Wednesday, December 31, 2014


A Look into My Chitta

Over the past couple years I have gotten interested in yoga. My initial interest was for health
reasons but I think it can be beneficial for anyone regardless of age or health condition. One
day, after a particularly intense yoga class (which sounds like an oxymoron to non-yoga folk) I
decided to stop over at a breakfast place close to the yoga studio. I had brought a backpack
with me that had a book and some manuscript paper in it.

I went into the place, kind of a diner vibe, and was seated by a very sweet older woman. When
I was seated a waitress came and filled my coffee cup. I got out my book and started reading. I
must have gotten sucked in because the waitress came back and asked if I was ready to order.
I hadn’t taken a look at the menu yet so she topped off my coffee cup and left. After a quick
glance at the menu I chose what I was going to order. When the waitress returned I placed my
order and she topped off my coffee cup. I relaxed back into my booth and started reading
again. I was feeling very at peace.

After about 15 minutes the waitress returned with my order and warmed up my coffee again. I
ate my breakfast. When I was finished I checked my cell phone for the time. I had a half hour to
kill before an appointment nearby so I pulled out the manuscript paper and began to think. I
wanted to write one new tune for the upcoming record but no ideas were really coming to me.
The waitress returned to get my plate, topped off my coffee, left my check and headed back to
the kitchen.

By now I was starting to feel the effects of the coffee. I stared at the manuscript paper. As
caffeine is known to do it was starting to make my eyes dart back and forth and it made tracking
the five little black lines on the paper difficult. I was still feeling the after glow of the yoga class
and I was in a state of inner peace but my body was definitely not at peace at all. I’m not sure
how much coffee I drank but I was starting the sweat and my feet were shuffling.

Suddenly the humor in the strange juxtaposition of those two feelings hit me all at once. I had a
deep sense of inner peace but was very caffeinated. I laughed out loud. Fueled by prana and
caffeine I put pencil to paper. In about 15 minutes I had it. The piece I was hoping for. Caffeinated Om.

This short and essay are also in the most recent issue of The Chicago Progressive

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


The Fluid Normal

Before I begin I don't want this to turn into some big nonduality rant. That is not my intention. That said I do think it is important to look at the duality of thought in American culture to describe my concept of a 'fluid normal'. Dualism on a philosophical level is just thinking of things as opposing forces. Good vs Evil. Happy vs Sad. Healthy vs Sick. Balanced vs Unbalanced. Normal vs Abnormal. The problem with this for me is this sets a pretty unattainable goal and does not acknowledge the importance of all the different shades of gray for perspective and fully appreciating each moment for what it is. In this case that is the definition of non-duality I am working with. Not thinking of two diametrically opposed forces or states but rather a smear. I also like to look at it as a circular smear. Remember the yin-yang. No beginning or end and an infinite number of sides.  

I took a class in college called Philosophy and Fantasy. In that class we analyzed the philosophy in science fiction classics. One discussion in particular has always stuck with me. In the Philip K. Dick story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the characters are in possession of a machine called a mood organ. The mood organ allows them to dial up any mood. Most use the mood organ to be happy all the time. The main character's wife decides to occasionally dial an emotion other than happiness or not dial an emotion at all. In this she is lending importance to the gambit of emotion.

Let's think then of this in the context of a fluid normal. When we describe something as fluid we are describing a point that is not fixed, shifting, changing. Interestingly, if we look at the etymology, the word "fluid" comes the Latin root "flu" which means "to flow". A concept of a changing, shifting, flowing normal is similar in concept to an active idea of balance. Even the most experienced yogi will tell you that physical balance is not the same from day to day or even moment to moment. Rather than getting frustrated, take note. Experience the moment for what it is. I believe that every moment has the potential to make is aware of something... if we are willing to listen.  

