Lately I’ve been thinking that I need to make some changes in my life. I am concerned about my stress levels. One of the biggest causes of stress is the organization of the 2012 Ted Powell Memorial Race weekend at Calabogie Motorsports Park. It’s been an uphill battle for months. There are many major issues that need to be resolved.

Additionally, I have felt unfocused and scattered. I need a way to find calm, learn to relax and focus, and deal with the issues at hand.

I also just finished reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Steve practiced Buddhist meditation, although he did not seem to live a Buddhist life – he was a fantastically talented asshole. But he was also incredibly focused. I wondered if Buddhism was a key to that focus.

White Wind Zen Centre
White Wind Zen Centre

A week ago, I found that the White Wind Zen Centre was offering an Introduction to Zen Workshop, so I signed up after some hesitation. The course was today.

The information page asked the participants to wear comfortable, dark clothes that will not cut-off circulation while sitting. I gave this much thought and decided to buy a pair of medical scrubs. I always wanted a pair. When I was in high school the cool kids wore scrubs. I found that only one place in Ottawa sells scrubs so I headed there. They had many different colours but I chose a pair of black bottoms. They were so comfortable. They only had V-neck tops, which I am not comfortable wearing, so I had to find a top. I headed to the new Walmart on Baseline. The parking was a nightmare – they don’t appear to have enough spaces. I bought a simple dark-grey button-up shirt.

Then I left for downtown.

The White Wind Zen Centre is in Sandy Hill, surrounded by a tall hedge. It also has a monastic name: Honzan Dainen-ji. When I arrived, there were two other participants waiting outside on the porch. The centre is a heritage building with a large wrap-around porch. There was a small pond with a waterfall beside the Centre. There was a multitude of birds eating and bathing in the water. The biggest grey squirrel I have ever seen was exploring in the front yard. It was so peaceful; I could have just sat on the porch for hours taking in nature. 
At precisely 1:30PM, the front door was opened and one of the monks allowed us to enter. We had to remove our shoes and socks upon entering. I changed into my new purchases.

There were 6 participants. Our training was conducted by two monks. Both had cleanly shaved heads and wore simple dark tunics. We had a short introduction in the kitchen before we entered the zendo.

In the zendo or meditation room, we were introduced to the basics of zazen. This is a sitting practice. Everyone sits on a zabuton (like a large flat throw cushion) and zafu (round meditation cushion). During zazen it is important to sit up straight. The key is to form a stable base by creating a triangle with the butt and knees. For example, most people know the lotus or half-lotus position. I was not able to use either so I chose to tuck my feet behind the opposite knee. Our hands must also be positioned correctly.

Once everyone is seated, the zazen begins with three strikes on a bell. The zazen participant will breathe deeply and bow with the strikes.

Zazen is a 30-minute sitting meditation, with eyes open. One must experience all of the sensations. This includes the feeling of breathing, the feel of sitting, the feeling of your clothes, the sounds of the room and what you can see without looking around. It was important not to get lost in thought about the sensations. The purpose was just to experience the sensations without a mental commentary. The zazen ends with another strike of the bell.

Between the 30-minute zazen sessions was a 10-minute walking practice called kinhin. This is a slow walk around the periphery of the room. It also focused on the physical experience, including breathing, the feel of your feet on the wooden floor, the feeling of your clothes, the sounds and so forth.

The first two zazen were done facing the room. The last zazen was facing a wall, which is the normal (non-novice) practice. This was more difficult for me, as my eyes hurt. Although I was at the correct distance, my eyes strained to find focus on the white, textureless surface of the wall.

After three sessions of zazen and kinhin, we left the zendo and went to the kitchen for a question and answer session.

During the practice, I did not understanding the theory behind zazen and kinhin. I was expecting it would be more trance-like, an unguided daydreaming state. Instead we were told to focus on just the physical sensations and not on the mind.

It took a while to really understand this. The purpose is to attain mindfulness. There is much about our lives that are just ideas running around in our heads. Stress and worry are created only within ourselves. Although external influences cause us to feel bad, our emotions are only what we feel in our mind.

The first Buddha started with what is known as the First Noble Truth – that there is suffering and sorrow in the world. We experience pain and sorrow when we contemplate that our life is not as we wish it would be. Although we rarely think about it consciously, we are also afraid of our inevitable death. No matter how hard we wish it, it is not possible to achieve the life we desire for ourselves. The dichotomy is a source of internal suffering.

The Buddha concluded that suffering was not caused by the nature of the world, but rather our reaction to the dichotomy.

