Smoking and my fear of death

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Not long ago I went to see the doctor. Allergy prescription renewals and general physical. And as usual, he talked to me about quitting smoking.

I’ve been smoking for a long time but not a lot. I’ve never had more than five or six cigarettes a day or maybe a half pack max back in the days when you could smoke in bars. Cigarettes and alcohol just seem to go together, as anyone who smokes knows. A few years ago I got myself to switch to the lightest ones that my fav brand has. It used to be that I sucked harder on the light ones trying to get the hit that the stronger ones have to the point that my throat was irritated by the hard sucking, but now the lightest are my normal ones. And recently I had my daily quota down to just three a day.

So if I smoke so little, why can’t I quit?

It’s not a strong physical addiction anymore. Cutting down the quantity and the strength has helped to manage that.

Habit still plays a big part. That morning cigarette while commuting to work, the lunch time escape, the one at the end of the work day on the commute home. In order to get down to three I have to give up at least one of these because I also expect to have one or maybe two in the evening as well, though I feel a little empty when I miss one.

But for me, beneath it all, is a psychological desire for the screen. When I have a cigarette I get a little filter between myself and the rest of the world. When I go outside during lunch I get out of the building and away from the office. When I go outside in the evening or on weekends I get the same separation. Even when I smoke while driving I get a separation from the world around me. And internally, once I’ve had a cigarette, I carry a small buzz that I recognize, something that removes me ever so slightly from my situation. In busy or stressful situations it protects me. In boring situations it separates me. In all manner of situations it creates a thin bubble (I’ve been playing Angry Birds Space lately; I’m reminded of the pigs floating in their bubbles), a further definition of the dualism of me and not-me.

Non-dualistic thinking is at the crux of Buddhist philosophy, but in spite of considering myself a Buddhist, one of my greatest fears of death is the loss of me. I have a fear that after death my consciousness will be returned to a great lake of consciousness and then dissipate and disperse to the point that there is no longer an identifiable collection of elements that is “me”. At the other end of the lake a scoop is dipping into the pool and spooning out consciousness and pouring it into new vessels (babies) but the collection that was “me” ceases to be something that can be defined.

I suspect that my inability to quit smoking has a connection to this fear of death, this fear of losing “me”.

The perverse reader might suggest that by smoking I’m hastening my move toward that which I fear, but I don’t know that I care much about that one way or the other. In theory I can buy the health benefits and financial savings associated with not smoking but the strongest battle is going on at the level of a natural me versus an externally enhanced or reinforced me. Were I strong enough to not have use for extra reinforcements, then I would have no use for smoking. Were I accepting enough of a non-dualistic vision of the world, then I would have no use for smoking. I would like to be strong enough, I would like to be accepting enough, but I’m not there yet.

About Sleeping, or, How to Get to There

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For many years I had problems falling asleep. Most nights it’s not too bad; go to bed at a regular time, read or watch TV for a bit, turn off the light, and fall asleep in ten-fifteen minutes or so. But some nights can be very difficult.

  • I get a song stuck in my head, or
  • I start worrying about something, or
  • Some idea or thought or remembered conversation starts rolling around in my head, or
  • I’m on the verge of sleeping, sleeping …, and then some sound or twitch in my leg or switch goes off in my brain and I’m awake, or
  • A dream will wake me in during the night, or
  • I just wake up. For a few months I was going through a sleep cycle where I woke up, fully alert between 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning night after night. I began to worry that I was becoming like my mother who for many years now wakes during the night, stays awake for hours, and then needs to nap during the day. At least she’s retired so she can keep this kind of sleep schedule.

When any of these things happen I know that I’m in trouble because my history tells me that it’s going to take me hours to fall asleep. And I need my sleep.

Recently my wife picked up a used book because she had heard that it has helped some people who have sleep difficulties but I told her that I didn’t need it. She asked me didn’t I have sleep problems? It was then that I remembered that I used to have sleep difficulties but now it’s become so manageable that I’d forgotten that it used to be a problem. I remember having all these sleep issues that I’ve listed above, but none of them have been a problem for me for at least a couple of years now.

