The heart of spirituality

I have long been hesitant to define what spirituality means for me. Now that I have a blog centred on living a life of truth and connectedness, I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am becoming a deeply spiritual person. So, I decided I would finally try to address the question ‘what does spirituality mean, to me?’

To me, spirituality is maintaining a sense of wonder about what is, and in doing so, letting go of the sense of our separate selves. This connection to wonder is at the foundation of creating deeply enriching, fulfilling, and meaningful lives. When this quality fades, this foundation is cracked and purposelessness, apathy, insensitivity, anxiety, and even depression can emerge.

This conclusion is based mainly on my own experience, and often what I have noticed in others. In my own experience, the times that I have felt most apathetic, insensitive, even depressed, have been times that very much lacked this wonder; I looked at the world with barely any curiosity, a lack of awe, and a lack of deep philosophical questions. Which one was the causal factor? Did I lack wonder and therefore feel depressed, or did I feel depressed and therefore lack wonder?

Alan Watts’ The Book (On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Really Are), has revealed to me that very often we are posing questions about the nature of things in the wrong way. He describes a situation of a person (who has never seen a cat before) looking through a thin slit in a fence and initially sees the head of a cat, then a body, and eventually a tail. The cat turns around and lo and behold – the same thing happens! He sees a head and eventually a tail. This happens again and the human finally concludes that the head causes the tail. This erroneous conclusion comes from the fact that the man is unable to see the big picture: that they are part of the same thing. Watts argues that many questions about the nature of things are formed and answered using this causal assumption, when in fact, the factors are not independent from one another but exist together (if you are curious, check out the book, it’s incredible). Using this analogy, I believe that my sense of wonder is one and the same with the experience of joy, and, at the other end of the spectrum, my lack of wonder is one and the same with the experience of dispiritedness. One does not have to cause the other, and if I try to reason that one does it would be like tearing a cat into two pieces.

So, wonder, amazement, awe, curiosity and the like. This is the real shit. How do we cultivate it?

The first method that I unintentionally came across was taking mild-altering drugs. Although I am not going to say on the world wide web that I recommend this, I will admit that this experience was, for lack of a better analogy, like becoming a newborn again and entering the world with a completely new set of eyes. The often-self-absorbed adolescent perspective I had been carrying suddenly recognized, so clearly, that the world does not centre around me. That I am not in the world but of the world. That the people around me are incredible expressions of the universe itself and that I love them with every cell in my body. That the idea that I have of myself that I carry around with me everyday is just a constructed idea which will no longer exist when I die but that life will continue and continue and that this is what matters. There was a strange balance between things making so much sense (what matters), and so little sense (why are humans so self-conscious but animals aren’t? how can my experience of living be so grand but there are over 7 billion humans living the exact same grand experience? what is the point of all of this?!). Overall, these initially-liberating experiences pulled me into a new sense of consciousness and infinitely re-shaped my self and my value system.

But drugs on their own can not be a method for creating and maintaining a sense of wonder in one’s life. If a person so desires to use them in their spiritual journey, they must be used with the utmost consciousness and thoughtfulness (and, I believe, rarely) so that using them does not actually take away from their sense of wonder and connection in their daily life. I fear that this path is too challenging, too high-maintenance, and too risky. Although drugs can be used to take a step in this spiritual direction (and they certainly don’t have to be!), the real work lies in letting go of them and continuing on this path in daily real-life. The best method that I have learned (and taken from many traditions in Eastern philosophy) is stillness and quietness. Nothing external. Simply spending time as often as possible in solitude and quiet (and turning off electronics). Recognizing the amazement of life and the smallness of oneself is nearly impossible when we are trying to keep up with our to-do list all waking hours of the day (in this state, our small world is everything).

This leads me to another important facet of spirituality that is central to my definition: we have enough, we are enough. When we fall into the trap of thinking we always need more or always need something external from ourselves, we are getting pulled by our ego and our idea of us as a separate being: a frail identity that is always at risk of feeling deeply insecure and therefore must find happiness through external means. Although for example drug use, exercise, healthy-eating, consumerism, social-media use (and more) may start out with the best intentions, these practices can develop into something that makes a person feel even more isolated and separate if that person believes that their idea of their self (their ego) depends on it. So, how does this connect to wonder?

Well, when we cultivate wonder in our life, we lose the sense of self as a separate being. Have you ever listened to a song so beautiful that you forgot in that moment who you were? You simply felt alive and enjoyed the sensations involved with that experience? Similarly, have you read a poem or viewed a painting that has taken you from the world of time into the world of timelessness? Or, have you looked at a landscape, a tree, or anything in nature that has pulled you out of your thinking mind and brought you right to the present moment? Or, what about looking in the eyes of your newborn child for the first time (I can only imagine the awe that this brings!)? Those are some examples of experiences of awe. Those are experiences that remind us that we are a part of something so much than our idea of ‘I-myself’.  When we lose this sense of self as a separate being, there is no self that we insecurely need to validate or confirm. We no longer have to use something external such as social media attention, or having a certain image, or getting high, or owning trendy items, or being powerful, to validate ourselves because that isn’t the self that runs our life. Instead, we are connected to that deep, unchanging self that is simply being. That experience that cannot be described but only experienced. Instead of having such experiences briefly, this is the state of mind that I (thanks to inspiration from many readings and many Eastern traditions) am trying to cultivate on a daily basis.

By connecting to being (our true-selves beyond our ego), we are connected to wonder. In a space of wonder, we are connected to our true-selves. In this way, our true self and wonder are too like the head and tail of a cat; they are one in the same. Or, maybe (in reference to what I said previously), our true self is the head of the cat, joy is the body of the cat, and wonder/awe is the tail of the cat (not necessarily in this order, of course). All that this confusing cat-anatomy-analogy means is that, these are all one thing: deep unshaking joy, wonder and awe at life, and a connection to our true selves exist together and cannot be separated. Oh, and if I could add one other quality it would be gratitude. Let’s say gratitude is the cat’s limbs (why not?). You surely cannot have unshaking joy, wonder and awe at life, and a connection to your true self without a sense of gratitude – they are simply all one.

