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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued next post…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued next post…

Wilderness Dharma: The Wilderness is Already Enlightened April 26, 2013

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The word “Buddha” means the awakened one, and the goal of Buddhist practice is enlightenment, or to become awakened. To be enlightened means to come to a full and direct understanding of the true nature of reality. The more time spent in wilderness, the closer one can get to enlightenment, especially if mindfulness is intentionally practiced while in wilderness. The wilderness is enlightenment itself because it is a physical manifestation of the Buddha’s teachings of the elimination of concepts, of non-self, of wisdom, and of awakening.

One reason I think I feel so comfortable in the Buddhist practice, or why I feel like I just fit right into the tradition, is perhaps because the wilderness already taught me the Buddha’s teachings. I was already learned everything at some point long ago, but just not in Buddhist terms. In a sense, I feel I already “know” the Buddhist interpretation of truth. My discoveries on the path have only allowed me to “remember” what I already knew, or to put into words what was beneath language. In that sense, I am coming home to the dharma when I return to what is most familiar and real for me.

The wilderness is enlightened because enlightenment is the elimination of all concepts. In the wilderness I see clearly that boundaries and lines used to split up or separate our reality into clear distinct parts and pieces cannot be truly applied here. Instead everything blends into everything else, and all things around me are wiggly and messy instead of square or straight. I can’t draw an exact line where the forest ends and the field begins, where the cloud separates from the sky, or when the snow stops and turns into rain.

Concepts are eliminated because no concepts can ever fully contain the sheer immensity of everything around me. Concepts draw clear boxes around reality and capture it into pieces of meaning, but when concepts do this they kill reality. The wilderness is alive, dynamic, moving, and flowing, always shifting, morphing, and changing. Therefore, it can never be captured in a concept because living things and life itself cannot be killed or contained. As soon as one concept is applied to it, it has already shifted into something else.

The wilderness is enlightened because enlightenment involves eliminating the concept of self. When I am in the wilderness I can rest in non-self. I feel the self of “Andrea” that is almost always present drop away, and instead I experience myself as just a human being, as a living being, and as part of life that is all around me. The constructed ego or small self drops away because in this place the labels and ideas that are attached to “Andrea” have no place to rest or no hold onto which to grasp. What do the concepts of “researcher,” “Buddhist,” or “Canadian” have to do with this place? While they might have weight in human reality, they cannot change the laws of nature that still exist here and still apply to me. Such concepts fall silent when they have no reality here to be reflected back at me.

The wilderness is enlightened because it is wisdom, the ancient, unspeakable wisdom of our Earth. There is such vast and deep wisdom already contained within our Earth that has been here longer than any living species. I might use the words natural selection to point to the way all beings and living elements come together to support life. Life occurs when the wisdom is being acted out and everything is just taking care of itself. This process doesn’t come from intellectual thinking but out of the knowledge and wisdom already contained inside of everything. A wonderful and unexpected adventure and discovery of the practice is learning to open myself to this wisdom and to put my trust in it. I know that the wisdom around me in the wilderness is the same wisdom inside my true self that is realized each moment I am alive.

The wilderness is enlightened because it is awake, already manifesting consciousness. And I am awakened when I go into the wilderness. My awareness opens up and expands to accommodate the vastness of my surroundings. I am awakened because I directly experience the physical reality of the changing conditions. I cannot stay asleep or ignore all of the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of shifting temperature and pressures.

The wilderness is already enlightened because it is a physical manifestation of the Buddhist teachings of the elimination of concepts, of non-self, of wisdom, and of awakening. I can tell that the more time I spend in wilderness, the more easily I come to realize these Buddhist teachings. In fact, I am not sure I am realizing them in the sense of learning them as completely new, but instead remembering them as something already learned long ago and now just putting into new words. I am grateful for my experiences of spending time in the wilderness

Wilderness Dharma: Snow as Peace March 30, 2013

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After a long Canadian prairie winter, the snow is finally starting to melt. I thought I would write a few of my thoughts on how much I appreciate the beauty of the snow, as well as its teachings of the dharma. The snow embodies the Buddha’s teachings because it is a symbol of peace. The snow is silent, colourless, still, and pure, and I see myself in the snow’s delicateness and impermanence. Falling snow reveals wisdom to me and hints at the ultimate reality.

