Thursday, July 24, 2008

Zen Master K?

“I have lived with 5 zen masters, all of them cats,” is a declaration by Eckhart Tolle. I believe he’s saying that cats are not stuck in their egos and can live their lives in perfect peace. I live with a cat, and I’m pretty skeptical about him being a zen master, though there is certainly a lot for me to learn from him. His name is Agent K, and he ended up in my life through a circuitous path. He is a hypervocalizing, over-eating, scaredy-cat.

Agent K was born in Seoul, South Korea on July 1, 2002. According to his birth certificate, he has a brother named Agent J. I have no idea about Agent J’s where-abouts; his documentation is my only clue to his existence. I believe their naming is a reference to the movie Men In Black, though I’m not certain. Agent K always wears a tuxedo, and is very handsome, with gorgeous white whiskers. There’s very little that I know about his past. After Seoul, he spent some time in France with a previous guardian, then he ended up in Seattle for a while. His guardians eventually moved to Hong Kong and left him temporarily with a friend for a few months. The temporary stay eventually became permanent as the owners never came back for him nor called. I became engaged to his new caretaker, then we moved in together, and then K became my roommate. When the engagement ended, his caretaker moved to Paris and left him in my charge temporarily, and I have been taking care of him on my own for the past 8 months. I have now been living with him for over a year, so I have the chance to witness him up close. I find his demeanor more neurotic than peaceful.

The chain of ownership, which he may even interpret as abandonment has been tough on him. Perhaps he feels as if he will be abandoned at any turn. I really feel for the little guy, and thus can credit him with having taught be empathy and compassion (lesson 1).

I am certainly not his owner. This statement is not meant to reflect the temporariness of my stewardship, but rather that I can not claim ownership of another Being (lesson 2). K is very much his own being. I am merely his roommate, caretaker, feeder, feather-on-a-string-on-a-stick shaker, potty cleaner, brusher, friend, target of harassment, rubbing post, and family. It is more likely that he owns me, since I do all of the dirty work while he doesn’t contribute a thing to the household. I love the little guy and am happy to do it. This feeling of love for an animal is strange to me because I grew up without pets (except small fish) and I never really liked (nor disliked) animals. I never saw myself as having a pet. Now, I live with a cat and love it (lesson 3).

It is certainly not always easy to love him, though, no matter how handsome he is and how his dashing good looks really add another dimension of charm to the apartment. There’s also the fact that he often cries and moans all night long. This is especially bad after I return from a trip. He can cry incessantly for hours, sounding immensely distraught. This used to aggravate me to no end; there’s nothing that I can do to control it. Yelling at him or trying to punish him is just attention x3, and giving that to him only trains him to act up further. The best thing that I can do is maintain a sense of utter serenity around him (lesson 4) and eventually, after a couple hours, he gives up and sprawls out somewhere.

And through all of this, I love him more and more. And the more that I love him, the more that he mellows (lesson 5). Also, the more time that I spend with him, I often find myself putting his needs over mine. I’m exhausted… so what? When he needs my attention, it does not matter how exhausted I am, I have to give him the attention that he needs. And, tiredness isn’t the only concern, there are many times when I have to cut fun short to feed him or have allergic guests put out because of him (I’m allergic myself), or scare my family out of visiting due to allergies. Despite these set-backs, he is still very much deserving of my love. Brushing him, channeling reiki to him, or otherwise playing with him helps him so much. It also helps me to feel a happier sense of purpose (lesson 6). I continue to take care of him as someone whom he touches and with whom he acquaints. Other people have children to learn these lessons from, I get to start with K.

Agent K might not be a zen master, but he certainly has helped his disciple grow. Here’s a recap of the lessons learned:
1. I can show empathy and compassion.
2. I cannot own another Being.
3. How to love more wholly than before.
4. Patience through great irritation.
5. The power of compassion to sooth even the obnoxious beast.
6. How to choose lovingkindness over convenience.

Thanks, K!

Friday, July 18, 2008

From Carnivorous to Carnivicarious: Why I’m on a Vegetarian Diet

Most of my childhood, I grew up as a meatatarian, a total carnivore. I ate pretty much only meat and bread, and I was completely opposed to vegetables. I was an extremely picky eater, sorry Mom and Dad. My parents would joke that I would not eat anything green, so to poke fun at me they made me an all green meal: lime Jell-O, pistachio pudding, a small salad, milk with green food coloring, etc. I went to bed pretty hungry that night having only consumed the pudding and gelatin. They tried very hard to look out for my best interests, and are wonderful parents. Though, I was stubborn, and over the years, people pretty much came to accept my highly restricted diet—I remember a typical lunch in my late teens was 3 filet mignons and fries. Special orders at burger joints to not have cheese, catsup, lettuce, or tomato on my burgers. I even avoided pasta with sauce due to the tomatoes until my early teens, when I would allow a little thin sauce on it, and I began eating pizza in my mid-teens. Somehow, even with all of that “unhealthy eating” I was able to pack on muscle, have a lot of energy for sports and intellectual pursuits, and still have healthy cholesterol levels and negligible body fat. I kept this up through high school.