I will finish this piece by addressing what some readers may be thinking:  that wonder can often be taken to a negative place: a pessimism about how meaningless everything is (because, for example, the universe is so grand, and we are so small). This pessimism actually lacks wonder. Indeed, it is not wonder but its opposite: a conclusion that life is meaningless. Here, at the other end of the spectrum, the opposites exist: unhappiness, apathy at life, and a connection to our ego instead of our true selves, and they too cannot be separated. Importantly, these two different poles/ends of the spectrum are always in existence and waging war against one another. No human can win this battle and conclude that they will in every moment be connected to wonder, joy, and their true selves. Life is way too complicated for that. I have accepted that I will always have times where I feel like my spiritual side isn’t winning, but, I still must continue and find my way back. This, to me, is the heart of spirituality.

Staying committed to myself while committing to another

Whether I like it or not, I have grown up in a culture that has told me that one of the most valuable moments in my life is the moment a man asks me to marry him.

Well, that day happened (!!!!!!!!!). There is no denying that it was incredibly overwhelming and special. But, since that moment, a myriad of thoughts has rushed forward and nearly consumed me (right when I thought things were going so smoothly, spiritually speaking). Thoughts about telling others about the proposal, what my dress will look like, who will come, whether I should grow my hair out by next year, and so much more. I quickly realized how important this day was for my ego. And I started to wonder, what does this day mean for me?  

So many of the thoughts that I have around a proposal and a wedding do not stem from my true self, but from the conditioning that my ego has been provided across my nearly 27 years of life through movies, magazines, TV, and relationships with others. One of these thoughts, which may be the most deeply rooted and the faultiest, is that I am more valuable now that I have been proposed to. Thanks to this thought, my ego is thriving and wants to keep feeding the high. It wants attention for this proposal, and it continuously wants to pull me out of the present moment by replaying the moment in my head, and by thinking and planning for the big day. Needless to say, my commitment to presence has been seriously tested.

The psychological turbulence that ensued after this event has made me look deeply inwards and ask myself: do I want a wedding or does my ego want a wedding? If the intention behind a wedding is for attention, praise, and feelings of worthiness from myself and others, than it is surely not I who wants a wedding, but my ego who does. I spent a great deal of time in quietness and solitude to find out what this means for me.

My true- or higher-self values above all things Love. Love is the centre and core of my being and staying in touch with it to ensure that it directs my life is my deepest commitment. Since meeting my partner, I have learned about and discovered a love that has not only profoundly impacted our relationship with one another, but also my relationship with myself and with all other beings. My relationship with him has ultimately been one of, if not the most, valuable teachings that I have ever received. In fact, although I have been interested in Eastern Philosophy for a long time, the teachings centred around Presence and Joy and of Unconditional Love were ones that, although I wanted to develop, I remained quite stuck with until I met my partner. Self-development can’t occur through simply reading about virtuosity, but it must develop alongside an understanding of these teachings in the murkiness of real life. The connection and love that I have with my partner provided me with this opportunity.

From early on in our relationship, I finally understood what it meant to be present, to feel that nothing needs to change, to feel that there is only the moment we are in now, and through this deep presence, to truly understand peace and joy. I now deeply understand that there is nothing more beautiful, more important, more nourishing, and more benevolent, than being with what is. This teaching has profoundly impacted my meditation and yoga practice, as well as the person that I give myself and others.

Through the more difficult times that we have faced together, I have discovered that I am in fact a being of Unconditional Love, and capable of a level of understanding and compassion that I never knew existed within me. This was an exceptionally important teaching because, it became very clear to me that this experience of Unconditional Love is my true self. It is me. It is what exists beyond the chaos of the ego and the critical mind. Thus, the open, vulnerable and honest relationship that I have with my partner was ultimately the channel I needed to get in touch with who I truly am. Through this, my spiritual journey is more alive than I ever imagined. I am committed to knowing myself and living in line with myself in a way I never knew was possible. And even more importantly, I am committed to sharing this higher self with all of those around me.

After sitting in contemplation, it has become overwhelmingly clear for me that yes, I, my true self, wants this wedding. Why? Because it is a celebration of love. Not just the love between my partner and I, but the love that has grown between us that has made us more fully love ourselves and all of those around us. This is what love is for. This is what the world needs more of. This is so worth spreading and sharing.

My true intention for this day is not for attention or praise, or so that my ego can feel that it has achieved some important goal of being married (before it latches on to the next thing it “needs”, as it always does).  My true intention is to share the all-encompassing feeling of love that I have for this man and thus for my family, for my friends, for all beings, and for life.

Now, I see this process that I am undertaking for the next 15 months of my life as the largest spiritual test that I have had yet (I am sure until children, that is!). It is a spiritual test because I am undertaking a journey that, although is important for my true self, is also important for my ego. It will take great presence to ensure I don’t get pulled into my ego’s story and habitual thoughts about what this day means and what it should look like. Every decision we will make is an opportunity to reflect on what it is that I (and we) truly want, while practicing awareness and a letting go of the ideas arisen from the ego.

