Choosing the pleasure principle over self-denial to lose weight

This morning I noticed an article on ‘mindful eating’ in the Australian edition of the Huffington Post. I was interested to compare the writer’s ideas with my own, which I set out in a list before visiting my nutritionist late last year.

My personal journey towards a right relationship with food goes back to primary school, when I was stigmatised as the fat boy in the class. Subsequently it became a life goal to reach normal weight. I was never obese, but over the next four decades I was mostly overweight, sometimes significantly.

I would tell myself that I was happy being moderately overweight. But I don’t think that was really the case. I wanted my weight to be ‘normal’.

I achieved my goal two years ago. The turning point was selling my car in 2012. I had felt the need to justify owning my car by using it. When I no longer had a car, I adjusted my life so that many of the services I routinely accessed were within walking distance.

Measurement was important. I got into the habit of weighing myself every day and set and achieved high step goals, which I monitored using the various electronic pedometers I owned.

My scales talk to the Fitbit app, and - as a matter of both pride and weight maintenance - I keep my eye on the graph in the app that tells me my weight is in the middle of the recommended range.

I was not preoccupied with diets or counting the calories of my food intake. But I would have very productive conversations with my nutritionist, who did not recommend crash or fad diets.

I have been keenly aware that most people who lose weight put it back on within a year. Not me. I set a new goal for myself, which was to develop a habit of what I called ‘mindful eating’.

That is something I worked out for myself. It includes spiritual and ethical dimensions as well as practical measures such as eating with small bowls. I didn’t realise until I read this morning’s Huffington Post that mindful eating is a concept talked about by the experts.

For me, the underlying principle is that it’s like meditation. Focus on the food rather than extraneous thoughts. Watching TV or doing another activity while eating is taboo. Even unchecked eating with others in a social situation works against mindfulness unless the conversation is about the food.

The Huffington Post writer Juliette Steen is familiar with what happens if you take your mind off your food: ‘You start eating a meal and look down a few minutes later to see an empty bowl, even though you don’t remember eating everything’.

I’ve often wondered why the French tend not to be overweight even though their diet includes many high calorie foods such as butter and goose fat. My theory is that they’re always talking and thinking about the food they’re consuming. Their eating is mindful.

The idea is that the pleasure of eating is maximised by the level of awareness, not the quantity on the plate. This is something the French know and Americans (and Australians) don’t. It’s also the basis of the ordered pleasure principle of the ethics of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Clinical psychologist and author of Mindsight Dan Siegel says that in developing the capacity to label and describe our internal world, we become more nonjudgmental and develop a greater sense of equanimity.

As a means of dieting, and indeed regulating our intake of any of life’s pleasures, it beats self-denial. Indeed it makes us much nicer and more balanced human beings.

Helping the poor without a social work degree

I remember spending six weeks ‘helping the poor’ of Sydney’s eastern suburbs at the end of 1978. I was a Jesuit novice, and two of us were seconded to work with a small Australian order of nuns that specialised in providing nursing services and material assistance to those living on the margins.

Within the order there was tension between one of the younger nuns, who had a social work degree, and some of the older sisters, who believed such degrees were a distraction from the order’s core mission of providing aid.

The younger nun and her supporters argued that the order needed to adapt its mission towards lifting people out of poverty. What they'd always done - providing ongoing stopgap assistance - was keeping them marginalised.

In retrospect, I think they were getting into a discussion of liberation theology, which was then dividing the Catholic Church in Latin America in its efforts to make the church socially relevant.

The Sydney order was Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, also known as the Brown Sisters. The young nun in 1978 was questioning the teaching of the order’s founder Eileen O’Connor. O'Connor was reflecting the thinking of the time when she told her sisters in 1913: ‘The cause of a person’s poverty is not yours to question. The fact a person is poor is the reason you help’.

Last week I was reminded of this debate in the order when I read a report in Fairfax Media questioning the work of the 22 year old founders of the Orange Sky free mobile laundry and shower service for the homeless.

In January 2016, Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett were awarded joint Young Australians of the Year for their social entrepreneurship. But the Fairfax reporter set about putting their remarkable achievement into perspective by seeking comments from professionals in social work and related disciplines.

University of Queensland social work academic Cameron Parsell told Fairfax that services such as Orange Sky undermined people’s dignity when they were forced to shower and wash in public spaces, ‘particularly when we know that ending homelessness is possible and cost-effective’.

Parsell’s research showed it cost the taxpayer more to keep a person chronically homeless ($48,217 each) than to provide permanent housing ($35,117).

Meanwhile the acting chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, Kate Colvin, urged philanthropists and organisations such as Orange Sky to consider where to channel their energy and funding.

