage of this with a lunchtime stroll to enjoy the sun, sand, ocean, and people-watching.

Not long ago on just such an outing, I witnessed something that stopped me in my tracks…and rekindled a childhood fantasy.

Imagine seeing Spider-Man (sans costume) shooting webs from one outstretched arm and then the other to maneuver his way mid-air from building to building, swinging gleefully all the while. But instead of swinging through the air by way of (not-yet-available-in-real-life) humanized-spider webbing, he is propelling himself by clutching the next in a series of gymnastic rings, which hang from a metallic construction secured to the ground on Santa Monica Beach.

“Whooooooooaaaaaa!” I said, probably out loud.

And thus began my regular stops to watch real-life superheroes in action just south of the Santa Monica Pier. (There is a whole outdoor “gym” in this area, free to the public, and people use it to perform a wide variety of stunts and acrobatic displays worthy of any number of Marvel or DC characters.)

Spidey sighting

Spidey sighting

I want to be Spider-Man!” I thought. And, really, after watching a number of people have a go at it, it didn’t look all that difficult to swing from ring to ring (though some certainly did it more theatrically than others).

So, one day I finally decided to transition from observer to participant, from mere mortal to would-be-superhero. I took my shoes off, stepped onto the beach, and mustered up the nerve to approach the rings myself and give it a whirl.

And you know what?

It was hard!

Waaaaaay harder than it looked.

Most of the people I had been watching would sail through all ten rings, and then maneuver their way back in the same manner. I, however, reached the second ring and then, after hanging for a few moments like dead weight, promptly dropped to the ground.

***

Fortunately, I keep Eleanor Roosevelt’s maxim close to my heart: “You cannot be embarrassed without your consent.”

And, so, the injury to my pride was minuscule. In fact, it wasn’t humiliation that came over me upon having my inadequate upper body strength (not to mention lack of grace and technique) so matter-of-factly pointed out.

I became filled, instead, with a sense of mission. I had stumbled upon nothing short of a new life purpose: I was going to learn how to do this!!!

And having a life purpose that you are actively pursuing – however trivial, silly, impractical, insignificant, childish, unimportant, or ridiculous it might seem to others – is (you’ll pardon the term) the shit!

Why? Because it means you’re engaged. And being engaged means being alive (something merely having a pulse does not guarantee).

***

This story is still in progress. I haven’t (yet) become like Spider-Man. But I have been bitten by a radioactive spider, so to speak. And so my (super)hero’s journey has begun…

warning

To get a better idea of exactly what I’m talking about, check out the “Amazing” Spider-Men and Spider-Woman who use these rings with real finesse in the YouTube video (that I did not create) below:

Posted in Lifestyle | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What If…?

What if:

  • You sent someone a random message, card, or e-mail of sincere appreciation/acknowledgment, and it reached her just as she was having an especially difficult day and was feeling really down on herself?
  • You came up with your own personal menu of ways to put small pockets of free time (5 minutes here, 10 minutes there) to some positive use, and started implementing these on a daily basis?
  • You simply decided to do the thing you’re afraid to do?
  • Today ended up being the last day of your life?
  • You paused right before you were about to react out of anger, and waited until you were in a better frame of mind to respond?
  • You made taking care of yourself a priority?
  • It turns out it was much easier than you thought to do something you wanted to do?
  • All you had to do was ask?
  • You stopped worrying about doing something perfectly, and did it anyway so that others might still benefit?
  • You started paying attention to every good thing that happens to you, and wrote these down in a notebook each day?
  • It turns out you were wrong?
  • It turns out you were right?
  • You have other options?
  • You already have everything you need?
  • You have the power to affect and influence people to a much greater degree than you ever imagined?
  • You really showed up for each day?
  • You substituted water for soda every day for the rest of your life?
  • Taking the risk paid off?
  • You didn’t get what you thought you wanted, but you still want what you ended up getting?
  • One person’s life was made easier by something you did today?
  • You don’t need 50% of the things you spend money on, and could be just as happy without them?
  • You started a blog?
  • You didn’t watch TV for a month, and ended up not missing it?
  • You stopped caring what other people might think?
  • You did something you previously thought you could never do?
  • You took the first step?
  • When in doubt, you erred on the side of communication/clarification?
  • You took one less thing for granted?
  • You got a better night’s sleep?
  • You could learn to be content regardless of external factors?
  • You learned that person’s name you see every day and started addressing him by it?
  • You disrupted a social norm?
  • You smiled more often?
  • You experimented more?
  • You already beat lottery-winning odds just by being alive?
  • Opportunities abound, and it’s just a matter of tuning in to them?
  • You don’t have to do anything to prove your inherent worth?
  • Here is just as good as there?
  • This is as ready as you’ll ever be?
  • The person you are envious of isn’t actually all that happy?
  • All is forgiven?
  • The worst actually happens?
  • You can still become passionately interested in something new?
  • You matter?
  • There is life after heartbreak?
  • That fortune cookie was right that said: “Nature, time, and patience are the three great physicians”?
  • The experts are wrong?
  • You could be anywhere in the world tomorrow?
  • There’s hope?
  • You added something to this list in the “comments” section below?
Posted in Philosophical Musings | Tagged | 3 Comments

