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My Relationship With My Body: Ending Silence and Shame July 12, 2013

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It has been several years now since I endured the worst of my negative body image and unhealthy eating, but I still find that I can’t talk about these experiences as openly and honestly as other difficulties from the past. I would like to end the silence and shame in order to be healed in the present, and to help others to do the same.

In my feminist English class I took years ago, I learned that silence is secrecy, and secrecy is shame. I have found this to be true in my own personal circumstances, because as long as I cannot openly and honestly talk about some aspect of my experience, it means that I am ashamed about it.

Only recently have I been able to open up to a few close friends about my negative body image and unhealthy eating that I had in the past. I have only opened up to these few people when I knew that they were undergoing the same difficulties. But I can still tell that I have some shame around my past suffering, and this silence continues to contribute to suffering in the present.

When I was a fourth year honours university student, my honours thesis topic was on women’s body image. At the time, I had hoped that people would assume this was purely an academic research interest of mine. When I told them what I was studying. It wasn’t. I hoped that people would think it was merely a coincidence that my eating and physical activity habits had changed at the same time as starting the thesis. It wasn’t a coincidence.

What I didn’t tell people, what I kept secret because I was ashamed, was that I was struggling with my own negative body image. I was a perfectly healthy young woman, but I felt like a fat slob. I had a beautiful young woman’s body, feminine curves and all, but I wanted to look like the models on the fitness magazines, with their perfect abs, tightly toned muscles, and hardly an ounce of body fat bulging anywhere. I wanted my body perfect.

Oxygen_Feb_2010_Cover[1]

 

Can I buy your body?

I exercised religiously. I didn’t miss a single day of my workout routine, even when I was feeling tired or had come down with a cold. I lifted weights and went running every other day. When I couldn’t exercise while at the farm or on vacation, I was fraught with anxiety about when I would have the next chance to burn off the “extra” calories.

I planned every single meal and snack every single day. I eliminated as much dietary fat as I could until my dry itchy scalp drove me nuts and I realized my dandruff was caused from too little fat. I had lost weight and people were commenting on how skinny I was. I didn’t want to be skinny, I wanted to be thin and fit.

Thankfully, this didn’t last long. I now know my body image struggles were due to mental and emotional energy being diverted from the depression from which I was recovering and swore I would no longer revisit. Unfortunately I was still dealing with the same negative mental energy with my negative body image, just in a different form. Thankfully, I read a feminist book on eating disorders and learned that women’s body ideals are a patriarchal form of control over women’s and girls’ bodies and minds that keep our attention and energy diverted away from taking power. My negative mental energy still wasn’t completely healed, but instead resurfaced as intensified symptoms of anxiety.

My shame and silence is still the worst around my family. It is my family members and relatives who know what my body looked like before, during, and after my worst struggles with body image. It was my family with whom I shared meals and justified my food choices under my strict diet by saying that I was trying to “eat healthy.” It is my family with whom I feel the most self-conscious if I notice even the slightest changes in my body shape or size, because I am convinced that they will notice it, too.

I want to be more open and honest about my past suffering because I know some healing still has to be done, as much as I would not like to admit it. I want to end the silence, because I don’t want to be ashamed as if this was all something I deliberately and consciously chose to do to myself. Whenever I can look deeply at the full extent of my suffering, I can’t have any shame because I know that no one would ever choose to undergo that much pain and stress. All I can feel is compassion. Finally, I don’t want to keep silent, because keeping silent means that I take away responsibility from other people, groups, and institutions that are responsible for upholding and reinforcing harmful standards of women’s physical appearance (including other women).

Silence and shame still surround the negative body image and unhealthy eating that I experienced in the past, even though I would prefer to think that some healing has been done. Things have noticeably improved for myself, but I know that there is still some healing left to do. I have noticed that there is still some suffering in the present from some unresolved suffering in the past. I hope to end the silence by being more open and honest because I don’t want to feel shame over suffering I didn’t consciously choose to take on.

