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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!

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.

Love and Positivity versus Shame and Guilt: Applying Mindfulness to Work August 26, 2012

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Over the past several months I’ve been making an increased effort to apply the practice to different areas of my daily life, or as many aspects as I possibly can. One area that I have found especially challenging and fruitful at the same time has been my work, both paid and unpaid (school).

I have made a vow to myself to motivate myself to work only (or as much as I can) with love and positivity. I guess the vow was due to seeing just how much suffering I cause myself by using shame, guilt, and fear as motivation to complete my work. This suffering has manifested in multiple forms, including but not limited to stress, physical pain, exhaustion, and aversion.

To give a bit more detail, before, I would make an effort to complete a school assignment (such as a lovely major term paper/ essay) by framing it in my mind in the form of a negative, that is, what I would lose if I didn’t complete it. “If I don’t finish this essay on time…I won’t get a good course mark (fear).” “…I will be a bad student (shame).” “…I will regret it later (guilt).”

On the other hand, a type of motivation that I am just learning to use more would be out of love and positivity. I am completing a task because I am taking good care of myself, or because I enjoy doing it, or because I have an inherent motivation to direct my mental/ physical energy toward something and I choose this object as a target. In other words, I am gaining something positive by doing it, whether it be the satisfaction of completing a task I set my mind to, the inherent enjoyment of the work, or a paycheck that puts food on my breakfast table.

I spent a lot of time (i.e., years) practicing the negative forms of motivation of shame, guilt, and fear, so its no surprise that they are taking quite a bit of effort to overcome. They have become quite heavily engrained habit energies.

I completed most of an undergraduate degree motivating myself through fear and anxiety. I actually went through a period of time once I completed my degree where I had quite a bit of ambivalence about my accomplishment. I felt that I didn’t really deserve to have a bachelor’s degree, that piece of paper that set me in a different category from my parents and many people in my family and a large proportion of the population. I felt that I didn’t deserve it because I could look back over the course of four years and see quite clearly just how much negative emotions and mental states were used to achieve that accomplishment. And as a result, I was still living in those states of impatience, anxiety, and shame that were still causing so much suffering in so many other areas of my life.

I think meditation has a big part to play in my determination to be more positive in motivating myself to work. Meditation is the cultivation of awareness, so I have become more aware of just how much negativity can surround my work. This awareness doesn’t just take place in the moment, but builds and increases and accumulates over time. I get to the point where I just get so absolutely tired of seeing how my regular behaviour can directly cause my own suffering that I veer myself in the other direction. (I’m not sure if the veering is always a conscious phenomenon.)

Sometimes that other direction can be just as painful, because its new and uncertain and scary: I don’t know if this whole lovey-dovey, positivity stuff will work. Negativity seems to be all that I have ever known as far as I can tell, and its seems like a big mistake to throw something out if it has been working.

But again, when these types of motivations are so heavily engrained and become such strong habit energy, I have to veer myself in the other direction again and again. Its a daily practice. I have to remind myself again and again why I am doing it. And that reminder often occurs in the midst of suffering, when I am filled with shame or guilt or regret, or physical pain and exhaustion, and I remember why I am trying to make changes.

I recently explained to someone who is very close to me my determination to be more positive and loving in my efforts to complete my work, in this case my job search process. The other person responded to me with, “Well, isn’t that just the way life is sometimes, is that we have to just suck it up and get something over with so that its done?”

And my response was no, not for me. Maybe for other people it can work from time to time, but as far as I am concerned I have to do a complete 180 degree turn. My default, automatic response is to use that “suck it up, get it over with—even though it hurts and is painful and will cause suffering down the road”. So I don’t need to think about using that strategy. Instead what takes more effort, and is better for my well-being, is the opposite, using a desire to love myself or to frame my situation in a positive light in order to accomplish something.

I think if I can’t successfully use that strategy, then maybe I just shouldn’t be doing whatever it is I am trying to do.

