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Listening to My Heart , Surrendering to Pain – Part 3 June 28, 2013

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(This is part 3 of a series entitled “Listening to My Heart, Surrendering to Pain,” continued from my last post, part 2. The theme of the series is learning to listen to my heart by turning toward fear and trusting that I am aligned with the force of love.)

I gave into the pain that was building for so many months. I surrendered to it and decided to leave the cycles of suffering caused by my separation from our Earth. In a way, the decision had already been made long before, I was just making it official by consciously acknowledging it. The decision was made each time I felt the pain of being separated from wilderness and desparately wished to be free from that suffering. When I saw the way out of not living in the city, I took it.

I made up my mind to listen to my heart. What for so long had been felt as a wall of building fear and pain was now transformed into incredible relief and peace. Tears were streaming down my face and I let out sobs of relief. I still felt fear, but it wasn’t as paralyzing as what I had felt before. Now it was simply the fear of the unknown and wondering how the details would turn out.

I knew that I was listening to my heart by simply accepting what was being told to me. I knew that the force that was driving me to make my decision was the force of love. I was learning that this force is the most powerful force in the universe. As long as I am guided by it and aligned with it, as long as I am letting it push me downstream like someone being pushed in the currents of the river, everything would work out just fine.

My decision to leave the city wasn’t something I was about to do right away. I let any thoughts or fears about how I would make it happen drop away. It wasn’t necessary to do it right now. I would keep my intention and let things unfold as they would. I had absolute faith that the right opportunity would arise at the time I needed it.

My decision to leave the city did end up killing the professional self. I had to let Andrea the researcher die. All of the stories I had made up about her, all of the roles I would play, the accomplishments I would have, were now not going to come true. I let them unravel and fall away. A great deal of confusion was happening during this process. It seemed that I was mourning or grieving a lost self, a self that had once been carefully created but was now withering and dying. Strong emotions of grief and disappointment were coming up for me for quite some time during the period of grieving.

Since that day I have experienced a great deal of doubt and isolation because I feel that I am distancing myself from so many people I know. Because I believe myself to be “going against the stream” or in opposition to the widely-held values in my current wider society, I fear people would label me as weird or crazy. I haven’t told anyone about my decision except one person close to me when I wanted to express my doubts. As for anyone else, I’ve kind of hinted at the possibility and left it at that. I have only merely stated, “I’m not sure if I want to live in the big city in the long run,” and let people use their own definition of big city (which I’m sure is much different than mine!).

I feel isolated and facing some doubt because I don’t have a way to express myself in my need to be in wilderness. This article certainly helps. But the fact remains that wilderness, outdoors, and connection to our Earth and plant and animal sisters and brothers are not widely held values in my mainstream society. There is no language for me to speak about these values that are more real for me. So I am silenced until the time I can find a way to speak my own truth.

In the months since I made my decision, I have felt the doubt and isolation dissipate a little bit. I have come to see from conversations with my fellow urban-dwellers that these people probably want to live outside of the city as much as I do. Unfortunately, there are likely many reasons holding them back: commitments to partners, children, or aging parents; having to work in a certain job to pay off debts including student loans; less education or training and therefore fewer options for earning money; or just perhaps lacking the courage to make the decision to leave behind the luxuries and conveniences of the city. I have to feel compassion for the people who desparately wish to be closer to wilderness, but don’t have the options and freedom that I currently enjoy.

As I write this post, too, I have to remember the wisdom teachings of impermanence. Just because I have an intention to do something in the future, and even if my current circumstances are pointing in a certain direction, impermanence tells me that anything could happen to intervene with my plans. Life happens, circumstances arise, and perhaps I may have to let go of this idea once again. Who knows, maybe I will leave the city and find out that there was too much here that I would miss, but I wouldn’t know until I do without. Only time will tell, and the only way I find the answer is by doing it.

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Listening to My Heart , Surrendering to Pain – Part 2 June 21, 2013

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(This is part 2 of a series entitled “Listening to My Heart, Surrendering to Pain,” continued from my last post, part 1. The theme of the series is learning to listen to my heart by turning toward fear and trusting that I am aligned with the force of love.)

