Immaculata 1: September 2010

– Immaculata 1 –
September 1-September 30th, 2010

The Mission:

* Be happier.
* Gain more focus.
* Tame my babbling mind.
* Get a jump-start into being more productive.
* Lose 10 lbs.
* Quit smoking cigarettes.
* Reach Nirvana.

The 30-Day Plan:

* No tobacco
* No alcohol
* No drugs
* No coffee or soda
* No fast food or sweets.
* A vegan diet, save for fish.  I like fish.
* Wake up early. (At or before dawn if possible.)
* 20 – 45 minutes a day of meditating.
* At least 30 minutes of exercise 6 days a week.
* Continued conscious effort to “live in the moment.”
* Give a little gratitude before every meal.

The Inspiration:

* A pressing need to make major life changes, for my own health and sanity. (My amazing story.)
* My first successful Immaculata, ten years earlier.
* Several books and websites, most notably,  8 Weeks to Optimum Health by Dr. Andrew Weil (the book that inspired my first Immaculata in 2000), The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari by Robin S. Sharma (the writing is cheesy to be sure, but the way he communicates the power of “practice” really did me wonders), The Tao of Wu by The Rza (for street cred), Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen (one of the best, easiest to digest books on Buddhism I’ve read), Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill (A little “old-school” as far as tone and gender/race references, but some really good stuff in there), and The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss (Great stuff on living a dynamic, awesome life).  To be fair, there are dozens of other books and inspirations that I’ll share as I blog more, but these were the ones I read in the weeks leading up to the 30-day plan.

The Results:

Net weight loss: 10 lbs.  I’m absolutely happier, and have ten times more momentum on all fronts of my life than I’ve had in years.  People tell me I glow, which seems like a pretty good thing.  I swear to god my hair is thicker. (If it’s an illusion please don’t tell me.)  I smile a lot more.  I have much more energy.  I have no desire to smoke cigarettes.   Practicing daily gratitude has led to… having more gratitude.  Things are just, you know, better.

Of course none of this is to say that all of my “problems” are completely solved.  Not by a long shot.  But I got exactly what I wanted: A powerful jump-start into living in a way that makes me feel good and powerful and in control of my life.   I plan to do a new Immaculata every month starting in January, as well as lead “Group Immaculatas” for other people looking to make jump-starts into moderation.  In short, the momentum I’ve built, all the positive feedback I’ve received, and the unquestionably positive results have inspired me to take this on in a much bigger way.  I think I may have created a monster.  A friendly monster, but a monster nonetheless.  You’ve been warned.

And now, more info than you ever needed:

The Days Leading Up:

In mid-August I made the commitment to myself, and several others, that I would take on this challenge come September 1st.  I was gung-ho about it.  There was to be no stopping me.  But inevitably as the start date drew closer, my addictive mind went to work, giving endless justifications as to why I should postpone it a few days.  Or weeks.  Or not do it at all.  “You’re just not ready,” and “It’s really awkward to start on a day other than a Monday” were the main arguments in favor of putting it off.  The day before I was set to begin, I started crafting the explanation I would give for not following through on my promise to the people with whom I shared my intention to make these changes. And myself. It wasn’t looking good.  But ultimately I knew deep down I had to do it.  And watching my mind desperately attempt to cling to it’s addictions was the final wake-up call that I had to press forward, straight kamikaze-style.

How It Went Down:

No tobacco
This may come as a surprise to many people I know, as I was a masterful closet smoker.  Filled with shame and self-consciousness, I did most of my smoking alone, and devised

The last of the P-Funks.

elaborate schemes to hide all remnants of my habit.  I’ll certainly speak more on the skilled art of being a closet smoker as this blog develops.

Of all the prohibitions, giving up smoking was the most daunting.  I’ve started and quit smoking dozens of times, twice for over a full year.  So I knew that I could do it.  Nonetheless, it was a scary proposition, as the last few attempts were the most difficult.  I was prepared for at least one full week of extreme irritability and massive cravings, along with sleepless nights and cold sweats.   As expected, the first couple days weren’t easy, but I was so overwhelmed with all the other changes and lack of sleep that I didn’t have much time to focus or dwell on it.