Nature and Meditation August 21, 2012

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I noticed after posting my previous article about the camping and meditation retreat that I didn’t say much about the nature setting of the retreat. Because it was my first retreat outdoors, I have been thinking about how to capture the effect that being in the wilderness for four days had on my overall experience.

In some sense, its not very surprising to me that I don’t have any huge insights or intense experiences to share about being on retreat in nature. For me, the effect that nature has on my overall well-being and my consciousness is nothing new. Nature has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Over the past few years, I have been discovering all of the many different ways that nature and wilderness affects my wellness. Again and again, I keep seeing just how important it is for me to spend time in nature regularly. Perhaps because it can be difficult at times for me to get out into nature and wilderness, it seems I keep underestimating just how restorative and healing this type of environment can be.

As I mentioned in my previous post, being in a natural environment where I am immersed in, and surrounded by, wild plants and animals, allows me to feel a great deal of ease and peace that I rarely feel in urban settings. I think silence is an important part of this, I realize now after living in noise pollution for so many years.

I also enjoy a great deal of love and acceptance while being in nature. It seems I can drop the persona or self-identity of the various aspects of my human experience, and just be another living being, walking on the earth, under the sun and sky. It seems that these environments allow me to find a sense of love and acceptance within myself,  or that nature reflects back to me my own loving and caring nature.

I could say that it doesn’t matter what I write about regarding how important nature is to me, because the act of participating in the event says more than any words I could write. I turned down many other very appealing and exciting opportunities to take part in the trip, so the fact that I prioritized this trip in my life says something about what I need to be well and what I find satisfying.

I will say that it was important to me to be able to meet other people who place importance on both meditation and nature in their lives, because these two aspects have become quite important in my life lately. It was also important to me to meet a meditation teacher who incorporates nature into their teachings. I was very eager to learn how the teacher combined nature and the dharma in a way that would speak to me.

In all, I found it very satisfying to have the chance to meet and spend four wonderful days with so many people. I experienced a strong sense of community and connection with my fellow campers and practitioners. In a sense, it was a relief to not feel the alienation I often experience of being a nature-lover trapped in the city (although it is more likely that many people in the city feel more like I do but don’t express it).

Depression and Anxiety: Reasons for my Spiritual Practice May 4, 2012

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I once heard a meditation instructor or Dharma teacher quote someone saying that people come to spiritual practice for different reasons: they are running away from the light, they are running toward the light, they are running away from the darkness, or they are running toward the darkness. I knew when I heard that that I was running away from the darkness.

I have a personal history of both major depression and anxiety. I also share a family history of major depression and anxiety.

I have experienced major depressive episodes twice in my life: once when I was in high school at age 14 and again when I was in university at age 19. At both times I had suicidal thoughts but never suicidal intentions. I found both of these experiences to be quite painful and extremely scary, and I know for a fact that I am not completely over them or I haven’t completely made peace with what has happened in my past.

I experienced a great deal of social anxiety in high school, in part influenced by bullying as well as being what the psychologists label as “neglected” where my classmates didn’t pay attention to me, both of which started as early as elementary school. I can recall in high school sitting at the breakfast table having to force myself to eat because of a pit of nausea and tension in my stomach at the thought of going to school.

My social anxiety started to improve gradually, and much faster once I went to university. After I recovered from my depressive episode in university, all of the negative energy I was carrying in my consciousness turned from depression into anxiety, and I noticed eventually that my symptoms fit the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder.

It was at this stage of my life that I came across Buddhist meditation. At the time, I had made a change in my life to start being more positive in my thoughts and actions as well as with the people and activities which I surrounded myself. I remember wearing a rubber bracelet from a website I saw featured on the news called “A Complaint-Free World,” where the wearer was committed to not complaining for as long as 30 days!

I found Buddhist meditation to be a framework to support my intentions to have positive thinking. I also found valuable aspects to the spiritual tradition that my earlier reliance on self-help and clinical psychology couldn’t offer: Acceptance and compassion.

Before coming to meditation, if I was depressed, I couldn’t accept it and I judged myself for somehow bringing this on myself. I also judged my family for passing down the tendency to me in my genetic inheritance.

