Fifty Shades of Grey

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.”Henry David Thoreau

Well, I made it. I celebrated my 50th birthday last week, singing my little heart out, surrounded by family and friends. On the day, exactly how I wanted to do it. Stepping to the music.

Many have asked if it feels different, hitting this milestone. I can report that there have been no great earth-shattering epiphanies between March 27 and March 28. But there have been many gradual realizations, especially over the past two or three years. Things slowly coming into focus.

Someone asked me recently if I thought I was an adult. I do not feel grown up, and I am not sure I know what that even means. I still find it hard to believe I have 50 years under my belt. Physically, I have to say that I am not wild about what happens to me as I age, and would happily trade myself in for a younger model at times. Benjamin Button has the right idea. Mentally, I don’t feel like I imagine a 50-year-old should feel. I still think I think young.

But spiritually and emotionally, I would not trade now for any time in the past. Up and down, good and bad, happy and sad, I have tried (and not always succeeded) to do the right thing, and treat others the way I want to be treated. There are things about my life that I wish had turned out differently, despite my efforts, but I have no regrets. Everything that has happened has made me who I am, and overall I am happy with the result. My friend Tommy reminded me of this recently, in a few more words.

I would do it all over again. It has been a good run.

Here are a few more insights, brought on by friends, family, and other great thinkers. As always, these always seem to come exactly when I am ready to receive them.

“It is a mistake to try and look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.”Winston Churchill

I used to think I had it all mapped out, and everything would happen as I planned it. Not so. There is a much bigger plan unfolding, most of which I cannot control nor understand. So I just keep moving forward, less concerned about figuring it all out, and more concerned about what I wish to create. Trying not to let my past dictate my future.

My friend Rel wrote: “maybe you can move on now and find that big THING in life that will leave you feeling content, my friend.” I have no idea what that big thing is yet, but I am open, and I am ready.

“If you continue to pursue the goal of salvation through a relationship, you will be disillusioned again and again, but if you accept that the relationship is here to make you conscious instead of happy, then the relationship will offer you salvation.”—Ekhart Tolle

Slowly learning this the hard way. Relationships exist as mirrors, reflecting who we are. I understand the concept, but it’s very tough in practice.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”—Rumi

And there are many. Trying to knock them down, one painful brick at a time. The dance of intimacy is and will continue to be my greatest life challenge.

My father said to me recently that he will always support me. Even though he may have reservations about my chosen paths, I am still his son, and he will always be proud of me. He also expressed that he was only sorry that he hadn’t told me this before. I can’t tell you how meaningful it was to finally hear these words.

It reminds me (loosely quoted, unknown source) that “I have and will incur the misunderstanding and perhaps even the wrath of those around me for having the temerity to march to my own drumbeat, which I am finally starting to hear. I will try not to take it personally. We are all on different paths and timetables, but we all seek and need unconditional love and support, especially from those closest to us.” That helps me feel worthy, confident, and better able to accept the good that comes my way.

And from my son Ben: “As always, the flow of life is unstoppable. But my paddle is wide, and my stroke is just. So I go where I need to.” When I asked Ben if this is an original quote, he replied “why of course…I live this shit, yo.” Wow…19 going on 50! Profound words from an old soul. You just never know where the wisdom will come from.

For me, getting older means learning to see things as they are, accepting them, and letting go. Externally, I control virtually nothing. All I can really control is what happens on the inside, and how I choose to experience life. Understanding how, why, and what I feel…a heightened awareness of everything. Learning to live with contradiction and ambiguity, and understanding that this is the way things are. Learning that fear is not something to be overcome, but rather something to face and move through.

Life is becoming much less black and white. I am learning to see the many, many shades of grey in between.

If this is what adulthood means, then I guess I am certainly well on my way.

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Learning from the Change, Challenges, and Pain of 2013

imageIt has been a year of unprecedented change, challenge, and pain for me. The toughest ever.

From January to March, I traveled to Mozambique, Africa to do volunteer work. I did not speak the language. I did not understand the culture. I was immersed in a completely strange world for two months.

