Letting Go… of Sugar

Holy crap. First of all, I never thought I would be the kind of person to stop eating sugar. I’ve been firmly addicted for years. My favorite food is ice cream. I’m not a fan of fad diets, although one time I did do five days of the ten-day Master Cleanse.

Now I’m questioning everything. And if sugar can go, what might happen to gluten, or, God forbid, dairy? Caffeine?? (Not a chance. Not ever.)

Back to the beginning. Well, to a month ago. I decided I should tighten up my eating habits, and a few whispers I’d heard recently put sugar as a big question mark near the top of my list. “I’ve been eating a lot of cookies lately. What if I… didn’t?” This is how my brain works. It’s weird.

So I haven’t given it up completely, but I’ve cut back significantly, and cut out all the things that contain obvious processed sugar. No ice cream, cookies, cakes, pies, sweet breads, fudges, marshmallows (only once has this come up), soda (also only once), or fruit juice. Things I allow myself still: very dark chocolate (like 85% — not much sugar), plain yogurt (way more sugar than dark chocolate), and fruit (although I’m starting to cut back on this now, too).

This sounds like it would be a huge feat of self-control, especially since I would regularly chow down on sweet pastries to fill the calorie gap I have from exercising a lot and forgetting to eat regularly. But it hasn’t been hard at all. Seriously, after the second day, it’s been a breeze.

I don’t crave sweets at all any more. Most fruits are starting to taste so sweet that they almost hurt my mouth (hence the cutting back here, too). I wouldn’t necessarily say I feel substantially better all the time, but I have eliminated the lows that come a half-hour after a sugary snack. Here’s the best part: all food tastes better. My taste buds are coming back to life, having been numbed down by years of over-stimulating sugar.

This all kind of started on a whim, but now that I’m doing it I’m starting to find out all this crazy stuff about sugar. Basically, it is the Devil. Of food. Seriously. It seems to be one of the main causes of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, even cancer. It’s super addictive. It puts a huge strain on the liver and pancreas. All in all, it sucks big time. Here’s a National Geographic article about all that, along with the sordid history of the demonic treat. I have no idea who this guy is, but he says that the way to actually lose weight is to stop eating sugar. I’ve heard stories of this working wonders.

Apparently, a lot of people have known this a lot longer than I have. Cool. I don’t know why I didn’t jump on the no-sugar bandwagon long ago (side note: it seems “Sugar-free” and “Diet” snacks are evil in their own right. This is all about eating real, healthy food, mostly prepared by ourselves. Don’t trust the industrial food-processing conglomerate with your health). But I’m glad I figured it out now, and sooner rather than later. I can barely believe myself when I say it, but at this point, I don’t even want that piece of cake.

Demystifying Meditation: The Three Basic Types of Meditation

What’s the deal? What is meditation, anyway? I’ve been working on a short E-guide which I’ll be publishing in the next few weeks here called “How to Kickstart Your Personal Meditation Practice.” Writing this has made me realize that there isn’t a wide understanding about what meditation is. Of course, it’s a vast topic, and at the same time it’s supposed to be the simplest thing there is. Just sitting? This should give some basic insight into what’s going on up there when we’re quiet.

Meditation activates (and deactivates) a variety of brain regions, and different kinds of meditation actually do different things. I’m not going to get too deep into the neuroscience, but I want to describe the three main types of meditation. Nearly all styles and traditions of meditation fall into one of these categories, or bridge more than one of them.


Presence meditation is all about developing attention and concentration. It often involves the breath or focus on a single object. It might be called “present-moment awareness,” “anapanasati” or “attention-focusing” meditation. This is a hugely helpful technique to practice, as it brings awareness and concentration to all our actions.

Presence meditation is also the foundation for most other meditation techniques. Before delving into the mind or emotions, we must be able to pay attention to what we’re doing. This doesn’t mean it should be discounted as less advanced than other techniques — some people practice exclusively presence meditation, and it is extremely rewarding. It might be the best tool we have to fight against the attention-drain caused by all our devices and tech.


What is the mind? Perspective meditation includes all techniques that involve observing one’s own mind. This means watching one’s thoughts, cultivating an understanding of how and why they arise and pass away, and beginning to see through the illusions the mind creates around us. This is also called “meta-cognition,” which is an awesome word.

The more perspective we gain on the self, the more we understand that the ego is a construct of the mind, and not something which truly separates us from the rest of the universe. This style of meditation moves us toward an experiential understanding of the oneness and interconnectedness of the universe. It can be a bit heady. With regards to achieving traditional enlightenment, this is probably the fastest route (but don’t expect to get there in this lifetime!).


