Mara : Feeding your demon

Illustrations by Carole Hénaff.

I’ve began to take more walks without my phone these days, just me and my thoughts, no distraction. And I thought alot about my struggles with my inner Mara on my morning walk this morning.

What is Mara?

Mara is the demon that tempted Prince Siddhartha (Gautama Buddha) by trying to seduce him with the vision of beautiful women who, in various legends, are often said to be Mara’s daughters. In Buddhist cosmology, Mara is associated with death, rebirth and desire. Nyanaponika Thera has described Mara as “the personification of the forces antagonistic to enlightenment.” 

“the personification of the forces antagonistic to enlightenment.” 

We all have them, Mara, morph into different forms, trying to distract us from what we want to accomplish. I have been working on fighting one particular Mara that is draining my mental energy, my efforts seem futile, there are times I thought I’ve made good progress, then I relapsed, then I feel so guilty and bad about myself. The more frequent my determination is threatened by the Mara, the weaker I become to resist the temptation.

I feel sick.

Then I came across this article, and I thought, perhaps I’ve got it all wrong.

Feeding our demons rather than fighting them contradicts the conventional approach of fighting against whatever assails us. But it turns out to be a remarkably effective path to inner integration.

Demons (maras in Sanskrit) are not bloodthirsty ghouls waiting for us in dark corners. Demons are within us. They are energies we experience every day, such as fear, illness, depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship difficulties, and addiction.

Anything that drains our energy and blocks us from being completely awake is a demon. The approach of giving form to these inner forces and feeding them, rather than struggling against them, was originally articulated by an eleventh-century female Tibetan Buddhist teacher named Machig Labdrön (1055–1145). The spiritual practice she developed was called Chöd, and it generated such amazing results that it became very popular, spreading widely throughout Tibet and beyond.

The article entails methods to use meditation to “feed our demons” instead of fighting them. Which I found highly enlightening. Since I practice meditation every morning, I will give this a go and see how it goes.

Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend. Bruce Lee

Prep Journal : Reset your mind and change your mood

Some personal observation and experiment in regards to changing my state of being.

I am about a month into my contest prep, most of my musings tend to revolve around dieting, it’s definitely difficult to not be food focus while you’re in a dieting phase, for me, it is a requirement. However, most of these strategy are effective and can be apply to many aspects of our lives.

As I am still not tracking food at this point, when it comes to dealing with hunger issues, I have to rely heavily on internal cues. There is also a difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. I have realized I deal with physical hunger much better than emotional hunger. Currently, the cue that I give myself is, “If you still feel like you want more food after your meal, then you’re in the right place, stop right now.” At a surplus or a maintenance phase,  I simply just add more food, there was definitely more flexibility.

Change your environment

Walking away from more food doesn’t come naturally for me. The strategy I use currently is immediately clean up after my meal, (make dish washing/cleaning up part of my eating routine.) And I would often walk right after my morning and evening meals. I am rather inspired by Stan Efferding when it comes to implementing walks or activity around meal times, as it improves digestion and insulin sensitivity. As soon as I move away from my dining table, clean up, then proceed to my neighbourhood stroll, my urge of wanting more food is greatly reduced. Switching up the environment definitely helps.

Use music

Sometimes when I’m feeling abit down, I listen to happy, upbeat music. I find that music is quite powerful when it comes to picking me up, this is why I tend to avoid moody music (especially love songs about heart breaks) I appreciate sad music definitely, but I find that it does nothing for my mental well being. So most of the time, I gravitate towards happier tunes.

Change your physical state 

Our physical being has alot to do with our mental well being, as soon as I get up and move, I feel my mood is instantly lifted. This ties in with walking, as soon as I pick up my feet and starts walking outside, I can feel my entire being switch. Movement is medicine.

When distraction doesn’t work

I hear people say the best thing we can do when we’re trying to change our mental state is get distracted, this has never worked well for me. With distraction, I find that the underlying problem will persists and haunt me whenever I have down time. I realized sometimes I just need to face my problem head-on, a form of mental training almost, to “grind through it”. Whether it’s hunger, or certain habits that you try to eradicate, you just have to “get used to it”, putting in the reps, until you’re not as effected by it anymore. This is a learning curve for me definitely.