In April, we put our house up for sale. The prospect of uprooting and moving is destabilizing, and one of life’s biggest stressors.

Then in May my marriage failed, and I separated from my wife. We had been together for almost nine years. I became well acquainted with pain beyond anything I had ever known.

In June I decided to pursue my lifelong dream of singing in a rock band—mid-life crisis or perhaps an awakening of sorts. Either way, it has been a whole lot of fun doing something I love to do.

In August my son left home for university. It was a very exciting and emotional time for all of us, the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Both sad and exciting, and I am incredibly proud of who he is and who he is becoming.

And in September my last remaining grandparent, my grandmother, died at the age of 97. She was an incredible woman who saw so much change, and packed a whole lot of life into her years.

In the past year, amidst all the turbulence, a few insights have gradually revealed themselves to me. Maybe they will resonate with you.

1. Nothing is permanent.

Yet we are programmed for the opposite. We want life to feel safe and secure. We want life to be predictable. Permanence gives us the illusion that it is.

But the reality is that nothing is permanent, and the only thing we know we can count on is change. The more we push for permanence in life, against the current, the more disappointed we become when we find it is not achievable to the extent we think it should be. But if we can accept the fluidity of life, our entire approach to it changes.

2. Give it time.

Why is it that life can look hopeful one day, and so very dark the next? Very little of my actual situation has changed from one day to the next. But my perception of it can change minute by minute based on how I am feeling in that moment—tired or rested, peaceful or angry, whole or damaged.

I am learning not to overreact in the moment, or make important decisions when I am feeling down. I am learning that painful and difficult things will pass. I am learning to allow time to heal.

3. Practice gratitude.

In the midst of difficult times, I have a strong tendency to dwell on the negative. And then everything looks dark, and it tends to snowball.

But there are always things to be grateful for in life—my friends, my health, my relationships, or even my next meal. I often think back to my time in Mozambique and remember the crippling poverty that most people live with every day. And yet they are, by and large, happy and grateful for what they do have.

We can make a huge difference in our state of mind by focusing more on what we do have, how lucky we are, and counting our blessings.

4. Be gentle with yourself.

I am my own worst critic, often focusing on my perceived failings and inadequacies. All this does is reinforce the bad. And by reinforcing it, that is the reality I create for myself. So I am slowly learning to cut myself some slack, and perhaps even start liking who I am. What a concept!

And I am starting to see is a direct correlation between how I treat myself, and how I am with others out in the world. By treating ourselves gently and with kindness, we treat others the same way. And maybe this is how we learn to love.

5. Be here, now.

I have a lifelong tendency to look back or forward—anything but being present. Guilt and shame looks back, worry and anxiety look ahead. In either case, it is wasted energy.

If I feel that I need to do something to set things right, I should simply do it, then let it go and not allow these feelings to linger. For me, engaging in activities that force me to stay present helps: skiing, surfing, and singing. It’s not easy, but I am trying to be present in all that I do, and recognize when I’m not.

6. Give up control.

The need for control is very deeply rooted, and comes from a place of fear and insecurity.

We can plan all we want, but there are much bigger forces at work out there. And the bigger plan for us may not coincide with what we think should happen or the planned timetable we have in our head.

I will have faith that the universe wants to help me. My job is to step out of the way and let it work its magic.

7. Be yourself.

I have been a people pleaser for most of my life. There all kinds of expectations out there about what I should do, how I should do it, who I should be, and how I should fit in. And it is impossible for me to keep up; to satisfy everyone else’s preferred version of me. I push my needs aside, and eventually that turns to anger, depression, and resentment. It’s far less stressful for me to just to be me, and to be comfortable with who that is.

We can give ourselves a powerful sense of peace by learning who we are and allowing ourselves to be that. And let the chips fall where they may.

8. Eat. Sleep. Exercise.

This may seem basic, but when my life is in turmoil, I find that basic self-care can be the first to go out the window. I skip meals, or eat badly. My sleep suffers, and when I am not rested, my whole perspective on life changes for the worse. That’s usually when I make bad decisions and think dark thoughts. I feel lethargic and tend to want to skip exercise.