Affective meditations focus on developing certain positive qualities or thoughts. The most common forms are “loving-kindness” or “compassion” meditations. It is less about achieving a transcendental state and more about cultivating a life that’s worth living while we’re here. It is an extremely effective method for training our emotions and generally feeling good about life.

Affective meditations typically involve some kind of visualization, which allows us to experience certain feelings, such as love and gratitude, and strengthen the neural networks that are responsible for them. This brings those experiences to the fore, integrating them into our lives as a whole. Compassion is the most common elevated experience we practice through affective meditation, as it is universally perhaps the most valuable characteristic we can possess. Theoretically, you could practice any emotion, though.

Each meditation style affects the brain differently, lighting up different brain regions under fMRI. By activating those regions, the neural networks become more dense and used to working together. This brings the lessons we learn while meditating into the rest of our lives. It is a slow process, and the results are often not tangible, but if we are committed to the practice, they are undeniable.

Only with regular practice over a long period of time do we begin to notice that we are less stressed, more open and compassionate, and more understanding of our own thought processes and emotions. Just because meditation is hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it — in fact just the opposite. As any meditator will tell you, a consistent meditation practice is one of the most important things we can do with our time and energy.

If you’d like to get going on your own meditation practice, keep an eye out for the E-guide I’ll be publishing here in a few weeks. Or just take a few minutes to sit quietly and see what happens! It’s amazing what the brain will do.

Can you run a marathon without training?

I’m not going to recommend this. But maybe someone you know has casually suggested, “Oh yeah, if you’re in good shape, you can probably run a marathon anytime.” I used to say this even before I’d even run a half marathon. I always believed it, just never had a reason to test it. But that’s a pretty bold claim to make casually. Also, science.

So when I found out last Saturday that my friend had an extra bib for the Vermont City (Burlington, VT) Marathon happening the next day, I decided it was time to run some tests. After all, I had gone on a three-mile run the day before and had felt like I could have run at least five. My lungs had cleared up quickly from the pollution I acquired traveling in India. So I got the bib switched over to my name and started hydrating for the race happening in 16 hours.

Here’s what I mean by not training: In the six months leading up to the race, I went on a total of four runs. I ran 7 miles one time in March in India, and the heat destroyed me. I didn’t run anymore on the subcontinent. I got home to Vermont last week and went on three 3-mile runs. Then a day off, then the marathon. BUT, I’m in pretty good shape generally, as stipulated in the hypothesis above. I was recently doing a lot of walking in the foothills of the Himalayas, I have a regular yoga practice, and I have experience with long runs, including one previous marathon.

I did some internet research on running marathons without training, just to make sure I wasn’t going to die. People have done it. People in worse shape than me. People do die in marathons, but not training doesn’t seem to be why. OK, I feel encouraged. I also have good body awareness from the yoga, meditation, and other running I’ve done. So, I planned to go with the new-agey tactic of “listening to my body.” I promised to abandon my sense of ego which would be pushing for a faster time, and just focus on finishing the race.

2014-05-25 13.30.19

Blood from a blister that popped around mile 14

It worked pretty well. Around mile 4 I had a brief moment of terror, remembering what it means to run 26.2 miles. But by mile 8 I was in the groove, watching the scenery and slowly letting the miles tick by. I passed the half-way mark about 30 minutes slower than my first marathon, but no big deal, I was in really good shape for that. And, eventually mile 18. I probably kept up an 8:30 min/mile pace until then. But, oof. Hit a wall. My quads started screaming, my tummy grumbling. I started walking at water stations, ran through sprinklers people had put out, and strongly considered grabbing the beer someone was offering from the sidewalk. But, onward!

Slowly, slowly, to mile 20, 21. Two things happened simultaneously. Thing 1: I realized I was going to finish. Even if I walked the rest of the way, I’d finish before they kicked me off the course. Thing 2: The wall turned into one of those evil demon walls that doesn’t just block your way, but actually attacks you as you approach it. Things hurt, my brain was tired of trying. Everyone was passing me, except one girl who was puking on the side of the course. I passed her. But then she started running again and passed me, too.

made it

Celebrating the finish in the medical tent (just to get my toe cleaned up). Mustache is a must for impromptu marathons.

But, for science! I jogged as much as I could, walked a little bit, jogged some more. Eventually I found the finish line and crossed it. I made it in 4:01:53. Pretty decent time, mostly because I had a solid run for the first 18 miles. More importantly, now I know that it’s possible to run a marathon without training. And even more importantly than that, now I never have to do it again.