Understanding and Compassion Born in Suffering and Vulnerability July 5, 2013

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Recently, I went through an experience of a great deal of fear and anxiety that left me in a state of suffering. While I was able to take the time to generate compassion for myself, I still found the whole ordeal to be very difficult and unpleasant. Nevertheless, I did notice some important insights that came out of the situation when I saw that I was cultivating understanding and compassion for myself and others.

One day the other week I had an incredible amount of anxiety due to certain circumstances all coming together at once. Some of the circumstances had to do with making plans to go travelling (planning for trip, buying supplies, meeting up with fellow travellers), as well as other unrelated events (starting a new part time job the next day, roommate suspecting bed bugs in our house). A great deal of anxiety and fear about what I should do and what would happen in the future had accumulated all day. By the evening I felt awful. To top it off, I felt frustrated with myself for not being able to keep all of this anxiety under control.

At the end of the day, I set aside the time for myself because I decided that what I needed the most at that moment was to practice compassion. This decision to intentionally practice compassion was a huge difference compared to a year or a few months ago, because previously I would have more likely chosen to distract myself from my suffering.

It was really  challenging to stay with myself with compassion for as long as it took to feel better. I was amazed later at how much I avoided the temptation of losing myself in distraction in order to get away from my  suffering. But I still noticed judgement of myself that I didn’t have enough compassion to fix myself and make the painful feelings and thoughts stop right away. And these self judgements only added to my level of suffering, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

I had to hold the huge amount f fear and anxiety in compassion, which soon left me in tears. I twas probably the worst I have felt in a long time. I noticed that the fear was so strong that a lot of other feelings and thoughts were arising.

One feeling that came up was a sense of alienation. I felt alone and abandoned in my suffering with no one to help me. It reminded me of feeling like an elementary school kid on the playground when I’m being picked on by a bunch of classmates. Reliving these memories, I take the aggression personally and feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with me that leaves me rejected by others around me. I feel like “everyone” is out to get and to hurt me, and I’m not safe hear. I want to run away from this hostile situation.

Similar to this, the other feeling that arose was a strong sense of betrayal by others, as I mentioned above. I also felt betrayed by life, by this world in which I live. My expectation of the world and this human life as happy and benevolent was shattered when I experience this much suffering.  I felt humiliated and deeply regretting the stupid mistake of thinking that by paying attention to the positive I could be happy. I felt that I couldn’t trust life anymore to deliver happiness. Whatever happiness I had experienced before was a mistake and I shouldn’t count on it again.

Finally, in this deep state of fear, I also felt like I regressed or went back in time to a younger self. For a short while I felt like I was just a crying toddler again who just wants her parents to hold her and make it all better. All I could do was send out a powerful wish with my whole being to the universe, “May I be taken care of.” In that moment, I didn’t feel like I could take care of myself, but I needed to be looked after by someone or something outside of myself.

I was getting in touch with my vulnerability, and I will admit that in the moment I didn’t like it. I hated it. It was nothing but bad news. Here I thought as an adult I was in control and independent. But the wake up call that inside me is a needy, dependent, helpless, crying toddler was very painful to see.

Afterward, when I had recovered my sanity and felt much better, I realized that this vulnerability isn’t all bad news. It has good news, too. It has good news because it wakes me up to the truth that I am interdependent on everyone and everything around me to keep me alive, safe, healthy, and happy. I am not 100% independent and in control. I can’t do it all myself, all the time. Understanding was being born.

It is good news because seeing my vulnerability only makes me tender and gentle in response. I see that I am a fragile, precious living being, and I need to be cared for with great kindness. The hard rough hands that were gripping me in harsh self judgement earlier now get transformed into softness and gentleness. And I know that all living beings have exactly the same vulnerability and I can only treat others with the same kindness. Compassion was being born.