Eckhart Tolle states, in The Power of Now that ‘Love, joy and peace cannot flourish until you have freed yourself from mind dominance’. By mind dominance, he means a continuous connection with the thoughts from our ego and a disconnection with the present moment. I find it so interesting that this process of proposal and marriage is so centred around mind-dominance: the ego’s story of the past and how it led to this moment, and the ego’s latching on to the future (pre-wedding events, wedding, honeymoon, etc.). It must be so difficult to truly experience and enjoy the process of engagement, marriage, and being newlyweds when this whole experience is started off in such a manner. Nonetheless, I believe that with thoughtfulness and a regular practice of presence, we can remain in touch with our true intention behind this exciting journey and thus experience the utter joy that each unfolding moment presents us. There is nothing more important for us to be cognizant of, because, as Thoreau poignantly states, ‘Only that day dawns to which we are awake’. Since I would really like to be truly awake during my wedding (and all of the equally special days that will lead up to and follow that day) letting myself fall astray to this practice until that moment would be incredibly silly.

Presence: the ultimate gift for yourself and others

The realization of the power and beauty of the present moment has suddenly overwhelmed me.

It is the strangest thing. I have been told, and have told myself, since I can remember to ‘be in the moment’, and it is hitting me now that my comprehension of that statement was shallow. Yes, I heard it. Yes, I ‘practiced’ it. But, no (I now realize), I did not fully grasp both how to do it and what it brings. I did not realize how much deeper there was to go.

Just as there is a critical period for language development in children, I believe adults have their critical periods for absorbing information. Times when their neurological makeup will be most receptive to creating the synaptic connections that will represent this newly acquired knowledge. This will be different for all adults. Part of being compassionate is recognizing that someone may not be ready to understand something just yet. For me, I have just entered my critical period for understanding the immeasurable importance of the present moment, and thus I feel able to practice it more wholly.

Two people have opened my mind to enter this critical period: Sharon Salzberg and Ram Dass, spiritual teachers whose lectures and podcasts I have been listening to (and highly recommend). Sharon describes a situation of a person who is on their way somewhere and is suddenly stopped. Let’s say the person is at work and on their way to leave, and suddenly is stopped in the hallway. In this situation, how often would we see ourselves with this other person as only with this other person? Not a person who is just leaving their office, or on their way to the elevator. No, just a person who is talking to their colleague. Her guess is not very often.

Despite the simplicity of this situation, it deeply resonated with me. It helped me grasp the extent to which I see everyday as a path; where I have come from and what there is to do encompasses my existence (this isn’t to sound dreary, I think I am ‘happy’ doing this, but I know this is not freedom and there is a higher way of existing). In the situation described above, I most certainly would see myself as a person on their way out of the office. A person who has things to do and is moving forward to do them. Now, how does that affect my interaction with this person? What would happen if I changed how I viewed this interaction and instead gave them 100% of my presence and my existence. I am with you, and only you. I am not on my way out. I am not waiting for a text. I do not have to make dinner tonight. I, in this moment, am only talking to you.

This is the kindest thing we can do for anyone. Giving them our presence, and all of it. There is nothing more valuable. Imagine your interactions with your family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, and simply reflect on how the presence of the other person affects you. How does it feel when someone treats you like you only deserve part of their attention because they have other things on their plate? Now, how does it feels when someone puts everything aside to be with you and listen to you, despite the fact that they too have a path and things going on in their life?

Over the last few days I have experimented with this state in my interactions and it has only deepened my appreciation for this understanding. My interactions have felt more rich, more memorable, more light-hearted, and more authentic. Sometimes my interactions have lasted longer than they would have (though not always). But, did this extra few minutes really disrupt my day and my plan? No. Was that extra few minutes worth the benefit of the quality of the communication? Hell yes. Letting go of my path is allowing me to offer to others the person I knew I could offer but didn’t know how (given my neuroses). The state of mind that I have cultivated in mediation has made this process a bit easier: when my mind does go somewhere else in an interaction, I can kindly find my breath again and there I am. It is that simple (though not exactly easy).

Now, if this is the kindest thing we can do for anyone else, this presupposes that it is also the kindest thing we can do for ourselves, and this is something I whole-heartedly believe.

You know that feeling when something has passed and you realize you feel like you didn’t maximize the joy of it? You just let is go without appreciating it? It could be a yoga pose or savasana (when the teacher calls you out of it you realize you weren’t really there- you missed it). It could be a trip to a place or to visit friends or family. It could be a relationship. It could be a meal. Whatever it is, the experience of something ending and feeling like you didn’t quite live it is a common one.

It is this perspective of seeing our life and our actions as connected to a path that will make the experience of missing the fullness of something more likely. Letting go of this path is therefore the key to finding the abundance of joy that is available in the present moment. When I enter savasana, I am someone in savasana and only that. I am not someone who has just finished yoga or is just about to sit up to say Namaste. Only then, when I let go of that path, can I maximize the joy that that moment has the potential to bring me. When I walk to school I am someone taking that step, breathing that air, seeing that building or that face. I am not someone who has just left their morning routine at home, or is about to start class. Only then, can I experience the beauty that is available in that experience.

How is this kind, you may be wondering? Well, it is kind because we are letting ourselves truly live. We are letting ourselves be free from the plans we have set for ourselves and the identity that we are trying to maintain through those plans. Instead of falling asleep and thinking of all of the things that we did do or have to do tomorrow and how we came off and what-not, we are lying in bed and experiencing the joy of our head on the pillows, our body relaxing, our breath calm and slow. Instead of waking up and thinking about what there is to do, we are feeling the benefits that the rest has given us as we slowly move and awake our body. Every moment has the capacity to bring us so much more than what we usually receive, because how can we receive the fullness of something when we aren’t entirely there?

You may believe that thinking about the past or future is important. You are right, it is. But it too can be done with intention and presence. Why not set aside time to sit down and presently think and write about what it is about your day or week that you need to think about? Then let it go and be present with whatever it is that you are doing. The neurotic mind is not a more productive mind. The neurotic mind is a mind that is living on a path that they feel so attached to, but that is only pulling them away from the abundance of joy that their life is offering them only through the channel of the present moment.