A buzz word that is going around right now is mindfulness. There are many layers to this concept. It is Buddhist concept that is thousands of years old and is a hot topic in modern day western psychology. There are many people way smarter than me about it so I'm not going to go into it. That said, when I think deeply about this concept I come up with one central tenant as it applies to me. Experience each moment for what it is. Non-judgmentally. To me this is the fluid normal. To get to that idea the first step for me was making peace with the fact that a single state of normal does not exist and that the dualist concept of normal is full of judgment. Like I said before it is impossible to hit a target that is always moving or doesn't exist.

The challenge that I found once I started wrapping my mind around this concept was not being judgmental of my non-judgmentalness. Am I being non-judgmental enough? Am I trying not to try hard enough? Let me explain. With both the brain surgery and later the diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis I found it difficult to distinguish between things that everyone has to deal with and things that could be attributed to after effects of surgery or the symptoms of MS. Moreover I found myself not wanting to blame anything on those things. To me that meant admitting the disease was getting the better of me and I was letting it into my psyche. Then I found myself starting to swing to the other extreme and think every physical malady could be be blamed on one of those things. I realized though that it was somewhere in the middle. Balance. The other thing I realized is it was not particularly important the source and, in the spirit of being in the moment, I just found personal value in experiencing every moment for what it is. Thinking about a cause or what tomorrow might be like is not dealing with now and not particularly productive.   

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


In the last section I brought up three points or lessons that my experience with physical balance showed me. The first was unconscious systems compensating for a compromised system. The second was conscious adjustments that can be made. Third was the concept of a 'new normal' or maybe better a 'fluid normal'.

I'd like to take a second to look at the definitions of conscious and unconscious before we continue. The number one definition of conscious that comes up in the dictionary is "to be aware of one's own existence, sensation, thoughts, surroundings, etc". Wow that's broad. So to me the first part of this is checking in with yourself to even be aware that those things exist. I've always firmly believed that before you can have meaningful action you first need intention but I don't see how you can even have intention without first checking in and identifying what even needs attention. The definition of unconscious then is "below the level of awareness, occurring below the level of conscious thought". Also very broad.

There are millions and millions of processes going on in your body every second that you don't consciously think about. Swallowing, breathing, digesting, sweating, focusing your eyes, growing your hair, regulating body heat, smelling, tasting, balance, and the fantastic amount of processes that go into each one of those. There are many more too. These processes we lump into a big messy category of being alive. An important part of it to is they are functions we just trust are going to happen and on some level take for granted. Thinking about all this I came upon a definition of unconscious as something that exists outside your sphere of direct influence. The key word for me here is "direct". I'll go into that more in a bit.

So what happens if one of these functions doesn't happen the way it is supposed to? Get cold?  Put on a sweater. Vision blurry? Get glasses. Losing you hearing? Get hearing aids. Also many of these functions can be regulated by medication. These are examples of direct influence.

If something we are calling direct exists something called indirect must too. To understand my concept of indirect influence I would like us to think of the body as a whole. We like to label systems and discreet parts of the body but anyone that has gone through physical therapy knows many systems work together. In my experience that is part of what physical therapy or any kind of body work does. It identifies parts of the body that are weak, injured, or otherwise need help and trains other systems in the body to compensate for the compromised system and also show us how the body might not be working as a whole.  

A few years ago Yoga was recommended to me as beneficial for the health challenges I was dealing with. In my own experience the jury is still out as to whether there is any direct benefit to my specific physical issues. What I have found to be a big benefit is an increased level of total body awareness. It has also increased my general level of physical conditioning. As I said I am fairly into cycling and was almost fanatical in my middle 20's. I was in fantastic physical shape (or so I thought) but what I found is I was conditioning very specific muscles of the body to do a very specific task. Unbalanced. I have also found some great mental and spiritual benefits to yoga that I will go in to later but for the sake of this section I want to continue to focus on physical systems. I've alluded that body is a whole and that whole is not just all the physical systems but also mental and spiritual so seeking a balance of the whole is key but I digress. The important thing here is that an increased body awareness and increased general conditioning improved physical balance. It also made me think about all parts involved in every movement.   