I share these thoughts in the hopes that others won’t feel alone when they feel the same way. And I hope to not feel so alone myself when I openly acknowledge these feelings that are at times too difficult to see.

Be Still and Heal June 9, 2013

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I have experienced incredible healing from deep suffering in my meditation practice, and the healing process is a challenging one to handle skilfully. First, I have to create an environment of stillness and stability in order for past pain to arise on its own. Then I have to turn toward difficult emotions in compassion. Perhaps the healing happens on its own, its not really me, Andrea, doing it. I just create the conditions for it to happen.

In my last post I described how I experienced a great deal of healing from past suffering using my mindfulness practice. When I wrote that post, the section describing how I experienced the healing process had become quite long, so I decided to write it as a separate post.

calligraphy

At the moment, my meditation “altar” consists of a paper copy of the above calligraphy by Thay taped to my bedroom wall. I truly treasure this calligraphy as an altarpiece because I do believe my meditation practice is the work of healing. Healing is making whole, as the word heal comes from the root word meaning restoring to wholeness. I am restored to wholeness when I can transform past suffering into peace and freedom.

The first part of these instructions is to be still, and stillness needs to happen first before healing can take place. I need to be still in body by sitting and not moving around. I stop interacting with and reacting to stimuli in my environment. I need to be still in mind by considerably slowing down the endless tracks of discursive thought that keeps me going around in circles, accumulating anxiety and tension along the way.

When I am still, my mind-body-heart knows that I am safe. I am free from potential dangers, free from self-judgement, self-criticism, and harshness. I am in a place where I feel supported and protected. In this safe place, I can truly rest, and my guard is let down.

These are the conditions I create in order for the healing to take place on its own time. It isn’t really me doing the healing, but I let it happen on its own accord. When my guard is let down, suffering that has been accumulating will suddenly resurface, out of nowhere and without warning.

This suffering has been accumulating from past circumstances when I didn’t have enough awareness or resources to take the time to deal with the suffering. Past suffering have could been caused by an experience where I was overwhelmed in despair or confusion.

In a safe place of grounded mindfulness, I can see that a moment of despair is not the whole truth. It was just a moment, and I can take refuge in a place of clarity and stability. I rest in a new moment where despair or confusion is no longer present.

The suffering resurfaces because it needs to have new meaning made out of it. It needs to be expressed in at atmosphere of mindfulness and compassion. Past suffering resurfaces in the form of difficult emotions so that it can express itself and be released.

Emotions of fear, grief, sadness, or despair will arise, sometimes with a past memory attached to it, sometimes not. When these emotions arise, the real work of meditation practice takes place. Usually, when a difficult emotion arises, my first instinct is to run away or close down. “It hurts, its too painful, I want it to stop, it feels wrong.”

On the contrary, the solution lies in turning toward a difficult emotion. I move toward it, open up my awareness in interest and curiosity: “Oh, fear is arising. Fear is present. What’s this like? What’s happening here?”

A very important ingredient, perhaps the most important ingredient, is compassion. I have to make very sure that turning toward difficult emotions is done out of love and compassion, not out of sadistic self-torture or to fix my broken self. It is very challenging to skilfully make this distinction. I have to make sure that I do it because I love myself and I don’t want to be in unnecessary suffering. I care about myself and I take good care of the difficult emotion.

To skilfully handle difficult emotions, I have to stay grounded in the present moment. I try to only handle one moment at a time, to slice up the stream of experience into a razor-thin slice of moment by moment experience. This is what is happening now. I try to steer clear of adding the dimension of time to what happens, which only adds fear and exacerbates the hurt. I try to avoid thinking about how this emotion has happened before or has been with me for so long. I try to avoid thinking about how the emotion will stay with me “forever” or at least a long time into the future.

To me, healing is real, I have experienced it as a reality. Interestingly, images can come to me that perfectly illustrate the healing that I feel is happening internally. I’ve had images come to me of a closed lock being opened by a key, or of jammed gears loosening up and turning. I will state what I have been taught and now accept as true for me: suffering can be transformed into freedom, liberation, happiness, and peace.