I left my small town of Belle Vernon, PA, a rural community about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh and moved to Boston for college. Boston is a city with a lot of culinary diversity. My fraternity house had a favorite local Chinese restaurant that the brothers and I went to a lot. I owe two important things to Hsin Hsin Restaurant – first, how to use chopsticks. My Chinese pledge brother taught me how to use chopsticks, which were pretty necessary to pull the peanuts and meat out of the kung-pao. I had to become quite adept to pick around the vegetables for the “real food.” And secondly, I eventually started to eat some of these vegetables, and they weren’t as gross as I thought. It took a while before I ate veggies outside of Hsin Hsin, but it happened gradually. And I started adding on seafood, too.

Eventually, I’d eat anything. Things that grossed other people out, no problem for me. Sushi, oishii; raw quail egg, delicious; tripe, check; chicken feet, no problem; kale, yum; sea cucumber esophagus, oh yeah! Eventually, I became a foodie, very epicurean. I sought out rare flavors, needed the freshest product from farmer’s markets, went to restaurants without menus and let the chefs go wild. You name it, I’d eat it.

I’d eat anything and everything, and I gained weight, roughly 30-40 pounds over my equilibrium state. A couple events brought this to my attention, and I started following dietary journals to inform my diet, kept off the carbohydrates and heavy fat, and worked out nearly 300 days/year. I lost all of the excess fat and got into the best shape of my life in about 18 months. My intellectual side was always developed, and there I added on my physical side, but something was missing, and I choose to explore my spiritual side.

I read into a lot of philosophy and religion, began meditating more regularly, and signed up for a week-long yoga experience run by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation. They recommended a vegetarian diet for the week, so I gave that a shot. I figured that I could handle it for a week, and I did. I don’t know if it was the yoga, the vegetarian diet or what, but I felt great, was sleeping well (my usual insomnia and narcolepsy didn’t appear—you’d think that they’re opposites and rare together, but they seem to go hand in hand), and bodily functions all went a little easier. After the retreat, I kept up with the yoga and meditation, but added meat back into my diet. Shortly, my life took on some big changes. I landed a dream job in Microsoft’s new Parallel Computing Platform group as it was forming, and I fell in love. The falling in love hit me hard, and I was absorbed in a new lifestyle.

I went overboard for a while, spending a fortune on foods, looking for gastronomical adventures. I was materialistic about what I ate and what I drank with it (mostly vintage Champagnes). I didn’t know at the time what felt wrong, but eventually, as that relationship came to an end, it became clear to me. Keeping the relationship together helped me to balance my emotional side, something that I had largely neglected, and now I had the mental, physical, and emotional aspects being worked on, balanced with the spiritual. My body was tending towards a balance. And in the balance, I began to question everything in myself, especially my “happiness.” Everything that I liked, was it bringing me pleasure at the base level, happiness at a higher level, or joy/peace at a profound level? Joy and Peace are lasting, but pleasure is fleeting and often destructive in the long term and happiness is a zero sum game balanced against sadness. So, I questioned my beliefs at a fundamental level.

Then, in April of this year, I sat between a couple of vegetarians at a dinner party. I’m a pretty social guy, and can usually easily talk about anything, though I favor meaningful discussions over small talk. My first inclination was to ask each of them why they were vegetarian and compare the differences, but I thought that they must get that all the time. I turned the question around and asked myself: “why do I eat meat?” I could only think of a few reasons:
1) The convenience of it,
2) I like the taste of meat,
3) A good way to get protein,
4) It’s a way to honor the animal that died, and
5) Prosciutto.

None of these were convincing, and all but #5 had a simple counter-argument.
1) Doesn’t apply in Seattle, you can eat vegetarian almost anywhere without even thinking about it, and cooking for myself is just easy; it’s much easier to cook vegetarian.
2) I like the taste of vegetables, too, often more than meat.
3) Protein is no concern; it’s easy to get the essential amino acids to keep my body running smoothly.
4) If the animal doesn’t have to die for my food, it doesn’t need to be honored in this way.
5) Nothing really compares to prosciutto… but there’s good fake bacon, and mushrooms and cheeses contain the complexity of the cured meats without being meat.

