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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.

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Wilderness Dharma: The Weather as My Teacher March 8, 2013

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The weather is one of the best teachers I have for showing me the dharma, the true nature of reality. Weather is an excellent teacher for me personally because I spend so much time outdoors and come into direct contact with the elements. Here are some of the ways I have realized the meaning behind the dharma while experiencing the weather. The weather teaches me that conditions I experience are unpredictable ,impermanent, happening in the present moment, and without a solid reality. I also learn from the weather how to be grateful for what I do have, and how to recognize what’s here while it is manifesting.

The weather teaches me how to experience the present moment. The weather is completely, 100% absolutely unpredictable. Sure, a forecaster can say with some percentage of certainty what conditions might be like, but she can never know for sure. There are too many unknown causes and conditions.

Exactly like all of the conditions I experience are unpredictable. All I can say with absolute certainty is what is happening this instant. As soon as I leave the razor’s edge of this moment, I am in unknown territory.

So there is no security in any forecast or prediction into any part of the future. There is no security, no solid ground on which to stand. All I have to do is learn to swim in the river.

Weather teaches me impermanence. Just because conditions are a certain way right now doesn’t mean they cant change in an instant. Patterns are always shifting, systems are always moving, and different conditions are all interacting with each other in unknown ways.

Impermanence is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned when current circumstances aren’t going the way I would like. The message would be summed up as: Wait it out. Just wait, wait a second, wait a minute, wait as long as I need until its bearable. Sometimes the waiting is longer than I’d like, and compassion is key here.

Knowing that impermanence exists allows me to try to patiently bear the storm. I remind myself nothing lasts forever, no conditions last, however unbearable they may be.

An experience I’ve had over and over again, enough that the message is starting to really sink in, is a beautiful bright morning after a long dark night of struggling with my own challenges. So many times now I have walked outside, marvelled at the fresh, clear, blue morning sky, and said out loud: “And the day will dawn clear and bright.” Oh right, now I remember.

The weather teaches me how to savour wonderful conditions when they are present. As the song goes, the sun can’t shine every day. Knowing that weather includes the possibility for storms and clouds means I can recognize what’s enjoyable and appreciate it. I try to recognize the presence of good conditions because I know they’ll eventually fade.

This also makes many weather conditions more enjoyable because I try to see how even the “bad” conditions have some positives: the sound of spruce trees breathing during a windy day; the glint of sunshine on wet grass; the peaceful quiet of snow falling; or even an excuse to stay inside, feeling safe and warm during a terrible storm.

In my own personal circumstances I try to apply the same approach by recognizing as many nourishing conditions as I can. I know that all conditions I ever encounter will eventually fade: My health, a good meal, an inviting, safe home, the company of wonderful friends.

The weather teaches me gratitude. Even in less than ideal conditions, I can catch myself asking the question, “Why the heck do I live here? Its so _____ (cold, hot, windy, dry, etc.), its not even meant for human habitation.”

Aaah, but there it is: a lack of appreciation for where I live. I live in Canada, a place for which an endless amount of my fellow global citizens would risk their lives in an instant to trade places with me.

I’d like to quote my father here for one of his lessons: “We don’t have to live here, ya know? No one’s holding a gun to our head.” (His way of saying I’m not being forced to do anything against my will). Thanks for the reminder that of all of the places in the world and in the country to live, I made a conscious and voluntary decision to live where I am now. And for good reasons, so its great to remember those reasons.

The weather teaches me not to make real passing conditions, or not to give patterns and fluctuating rhythms a solid reality.  Sure, its raining or hailing or blowing wind right now, but that doesn’t mean these conditions have any lasting permanent reality. There isn’t a “wind” essence that’s suddenly appeared and will stay forever to characterize the air. Its just the wind blowing itself. The rain is just the rain raining itself.

It offers me an example for my own internal weather that I need not take any passing inner states as real, or as solid and permanent. According to the teachings, these states are just arising in response to various conditions and will eventually pass. I remind myself I am not my thoughts, my feelings, my sensations. The thoughts are just thinking themselves.

To paraphrase Pema Chodron, I am the sky. Everything else is just the weather. I try to relax and sit back and watch it all happen without trying to make up a story about who “I” am.

These are some of the ways I have seen the Buddha’s teachings expressed perfectly in the weather. As someone who spends time in direct contact with the elements in the living world that are clear, concrete reality, I have learned in a more profound way how conditions are impermanent, unpredictable, and without a “self”. Gratitude and savoring the present moment are also excellent lessons I’ve received from the weather. Because I won’t be spending any less time outdoors as I am used to, I expect many more wonderful and hard-earned lessons are to come.

The Sun as Love March 1, 2013

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The sun is part of me. She is so essential to me that I need her as much as I need air to breathe. When I am cut off from the light and warmth of the sun, I feel as if I am suffocating.

To me, there is nothing more amazing and glorious than to stand outside in the sunlight and feel her warming my skin. This is love, bathing in the sun’s rays. I feel embraced and loved and whole. This brings me so much joy, and I try to take the joy of the sunshine with me and spread it wherever I go.

