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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxygen_Feb_2010_Cover[1]

 

Can I buy your body?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shining Awareness in the Dark Corners – A Story of Forgiveness, Part 4 May 24, 2013

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(This is part 4 of a series on how my mindfulness meditation practice helped me to find forgiveness, and how I uncovered an entire place in my awareness that had previously been completely hidden in darkness. Read part 3 here.)

Then something unexpected happened.  I had expected that letting my mother know I had forgiven her would bring a great deal of relief. I assumed I would feel better and that energy being held up inside would be freed.

Instead I felt noticeably worse for a good week or two. I was quite emotionally upset, bearing through waves of great sadness, grief, and fear. My mood was depressed, and I lacked my usual amount of energy. Seeking solitude, I stayed in my room at home to try and deal with what was coming up. I was starting to get worried about what was happening, and wanted to know what the cause was.

It didn’t take long to see that the difficult emotions were a result of opening up a part of my awareness that before had been hidden for so long. A very vivid image came to me that best illustrated how I felt. The image was of a light being turned on in a large room to reveal an entire corner of the room previously cloaked in darkness. The light was the light of my conscious awareness seeing clearly and directly. The room was my mind or my consciousness, and the hidden corner was my storehouse of memories. The sudden change in my awareness seemed to be as explicit as the switch of a lightbulb.

I now had access to an entire block of memories from very long ago that were memories of my mother. Somewhat surprisingly, these memories were pleasant memories, or if not pleasant than at least neutral. The memories were far different from the painful ones that I used to be convinced were the only memories I had of my mother.

Why had these memories come to me so suddenly? They were tied up in the pain I had felt at an earlier age, pain that had left a lasting effect on me. The anger and hatred had been keeping the pain locked in place, hidden safely in forgetfulness so I didn’t have to face the pain. As long as the pain was still there, as long as I refused to face it, the memories were invisible as well, as if they never existed.

As soon as forgiveness entered the picture, the anger and hatred could dissolve, and the pain was opened up. The sadness, grief, and fear I was feeling were from this pain being exposed.

So if these were pleasant, or at least not painful, memories, why was I still feeling such difficult emotions? It was as if I had to reprocess each one of these memories one at a time. When these memories came into my awareness, I re-experienced the pain associated with each one that I had felt at the time when the memories were locked away.

I was being healed, or perhaps more accurately, I was allowing the healing to happen on its own.

What was so absolutely amazing to me is that there actually are real happy and warm memories of my mother. A few years earlier I would have been absolutely convinced beyond a doubt that such memories weren’t possible. I couldn’t believe how much mental energy was being used to keep these memories hidden! My mind was trying so hard to tell me the memories weren’t there, and trying to prevent me from facing reality.

A huge insight from this whole process was that memories are not real. They are only constructed images of the past meant to serve a purpose at the time that they are remembered. If I am in a depressed mood when I try to remember what has happened in the past, depressed memories will be brought up. On the other hand, if in the moment I am in a happy mood when I look back on the past, happy memories will be brought up. The more time spent in one of these moods, and these memories are brought up, the more these memories begin to shape our perceptions of reality.

This insight into the non-solidity of memories has allowed me to let go of the past more and embrace being grounded in the present moment. I am also more likely to qualify what I say, as I have throughout this series of posts, with “or at least, that’s how I remember it,” because I know that my memories are not the absolute and final truth.

Shining Awareness in the Dark Corners – A Story of Forgiveness, Part 3 May 17, 2013

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(This is part 3 of a series on how my mindfulness meditation practice helped me to find forgiveness, and how I uncovered an entire place in my awareness that had previously been completely hidden in darkness. Read part 2 here.)

I will admit that it was difficult at first to open to pain and turn toward such deep anger and hatred held in my heart. The resentments that I had felt for so long were hard to let go, as if they were who I was or they were an integral part of me. Without them I might not know who I was anymore.