# # #

So how did I overcome my sleep problems? Maybe I should charge for the answer. It really has given me a lot more control over that part of my life; no more lying in bed feeling helpless, tossing and turning while agonizing over how difficult tomorrow will be because I’m going to be sleepy.

The problem with charging for this sleep aid is that I’d have to package it in such a way that it couldn’t be easily copied or I’d have to do it in person. For example I scored in the 99th percentile in the GMAT exam (99th percentile in qualitative, 95th percentile in quantitative) and I could sell techniques for prepping for the exam. If I did that in person so it would be a valid sale. I guess I could package my sleep technique into a live presentation too, but I think I’ll just give it away. My contribution to the freedom of the internets.

# # #

Counting sheep never helped me, but the process I’m going to describe does work. It’s very simple, but it does have some requirements.

  1. You really have to want to go to sleep. It can’t be one of those times when some interesting fantasy or thought process is keeping you partially awake and oh, it’d be nice to sleep but hey, this is pretty interesting/useful stuff.
  2. It’s hard work. Once you understand the process you still have to mentally work at it for it to succeed.

Ready? Here’s how it works:

  1. Get relaxed and comfortable.
  2. Focus your vision straight ahead. I know; your eyes are closed, but when my mind is wandering my eyes and my visual focus wanders as well. Pretend that you are trying to see a floater in the center of your eye. Focus straight ahead.
  3. Now, count your breaths. One way of counting is to count to ten; one count on your inhale, one count on your exhale. Once you reach ten start from one again.

Essentially this is a form of zazen or meditation. One of the objectives of counting your breath during meditation is to stop your mind from wandering. Here the object is the same; stop your mind from wandering so that you can fall asleep. Don’t force your breathing. Don’t manage you breathing. Try to remain separate from your breathing and just listen and count.

Pretty simple, eh?

Maybe too simple. It’s not difficult to breathe and to count. You may find that random thoughts still appear. Try to focus and to still your mind.

  • One trick that can help is to visualize the numbers appearing before your eyes as you count. This helps to keep your visual processing units occupied.
  • If your mind still wanders, try counting in another language. Un, deux, trios; Ichi, ni, san; Uno, dos, tres; Eins, zwei, drei. If you can’t count all way to ten in this other language just go as far as you can, counting once only for each breath rather than counting for both the inhale and exhale.
  • If that seems too easy and your mind still wanders while you count, try counting backwards in this other language.
  • Or, take two languages and alternate language each time you restart the count.

It can be hard work. You really need to want to sleep. Keep visualizing, keep counting or counting backwards, but don’t tense your body. It’s all in your mind, let your body just lie there. Keep focused. Wait for your breath, see the number and count. Wait for your breath, see the number and count. Wait for your breath, see the number and count.

The Anti-Narcissus

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There are some people who seem to be focused on others. This is the opposite of Narcissus, the Greek youth who fell in love with his own reflection. As a personality trait narcissists are defined as vain, conceited, selfish. The Anti-Narcissus is the opposite.

Some are nurses or become nurses or used to be one. Or social workers, or aides of some type, but certainly not all nurses or people in other “helping professions” are focused on others in the same manner.

By focused on others I mean people who really listen to people and who are honestly interested in them. These are people who don’t talk much about themselves. They don’t complain much, or turn incidents in their lives into amusing anecdotes, or belittle their activities or exaggerate them into either small or large events. They are honestly focused on people around them more than themselves.

Some people that I’ve known of this type are mothers. And some mothers are definitely focused on people around them, but only when the people are their children. A lot of mothers extend themselves into their children and instead of talking about themselves they talk about their children. Those are not the type of people that I’m referring to.

From what little I know Mother Teresa might be the extreme example of the type of person that I’m referring to because she apparently filled her life with giving and with doing for others. If she did so without seeking fame or seeking entry to heaven or seeking God’s grace then she was indeed the complete extreme version of this type of person. But there are also those who fill their lives with “good deeds” for the ego boost that they get from doing the deeds or from the acknowledgment that they collect for having done the deeds or for the martyrdom they can claim.