With all of this said, the amount of times we will catch ourselves off in our head and not truly existing in the current moment (whether with other people or on our own) is too large to count. If we return to the present with a sense of regret, judgement, or dissatisfaction, we’re missing the whole point. Instead, this is the magic moment to cultivate compassion. We can just think ‘Oh hey, I have gone off’. Then, compassionately, we can let go of whatever that thought that drew us away was. We let go of it for the other person we are talking to or for the activity we are investing ourselves in, and for ourselves. Then, we can return to the breath, and to the moment. It may not be easy, but it is that simple. Thankfully, the ability to begin again is always there. The present moment is always right here.

 

The wisdom of intuition

There is a powerful energy that exists within us all. An energy that speaks so undeniably to us, desiring to direct us, yet somehow we have a hard time listening to it. This energy tells us if we should approach or continue or avoid or terminate something in our lives. This energy can initially be subtle, but frequently if we don’t listen to it, it will explode in one way or another to make itself heard. This energy is intuition.

Until somewhat recently, I was a whole-hearted planner. A believer that all of my decisions could be narrowed down to a pros and cons list. A believer that the more deliberation over a decision I did, the better able I was to make that decision. This method had directed my life and although I could think of a few moments I had relied on intuition (e.g. choosing the university I would go to, the idea to start a business), I never considered the value that that alternative process had and how beneficial it was on my life.

I even let this more explicit deliberation guide my decisions regarding romance, intimacy and love. My partner at the time was a great guy, and I truly loved him (but, incredibly, loving someone doesn’t mean we should be with them). Whenever I was plagued with the feeling in my gut that something wasn’t right, I consciously deliberated over the feeling to see if it was related to my relationship by creating, in a way, a mental list of pros and cons. The pros of why I should be with him (‘I love him’, ‘We have a dog together’, ‘We live together’) seemed so important, so valid, and exceeded the cons, which left me to conclude that this uneasy gut feeling must have to do with something else. Naturally, this feeling remained.

This continuous denial and confusion made some sense considering that intuition doesn’t come in the form of language (like our explicit thoughts). Instead, it comes in a feeling of warmth and positivity, or a feeling of tension and uneasiness (for me, this feeling is predominantly present in my stomach, and it may be for you too, hence the term ‘gut feeling’). So, when I did try to link this feeling to my explicit thoughts I got stuck in my head and, as stated, wasn’t able to make any more sense of it.

Then, I had the benefit of learning about intuition in my cognitive neuropsychology class at UBC.  We discussed a lot. The most important findings were regarding the ‘deliberation-without-attention’ hypothesis which postulates that the ideal type of thinking (conscious/explicit vs. unconscious/implicit/intuitive) depends on the complexity of one’s decision. This theory has received a lot of support in correlational and randomized research (which I can direct you to if you’re interested). Basically, what they have found is that if we are making decisions that are low in complexity (e.g. what pair of jeans or toothpaste to buy, if we should do groceries today or tomorrow), it is most beneficial to use our rational/explicit/conscious thought. However, if we are making complex decisions (what house to buy, should we move to a new city, what career to go into, decisions regarding relationships), then we are most satisfied when we rely on unconscious/implicit/intuitive thinking.

Woah. So, I can just stop thinking and listen to my gut when it comes to deciding whether I should be with my boyfriend or not, but I can deliberate over what toilet paper to buy? The best thing for me to do when deciding if I should move to Montreal and pursue my Master’s is really to sleep on it?

How could this be?! Well, the researchers give 2 reasons.

Firstly, our conscious brain can only hold so much information in it. Let’s take buying a house for example. It is just impossible for us to juggle all of the factors of one house in our head, and compare that with all of the factors of another house. We are surely going to miss some information. However, our brain does have the capacity to hold information that we can’t explicitly contain in our working memory. This vast amount of information can guide the feeling we get in our gut about whether we should purchase one house or another. On a simpler end, our brain can very much compare the factors between 2 types of toothpaste and therefore, conscious thought ends up more effective in this situation.

The second reason was that conscious thought can lead to inaccurate weighting of factors, because we don’t know perfectly well how important some things are (or will be). With bigger and more complex or emotional decisions, the opportunity for this inaccurate weighting is larger than for more simple decisions. For example, in my relationship the weight I placed on the ‘I love him’ factor was so strong that it made me ignore the importance of other factors that were undoubtedly having an effect on my happiness. Unconscious/intuitive decisions are less prone to this weighting by their very nature (how can we give something more or less weight when we aren’t explicitly thinking about it and deciding its deserved weight?). With intuition, instead of thinking about the weight that all of these factors have (which as stated, we don’t even have enough working memory space to do anyway), we can simply let our brain relax and use even its unconscious space to present us with a decision that feels right.

Now, I didn’t go home from this class and end my relationship. Instead, I had to re-train myself to get in touch with and trust with my intuition. Remember, it doesn’t really come in the form of language, so this was not an easy process.

When my relationship did end, the physiological response I experienced was undeniable. Although it was hard and I frequently missed him, I could tell that I felt lighter and my stomach felt at ease. My body was telling me, in its unconscious/implicit/intuitive way, that I made the right decision. This new gut feeling was the cherry on top of this learning experience. It demonstrated that I did listen properly to what my intuition was ‘saying’, and by responding appropriately, the positive effects were immediate.

Since this class 3 years ago, I have used intuition to guide my most complex decisions and I feel like I am exactly where I need to be.  I accepted to go to McGill University rather than University of Toronto for my Master’s based on intuition. So much goodness has happened since arriving here (relationships, self-growth, learning French), and although I don’t know what going to U of T would have looked like, I know I am happy.