Begin Again

Last year I began meditating in earnest. I’d go for a stretch of weeks of consistent practice, and then completely drop the ball and go for weeks – or months – meditating sporadically, if at all. Then, eventually, I’d recommit and begin again.

There were several cycles of this.

About two months ago I started meditating again and have been going strong since. Not every single day, but pretty close to it. I offer no predictions about how long this go-round will last, but I take solace in knowing that if and when I do stop, and for however long, I can always pick it right back up and begin again.

I sit for about 30 minutes before getting ready for work each day, sometimes using guided meditation audios, sometimes not.

My usual practice is a version of mindfulness meditation. It amounts to sitting still and paying attention to the physical sensations of breathing. After doing this for a time, your attention will inevitably be hijacked by your thoughts (probably a lot sooner than you think). Once you realize this has happened, regardless of how long or short a period of time has passed, you simply – as gently and non-judgmentally as possible – bring your attention back to the breath and begin again. That’s it.

Sounds like a pointless activity, doesn’t it? How could doing something like this be beneficial?

Neuroscientists, after studying the brain scans of meditators and non-meditators in controlled settings, are discovering a number of benefits, it turns out. But I’ll just share with you some things I have noticed for myself:

1. Deliberately sitting still for a designated amount of time each day in the manner I described can have a calming effect. I have found that I’m generally in a better mental space when I have made time for meditation in the morning, before succumbing to the societal pull of Relentless Go, which comes soon enough.

2. Taking time to practice “being present” makes me a) acutely aware of just how often I am swept away by my thoughts (it’s crazy-over-the-top, let me tell you!), and b) more likely to have little openings of awareness more frequently during the course of my day – moments of paying real attention to what is actually happening (instead of being lost in my head dwelling on the past, projecting into the future, or just mindlessly reacting to things).

3. The quietude sometimes allows for good ideas to “pop into” my head (like the idea for this blog post, for instance).

4. Certain types of meditation, such as “Lovingkindness” – particularly with the help of a good guide, in person or via an audio recording – can be profoundly heart-opening and even emotionally healing. It turns out that things like compassion and forgiveness can actually be cultivated through silent practice.

5. Maybe most especially, the simple act of paying attention to the breath and gently steering your attention back to it once you become aware of your mind having drifted is an excellent way to practice and reinforce a valuable life skill:

When you have blown your planned diet or abandoned your exercise routine; when you have ventured down a path that feels like a waste of your time, energy, and talents; when you feel you have betrayed yourself in some way by not following through on your higher intentions; whenever you veer off course or are derailed by some setback, rather than mercilessly beat yourself up about it, rather than bludgeon yourself with self-criticism that only leaves you depressed and demoralized, you can recognize the simple fact that you’ve wandered from your desired path, identify what happened (and what you might do differently the next time, if it’s yours to do), and then take the opportunity to gently and lovingly collect yourself, redirect yourself, and…

Begin again.

Posted in Lifestyle | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A Year(!) Without Sweets

Back in August of 2013, I received a call from a transfusion medicine doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where I donate blood. “You have really lipemic plasma,” she told me.