Nature is your best friend

I am fortunate to be in the tropics, where weather is good for daily walks and activities. I used to be a hermit, my days were mostly screen-filled, indoors. I now enjoy a myriad of outdoor activities, on most days I start and end my day with a walk, and whenever we travel, I try to include an outdoor activity which we both can enjoy. Being outside alone, helps tremendously with mood and depression. It is not a coincidence that more people are diagnosed with depression these days : people are less inclined to go outside due to technology. Sunlight and nature is incredibly healing.

I work hard on making these habits sticks, putting in the reps day in and day out, untill this comes naturally for me.

#17weeksout

 

Bullet Journaling : Building good habits

When I look at what people do with their journals…with all the fancy drawings, different types of pens, etc…I feel intimidated. This is why I often start and fail my journaling project, even thou I work in the creative field, I can barely write recognisable letters. Kind of like doctor’s handwritings, maybe even worse.

I got the idea of bullet journaling through James Clear’s book  “Atomic Habits”. The idea seem simple enough, you list a list of things you want to work on, you just cross them off daily, no fancy drawings needed. Then I went online and saw what people do with their bullet journals..and again, I was flabbergasted at first. There are some fancy people out there, doing very fancy things with their journals, but I realise I don’t have to be fancy, as long as it serves its purpose. After some browsing, I settled on making my list on a google spreadsheet. Printed and taped on my bedroom’s wall.

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It is the first thing I see when I wake up, and the last thing I see when I get into bed. A daily reminder or some sort. After a few weeks of experimenting, I can finally share some thoughts about my experience.

Does it work ? It’s a complicated question for me. I have listed 14 habits I want to build on my spreadsheet, and I rarely ever get the perfect score. Some examples on the list included : daily walks, daily meditation, reading, no spending, limited screen time, no junk food, no eating out…just to name a few. My average score is mostly between 11-12. Do I see it as a failure? Not really.

Perfection was never my goal, I wanted to be aware of my habits, and I want to put in conscious effort daily to build the habits I want to acquire. A life not examined is not a life worth living, here I am, examining my life and try to make improvements daily.

I am definitely so much more aware of my habits once I started doing this, and just before I wrote this blog post, I’ve just renewed my list, seeing how certain habits are now cemented (meditation, screen time, daily walks, reading), and I want to hone in on certain habits I have yet to build.

 

 

Digital Minimalism : More brain, less google

I try to do this very discreetly, but once or twice a week, I go into the bookshop, pick up the same book, read a chapter or two, put it back and walk away. I’m about 50% into finishing the book. I don’t want to deprive myself the joy of buying books, but seeing how I still have pile of books to go through at home, I just have to dial back at the moment.

There was a line that I came across, written in Chinese “勇气就是优雅的面对压力“。 A translation from Hemingway’s “Courage is grace under pressure.” How I love that quote in Chinese. Instinctively, I wanted to grab my phone, and snap a photo of that page, so I can write it into my notebook later. And then I stopped myself…wait, you can memorise that line, can’t you? So I closed my eyes and read that line in my head for a few times, I wanted to exercise my brain.

Later that day, I took out my notebook to write that quote, I was pretty proud of myself for remembering that quote at that point. Midway through writing the sentence, I suddenly forgot how to write the word “优“ (part of grace, in Chinese) . Again, the impulse to refer to my phone was strong…one tap, and I’d know how to write that word. I refrained again, I was thinking to myself…it’s in there somewhere, you just have to think really hard. I thought and I thought and I just couldn’t remember it at the time, so I wrote the sentence, with a small blank spot in the middle of it, so I can come back to it later.

As I was drifting to sleep that same night…suddenly, the word appeared. Sucker. I filled in the blank spot the next morning.

This is no small feat to me personally…and I really need to practice more handwriting in Chinese.