I don't intend this as an endorsement of yoga. I have found it extremely helpful as have many others. I know several other friends that didn't find the same benefit. There are plenty of ways to skin this proverbial cat. Yoga is working for me. The goal is learning to listen to your body and mind.
Our expectation of reality is shaped by experience. Both direct and indirect systems learn by detecting patterns of behavior. We know a pot on the stove with flame under it is probably hot because at some point we touched a pot with flame under it and it hurt. This formula goes for almost everything we do. We are not born fully formed. I'd actually argue that there is no such thing as fully formed. This again gets at this idea that there is this place when we've attained full personhood and no more growth is needed. I think we all know instinctively that this is not true but this unattainable goal of the perfect adult person exists. It is almost the stuff of myth. The problem for me with this idea is the fact that there is small window of what is commonly seen as "normal" in a given group. This is obviously the shared fault of a variety of sources which could be the subject of a whole other book so I won't spend time on it here. What is important is this "normal" cannot be attained and I'd argue does not even exist. We have this myth of getting closer and closer but as the paradox states, if we continually half our distance to something we never get there.  It think this only stirs up feelings of inadequacy and failure.  This is where I came upon the personal notion of the 'fluid normal'. In the next post I will go into that in greater detail as I need an aspirin at this point.           

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Physical balance

Let me preface this section by saying I am not a doctor and have no formal training in physiology. That said I have always been fascinated by the incredibly complex machine that is the human body.  If any doctor wants to call me out, please do so.  I've tried to get as close as a musician can on the topic.

I've always been really taken by dancers. They seem to have such total control over their bodies that they defy gravity. If we could go inside the brain of a dancer though we'd see that the illusions they create are really a whole series of very finely tuned biological systems all working together. As I said I am not really an expert so I hopped on the old interweb to do a little research. I found that equilibrioception is the fancy medical term for the physical sense of balance. As I suspected it is the result of a number of body systems working together: the eyes (visual system), ears (vestibular system) and the body's sense of where it is in space (proprioception). According to Wikipedia (a reputable source) "The balance system works with the visual and skeletal systems (the muscles and joints and their sensors) to maintain orientation or balance. Visual signals sent to the brain about the body's position in relation to its surroundings are processed by the brain and compared to information from the vestibular, visual and skeletal systems."

There are couple things that strike me about this. First, as I suspected there are lots of things going on at once making balance possible. Second, and possibly more important, is the fact that balance is the brain's attempt at dealing with chaos. The definition of chaos I am thinking of is maybe the slightly more 'scientific' definition which is a seemingly random series of events. Beautifully chaotic. Your brain is having to take in a fantastic amount of ever-changing information and make the proper adjustments while sending and receiving information from the eyes, the inner ear, the nerves, and the muscles. Truly amazing.

The removal of the brain tumor was the first time I had to really deal with physical balance but all of us have had a time when not all the systems were working together such as an ear infection or an over indulgence in adult beverages. The tumor I had was called an Acoustic Neuroma or Vestibular Schwannoma. Fortunately the tumor was benign but unfortunately it was very large (the size of a lemon)and putting pressure on my brain stem so emergency surgery was required. As you might be able to guess from the name the tumor is caused by an overgrowth of the Schwann cells that make up the myelin sheath that cover each nerve in our body.  Schwann cells occur specifically in the peripheral nervous system. Think of it as the insulation on a wire. In this case the overgrowth of cells happens on the vestibular nerve. I will go into more detail later but what is important here is the surgery resulted in the removal of one of my vestibular nerves. I lost hearing in my ear but more importantly I lost one of the nerves that sends the brain information about the body's position in space.  

What is truly fascinating about the human brain is how it can adapt to situations like this by using other systems to compensate. Let that sink in for a second.  I'm not going to lie. It was not an instantaneous process.  When I was first recovering from surgery I couldn't even sit in a chair without getting extreme vertigo and nausea. Over the coming weeks and months though I eventually went from sitting to standing to walking short distances to climbing stairs to walking around the block and so on until I was back to at least a new normal. In all of this the brain was rerouting connections and I was learning what I had to do physically to compensate for my new-found balance issue.