Standing in the sun’s rays, I know love directly. The sun’s power is clearly felt in the midday sun of a hot summer day. It feels to be the most powerful force I know. The sun is everlasting, burning constantly every moment I have been alive. Even in the darkness of my night, she is still burning bright on the other side of our Earth. The power of the sun is infinite, eternal, everlasting, and unchecked.

 

The sun is my outer heart because when the sun goes down, my heart aches for the light. As soon as the sun is gone in the evenings, a little bit of my own light leaves me. My energy sags, my mood dips into a more sullen tiredness, and I feel lonely and cut off from my plant and animal sisters and brothers. In the darkness I retreat into myself. I turn down the lights, get ready for bed, and curl up in a corner with a book to lull me to sleep.

Mornings are the happiest time of the day for me. My energy is highest and I am awake and open to the possibilities of a brand new day. The sun’s lightness and energy is my energy. My body, mind, and whole being respond to her rhythms in ways I cannot control.

November is one of the most difficult months. Our Earth dips into darkness and the sun is leaving me for a long cold winter. The leaves on the trees are gone and there isn’t enough snow to reflect what little sunlight I can enjoy. The holidays are too far away to which I can look forward. The brightness and warmth of spring now seem so far away, and I brace myself for the months of winter.

The sun is love and warmth not only when I am directly in her rays, but every moment of my life when I am protected by other indirect forms of her warmth. The fuel to heat indoor spaces comes from the sun’s energy, keeping me comfy and cozy all hear round. The warmth and light of the fire is the energy of the sun released from its storage in the wood of the trees.

The warmth of my own body is the sun. She feeds and grows the plants and animals I eat, and my body takes in this fuel to burn every moment I am alive. What could be a more direct example of the love of the universe: The sun’s energy that touches every living being, creating and sustaining all life, and supplying me with every amount of energy I have ever enjoyed.

The sunrise is awakening for me. The sun rising acts as a mindfulness bell. The day begins and the light starts to gradually glow brighter and brighter, incrementally and so slow and gradual I can’t visibly notice it. But I wait and the sun’s rays start to touch the high clouds, bathing them in warm, glowing light. Finally, the sun rises from the horizon, bringing light to our Earth and casting aside the darkness of night. She bathes everything around me in permeating, glowing light. Her rays shine directly onto our Earth, touching everything in light. Suddenly what was covered in darkness and imperceptible during the night is illuminated, visible and clear. With the sun, I can see everything around me. She reveals our Earth to me. A new dawn is a call to awakening: “Wake up! Look and see what is before you! The whole world available in every moment underneath your feet.”

When I see a burning red sunrise, I see the process of awakening. At first before the sun comes, everything in black and hidden in darkness. The sun begins to show herself and reveals a sky of red clouds. Awakening happens with the First Noble Truth: Suffering exists. The red of sunrise is the burning red of hurt and pain that causes suffering. But only when the suffering is brought into the light of awareness does release happen. After the glowing red sunrise, the morning sun comes and shines white and clear, filling the entire sky.

What Are My Gifts To Others? December 22, 2012

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It’s that time of year again, the holiday season where we are expected to demonstrate our love for others by buying material objects. In this season of giving, it is expected that, in order to prove that we really do love them, we buy others gifts that we know that they will love. In this sense, our care, interest, and attention is objectified into a material object, the gift.

 This is the second year I am participating in Buy Nothing Xmas and instead, I am donating the money I would use to buy them a gift to donate to each person’s community food bank. Hoping that those dearest and nearest to me will not be offended when I refuse to buy them a gift, I am left wondering how else do I give without buying gifts? What are my gifts to others? Just a few of my gifts which I want to mention are my presence, my positive influence, using my favourite talents, direct help, and my paid employment.

 My presence is one way that I give to others. I offer my loved ones my presence, which in the mindfulness tradition means the exact same qualities used during meditation. I am firmly rooted in the present moment, giving my full, undivided, nonjudgemental, accepting awareness. It is to be able to say the phrase, “I am here with you,” and know that it is true. I have to be able to recognize that sitting right in front of me is a living, breathing, human being, and I have the opportunity to connect with them in this moment.

 To be present with someone means that I care about them. It means I am physically in their presence, or with them while on the telephone. To care about someone means to be interested in them, in who they really are (not who I think they are!), what they want and value, and what suffering or happiness they might be currently experiencing. Presence is the opportunity to practice deep listening, a very difficult skill at which I am always trying to get better.

 My positive influence on others is another quality I consider one of my gifts. By positive influence, I mean that I attempt to embody positive qualities that I hope spread to others. The phenomenon of “social contagion” is well known in psychology, which refers to the way moods can spread between people or groups of people. If I am smiling and others can see it, my smile will spread to others and there is a higher likelihood that they will to want to smile, to feel like smiling, or to just be in a happier mood.

Just a few positive qualities I hope to share are happiness, posivitiy, appreciation of beauty, a sense of humor, gratitude, appreciation, humility, positive mood, abundance of energy, and inspiration. I love being able to make people laugh and smile by telling stories or jokes about myself and the silly mistakes that I have made,. Of course, these are all qualities that help me to feel better and happier, so it is an extra motivation when I can embody them not just for myself but for others as well.  