The Buddha realized that by being honest with oneself and understanding that everything is impermanent. Our possessions, our desires, our thoughts and our lives are fleeting on the scale of the universe. This understanding is the path to Buddhist enlightenment.

By concentrating on only the physical sensations available, zazen is a starting point to this understanding. Although we think we feel emotions and thoughts, in reality we can only sense (feel) our immediate physical surroundings. All else is created in our minds. This understanding comes from experiencing the physical world without an analysis in our minds.

The teachings of Buddha are much deeper than this, and include the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The course at the Zen Centre covered only the smallest fraction of Buddhism.

Now that I have taken the course, and have completed some supplementary reading, I need to think about this some more. I need to understand how this fits into my mental framework, and how I can incorporate what I find valuable. My goal is still to achieve a more balanced, focused life and to reduce the stress and worry that I feel.

Blood donation

Today I donated blood for the first time. I have wanted to give blood for a long time. Every month or so, Canadian Blood Services (CBS) would hold a donation clinic at the cafeteria at work.

Nothing happens without being proactive, so I called CBS and booked an appointment to sign up to be a donor. I was asked a few questions on the phone when I booked, mostly around what countries I have visited. After going through them all, the attendant agreed that there were no issues and booked me for my first donation.


The clinic was actually a Bloodmobile, which was parked at the Costco building. I arrived a few minutes early. When I entered the bus, I was checked in immediately, then sent into a room at the back of the bus where I could fill out a form in private. After I filled out the form, a nurse went over the form with me, as I had noted a few items, such as when I fainted in Los Angeles. We also reviewed the countries I have visited, and again there were no issues. I was also asked about my vaccinations for an upcoming trip. When I booked the appointment, I was not told that I needed to list my vaccinations too. I could not remember everything, but the nurse and I worked through the list for Tanzania and agreed that I was ok. She also told me that after I return from Tanzania, I will not be able to donate for a full year, due to the malaria risk.

After the paperwork was completed, I was taken to one of the four beds in the front of the bus. I was connected up and I could see a small, clear bag that filled with blood. From that small bag, four tubes were drawn, like the ones used for blood tests. I waited for the next phase when they would start the donation when the nurse stopped by and said I was all done. I was surprised, and so was the woman across the isle. She had been donating since before I lay on the bed. She glanced over at me in shock that I could be done so fast. I didn’t even know there was a second tube I could not see that had already been taking the donation.

I was told I had to wait for 5 minutes before I could leave, and was given a timer. As I sat there, I started feeling cold (that was expected), but I also started feeling a little nauseous. Then I felt lightheaded. I thought it was minor at first, but it started getting worse. I started feeling like I did in Los Angeles before I passed out. This was not good. I could see the timer counting down; nearly 5 minutes had elapsed, so I waited until the nurse returned instead of raising an alarm.

When she returned, she could see I was in some distress. She asked me how I felt, and I explained. She set the bed down flat and I laid down. Another nurse came by and inquired about my state. The first nurse replied that it was my first time, and the second nurse nodded knowingly.

I was brought a bottled water and an orange juice. Even though I thought I had drank enough before my appointment, I could see that it was not, and that I did not have enough sugar. Next time I’ll know better and be prepared.

After a few short minutes I felt much better and could get up. I walked to the front door of the bus and sat down. There were Oreo cookies there, so I had some – it’s been years since I had some and they were good! Feeling much better, I got in my car and headed to work.

[Updated Oct 31, 2011: One reason I pushed myself to donate blood was because I had a friend and former colleague who was diagnosed with Leukemia. Sadly, Craig passed away on the weekend. Last week, before this news, I began looking into bone marrow donation.]

Papa's not quite a stroke

On Friday, Rosa called me around noon to tell me that there was a problem at home. Mama had called her and said that Papa was behaving strangely and was confused. He was not able to answer any questions. It had started on Tuesday, and even though Rosa asked Mama twice since then if everything was ok, Mama said yes it was ok until out-of-the-blue this morning it’s not ok. This is one of the fundamental challenges to sanity in the household – the continuously changing story about what’s going on.

I told Rosa I would leave work as soon as I could, which was later in the afternoon. If the problem started on Tuesday and has not changed since Tuesday, then it was not an emergency situation yet.

When I arrived, Papa seemed ok physically. Mama said he was sleeping more than usual (he already sleeps about 18 hours a day), but that’s not a cause for concern (yet). She said he gave strange answers to questions. My problem is that I do not speak Mandarin, and even if I did, I would not be able to interpret his mumblings. He mumbles because his jaw joint has changed due to the advanced rheumatoid arthritis.