Maybe you are thinking (or have thought) of being stupid like me. Here’s some advice. Do you think you can finish a marathon? If so, I believe in you. You probably can. It will hurt, but that’s part of the “fun.” If you actually try this, don’t try to push your finishing time at all. I had some moments of wanting to break four hours (I knew I was right on the cusp), but speeding up might have meant pulling a quad or hamstring. It’s not worth it. Listen carefully to your body, and be fully prepared to withdraw from the race at any time if something is not right. Hydrate a lot before, and a lot during, especially if it’s warm out. Your body will be confused, and water helps everything, unless you don’t have enough salt. Eat enough salt. Plan to not be able to walk for two days afterwards.


Here I am not walking

Honestly, running a marathon in three hours was easier than running it in four. Less pain, less uncertainty, less worrying about injury. A lot more training, but I train because I like running in the first place. Now that I know this is possible, I’m not planning to ever do it again.

In summary: If you don’t like running, why would you run a marathon? If you do like running, you might as well train for it.

Meditate with Max!

Neuroscience, Society

A lot of the reading I’ve done lately has focused on neuroscience, taking a systematic look at how the brain works best. In many cases, this reinforces our intuition about human interaction. Often, it surprises us. More and more, these readings are highlighting for me areas where our society is at odds with how humans have always functioned and how we function the best. I’m not a neuroscientist (except, aren’t we all?), but here is what I’ve been able to put together.

On a fundamental level, we’re finding that the most important part of life in terms of cultivating happiness and fulfillment is our social engagement. It is a healthy functioning limbic brain (the emotional system common to all mammals) rather than reptilian (reflexes, instincts) or neocortical (higher cognition) that allows humans to flourish in society and not become reclusive, depressed, or psychotic. The limbic system is largely cultivated through close relationships, especially during childhood, but later in life as well. It sounds corny, but the word we’re looking for here is love. Parental love allows our brains to develop properly as infants, love from our teachers helps us learn in school, and love from a partner allows us to deal with difficulties throughout life. This is a wonderful thing to know and be able to put into action, but it’s a devastating lens through which to view our society. Here are a few areas that could be vastly improved by acknowledging the human need for love.


I’ve written about some of my qualms with the internet before, but this one is getting worse. We continue to replace our face-to-face interactions with screen time. Our emotional brains resonate through subtle cues in body language, eye contact, and touch which cannot be mimicked by text messages, email, or Facebook. All this technology gives us the sense of being connected to people, but without any of the deep emotional bonds that goes with it. Instead, we get a quick dopamine fix from the constant stimulation and fall in love with our phones instead of our friends. Have you tried saying hello to strangers on the street lately? It’s nearly impossible.


Our society encourages parents to get back to work as soon as possible once they have kids, even though spending time with their children is the most important thing they can do for their kids and for society at large. It forces single parents to hold down full time jobs while paying for child care, which is no substitute for building the emotional bonds between a parent and child. Even maternity leave (and the occasional paternity leave) considered to be “generous” barely scratches the surface for a child’s emotional development. Combined with the stigma against full-time parenting, we’re churning out generations of emotionally-deficient youth.


Kids learn the best when they have a strong connection with their teacher, and when their teacher is able to devote attention to the child’s needs and progress. Huge classes, teaching to the test, and low teacher salaries all restrict the strength of these bonds and reduce the effectiveness of our education system. Instead, we’re buying bombers and drones which aren’t making anyone happy, except maybe the executives at Lockheed Martin.


Even our food system is suffering from a lack of emotional resonance. The food we buy is so packaged, processed, and reconstituted, that it’s often impossible to know what we’re eating. Eating, and especially eating in groups, is one of the most basic human interactions. As our food loses value, so does the meal itself. Factory farms would not exist if we maintained our emotional connection to the animals we raised for food. We are meant to look into the eyes of the cow that will become our beef and feel a sense of gratitude, gain an understanding of our place in the world. Why put time into preparing and sharing something so synthetic as what we call food today?


Money will not make you happy. Studies are showing that once basic needs are met, more money does not equate to more happiness. We love to measure things, but GDP does not relate to the quality of a nation. Our society is awash in consumerism and the idea that more stuff is better. This is a devastating perspective, and will only lead to more greed and envy.


It seems that doctors no longer have the luxury of actually spending time with their patients. Insurance companies ensure that these interactions are brief, and focus solely on the disease, not the person. It turns out we’re complicated organisms and much of the healing we’re capable of is powered by our emotions. Those who have good insurance might get coverage for a few therapy sessions, but therapy is meant to work gradually over several years. Considering how hard it is to even get decent insurance, we’re pretty much begging for illness and depression.