‘The reality is that ending homelessness starts with boosting affordable housing, not providing comfort measures,’ she said.

The professionals’ point was well made, even if it misses the point that Orange Sky’s core mission is to connect people. Orange Sky would say that many people with a roof over their head are lonely and do not feel spiritually and emotionally whole.

One of the young entrepreneurs - Nic – responded: ‘Lucas and I are two young blokes who are volunteers and by no means are we experts in the homelessness sector.’

It could be that their passion and experience makes these 22 year olds perfect candidates to enrol in social work degrees and become experts in the homelessness sector.

Why dumb phones are better than smart phones

When my cousin was showing me around Wellington last week, I noticed that his phone was a vintage Nokia, just like the one I was using in 1999.

He's not the type who tries to set retro fashion trends. He just prefers a dumb phone to a smart phone. He says he uses it to make phone calls, and that is all he needs it for.

He does not pretend smart phones cannot be useful. He has reluctantly agreed to buy one for his daughter. But he does not like to see people's lives controlled by their smart phones.

A few days ago I was using my smart phone to listen to a podcast that explained how smart phone app developers can be as unscrupulous and unethical as cigarette companies in exploiting their customers.

Former Google app developer Tristan Harris has founded an organisation called Time Well Spent. He talked about the 'persuasive technology design' class at Stanford that taught app developers how to monopolise the time of smart phone users.

'It's not about giving you freedom, it's about sucking you in to take your time'.

An app will 'notify' you when you have a new email or when a news story breaks. In other words, it will interrupt your conversation or stop you from attending to something in your life other than your smart phone.

How often do we physically bump into smart phone users in the street because they are not looking where they're going? Or perhaps we are the ones glued to our smart phones.

I walk long distances for exercise and always listen to podcasts so that I can stay in touch with what's going on in the world. In fact I miss a lot of what is going on in the world close to me because I am listening to podcasts. My eyes are metaphorically closed to what is around me.

Harris says the key question is how smart phone usage makes us feel on the inside. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day because they feel anxious about what they're missing out on if they don't keep checking it.

I've become aware of this, and I've taken to deliberately missing episodes of my favourite podcasts to ensure that they don't control me. I would listen to 'The Monocle Daily' every weekday, and feel anxious when I didn't. Now I listen to it three or four times a week, and feel better for it.

I do not want to give it up altogether because I enjoy it. It informs me and it raises my spirit, with the humour and intelligence of its presenters. I just want to own my time and my life, and I can do that with measured use of my smart phone.

That was my message to my cousin as I gave him the bad news that he would soon need to swap his dumb phone for a smart phone because the telcos are turning off the old 2G phone towers that have serviced dumb phones for 20 years.

 

Remembering the Herald learn-to-swim campaign

There has been an epidemic of people drowning in backyard pools and public swimming locations this summer. There have been almost as many water deaths as car fatalities. Governments are being challenged to spend money to encourage more people to learn to swim.

For me it brings back childhood memories of the Melbourne Herald newspaper's learn-to-swim campaign that was founded in 1929 and continued for five or six decades. Young Victorians were given their 'Herald' certificate if they could swim 25 yards (22.9 metres).

The campaign's longtime chairman was the legendary Sir Frank Beaurepaire. He the program enabled many thousands of people anually to 'hold their own in the water'. Learning to swim, he said, was 'a great step in developing self confidence, and once learned, the ability to swim is never forgotten'.

The ability to swim was an article of faith in my family, as it was in many families in regional areas. We all got our Herald certificate with no trouble at all. In fact we considered 25 yards was nothing. We could easily swim the 50 metre length of the local Olympic pool (54 yards) and would set our sights on 10 lengths.

For me the temporary stumbling block was diving. For a long time I couldn't do it, no matter how hard I tried. I remember the breakthrough happening as an eight year old in 1968 when my uncle visited from New Zealand. Somehow he instilled in me the necessary confidence.

But confidence comes and goes. I remember adult authority figures affirming me as a slow but strong swimmer. That was enough to encourage me to train to become faster so that I might compete. However that quickly came to an end when I went to boarding school in the city and one of the teachers joked that I swam like a whale. While nobody unlearns how to swim, this destroyed my confidence and any ambition I had to do swimming as a competitive sport.

Sometimes I think of the Herald learn-to-swim campaign as quaint and belonging to another era. I'm not sure when or why it ended but am curious. Sadly nothing has replaced it.

I imagine that it was considered lacking in coolness. Last year's ABC TV miniseries on the Christos Tsiolkas novel Barracuda might have changed this, but it was too fleeting and made for the wrong audience. Probably it would take a reality TV event to make learning to swim a must for young people.