But these three are all connected, and they are some of the few things we actually can control to some degree. And when we force ourselves to practice good self-care, we feel better, stronger, and life seems brighter.

9. Don’t fight the pain.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this one. And I have a history of doing or using anything I can to not feel the pain. I know this doesn’t work because when I mask the pain, it never leaves. It just gets stronger, and comes out in other ways.

Pain demands to be acknowledged. And by letting ourselves feel it, it loses its grip, and passes through us much more quickly.

I have certainly not mastered any of these insights, in fact I continue to struggle with all of them. But underpinning it all is a sense of heightened awareness about the feelings I have, and where these feelings come from.

This is the first step in learning, accepting, and rolling with the perpetual changes, challenges, and pain that life offers up. And perhaps this is how the healing begins.

I wish us all the very best for 2014.

Calming the Monkey Mind

“Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind.” ~Zen Proverb

I wrote this note last week for two very special people in my life, and thought that maybe it would be helpful to others. Sort of an intro to meditation and how it can help in life. I am still very much a beginner, and am not yet as disciplined as I would like to be, but I am so grateful to have discovered it. At first I thought it was too freaky for me, but gradually it has opened new pathways for me. I wish I’d learned this 20 years ago, but better late than never. This will sound dramatic, but I am coming to believe that calming the monkey mind and finding the peace that is already within you is the key to everything. Only good things flow from this.

Meditation is a way to calm and slow down the incessant chattering and busy-ness of the monkey mind. Think of it as your quiet time. Only for you. Like a mental spa. A way to clear and reset your mind. A time to focus. A time to heighten your awareness. It will help you tune in to something bigger and more powerful. And this will spill over into the rest of your day.

The key is to be open, and that you be willing and disciplined enough to try to be still, if only for a few minutes every day. Especially when your mind is in overdrive. Try not to judge the process itself…your initial reaction might be that it’s kind of “out there,” but try to see beyond that. Try to accept the possibility that there may be other ways of being which may not yet have been revealed to you. Meditation is simply a relaxation and rejuvenation technique. The first, second, or third time might feel a little weird, but stick with it and you will start to feel its effects. You will feel different–better, clearer, more focussed, more balanced, and calmer.

The idea is to simply focus on your breathing, be still, and in doing so you forget about the past and the future, and focus on being here, in the now. God knows we need it, because the mind generates 60,000-80,000 thoughts a day. That’s about 60 every minute, or a thought every second! No wonder we’re freakin’ exhausted most of the time!

Meditating will help your mind slowly empty. When you empty your mind, it is then available to you for new thoughts, ideas, ways of being. When your mind is empty, you can find solutions to problems that you can’t access when your mind is crammed with shite.

There are many ways of doing it. With practice, some people can just sit and take themselves through it, wherever they happen to be, regardless of what’s happening around them. I am certainly not there yet, so I prefer to have someone guide me through it. I try to focus on my breathing and what the guide is saying, then let myself float to the sounds or music.

Without a doubt your mind will want to do what it is used to doing…churning away, solving problems, creating scenarios, reviewing, and on and on. This is what it likes to do….it likes to be in control. But remember that you are much more than your mind. You are much more than your body. The essence of you is so much more. And there are many parts of the mind which you can access in addition to the crazy, spinning part that will help you settle down.

So when you become aware of your mind trying to take over while you are meditating, slowly and gently bring it back and “place” it on your breathing.

Breathe in. Feel yourself lifting higher, connecting to something bigger.

Breathe out. Feel the negative energy exiting your body. Feel yourself becoming more and more grounded.

Above all, do not allow yourself to become frustrated when your mind starts thinking because this is normal. Remember that there is no wrong way. Resist the temptation to think you can’t do it or it’s not working. This is your mind trying to take over again. Simply and gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Even if you are able to focus on your breathing for seconds at a time during your meditation, this is progress. Over time the churning mind will become less and less, the chatter will die down. It’s just practice.