I felt intense fear because I was afraid of living without that self-image of my professional self. To be without all of those labels and self images onto which I had held for so long was scary. I wouldn’t know who I would be without them, they were the definitions by which everyone mostly knew me. To be without the self-image posed to much uncertainty, too much that would be unknown. It was as if I would have to reinvent a new self, and that was very scary and confusing.

Because I identified so strongly with my education and training and what I did, without them it seemed like I would be nobody. I wouldn’t exist. The message I had learned was that being a person or a human in my society is to live out one’s professional identity or career.

The possibility of letting my professional self die was also scary because it just felt wrong. I felt like it would be making a major mistake which I would later regret. It seemed that so much of what I had been told to do by so many people around me and so much of society was that letting my professional self die was wrong, it just was something people didn’t do. Following one’s professional training was how I was supposed to fit into society and follow the rules. If I continued to follow the messages given to me, then I would have no alternative but continue in my professional training. It was something I must do.

My fear at abandoning my professional self was related to my ideas of success. I had learned that a professional self and one’s career represents success in my society. A person succeeds at “life”, for the most part, when they succeed at their career. As a 21st century feminist, I certainly identified with that idea of not wanting to identify myself in relation to others or as a role I serve to others, such as girlfriend, wife, mother, etc. Instead, I wanted to be successful as an independent woman. If I didn’t use my professional training, I would not be successful as a person, and therefore I would be viewed as a failure by others.

Nevertheless, no matter how afraid I was at considering not living in the city, or how much I rationalized the logical sense of my decision, I still felt the pain of being separated from wilderness while living in the city. At what point does my tolerance for the pain give out, and I surrender to it by turning toward fear and the unknown?…

One cold winter day on the farm I went for a walk down the road and went off the road to walk into the forest. I came across a small clearing where some trees had fallen or been cut away, and there was an open space with the bright sun shining through. I spent some time standing and breathing, feeling the silence and taking in the white snow. A few feet away stood some young trees that were tied with ceremonial flags from my native neighbours. The once bright colors were now bleached from their exposure to the direct sunlight. The flags, left there intentionally and purposely in the space so long ago, added to the feeling of the space as sacred and meaningful.

I looked up at the trees circling around me, tall thick dark spruces amidst bare light-colored poplar. A breeze came up and suddenly the trees came to life for me. The wind gently moved the trees back and forth, swaying steadily side to side. Their branches rustled up and down like arms waving to me. The trees were dancing for me. Their arms moved in an urgent gesture to send me a message of encouragement. 

I knew what I had to do, and the Earth was speaking to me through the trees to give me the courage to do it. The Earth was giving me the courage to listen to my heart, even though to do so was scary and painful. I had to face my fears and do what I knew was right.

To be continued next post…

Listening to My Heart, Surrendering to Pain – Part 1 June 14, 2013

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What do you do when listening to your heart means facing incredible fear and pain? Do you turn toward the fear, trusting that your heart is being aligned with the force of love? Do you give into the pain when the pain of not following your own heart is many times more unbearable?

Several months ago, I landed my first job out of university and moved to the city. My new job has been in an office for part time hours, where I spend the majority of my work indoors staring at a computer. The long hours spent indoors has meant that I had to get out of the city as much as I could. I started to get sick of my surroundings after any length of time. I took the few chances I could to escape the city and stay a weekend at my farm several hours away.

When I was back in the wilderness, I would be healed from the sickness that too much city had created in me. This sickness was simply due to being separated from Earth, from the ground of my being that is real and wholesome. I experienced healing as both joyful and painful at the same time.

Healing and being restored to wholeness was joyful when I could again rest in what felt real and true. But healing was also painful because it revealed that I had a sickness or a wound up until that point that needed to be healed. Otherwise the sickness would be hidden and denied for me to see, festering below awareness. This wound had to be hidden or avoided in order for me to function in an urban setting.

