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Where Did My Breath Go? July 19, 2013

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These past few weeks have given me a few challenges to continuing my mindfulness practice, and I am able to see what these challenges are. As a result, my mindfulness practice isn’t coming as easily to me lately, and I feel that I have lost my breath and my present moment awareness. I am trying to motivate myself skillfully to restore my mindfulness without shame or fear or guilt.

I lost my breath. While it seemed not so long ago my awareness of my breath came so much more easily to me, recently it seems that awareness is largely gone. I’m going through my days these past couple of weeks almost completely in my mind, lost in thought, oblivious to my experience of the present moment within and around me.

I suspect losing my breath may have happened as a result of recently spending five full days out of town visiting relatives. Also, I’m sure my preparations for my upcoming trip are contributing to the tendency to be lost in planning thoughts. Finally, an important factor is that I’m working a new part time job that requires me to be rushing and keeping track of multiple objects of attention at once. I find it difficult to get out of these tendencies even after I’m off work.

I have been paying attention to what it is like to have less awareness of my breath, and I am finding that the state of mind in which I have been lately is not all that enjoyable. I feel that I am just rushing or moving from one task or duty to another. I can’t really sit still or be really comfortable with not doing anything but just being. I feel like I am missing out on life, the life that can be deeply experienced and enjoyed. I feel quite agitated and restless, and like I am mostly up in my head and disconnected from my body.

I can go great lengths of time without remembering to return to my breath. When I am rarely able to return to my breath, my mind is soon off wandering to thoughts and plans. My sitting practice sessions have been difficult when I see my mind wander off so easily and so often. It requires a great deal of effort not only to return to the breath but to stay there.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been making up a story about what this means for myself as a practitioner, including details about what I think has happened in the past and will happen in the future. I’m using my mindfulness practice as a criteria for self-judgement and applying labels of lazy and bad. This story only adds to the difficulty and the challenges posed by my present circumstances.

As an experienced practitioner, I know that motivating myself through shame and far is a very negative and unskillful way to be diligent in my practice. Instead, what I want to do is motivate myself positively and skilfully using confidence, faith, and patience. I want to get out of the story I’ve created in my mind about what a bad practitioner I am. I’m remembering a joke my dharma teacher said at a recent retreat: “I’m a little piece of shit and I’m the centre of the universe.” Its exactly that type of thinking that I would like to avoid.

The fact is, losing my breath or my present moment awareness has happened before. This is not the first time. All it means is that different conditions have arisen that do not support my mindfulness practice. And I’m able to see what some of these conditions are.

Therefore, I have been putting quite a bit of effort lately into restoring my mindfulness, my breath, and my present moment awareness. In my sitting practice especially, I have been trying so hard lately to be really interested in my breath. What’s breathing in? What’s it really like, not just my idea of what its like? What does it feel like? Where exactly do I feel it in my whole body?

I’m also reminded continually of some meditation instructions given to my by a recent dharma teacher on retreat: “Be present for this moment. Not regretting how much you weren’t present in a past moment, or plans for how much you will be present in this moment, but completely present, right here, right now.” When I heard my teacher say this, I thought to myself, “Oh my gosh! She’s reading my mind! How did she know that those are the exact thoughts going through my mind when I am practicing mindfulness!”  Her instructions are a helpful reminder to just be in the present moment without the added stories I contribute.

But I know that I’ll regain my present moment awareness, and I will reconnect with my breath and my body. I know I will because I have absolute faith in the three jewels. I know that when I sit on my cushion and I return to my breath and my body, centered in my safe island of mindfulness, that I am home. I have felt that feeling of groundedness and at-home-ness enough times that it has become internalized.

These past few weeks have offered a few conditions that aren’t supportive of my mindfulness practice, and I’ve noticed my breath and my present moment awareness is not as strong as it has been previously. Nevertheless, I am continuing to practice in order to cultivate and restore my awareness, but I need to remind myself to do it skillfully without shame and fear.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go practice sitting meditation!