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Digital minimalism : Becoming the person I like

I’ve been enjoying going through all the blog posts about digital minimalism, I find it comforting knowing so many people are struggling like I do, and it’s inspiring that people are so self aware : Self awareness and self reflections are the antidote to the struggles we face.

Like most people, I have tried to take social media off in the past. My work is deeply intertwined with my personal life, people I meet from work often adds me on facebook or instagram, clients follow my personal account…and so on. For the longest time I didn’t know how to separate the both, I’d go on my personal instagram, then toggle to my work instagram, then I get on my facebook account, then manage my facebook page from there….I could list so many examples, but you get the idea.

Turning on the screen time was definitely a huge turning point for me, at the time, I was averaging at 3-4 hours a day…to say I was shocked is an understatement. From then on I started become more mindful of how much I use the phone..and still, it always comes up to about 2 hours daily. By this time I was researching on how I can be more efficient with social media for work, I started using planners, and only work from my browser. Once I developed a flow, I started working on my personal account…which was much harder than what I anticipated.

Most of the people I admire aren’t even on social media. I remember how agitated I feel whenever someone picks up their phone obsessively when I sit across them, sometimes I look around during red lights, and I swear, almost every driver I see are looking at their phones, if that is not an addiction, I don’t know what is. I self reflect alot, what am I doing? Do i want to become this person that I hate? Irritable, anxious, constantly looking for entertainment after entertainment, mindless scrolling and browsing, posting every food that I eat, I couldn’t concentrate on reading my book because I have this fucking urge to take a picture of the book and post it to instagram to show people that I am “well read”. I would take intermittent breaks, but I always go back. I’d justify my behavior by saying things like “I’m just going to use it for the information.” But who am I kidding? Out of all the posts that I see, perhaps 10-20% are actually useful to me…compared to the harm it causes me, it just makes no sense to keep using it.

In just a week, I’ve listened to more podcasts/audiobooks than I’ve had in the past few months combined. I read, I write, I invested time in my swim practice, I am much more focused and relaxed and I am actually pretty happy being bored. I only have to charge my phone every 2-3 days, and my screen time is reduced to under 30 mins a day…slowly, I am becoming the person I like, the person who is confident, productive, and not constantly comparing herself to others. I used to look at older folks and admire how they’re able to just sit and do nothing at parks (which is a rare sight these days), and slowly, I am becoming one of them. (Well…not as old, yet)

This is a learning process for me, and I am just getting started, I strive to do a little better everyday.

Personal development : Digital minimalism, kicking off social media addiction

For the past 3 weeks or so, I’ve started paying more attention in how I use the internet. I began deleting apps on my phone, limiting my screen time, decluttering my facebook feeds, I then moved on to re-organising all my back ups and external hard drives. I did it very progressively and methodically, I’ve picked up so many great tips along the way, and I want to share a few things I have learnt which has helped me tremendously.

Work/Instagram feed

Since I do use social media for work, (instagram/facebook), I set them up so I can manage it on my desktop instead of my phone. Google chrome has a instagram extension where I can access my instagram online. I’ve also started using feed planner, so I can schedule my posts, and have them posted automatically. (Buffer or planoly are great)

This has greatly reduced my impulse of mindless browsing, I do admit as photographers, I do enjoy viewing other photographer’s work, but instead of having access to it all day long, I allocate a time for it, via dekstop only.

As of this point I am uncertain whether I want to keep my personal instagram feed, while at the moment I am keeping it deactivated, I am formulating on how I can use it better to benefit me, as of this point, it is a form of distraction that doesn’t add value to my life. (such as posting half naked selfies, and try to justify my behaviour by writing super long captions that no one is ever going to read. 😀)

Facebook

After cleaning up my feed (including removing tons of old photos), and saving only those which adds meanings and values to me, I’ve also installed another chrome extension for facebook (newsfeed eradicator)  Now my facebook feed looks like this :

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Again, this completely eradicate my behaviour of mindless browsing, but if I do want to see what my family and friends are up to, I’m still able to do so. I also removed facebook app from my phone. Although I can still access it through browser, it just isn’t as appealing to me anymore.