I also think about the nature of campaigns run by media organisations. They used to be about public service, but now it's more ideology. Perhaps the Herald learn-to-swim campaign ended around 1987 when Rupert Murdoch purchased the paper. For in recent years, his papers have campaigned against public safety for young people, on ideological grounds, with their opposition to the government Safe Schools anti homophobic bullying program. No doubt that is a sign of the times.

Avoiding the loneliness of summer in the city

I woke up early this morning with plans to write about the rules of English Grammar. But I looked at the home page of The Guardian and was affected by a beautiful article on summertime loneliness and depression in inner city Sydney.

It was written by a Sri Lankan Australian - Gary Paramanathan - and what he describes is familiar. 'There is a non urgency to summer, everyone slows down, everyone is having a good time. Everyone it seems but me.'

Except I don't want to have a good time, if you're talking about the kind of thing they have at Christmas parties and on New Year's Eve. I don't think I went to any Christmas parties, and I was very happy to be in bed by ten o'clock on New Year's Eve.

I haven't been lonely. I have company. But that's not entirely the reason for my contentment. Rather, it seems that my heightened sense perception on the hot sticky days and nights we've been having, combined with the current quietness of my neighbourhood, has made me more than usually present to myself.

It's almost as if this part of my summer has spontaneously turned into a spiritual retreat and my experience has been one of quiet consolation. On retreat you get away from the busyness of everyday life and open yourself to unexpected shifts of spirit. That's what has happened to me. Gary could also be on retreat and, like me until now, doesn't know it. His contentment is yet to arrive.

He's lying in bed restless, thinking: 'When you wake up, you can only hope your head is clearer.' Like mine. He's feeling desolate in the 'emotionally void streets of Sydney’s most dense and overwhelmingly white suburb'. Like I do from time to time, even without his race selfconsciousness.

I can feel to some extent at one with the other people who walk the streets of my area of Newtown, even though our steadfast gaze is mostly away from each other's eyes. But there's more, if I want it. Gary writes that he was 'spoilt' growing up in Colombo, where eye contact and richer human connection are the norm.

He finds it a challenge in Sydney. But I know it is possible because my friend John has made an artform of it. Recently I was moved as I walked with him along his Kensington street and witnessed him making not just eye contact, but exchange of words, and warm and genuinely friendly conversation, across racial and other cultural boundaries. John's human contact is not my human contact, but he shows me that the familiar faces in the streets of our neighbourhood need not remain strangers.

When fear is used to teach meditation

Yesterday I wrote about breath awareness. Its purpose was to overcome the 'disturbing turmoil' of mind chatter during meditation. Later in the day I was reminded of my early attempts at meditation as an 18 year old Jesuit novice at Canisius College, Pymble, in Sydney, in the late 70s.

'Disturbing turmoil' is also apt to describe my experience when I told the novice master - my spiritual director - that my attempts to meditate were not working. I said that I just couldn't quieten my mind and that I would sit there and fidget. He yelled at me and threatened to expel me from the Jesuit training I'd begun a few months earlier.

Canisius College Pymble Sydney

In those days it was common to use fear as a technique in teaching and training in schools and various institutions, including those in which religious 'formation' took place. This novice master had been rector of the diocesan seminary at Werribee outside Melbourne for many years, where he was responsible for the training of several generations of priests for the dioceses of Victoria and Tasmania during the Catholic Church's vocations boom of the 50s and 60s.

He had a reputation for being quite a tyrant but was supposed to have undergone a transformation after moving on from his role at the seminary in the late 60s. It was the time of the 'flower power' generation and he grew his hair long and embraced a peace loving ethos as a fiftysomething university chaplain. He also took on with gusto the spirit of Vatican II renewal and it seemed to make sense to put him in charge of training Jesuits in their first two years of formation.

But a leopard does not change its spots, and he turned out to be quite a fearsome novice master, even though the content of his teaching was solid and nuanced and he was interested in, and taught, the latest thinking in psychology, and meditation techniques from eastern religions. There was a certain incongruity in having such an authoritarian figure teaching Zen Buddhist and other eastern meditation techniques, which had been made popular at the time by the Jesuits William Johnston and Tony D'Mello.

My response to his yelling at me for not being able to meditate was to retreat from my honesty. I used my imagination to construct elaborate but believable scenarios in which I falsely claimed to have had breakthroughs in my attempts at meditation. At times he seemed most impressed with the progress he believed I was making. In hindsight, I think it was a tribute to my creativity, and I look back on it with an odd mixture of pride and shame.