My meditation practice has offered me the opportunity heal a great deal of past suffering. But before healing can take place, I need to be still in order to have a sense of stability and security. Stillness is a condition I create in my meditation practice, and once difficult emotions arise, I have to know how to handle them with great compassion and care.

Quote: Stressing Ourselves Out April 19, 2013

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Nature equipped you with buttons intended for emergency use only, which were supposed to be pressed maybe ten or fifteen times throughout your life, yet some of us are mashing down on these buttons every single day. Why? Because its exciting! And, admit it, one of the main reasons we get so stressed out in life is because we’d rather be stressed out than—god forbid!—bored.

– Brad Warner, in Sit Down and Shut Up

Quote: Letting Go of Yourself April 12, 2013

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“Gurdijeff once said, ‘If anything would possibly save humankind from its idiocy, it would be the clearest possible recognition by every individual that they, and all others around them, are most certainly going to die.’ When this thought becomes perfectly clear to you, surprisingly it becomes a source of intense joy and vitality. When you have accepted your own death in the midst of life it means that you have let go of yourself, and you are therefore free. You are no longer plagued by worry and anxiety. You know that you are done for anyhow, so there is no need to fight constantly to protect yourself. What’s the point? And it isn’t just that people spend all their time doing something to really protect themselves, like taking out an insurance policy or eating properly. Instead it is what we do that doesn’t cause any action at all: the constant worry that leads to no action except more worry. That is what is given up by a person who really knows that they are dead.”

– Alan Watts in Eastern Wisdom Modern Life

Quote: Losing Control March 30, 2013

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Most people move in constant opposition to themselves because they are afraid that if they do not oppose themselves all the time they will lose control and something awful will happen.

– Alan Watts, in Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life

Facing My Fears with the Five Remembrances February 15, 2013

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The Five Remembrances are a practice which I have found incredibly powerful in helping me to face my fear and to try letting go of my attachments. I have also found the practice helpful in allowing me to recognize and appreciate the many conditions for my well-being that are already present.

The Five Remembrances were suggested to me by one of my teachers on retreat to help me to handle unskilful habits. I have been reciting them regularly for the past several months. I silently recite them to myself every day at the very end of my morning formal sitting practice. I find that starting off my day with the big perspective like this helps me to not get as lost or stressed out by the small details.

I have modified the wording and rearranged the order of the five phrases to suit my own preferences.

Illness

The first phrase I say is:

I am of the nature to become ill.

There is no way to avoid illness.

This phrase brings up fear of being in physical pain and of being disabled by disease or injury. It also helps me to recognize the many wonderful conditions that make up my physical well being when I see just how completely healthy and able-bodied I am. I feel incredibly lucky to have enjoyed such great health for so long—almost as if I have “cheated the system.”

On the rare occasions when I do experience an ache, pain, or infection, I remember that I am not immune to these experiences but that they come with being a living being.

This phrase has also helped me to recognize sickness around me, not only in my loved ones and other people, but also animals, plants, trees, and the living world. When I do recognize sickness, I feel a connection to these beings when I know that I share the same nature.

Aging

The second phrase is:

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way to avoid growing old.

This phrase helps me recognize the fears I have associated with old age, and to realize that the aging process is happening now and has been every moment of my life. As one illustration, I have a stronger eyeglass prescription and more dental fillings than I did 10 years ago!

The recognition that I am an aging living being is very humbling in that I feel a stronger connection to aging people, animals, and plants around me. I realize that that will be me one day if I live long enough.

The phrase helps me to recognize and appreciate the wonders and pleasures of youth. I see more and more how youthfulness provides me with power in an ageist society. Youth offers self-reliance and the ability to take care of myself with out the need for others to cook for me, or to feed, bathe, or dress me.

