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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.

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.

How I Came To The Practice: Part 5 – Running Away From The Darkness September 24, 2012

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

A few months after my first meditation instruction, I worked for a summer at two jobs, fell into a deep depression, then started a new university semester and broke off my first ever committed romantic relationship. I spent hours at a time crying in bed, I couldn’t get out of bed in the mornings, and had to go through some suicidal thoughts. This scared me into spending a few sessions with a counsellor who helped me get out of my depression using a primarily cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approach (a technique which I later learned is promoted by insurance companies by its “quick and easy” results). The CBT approach primarily focuses on uncovering negative thoughts and distorted thinking patterns (cognitivethat lead to negative behaviours (behavioural). I began a journey of self-healing that included grieving a loss, taking a break from mood altering drugs (alcohol) and the hard work of facing the tidal waves of negative, self-pitying thoughts in which I had indulged.

I tried my best to work on being more positive. I was very strongly motivated to change my negative habits I had taken for granted so often. I was doing it to avoid another episode of depression. The episode of suicidal thoughts had a very deep impact on me, and I had felt a deep sense of terror–the terror of self-destruction. The experience is still with me today. I later realized that I was strongly motivated to save my own life and I was willing to do whatever it took.

I made little room, time, or space in my life for practicing meditation. Other commitments got in the way of travelling to any regular sitting groups. What little sitting practice I was able to do seemed to have some effect. I enjoyed the emphasis of letting go of thoughts while sitting. I was starting to feel empowered over my compulsive anxiety. What a relief to be trapped in a never-ending tangled web of thoughts, to notice it, and consciously and effortfully let them go. Aaaah, relief…  It was a lot of work and at times uncomfortable, but I could see some potential.

The busiest semester of my undergraduate career ended and summer approached. Memories of a painful previous summer made me motivated not to repeat history. There were a number of factors (working a new job with new coworkers, new training, lots of overtime) I could foresee as possible risks to leading to another depressive episode, and I was motivated not to let it happen.

At the time, I was surrounded by friends and peers that seemed to be endlessly complaining in a self-centered fashion about their final exams and reports: “I have three exams in two days,” “I won’t be done until the end of the month,” “I have to write organic chemistry,” on and on and on. My life is so awful, this life of scholastic and financial and social class privelege… (Ooops, sarcasm…not right speech!) This was not the environment I wanted to be in if I wanted to avoid falling into old negative thought patterns and attitudes.

On TV late one night I happened to come across a news episode on A Complaint-Free World. Someone had made a vow not to utter a single complain for a span of 30 consecutive days, eventually achieved their goal after several months, and found it so personally rewarding they were spreading the message to others. Sign me up! I ordered a free rubber bracelet online and wore it proudly for a long period of time, happy to share the message of positivity to anyone who asked.

I’m happy to report that I didn’t experience a depressive episode that summer (despite many 70 hour work weeks), nor anytime since. My past experience with professional counselling showed me the usefulness and effectiveness of therapy and psychology. Yet I was still aware that there was a whole other realm of experience that psychology missed, and I was still seeking some answer or place that would show me the way.


How I Came to the Practice: Part 4 – Religious Studies and Meditation Instruction August 4, 2012

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This is part 4 of a series on the full story of how I came to mindfulness practice, part 1, part 2, and part 3 are also posted.

My first connection to meditation instruction started with a university elective course. One elective I took in my first year of university was Religious Studies 110: World Religions. Overall, the course seemed to have more emphasis on the history behind how the major world religions, including Buddhism, came to be, and less emphasis on the actual day-to-day lay practices and rituals for religious followers. The content on Buddhism covered almost primarily the religion in Asia, with only a brief afterthought of Buddhism in the West. Even so, the mention of Western Buddhism was only in the context of Asian culture, where Asian Buddhists brought the religion over from Asia after immigration. There was no mention that Buddhism could be stripped of the Asian culture and still be applicable for modern westerners as a religious or spiritual practice.