Most importantly, since that class and since my difficult break-up, I made a promise to myself that intuition would guide my romantic life from Day 1. This ended up being ironic considering that, when I met my current partner, my ‘cons’ list of why we shouldn’t be together far exceeded my ‘pros’ list. Few people I knew thought we could be together, and I wasn’t sure we could either. But, I knew that I had an overwhelmingly warm feeling in my gut that was telling me to move full steam ahead.  Against many odds my partner and I are together and deeply happy. Our relationship would not have started or continued had it been based on explicit/rational thought. But, based on intuition, I find myself in a relationship where that warm feeling in my gut has only grown. The feeling of uneasiness and hesitancy from my last relationship is a now a memory which I am grateful for having learned so much from.

One additional important research finding that I learned is that we are better at making decisions based on intuition when we are an expert in that domain. So, for example, when I start work later this year as a speech-language pathologist, I should rely more on explicit rational thought (as a novice), but after many years of work I should be able to rely more on intuition in my clinical decision-making. This finding fits nicely with the previous research I discussed because you are the expert of your own life, and only you. Given that your life is complex and multifaceted, and given that you are the only expert of it, this research provides multiple angles for supporting that intuition is important and we need to use it to live in line with ourselves and our values, to be happy, and to face all of those decisions that are not simple to make (so, basically all of the important ones!)

Overall, I feel so grateful to have this information. How relieving it is to know that I don’t need to deliberate over everything. How awe-inspiring it is to begin to fathom the wisdom of my body and that within it lies a type of truth my conscious mind simply can’t tap into.

I hope that this post has inspired you to get in touch with this vital force inside that knows so very well what is good for you, or has reminded you to continue to nurture it. Given the overwhelming nature of our explicit thoughts, maintaining this ability truly requires frequent attention and self-awareness (my biggest tip for cultivating this is meditation).

Thank you for reading, my friends. Feel free to share any questions or comments.

Onwards and inwards!

Strong and vulnerable

It has been difficult to look at the news and accept many events that have been occurring over the last few weeks. This difficulty initially lead to a rather halted emotional state in me. Until, finally, a release occurred. A release that reminded me that our strength lies in our ability to love, care and feel connected to others and that it is this strength that we need to hold on to now more than ever to help us make decisions and navigate this rocky social climate while remaining true to ourselves.

I was walking home from work, down a snowy Saint Laurent and passed, as usual, several people begging for money. Being a “broke student”, I very rarely stop to give anyone money. But today, I passed one man who stuck his paper cup out to me so unassumingly while standing and looking at me straight in the eyes. As I glanced at him for one split second I saw in his eyes kindness, warmth, sadness, and love. I saw in him the universal desire for meaning and connection to others. I saw that deep down this man wants exactly what I want. I was overcome with feelings of compassion and connection to him, yet, as all of this occurred in the span of about 1 step, I put my hand up in reflex with my ‘no sorry’ gesture and continued to walk past him. This felt so wrong. Why was I acting so out of line with my true feelings? Nonetheless, he reacted politely and kindly with a genuine smile. It was evident he didn’t expect anything from me.

As soon as I passed him, I was overcome with a wave of sadness, confusion, guilt. I see people doing this everyday – why is this situation so different? Why am I starting to cry? Many of the people I walk by on Saint Laurent are rude or intoxicated, and so it is difficult to feel a connection with them – but, with this man, I did, and it was powerful. As I walked I was overwhelmed with the thought that this man matters as much as I do, and this man wants the same things I do (love, meaning, purpose and connection), yet this is how he is living his life. The absolute chance that I am living my lifestyle and he is living his became painfully apparent. If I wasn’t born with the loving family and opportunities I was born with (for example, if I was born into a broken home, into poverty, into addiction, into un-addressed mental health, into deep sadness, into a lack of meaning) then I could have been standing exactly where he was. I could have been sticking a paper cup out to someone, potentially him, a Master’s student at McGill, as he walked by me. Deep down, I felt the sheer connection of the human experience and the unfairness that this life can be so beautiful for some and so painful for others.

All of these thoughts raced through my head in the span of half a block, so I turned around to walk back to him, tears in my eyes, not sure exactly what I should do. I wanted to hug him – but no, I thought that would be weird. Instead, I opened my wallet and I took out a 5-dollar bill and gave it to him. His appreciation was so, so genuine that it made the whole experience hurt even more. I turned around and cried for the rest of my walk home. Cried for the unfairness of the world. Cried because I wished I did more than hand him money. I wished I connected with him because I know deep down that this is the therapy for suffering. Why didn’t I ask him “how are you?”, “are you happy?”, “is this the life you chose to live or do you dream of something different?“, “what did you want for your life when you were a little boy?”. I cried because this man deserved so much more than a 5-dollar bill, but this is all I felt I could do. It was all I really knew how to do. He deserved to be born with all of the opportunities that I was born with. You could argue that he might have been – but, I find this hard to believe. I am convinced that when a human is welcomed into this world with genuine love, care, and unwavering support, they thrive. Many of us are not provided with this (having money or having a present family does not guarantee this either), and therefore thriving can be an impossible undertaking. I also recognize that a proportion of people who live homeless or who don’t have jobs choose this lifestyle and would rather not be a part of society. It is possible that this is the case for this man; that this is how he wanted to live, and that he is in fact happy. However, as a result of his choice, society views him as separate and damaged, his ability to easily attain basic human rights and respect is arduous if not impossible, and his ability to pursue a life of meaning, love, and connection is incredibly challenged, which makes me wonder how happy he could really be.

As I said, It has been a very emotional few weeks for me as values of disconnection and separateness have made themselves present across the border and here in Canada. Are people forgetting that we are all the same, all connected… all humans? It seems so, as several uneducated, closed-minded ideas have been circulating. The idea that actions and morality are associated with race, religion, gender, and sexuality, and not with love, care, education, and equality. The idea that I am more likely to terrorize someone because I associate with a certain religion, and not that I am more likely to terrorize someone because I am lonely and my life lacks meaning. The idea that I am more likely to commit a crime because I am a certain race and not that I am more likely to commit a crime because this is the norm in a neighbourhood with no options and no easy way out. The idea that there is some inherent difference in the experience of being a human for some people relative to other and therefore some humans should have more rights than others, and not that we are all the same.