The snow is peace because the snow is silent. The snow is the epitome of silence, where it is so silent it is loud. I know of little else that is as quiet as waking outside on a calm winter day amidst freshly falling snow. It’s as if the snow on the ground, above in the sky, and in the air is absorbing all possible sounds.

The snow is peace because the snow is colourless. Snow has no colour of its own, but reflects back the full spectrum of white. It looks white, but on a sunny winter day, it reflects the colour of the sky as blue. The winter sun low in the horizon is reflected in the golden yellow brightness that sparkles and shimmers like an ocean of a million diamonds.

The snow is peace because it is stillness. On a calm winter day, a field of snow just lies there, calm, still, and unmoving, covering everything underneath it. The snow is blank, it has nothing in it. It is not busy when it doesn’t contain anything to tarnish it. It can look “boring,” but at the same time beautiful in its simplicity.

The snow is peace because it is pure. A field of perfect colourless snow is as pure as the purity of a peaceful heart. It is a symbol of the pure goodness that is present in all beings and all life.

I see myself in snow because in it I see that I, too, am delicate. I am fragile as a precious living being. Just like a soft layer of freshly fallen snowflakes is fragile and easily crushed by the lightest weight touching it. I see my vulnerability as a human being who constantly depends on so many conditions to be a live and well in each moment.

I see myself in snow because in it I see that I, too, am impermanent. While it may be hard to believe for us prairie folk, with five months of it in a year, the snow won’t always be here. It will melt.

I see my impermanence when I see that I, too, will eventually fade away. But, just like me, the snow doesn’t cease to exist, it simply manifests in a different form. The snow becomes the runoff of spring and the water I drink all through the hot summer months.

When I see snow I see wisdom because the snow falls where it lands. There is no “snow-self,” no snow director who controls where each and every snowflake lands. The snow just falls from the sky and falls where it lands. Any number of infinite causes could make each flake land in a certain place.

The snow is wiggly and random, it has li. Li is the Chinese word describing the organic pattern present in all natural things, such as falling snow, waves on an ocean, and markings in stone. To me, things that exhibit li are themselves alive.

Falling snow is precious to me because it is a portal, a gateway to the ultimate reality. I urge you to step outside on a calm winter day when the huge, fat flakes are falling from the sky. Make yourself still and stand amidst the activity all around you. Feel the presence of the snow, feel all of the space filled with it. Maybe you’ll feel yourself slip away, get lost, swept up in the movement.

Or maybe you won’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nourishment and Healing: Being in Wilderness January 11, 2013

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For as long as I can remember, being able to spend time immersed in wilderness and natural settings has provided me with an abundant source of wholesome states of joy and restoration. I would like to describe how I have incorporated wilderness into my personal situation, what this process looks like for me, and what effects I regularly notice. While I possess a need to be in wilderness that could be viewed as a weakness or a limitation, I have had to look at this tendency as a definite strength at the same time.

Thay puts emphasis on being able to come home to ourselves—body, mind, and heart—in the present moment in order to restore ourselves and to not be swept away by circumstances in which we find ourselves. I have always really treasured this emphasis and I will readily support the benefits of the practice of stopping, calming, resting, and healing.

When I consider the many different strategies or tools I use to take good care of myself—mind, heart, body and spirit—wilderness is certainly a prominent one. I have repeatedly and consistently found that our Eearth and wilderness has profound effects to restore myself in times of feeling severely depleted of well-being, health and energy and from burdens of anxiety, stress and fear. I could even call it my own form of “wilderness therapy.”

How does this process of restoration in wilderness occur? It has happened regularly enough for me these past few years that I am at the point where I have consciously built it into my personal situation. First, I am able to recognize feelings of separation from our Earth, alienation, loneliness in myself, the effects of anxiety and tension, and exaggerated self-focus of a modern urban lifestyle. Even if these states don’t happen to be present, I will go into wilderness anyway to receive a good “boost” to last for some time.

I make arrangements to spend any length of time, from at least 20 minutes, to a few hours, to most of a day. I avoid any distractions (talking on cell phone, listening to music) in order to give my full attention to my surroundings in each moment. I take my time while I explore and move around (walk, cycle, canoe paddle, ski, snowshoe) at a slow pace, enjoying opportunities to stop, sometimes to sit or lie down, and take in everything: to look around, listen to sounds or just the silence, enjoy the smells, feel the air and wind or my body against the ground. When I go into wilderness, it is a full sensory experience and I am fully immersed in our living world.

