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Insights From Washing Dishes February 1, 2013

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At the last sangha meeting I facilitated, I read the chapter “Washing Dishes” from the book Peace is Every Step. I had the chance to listen to great perspectives from others on the topic. I also was able to share some of my insights, including a reflection on the non-dual nature of dishes and the miracle of being alive in our day to day circumstances.

 

The Non-Dual Nature of Dishes

When I returned from a recent retreat, I took the opportunity to look for the dharma in as many different and new aspects of my everyday situations. I spent some effort trying to find some lessons in washing dishes, as I felt Thay put a strong emphasis on these and other daily activities. I really tried to pay close attention to my experience of the present moment with a very curious attitude. After a long period of time, I had a realization that I felt was the meaning behind what Thay was trying to teach.

In the middle of the process of converting a dirty dish into a clean dish, I realized that “dirty” and “clean” are just labels and concepts I apply to some experience of reality, when the ultimate reality is that they are just dishes. Also, my preference for clean dishes is only in reference to their opposite. I only want clean dishes because I don’t want dirty dishes; I want the opposite of dirty, which is clean.

This preference for “good” over “bad” can extend to so much of my experience. I want “happiness” without “suffering” and “pleasure” without “pain,” but the definition of happiness necessarily involves its opposite, the absence of suffering. Happiness and suffering are just two ends of a spectrum when the reality is the whole thing, the bigger picture.

I know that I can’t have happiness without suffering, just like I can’t have clean dishes without dirty ones. They go together. Unfortunately, I was told and believed the societal message that I can have one without the other. I can have happiness without suffering.

Applied to the example of dishes, I can put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and it will clean them for me. Thus I am absolved and avoid the “messy” task of cleaning dirty dishes. But as soon as I do that, I don’t appreciate having clean dishes, and I don’t know how to clean dirty ones! Which is a metaphor for so much of society and many of the problems that we collectively face today.

I don’t appreciate the conditions for my well being that are present in every moment: clean dishes; a meal of fresh healthy food; a strong, vital body; a safe, inviting home; a family that supports and looks out for me. All of these wonderful conditions take time and attention in order to enjoy their nourishment.

As a result of my insight into the interrelatedness of dirty and clean wishes, I was much more happy to wash dishes (at least for a short period of time!). I recognized that without the task of washing dirty dishes, I would have to be deprived of the pleasure of eating a meal. So when I was washing dishes, I was also eating, because washing dishes and eating inter-are. And because the meal I eat inter-is with everything I do with my energy from the food, washing dishes is also doing everything else.

Thus, I found a similarity to Thay’s story about his attendant fetching him to give the dharma talk and found Thay planting seeds. Thay was in no rush to hurry to the meditation hall, because he explained that if he can’t plant the seeds, he wouldn’t be able to give the dharma talk.

 

Washing Dishes As A Miracle

In the chapter, Thay says that washing dishes is a miracle. Unfortunately, I have usually found that my experience of reality does not fit with this statement from Thay. Nevertheless, now I am able to recognize that Thay is a poet, and much of what he writes is in poetic language for the purposes of sounding lovely.

In contrast, my experience of washing dishes usually couldn’t be farther from what Thay is telling us. To me, it usually feels like I am just washing dishes. No miraculous feeling here. Nothing more. Nothing special. It feels “blah,” boring, mundane, and unsatisfying.

More and more I am trying to see how the discrepancy is due to my idea of what a miracle or satisfaction or happiness should feel like. I am caught in craving for something other than my mundane, everyday circumstances. Or, as one author puts it, in wanting “a bright and shining moment.”

My idea of happiness is that it should be a lights-flashing, bells-ringing moment of “HAPPINESS!” This idea is what has been sold to me by my culture that happiness is excitement, as energetic and stimulating.

I am craving the excitement to overcome the dullness of my everyday circumstances. I have to remember that when this time of craving is indulged, it can never be fully satisfied but only keeps me searching for more, leaving me finally collapsed in exhaustion, my senses frayed and my mood sullied.