Once or twice a day, maybe morning and night. 15 minutes or so. Whenever you need it. When you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious. When your mind is cloudy.

Over time you will emerge from your meditation with clearer head. You will feel calmer, better able to make decisions. Better able to be present. More balanced and in tune. More peaceful for longer stretches at a time. You will find yourself not being controlled as much by your negative emotional states.

So…are you ready? Sit comfortably (nothing crossed), press play, close your eyes, bring your attention to your breathing, let your spirit float, and enjoy the ride.

“Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” – Franz Kafka

What Would Love Do?

A few days ago I sent an email to my mother, asking if I could mail a package to her. We don’t talk or see each other much any more…the past continues to interfere with our ability to be in the present together. I think this dates back about seven years to when I began a relationship with Deborah, and more intensely since we were married in 2009. I think my mother lost an “emotional” partner in a sense as I began my matrimonial journey, and she has never accepted that. But that’s a whole other topic for another day.

It did not seem like a complicated request to me, but it clearly was to her, the tone of her reply emails to me becoming more and more terse as her insistence on controlling the process grew. This is not new. By the third email I was really pissed, and began hammering out a reply to match.

I too, am still very angry—specifically that she has never accepted or become part of my new life—and I could feel the fury and frustration building inside of me as I pounded away on the keys. She has a knack for bringing that out in me. I think most of that anger comes from the sadness of what could be, but isn’t. Like love is now conditional, and has been withdrawn, and this hurts. But I have trained myself not to feel hurt.

Trouble is, I have repressed and denied my feelings for most of my life. And that clearly has not worked, as I am slowly discovering. I need to acknowledge the feelings now, but also not allow myself to be ruled by them. Another topic for another day.

My instinct is to lash out and hurt back when I feel attacked. But deep down I know there is nowhere to go with this. Deep down, I don’t want to blame or make my mother (or anyone else for that matter) responsible for my anguish. I want to understand where it comes from so I can let it go, and focus on being and becoming the person I want to be.

So right before I pressed SEND, I stopped. Do I really want to escalate this, I thought to myself.

Is this what love would do? Asking myself this one question has changed a lot in my life lately, often preventing me from doing and saying many potentially destructive things. I need to remember that anger is really a cry for love. Do I want to be right, or do I want love?

Love would definitely not send an angry email.

So I have not sent it.

Life Lessons From the Road

I often see things more clearly from the road—when I’m travelling or away from home. It gives me perspective and helps me better appreciate what I have. I seem to be more intuitive and better able to listen. And my recent trip was no exception.

My wife Deborah and I drove East along the Northern shore of the St. Lawrence river last week to see the whales, something she has always wanted to do. From Ottawa, it is about an 800 km. journey through Montreal and Quebec City, and then through the hills to the mouth of the Saguenay river which runs into the St. Lawrence. Whales, dolphins, and other marine life make the annual trip from the warm waters of the Carribean to feed on a huge buffet of krill.

Even before I left, that intuitiveness began to kick in. I am not mechanically inclined, but as I was leaving to meet my wife in Montreal, something told me that my brakes were not quite right. And I listened. Turns out the front brakes were shot and had to be replaced.

Two hours later, I arrived in Montreal. I picked up Deborah, and we made our way around the city, on our way to Quebec city. There was heavy traffic and lots of distractions. We came to a major fork in the road, and suddenly I realized I was in the wrong lane. I made a stupid, split-second decision to stop and switch to the right lane. A huge tractor trailer was barreling up behind me, and the right lane was thick with cars whizzing by. I managed to somehow just get out of the way of the tractor trailer, and into the right lane between cars. There was perhaps a two second window for me to make the move without causing a serious crash. I pissed off a few drivers, but I just made it. There was no time to think, just act. And I did. But that little maneuver had nothing to do with me. I know that something intervened.