Nevertheless, I did a great deal of deep looking and out of understanding came forgiveness. I looked deeply into how I felt hurt and how I perceived my mom had hurt me. I could see how, much like Thay explains, my suffering was related to someone else’s suffering. My suffering was my mother’s suffering.

The harm I felt that had been done to me was a resut of my mother having depression.I could no longer hold onto anger in the face of so much pain. I saw that no one would ever consciously choose to be in that situation.

I experienced a huge amount of relief to let go of all of that anger I had kept inside for so long. I could now see that no one had actually deliberately or intentionally tried to hurt me or cause me suffering from depression. Instead, what had happened in the past was just what had happened. I came to a level of acceptance of my past experience.

I had inner forgiveness for my mom in that I didn’t openly acknowledge the change to anyone. Part of my reason for keeping this forgiveness to myself was that I still felt resentment for other family members who had told me I should forgive my mom. They argued it would be the right thing to do. Before, this advice had made me angry. I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowing I did what they told me to do! I didn’t forgive my mom because it was the right thing to do, or because I listened to anyone’s advice. Instead, I did it out of my own choice and for myself first. I did it to free myself of hatred and anger.

I kept my forgiveness to myself and my relationship with my mother improved somewhat because I no longer held such hatred and anger. But outwardly our relationship didn’t drastically change because I didn’t’ sense that much warmth or love, at least compared to other family members with whom I was close. My mother and I were still quite distant from each other.

I moved away even farther from home and for a period only saw my family twice a year, so any relationship with my mother was still distant. After a year of being far from home I began to feel quite homesick. I even felt homesick a little for my mother, which was completely unexpected. I kind of missed her, but not nearly as much as I missed other family members, and even some friends. I almost couldn’t believe I was feeling this toward my mother; I really hadn’t thought it would ever be possible.

I soon came across a dharma talk on forgiveness, which planted a seed of intention. The teacher made it clear to me what I needed to do, my next step: I had to tell my mother that I had forgiven her for anything that had happened to me. But first I had to ask for her forgiveness. I had to ask her to forgive me for all of the violence and aggression I directed toward her, and for all the blame I placed on her for what happened to me. I almost didn’t know if it was possible. But I still had to ask for it.

I phoned my mom up one day and did all of this over the phone. I tried to explain my side of the story of expressing such anger and violence because of having depression, and based on other circumstances in my life while I was a teenager. I had expected it to be an awkward, uncomfortable conversation, but it went surprisingly well. I felt such huge relief for the situation o turn out much better than I had imagined.

Then something unexpected happened…

To be continued next post

Shining Awareness in the Dark Corners – A Story of Forgiveness, Part 2 May 10, 2013

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(This is part 2 of a series on how my mindfulness meditation practice helped me to find forgiveness, and how I uncovered an entire place in my awareness that had previously been completely hidden in darkness. Read part 1 here.)

When times were shitty, I directed all of the energy of blame for all of what I saw to be going wrong in my personal circumstances to my mother. I hated her. In fact, as far as I was concerned, she was the one person who ruined my life. Most or all of my problems were because of her, either directly or indirectly. I would fantasize about how much my life would be better if she wasn’t in it.

I disowned my mother. As far as I was concerned I had an idea or an image in my mind of what a mother was supposed to be, and she didn’t fit that image. She didn’t deserve to be called my mother. I stopped calling her mom and referred to her by her first name, not only when addressing her directly, but also when referring to her when talking to my friends and relatives.

I grew up—sorry, I mean I grew older—and moved away from home. I had a chance to, as I saw it at the time, fix my life by taking control over it myself. I distanced myself from my parents, but especially my mom, and went off on my own.

Not long after, depression revisited, and I had to do the long, hard work of pulling myself out of that big, deep, black hole of self-pity. And this time, the self-pity focused on my mental illness, or the story of it. By the story I mean that depression wasn’t just something that happened to me, I was depression. I was a depressed person, and because I had been depressed before, I must therefore be doomed to this for The Rest Of My Life.