The effects after such an immersion are immediately noticeable and I consistently find that I am more relaxed and energized, optimistic, carefree, open-minded, and content. Of course, the “r” words usually come to mind most easily to best describe what happens: I feel refreshed, renewed, rejuvenated, revitalized, and restored.

I used the word healing in the title deliberately; I do experience being healed when I am in wilderness. I don’t mean a cure for some disease, but healed in the meaning of the word “to make whole.” I am made whole again when I come back to and integrate a vital aspect of myself and my experience of reality or what is most real.

When I first moved to the city and experienced the split in myself as a result of being cut off from wilderness, I thought that I possessed some sort of weakness, or some defect in my makeup that put me at a disadvantage over other city-dwellers. And I believe this to be true; I am limited in a sense. I can’t live completely indoors without being able to get around outside daily (and sitting inside of a vehicle does not count!). I can’t go for any length of time, such as a few days, without returning to spend time in—at the very least—some sort of green space (a park, a forest, a riverbank, a field). I have to accomodate my regular short- and long-term routine around taking trips into wilderness. I can’t handle long, extended trips in an urban setting, such as downtown Montreal for example, or where I am stuck inside. And finally, I can’t live in the city long term. Also, I find that my need for wilderness and having the living world as my ground of reality leaves me not completely satisfied by the Buddhist teachings and material across which I’ve come so far.

Nevertheless, as a source of self-assurance and a coping strategy to deal with living in the city, I have had to acknowledge that my need for wilderness can also be a strength. First, my source of healing and nourishment is, thanks to my current circumstances, free to acquire and simple to fulfill. It doesn’t cost anything to go for a walk in the forest, or a bike ride along the river. I am empowered when I don’t have to give my power over to a corporation to be nourished, in contrast to purchasing material objects or services, such as an iPhone or paying for a massage.

Second, I think that my way of finding nourishment actually reflects a lifestyle that is more human in that it better represents how we can live happily and healthily according to our basic needs. I think humans have a need to be around other living beings—both plants and animals— and immersed in the natural elements, cycles, and rhythms of our Earth. This is how our species has existed for all but the tiniest fraction of our evolutionary time on the planet, and it is to what we are adapted.

Finally, I think that it is a strength because the wilderness is where I find the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings reflecting the true nature of reality. I find the law of impermanence in the shifting and moving clouds across the sky, the decay of an old tree trunk, the steady erosion of a riverbank, and in a cracked and mossy boulder. I discover the law of interdependence in a handful of living soil full of decayed plants and microorganisms, admidst the frenzied activity of a still forest, and in the soil to which a flower is rooted for its entire life. I see clearly the teachings of nonduality when I cannot draw a straight line between the wetness of the lake and the firm dry land of the shore, between the crisp warm air of late summer and the changing leaves of autumn or between the low prairie and the tall encroaching forest.

My need to be in wilderness has offered a profound and powerful way to be nourished and restored as a result of living an urban lifestyle. This trait has brought its difficulties in having to make accommodations for it by spending extended periods of time outdoors, but it is who I am and I have learned to embrace its benefits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Came To The Practice: Part 6 – Seeking Spirit October 22, 2012

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(This is part 6 of a series on the full story of how I came to meditation practice. Click on the links for part 1 – My Christian Rootspart 2 – Why Meditation Came Naturally To Mepart 3 – Asian Exoticism and Zen for Dummies, part 4 – Religious Studies and Meditation Instruction, and part 5 – Running From The Darkness).

In the few months of taking my recovery from mental illness seriously, I made an effort to spend some time outside every day. If you know me today, this might not sound significant, but it was at the time. I was living in residence where I never had to go outside at any time to attend class, visit the cafeteria, or see any of my friends. I was also taking school very seriously, considering it the priority in  my life situation, and often felt that I had little free time to spare. Maybe the break from drinking had somewhat freed up my schedule.

I would go for walks alone, sometimes listening to slow music on an mp3 player, and walk the paths dusted with light snow among the old stone campus buildings. It was on these walks that I found the Divine again.

In the privacy of a bench on the riverbank, while looking out over the water at the birds, I let the tears wash down my cheeks touched by the pale winter sun. I felt something else there with me on the river bank, something in the steady wind that caressed my face, in the clouds moving across the sky, and amidst the snow decorating the grey twigs and branches of the bare stubby shrubs. I felt something else I had known before, on my farm, on my far away, long ago home where I had spent almost all of my life at that point. I was reconnecting to something long forgotten, I was remembering something I once knew and felt deeply.