Never in my lifetime have I seen such a large presence of disconnection and detachment between humans (at least not this close to home). So much that during these last few weeks I started to be pulled down into this negativity. Thankfully, my encounter with this man forcefully reminded me that my compassion and love is the greatest strength I have to hold on to – it is the greatest strength we all have to hold onto. Although this strength may not help me turn the man’s life around, this is the strength we need to determine what we can do to make sure that less people are born into situations that put their lives in that direction. This is the strength that we need to make it less likely that a teenager doesn’t go into a mosque to commit a terrorist attack. This is the strength that we need to make it less likely for people to need to commit crimes to access money. This is the strength we need to make it less likely that an epidemic of meaninglessness and disconnection exists in peoples’ lives so that they fall prey to thoughts of intolerance and separateness. This is the strength we need to make it more likely that people feel connected to one another and believe that their lives can and should carry great purpose and meaning.

Now is the time to come together, to love, to reach out, and to be compassionate. Ask yourself, what can you do? Although the world seems incredibly complex right now, I think our answers to create more love, connection, acceptance and community can be simple. On my end, I started offering free yoga classes in my apartment to my community, where we dedicate our practice with intentions of what we want to see more of in our lives and in the world. My morning yoga and meditation practice has become absolutely crucial for me during these unstable times, so that I can start my day of with intentions of love, care, and non-judgement and carry this into all my interactions throughout the day- it makes a huge difference. I know there is more I can do, but this is where I am starting. Small actions can lead to more small actions and then more small actions and eventually (I hope) big changes in consciousness. I hope you will join me on my quest to keep people loving, compassionate, and connected to one another. This is really what life is all about.

Deconstructing the pursuit of happiness

There is one goal that lies at the foundation of this blog and my being: I want to find joy in things that are worthy of my pursuit for joy. I want to find joy in things that, when I am nearing the end of my life, I am thinking “yeah, I am so content that that is where I put my energy”. On the other side of the spectrum, I want to allow only these same areas to foster more ‘negative’ emotions such as sadness, shame, guilt, fear, anger and anxiety. I don’t want to waste my precious time and energy here on this earth experiencing negativity for things that just weren’t worth that.

With that being said, this is hard. Most of our lives are pretty overwhelming and we get side-tracked into experiencing both positive and negative emotions from areas that aren’t quite worthy of this. For example, we may experience joy from receiving a lot of likes on a photo we have posted on social media, or from buying new clothes when we don’t need them. Or, we may feel anxiety because we are behind on a project at work. I would argue that these examples aren’t worthy of either your positive or negative emotional state, and it is important to detach yourself from them in order to live healthily and in line with your true self. For the former examples, it is important to detach from this sense of joy because if not we may confuse social media and materialism as things deeply valuable and worthy of our pursuit (thus interfering with more valuable pursuits for joy). For the latter example, although being late on a project is not fun, what is being anxious going to do? It is really just a waste of energy and will likely make you more late in the long run. And, although it depends on the project you’re working on, it is very unlikely that being a bit late on it contradicts the values that are worthy of affecting your emotional state, and therefore, you simply shouldn’t let it.

Sometimes it is really hard to decide if something is worth our attention and emotion. A thought arises, the emotion quickly joins, and the whole experience feels completely valid. So, how do we navigate this process?

Last summer I worked with an exceedingly intelligent teenage boy with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, and we explored this exact topic together. This boy was experiencing extreme emotional outbursts (positive and negative) and needed to get them under control. Naturally, being a teenager, most of his reactions were due to things that didn’t fit in the model of things that are worthy of our emotional reactions. For example, he was extremely angry, anxious and/or sad if his brother took long on a turn while playing a game, if he couldn’t have seconds for dessert, if he had to do work in a subject he didn’t like, if he couldn’t figure out an answer on his homework, and if someone said something that he thought was unintelligent (to name a few). Correspondingly, he allowed these same things to make him happy (getting his turn quickly, eating more dessert, working on a subject that he has told himself he likes, being stuck on a homework question, and having intelligent conversation).

Now, you may be thinking it is normal for some of these things to make you happy – this is exactly what he thought. But, I argued that if he doesn’t want these areas to cause so much stress, anxiety, anger and/or sadness, then these can’t be the areas that bring him joy. Essentially, he must categorize them as separate from him. This will help him get in touch with the areas that he does want to pursue for joy, and also facilitate the process whereby only these areas affect him in negative ways as well (with hopefully a much lower frequency than he was experiencing negativity without this categorization).

To organize these categories, I came up with an activity where we drew ourselves on large pieces of paper. We drew a small area in our chest which we called our True Self – and here only exists love, contentment, compassion and joy. Then the rest of our body was our ‘Core’ which we filled up with words about things we really care about – family, friends, other people, animals, and some things that varied between us (he wrote his home because he had lived there his whole life and cared a lot about it, and I wrote my yoga practice). Finally, we drew some clouds floating above our heads that represented our ‘Ego’ which contained words describing other areas of our lives that we spend time thinking about, but are not deeply valuable to us (his contained items like: If I am allowed to eat dessert or not, if my brother takes longer on the computer, if I can wear my favourite shirt or not, if I need to wait to get in the public pool, and mine contained items like being stuck in traffic or not, getting a few percent less or few percent more on a test than I expected, feeling like I ‘look good’ that day or not, making errors or not when I speak French). We used these images to refer to as we went about our day to see if that thought and the corresponding emotion really belonged in our Core or if it belonged up in the clouds and we should just let it pass. When we were playing a game with his brother and his brother was slow to take a turn, instead of allowing a typical outburst, he looked at his image of himself and stuck this concern up in the clouds (recognizing this is not something he actually cares about, but his Ego does) and breathed and let the thought and emotion pass. When his mom stubbed her toe and was hurting, we found that his Mom’s well-being was in his Core and therefore, it was okay to feel a little pain with her.