Overall, the religious studies course did not add to my initial interest in Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. I didn’t see how either were relevant to me at all, and they didn’t seem to be applicable to modern, western society and lifestyle.

Nevertheless…the story doesn’t end there! One of the assignments for the course were to visit either a Hindu or Buddhist temple in the city. We were given the addresses and contact names and numbers of people from each temple. I chose to visit the Chinese Buddhist temple (with a friend taking another section of the same course) and met the community leader, John*, an older Chinese gentleman. He seemed like one of the nicest people I had ever met, and he proceeded to give us a tour of the temple and symbols decorated throughout.

John also spent a fair amount of time explaining how Chinese Chan (Zen) meditation was incorporated into their Buddhist religious practice. This was my first conversation with a real person about meditation, and with another person who actually practiced meditation themselves.

The detailed explanations of meditation was incredibly interesting to me, because I was currently taking an introduction to psychology university course, and had been considering majoring in the subject since high school. After my conversation with John, I was still eager to learn more about meditation and Buddhism. John gave me his e-mail address and sent me a file with meditation instructions, and he also let me know that he led a Chan meditation group twice a week at his private home.

I should mention here that I actually received a lower than expected mark for the temple visit assignment that I finished and handed in. The marker wrote that I didn’t take much time to provide my own personal reflection of the experience rather than just description!

Later that year in the summer I took an opportunity to visit John’s private home for an introductory meditation session. I looked up the address and drove across the city to his quiet suburban neighbourhood. He invited me to his home and introduced me to his lovely wife, and showed me his living room which served as the meditation room. Scattered throughout the floor were zafu cushions, and I took a seat on one as I was shown how to sit in half lotus position.

I was then given a very short guided meditation instruction, my first meditation session with an in-person teacher. I remember enjoying the session very much, I think in part due to the fact that the teacher’s quiet and mesmerizing voice served to calm my mind in a way I had never been able to do on my own. I would also describe my experience as somewhat mystical, in that my mind and body were completely calm and still, and I felt a connection with a larger wisdom, something bigger than my everyday reality. I experienced this for just a few moments, but it was exhilarating and left me wanting more.

I went home and tried to recreate the experience on my own, but never succeeded. I was back at the starting point, sitting on my own, struggling to find my way through the endless repetitive thoughts of “monkey mind.” I was aware of different meditation groups in the city, but spiritual practice wasn’t a priority in my life as much as my studies, socializing with friends, and playing sports. In the end, after much struggle with meditation practice on my own, I wasn’t able to begin a daily practice until I regularly attended a weekly meditation group.

*not real name

Contemplative Developmental Science June 7, 2012

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I recently attended an event entitled Contemplative Developmental Science. The field of Contemplative Science is a relatively new field that I have been following a bit, but I had never seen an event or program before that incorporated development, so I was quite excited to see this event taking place. Also, this was the first event I had ever seen taking place in Canada, and it was conveniently close to where I am living.

The event featured talks by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson, whom I had never seen before in person, so I was eager to take the opportunity to attend the event. The main idea of the event was to discuss how the benefits of practices from various contemplative traditions (meditation, mindfulness, yoga, etc.) could be extended across the lifespan, especially to children and adolescents.

The conference itself was quite enjoyable, and I’m very glad that I had the opportunity to attend it. This was the first time I was able to experience being in the same room with a large group of people who were all researchers or psychology professionals AND had some sort of meditation practice. It was like two worlds colliding!

I found the talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn very insightful and inspiring. At first I was taken aback by his statement that we should “leave the kids alone…you’ll kill it forever!”, which was in direct contradiction of the purpose of the conference! Nevertheless, he went onto explain that mindfulness does have a great potential to benefit children, but the application of mindfulness to children also has a huge potential for great dangers or mistakes.