She explained that after they receive a whole blood donation, they separate it into two distinct parts: red blood cells and plasma. She said that my donations were very much appreciated, and that my red cells had been fine, but that they had only been able to use the plasma in my donations twice.

“Normal plasma has the constitution of apple juice,” she explained. “Yours looks more like a milkshake”.

She said that my fatty plasma could be an indicator of high triglycerides, and she recommended I let my doctor know. I thanked her for the information, and for caring enough to bring it to my attention.

I knew of which she was speaking. My triglycerides have been notoriously high – “off the charts” high, even – since at least as far back as my twenties. And high triglycerides are a possible risk factor for arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). They often are found in conjunction with things like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, smoking, alcohol consumption, and a sedentary lifestyle. In my case, though, none of those other risk factors apply, so it’s hard to know how dangerous the triglyceride level might be in and of itself. (I have also had consistently low HDL – or “good” – cholesterol, regardless of how much I exercise, which suggests a genetic predisposition.)

Still, who wants to have an alarming number for any potential risk factor? I did, in fact, go to see my doctor, and when the results of my blood work came back, my triglyceride count (which should optimally be less than 150), measured in at a hefty 531.

In the past I had essentially shrugged off this normal-for-me-if-crazy-high-for-other-living-creatures number, seeing as how there were no other causes for concern in my lab results. But now, armed with the information that my plasma was so fatty as to be deemed unusable for those in need as a direct result of this number, it gave me pause.

I did not want to take any meds, especially if this was something I might be able to manage on my own through lifestyle tweaking. But – and the reason I had always avoided making any such efforts prior – one of the main suggested ways (that I wasn’t already implementing) to decrease one’s triglycerides is to: “reduce or eliminate sweets”.

sweets, n. 1. any of a variety of the most pleasurable edible things on Earth, including: chocolate chip cookies, brownies, ice cream, birthday cake, and Reese’s peanut butter cups. 2. the reward for eating your dinner, being nice to your brother or sister, cleaning up your room, or otherwise being an exemplary human being.

***

I had wondered for years if I was actually addicted to sugar. I speculated that I might be, but I really didn’t want to have to do what it would take to find out.

Finally, though, with the words “really lipemic plasma” being the apparent tipping point, I decided I would put myself to the test and see if I could go a full month without ingesting any of my lifelong sugary friends (and, if I could, see what would happen as a result). I spent the month of January 2014 in monkish abstention, and wrote all about it in a post entitled A Month Without Sweets (A Report From The Trenches).

Because the results were so positive, and because – to my great surprise – I really didn’t find it all that difficult to do, I kept going.

Two months.

(No problem!)

Three.

(I got this. I’ll do six!).

Six months.

And then, if only just to be able to say I did, I decided to double down and make it a year. Whereas before this experiment the prospect of doing so would have seemed like utter torture to me, at this point I knew I could do it. And, sure enough, I did.

Piece of cake.  🙂

***

For the entire calendar year of 2014, I stuck to the rules I had outlined for myself in that initial month-long experiment.

I was really curious to see what the results of this would be, given what had happened in just the first month.

Without further ado, here they are:

Weight: I lost right around ten pounds in January. After that, the weight loss pretty much stopped. But, some mild fluctuations in either direction notwithstanding, I kept most of that off for the duration of the year. It seemed my body had arrived at a new homeostasis. Low 160s had replaced high 160s. Which seems just about right to me (I’m about 5’8”). A number of people did notice and comment that I looked lighter and healthier.

Energy levels: Remained the same. No noticeable/perceived difference for me there, even compared to before conducting this experiment at all (this, of course, is purely subjective and memory-based). Kind of disappointing, but the truth in my experience.

Difficulty: Did it get easier or harder to do this as time went on? I’d say, if anything, easier. There is something about momentum that (for me, at least) is a big psychological motivator. And, of course, a new habit has been installed – a new normal established. I feel I could pretty easily go another year as I’ve been doing without any problem, if I so choose.

(Difficulty is a curiously relative, and not always static, thing. Walking was once difficult for most of us. Until, with practice, it wasn’t.)