Death

The third phrase is:

I am of the nature to die

There is no way to avoid dying

I am able to face the fact a little bit more that my death is an inevitable reality, not just some vague idea that might happen one day far away. Death could be right around the corner, and human life is incredibly delicate and fragile. This one is a wonderful way for me to really let go when I see how impossible it is to make anything last or to keep any belongings.

Separation & Loss

The fourth phrase is:

All that is dear to me and everyone I love

are of the nature to change.

There is no way to avoid being separated from them

This phrase allows me to really look at what it is onto which I am holding on. Its a great way to wake myself up to unconscious assumptions that my current circumstances will continue into the future.

I see that I’m holding onto relationships when I am relying on the support and love of others in a greedy and needful way, assuming that these people will always be there for me.

I’m holding onto various circumstances and conditions for which I have preferences, such as my sangha, where I live, my job, arrangements for being outdoors and in wilderness, money, as well as my most cherished and prized possessions which I tell myself “I cannot live without” (this computer, my camera and photos, bicycle, etc.).

Karma

The fifth phrase is:

My actions are my only true belongings.

I am the owner of my actions.

My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Whatever actions I shall do,

whether for good or evil,

of that I shall be the heir.

The last set of phrases reminds me that, despite my inability to grasp the shifting and changing conditions that affect me, the one area on which I do have a firm control is my actions. I can decide whether to act for “good or evil,” although I prefer the terms positive/wholesome/skilful and negative/ unwholesome/ unskilful.

This phrase is a daily reminder to turn myself toward embracing the wholesome qualities within me, such as generosity, lovingkindness, and interbeing. I am reminded that unwholesome seeds, such as far, craving, greed, isolation, self-pity, and materialism lie deep in my consciousness, and I can take efforts to transform them into more beautiful qualities.

The phrase says actions, but I don’t consider “actions” to be limited to physical behaviour, but encompasses thoughts, speech, and actions. This phrase is empowering because it allows me to see that every single moment is an opportunity to practice the path and nurture positive qualities.

The Five Remembrances have been a very powerful practice for me, and I’ll continue to use them probably for some time as long as I find them effective. I would highly recommend them to anyone who wants to work with fear, help to let go of attachments, and to be grateful for the good conditions you enjoy.

Only One Dish At A Time February 8, 2013

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I have found a few instances where being mindful of the present moment can bring a great deal of relief from the stress of a mind overwhelmed by a huge task to accomplish. The title refers to being mindful of only being able to wash one dish at a time in order to complete the task of washing a whole sinkful of dishes.

Note: This is my 2nd post on the theme of washing dishes. Originally I had intended to include this piece in last week’s post Insights from Washing Dishes, but the post was getting a bit lengthy and I decided to use it as a 2nd post this week.

I often go through spells of doing a big batch of cooking at once to last for a few days, and this baking and cooking from scratch can create quite a pile up of dirty pots and pans. It probably doesn’t help that I am tired from a stint of cooking, but I often feel overwhelmed at the thought of making my way through a sink full of dishes to be washed. It can often require me to muster up a great deal of encouragement to convince myself to actually complete the task, instead of just procrastinating and leaving it for “later.”

This thinking about washing a sinkful of dishes is exactly the problem. I can’t wash a sink full of dishes. When I am really mindful, I know that I only have one hand to hold the dish cloth and one hand to hold a single dish at any given moment. In reality, my body can only wash one dish at a time.

Nevertheless, my mind tries to wash an entire sinkful. It takes in all of the information of the entire job to be done start to finish, projecting far into the future. In a way, the mind is “biting off more than it can chew”. And so the result is feelings of dread and overwhelm.

Mindfulness of the present moment can bring quite a relief to the burden of an overwhelmed and stressed mind when I can see that I only wash one dish at a time. And then one more dish. And one more. And one more…And so on  until finally they are all done! All that I have to do is to take care of this moment.  And this moment. And this moment. Wow, its so much easier! Suddenly I feel light, and a sense of ease; washing dishes really is more enjoyable.