So my self-pity turned to blame for my parents, especially my mother. It was my mother’s fault I was depressed because, among other well-validated and intelligently-argued points, my mother didn’t fix her own depression. She passed on her depression through me. She made me depressed. She did this not only because of, as I was now learning in my university psychology courses, exposing me to seeing someone else with that same illness, but also because of my genes. Depression was built into my genetic makeup. I was doomed. And it was all her fault.

As you might expect, these thoughts and feelings of self-pity only led me to further dig myself into that dark hole of despair. After some time, I was finally shocked into summoning enough energy to take charge of my own recovery. And the type of self-pity thoughts described above absolutely had to go if I wanted my well-being back. I took that approach that I could only take responsibility over what I had control. I couldn’t control my family history or any past experiences, but I could control my thoughts and how I responded to what had happened to me.

When I began to practice meditation regularly and learn the dharma, I was able to take care of the pain leftover from my episode of depression. I was encouraged by the open acknowledgement of the first noble truth that suffering (or dissatisfaction or unease) exists. I was also comforted by the confirmation that suffering can be transformed into understanding and happiness. Strengthened by the practice, I could turn toward the leftover pain of depression and heal myself, and transform the suffering transmitted to me by previous generations.

In transforming some of this pain, I became more aware and understanding of the pain of having a mental illness, and this gave me a great deal of compassion for myself and others in this same situation. I was completely able to deeply feel the pain of mental illness and depression, and have profound compassion in response to that type of pain.

Therefore, when I was eventually exposed to forgiveness in the context of an actual meditation practice, my path to forgiveness was understanding. I took on the forgiveness practice because I decided I needed to forgive my mother. Part of it was a motivation to simply grow up. I wanted to stop being the whiny teenager who had such a sense of entitlement for what people were supposed to do for me. I wanted to be responsible for my own life and happiness.

Continue to part 3 here.

Shining Awareness in the Dark Corners – A Story of Forgiveness, Part 1 May 3, 2013

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This a story of how my mindfulness meditation practice helped me to find forgiveness, and how I uncovered an entire place in my awareness that had previously been completely hidden in darkness. You might not think it is a particularly unique story. In fact, you might even be able to guess how it unfolds. But its my story, and that’s all that matters. And its my story, so I get to tell it.

My relationship with my mother has changed dramatically over my life, but perhaps the most dramatic change has occurred at the same time as—like many of my other relationships—beginning my meditation practice. To tell this story, I’ll start at the beginning.

My relationship with my mother was quite good when I was younger—or so at least I remember, and so I was told by many people around me. My mom stayed home on the farm to raise me and my sibling, so I got plenty of attention. I was looked after and taken care of. I had homemade clothes, home-cooked meals from the garden (including home-canned fruits and wild berries, and homemade bread), and a home that was kept mostly tidy and well decorated. I also had many family camping trips, and was taken to activities and to visit friends. These early years would become the standard or ideal to which I would later compare my circumstances.

By the time I was in middle childhood, many of the attention and duties provided to me were taken away. It was then that I started to notice and be told that my mom was suffering from the mental illness of depression. It followed that many of the circumstances I had enjoyed at an earlier age started to slip away, and some of them disappeared altogether. The activities mom used to do were more and more replaced by her lying in bed, sleeping.

Consequently, the lack of attention affected our relationship, and I became more distant from her. I had to start making my own school lunch, and cooking my own meals. I had to clean up after myself and my family, and the pantry wasn’t as well stocked with fresh food from the garden or groceries anymore.

As a child, I adapted to the changing circumstances. I made do with what I had. I still had my dad looking after me as best he could, and grandparents next door on the farm to which I could go for lots of attention and support, not to mention other relatives. I had other ways of coping. What’s more, I learned the valuable lesson that would become deeply instilled in me for many, many years:

If I want something done right, I have do it myself.