The Buddhist spiritual practice allowed me to just accept what was happening in the moment as what I had been handed in life, and that was what I had to work with. It gave me a way to help free me from judging myself, and instead allow myself to have some compassion for my suffering.

There are so many other important aspects that the Buddhist spiritual and meditation practice offers that helps me to heal my depression and anxiety. One other aspect I will mention is the need to not make up a story about what is happening to me. I don’t label myself as a depressed person, a survivor of depression, or an anxious person. I make every effort not to focus on my family history of these disorders or else I feel that there is no way to avoid inheriting them myself. I try my hardest not to focus on my lifetime history of what has happened to me, or to project into the future: “If this has happened for so long in my past, it must mean that it will continue to happen for a long time in the future.” Nothing fills me with more despair and grief than this type of thinking or feeling shackled down with an unbearable burden. Thankfully, I’m able to recognize the effect of these kinds of thoughts and try my hardest to not spend time there.

I continue to work on these memories of the painful times in my life, and know for certain that they have been transformed and will continue to heal. All I know now is that I can say my motivation for my spiritual practice is to run towards the light: I have known the joyful, peaceful, and fulfilling experiences that make up human life, and I have started to trust this as my true self.

Stuck in the Practice March 3, 2012

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These past few days I have been feeling a little bit stuck in my practice. Something that I have noticed just recently is that, along with many other things in my life, my meditation and spiritual practice is one area where I am judging myself. It has become just another area that I hold expectations of myself for how I should be, and lately I find that I fail to measure up to those expectations.

A few days ago I had a difficult time with feeling very constrained and trapped by an overwhelming amount of my general expectations and self-judgments (not necessarily spiritual). Right now I feel like I need a break from any area of self-judgement, I just need to get away from that as much as I can. Therefore I don’t feel as strong an urge to be diligently practicing sitting meditation or mindfulness in daily life, or to be reading dharma books.

Another reason I don’t want to read dharma books, despite the fact that I have an excellent one out from the library right now, is that I am seeing the limits of knowledge, or dharma books as a source of knowledge. I find that I tend to be overwhelmed by too much knowledge in my mind. I know that knowledge in and of itself isn’t powerful. Knowledge can be present after coming in contact with a source of knowledge, but when it isn’t used, it passes away.

What’s more powerful are skills and techniques. The meditation practice is a technique and a skill that I am developing, and I apply it to my life to see how it works. Thus far it has been working.

Feb 16: Smiling to Planning Thoughts During Sitting March 3, 2012

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Two more sleeps until a week-long vacation and my sit this morning was filled with planning thoughts. I felt like much of the time I was on alert or on guard, trying to predict future problems or trying to foresee what could go wrong. Despite consciously deciding to try my best to stay concentrated during my sit, these thoughts still were arising. I saw that being in this alert, on guard state is really not pleasant at all. But it seemed there was a part of me that felt I had to be doing it, so it was very hard to let go of this need to plan.

Somehow I managed to slow the thought process down enough to notice these patterns in slow motion: Planning thought arises. Awareness of planning thought. Judging thought arises. Smiling to the self-judgement (“Yep, this is what happens”). Returning to the breath.

I noticed today how much a calm body is so helpful to calm the mind. I can try to concentrate on my breath in order to calm my mind at first, but it isn’t until my body becomes calm and still as well that my mind can start to truly relax. It is as if my mind can’t be calm or still unless the bodily state is corresponding to that. It was a very good illustration of the mind-body connection.

When the bell went off today, I was lost in thoughts about how I value the trait of honesty in others.

I also wanted to mention that the past two previous days I was pushing myself quite hard at work, trying to get as much done as I can before I leave on vacation. Unfortunately, when I got home in the evening, I was too tired from the day’s exertions to do anything else (I usually end up just lying in bed or on the couch, maybe reading). This happens very often for me but somehow I keep trying to push myself during the day. It’s quite unfortunate to see how the rest of the day is unproductive when I am trying to be too productive during the day. Hmm… maybe the problem is being attached to productivity in the first place?