I soon had an opportunity to apply this insight to another aspect of my personal circumstances. I dislike marking student term papers. Personally, I think its an impossible task, but I only think so now after trying very hard to do the impossible and undergoing a great deal of stress. In the midst of all of this, I was able to see that it was much more stressful to try to read through and mark the entire stack of papers from a whole class.

Instead, I could simply take one paper at a time, do the necessary work, and reassure myself that I can reevaluate at the end whether more time was available for further additions. Although the more methodical strategy requires me to trust in my capability to do the job efficiently and satisfactorily.

Nevertheless, I was successful in applying this insight to marking papers when I could concentrate only on the task at hand. I gave my full attention to a single paper at a time, and when I was done I set it down and let it be released from my mind. While I wouldn’t say marking was suddenly enjoyable, it was a great deal easier without constantly fighting with and pushing myself to work faster, or worrying about how long it was going to take to be done.

The insight of only one moment at a time can be applied to so many activities in my everyday circumstances in order to feel a sense of freshness, lightness, and ease. When I’m walking, it’s just this step, just one foot in front of the other. Just one piece of clothing to fold. Just this e-mail to write. To me, this approach embodies Zen when I give my full attention to whatever I am doing at any given moment.

I hope that I can find more and more activities to apply the perspective of only one moment at a time. It does take some mental effort, I will admit, to let go of the other preoccupations that visit my mind, and focus on the task at hand. In my opinion, this mental effort is an investment: it may take an input of some energy at first, but once it becomes more habitual, it pays off in the end when I use less energy and therefore have more energy and attention to give to the other activities and people I love. Thay has described it as an art to know how to live freely in the present moment by casting aside our worries. It is an art to know how to be skilful in where to focus my attention.

Mindfulness Meditation: Perspectives from a Young Adult Practitioner January 25, 2013

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As a young adult who practices meditation, I think I might possess a unique perspective compared to my many less young dharma sisters and brothers. I often find myself being the odd woman out due to my age while attending various sanghas and retreats. Nevertheless, I think I might be in an advantageous situation by being treated favorably as a relatively young practitioner in an ageist society. I have also heard some thought-provoking comments from other people who can project a younger version of themselves onto their perception of me.

Let’s face facts: meditation is not something my age-mates are lining up in droves to try. Meditation seems to be part of the life stage of middle age or retirement, or “the kids have moved out and all of a sudden I have some ‘spare time’ on my hands.” As a young adult, I can often feel out of place taking part in sanghas and retreats when I can look around me and sometimes see only people twice my age or more.

I will admit I can become self-conscious of not fitting in with the rest of the crowd, but perhaps more so when I was starting out in my practice. Feeling out of place due to my age alone used to raise a fair amount of doubt in me, leaving me to wonder whether meditation really was the right path for me, or if I should throw in the towel, give in to (self-perceived) peer pressure, and spend my evenings watching TV or drinking at the local pub. Now I have just accepted meditation as what works for me as a person, regardless of how young I am.

I have sometimes found it difficult when the times for socializing with my dharma friends leave me with little opportunity to contribute, when conversations topics can center on living with spouses, in-laws, or children, dealing with coworkers or bosses, caring for aging parents, or managing a home. I’m sorry, but I can’t offer my perspective here! I am grateful, however, to listen in on these conversations when I am better able to understand my parents’ perspective of having a relationship with adult children.

On the other hand, one nice aspect of being a relatively young practitioner is that I think I am treated favourably or more “special” in sanghas because of my young age. In a youth-centered society, younger is better, because youthfulness and its abundant energy offers more possibility for doing and achieving, as well as more potential for acquiring skills and knowledge. The wisdom and accumulated life experience of our elders is discounted in a society that is rapidly changing and evolving. I can’t quite describe exactly how I might be treated differently, but I have a few examples.