I watched him through the evening, but I could not see any issues and I felt I could not make a good assessment on his mental cognition because communication was nearly impossible. I had to wait until Rosa returned home in order to make a better assessment.

When she arrived home, we spoke with Mama and Papa. It seemed that Papa was very confused. We debated if we should take him to the hospital. Rosa had the brilliant idea about calling TeleHealth Ontario and talk with a nurse. It was nearly midnight when we reached a nurse. After about 10 minutes of discussions, the nurse said that an ambulance would be called to bring him into the hospital.

We ran around to get a few things packed for what might be a long night. The ambulance arrived and they also assessed Papa. Asking, through Rosa and then Mama, if Papa knew where he was or where he was born. His answers kept changing and were confused. They bundled him up and took him downstairs to the ambulance.

Papa in the emergency room
Papa in the emergency room

We arrived at Queensway Carleton Hospital close to 1:00am. Rosa came in her car separately. We planned that she would help with the check-in and assessment, and then go home to get sleep and relieve me in the morning.

We waited a long time – there were other patients who needed more urgent attention, including a car accident victim and a girl who had had a severe food allergy. Around 2:00am, we decided that Rosa would leave as I was feeling better equipped to deal with Papa, now that I understood what questions needed to be asked to evaluate his cognition (where are you, where were you born, what is your wife’s name). I can do this with Mama’s help.

As shifts changed and specialists were called, we saw 3 doctors in total. We agreed that he had symptoms of a stroke, so he was X-Rayed and had a CT Scan. The results came a few hours later – nothing was visible. This means that it was not a stroke. The blood work indicated a severe sodium imbalance, which might also cause the results we were seeing. So he was hooked up to an IV drip – 2 litres in the first 2 hours, which is a lot considering he weighs less than 90 pounds. More IVs were given later, but at a much lower rate. His demeanour changed and he was able to understand much better. Everyone could see the difference in his face after even the first IV.

Papa in the CT scanner
Papa in the CT scanner

However, it was decided to check him in to a hospital room for further observation. The doctors were concerned about his weight – he is literally (not figuratively) a bag of skin and bones. He also seemed to have a sleep problem like sleep apnea – he breathing would appear to stop. They wanted to take some CT Scans of his chest, as they were concerned about his persistent cough. The cough started in both Mama and Papa about 4 years ago after they returned from 3 months in China.

In the morning, Rosa and I decided that she would go to the Les Petits Ballets rehearsals – her performance is only 3 weeks away. She would come in the afternoon to relieve me at the hospital and help with any further paperwork for the check-in.

She arrived just after 1:00pm. We grabbed a quick lunch and went to see Papa. There was no room upstairs for him yet, so he was still in the emergency area. We checked with the nurses, and there was nothing we could do and there was nothing left to be done to check him in. I left the hospital to get some sleep and Rosa went back to rehearsals, leaving Mama to watch over Papa.

I got about 4 hours of sleep before they both arrived home in the evening. Rosa and I went to the NAC to see the Toronto Symphony Orchestra present an evening in celebration of Slavic composers (Dvořák, etc). I left my cell phone number with the nurses, should something come up.

Last night, I got over 10 hours of much needed sleep.

This morning, Rosa called the hospital and found that Papa would not be discharged today. I’ll go to the hospital in about 30 minutes to check in on him.

Sleep Study Redux

Queensway Carleton Hospital
Queensway Carleton Hospital

Today I went back to the Queensway Carleton Hospital for a second sleep study. This time it was during the day.

I arrived at 8:30am and signed in. I was shown to my room and the very nice nurse wired me up. This time they only needed to wire up my head and two on my chest to measure my heart rate.

The study was actually four naps of 15 to 20 minutes each, with about 90 minutes between sessions.

The first nap was around 9am. It was much easier to nap than when I was here a month ago for the full night sleep study. The room was not as cold or noisy. The hospital bed was still very hard, but it did not bother me as much because the session was shorter; I could get up and move around between sessions.

The second session was at 11:30. Afterwards I had a small lunch. The third session was 1:15, and the final one was 2:45. I was free to go after that. The nurse helped me comb out the wax used to secure the wires to my skull.

I headed into work. I needed to be in the office to run a tool that only works when I am physically on the corporate network. It took much longer, and I didn’t leave the office until after 11pm.