I noticed as the first week went on that my cravings were always linked to rewarding myself, which makes sense as I’ve heard over the years that nicotine stimulates the pleasure and reward part of the brain.  Whenever I felt anxious or overwhelmed or found myself driving long distances I’d immediately think “No worries, things are bad now, but pretty soon I’ll get to smoke a cigarette!”  Which would then immediately be followed with a wave of crushing disappointment as I realized that no, I would not in fact be able to smoke a cigarette pretty soon.

But after the first few days, it was surprisingly smooth sailing.  In fact, of all the times I’ve quit, this was by FAR the easiest.  I don’t know if it was the distraction of the other life changes, or if perhaps I was just truly ready, but for whatever reason, aside from a few cravings the first few days, I was more or less over it in less than a week.  Amazing.

One month later: I go through most days now without thinking about smoking even once.  There are occasions when I am around other smokers when I get the craving to join them, but a couple deep breaths and it quickly passes.  SUCCESS.

Drunk Flam.

No alcohol
For most of my adult life I’ve been a social drinker.  And being a pretty social guy, this probably meant having a drink or two 3-4 nights a week.  Sometimes less, sometimes more.  But whereas for a large percentage of my friends drinking is seemingly a necessary part of being social, I’ve always been able to scale it back with ease.  Unlike cigarettes, I’d never become overwhelmed with the urge to just drink.  In fact, most of the time I’d drink just to make smoking more enjoyable.  That’s not to say I don’t have a history of getting my drank on (street talk).  Quite the contrary.  Getting shit-plastered can be a whole lot of fun.

So why cut it out completely for the month?  Well, there were three reasons.

1. Drinking makes me want to smoke, bad.

2. Alcohol has lots of calories.  As one of my major goals for the month was to lose weight, eliminating 300-400 calories 3-4 nights a week would go a long way.

3. I’m getting old, and drinking now takes much more of a toll on me.  The day after having even one or two drinks I am far more sluggish.  And after a weekend night of heavy drinking… well after sleeping until noon, I’d generally wake up, eat a huge breakfast, feel like shit, shit, then spend the next 5 hours doing crossword puzzles wrapped in a blanket on the couch watching “What Not To Wear” marathons while actively hating myself.  Well, hating myself aside, that actually sounds like a pretty sweet day.  But it just became too regular of a habit.

So, not drinking for 30 days wasn’t any sort of physical battle for me.  It just meant answering the question “What do you mean you aren’t drinking?!” a lot.  There were a couple of occasions over the 30 days when having a drink would have been nice, but overall I found that the nights I went out without drinking were actually AWESOME.  Yes, I felt sorta lame ordering OJ and soda waters with a squeeze of lime, but being sober and knowing I’d wake up the next day feeling energized was empowering.  Also empowering: seeing some of your shit faced friends making poor decisions that lead to them slurring their words in between puke breaks.  Yay me!

One month later: I’ve had drinks on a few occasions in the past month.  Generally just one drink.   One night I got drunk and dammit it was fun.  But taking the month off, I now know exactly how drinking affects me on a regular basis, and I am definitely able to keep it far more moderate.

No drugs
More specifically,  marijuana.  I have a love-hate relationship with weed.  I love when it gets me real high and I have great ideas and say silly things and music sounds all cool

Marijuana definitely played a role in this picture.

and junk.  I hate when it gets me real high and I start thinking about how I don’t call my family enough and how the world is absolutely insane and then I need to lock myself in a bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror for an hour, peering into the depths of my own personal hell.  The trouble is, it’s a 30:70 ratio at this point, in which 70% of the time I am taken to the depths of my own personal hell side of it.  And for some reason I totally forget that ratio when someone is passing me a joint or handing me a bong or offering me a space-brownie.

Like alcohol, weed doesn’t just affect me when I am smoking it, it also affects the entire next day.  It makes getting out of bed, which is hard enough as it is, like 900% more difficult.  And there’s no doubt I am more groggy, cloudy-headed, and unmotivated the entire next day.  Sometimes longer.

But every time I smoke it, for like 15 minutes I have amazing ideas that I illegibly scribble on matchbooks and incoherently speak into a voice recorder, and I “get” my least favorite Radiohead songs and understand why CHiPs is the best show ever made.  So it’s all worth it!

One month later: I’ve smoked on a couple occasions.  Luckily both times it fell into the 30 part of the ratio.  So maybe the ratio changes for me depending on my overall state.  Perhaps Immaculatized Jamie has more of a tolerance for it.  In any case, like with everything else I plan to use it in extreme moderation.