On the other hand, Zen teachings explain that happiness is peace, ease and contentment. My experience coincides with this, because the moments when I have felt that life—being alive—truly is a miracle has come from a place of deep stillness, silence, and peace. Moments when my present moment awareness was so strong that it spread out to encompass everything around me.

I will close with a confession that I continue to struggle with my dissatisfaction with the dull mundane feeing of my everyday circumstances. I realize that trying to ‘get away’ from these moments has actually already resulted in missing out on a great deal of my life.

Oh, and I still don’t really like washing dishes…

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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.

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.

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.

Poem: I am not a facebook profile October 18, 2012

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I am not a facebook profile

I am not a profile picture

I am not a status update

I am not a series of status updates

I am not my likes

I am not my pages

I am not my relationship status

whatever a domestic partnership means anyway

I am not a gender binary category

slotted into either her or his

I am not  what TV shows I watch

I am not what movies I am going to see

I am not my favourite quote

 

I am not what music I listen to

I am not what books I read

I am not my webpage

I am not my blog

I am not my photo album

I am not what clothes I wear

I am not Gap, Levi’s, Plum, or H&M

I am not what car I drive

I am not Ford, Hyundai, or Mitsubishi

I am not the places I’ve travelled

I am not Thailand, Ireland, or France

little plastic magnets covering a fridge door

I am not what sports I play

I am not my religious or spiritual preferences

when you’re all spiritual but not religious anyway

I am not what I eat

low-fat, high-carb, gluten-free, locally-sourced

I am not my corporate sponsor

I am not Nike Adidas New Balance Reebok

I am not my disorder, my special label

I am not lactose-intolerant, seasonally-affective, bipolar

 

Who the heck am I?

Am I this body?

These eyes, this hair, this skin?

Am I my story?

My manufactured past?

My carefully planned future?

Am I what I do, my repeated actions, day by day, moment after moment?

Who am I?

Who is this?

What is this?

 

Well that’s easy:

Put down your cell phone

Close your laptop

take out the earbuds

shut off the TV

 

Breathe in.

 

Breathe out.

 

Open your eyes.

 

Stay

HERE

a while and let’s find out

Beautifully Inspiring Video: Brene Brown on The Power of Vulnerability August 8, 2012

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I came across this video several months ago while browsing the Ted talks site for a little entertainment, something I don’t do often at all. I absolutely loved it the first time I saw it, and it really stayed with me for some reason. I looked it up again recently, and found it as moving and inspiring as the first time I saw it. There are so many truths and so much dharma in it! I hope you find it as valuable as I did.

The Story of My Stuff July 10, 2012

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“The things you own end up owning you” – Fight Club

I like to think that I don’t own that many possessions, or that I am not very materialistic and don’t get attached to “things.” For the past two years I have tried my best to either delay buying certain items until I was finished another move, or to not buy items altogether.

Well, I started packing my things in preparation for another big move, and found out—surprise, surprise—I do have a lot of possessions. This realization was a bit of a shock to me, maybe because it showed how much the trait of ‘anti-materialist’ had become part of my identity, or how I saw myself as a person.

The moving process took an entire week altogether. It was a very laborious, sweaty, and at times stressful week for me, because I had a deadline when I had to be done. By the time I was getting closer to the end of the moving process, the phrase I quoted at the start of this article started to come to mind.

As much as I didn’t want to admit it, apparently the things I owned had started to own me. I was spending a great deal of time organizing, arranging, and planning moving my possessions not to mention the mental energy and effort keeping the whole process under control.

During that week there were so many things I wanted to do instead of moving (go outside for a walk, go pick wild berries, visit friends, go to music shows, go to meditation groups, go to a pow-wow, the list goes on), but instead I was confined to my hot, sweaty, non-air-conditioned apartment for much of the day, fitting things into cardboard boxes.