I had not made any reservations anywhere, and really had no idea where we would end up and when. Deborah loves this kind of spontaneous trip, but this is something I usually have a really hard time with. I am a planner, and I always like to know where I’m going. It was very unsettling, but I did it anyway. I trusted that things would work out OK. There is a freedom in the not knowing, but it takes awhile to not be so afraid of it. And here’s how the accomodation part played out…

We came upon a beautiful little hotel in the heart of Quebec City, and they just happened to have one room left. We would never have found it if everything had been completely planned out. On the second day, we drove beyond the usual whale watching destination (Tadoussac) to the middle of nowhere. But we had heard that there was a gorgeous little campsite, right on the river. They were full, but we had chatted a little earlier with a very nice woman who just happened to be related to someone who ran the campsite. She phoned ahead, and somehow got a spot for us. We pulled in, checked with the person in charge, and wandered over to our site, which opened up through the trees to a small clearing. It was completely isolated from the rest of the site, overlooking the river. And by some miracle (of not planning), we had this little spot all to ourselves.

As we looked out over the river, a whale broke the surface of the water, and we heard the ‘whoosh’ as he cleared out his blowhole. And then another. This went on for hours, and then into the night. These magnificent creatures—so graceful, elegant, and majestic—and there we were somehow with them. There was something very peaceful about the experience. I felt very small in the overall scheme of things, yet somehow connected to something much, much bigger. Nature has a way of doing that.

The next day we went out in a small zodiac to get even closer to them. There were whales, dolphins, and seals all around us at times, coming to the surface, diving back down, gracefully doing what they were meant to do. Just being themselves, as nature intended, and allowing us the occasional glimpse into their world. Whales don’t know how to be be anything other than whales. I wondered what it might be like if I could be the same way. Just being who I am, without all the other things that I allow to get in the way.

We headed for home the following day, stopping in Montreal to visit with her family on the way home. I have trouble with this when traveling because I just want to get to where I’m going. But I surrendered. Well sort of, for a couple of hours. After visiting with her brother, John, she went to visit her aunt while I went looking for a bookstore with John. I had no idea where we were going and became agitated (once again) as we looked around for a bookstore. And then I thought to myself, who cares about the bookstore, and tried to just enjoy the drive with him. I began to let go of the burning need for a destination. We never found the bookstore, but by then it really didn’t seem to matter.

Leaving Montreal we drove through some very unsettled weather. I was anxious—my default state. And I knew it. But this time I tried to just allow the anxiety to happen instead of fighting it. And Deborah gave me some room. And then it passed.

As we neared home, there was a massive dark cloud on the left, and clear skies on the right. Yin and yan like as my wife put it.  And we drove right through the heart of it, together, as the rays of the sun pierced the clouds, an awesome light display of nature’s finest. A metaphor in some way for our marriage perhaps.

Lately I have been somewhat negative about our marriage, focussing more on the struggles and difficulties, and less on the good stuff. Deborah asked me to think a little more carefully about my words. She asked me to just try to enjoy our time together, like we did before we were married. I chose to listen instead of resist. And I remembered what a cool and joyful person she is. She gives me a soft place to land. I think it will be better now.

She also pointed out aspects of my personality that I have never been able to recognize in myself. I spread joy to those around me, apparently. I don’t see it, but I will take her word for it. And I am grateful to have a partner who cares enough, and is interested enough to help me see what I am unable to see in myself. Perhaps therein lies the potential magic of relationships…they allow you to see who you are, who you can be, and they give you the opportunity to work out the issues that are holding you back.

Over the last few days on the road I have been able to practice what I have read and written so much about over the last year or two. I’m not sure that practice will make perfect, but it definitely moves me closer towards the person I want to become.

The road reminds me of how little I really control in the big picture, and how exhausting the need to control can be.

It gives me perspective, as it always does, helping me to appreciate what I have. It reminds me how important it is to be in the moment. It reminds me that once I have set my intention, to let the universe work out the details and to have faith that things will work out somehow. It reminds of the extreme importance of attitude and gratitude.

And the road reminds me, yet again, that there are massive, unknown forces at work out there that are conspiring to help me. “The mysterious guidance that comes when we surrender,” as Anda so eloquently commented below.

I just need to get out of the way and let them work their magic.