I seemed to be making out just fine. And then I became a teenager. Ah, yes, those oh-so-fun times of adolescence. And with adolescence comes the ability to think more abstractly beyond my immediate experience of childhood awareness into ideas of what my circumstances could be. As I said earlier, my memories of my early childhood with my mother became the ideal with which I would compare my current circumstances.

And also coming with adolescence is a great deal of idealism of thinking how things could be in a better version of my reality. So thinking idealistically was what I did—and oh, how I did it. So my relationship with my mother became idealized into how it should be, and my personal circumstances at home and my mother’s role in creating those circumstances became idealized. I wanted the good times back, or at least my memories of the good times.

But I didn’t get the good times back. I wasn’t about to any time soon, by all signs. And so we know that another characteristic of adolescence is anger. Anger, aggression, and violence when their idealized versions of reality don’t match up with their actual immediate reality. Plus, although I’m simplifying the story a bit here, there were other aspects of my overall personal circumstances that weren’t working out well for me (school, friends, etc.), so I felt that I had other reasons to be angry. But, not surprisingly, my anger and blame was directed at my parents, and my mother in particular because she was an easy target, and partly because that’s what I was learning to do from others.

(Continue to part 2)

Leaving Facebook to be More Loving February 22, 2013

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After years of dedicated use, I recently got rid of my facebook account because I noticed that it was negatively affecting my relationships. Being off of facebook means I am more able to pay attention and offer my true presence to someone. And offering my attention is a form of love.

A few months ago, in the midst of a big transition of a new job and new place, I got off of facebook. For good. It was a decision I had been considering for some time, because I could see many advantages and disadvantages of my account.

Facebook was great to have for keeping in touch with friends and relatives, especially while I was living so far from home. In fact, I told myself that the only reason I kept it was to message my relatives who lived so far away, and who I only saw once per few years at best.

The disadvantages were numerous as well, and I’ll only talk about a few of them. A big disadvantage was that it was a huge source of distraction. At any time while logged in, I was likely to go off on what I call an “online tangent,” or clicking on one link after another for large amounts of time, despite alternative intentions.

Another disadvantage was that while I did have access to people’s accounts, my attention was dispersed when I tried to interact with multiple people at once.

And a final disadvantage was I ended up focusing on quantity over quality of friends. I had so many “friends” on my account, but most of them were not my true friends because I didn’t really care about them all that much.

I got off facebook in order to exchange one form of communication for another. Facebook is not the only way to communicate with the people I love—just as my prairie grandmothers! (Another form of communication I prefer is phoning, when I can actually interact with a live person in a give-and-take conversation and hear their voice.)

I wanted a more real form of communication: to be in the real presence of a person, to see a living, breathing human being in front of me. Real communication is more loving because I am able to pay attention to the person. In fact, when you get right down to it, attention is love: (to quote Karen Maezen Miller) what we pay attention to grows and thrives, while what we neglect withers and dies.

Thay teaches that the most loving thing we can do for another person is to be able to say, “I am here with you,” (no, you don’t actually have to say it out loud!). We have to be completely with someone in the present moment, body mind and heart.

Attention is related to meditation because meditation is the practice of cultivating the ability to pay attention. The less time I spend on facebook, the less distracted I ams, the stronger my ability to attend, and therefore the move loving I become.

So I decided to trade up numerous micro-instances of internet attention for rare periods of intense attention in the real presence of someone.

I think by being off facebook altogether, I am not only encouraging love to grow in others, but I am able to receive love more from my friends and family. If being with me in person is the only or best way someone is able to get in touch with me, then they are going to make sure to pay attention to me while they have the chance. Also, my facebook absence means that I can attract my true friends, thus gaining “quality over quantity.” My true friends want to be with me and will be willing to take the time to meet with me in person.

It was a difficult decision to make, but getting off facebook was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I have no regrets! I find that I can be a more loving person when I am able to devote all of my attention to someone when I am really with them. Being able to give my full attention in the present moment is, I believe, one of the most loving things I can do.

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…

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!

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.