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Reflections from Weekend Mindfulness Retreat January 18, 2013

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Recently I had the opportunity to organize and attend a weekend mindfulness retreat where I am living. It was a wonderful experience overall, and I wanted to share just a few of many reflections from the weekend, including opening my heart, restoring my confidence, and hugging meditation.
Opening My Heart
On the retreat I was able to enjoy many periods of dwelling in an open heart. Numerous times I would be making my way around the retreat, as well as during walking and eating meditation, and I would notice or see my fellow retreat attendees, some of whom were complete strangers to me. I would feel an immense sense of gratitude and appreciation for these wonderful living beings directly in front of me, simply for their presence. I also experienced a softening in compassion at the same time of their vulnerability to suffering.
This sense of dwelling in an open heart felt amazing: very warm, peaceful, natural, satisfying, spacious and expansive. It is only recently in the past few months since my weekend lovingkindness retreat that I have been able to recognize when my heart is open to others.
I think that an important factor to help these feelings arise might be the incredible safety and comfort I usually feel on retreat of being in a safe, quiet place, surrounded by fellow practitioners, and watched over by a dharma teacher. I am grateful that I was able to get a glimpse of that place of open-heartedness. I hope that I can use it as an experience to remember, and to which I can refer later: Oh right, this is what an open heart feels like.
Restoring My Confidence
The teacher asked us at the start of the retreat to really take some time to consider our intention for coming. To ask ourselves: Why am I here? What do I hope to get out of this? I spent some time trying to narrow down and clarify a few thoughts or themes going through my mind up until that point. One intention that came out that really spoke to me was my intention to strengthen and restore my faith in the practice.
I had a difficult time over the winter holidays sustaining my practice, to which I’m sure many people can relate, and I returned feeling quite depleted in my typical trust and confidence in practicing mindfulness. Specifically, I felt that maintaining my mindfulness practice was taking more effort than it was “worth”, or that I was putting more into it than I was getting out of it. Looking back now, I think I can see that I may have been lost in confusion and despair.
Regardless, I remembered from past retreats that these weekends usually left me with a stronger sense of faith and confidence that I am on the right path. I will say that my faith and trust was completely restore as soon  as I had the chance to practice mindful breathing and walking in a supportive environment. A large part of this restored faith also was due, I think, to sharing or enjoying the expressions of deep faith and heartfelt aspirations of others, especially of those who were new to the practice. I felt genuinely moved and touched by the sincerity of other people’s aspirations and the bare honesty of what people shared during dharma discussion and question & answer sessions. Maybe it reminded me that I, too, have turned to the three jewels in deep humility of not knowing all of the answers and turning to something outside of myself for help and refuge.
Enjoying Hugging Meditation
One part of the retreat I especially enjoyed was hugging meditation. I had the sense that I was really able to grasp the full meaning behind Thay’s instruction on the purpose of hugging meditation. This wasn’t my first opportunity to enjoy hugging meditation on retreat, but it was one time I felt deeply moved by it.
From my understanding, hugging meditation can be an opportunity to enjoy sharing the presence of another person. When we practice hugging meditation, we can be completely present for that person and recognize that they are here with us. I was able to relate to Thay’s connection of impermanence to the practice of being able to say, I know that you are here and I am so happy. Realizing that every moment of our and another’s life is precious, and all we really have is the present moment.
I try to really appreciate and savour every moment I share together with my loved ones. It is a chance to recognize that all of the infinite causes and conditions that had to come together for ourself and the other person to be here, alive and well, in this moment. I really was able to get a good sense of all of these teachings during hugging meditation. Perhaps it helped that I was so moved by the deep aspirations of others who took the Five Mindfulness Trainings and knowing that many more were considering taking the trainings. I was really able to see the good heart of everyone shining through and reflecting in their eyes.
Something I have been trying hard to do is to practice this with my family, and to not take for granted as much that my family members will always be here with me when I spend time with them, but that every moment I have with them is precious simply because we are able to be together. This intention is something I continue to explore and practice.
These are just a few reflections from my experience of a great weekend retreat. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to take part and to help organize the retreat. My task now is to integrate these experiences and insights into my everyday situations. Wish me luck!