Feb 6: Self-Induced Suffering March 3, 2012

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A night without my usual amount of sleep left me drowsy and dozing during my sit this morning. I almost fell asleep once, and much of the rest of the session was spent in a half-awake state where the mind seemed very cloudy. I found it quite difficult to get concentrated at all, and stories and images were popping into the mind continuously. Still, it felt good to sit and be physically still for a brief period of time.

One thing I noticed during my sit was a tendency for my face to be tense when I was deep in thought. My muscles tense up, my lips purse, and my expression turns almost into a scowl. I try my best to take note of my facial expression, in addition to other parts of my body, as a signal of how calm and relaxed I am.

The thought present in the mind when the bell went off was “I have to get my portfolio prepared for my meeting on Thursday.” Let me just note here for emphasis that Thursday is a full three days away.

The rest of my day did not go very smoothly either. I had a busy day with lots to do scheduled into it, so I felt like I was just running from one event to another. When I wasn’t going from one place to another, I was trying my hardest to keep myself busy. I felt like I had too many things on my “to-do” list to be able to take even a single moments pause or breath.

Unfortunately, days like this take their toll on me by the end of the day, and I do this all too often. By the end of the day, I feel worn out and exhausted. And its not even physical exhaustion, its mental and emotional exhaustion from the feeling of being stressed and having to keep too many things on my mind.

The sad part of it all is that no one is forcing me to keep this busy, I do it to myself. I have long-practiced expectations of what I should be doing with my time, and how hard I should be working. This has its advantage of being able to get work done when I need to, but the disadvantage is it sometimes—no, make that often—gets out of control and leaves me worn out and miserable.

I have been watching Andrea do this time and time again in the past few months, and I don’t think an overnight solution will be coming anytime soon. These patterns are a result of deep, long-standing conditioning, and it will likely take a great deal more diligence and self-compassion to transform it. But it’s so worth it.

Feb 5: Seeing Results for Myself March 3, 2012

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Today was a Day of Mindfulness where I tried to relax, meditate, and do as little as possible. I wasn’t quite so successful as I had many errands to do around the house, and at times noticed myself getting frustrated with how long they were taking.

Lately I have been noticing some painful past memories surfacing, but wasn’t yet able to take the time to acknowledge or deal with them. I was glad I had the time to do that today and acknowledge what was happening, instead of ignoring these memories, or telling myself that now is not the time or place.

I went to a local sitting group this evening where we did walking and sitting meditation. I enjoyed the walking meditation quite a bit, but found my mind off with many planning thoughts. I would get to the end of the line where I was walking and stand there for a few minutes before I realized that I was lost in thought. When the bell went off, I was thinking about an e-mail I should send later.

During the sitting meditation, my mind got very still and very quiet at the very beginning, and I was thoroughly enjoying the silence. As time went on during the sit, I found it harder and harder to stay concentrated. Nevertheless, during the sit I noticed that a smile started spreading across my face, and my body was filled with feelings of joy. I have no idea where this came from. Near the end of the sit, I heard my mind complain, “Oh my gosh, this is so BORING!” When the bell went off at the end of the sitting meditation, I was thinking about how much I could notice my heart beating because my body was so still and my breath so shallow.

If I am sitting in meditation and a smile spreads across my face, but I didn’t decide for this to happen and I have no idea where it came from, I think this is a good sign that the practice is effective. Right now, I don’t think I need science to tell me that meditation works, or how it works. Instead, I am relying on my own experience and seeing the results for myself.

Learning How to Live January 21, 2012

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(The following is a post I submitted in October 2010 for an online writing contest for Buddhists under 35, and the original entry can be seen at http://www.35u35.com/submissions/learning-how-to-live/.)

My path to the dharma was brought about by great suffering, and a deep sense of not being able to live my life.