When I realized just how many items I was trying to pack into boxes and move back to the west, I decided I had had enough. This was ridiculous. I went through a frenzied process of throwing out a lot of items I had kept after considering whether I really wanted them or not. Turns out I didn’t want them that bad. I knew I was doing the right thing because I felt free and lighter after getting rid of the items.

Goodbye.

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

I don’t care.

I don’t have to think about you any more.

Get lost.

A few days later, my boxes arrived at my parents’ home, and suddenly I was stuck with the task of fitting the boxes into storage in my bedroom. My parents’ home is a trailer, so my bedroom is one of the smallest rooms I have ever seen. So I had to get rid of some old items that were being stored in my bedroom in order to move the new items in.

By this time I had been doing the process of purging and de-cluttering for a few weeks already. At the start, the decision to get rid of something was painfully slow, as I deliberately made a mental decision whether to keep it or junk it, weighing the pros and cons.

By the end, the drawn-out mental process had become an easily-identifiable feeling upon looking at an item:

I feel heavy, burdened, and/ or irritated = I get rid of it. I don’t really want it in reality. (Or the only reason I am keeping it is because someone gave it to me and I don’t want them to think I got rid of it. If they truly love me, then they wouldn’t want me to be burdened by something they gave me, so I still get rid of it.)

I feel energized, or excited, or have longing for it = Its a keeper, its something truly valuable.

I noticed these feelings coming up as I unpacked my boxes from the move. The feelings were similar to “Why did I bring this back?” or “Oh, its so great that I still have that!” Clearly, there were a few items I still should have ditched that I didn’t.

The moving process was a real awakening for me.

I realized just how much stuff I do own.

I learned how to identify the feeling of being burdened by an unused item.

I saw how I keep things that aren’t truly of value to me.

I saw how easy it is to shove possessions away into storage and forget about them for years.

I saw how easily and quickly my collecting items that never get used can get out of hand (“I might use this…one day…maybe…”).

On a lighter note, I realized the joy of giving unused or no longer wanted items to friends who would use and appreciate them.

Maybe these lessons and insights will stay with me a while as I continue to be tempted with buying or collecting new things to bring into my home, as is inevitable in a materialistic, consumer culture. Maybe they won’t stay with me. Maybe I will just have to keep re-learning these lessons all over again…

Review: The Art of Power June 7, 2012

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I recently finished reading The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh. When I first picked up the book I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it surprised me by turning out to be an excellent read.

The main message of the book was to change our ideas of true power from external forms of power to internal power. In other words, from the idea of power as controlling or influencing others or acquiring wealth or possessions to the power to be able to be happy in the present moment and free from afflictions.

I was surprised by the book because it seemed to be so applicable and relevant to living in a modern, industrialized society. Thay tries to convince us of the dangers of placing high values on materialism, or achieving status, wealth and material possessions. I think in this culture, this is the common assumption that the way to become powerful is to gain wealth, status, and possessions.

Nevertheless, Thay tries to convince us that there is a better way to live, and a better way to gain power. Mindful living is a more wholesome way to live and become successful in all areas of our lives, not just in material aspects.

Some of the ideas that Thay describes seem to be contradictory at first, but I think this reflects our cultural conditioning. For instance, the idea that slowing down or doing one thing at a time can allow you to get more work done. When Thay explains ideas like these more fully, and I remembered lessons from my own experience, I was able to see that they do make quite a bit of sense.

I really enjoyed the piece describing how money might be seen as power: When we have lots of money we have power over other people because we can pay them to do things that we want. We also feel more powerful because we have more choice available to us in how to spend our money and what services and products to buy.

To me, this was an excellent description of how democracy has become commercialized in Canada, and perhaps to a larger extent inNorth America. Currently, the phrase “one dollar, one vote” is commonplace, and reflects the idea that we exert power by buying things. So really, our power is “buying power”. But the message is that this type of power isn’t true power, and actually can cause a lot of problems in our lives.