After many experiences of the same painful revelation of wounds that seemed to happen in such a similar repeated pattern, I started to question why I was letting this happen to me. Why was I allowing the wound to be inflicted in me in the first place? If this is so painful, why do I continue to repeat the same behaviour that creates it to begin with?

I wanted freedom from suffering, from going around and around in circles of healing and pain. I wanted out. I wanted to cut the pain at the root and avoid the whole process altogether.

The problem was that I felt completely trapped and stuck in this cycle of suffering. I didn’t feel that I had any real choice at all but to stay living in the city. My education and training meant that the jobs that would match my qualifications would be almost all found in larger urban centres. If I wanted to make a “living,” I had to do it in a city.

(Note: Many people have suggested to me the option of living on an acreage just outside of the city and commuting into work, but for the past several years I have decided not to take that option myself. Right now, I consider it unethical for me to use anything other than human-powered or public transportation for daily commuting, due to the effects on my health and our environment.)

Eventually I started to question my hard and firm decision to only make a living in the city. I started to chip away at the huge block of stone that was my firm resolve. I wondered if I really had to earn money using my education and training.

As soon as I really started to seriously ask myself this question, I suddenly felt an intense amount of fear and panic. To consider abandoning my education and training was at the same time to consider killing the professional self, so to speak. The professional self represented the image of Andrea who was a psychology student, a researcher, a master’s degree graduate. That self had all of the labels I had attached to myself as part of my university career, such as smart, intelligent, knowledgeable, resourceful, educated, analytical, and expert.

The professional self had so much invested because I had built up that self image through so many years of very hard work. I had to put that huge investment to good use by working in my field of training. I had to earn money back that had been invested in paying tuition. To throw away or kill that professional self would be similar to throwing away all of that hard work and effort. If I threw away that self, all of the labels attached to that self would be thrown away, too.

To be continued next post…

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!

May I Be Free From Tension: Practicing with Chronic Tension December 28, 2012

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A challenge that has recently arisen in my meditation practice is a great deal of physical tension that is causing quite a bit of pain and suffering. I have had the opportunity to look deeply into its causes and to come up with some strategies to alleviate the tension. Some changes I have had to make to help alleviate the tension and pain include changing my daily formal sitting practice, bringing awareness to the body off of the cushion, and cultivating compassion and equanimity.

For the past three weeks I have noticed chronic tension in my upper shoulders, an area that has given me trouble since I was a teenager. It is the area of my body where I hold any tension. The tension can get built up quite a bit and become quite painful. It seems the tension is there all day long, I even wake up and find that the tension hasn’t gone away completely overnight.

I wanted to look deeply to see the cause of this tension, to determine why it has arisen all of a sudden, when a few weeks ago I never noticed it. I realized that it started when I was given a new work assignment, where I had to complete a very challenging task over a one week period by a certain deadline. The work I did was very rushed, and I find being crunched for time is a situation where I often experience physical tension.

The work assignment was also difficult to complete because I never found that I was satisfied with the work I was doing. I was almost always or always producing less than ideal results. I finished the assignment over two weeks ago, but it has taken me at least that length of time to release all of the tension.

The first strategy I used to try and alleviate the tension was to change my daily formal sitting practice. I decided to use a concentration practice, and the object of my concentration was the specific area of the body that was holding the tension. I tried to pay attention to any sensations that were arising in my shoulders, which was difficult to do because it seemed so silly and informal.

I tried to pay specific attention to whether there was either tension or relaxation in the muscles, as well as pain or comfort/ absence of pain, and to try to focus on the exact specific area of the body. I am finding this practice to be quite challenging, because it is so difficult to maintain the focus of my concentration on such a small part of my body that often doesn’t seem to have any sensations arising to notice.

Another strategy I have tried to use off of the cushion is to try to maintain that awareness of any bodily tension in my shoulders. At times I can do this easily, but most of the time it seems I really can’t bring awareness to my shoulders at all. These practices have shown me just how much I can be numb to my body, or at least numb to specific areas, and how often I am dwelling in the mind and thinking.