No coffee or soda
The main reason I wanted to eliminate coffee was because, like alcohol, it makes me want to smoke. In fact I generally only drank coffee before because there is nothing quite like the mix of a cup of coffee and a cigarette.  Before Immaculata I’d drink one large coffee a day.  I’d make it last as long as I could, so that I could enjoy several cigarettes over it’s duration.  It’s worth noting too that I was in no way a coffee purist.  I’d load it up with half and half and carcinogenic sweeteners.  So I was also filling myself up with fat and chemicals.  When I couldn’t get to a Peet’s (my fave) or Starbucks (not my fave, but generally pretty accessible) I’d get 7-11 coffee.  I’d fill a cup with half hot chocolate and half coffee for a sweet, delicious treat.

Soda was something I drank more out of habit.  Mostly Diet Coke or Diet 7-Up.  Chemical city.

One month later: No coffee, no soda, no problem.  In fact, I’ve become an unsweetened tea drinker.  Generally green tea.  I love it now.  I’m sure I’ll have an occasional cup of coffee or soda at some point, but haven’t really had the desire yet.  So maybe not.

No fast food or sweets.
Fast food wasn’t difficult for me, as I more or less cut it out years ago.  Also note that I don’t consider Subway, which is of course technically fast food, a fast food, as I can get a Veggie Delite sandwich there which is actually pretty healthy and convenient.

Sweet sweet Yogurtland.

Sweets on the other hand, were the absolute hardest part of this whole damn thing.  Of all my addictions, my need for sugar was the worst.  Ice cream, frozen yogurt, cookies.  Love me some motherfucking cookies.  The best is ice cream or yogurt ON TOP OF COOKIES.  Incidentally, Subway makes some damn good cookies.  And though I don’t generally go out and buy candy, if there’s a bowl of it sitting around I’ll definitely have myself 4 to 9 handfuls of it.  Oooh, and dark chocolate.  Come on.  Heaven.

My sweet tooth usually kicked in twice a day.  After lunch and after dinner.  I’d generally be able to ignore the lunch one, but god forbid I didn’t have something in my freezer in the evening.  I was blessed/cursed in my last apartment when they built a Yogurtland around the corner.  There were weeks when I’d be there 6 out of 7 days.  It was bad.

The sweet thing was the only craving I had to “deal” with throughout the span of the month.  And it makes sense.  Sweets were generally my way of rewarding myself, and given all the progress I was making throughout the month, I wanted so badly to give myself something sweet.  But being able to say no time and time again was really powerful, and made me realize how much the addiction to it was in my head.  And by gosh, I did it.  Not one sweet in 30 days.

One month later: I’ve had fro-yo like 5 times this month.  Which I am happy with.  And I’ve dabbled a bit when sweets have come up.  But I’m still quite moderate overall with sugar consumption. SUCCESS!

Wake up early. (At or before dawn if possible.)
This was hard.  I am a playboy, and playboy’s play at night.  It’s the code of the street.  So getting up early doesn’t play well into my lifestyle.

The sun rises over Granada Hills.

Ok, so I am not a playboy.  But that line about playboy’s playing at night sounded pretty sweet, right?  (Incidentally, if anyone knows how one becomes a playboy, please contact me.)

My plan to wake up at or before dawn everyday lasted a total of 4 days.  And they were magical days.  Despite my exhaustion, I’d wake up and take a long walk around the neighborhood.  The stillness and quietness, the damp, cool air.  Watching the sun come up over the mountains.  Magic.  I took a lot of photos and honestly enjoyed every minute of it.  But I was just too tired.  I know that if I stuck with it I could have gotten more used to it.  But because I am not currently on a set work schedule, and that I am fairly active late into the evening, I was comfortable letting this part of Immaculata slide.  I still hope to have a more regular wake-up schedule, and hope to work it into a future Immaculata.

One month later: Not even attempting anything before 7:30am right now.

20 – 45 minutes a day of meditating.
This was perhaps the most exciting/fascinating/enchanting element of the Immaculata.  I’ve always been fascinated with meditation and the idea of totally clearing the mind, and being at one with the universe.  I’ve tried it a handful of times over the years, but never truly committed past a few minutes.  But people say it can be the most powerful thing you can do everyday.