It seems like Republicans want more incarceration, Democrats want more treatment programs, but nobody wants to deal with the weak family structure that is so often the root of crime and drug addiction. This goes back to the welfare system. If we put more resources into allowing families to form strong bonds, our whole society would be stronger and less reliant on criminal justice to keep order.


My thoughts on this one have been sequestered until further notice.

So, things are pretty bleak. Perhaps as awareness grows of how our brains work and what makes us happy, our society will begin to shift. Living in the bubble that is Seattle, it’s easy to feel like maybe things aren’t so bad. But in thinking about the country as a whole, I’m pretty sure they are.

Greene: The Elegant Universe

Brian Greene’s popular work on string theory, The Elegant Universe, lays out the potential “theory of everything” in understandable prose, and describes the evolution of physics that led up to its formulation.

When I call the prose understandable, I mean that in a relative sense. It’s not a Hunger Games-type read, but if you’re not frightened away by the idea of curved space-time, supersymmetry, and 6 (or 7) tightly wrapped invisible dimensions, you’ll be fine. I majored in physics in college, so I approached The Elegant Universe with a decent base level of understanding, but I’d certainly never delved into string theory before. I had always just kind of imagined it as it sounds: a universe composed of very small vibrating strings. And it turns out, that’s pretty much what it is. With lots of nuances and implications and difficult math. Greene does a terrific job of bringing out the core of the theory in a comprehensible and natural way, and ultimately gives a compelling case for the theory being a big step toward the elusive “Theory of Everything.”

The first half of the book describes the theories preceding string theory, namely general relativity and quantum mechanics. Greene makes the transition from Newtonian physics to general relativity seem almost intuitive. The math is the really hard part, but it is fun to imagine what it means for space to be warped and curved in a gravitational field (not just the objects, but the actual extent of space). And it is fun to try to imagine the most immense objects in the universe – and then to conceive of distances so great that those objects appear vanishingly small. I’ve always found this line of thinking much more natural and exciting than going the direction, that is, zooming in so far that quantum mechanics comes into play.

Quantum mechanics was one of the top reasons I stopped doing physics after college, which I would guess is not an uncommon reaction. It is physically counter-intuitive, but the part that got me is that it is really only accessible through the math. Despite all of its obscurity, quantum mechanics is the most precisely measured theory out there. Nobody really knows why it works, but it works better than anything else we’ve ever come up with. Kind of infuriating. And I think that my preference for general relativity over quantum mechanics also tells something about how my mind works. I definitely prefer losing myself in big, expansive (right brain?) thoughts rather than the precise mechanical details (left brain?).

The second half of the book focuses on string theory itself – its conception, evolution, and current (as of a decade ago) highlights and issues. The idea behind string theory (or M-theory, which is thought to encompass string theory) is very elegant indeed. Rather than the universe being made up of point particles (i.e electrons, quarks, muons, neutrinos, etc) that have literally zero spatial extent, string theory claims these particles are actually tiny vibrational waves, little closed loops, dancing around the cosmos. Strings that vibrate more have higher energy, and thus higher mass. They can interact with each other in all sorts of ways, which we call the gravitational, electromagnetic, strong, and weak forces. The fact that the particles have non-zero spatial extent helps resolve the fundamental incompatibilities between general relativity and quantum mechanics while preserving the core of each.

The difficulty again is the math. It’s really hard to do these calculations, and in fact even figuring out the exact equations that need to be solved is still beyond us. Oh, it also gives rise to 6 (in string theory itself, 7 in the broader M-theory) tightly curled up, invisible dimensions beyond the 4 extended space-time dimensions we are familiar with.

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was revisiting a topic I used to be very familiar with that I have left to collect dust in the back of my mind. It reminded me of my initial excitement about physics, for seeking an elegant solution to a physical problem and for connecting laws in such a way that physical reality makes a little bit more sense. The text itself made me want to get back into physics and try my hand at some of the more fundamental questions out there.

The end notes, however, quickly quashed this desire. They are exactly the reason I did not stay in physics. All the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and what’s left is only accessible through obscure mathematics, non-Euclidean geometry, and perturbation theory. It is a field where months and years of intense focus on calculations can yield no useful results. This sounds painful to me. Again, I’d much rather have my head in the clouds than in the weeds. I suspect my relationship with physics will stay at the “general overview” stage from here on out, enjoying books like The Elegant Universe or A Brief History of Time, while watching TED talks to see what’s on the cutting edge of the field.