Back in my warm residence room, when I set the textbooks and scribbled papers down and donned the outside costume of winter jacket and toque, I left Andrea behind–that is, Andrea the student, Andrea the psychology major, Andrea the single woman, Andrea the insecurely attached, depressed Andrea. I was just me, myself, and I had a moment to breathe, a pause, space. I felt freedom. Freedom from the small self and a connection to the “big self.” I write this now with Buddhist words but at the time my interpretation was with Christian theistic language, the only religious or spiritual language I was familiar with: God, holy spirit, soul, sin.

I became a seeker. Psychology had helped me get back to start, to reset and heal my sorest wounds. But counselling only went so far. It couldn’t explain my experience on the riverbank, it couldn’t provide me with something else I needed, a way to fill a hole I felt inside.

I attended a few church services alone, but the heavy trappings of ritual and dogmatism and moral prescription turned me off when they reminded me of painfully dull Catholic masses of my youth. Any reference to God as he or him just made my stomach twist in revolt. Ugh. I couldn’t take it.

I spent some time seeking for something. School would overwhelm me for periods and serve as a wonderful distraction, but periods of pause and rest would bring up the same old questions, the familiar hunger. It was starting to be so familiar I was nearly taking it for granted. But luckily enough, I didn’t give up, I continued to seek until I found an answer that satisfied me.

Creating Reality October 18, 2012

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October 14th, 2012

Today is a Day of Mindfulness for me, my first real DOM in two weeks. I thought I would share one insight of many I have had lately. A worry that was bothering me recently was feelings of exclusion and alienation. (In part this may have been related to my difficulties at work that made me consider the possibility of leaving my area of work and training. In a sense, I eventually saw this represented a dying of my professional self, the loss of Andrea the researcher, and an alienation from that area of society. Feelings of exclusion also come up when I visit close family, when I see how some of my family belongs to a grouping of society I feel I can’t avoid and is a part of my self.)

I came to the realization that having a worry of, for instance, being excluded from an aspect of society, is created and fostered in the mind, and in turn further cemented there each time I return to that worry. Having a worry about one day in the future possibly being excluded is only an image, a mental construction. It can’t necessarily be completely true because the mind never has a complete vision of reality, able to see a situation from every perspective (to quote Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends”). My fear is based on my past conditioning that I project onto the future.

Furthermore, when I worry about myself falling victim to a possible future scenario, that vision is also a limited mental construction. That is, my idea of myself is a mental construction. I never see my complete, true self from all possible perspectives. My idea of who I am is always incomplete and limited. Therefore, I have no absolute certainty that I will be a person who is susceptible to falling into a certain scenario. Maybe I have a hidden capacity within myself that will allow that never to happen. Further, I have an idea that a scenario will be “bad” and will cause me pain and suffering, but I have no way of knowing that this will be true. One piece of knowledge that gives me great hope are accounts of other people’s life situations that sound absolutely devastating and dreadful, yet these people can amazingly report still being content and free from deep suffering and anguish.

Finally, each time I bring up and dwell on a fear of something happening to me, I further make concrete both the scenario being possible and myself being susceptible to that and suffering as a result. Which in turn makes it more likely the worry and fear will arise again in the future, and then further making the constructions real in the mind. And so the wheel of samsara ever turns, over and over…

What if there is a different way of imagining what could happen? What if instead of dwelling on bad situations being likely to happen, I create and add mental energy to wholesome and beneficial ones? Not to say that the beneficial ones will happen with absolute certainty, but that I’m going to give food to an expectation that they could. Anything is possible. I’m placing my bets on a different set of cards. I’m changing my default views and operating set of assumptions of reality, the world, and how I fit into it. If I give energy and intention to what is good being possible, I know it is more likely that they will happen.

Ultimately, I know that both “good” and “bad” scenarios are illusions and mental constructions, and thus not entirely real. What is real is what is directly happening now, which is beyond concepts and mental constructions. But I know that how I view the world and reality can drastically change what does end up happening. Now the challenge is how to strengthen and foster this insight and let it spread into all aspects of how I view the world, how I interact with and respond to what’s happening. Or at least to spread it to as many aspects as possible.