Thay included a lot of practical suggestions for incorporating mindfulness into work life and work settings. These suggestions seemed quite practical and simple, and made quite a bit of sense in Thay’s descriptions. A lot of emphasis was placed on leading by example, instead of using direct suggestions. Thay discussed using a different viewpoint of our coworkers as a kind of family, and the best way we can work is when we care for our coworkers.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone who is looking for ways to live a healthier, more wholesome life in a materialist and consumerist society.

Living Simply…Simply Living? April 28, 2012

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The other night I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a local discussion group/ meet-up called a conversation cafe organized by the university and held at a downtown coffee shop/ art gallery. The theme of the talk was “Can we live more simply?”, and as soon as I saw the title I knew this was something I would find worthwhile. I would certainly say it was one of the best events I’ve ever attended!

The main premise of the talk was for people to get together and talk about living more simply, whatever that means to them, how we might be able to do that, as well as why we should be doing it. For some people, living more simply meant giving up activities or objects (vehicles, technology, TV shows, always having the newest things), for others it meant doing other activities they never did before (getting to know their neighbours, making things yourself, visiting local tourist attractions).

I noticed during the talk that some of what was said by other people actually touched on very Buddhist concepts, or concepts that coincided with meditation. For instance:

– one woman described how much she enjoyed travelling in her youth, where she didn’t carry a cell phone or laptop with her. She described how enjoyable it was just to be by herself, with herself,  and not have any major distractions taking her attention away. To me this is similar to meditation and Buddhism because there is an emphasis on solitude and taking the time to pay attention to yourself without distractions.

– someone talked about how they saw that other people seem to be consuming or acquiring objects in order to fill a hole inside of themselves using external objects, instead of trying to find satisfaction internally. They also described how consuming can be a way to avoid having to face questions that can actually be quite scary, such as what is the purpose of my life, or why am I here? I think that meditation is a technique used to look deeply into the reasons why we are consuming and what satisfaction we get out of it, in order to determine whether those reasons are skillful or unskillful.  And certainly, spiritual practice is a way to address the bigger questions of one’s purpose in life, and meditation helps to do that. I think that a daily meditation practice gets me in touch with those deeper questions a little bit each day, maybe not even directly but indirectly (which might perhaps be better in some ways?).

– the fact that everyone was talking about the objects or activities that they were giving up in order to live more simply addressed the Buddhist principle that dissatisfaction/ suffering is caused by attachment, so letting go of objects and activities is a way to let go of our attachments and relieve our dissatisfaction.

I think another aspect that I really enjoyed about this talk was I got a sense of community, or of a group of people who were similar to me and shared similar values and lifestyles, that were getting together for the same purpose and goal. I really got a lot out of that, and this sense of community and similarity is really important to me. I find that I rarely get to meet many people in my day to day life who share my values of living simply and giving up consumerism and materialism, so it really is a treat for me to meet these types of people.

Most people I meet in meditation groups are much older than me, often middle-aged or retired. It seems that retirement makes having a regular meditation practice a lot easier. Rarely do I get to meet people my age or even younger than 40, so when I do meet someone my age, I really treasure it. The group that had gathered for this event was a mix of younger and older people, with a few people my age and younger (20’s or early 20’s), so it was really great to see that.

Also, this event couldn’t have come at a better time for me, because living simply and having an “alternative” lifestyle is something that has been on my mind since the retreat. I found that on the retreat one of the topics that really came up as the answer to the question, “What gets in the way of my being truly happy?” was feeling pressure to live a life that I didn’t want to live in terms of my lifestyle, my job, and where I live. Lately, I’ve been trying to embrace the vision or dream I have of my ideal lifestyle and really try to make it manifest in reality. It seems that the most important thing I can do is relentlessly search for what makes me truly happy.

So for me, being truly happy is one that allows me to have a lifestyle that doesn’t necessarily fit with what I see around me as the “norm.” I don’t want to live a commercialized, consumerist, technological lifestyle. I am trying to embrace that as who I am, and live it with confidence that I am able to find what makes me satisfied.