I was actually very interested in spirituality at an intellectual level and would do a lot of reading and pay close attention to what he would teach my group of novices. That is why it was easy for me to construct the scenarios and to tell him what he wanted to hear. I'd learned that it was not acceptable for me to tell him what he did not want to hear, and it seemed that the truth or otherwise of what I was saying was secondary.

I survived my two years of formation in the novitiate and was approved to 'take vows' and go on to the next stage. But needless to say, the actual daily meditation that is essential to the way of life I was embarking upon did not become a part of my life. Sadly I suspect that my experience was quite common and that it accounts for many Catholic priests and religious either abandoning their vocation or remaining but not living their vocation.

A time of peace and goodwill and breathing awareness

The words 'peace on earth' encapsulate the message of the Christmas season. But peace on earth is looking more remote this Christmas than at any Christmas I can remember.

In thinking about what to do about world peace, I think first about politics. I inform myself. I'm convinced that Australia must decide whether to get closer to America as the power that protected us during World War II, or pursue an independent foreign policy more open to a continuing relationship with our biggest trading partner China.

It is interesting, and it matters. If we choose the US, we will probably be a target in the event of a nuclear war because of how crucial the Pine Gap facility is to American defences (that is a reality about which our media are largely keeping us in the dark). If we choose China, we will ultimately have to dance to its tune because it is so much bigger than we are and becoming more inclined to throw its weight around.

Breathing aware Fitbit watch

I know that there is an important link between our concern for the health and wellbeing of the world and our own health and wellbeing. I have a hunch that many people who have given up caring about world peace have also given up caring for their own physical, mental and spiritual condition.

My thoughts about politics are actually a preamble to what is really my interest at this moment, which is the importance of stillness as the lynchpin of our wellbeing and a major factor in our ability to think clearly. By stillness, I mean a stillness of the mind (not the stillness of the couch potato watching the Boxing Day Test on TV).

Yesterday a friend sent me an extract from a Christmas meditation by the spiritual writer Richard Rohr. My friend is not conventionally religious but values the message of Rohr, who urges us to wait for a quietness within ourselves so that we can see the image of our God 'reflected in [our] own clear waters'. But only if 'the disturbing turmoil of thoughts dies down'.

The chatter of the mind is what disturbs my clear waters. It can make me angry and misdirect my passions and decision making. I am working at becoming still.

I'm finding that focusing the mind on my breathing rather than thoughts is a good start. My Fitbit fitness tracker watch has guided breathing sessions that monitor my biorhythms and give feedback. They can be helpful in training my mind to focus on the pattern of my breathing.

The stillness that this breathing awareness promotes allows a peace in our hearts that can gather pace as we mature. Another friend recalled yesterday that he was previously 'fuelled with rage and despair' but has now 'matured to a point where [he] can appreciate the humanity that connects us all'. I would guess that he now has more moments of stillness in his life.

Revisiting the Feldenkrais I did one year ago

The other day somebody asked me about how 'my Feldenkrais' was going. It might seem like an odd question, but it was actually a good one, especially the way they put it.

They'd remembered that I was doing weekly Feldenkrais classes over six weeks at this time last year. Part of me thought the question was a bit odd because I did Feldenkrais a year ago and now I'm on to other things.

Feldenkrais is a method of improving the dignity of human body movement, and our psychological state, through focus on connections between the brain and body.

Not flexible bodies but flexible brains to restore human dignity - Moshe Feldenkrais

My friend was wondering about the lasting impact of my Feldenkrais classes on my life. Whether I'd made it my own and it had in fact become 'my' Feldenkrais.

I'd like to think that the answer was 'yes', but I'd have to admit that it is half way between 'yes' and 'no'.

It's curious that, unlike dieting to reduce weight, all you need to do to enjoy the benefits of Feldenkrais is to bring it to mind. That's because Feldenkrais is essentially mindful movement. If you're able to make a habit of bringing it to mind - effortlesslesly, of course - there's essentially nothing more to do. It helps if you've done the course and can recollect what you did in at least some of the classes.

As if it's exercise for the lazy, Feldenkrais involves no special effort or anything that resembles pain. In fact my teacher Margaret would say that if what you're doing hurts, it doesn't heal (perhaps a subtle dig at other body wellness methods such as yoga that some people find 'punishing').

I have not heard it pitched like this to the lazy, but I'm fairly sure that Margaret would not entirely disagree with me, even though I think she would baulk at my suggestion that it's for lazy people.

She used to encourage us to think about it in our own way in order to make us conscious of our own movement. I remember she approved when I described Feldenkrais as 'artful movement', which is a phrase that meant something to me. While sitting in a chair, I sometimes ask myself whether I'm sitting 'artfully', or if I am slouching like an out of shape rag doll.