Of course, this activity is incredibly simple and sometimes we came across items that were more difficult to categorize as belonging in our Core or our Ego. For example, he believed that the subjects in school that he liked were in his Core. But, then, I asked him does he know for sure that he does not like those subjects that he has categorized as not in his Core? I told him that, often, we simply don’t like things because of classical conditioning – did you have a teacher you didn’t like which made you not like English? Did you do poorly on a test in French and now you’ve decided you don’t like it? I told him that I learned from experience that we aren’t that good at knowing what we’re interested in – I was dreading taking French at university and I ended up loving it. Now, I use it to speak with my partner and his family, I was able to travel in France comfortably, and I work as a server in French – who would have thought! I really should not have believed the story my Ego told me that I would be happier without it. Thankfully, he was able to come up with a parallel story of desperately not wanting to go to camp and experiencing explosions of anxiety and anger prior to going. But, the time he ended up spending there was incredible. He realized that prior to camp he was letting his emotional state be a slave to the thoughts of his Ego – and this, he really didn’t want.  So, with him on my page, we agreed to put ‘Learning’ in our Core (instead of what he wanted- physics and math). He promised me that going forward, when he wanted to get angry in class because he sat in a subject he didn’t like, he would realize that his likes and dislikes regarding courses are actually up in the clouds, and importantly, that sitting in class and being able to learn is deeply valuable and he would therefore allow himself to experience the joy it can bring.

Now, I think about this activity as I prepare for my own career as a clinician which involves 50% hands-on assessment and treatment with clients (the stuff I like), and 50% paperwork. I have heard from a lot of people that the paperwork part of the job is terrible, and I am now well-aware that I have already been conditioned to dislike it and for it to therefore potentially cause me negative emotions. But, for me, ‘all people’s wellbeing’ exists in my Core (including my clients, of course). Their paperwork is an essential part of me giving them the best services I can – it’s the time for me to record, review and plan for what’s next. With this conceptualization in mind, I am hoping that this activity, which causes many clinicians stress, will in fact be an area that brings me joy. The importance of this categorization for my well-being at work can’t be underestimated considering it will consist of half of my job.

In conclusion, so much of what we tell ourselves will make us happy (or won’t make us happy) is based on a story that our Ego has constructed and desperately holds on to. What is it that your Ego has told you will make you happy? And, how frequently are you experiencing negative emotions by believing that these are deep values of yours, that they are in your Core? I truly believe that, in order to stay connected to a joy that lasts and is true, it is important to rid ourselves from these stories and corresponding emotional reactions.

Since this activity last summer, I have reflected more on areas that are truly in my Core, and therefore are worthy of my pursuit of happiness. Some examples are: the beauty of nature, the natural healthy movement of my body, eating natural foods from the earth, feeling connected to my partner, sharing my knowledge and passion for yoga with others, the health and well-being of my family, friends and really, everyone, breathing, the ability to educate myself, the ability to learn from others, being of service to others, human rights and equality. These are the areas that I can let myself feel down about, if needed, as well.

You may be thinking that, with the state of the earth right now and human rights and equality in my Core I should really be suffering everyday, all day. You have a point. This is comparable to the experience of a major catastrophe (the loss of a loved one, injury or illness, a natural disaster) which also deeply rocks our core. With this model, I believe I do have the right to experience all-consuming sadness about such events. Mentally separating from the loss of a loved one or the inequality experienced on the earth seems wrong. But, so does succumbing to this pain. Succumbing to this pain and sadness will actually conflict with our Core as we won’t be able to offer our kindness and compassion to the Earth and its beings. Thus, in order to live through this pain, I will briefly come back to the small area in our chests that my client and I drew on the images of our selves- our ‘True self’, where there only exists love, contentment, compassion and joy. This is the same as the ‘Higher Self’ that I spoke of in my last post on meditation. This self is always with us, even in times of mild sadness or overwhelming anxiety, we just have to get quiet and listen to ourselves for it to reveal itself. This is the part of ourselves that we need even more when dealing with the injustices on the planet and when a catastrophe arises. Thus, the importance of getting in touch with it regularly and ideally prior to such events (as a preventative measure in dealing with grief and loss) is vital (I speak about getting in touch with it in my previous post). Only then, can we continue to be the change we want to see or the person we truly are through loving, unprejudiced, and caring interactions, even when we may hurt. Only then, can we stay in touch with joy even when the going gets tough. Only then, can we be receptive to the love that is offered by our communities when difficult times arise. And only then can we stay on the path of saying to ourselves when we are nearing the end of our lives, “yeah, I am so content that that is where I put my energy”.

The something I had been searching for

Meditation was a lot harder for me to start than yoga. A lot harder. Now I accept that it is potentially the most important element on my journey to satori. However, I still need help, guidance, and inspiration to maintain its practice. This is what today’s post is about.

Western thought carries an idea that worthiness is measured by productivity which is measured by efficient energy output. The amount of energy I’ve efficiently exerted in a day = how productive my day has been = how worthy I can feel at the end of a day. Therefore, if I fit yoga into my crazy day full of working and studying I was still productive. But, if I fit meditation in, something that involves little energy output, I would be no worthier than if I didn’t. Then why for so many years did I feel not worthy? Why was I feeling like I needed more? Why was I constantly on a search for something? I was so busy, so productive and had acquired a nice chunk of accomplishments. There must have been a major flaw in my idea of worthiness.