My Bodhi Tree

I picked a spot on my front lawn and went there every day after my morning walk.  I set my timer for 20 minutes and just sat and tried to focus on my breath.  The first day I broke and looked at my clock with 5 minutes left.  And I was disappointed that I didn’t have a fully realized spiritual breakthrough.  The next day I broke with 3 minutes left on the timer.  And by the third day I was able to make it the full 20 minutes without breaking.  This lasted for about 10 days, and then unfortunately, like the waking up early, my practice caved and I gave in with the excuse that it was too overwhelming to do all these things at once.

However, after 10 days I was absolutely starting to see the profoundly awesome affects it had on me.  I never achieved nirvana or entered a swirling vortex of serenity, nor did I ever fully clear my mind of thoughts, but I started feeling a wonderful sense of peace at the end of each session.  The most telling experience came on a day I was feeling very stressed (which was a rarity throughout the course of this).  After a heated e-mail exchange, I was feeling extremely tense.  My heart was racing and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I was having an ongoing dialogue in my head, coming up with counterpoints to the email.  I was angry.  Not knowing what else to do, I finally decided it was the perfect opportunity to meditate.  Sure enough, it worked.  It took a few minutes, but as I continued focusing on my breath and trying to watch my thoughts disappear, my head cleared and by the time the timer went off, the stress was gone and I was able to put the entire situation in perspective.  Powerful as shit!

One month later: Still haven’t done it since, but plan to do 30 days of it next month.

At least 30 minutes of exercise 6 days a week.
I kicked ass with this one.  To the right is a chart of my progress.

Workout spreadsheet. The numbers to the left were max # of push-ups, sit-ups, and crunches.

As you can see, I did the treadmill almost every day, attempting to improve my mileage and calories burned each time.  After a few days my old achy knees started to hurt so I just stuck to walking at a very fast pace.

I followed some highly recommended plans for sit-ups and push-ups and squats.  The plan worked beautifully.

One month later: The exercise has tailed off a little tiny bit, but I’ve stuck with exercising at least 4 days a week with no plans of slowing down.

A vegan diet, save for fish.  I like fish.
I’ve been a pescatarian for about 4 years now.  Haven’t had chicken, pork, or beef in that time.  And I generally try to be vegan when I can.  I tend towards soy or almond milk.  The reason I am not vegan already is simple: ice cream and cheese.  It’s hard to imagine life without those things.

Admittedly, I never fully committed to this aspect of the Immaculata.  In the immaculate sense anyway.  I had eggs on a couple of occasions.  I had cream cheese once.  I had lowfat milk in my cereal once.  Cheese entered the equation a handful of times.

The makings of a delicious fucking salad.

Not beating myself up over it, as I actually did really well with it, and dieting overall.  And I ate really well overall.  A ton of salads.  A lot of vegetables.  Smoothies.  Brown rice.  Lots of hummus.  Fish and shrimp.  Beans.  Almonds.  Ate a lot of almonds, usually 20-30 thrown in a snack bag, in case you wondered.

Eating well, not overeating like crazy, being conscience of what I consumed, it was a great experience no doubt.  Like I said above, the only difficult part was not getting something sweet in me at the end of the night.

One month later: Still eating really healthy across the board.  Trying to be vegan as often as possible, but not killing myself over it.  Going to try to go vegan again soon.

Continued conscious effort to “live in the moment.”
This is probably the most abstract of the bunch.  Basically it amounted to really trying to recognize when my mind was in overdrive.  Whenever things were making me anxious, or I was over-analyzing something, or I was completely distracted, I would take a deep breath and try to recognize it.  Try to be the seer of my own thoughts, which immediately puts you in the moment.  I did a great job with this, and it was a really amazing practice that I am still very much engaged in.  I truly believe that my own mind creates nearly all of my pain.  I am either regretting something I did in the past, or I am worrying about something in the future.  Every time I see myself doing that, the simple act of recognition immediately made it go away.  That’s not to say it didn’t usually come right back.  But I saw that the more I put it into practice, the better I felt overall.

One month later: Still doing it, still loving it.