It is difficult to try to maintain awareness of the body while trying to do other things at the same time. There are times when I am able to feel tension arising in my shoulders but I am not able to relax the tension. This is quite alarming and challenging to deal with, because it is that familiar situation of “I know that I am doing it but I can’t stop myself.” I know from experience that this can go on for some time before the next stage occurs where I am able to stop doing the unskilful behaviour altogether.

Another strategy is to cultivate compassion for myself. Ah, yes, compassion, that quality that I seem to be needing to develop more and more lately. I like the phrase I just came across from Jack Kornfield’s book, “May I be held in compassion.” I sometimes add, “May this/my sore, tired body be held in compassion.”

I also have had the chance to apply a reminder given to me by a teacher at a recent Day of Lovingkindness event that I am not my own fault. I did not knowingly choose to have this tension arise, but it is instead a result of the causes and conditions that made it happen, including my own habit energy. This reminder really helps alleviate the frustration I experience.

Off of the cushion, I like to use phrases to help relieve the tension, especially when I am walking. The two that seem to work best are, “May I be free from tension,” and “May I be relaxed.” I say them on the out breath and try to focus on releasing the tension as I exhale. One thing I noticed while using these phrases is that tension doesn’t necessarily only refer to physical tension. Instead, I recognize that mental, emotional, and spiritual/ existential tension can also cause a great deal of suffering. So using these phrases can be applied to any type of tension that builds up in the body or mind.

I have noticed that at times, usually the end of a formal sitting practice period, equanimity will arise and bring a lot of relief. I can hold the tension and pain in awareness and recognize that its just pain. Its just tension. There is no self identifying with the pain, it is just what is happening in this moment. It is not my pain. And I can hold it all with a calm, relaxed attitude and even a small gentle smile. The thought can arise that, “Its no big deal.” This is quite a relief from a habitual anxious, frustrated attitude about the whole thing.

Yet again, I am happy to be sharing what is arising in my practice and the ways that I am able to deal with it. This situation has given me challenges, but I am also able to recognize the positive aspects that are coming out of it. I recently listened to a podcast that reminded me that the Buddha taught according to each person’s individual circumstances and capabilities. So for me, right now, this is what I am applying my practice to. I also remember Karen Maezen Miller’s reminder that my life is my practice. Chronic tension is what is arising in my life, and that is what I will practice.

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.

Life and Music – Alan Watts December 8, 2012

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“Then when you wake up one day about 40 years old, you say, ‘My god, I’ve arrived! I’m there!…And you don’t feel different from what you always felt. And there’s a slight letdown because you feel it was a hoax. And there was a hoax, a dreadful hoax. They made you miss everything.”

Meditation and Voluntary Simplicity December 7, 2012

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I would like to write a post about meditation and voluntary simplicity, which are two activities in which I am dedicated that are quite important to me. This post is prompted by an upcoming book club meeting I will be attending in a few days to discuss Less is More by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbansky. I also wanted to write about these two topics together, because I recall that I became interested in both of them at the same time, and its easy to see how interest in one may have prompted interest in the other, and vice versa.

First I will start with a statement that I think should be included in any discussion of voluntary simplicity: I occupy a position of privilege and power that allows me the luxury to be able to choose voluntary simplicity that many people can’t afford to make. I have to acknowledge that my existence as a White, university-educated, middle-class, able-bodied, English-speaking, young, healthy woman makes it much easier for me to choose a different lifestyle than it would be for others. In other words, people can’t afford to choose voluntary simplicity when they are denied their basic rights and struggling to make ends meet.

So what is voluntary simplicity? Simply put, it is choosing to simplify my lifestyle, or to live a more “simple life,” by scaling back on the unnecessary details that occupy my life situation and end up only making me miserable. Much of the philosophy has to do with scaling back on material possessions and external goals, to live a more balanced life valuing intrinsically satisfying goals and inner experience.