Another way I try to give to others is by sharing my favourite talents, the skills that I myself most enjoy using that others might also be able to enjoy. I love writing my blog, sharing my poems, giving gifts of my photography, telling interesting stories, and baking and cooking my favourite healthy recipes.

This kind of giving is really special because it can really benefit both sides, the ‘giver’ and the ‘receiver.’ I benefit because I love using and practicing these skills, and it is wonderful to have an excuse to use them. And the other person benefits from a genuine gift that expresses who I am. These types of gifts are more genuine, I think, because I took the time and effort to make them myself using my own creativity and inspiration, instead of just running to a store to buy something someone/ something else made.

One more obvious way of giving is by directly helping people by offering assistance, favours, or providing practical solutions to problems. This type of giving is what I think of when people refer to practicing ‘random acts of kindness.’ These are the gifts that most often are given to random strangers I come across, when I just happen to be in the right place in the right time.

Some examples that come to mind are picking up something somebody drops and returning it to them, returning an item to lost and found, giving directions if someone is lost, or opening doors for people especially when they are carrying heavy loads or have limited mobility (crutches, wheelchairs, etc.).

A few weeks ago I helped a lady put up posters to a couple of lampposts at a crosswalk on my way to work. All I did was put my hand on the posters to hold them down in the cold winter wind while she wrapped them in tape. Last week I helped a mother and another random stranger helper hoist her big baby stroller onto the bus from the sidewalk that was covered in a pile of snow from the snowplow.

These are such a simple act that are so helpful. The tricky part about these gifts are that it seems I have to be in the right moodto have the opportunity come along. I am more likely to help when I am in a relatively good mood, open and aware of my surroundings, and—most importantly—not rushed!

The last way that I consider I offer my gifts to others is actually through my paid work, my job (in contrast to all of the other work I do for which I don’t get paid). I try to have my job be not just a way to show up and get some money that I ‘deserve’ to have a standard of living. Instead, I see my paid job as an opportunity to give to others, both directly and indirectly.

Many Buddhist teachers describe work as ‘service.’  So my job can be a form of service to others. I am giving to others directly by serving my boss and my coworkers. My boss relies on me to provide skills and services that she needs to do her job, and I can do this in the right way by being a good employee. Being a good employee also includes being assertive and standing up for my rights.

I serve others indirectly by giving to the population being helped in my research. I give to these people with the hope that the work I do will one day, somewhere down the road, benefit them by improving the quality of their lives. In this way, I need to tell myself that my efforts are valued and appreciated, and maybe even needed. I can give to these people even if I never meet them or know who they are.

These are just a few ways that I consider I can give to others, both my loved ones, and other people in the world who I may never meet or receive gifts from. Writing this post has been a nice reminder during this time of year that I don’t need to go to the store to buy material objects in order to give. Giving and generosity is so much bigger than that! It just takes a little bit of imagination. It also takes time to recognize that I benefit from others when I can enjoy other people’s presence, positive influence, and direct help.

Poem: Morning October 18, 2012

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Sunrise

pink clouds across the sky

warming to the new day’s light

tiny birds fly across the window

suddenly there is more

than this kitchen

this breakfast

this body

so much more

Quote: Widening Our Circle of Compassion September 24, 2012

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“A human being is a part of this whole called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. She experiences herself, her thoughts, and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical illusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desire and to a portion for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to force ourselves to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein

Feb 8: Looking at the Big Picture March 3, 2012

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My body was a bit sore today during my sit but my mind wasn’t as reactive to the soreness and the pain. I found that I was able to get fairly well concentrated, and it was easy to notice when my mind went off story-telling, I was able to catch it fairly soon before it got out of hand. I think I had a good sit in part because I woke up with a pretty quiet mind, except for a song I had in my head since yesterday. This could be due to going to bed with a pretty quiet mind without too many pressing worries floating around, so perhaps this morning was just a carry over from the previous night.

When the bell went off at the end of my sit I was thinking about how to make butternut squash soup with the half of a squash sitting in my fridge.

After my sit, I remembered to say a few lines from the five remembrances:

“I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying
I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging
I am of the nature to be ill, I have not gone beyond illness”

I like to say these lines right when I get up in the morning as a way to frame my day. It helps to keep things in perspective because it puts a big picture perspective on the worries and concerns I come across in my daily life. I notice that I often get bogged down in the details, and overwhelmed by the small things, but with reminders like these I realize that a lot of these little petty things are really not all that important in the grand scheme of things.

I think this big picture perspective was on my mind because of an instance late last night where I came across a couple in an intense conversation who failed to notice the beautiful full moon shining in the sky directly in front of them. I wondered, Whatever you’re talking about, is it so important that you miss the beauty directly in front of you? For me it is important to notice the beauty and the wonders of life all around me in all moments of my life, because to me that is what being alive is about. I think having this perspective can help keep me from getting too anxious and worried about my work or about trying to accomplish a specific end goal.