When I was 20 years old, I was working my way through the second year of an Honours psychology degree, and faced a semester of the heaviest coursework I would ever have to experience. While I would emerge out the other end with high marks, a lot of sacrifices were made along the way to achieve those marks. A full course load and a jam-packed schedule meant that I had to plan almost the entire four-month semester worth of exams, research projects, and term papers. Every single waking moment of my daily life seemed to be scheduled. My obsessive need to maximize my work efficiency to achieve the most amount of productive work in the shortest period of time was my way of attempting to grasp control of what seemed to be an out-of-control, chaotic life situation.

In short, school became my life. When I wasn’t working on school, I was thinking about school to relieve the stress of this non-productivity. My mind was always consumed with plans on the future for what I would do and what project I would work on at the next possible moment. My mind had taken over me. I wasn’t able to not think about school, and these thoughts led to stress and anxiety. I had come to view time as a product, a currency, that could be split up into segments, rearranged, and scheduled months in advance. Time was something to use and manipulate, not to experience. I seemed to always have a sense of “time urgency”—I didn’t ever have enough time to do the things I needed. Time was always running away from me. The present moment was something to get through in order to get to the next moment.

At the end of the semester, I was free from my work, and was able to stop and reflect on the months that had just passed. During this reflection, a tiny quiet voice from deep inside of me spoke up, giving me uncomfortable thoughts: The past few months, was that being alive? The answer was obvious: No, it was just trying to get through a series of horrible situations. If this was the case, then the next obvious question was, When was I able to start living my life? Would it be at the end of a four-year degree? Were the upcoming two years just a waste of life to get to the end?

My mind seemed to be drawn to thoughts that have always resonated very strongly within me, specifically, thoughts about death. The crucial question was what if I died before the end of my degree? Would those years have been just a waste of my life?

I felt a deep sense of sadness and grieving at the loss of my “life”, the loss of the ability to be alive. I felt my life didn’t really have a purpose in and of itself. I felt helpless and hopeless, as well as disappointed in myself for letting things work out this way. I had been given a human life, and here I was, choosing to let it waste away. Nevertheless, I learned something from the shock of such an experience: I would need to find a way to be more balanced, or to have more time for myself and not sacrifice my being alive for perfection in my schoolwork. The only question was how to go about doing this?

I eventually, either I found a way to do this, or the way found me. Regardless, I came across a weekly meditation group I could attend regularly within walking distance of my home. The regular support of the group kept me inspired to begin a daily meditation practice, and the brief introduction teachings I heard on the dharma were enough to keep me intrigued and coming back for more.

But it wasn’t until my first weekend meditation retreat I became fully immersed in the three jewels, and I haven’t looked back since.

On the retreat, I underwent a truly transformational experience in the space of less than 48 hours. What happened? I stopped. I slowed down. I reduced my activity to only what was absolutely necessary: breathing, eating, and sleeping, but also sitting, walking, and dharma sharing. For the first time I tried walking meditation and walked with nowhere to go, just walking for the purpose of walking. My impatient, hurried self seemed to vanish. In the safe, warm, and supportive retreat environment, I found relief and refuge from an out-of-control mind, if only for brief moments at a time. But the small amount of time was enough to be assured that such a refuge existed, and that was all I needed. I lived in the moment. I experienced what it was like to be alive now, not in the past or future. I savored my experience, I enjoyed just being alive, breathing, sitting or standing or walking. I experienced mindful eating for the first time, which was a truly eye-opening experience of just how much taste and pleasure a single meal can provide when I took the time to enjoy it. I felt as if my senses were awakening after being dulled and repressed for so long. Before, I had closed my mind to my body in order to use only the mind, but now I felt connected to my body in a new, fundamental way.

Once I returned from the retreat, I had to learn how to reconcile the practice, which had provided me with so much benefits, with a student lifestyle requiring hard work, planning, and absorption in mental activity for hours on end. Nevertheless, my experience on retreat made me fully drawn into the practice, ready to learn all I could. I spent the next few months reading any meditation or Buddhism book I could get my hands on, and would not stop talking about it with the people closest to me.