People have told me more than once after asking me why I came to the practice that I have a “head start” on them for being so young. An unspoken assumption here, I think, is that starting to practice “sooner” at a younger age would be better. Could this be identification with “doing mind,” where more experience with a skill is inherently better because it leads to more expertise?

Another phenomena I have noticed while meeting so many fellow practitioners less younger than me is that people seem to have a tendency to project their younger self onto their perception of me. I have heard numerous comments similar to, “Oh, I wish I had been practicing when I was your age!” The funniest comment I will always remember was from someone who applauded my ability to practice despite my young age: “I’m just amazed that you are able to practice meditation. When I was your age, I wouldn’t have been able to sit still for two minutes!”

One problem I have with the projection of a younger self onto meditation is that it ignores all of the causes and conditions that bring us to the practice. Perhaps the subtext here is, “If I had been practicing sooner, I could have avoided experiencing a great deal of suffering.” But isn’t suffering what brings us to the practice in the first place? I will speak for myself by saying that if I hadn’t undergone the difficulties at the age I did, I wouldn’t have discovered the practice, nor would I have stayed with it with such determination. It is like Thay says, “No mud, no lotus.”

Another problem I have with people projecting themselves onto their perception of me is that it ignores impermanence. Yes, I will certainly admit that as a younger person I have the potential to enjoy more years than my less young friends, all things considered. Nevertheless, potential is far from reality. As someone very close to me has often liked to remind me very matter-of-factly, “We might all be dead tomorrow.” I may have no more of a chance to practice in the future than people two or three times my age. All we ever have is the present moment.

Finally, I want to end with a mention of higher education as a doorway to the dharma. I think many people, myself included, come to the practice as a form of stress relief, and university and college education brings a great deal of stress. Therefore, I think mindfulness can be a powerful and welcome practice for many university students struggling to complete their programs.

One reason university was particularly stressful for me was that I felt I had so much on the line. One low mark on one assignment wasn’t just one assignment, it was my entire future: a low mark on an assignment meant a low mark in the class, and a low mark in the class meant not getting a job or scholarship or not getting into a graduate program, and not getting a job meant not having a career, and not having a career meant that “my life would be over,” or so I used to tell myself at the time.

Clearly this type of thinking creates much more stress and suffering than it needs to. But I will add that although mindfulness might be used as a stress-relief tool initially, to receive the full benefits of the practice one has to cut to the very root of the disease instead of just using coping strategies to simply cover up the symptoms.

While practicing meditation as a young adult has brought some unique and often challenging experiences, I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to gain perspective on applying the practice to this stage of my life. I am inviting some of my fellow dharma buddies to add any comments to this post. I am curious for some other voices to let me know if I hit the mark and spoke to their experience, or if there was anything I missed that would better describe practicing meditation as a young sangha member. Thanks in advance for your input!

Nourishment and Healing: Being in Wilderness January 11, 2013

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For as long as I can remember, being able to spend time immersed in wilderness and natural settings has provided me with an abundant source of wholesome states of joy and restoration. I would like to describe how I have incorporated wilderness into my personal situation, what this process looks like for me, and what effects I regularly notice. While I possess a need to be in wilderness that could be viewed as a weakness or a limitation, I have had to look at this tendency as a definite strength at the same time.

Thay puts emphasis on being able to come home to ourselves—body, mind, and heart—in the present moment in order to restore ourselves and to not be swept away by circumstances in which we find ourselves. I have always really treasured this emphasis and I will readily support the benefits of the practice of stopping, calming, resting, and healing.

When I consider the many different strategies or tools I use to take good care of myself—mind, heart, body and spirit—wilderness is certainly a prominent one. I have repeatedly and consistently found that our Eearth and wilderness has profound effects to restore myself in times of feeling severely depleted of well-being, health and energy and from burdens of anxiety, stress and fear. I could even call it my own form of “wilderness therapy.”