My Auntie Em is one of these people that are focused on others. She’s soft spoken, lives by herself, and when you talk with her she doesn’t say much about herself. Like many mothers she’ll talk more often and longer about what her kids are doing or what they’ve said recently than about herself. She’ll also talk about my father (her brother) or other of our relatives or friends more than she’ll talk about herself too. She lost her husband suddenly years back, and has suffered for years and years from what seems to be almost paralyzing arthritis in her hands but she very rarely mentions either.

My wife’s aunt Thilde, who passed away recently, was another of these types of people. She also lived by herself but never married or had children, but like my aunt she would talk more about you, or people you both knew than about herself. She was also very giving of herself. When we traveled to visit with her she had arranged to take a room elsewhere so that my wife and I could sleep in her small but cozy apartment.

I wish that I had more people of this type in my life and I’m sure that I’m overlooking some. And because they are anti-narcissistic I think that we often don’t take enough notice of them or appreciate them sufficiently. They travel gently and unobtrusively through the world. They don’t try to entertain us,  impress us, control us, or hide from us. When they try to advise or help us it is always only because they think it best for us and not for some hidden personal agenda.

My daughter has always been very sensitive to others. When she was two years old her daycare lady was giving heck to an older boy at the daycare for something and my daughter started crying. She’s now a teen, and has some typical teen angst and selfcentered-ness that I think is necessary for the developmental process, but it’s possible that she may grow up with some of the true anti-narcissistic traits.

Monty Hall Dilemma, Reason, Learning Experientially, and pigeons

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Named for Monty Hall, host of “Let’s Make a Deal” game show, the situation is: You have a choice between the prize behind one of 3 doors, “Door number one, door number two, or door number three”, in his words. Behind one of these doors is a shiny new car. Behind the other two are goats. This is the “Monty Hall Dilemma”.

You have a 1 in 3 chance of picking the car. You pick a door, and Monty shows you what is behind one of the other two doors, which always has a goat. Now, he gives you the chance to change your choice of door. Do you change?

Monty of course knows which one is the winning door and intentionally showed you one of the doors that had a goat. One more has a goat, and the other has the shiny new car. Did you pick the car or the goat? And more importantly, should you change now?

  1. You originally had a 1 in 3 chance. Now there are two doors left, so you have a 1 in 2 chance. It doesn’t matter whether you stay with your choice.
  2. You originally had a 1 in 3 chance, and collectively the other doors had a 2 in 3 chance. Now your choice is between your original door and the “basket” of doors that had a 2 in 3 chance. You should change, and give yourself the 2 in 3 chance instead of the 1 in 3 that you started with.

Which explanation is the truth?


Apparently pigeons are more experiential in their learning. When faced with the Monty Hall Dilemma they learn better than humans do. In Discover Ed Yong talks about pigeons ability to learn the correct answer better than humans. We have an ability to reason, but our reasoning doesn’t always get us to the right answer. We have a tendency toward sentimentality as well, which might keep us retaining our original choice. And it seems that the older we get, the harder it is for us to learn experientially like the pigeons do, as eighth graders apparently adapted better than college students. As we get older we rely more on our own reasoning and find it more difficult to get beyond or away from our conclusion.


So here’s another version of the dilemma. Instead of just 3 choices, say you have 100 doors, and you choose one. Now, Monty opens 98 of the other unchosen doors to show you all the goats, leaving just one of the other doors closed. Now, are you going to keep your choice, or switch? Your door had a 1 in 100 chance of being the one with the car originally, as did all the other 99 doors. Now, what do you think your chances are of being the door with the car, or the chances of the last other closed door being the right one?


The point of this, relative to poker, and besides the element of chance, is that we can be challenged when it comes to learning to adapt to reality. Apparently some people taking the test realized the 2/3 chance of the basket of doors and adapted their switching of their first choice to 2/3 times, as opposed to the pigeons who overall made a much better adjustment of always switching their choice, which is the best plan. Going to switching 2/3 of the time just gets you 2/3 of 2/3 chance plus 1/3 of the times you take the 1/3 chance, or 5/9 overall, as far as I can figure (correct me if I’m wrong; I’m limited in my reasoning ability too), as opposed to 2/3 or 6/9 chance that you have if you always take the 2/3 basket of doors.