However, to tie the philosophy specifically to the practice of meditation, I’ll focus on one important aspect of voluntary simplicity: slowing down. Voluntary simplicity involves slowing down the hectic pace of my life situation to take the time to enjoy the pleasures of being alive, while I am still living on our Earth.

In this way, voluntary simplicity is closely linked to a similar movement, the Slow Food movement. The philosophy behind the Slow Food movement is that when taking the time to grow, buy, prepare, and/or eat our food at a slower pace results in food that will be much healthier for our bodies and more satisfying.

Besides slowing down food habits, voluntary simplicity supports slowing down different areas of the modern lifestyle as a protest to the hectic, fast-paced modern world of electronic gadgets and work productivity. If I am always rushing from one task to the next—from sleeping to dressing to transportation to work to eating to exercising to recreation to socializing—I’m not really enjoying any of my experience because I’m so caught up in “nexting,” in getting to the next thing.

Meditation practice can be a way to slow down and simplify my life situation. I think it could be said that there are some forms of relaxation meditation that might be away to maintain a fast-paced habit, when meditation would be used to relieve the symptoms of experiencing stress in a fast-paced world. Relaxation meditation could be a way to recover the body and mind for a short time, in order to get up and do it all over again.

I don’t see mindfulness meditation as meant for the purpose of relaxation, although relaxation is an essential ingredient for the practice if I want to do it skilfully. Instead of using meditation to relieve or cover up the symptoms, mindfulness meditation has the goal of curing the disease. The goal is to cut the root of what makes me stressed in the first place. And efforts toward that goal aren’t always necessarily experienced as relaxing.

Meditation is slowing down because I am deliberately setting aside the time for formal sitting practice. That is time that I could be using being busy and productive and getting other stuff done! In this sense, meditation at first seemed almost anti-productive. Nevertheless, when I actually started to practice meditation regularly, I realized that it can make me more productive when I am more aware of how I am doing tasks in a more skilful, efficient way. Meditation also fulfills the mind’s need for rest and space, a concept that seems completely foreign in this day and age. Meditation practice can be refreshing and revitalizing when it gives the mind a break from the relentless, habitual thought patterns that leave me worn out. I can get up off the cushion feeling much more prepared to face the day.

Mindfulness meditation is a form of slowing down because in order to do a task mindfully, I have to do it slowly. I have to give my full and complete attention to whatever occupies my activity in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches about having a Day of Mindfulness, where we take twice as much time to do anything (cooking, eating, cleaning, tidying, organizing, bathing, washing dishes, drinking tea, gardening, walking). It is at this slow pace that these simple tasks I overlook on my busy days actually become quite enjoyable in and of themselves.

Mindfulness is also slowing down because I am doing one thing at a time if I do it mindfully. Mindfulness supports the practice of uni-tasking! I have to do one thing at a time if I want to actually be aware of what I am doing. In this sense, mindfulness can contradict a multi-tasking culture that expects humans to run like computers: constantly, at high speeds, processing multiple amounts of information at once. When I am multi-tasking, like cooking and talking on the phone at the same time, I end up being less productive or efficient. If I pay close attention to the quality of what I am doing, I see that I end up doing two (or more) tasks at once to a poorer quality, because I make mistakes and I don’t remember what I did afterward.

Spending time in meditation communities reveals to me that the people who attend these groups often have adopted similar attitudes and philosophies of slowing down and having a more simple life. It is quite refreshing to spend time with these people as a break from the dominant culture. Finally, I will add that one of the main reasons I chose not to pursue a PhD, despite many people’s insistence that I should take that route, was that the end goal of having a doctorate degree was completely opposite to voluntary simplicity. The academic lifestyle is not at all what I would describe as balanced or slow, and it didn’t appeal to me in the least.

I chose to focus specifically on the practice of meditation as related to voluntary simplicity, but my meditation practice is part of a larger spiritual practice that incorporates many more of the values of voluntary simplicity. I am quite excited for this upcoming book club meeting, and I know that I have enjoyed similar events in the past.