I remember that I was about to take a long distance flight to Europe and had the idea that I could turn my 25 hour captivity in my economy class seat into something more blissful and at the same time improve my bodily and psychological wellbeing. So I downloaded Margaret's audio recordings of her Feldenkrais meditation about sitting and, while inflight, listened to it on a loop for as long as I felt it was working for me.

My point about making Feldenkrais my own is that many people do dozens or more wellness or self-improvement courses during their lives and then promptly move on after each one of them. But if we're able to bring to mind some of the insights we gained, it's likely that we will enjoy their benefits all over again.

The gentle challenge of the Three Capes Track

I've just returned from the Three Capes Track in south east Tasmania. I was with a group of ten bush walkers that included adult and teenage family members and friends. We were part of a larger group of 48 bushwalkers completing the four day 46 kilometre experience.

It's an activity of Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service that is only a year old. It seemed that little expense was spared in the use of public funds to construct the upgraded track and state of the art huts for basic overnight accommodation. But since it opened on 23 December last year, they've taken more than 10,000 bookings, far exceeding the projected 3000. One member of my group was the 9000th walker.

Three Capes Track

It's no ordinary track through the bush, and it's regarded by some as elitist. That's easy to understand, with the $500 price tag and the easy walking nature of the path, much of which is constructed as a boardwalk. Less than 50 years ago, the pioneer bushwalkers could only get through with the aid of axes. Our experience began with a boat cruise from Port Arthur to the Denmans Cove commencement point, and included three overnight stays at the huts.

These beautifully built structures have a designer feel about them, but the reality is almost as rustic as the traditional bush hut. That is because you still need bring your food and sleeping bag and leave carrying out your rubbish. There is no staff to serve the 'guests', just a resident ranger to answer questions and do basic coordination and maintenance.

One of the boat crew members made a particular impression upon us. He'd grown up in a lighthouse keeper's family in isolation on nearby Tasman Island. It is likely that locals like him might have a few misgivings that their domain was being invaded by scores of well to do outsiders who did not have to contend with much of the adversity of the terrain that he'd had to.

But he was welcoming and generous in sharing his experiences and perspectives. Likewise there was nothing pretentious about the larger group of 48 walkers who appeared to be coming to the experience with an open mind and ready appreciation of the ecosystem they are getting close to.

It's arguable that there was some pretentiousness in the use of semi-poetic phrases such as 'Eye See Bright' and 'Converging on the Shelf' to name particular points or characteristics of the walk. But I would strongly dispute this and very much appreciated the artful way in which the walk was conceived and presented to us.

That applies to both the conceptual and physical aspects of the experience. The words and phrases were consistent with the artistic flourishes in the craftsmanship of the furniture at the resting points, which was developed in collaboration with University of Tasmania design students and the Arts Tasmania public art project.

For the most part, it was a gentle experience. There was nothing of the extreme sport. A friend who did it in October suggested as much but said she found it 'magnificent and occasionally challenging'. That is about right, although I was quite proud that it turned out to be a measure my current higher than ever before level of fitness, and I rarely felt stretched physically. I was the only adult in my group who did not feel some degree of soreness in their bones, though it was the kind of soreness that was more an aftertaste of a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

My photos are here.

Starting the day with a still mind

A friend said yesterday that she admired my discipline in writing every day. It's true that I have written a blog every day except Sunday since 14 November - my birthday - and posted it at michaelmullins.org and sent it as a TinyLetter email.

If I decide to do something, I do it. If I can. There will be times when I can't. Like in the coming days when I travel to Tasmania from Saturday until next Thursday to walk the Three Capes Track with members of my family and their friends. I will be out of my routine, dancing to a different, more communal, tune that probably won't include the space and the technology that makes daily writing as easy as sleeping and eating.

Morning writing
I woke up this morning with a slight headache. I thought about not writing, in the way that you think about not eating when you're not feeling well. But I opened my computer and started to write. I just did it.

I keep reassuring myself that I am not creating expectations of the quality of my daily writing. It is about what is on my mind, the stream of my consciousness. Regularity rather than the literary or intellectual merit.

Writing in this way is a centering and mind clearing exercise that takes its cue from the Morning Pages exercise that I was introduced to this year at a personal development workshop.

The person who created the Morning Pages prescribed three pages in longhand, and it wasn't designed as a piece of writing to be shared. Those aspects of the exercise are not relevant to me in the way that writing to start to day is.

It's a practice that I am making my own, to still the mind and collect and organise thoughts and present them as an offering to family and friends and anybody else who is interested, in the manner and form of a traditional blog.