Give a little gratitude before every meal.
I kept this very simple.  Before any meal I’d just say a little non-relgious prayer, giving thanks for the food, then thinking about the things I wanted for myself that day (i.e. a day of focused work) then hoping for a wonderful day for my family, friends, and everyone else in the world.  Just taking that 20 seconds really put me in a good place for the duration of my meal.  It feels kinda silly doing it at first, and to be honest it always feels a little silly.  But the silliness makes me laugh, and laughing before a meal feels good.

One month later: Still doing it, still loving it.

Notable Moments
1. Early in the month, my friend Josh built a sinking ship inside a gallery called Machine Project in Echo Park.  It was amazing.  Outside at the gallery opening, I was talking to

A view from inside the Ghost Ship.

him and someone asked what the sinking ship represented.  He said that it was up to the audience what it meant, and that he built it “because it’s awesome.”  That instantly became my life philosophy and gave me the confidence to launch this site and not worry about what people might thing.  “Because it’s awesome” is the only justification anyone needs for what they do.  I mean, maybe it’s not justification for punching people, or say, ethnic cleansing.  But for interesting, fun, good stuff it works.

2. Since I’ve been about 12 years old I can count the number of times I’ve taken my shirt off in public on one hand.  I’m such a self-conscious fucker it’s ridiculous.  But early in

This picture makes very little sense to me.

September I went to Leo Carillo State Beach with some friends.  I just planned to sit around, but 20 minutes in I found myself in a wetsuit on a boogie board in the Pacific.  I was able to momentarily get over my admittedly weird body issues and do something awesome.  The experience of being in the water was amazing, but the rocky shore, mixed with the insane amount of kelp and the eventual fear of shark attack ended up derailing the fun train.  But I took my shirt off in front of people, which is major progress.

3. By the second week, 4 out of 5 people I saw told me I had a “glow” about me.  A palpable glow of happiness they hadn’t seen in me in years.  Not sure what to make of it, as it seems to be a very subjective thing, glowing.  But it’s seemingly a great byproduct of Immaculata.

4. In the third week my “glow” had the affect of falsely alerting others gaydar.  Sitting on a bench outside of a coffee shop I was swarmed by several gay men within a matter of minutes.  One of them, the gayest to be sure, started a conversation.

Gay Man: “Excuse me, how do you spell ‘Mo’s?”
Me: “Bows?!”
Gay Man: “No, ‘Mo’s, as in Ho-mo’s.”
Me: Oh, I don’t know…. apostrophe m-o-s?”

If that was a test to see if I was gay, I failed.  I also failed when the conversation came to weight gain and I asked him how tall he was.  5’9 he said.

Me: “Well, I am shorter than you, and I weigh more, so you have nothing to worry about.”
Gay Man: “You are not big at all!  You are just a little dude.  And you know what they say about little dudes, right?”
Me: “What’s that?”
Gay Man: (bending over to whisper in my ear) “ALL COCK.”
Me: Right…

In the nick of the most awkward moment of my life, a small group of Hassidic Jews came by and did a Shofar demonstration for us.  I don’t know what they are teaching young Orthodox kids these days, but as the Gay Man converesated with them, they made several jokes about how they Gay Man must love the shiny smooth shaft of the shofar.  I got up and left soon after.

5. Immaculata improved my athletic skills.  I went to the driving range with my Dad once during the month.  I go to the driving range at the rate of once every 3 years.  I generally hit 4 balls with any sort of lift or distance.  The rest I generally whiff about 10 yards.  But I employed some Chevy Chase Caddyshack style Zen attitude to my swing, and 75% of my hits went really high and far.  Immaculata?!

I started playing basketball in an adult league.  I love basketball but haven’t played in over a year, since a devastating elbow injury.  But I went out there and didn’t miss.  Had like 15 points, a bunch of 3 pointers, only one miss.  Immaculata?!?

Went bowling one night.  Kinda messed around most of the game.  Then decided it was time to focus.  Ended on three straight strikes.  Immaculata?!

6. The 30 days ended on a Thursday night at The Hollywood Bowl.  Sonic Youth and Pavement.  It was the absolute perfect way to end Immaculata.  Listening to music with the perfect breeze, the lights, the happy people all around me… Even though 90% of them were drunk and stoned, I sat there so contented.   Afterwards I was given a few final temptations to pass up at an after-party: getting high/having drink/delicious looking cupcakes.  I politely declined, went home, and slept better than I had in years.