Plasma: I called the doc again from Cedars and – jogging her memory about who I was, and telling her that I had made changes to my diet – asked if she could check my blood donations from this past year and let me know whether or not the plasma had been usable. Her report was the opposite from her first one to me. Over the past year, the plasma in my donations had been usable – in all but one instance. Curious as could be, I asked her which donation had the unusable plasma (guessing it would have been the earliest one, in January, when I was only two weeks into my experiment). Weirdly enough, it turned out to be a July donation that was the culprit – right smack dab in the middle of the year.

And, finally, what impact did going a full year without sweets have on my triglycerides? Only one month in, the number had dropped by hundreds from the sample taken about five months before that (531), to a near-optimal 168.

Would they have changed for the better after 11 more months? Gotten worse? Stayed the same?

I had my annual physical earlier this month, and the results are in. The new triglyceride number?

414 (??!!)

Did this suggest that, after my body’s initially positive response to the dietary change, it reverted back to its pre-programmed norm? Did nature simply overpower nurture? Were there other variables I wasn’t aware of?

Does it not make a lick of difference, in the end – as far as my triglycerides are concerned – whether or not I indulge in sugary delights? Maybe not. I don’t know. It’s kind of a mystery.

However, abstaining from sweets for a full year did have at least three payoffs:

1. The weight loss was real, as was keeping it off.

2. The plasma in my blood donations did become much more consistently transfusion-friendly, potentially benefiting others (and probably making me healthier, too).

3. Perhaps more than anything, this was a victory of the will. Of mind over sugar. I proved I could do it. I exercised that uniquely human ability to exert – and assert – restraint in having dessert. I now have this experiential point of reference for my ability to resist temporary pleasure for some longer-term gain, which I can apply – in all likelihood – to other realms.

I also learned that some things are much more difficult in our imaginations than in actuality, and that the only way to make such a discovery is to face a fear and find out for ourselves.

***

So, was I – am I, addicted to sugar? My results suggest to me: probably not. Or, if so, it wasn’t as strong an addiction as I might have guessed. I say this because I did not experience any kind of withdrawal symptoms, nor any really over-the-top cravings. There were no close calls. Not one.

Sure, I had to resist delectable goodies that were sometimes right in front of me, and I had to employ genuine discipline. Frequently, even. But it really, honestly, for whatever reason(s), wasn’t nearly as hard as I imagined it would be.

Maybe this was because I had simply made up my mind that this is what I was doing, and so it was not something I needed to deliberate about. It was already, and always, a given that I wasn’t going to partake. Period.

As more time passed, the temporary fix seemed less and less worth it. After all, I had a streak going! And the longer the streak was, the more I had to lose by breaking it. It felt daring to keep upping the ante. “Yeah, I’ll do a year. Watch me!”

I also think having a playful attitude about it was helpful. For instance, on a visit to see my family in Philly back in May, my parents took my wife and me out to, of all places, Friendly’s. For those unfamiliar, Friendly’s is known for its ice cream menu – sundaes, in particular (they also have a secondary menu chock-full of greasy burgers, fries, and other decidedly heart-unfriendly offerings). I scanned the menu, wondering if I could find something – anything – to eat (I’m a vegetarian, as well). And then, finally: paydirt.

“I’ll have a side order of broccoli,” I told the waiter, enjoying every moment of my parents’ disbelief. “Plain, please.”

***

Now that I’ve gone a full year without sweets, something I’d never guessed I’d ever do by choice (and something that, to at least one friend of mine, is more impressive than finishing an Ironman!), the obvious question is: what now? Is there any going back? (Especially since the triglycerides are still sky-high anyway?)

Can a balance be struck between total deprivation and overindulgence? Might I, for instance, allow myself the occasional treat – say, once a week? And really make a point of savoring the experience? Or would doing so be a slippery slope down a path of increasingly negotiable restrictions and an eventual total collapse of my resolve? Might it actually be easier to continue refraining and make this my modus operandi, rather than have to deliberate as to where, when, how, and under what circumstances I can indulge my sweet tooth?

Perhaps another experiment is in order!

Posted in Lifestyle | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments