Strength of Mind: Self Immolation

Malcolm Brown photograph of the self immolation.

Thích Quảng Đức was a Buddhist monk who on June 10, 1963 led a procession of monks to an intersection a few blocks from the South Vietnamese presidential palace, assumed the lotus position where an associate poured gasoline over his head. He recited a homage to Buddha and subsequently lit himself on fire in protest.

I never fully comprehended why a man of faith would willingly take his life. Indeed, in Buddhism, life is precious and its destruction is to be avoided.  But then again, my own world view is that of a Western Christian, and Christianity’s view on suicide is very clear. Buddhism doesn’t work with absolutes.  According to one author, Buddhism sees human birth “as incredibly precious, an opportunity not to be wasted. That the human predicament includes stress and suffering is the First Noble Truth; the Second, Third and Fourth Noble Truths guide our relationship to that suffering.”

But I see here, Quảng Đức was not escaping from suffering or stress.  He was drawing the worlds’ attention to the ignoble condition of the Buddhist population in South Vietnam – a country that was then 90% Buddhist and ruled by a Catholic minority, intolerant of the Buddhist world view. “Not to be wasted” is not the same as “having ended.” It makes sense in a way: Catholics are very black and white about life and death, about subservience to authority and hierarchy; Buddhists tend to be more complacent, willing to accept their lot. Where Christianity is very much ordered around the ten commandments – concrete rules not to be violated – Buddhism is ordered around four noble truths, guides without much in the way or explanation.  In Christianity we’re taught “right from wrong;” In Buddhism the meaning of Right includes an ethical, and a balanced, or middle way.

So, why would the practitioner of a religion teaching life as incredibly precious and the destruction of which is to be avoided, self immolate in protest? The middle way.

The idea that he wasn’t escaping suffering, but rather he was embracing suffering in hopes of bettering the lot of those of his countrymen.

What was shocking to the rest of the world – his ability to remain in lotus.  In The Making of a Quagmire, David Halberstam wrote “…As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him…” He had accepted his suffering, embraced it.

The Four Noble Truths liberate people from suffering.  Here they are from Lionsroar.com

1. Suffering

Life always involves suffering, in obvious and subtle forms. Even when things seem good, we always feel an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty inside.

2. The Cause of Suffering

The cause of suffering is craving and fundamental ignorance. We suffer because of our mistaken belief that we are a separate, independent, solid “I.” The painful and futile struggle to maintain this delusion of ego is known as samsara, or cyclic existence.

3. The End of Suffering

The good news is that our obscurations are temporary. They are like passing clouds that obscure the sun of our enlightened nature, which is always present. Therefore, suffering can end because our obscurations can be purified and awakened mind is always available to us.

4. The Path

By living ethically, practicing meditation, and developing wisdom, we can take exactly the same journey to enlightenment and freedom from suffering that the buddhas do. We too can wake up.

So, by immolating himself, he was actually freeing himself and his countrymen from suffering.  Reread that passage from David Halberstam: “…As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound…”  Suffering people do not sit still. He had let go of the samsara, that belief that he was separate from others.  He gave up this existence and its suffering: to be sure, he believed in reincarnation – that he would return to the earth in another form, and not to be sent to an afterlife to sit before judgement.

The Catholics in charge of the country could not comprehend why he had done what he did because they believed in an absolute prohibition on suicide, and in the certainty of sitting before God’s judgement.  When Quảng Đức’s action did not yield immediate results, several other monks self-immolated as well.  Interestingly enough it was not the leadership of South Vietnam who came to understand, but rather the rest of the world, horrified by what was now happening, pushed the government to action.

Now that I’ve described my understanding of what happened on that day, I want to share a video taken of the event.

At a time where public protest was not the norm, at a time video recording was a novelty – if not luxury – there is a video recording of it.  Think of what a video recorder in 1963 would have looked like – as the first 75 seconds of the movie show, it must’ve been large and bulky, and judging from the angle, frowned upon by the authorities.  We see the thousand or so protesters encircling the monk, jostling perhaps for a better view, and the authorities pushing them back.

I can’t help but to think how this man was about to light himself on fire for these people, people who clearly had not reached the level of enlightenment he had – likely people with less strength of belief as his, or less commitment.  The protest was allowed to continue, even as the police would have seen the gasoline being poured over his head; perhaps it wasn’t immediately obvious to them that was, in fact, gasoline.

The most powerful moment of that recording occurs at about 2:07 – the moment he lights the match.  It’s as if everything else STOPS. The jostling stops. The police turn away from the throngs of people to face him, to a man their arms and hands by their sides: Respect? Awe? Disbelief?

By 2:25 or so you can see clearly how accurately Halberstam reported his lack of movement: it’s not for another 30-seconds of the video before his now charred remains fall over. Halberstam notes just how quickly a human body will burn, so bearing in mind the footage has been slowed down, in real time some the gathered crowd would have begun immediately bowing on hands and knees and this would have been over in a matter of seconds.

As with any telling of story, I’m quite sure there is so much nuance and fact missing from the account.  That’s not really what this post is about though. It’s about the strength of mind and purpose,  of self control and selflessness, of belief to be able to make a decision you believe to be the middle way – one coming from a place of enlightenment – even if it means putting yourself in harms way, giving yourself up for the good of the majority.

I will remember this lesson just how much the mind controls our perception of the world, how it controls our sensations. How it can allow a man literally burn to death without so much as flinching. I will remember this the next time I am faced with a challenge I don’t believe I can complete.

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Quite the Compliment

A friend of mine ran a Boston Qualifying time of just about 3:17:00 at the Providence Marathon on Sunday.  On Monday before our group run my buddy Duke and I had done a bit of a warm up, and when we arrived back to catch up with the larger group, Bill was there, ready to run. To highlight his stellar achievement, I mentioned that he had just the previous day run a marathon in the time it took us to do our warm-up run. Let’s not pay attention to the fact that here was a guy who had just run a 7:30 min/mile marathon the day before and he was out for a 5-mile run the next day. This guy is pure animal.

On our way home, my boy – he’s 12, mind you – asked me why I always seem to denigrate myself in complimenting others. Obviously, I protested – c’mon, boy, what are you talking about?  I suggested that he was fast running the marathon, not that we were slow running our 5k, but he came right back with the devastating question, “why couldn’t you have just said he was fast?”

And that just kind of hung out there for a while.

What am I going to do? Deny he was right? My 12-year old is a sophisticated enough speaker of English that he recognizes that linguistic habit. He gets the idea that the net effect of doing that is lowering my own standing with other people. In some cultures, that’s not necessarily the case, but in Twenty-first Century America, it certainly is.

I’ve never really thought about it before, but now that its been pointed out to me I can think back as far as high school and see that pattern. To show people how good they are, I have to be less.

That’s not normal.

I think it is a competitive thing for me. I strive to be better, I want to be better, and somehow someone performing at a higher level diminishes my performance. Its a ranking. While most 12-year olds don’t understand linguistics quite to the same level – or perhaps they do, they just don’t articulate themselves that way…or perhaps we just have a relationship that allows him to speak honestly to me – he nailed it. In taking control of the conversation in the way he did by just making an observation, he demonstrated a skill I didn’t know he had and demonstrated an aspect of our relationship I am proud of.

Either way, he not only went straight for the unvarnished truth, he reframed my experience, just. like. that. He listens. He processes.  He knows. We all know kids are sophisticated processors of information – as a parent, I’ve wondered and worried for years just what my kids would say about me to each other many years hence. What they’d each remember of their childhoods with me. What sort of counseling they’d need because of me, or perhaps more specifically what maladaptions would they take with them that work to a certain point and then doesn’t?

I feel a lot better knowing that, while he has definite expressions of a strong personality that will both be a great attribute for him and will also get in his way, he knows enough to be able to process these traits. I listen to him and wonder where he picks certain things up…only to hear myself utter similar things hours or even minutes later, so I know I have to show him the same skill he’s shown me. I also know that I should expect a similar response, “c’mon Dad, that’s not what I’m doing…”

He demonstrated he trusted me to listen to him and respect his point.  We have some tough conversations and yet at the end of the day, he always wants to check in with me and at the start of the day, he always wants me to walk with him to the school bus. He knows me pretty well and he’s comfortable asking me questions like “why do you denigrate yourself?”

So, it was important that I follow up with him, and thus I did. I told him that I thought about what he said, and despite my protestations I thought he was right and would seek to change my linguistic habits. “Great job” is a lot more positive than “That’s so much better than what I could do.” Positive for the recipient, and without denigrating anyone.  Lifting someone up without cutting anyone down. My boy has helped me be a better friend and person.  And, I hope, a better father.

Seek the Truth for Yourself and I’ll Meet You There.

Sometimes we just get caught up in all the wrong stuff. I’m probably the best example of this, my most recent debacle for instance. What’s more important: actually getting out there and doing the work, or getting the credit for having done the work? I started a fitness journey with the sole purpose of being able to do these things, to improve my overall health, to have fun. The purpose wasn’t to leave a legacy of official times littered over the internet, to wit, the very first race I ran on my 46-in-46 year was a self-timed 5k.

Ah, but that little goal set me off on the wrong course: 46 races by the end of the year wasn’t what I needed to focus on. It wasn’t long before I was running 2 races a day, or 3 in a weekend to push the number up.  That in and of itself wasn’t bad, but hell why run anything longer than a 5k when you’re only getting credit for one race? Why not run 2 5ks and get two done?  The next year I course corrected.

“ I used to think the human brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
Emo Philips

Sometimes, we get what we need right when we need it. Earlier this week I was out for a run with a friend. It wasn’t a long run, or a hard run. It was pretty easy for the most part: while it eased off during the obstacle races, my piriformis  is still pretty much in a knot and has really hindered running.  I know this guy from running- we met on the first long run either of us had done, where we spent the time talking and really got to know each other; you learn quite a bit about people when you have 90 minutes to do nothing but chat. Of the topics of conversation that day, books and life philosophy topped the list, so its really no surprise that a year and a half later thats what we should be discussing.

He’s mentioned it to me in the past, but this day he had pulled out a specific reference from The subtle art of not giving a f#&k, illustrated it in practice and I decided I needed to check it out.  It was the perfect antidote to my Spartan funk.

There’s absolutely nothing special about that race, about having that finishing time. Nothing. The only thing that makes it remotely special to me is that I did it.  There’s literally thousands of people that run these races every year. Not special.

So I picked up the book, and swallowed it whole. The vignette that really caught my attention was one where in his late teens while at a party in the woods, the author and his friend were discussing jumping off a cliff into the water. The last time he saw his friend alive, he was on his way to get a sandwich and the friend was heading to the cliff.

I could see myself in the same situation, overthinking the “what ifs” and “if onlys.” Spinning endlessly into depression and self-loathing. It took the better part of that summer to come to some meaning to his friend’s death, but he ultimately settled on the idea that if there is really no reason to do anything, then there’s really no reason NOT to do anything.

There is literally no reason to ever give into fear or embarrassment, and in not doing something to avoid these things you’re actually avoiding living.  Death is inevitable, but living isn’t.

And there is it. My friend Duke had given me the key to what was really messing my head. You screwed up. So what. What are you going to do next? I wasn’t afraid of failure to start, why do I fear it now? Seriously. If I was that fearful, I wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Failure is always a possibility, giving up is not. Failure is a possibility only as long as you’re alive – only the living get to experience it, and if I fail because I lose focus doing something badass, that means I’m human.

I’m stopping blaming myself, stopping the self-flagellation and moving on. At some point you realize that you’ve lived more of your life than you have left, and I’ve decided that I’m going to live that time to the best of my ability and I will not let myself get in my own way. It doesn’t matter anyway, so get out there and life your best life. I’m not building some “immortality project” (from another book the author references), I’m just out there living.

Much earlier in the week we were discussing a couple of races to run together, and I was goading him on. There’s a 10k trail race this weekend with an option for a half marathon.  He’s running the 10k, I asked him why not the half – predictably, because most sensible people would say this, his answer was that he’s running the half we had just signed up for in a couple weeks. To which I said there’s no reason he can’t do both. As it happened I decided to run neither.

This went around a bit to this point in the conversation where I said that I feel more bad-ass now than I did at 45. I love that I can kick ass on most guys my age. I am celebrating the idea that I can do this stuff. I hate running. I hate these aches and pains. But,  I LOVE kicking ass. I’m not masochistic. I’m showing anyone who pays attention that it can get done if you want to get it done. All of which sounds like the book that I’ve just finished, I just didn’t realize it. He then said something most unexpected and most appreciated: “You’re scratching your itch which is to inspire others, motivate others through your karma…I love this about you.”

I’ve never thought of myself as anything of the kind, but I appreciate the words: letting go of the reasons you can’t do something, and giving yourself the permission to challenge boundaries, to live your life may have the effect of inspiring others to do the same. Thank you Duke for that inspiration.

 

Preventable Failure: The Cycle of Self Recrimination

Over the last we’ll say 30 some odd hours, I’ve been cycling through various stages of self-recrimination.  At first I was angry that some volunteer could have made a determination that I didn’t have correct push up form or raise my arms over my head doing burpees. Then when I saw not only was I not counted for having done the correct number of burpees at one station, but at each one I attempted, I was upset with myself. Then I spent some time with the rule book and found that even shorting myself 10 burpees wouldn’t have disqualified me, just added some time to my score. Less than 20 does.  And on the second to last obstacle I failed to do even that.

And the recriminations cycle again.

Worst? This is a stupid race. A race.  It means nothing in the greater scheme of things.  I did it. I have the GPX file to prove it. I have a finishers medal and t-shirt and anyone whose ever volunteered at a Spartan races knows how closely those things are guarded. But, I just don’t have an official time.  5 burpees. 100 yards from the finish line.  It’s all I have been able to think about.

I went out for a run with my running group tonight and the topic of conversation? “How was it?” Ugh. So don’t want to talk about it. I’m not sure what’s more ridiculous – that I’m that hung up about it, or that I have something to be hung up on.  It’s a spiral and I can’t seem to find a way off of it. Even my run tonight sucked which gave me plenty of time to perseverate. I’m mentally ill. I have to be. That’s the only explanation.  Either that, or I’ve just placed too high an importance to these things.

The important thing is getting out there and getting it done. I failed. I goofed, didn’t do what I should have and as a result, I failed. It’s really that simple. People fail all the time – often in far more catastrophic ways: they kill a pedestrian after driving while impaired; they come a point shy of passing their bar exam; they make split second decisions that play out in the worst consequences.  There are a lot of worse things than spending 4.5 hours on a mountain, testing your limits, and coming up short.  No one died, thousands of dollars weren’t lost, no one’s life is worst for me having failed. Its one of those things that happens. Google “race DNF” and find stories of just crushing proportion.  I found THIS article on actually DNF-ing a Spartan. I didn’t DNF, and that cat actually did the burpees, but I guess in reading other people’s stories of failure it helps me to process my own.

Related image
This is from a remarkable blog entry on just this very topic from a slightly different view. She’s talking about dancing competitions, I’m talking about a Spartan Beast, but the lesson is the same: control your inner dialog, your definitions of success.  

No one wants to fail. No one expects to fail. My inner dialogue during the race was all about knowing I was going to finish. Never once did I think I would screw it up. But I did. I’ve screwed up plenty of things of greater importance in my life and screwed up things I’ve worked harder on and things that were far less gratifying to undertake. There are far worse things in life.

And there we are, on the other side of the cycle. At one point I wrote about the implications of negative internal dialog – your beliefs become destiny.   I need to remember these lessons. There’s two ways you can travel on a spiral: you can either slide downward or you can take the long way and crawl back up.  Sliding down is easy, its hard work going up. Just as hard as the combined 10,000′ of elevation 2 Spartan Beasts over the weekend were.

Obiter dictum: Semper Fi

I just updated my 2018 Race/Goal Tracker page.  My monthly running total for March, despite having three more days than February, came up 10 miles shorter than last month: 140.75 vs. 150.8.

NB: I usually only record tenths, unless I’m recording a quarter mile. So I’ll only record a 0.1, 0.2, 0.25, 0.3, 0.4, 0.5, 0.6, 0.7, 0.75, 0.8, or 0.9.

So, as I’m trying to increase my mileage, it’s important to me to be sure I’m on track; I use the approach that if  you manage the week, then you’re managing the month; if you’re managing the month, then you’re managing the quarter; if you’re managing the quarter, you’re managing the year.

Anyway, I finished March with 393.55 miles run on the year, which puts me at…get this… 26.2% of my goal for 2018 (it’s actually 26.237% but that’s neither a compelling story nor is it wholly accurate due to the rounding discussed above, so we’re going with 26.2%).

Oddly enough, on March 29 I was informed that I had been selected in the Marine Corps. Marathon lottery to be invited to participate in the 43rd MCM, an invitation I chose to accept. I had registered for the lottery on the last day it was open as a lark – I mean, seemed interesting enough and I had poked at it with a stick previously enough to know what package tours and the like cost. So I clearly hadn’t ruled it out, but I honestly didn’t think I’d get in.

I didn’t plan to be 26.2% of my goal, didn’t set out a plan to run a marathon – I’ve famously avoided running marathons, actually, opting for either halfs or 50ks and thereby fully bypassing the 26.2 mark totally.  The reason for that is typical me: a former supervisor has asked me if I was planning to run any marathons and I responded “I will never do 26.2…” so in the interest of maintaining my integrity, I’ve just skipped over it.  I mean 31.1 is by definition NOT 26.2 and don’t think the irony of  my “no 26.2 mile races” commitment being undone by a race honoring “Semper Fidelis” is lost on me.

Somehow it all came together at the end of the third month of the year. The fates have apparently dictated that I do this. I have remained true to my vow I would not run a marathon, but once the fates start lining up what am I supposed to do?

More interesting is the idea that on the 44th week of the year last year, I hit my goal of 1000 miles. That week was the week of October 29 and November 4. The MCM this year is October 28, so perhaps there’s a possibility that I could hit my 1500 mile goal at that point.  As I write this, I’m currently 95 miles off the pace that would have that happen, but I have almost 8 months to get onto that pace.

Sometimes goals, and challenges have to be fluid and flexible, and sometimes you just have to go with the flow – to be ready to accept a challenge when one is offered.

Marathon training starts now.

Being a Parent

Being a parent means being consistent
Because you’re teaching your children the world has rules

Being a parent means expressing anger
Without expressing rage

Being a parent means admitting mistakes when you make them
You will not always make the right call and the world is better with people who understand they can be wrong

Being a parent means doing the right thing,
Because it’s the right thing, not because it’s the easy thing

Being a parent means acting in someone else’s best interest
Instead of your own

Being a parent means always telling the truth
Even if it is an age appropriate truth

Being a parent means never violating your child’s trust
Your child’s world cannot be safe if he doesn’t trust you

Being a parent means being firm and fair
Even when you don’t want to be

Being a parent means participating in your child’s interests
You’re showing her you’re interested in her

Being a parent means talking
About things you’d almost certainly rather not talk about

Being a parent means saying, “I love you”
And not expecting to hear it back

Being a parent means creating a safe and loving home
Where your child could not feel more safe, or more loved

Afterward: I wrote this better than 10 years ago and have recently uncovered it.  Ten years have passed and when I read this I think, “wow, that’s heavy…” and then I worry I haven’t lived up to my own definition, despite my best intention to do so.  I hope I’ve done enough to allow my children the charity and good faith that I tried to do whats right for them.

Learn to play in the tall grass.

Image result for “If you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to learn to play in the tall grass.” tom brady
“If you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to learn how to play in the tall grass.”

The evening of February 3, 2002 was a magical time, truly one of disbelief.  That was the evening the New England Patriots became Super Bowl Champions for the first time, led by 24-year old Tom Brady. This is a guy who truly lived the embodiment of what I preach to myself all the time: do the things you need to do to put yourself in position when that big break happens.

He was the 199th draft pick in the 2000 draft: he was never the #1 guy, but he worked incredibly hard and kept working hard.  He even had a back up plan in case football didn’t work out for him.  He was a 4th string QB for the Patriots that 2000 season.  Think about it: the team which almost never carries three QBs carried four. They liked him.  They liked his drive, his intelligence, but also knew he wasn’t quite ready to carry the load.  He earned his shot and he kept earning it.

By that fateful game in 2001 that ended Drew Bledsoe’s run as starter in New England, Brady had worked his way up to second on the depth chart. Work ethic, and determination at play.   All the reps with the practice squad, all the time studying film.  Everything he did positioned him to be there when fate called.

My wife and I went to game 10 on the season, the St. Louis Rams at the New England Patriots, and I remember saying to her that this would be the Pats’ Super Bowl – the Rams looked unbeatable, world class.  Indeed, the Pats lost that game by a touchdown, but on the way home we agreed that they looked really good and had a decent chance to win.  They wouldn’t lose again that season.

Why, some 16-years later, on the eve of Tom’s 8th Super Bowl appearance, am I writing about THIS game?

It serves to highlight what I hope to be. I hope to best position myself to take advantage of that big break should it come.  I hope to be positioned through doing the work I need to do to be ready.  One doesn’t just wake up and run a marathon, or even ten miles as I learned this morning after having taken too much time between long runs. It’s a reminder to keep doing what I need to be doing, to set my goals, do the work toward those goals, and if I’m comfortable that I’ve done the work, the results will speak for themselves: I’ll either be up to the challenge or I won’t, but there will be no excuses for failure.

The one vignette that sticks out to me as highlighting emotional intelligence, the complete confidence that comes with being prepared, and the recognition that all the prep work has been done and no more worry or work can improve the outcome – indeed may serve as detriment to accomplishing goals – is this one: before  biggest game of his life, Super Bowl XXXVI, this 24 year old (let that sink in for a moment) took a nap in the locker room. Not because he was overtired, but because he was relaxed.

I ran a half marathon in October. I went to bed early, but within a few hours I found I couldn’t sleep. I was so amped up. Eventually I found I was tired but afraid to go back to sleep for fear of oversleeping. So I drove to the city, parked and tried to sleep in the front seat of my car.  Like that was a thing that was going to happen.

I didn’t eat well, I didn’t sleep well. I was a hot mess and the results show it.  This for a half marathon that I didn’t even pay an entry fee for.  Brady, on the night he would define his career with millions of people world wide watching, with millions of dollars in future earnings on the line and a legacy to be had, he fell asleep because he was just THAT prepared.  There is some debate as to whether it was 20-30 minutes or if it was a couple hours, but it doesn’t matter. He was so relaxed in his preparation, on the biggest stage he could nap.

I had a 45-minute presentation I had to give to leaders in my organization this week. I was nervous, I was prepared but nervous. There was no way I was going to take a nap, though. I have to imagine in those moments leading up to the start of Super Bowl XXXVI, TB12 just felt confidence, conscious competence.  When you do the pre-work, you’ve spent the time studying, you’ve worked as hard as you can work, you know nothing else you can do will make your performance better. Could I have made my performance better? Absolutely. I can think of a hundred things I could have done beforehand that would have yielded incrementally better results.  I didn’t take the time to do them, and as a result I was amped up and nervous.

“By the time you spike that ball, you’ve got 40 seconds and you’re thinking ‘this is for the World Championship.’” That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it.  Its about doing your job day in and day out at a high level without thinking about what could happen at some other point. It’s about making incrementally better decisions, better outcomes, and with those outcomes putting yourself in position to achieve your ultimate goal. Seven seconds left on the clock as he spiked the ball on the 30 yard line to set up the Vinatieri field goal was the point at which he said, “this is for the World Championship.” Not with a minute-thirty left. Not in the locker room. After his work was complete. With the spike, and a confident out reach of his hand, the ball lands softly and his work is done.

Every day isn’t the World Championship, not every job has a world championship hinging on the outcome of the smaller tasks during the year, but excellence, preparedness, execution those are the hallmarks of putting yourself in position to best achieve when called on.

I’m trying to remember that. Study, prepare, anticipate, prepare, know the goal, prepare, work, prepare… EXECUTE.

That’s why it’s important to not only find something you like to do, but to find something you’re passionate about doing. Put the time in, work it. Done consistently, you will be in position to do the most with that next opportunity, whenever, and wherever it comes.