Inbox 0 

Inbox Zero is a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times.
Inbox Zero was developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann. According to Mann, the zero is not a reference to the number of messages in an inbox; it is “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox.” Mann’s point is that time and attention are finite and when an inbox is confused with a “to do” list, productivity suffers.

 

After learning about Inbox 0 via Nathaniel Drew, I cleared up my inbox…and was horrified to learn I keep old emails from as far as 2013…again, this doesn’t mean I don’t hold on to things, I only want to keep things that adds value to my life. I labeled my folders accordingly, and archive as many emails as I can. Here’s how my inbox looks like now.

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I perform the same decluttering process with my dekstop / macbook / iphone, removing unwanted apps/files, keeping only the essential, and honestly, I already feel like a huge load is off my shoulder.

While I do the same with my physical stuffs (one in, one out), donating stuffs I don’t need / use, I am far from achieving minimalism, however, I can certainly strive for essentialism : keeping only the essentials in my life. I will definitely log my progress here.

The resources that has helped me tremendously

Jamesclear.com

Nathanieldrew.com

Dr.Cal Newport

Meditation : Day 3, 30 mins a day

Some observations regarding my meditation practice.

Everybody practice meditation for different reasons, I have to quote Haemin Sunim again : I don’t have big ambition, I simply want to be able to enjoy my breaths.

Throughout this whole process of trying to better myself, it is very important for me to observe myself empathetically, free from any judgement.

It is no surprise that google is monitoring my every behavior, as this video of Nathaniel Drew pops up on my youtube feed, and it got me thinking, maybe I should set aside a time for my practice. Prior to this, I already meditate 10-15 mins daily, I do this rather aimlessly, I’d look at my clock before I start, and again after I finished. While setting a time goal may seem rigid to most, I think it will help me cement the habit. 30 minutes seem reasonable, so on Monday, I began.

5.30am, turned on the timer on my phone. 30 minutes countdown, and I began.

Instead of the seiza posture Olivier has taught me previously, I sat instead. I supinated my palms and layer them on my crotch. I have no idea what I was doing, I was simply trying to find a comfortable position.

Again, drifting, drifting,drifting, from thought to thought. Alot of re-routing my attention to my breaths. I’d drift then I’d tell myself to focus on my breath. Inhaled and exhaled slowly. Soon, agitation begin to set in, my legs are feeling numb, I felt like I was slouching (It would be fun to do a timelapse video sometimes, I am sure I wasn’t really sitting quietly) It is at this point that I began to tell myself, “Maybe I didn’t set the timer, this felt like forever ! I am sure I’ve passed the 30 minutes mark.” I tried to persevere, “Just hang on a little longer, I am sure you are getting very very close now.” And in the end I opened my eyes before the timer went off, and I always do so as if I have just emerged from the water.

Kinda funny if you think about it, this defeats the purpose of meditating, it was supposed to help me feel calm but towards the end I lost it. It was like Game of Thrones in my mind (I’ve never watched the series LOL)

Subjectively speaking, I did rather well

Monday : 2 minutes short of 30 minutes

Tuesday : 5 minutes short of 30 minutes

Wednesday : 3 minutes short of 30 minutes

My legs were so numb that each time I come out of it, I’d lay on the floor and close my eyes, and continue to focus on my breathing until I feel “recovered” from it.

Side note : I’ve just listened to this podcast by Sigma Nutrition, and Nick Gant, (he’s the director of the Exercise Neurometabolism Laboratory at the University of Auckland)

When asked what is his one advice to improve our cognitive function, he answered :”Just do one hard thing everyday.” And he briefly mentioned how meditating can be that hard thing that challenges our cognitive function. It really resonates with me. Sure, it gets easier with time but it simply isn’t human nature to sit and think about “nothing”. But I think, it is one thing that men perform exceedingly well, this explains why most monks who meditates are men. I am certain if my husband meditates, he will definitely do better than me.

 

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Haemin Sunim : Author of The Things you can see only when you slow down. Image credit to Penguin Books