With time, I realized that the joy and happiness I felt to such extremes on retreat—or as I liked to call it, the “spiritual ecstasy” I felt—was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that would only happen on rare occasions. The amazing feelings that arose were due, in part, to the stark contrast from the stressful life I had grown used to, and in part to the supporting conditions and surroundings on retreat. I was still inspired and determined enough to practice and find a spiritual avenue for healthy positive feelings and experiences. It took time to see that no matter how hard I tried while sitting, I cannot create happiness. Instead I can only create the conditions for happiness by sitting daily, attending groups, and reading or listening to teachers.

I have been practicing for three years, and have seen many changes along the way. Over this time, I have read numerous dharma books, attended many group meditation sessions, and logged countless minutes and hours on my cushion. I’ve witnessed many ups and downs and bumps along the way. There were spaces of time where I couldn’t bring myself to meditate, and instances where I questioned how applicable this was to my modern, North American life. At times my ambition seemed to much for me to live a life in the dharma, where there were times I thought other places would have answers to me. But time and time again I have returned to the dharma, returned to sitting, and found the answers there.

One aspect of the dharma that I have found useful so much is the teachings on impermanence. It seems that the impermanence of life and the knowledge of death that has always had a powerful impact on me. I have learned to fully contemplate the teachings of impermanence, and I have been trying to appreciate this truth in my everyday life. For me personally, there is a need to realize that I will die, and that I could die at any moment. This gives me a feeling that this life is indeed worth living in the only life I know I have—the present moment.

Another aspect of the practice I find so rewarding in my life is opening my awareness to the present moment. Each time I bring myself back to the present moment, I am able to awaken my senses and experience what is happening at a deeper, fuller level. I am able to savour and appreciate the entire range of sensory experiences that make up my human existence: the sight of sunlight on grass wet with morning dew, the warmth of a friend’s embrace, the sound of birdsong at dawn, the rich mixture of restaurant smells in a city street, the taste of a delicious meal. This practice has opened up a whole new and exciting avenue of how to engage in my experiences that I never knew was possible before. I feel more fully alive and enjoying my life when I am able to connect with the experience of being in a physical body. I feel like life isn’t just passing me by when I can dwell in the present moment and appreciate life’s joys and pleasures.

I have faced difficulties along the way, nevertheless. While dwelling in the past seems to not be a big issue for me, my mind still seems to be in the future much of the time. I notice scheduling and planning thoughts where I am trying to anticipate everything that could possibly happen and plan accordingly. Just as before, I still see that being stuck in the future prevents me from fully living my life, although it seems to have gotten better.

I have become more ambitious in applying mindfulness to as many aspects of my life as I can, but I still face struggles. I fully know that there are still situations where I don’t want to be mindful, I would rather block my awareness to what is happening. There are times where I actually am choosing to be in a rush to get through a situation as fast as possible, or where I feel I have to be as efficient as possible to get things done.

Finally, since starting my daily practice, I have only ever been in the role of student. Furthering my personal education seems to be a selfish, unrewarding task, where I am not fully able to benefit others. I don’t seem to be in a position of great power or influence on the entire world, in the grand scheme of things. I comfort myself in the fact that maybe one day what I have learned and achieve will have the potential to help others.

In the meantime, I am inspired by Buddhist teachings on how to live every day. I see that I need to take care of my overall well-being first and foremost before I can be of benefit to others. Thus, my primary purpose is to nurture myself and take care of my consciousness, before I can fully help anyone else. I also know that in every moment, every day, I have the opportunity to treat the people I interact and those closest to me with positivity, lovingkindness, and generosity.

Over and over again, I have been learning that as long as I am not fully living in the present moment, and my mind is in some future moment I want to get to, I won’t be able to live in that future moment when it comes, either. My mind will just jump to the next moment, and think that is the place to get to. It creates an endless cycle of grasping for the future and never stopping to contemplate where I am. This provides a powerful sense of purpose in how to practice. The practice starts right here, right now.

In short, when I reflect on what the practice has given me, I feel that I have a much deeper sense of meaning and purpose. I feel that the practice has given me the gift of life, where it has shown me how to be alive. I am learning what it feels like to be thriving, full of vitality and energy, and part of something bigger than myself.