I'd like to focus on three points from the last paragraph. One, the idea that it took time for hindbrain to learn to aid the system that needed help.  This is an unconscious function. Two, I learned the conscious adjustments I had to make.  Three, the concept of a new normal. 

To me the concept of a "new normal" is one of the harder but more valuable lessons I learned from the ordeal. The definition of what balance is from moment to moment is fluid. As fluid as the process itself. I think it can be hard for us to get next to idea that something is not going to be the same every time we come to it. There is comfort in sameness. Things that we can rely on. But we can also come to take these very same things for granted. Call it complacency or apathy. It takes real effort to try to conceive of the fact that there are actually millions of things zinging around in every moment making that physical balance possible.

The other lesson here for me was putting trust in systems that I couldn't control and exerting control over that systems that I could.  Also recognizing what gaps needs to be filled and learning what I could do, or not, to fill them.

Thinking about more philosophical or metaphysical topics by comparing them to physical phenomenon can sometimes help to illustrate the concept. For that reason I outlined my views on physical balance first. For me any kind of balance requires multiple systems working together and an understanding that the definition of balance is as fluid as the process itself.  

Monday, December 8, 2014


Let me start by quoting the lyrics from a famous Peggy Lee song "I know a little bit 'bout a lot of things". Now that we have that out of the way let me explain. I am a husband, father, son, brother, musician, composer, teacher, writer, philosopher, photography hobbyist, fitness buff, chef, gardener, yogi, outdoorsman, cyclist, coffee enthusiast, and I'll try my hand at any home improvement project (and probably mess it up the first time). As an active person and artist balance (physical, mental, and spiritual) has always been in the front of my mind. When you are young and healthy, before you have a family and kids, balance is easy. Your body is strong and you don't have many life responsibilities yet. Before we continue though let's look at what balance is.

The dictionary defines balance as a state of equilibrium. The thing that is tricky about this definition is by defining it as a state or place we automatically think of it as a destination. Defining it as a destination makes it a passive state. I contend quite the opposite. I think balance is an active state. If we look more deeply at physical balance or equilibrium we see that there are a fantastic number of systems and signals that are working together and constantly adjusting and compensating to maintain said balance. To me this makes balance active and I don't even like to use the term state. Like I said state implies location or target and it is hard to hit a target that is always moving worse yet doesn't even truly exist.

Over the course of this diatribe I am going to look at the three kinds of balance I outlined.  Physical, mental, spiritual. I also want to share some of the things that I've learned about balance over my time here. As I stated I'm a jack of all trades master of none. My 40 years on this planet qualify me for exactly that, 40 years of experience lugging this meat sack around on this rock. People who are older than me have more expertise and younger people less. Temper everything I say with that.

I have dealt with several serious medical happenings and while I don't think that makes me any more qualified to comment on life it has put me in a position to evaluate things a bit. In a way I consider myself lucky to have been confronted with serious illness and my own mortality at an age young enough that I still was in the invincible stage but old enough that I had some perspective. The medical occurrence in question was a brain tumor when I was 28. I was already married and had an infant daughter. I was just embarking on life as an adult. Diagnosis was stressful. Surgery was long. Recovery was hard work. There are many many lessons hidden in this journey though. Several years later I was diagnosed with MS with it's own set of challenges and lessons.

While I definitely don't want to make this at all about my health it has me think very deeply about what health is physical, mental, and spiritual. That is where I came upon the idea of balance.  Like I said, as an amateur athlete, health nut, chef, and artist the topic of balance is always on my mind. One of the definitions the dictionary offers of balance is the pulling by opposing forces like an old school scale. This notion always seemed funny to me. That's why I prefer the Yin/Yang image of balance. Swirling together and being part of a whole.