So, that dinner was the last time that I’ve eaten meat so far. My body just felt like it did not want meat anymore. My body felt the energy from the person sitting across from me and it really resonated; I had to bring that into my life. My brain still wants meat sometimes, so I’ve coined the term “carnivicarious” to cover that. It’s the pleasure that I get through someone else’s enjoyment of meat. But the joy that I get from not eating meat is really wonderful.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Life After Gallium

A very thought-provoking piece called “Reflections: The Death of Gallium” by Robert Silverberg just came across my inbox from a co-worker.

… now comes word that it isn’t just wildlife that can go extinct. The element gallium is in very short supply and the world may well run out of it in just a few years. Indium is threatened too, says Armin Reller, a materials chemist at Germany’s University of Augsburg. He estimates that our planet’s stock of indium will last no more than another decade. All the hafnium will be gone by 2017 also, and another twenty years will see the extinction of zinc. Even copper is an endangered item, since worldwide demand for it is likely to exceed available supplies by the end of the present century.

Yikes! Stripes! Can we replenish endangered elements?! When humankind over-hunted, over-fished, and destroyed crucial world habitats, we began to push species to extinction well before their natural time. Then, a compassionate and wise faction of mankind began educating us and changing our ways. The faction heard the message communicated from the Mother Earth, telling us that we were upsetting the balance. Now, we carefully monitor wildlife, set up conservations, and specify governing policies in order to keep dwindling populations alive and bring them back to flourishing. Now with the death of Gallium, it sounds like animal endangerment was just the trial run for the Earth. As long as we catch animal population decreases soon enough, we can do something about it. But, we didn’t generalize this learning to extend this to the elements of nature. These cannot be replenished outside of advanced element synthesis techniques which are still not fully understood and are prohibitively expensive.

It looks like planet earth is not stocked up for the human flat screen TV fetish, which rapidly depletes the supply of gallium. Are humans and our technology a curse on the world? Are we pushing it too far?

There are several ways that I can see to look it at:

  1. What humans do is just the natural way of the world. I have to question the “before their natural time” assumption that I made above. It smacks of hubris to think that as humans we are responsible for maintaining order and balance in the universe, any more than any other animals. Humans are part of nature. We are animals, related to primates. Is it really “unnatural” what we do? Is there really something to be fixed? Is it in fact part of the world’s overall intelligence that our neocortex is so new and buggy that it appears to behave “unnaturally”?
  2. Maybe extinction just doesn’t matter, even if caused “unnaturally”. The world survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, in which humans had no hand. The world simply tends toward a new equilibrium. Carrying this forward, the world might not need these endangered elements in large supply at all. The world was surviving before the extraction and consumption of Gallium, right? If the world continued to thrive after several extinctions, it might continue to survive after the depletion of elements, too.
  3. Maybe extinction does matter in that it’s a call for the worldwide shifting of human consciousness. What if this is a pattern of extinctions rather than just 2 instances? The root cause to this may lie in the framework of human society and its reliance on the earth’s resources. Humankind might need to take a revolutionary step and alter everything from behavior to the deepest of our core values. This is not just a call for environmentalism, this is the impetus to shift at a more fundamental level of human community. My gut tells me that this is an opportunity for humankind to learn and grow in some way. As examples, maybe the entire population needs to weave respect for the environment into its fabric, maybe technology should be eschewed altogether as a frivolous waste of precious resources, maybe homo sapiens are evolving themselves out of existence, or maybe humankind needs to find another way to live in harmony with the world.

The third point resonates the most with me. In my post Another Lens for the Flying Dutchman, I posited that we can look at a person’s struggles as opportunities for personal growth. Maybe this same thing applies to humankind, and that this pattern of extinctions (if that is what we’re facing) can be the catalyst for the collective humanity to grow. From Plato’s Republic, we have the wise adage that “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Maybe this is a point of transcendence, as Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth suggests. This can be coupled with learning from evolutionary theory, which lends us to believe that it is part of the intelligence of creation for the world and it’s denizens to adapt to fit a need. For instance, Tolle offers a theory that land-based life began with fish in a body of water that was separated from the ocean. As the climate changed, the lake turned into a pond, then became shallower and shallower year after year. A fish or two began to flop up on land for a period of time, then make it back to the water. Eventually, it was necessary to develop lungs and legs to take to the land. By doing so, by reading the signs, the fish species that evolved were able to survive when the water was gone.

We may be in a struggle so powerful that we’re metaphorically turning coal into diamond, forcing the structure that we know about the world to change and shift. Maybe the guiding intelligence of the universe is orchestrating this as the perfect learning opportunity for the human race. Will we grow with this opportunity, becoming much wiser in the process?