Speaking of books, here are some of the many titles I have read over the past few years on or related to the topic:

In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore

No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (should be no impact family in my opinion) by Colin Beavan

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende (androcentric writing warning)

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of A Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich

Staying True to My Inner Purpose November 30, 2012

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Recently I had to make a difficult decision, and I was incredibly grateful for my sense of my own inner direction that has been cultivated through my mindfulness practice. At the same time, I am finding it challenging to stay the course of the values and priorities that are important for myself, when it seems I am contradicting what is expected of me.

It happened last week when I had a meeting with a researcher with whom I had previously made arrangements to do some part time work. The hours I was anticipating I would work for her would be an addition to my current part time job. Nevertheless, when I showed up for the meeting, she told me that she didn’t have any extra hours for me to work, but instead she wanted to offer me a job. She explained that one of her staff members had just quit, and she wanted to give me the chance to consider and accept it.

The whole situation was a complete surprise, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell her yes or no on the spot. Any difficult decisions I have made lately have always been slow and deliberate. I knew I would need to take the time to think it over and decide what I really wanted to do. I was incredibly grateful that I could rely on my practice to be able to clarify what exactly my inner purpose is and how to make the right decision.

I knew that I needed to go home, away from work and the office, and spend some time letting it all sink in without trying to think about it too hard (I was going to do be doing that anyway without trying). I needed to see the situation for my whole self, not just my professional or work self. I needed to clarify just how exactly this decision would fit in with the rest of my life situation and the commitments in which I am involved.

I was quite torn when trying to make a decision, because there were great reasons to accept the offer, but also some important reasons to decline. I wanted to accept the offer to get more hours and more money, and also because I could see it leading to a career path I wanted to go down. At the same time, accepting the offer would mean there would be other things that I would have to give up in order to work the job.

After some time, I connected with my inner self and found the answer I was looking for. I knew that at the times when I was really still, calm, and quiet, that a tiny voice had been speaking up and telling me ideas about what I should do that were completely different than where I am now, and where this job would take me. I still felt quite scared because I felt an major conflict in the decision. I knew what I wanted, but what I wanted seemed to be in direct contradiction of what I thought I should do or what was expected of me (by society and by those closest to me).

In the end, I came up with my answer: No, I wouldn’t take the job. Declining the job felt like a failure, and at times I ended up feeling ashamed and that I had lost a valuable opportunity. I felt quite sad because it seemed that other people wouldn’t be able to understand where I was coming from, even though I knew that I understood for myself what I needed to do. There was some reassurance, though, for me because I had a strong sense that another opportunity would fall into place and come to me without me trying too hard. I just had to be patient and it would eventually all work out just fine.

After spending so much time worrying about my decision, and dealing with the feelings that came up after, I finally remembered an insight I had months earlier while job searching. It happened at a recent meditation retreat I was on, which was the canoe trip this past summer. On the retreat, I spent the first full day in complete silence, and at the end of the day we had a chance to share anything with the group. I expressed to the group a thought that had come to me out of the silence not long before:

“Maybe the world just wants me to be happy and at peace.”

A statement that was quite radical for me, as it seems to be quite different from the way I have been living for as long as I can remember. But now I can look back at that statement and still put importance on it.

I try to take pride in the fact that it takes a lot of courage to stay true to my own inner purpose when it seems that I am going “against the stream,” so to speak, or against the cultural and societal values and norms I perceive around me. The reality of my current consumer capitalist culture and society is that the most important values that are promoted are money, achievement, career, status, and the future. My values are in many ways the opposite of these, and it takes a strong will to stay true to them.

While trying to make my decision, I felt reassured that another opportunity would come my way eventually, though I can’t exactly say why. On the very morning that I contacted the researcher to decline the job, I received an e-mail from an previous professor offering me a short job and a promise of more work to come if I need it. The timing couldn’t have been better. Yep, I think this is all going to work out just fine. Just as long as I continue to rely on my practice to help me tackle these difficult decisions.