JKZ’s main message was that as practitioners, we need to create the environment and culture that would support mindfulness for children. We need to embody mindfulness for them, and they will receive the benefits when we are present for them, or “get it by osmosis.” In other words, “the real practice is how you live your life in every moment.”

I noticed that when someone asked JKZ a question, he would close his eyes for a few moments and appeared to be thinking. However, when I was able to see him in person in a group conversation, I noticed that what he was doing was breathing deeply for a few relaxed breaths. This fact might not sound that exciting, but in a loud room full of people engaged in conversations, it seemed like quite a feat! But to me, it would be one of the best illustration of incorporating mindfulness into one’s daily life.

JKZ also made an excellent point about technology, where if we want to learn “how to improve being human we have to first experience it.” Well said! How can technology improve our lives if it prevents us from experiencing our lives fully?

Book Review: Women and Zen March 22, 2012

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I just finished two excellent biographies by women authors who also happen to be Zen (Buddhism) practitioners.

The book I first read was called Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up In America by Natalie Goldberg, who apparently is a well-known author and writing workshop leader. I really enjoyed this book I think in part because I identified with the author quite a bit. She wrote about being introverted during her childhood which led her to do a lot of reading and writing on her own. As a writer, she found herself being quite independent and often alone most of her life. She also spent quite a bit of time in the midwestern U.S. and describes trying to deal with the freezing cold temperatures. In contrast, she ends up moving to the hot, sunny, Arizona desert, and falls in love with the wide open landscape.

One passage I particularly enjoyed was her criticism of “New Age” spirituality and workshops offered by different teachers, which she contrasts with her diligent Zen meditation practice. She describes New Age spirituality as commercialized and consumerized by giving people what they want to hear, but letting them off easy without providing a daily, disciplined practice, which results in people forgetting everything they learn in the workshops and always needing to come back for more.

The book described some very intruiging stories of strange “coincidences” or happenings that couldn’t just be explained by chance. One story I really enjoyed was where she started writing a book about Zen Buddhism and relationships in a restauraunt near her house. She wasn’t sure why she was drawn to that particular restauraunt of all the places she could go to, but just found she could easily do her writing there. Only later did she find out that almost everyone who worked at the restauraunt (servers, cooks, owner, etc.) were Zen practitioners themselves! Crazy!

Another quote I really liked was where she told her teacher that she felt the more she sat (meditated), the more Jewish she became (her parents were Jewish European immigrants to America). Her teacher said, “That makes sense. The more you sit, the more you become who you are.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!

The other book I was so happy to come across by chance at the library wasHand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for An Ordinary Life By Karen Maezen Miller, a Zen priest and stay-at-home mother. I had read about this book on the internet recently and didn’t know I would find it on the shelves so soon. The book is basically an autobiography of how the author found Zen Buddhism practice and how it changed her life for the better. I could identify with this author, as well, because she found herself caught up in trying to achieve a perfect professional career, which only ended up in her becoming depressed after her divorce. Also, in the book, she criticized psychology as an option for helping people, because she claims it doesn’t make people end up any different from what got them in trouble in the first place (thinking in order to understand ourselves, and understanding ourselves in order to change the way we think).

A main message of the book is a criticism of the materialism and consumerism of modern society and western culture that makes us always strive for money, social status and achievements and leaves us feeling we have never been able to find our “life.” The message is to value and be satisfied with the simple things in daily life, instead of always trying to achieve something better or become a better person.

It also emphasizes doing things like housework and chores yourself instead of just hiring other people to do them for you (or, as Karen puts it, “outsourcing”). According to the author, doing things yourself is an act of love and care towards yourself and the people close to you. A very intruiging concept that I have been contemplating a lot lately…

And, as always with any book on Zen, there is a huge emphasis on slowing down, stopping, and taking the time to savor life’s daily joys and pleasures. The author contrasts this with her life before Zen, where she viewed time as money and was always trying to cram as many things into as small a space of time as possible.

There you have it, two highly recommended books for anyone interested in biographies, spirituality, or meditation.