Toss in selective memory and human opponents, and you can see why we have difficulty adapting to something with a multitude of outcomes, let alone a choice between 3 doors.

Coping with neck pain

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Neck stiffness and related symptoms

Ever have a stiff shoulder blade or a tight spot in the back of your neck? The kind that result in kinks and knots? Sometimes when I get these symptoms they will be followed by headaches that are generated by the tension.

I play various musical instruments, some of which hang around my neck from straps which causes problems for me. I also spend a lot of hours sitting at the computer which causes more problems. And prolonged anxiety, or living in an anxious situation for a period of time will cause the same kind of tension to form in our neck as we physically shrink and huddle our shoulders to protect ourselves, or keep our shoulders constantly tense as we try to carry our burden.

Aspirin will easily deal with the headache as well as any stiffness, but it’s only a temporary solution. Sitting straight helps. Yoga stretches help; there’s a couple in particular that are good for me where I use a short length of rope and stretch above and behind my head. Lifting free weights helps. So do sit ups.

The problem; neck position

But the real issue is that my neck and shoulders are not sitting in a strong position as I go through my day. They may have been bent by some musical rehearsal or by some sloppy sitting at the computer and now I’m habitually pinching the blood flow with my lazy sitting.

So if I consciously keep reminding myself, “imagine a string at the top of my head pulling my head up, and push the shoulders back a bit”, it helps. But ya gotta keep reminding yourself to do it ’cause you’re out of the habit of proper position. Keep checking your position two or three times every hour.

The solution; straightening the neck

The other savior is sleeping position. As I lie down to sleep I do the same reminder, pulling my head slightly higher on the pillow and slightly back from my default position. If I wake during the night, I try to remember to do the same again.

Boy, is this a relief. The straightening and relaxing as I get ready for sleep allows me to wake up without any knots or headache. After just one night everything feels relaxed and straightened, though a bit tentative and a bit sore like you might after a massage or physiotherapy. You wake up knowing that things are better, but also that your body is still vulnerable or weak. From there it takes some more stretching, exercise or reminders to build the good position into a habit again, but sleeping with your neck stretched is really a corner-turning situation. The headache will be gone, the stiffness released, and it’s the beginning of the path back to a normal neck.

Wrong Mind-Fullness

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Wind blows

Stomach creaks

To many words in my head

Can’t sleep

Simple Homemade Pizza; success!

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I’m blogging this so that I have it somewhere. I have to credit the original recipe to here, but I’m putting this in my own version with notes from how things have worked so far for us.

For our purposes this makes 4 medium sized pizzas, or 2 meals. The dough can be frozen for future use.

The pizza is nice; not as oily or as salty as most fast food pizza places. Almost pastry-like, with a thin, light crust. I suppose that may be the essence of this style of  pizza as opposed to North American pizza restaurants.

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 3/4 cups cold water

To get this colder I premix the oil and water and put the mixture into the freezer for a while. Mix with:

  • 4 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast

until it holds together as a sticky dough.

Cut into 4, round these 4 into balls and cover lightly with oil. Separate with wax paper in a container and refrigerate for a few hours or up to a day or more. Wax paper and oil will help keep the expanded dough from sticking to itself and to anything else.

Oven will need to be at 450. Take a ball. Let the weight of the dough stretch itself by

  1. holding it in a thick area and letting it stretch down, or
  2. do it the pizza way; put the backs of your fingers together to make a rounded support and spin it in the air, or
  3. a combination of both.

Spread this on a slippery/smooth, lightly floured, thin cutting board. Use one or two tablespoons of pizza/pasta sauce (it requires very little sauce). While you are spreading the sauce you can use the back of the spoon to do some additional rounding of the pizza if there are some squarish corners remaining. Add toppings, cover with mozza cheese.

From the cutting board, slide onto baking tray (this is where having a thin cutting board is useful; it makes it easy to angle the pizza and slide in onto the tray), and pop into oven for 10-12 minutes. Crust should brown a bit, cheese should brown and carmelise.

For us I discovered that we have a pizza maker; an electric circular oven with a stone bottom and a rounded circular top. Someone gave this to us years ago and we’ve only used it to make store-bought deli pizzas. But this does a superior job on these homemade pizzas.


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