How does this process of restoration in wilderness occur? It has happened regularly enough for me these past few years that I am at the point where I have consciously built it into my personal situation. First, I am able to recognize feelings of separation from our Earth, alienation, loneliness in myself, the effects of anxiety and tension, and exaggerated self-focus of a modern urban lifestyle. Even if these states don’t happen to be present, I will go into wilderness anyway to receive a good “boost” to last for some time.

I make arrangements to spend any length of time, from at least 20 minutes, to a few hours, to most of a day. I avoid any distractions (talking on cell phone, listening to music) in order to give my full attention to my surroundings in each moment. I take my time while I explore and move around (walk, cycle, canoe paddle, ski, snowshoe) at a slow pace, enjoying opportunities to stop, sometimes to sit or lie down, and take in everything: to look around, listen to sounds or just the silence, enjoy the smells, feel the air and wind or my body against the ground. When I go into wilderness, it is a full sensory experience and I am fully immersed in our living world.

The effects after such an immersion are immediately noticeable and I consistently find that I am more relaxed and energized, optimistic, carefree, open-minded, and content. Of course, the “r” words usually come to mind most easily to best describe what happens: I feel refreshed, renewed, rejuvenated, revitalized, and restored.

I used the word healing in the title deliberately; I do experience being healed when I am in wilderness. I don’t mean a cure for some disease, but healed in the meaning of the word “to make whole.” I am made whole again when I come back to and integrate a vital aspect of myself and my experience of reality or what is most real.

When I first moved to the city and experienced the split in myself as a result of being cut off from wilderness, I thought that I possessed some sort of weakness, or some defect in my makeup that put me at a disadvantage over other city-dwellers. And I believe this to be true; I am limited in a sense. I can’t live completely indoors without being able to get around outside daily (and sitting inside of a vehicle does not count!). I can’t go for any length of time, such as a few days, without returning to spend time in—at the very least—some sort of green space (a park, a forest, a riverbank, a field). I have to accomodate my regular short- and long-term routine around taking trips into wilderness. I can’t handle long, extended trips in an urban setting, such as downtown Montreal for example, or where I am stuck inside. And finally, I can’t live in the city long term. Also, I find that my need for wilderness and having the living world as my ground of reality leaves me not completely satisfied by the Buddhist teachings and material across which I’ve come so far.

Nevertheless, as a source of self-assurance and a coping strategy to deal with living in the city, I have had to acknowledge that my need for wilderness can also be a strength. First, my source of healing and nourishment is, thanks to my current circumstances, free to acquire and simple to fulfill. It doesn’t cost anything to go for a walk in the forest, or a bike ride along the river. I am empowered when I don’t have to give my power over to a corporation to be nourished, in contrast to purchasing material objects or services, such as an iPhone or paying for a massage.

Second, I think that my way of finding nourishment actually reflects a lifestyle that is more human in that it better represents how we can live happily and healthily according to our basic needs. I think humans have a need to be around other living beings—both plants and animals— and immersed in the natural elements, cycles, and rhythms of our Earth. This is how our species has existed for all but the tiniest fraction of our evolutionary time on the planet, and it is to what we are adapted.

Finally, I think that it is a strength because the wilderness is where I find the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings reflecting the true nature of reality. I find the law of impermanence in the shifting and moving clouds across the sky, the decay of an old tree trunk, the steady erosion of a riverbank, and in a cracked and mossy boulder. I discover the law of interdependence in a handful of living soil full of decayed plants and microorganisms, admidst the frenzied activity of a still forest, and in the soil to which a flower is rooted for its entire life. I see clearly the teachings of nonduality when I cannot draw a straight line between the wetness of the lake and the firm dry land of the shore, between the crisp warm air of late summer and the changing leaves of autumn or between the low prairie and the tall encroaching forest.

My need to be in wilderness has offered a profound and powerful way to be nourished and restored as a result of living an urban lifestyle. This trait has brought its difficulties in having to make accommodations for it by spending extended periods of time outdoors, but it is who I am and I have learned to embrace its benefits.