Well, there was, and ironically, meditation was just the thing that dealt with that crazy thought. Meditation taught me that, in fact, it is arguably the worthiest thing we can do.

I started meditation after some rather intense experiences at the end of yoga during savasana, which is a lying down meditation. It was clear that some pretty extraordinary things could happen when we spend time looking inward. Therefore, although I considered myself an Atheist, I did some research on Eastern religions to find out why they meditate and what the goal is.

The school of thought that I particularly connected with regarding this topic is the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, which says that although there are many people alive on earth, there is one connecting energy that exists equally inside of us all (Atman), which is our highest Self, and it is one and the same with the Ultimate Reality of the Universe (essentially, God). So, God is inside of us.

I find this belief totally empowering. God is not one all-knowing dude sitting up in the clouds and telling us to love and be compassionate. Instead, inside of us at all times is our highest Self, which is inherently loving and compassionate, just hanging out and waiting to get called on. But, wait, then why isn’t this whole enlightenment/satori journey totally simple?

Well, according to Hinduism, because of this darn human ego/mind which tells us that we are distinct and separate. This ego is what gives us the concept of “I” and “Me”. This ego can be associated with a “lower self” – one who is attached to things and one who can be selfish. It has told me that I want to be attractive, intelligent, own nice things, be noticed, receive straight As, eat that item on the menu that there is only one left of, be the first in line, receive a lot of likes on Facebook, have more money, fit in that yoga class that I really wanted to go to instead of covering a shift for a colleague that needs it, have a body that looks a certain way, be jealous of someone else’s accomplishments or things, and so so so many more things that don’t matter. Buddhism is different in the sense that there is no self at all (only the idea of a self which is essentially the same as Hinduism’s ego).

It is my belief that, as humans have evolved, this ego/lower self has become stronger (and even stronger in Western culture) for several reasons: selfishness can make survival more likely (thereby continuing genetic transmission), the chaotic world we live in (making calmness for the mind less likely and therefore ego activation more likely), the individualistic values of Western culture (we grow up being told we are separate and special), and the movement towards atheism (thereby decreasing one’s likelihood of practicing meditation which was thought of as a religious act – however this factor is less important as meditation becomes more mainstream). Which brings me back to meditation.

Meditation is the conduit for not allowing this lower self (Hinduism) or the idea of a self (Buddhism) to take over (which constantly chitters and chatters) and make our decisions for us. Meditation instead provides insight, tranquility and keeps us connected to our highest Self, the truth, and wisdom.

How does it do this?

Well, because we spend time listening and feeling. It’s that simple. My experience with meditation (inspired from readings, guided meditations, and yoga teachers) has involved firstly the identification of thoughts arising from my ego, then an ability to separate myself from these thoughts (e.g. no physiological reaction to the thoughts such as tenseness, an ability to just let them go by, and the ability to recognize that they do not exist) until finally, after some time, a calmness is cultivated that I have never found anywhere else in my existence. A feeling of warmth and light in my chest, a feeling that I am truly a being of love and compassion, and a feeling that so much of what I pay attention to in my life is meaningless and not serving my purpose. In essence, meditation has brought the 2 qualities that are exactly what the Buddha says it brings: samatha (tranquility, serenity) and vipassana (insight).

Now, I see that the worthiness of meditation is beyond describing. Meditation keeps us connected to ourselves and our truth so we can then share who we really are with the world. I truly believe I found that something that I had been searching for through meditation – myself, and the recognition that myself is yourself is all selves.

 So, in line with the theme of this journey I am documenting, although I can now appreciate the immense value of this activity and that it is undoubtedly a crucial conduit on my journey to satori, sometimes life gets in the way and it gets put on the back-burner and my little ego, in turn, starts taking over. Sometimes, also, because Western values of independence, uniqueness, and capitalism can contradict with the values that meditation carries, I don’t appreciate that my experience in this world may subconsciously pull me to devalue it.  What if 15 years go by and I am an over-worked mom trying to keep up with my image and ego in this life and suddenly asking myself again: is this really what life is about?

In order to avoid this, my intention is to maintain and develop my meditation practice with the following goals:

  1. Meditate in the morning and at night. It is the best way to start the day tranquilly and purposefully and the best way to enter a peaceful slumber.
  2. If I come home from school or work feeling stressed out, anxious, or excited, I will meditate for 5-10 minutes. A friend defines small acts of meditation between settings as a “scene change” to make us present and re-set to where we are and who we are with (thank you Carson, I love this!).
  3. I will choose different concepts to meditate on: what do I want to manifest in my own life? What do I want to manifest in the world? Buddhism’s 5 aggregates, a photo of myself as a child, the love that exists in people around me, sending love to a person who is suffering, compassion for a person I don’t get along with, appreciation of nature and all it has given us, the interconnectedness of everything (e.g. in order to exist I need my parents and all ancestors, the sun, the nourishment and resources the earth provides…), and the fact that we are all the same (although Western culture teaches us that we are all special, if the definition of special is ‘better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual’, and we are all equally special than really, none of us are special, are we?).
  4. I will choose 1 day per week that is devoted to mindfulness (a day where I spend a little more time alone). Every activity from waking up, showering, eating, doing the dishes, communicating with others, appreciating nature, will be done with thoughtfulness and presence, and an avoidance of thinking about the past or the future. The idea is that the energy of existence on this day will seep into other days of the week. This will also be the day that I complete a longer meditation (about 30 mins).

In my next post I hope to discuss the process of dealing with separation from my thoughts and emotion in daily life. Do we separate from everything? Even thoughts that bring us excitement and joy? I have deliberated over this lots and am beginning to sort out my thoughts.

Thanks for reading, friends! Feel free to share any questions or reflections this post may have brought you!