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.

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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

Attention, Ubuntu, and Being In the Moment

Last week I went to a local fitness center. As I walked in, a group of young kids tried to get my attention. I was feeling a little off—perhaps a little tired, and I had a few things on my mind. I felt like I was being harassed, and that they wanted something from me (although I hadn’t taken the time to find out), so I quickly said “thanks but not today,” and walked away.

I just caught myself in that moment, and felt their disappointment, like the wind had been taken out of their sails. From the registration desk, I looked back at their table, and wondered why I had been so curt, closed, and dismissive. I probably assumed that they wanted money, and it seems that everywhere I turn that’s all people want.

So I walked back and asked them about their project. Their little faces instantly lit up as they began chattering away excitedly, describing how if they had the most votes, their group would win $125,000 towards the improvement of their local park and soccer field. They were not looking for my money. They just wanted my attention. And I gave it to them. But I almost missed that opportunity.

I have been thinking about that little exchange ever since, and a few things that have been percolating have bubbled to the surface.

My friend Jules recently introduced the concept of Ubuntu to me, an African philosophy about people, generosity and interactions with each other. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it this way. “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole, and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

One of my favourite bloggers, Thomas Ross, has an entire blog dedicated to being present. In a recent post he described it as “a single-minded effort in each moment. It sounds so small, but within this conception a world of great wonder and possibility resides. Each moment becomes a fresh start.”

Two very powerful ideas that, if applied consistently, I think can change the world.

I would like to be mindful of these always, but I also recognize that it may not always be possible 100% of the time. Things happen sometimes to prevent it. But I am encouraged, because I am becoming aware enough to recognize that disconnected feeling when it happens. More and more, I am able to catch myself in the moment of being closed.

And that awareness means I can do something about it.

Birthday “Presence”

Aside

This “in the moment” theme has come up a lot lately. Like someone out there is really trying to tell me something. I have written a lot about it in theory, but the practice part certainly needs work. That’s why events of this past weekend were meaningful. There was a shift.

This weekend was my wife Deborah and sister in law Lori’s birthday. So I decided to just go with it. Actually I didn’t really decide. I just did it. And that’s the curious part…it just happened.

Deborah wanted to do a few things, and then go on to her sister’s neighbourhood BBQ. Normally I’d be trying to influence the course of events. Some might call it control. But not on this day.

First stop was the leather store for my wife to get supplies for her purse making. I just sat in the car and did nothing. Normally I’d be climbing the walls.

Second stop was the pharmacy where they were having some sort of make-up event. Not only did I take here there, I went in with her and actually participated. Well not the make-up part, but I had a few snacks, got a henna tattoo, and watched the event unfold. Not another guy in sight! I somehow resisted the urge that there was somewhere else I had to be.

Third stop was the BBQ. Mostly people I had never met. Normally this would be anxiety inducing for me. But this time I didn’t feel I had to talk to anyone. I didn’t feel I had to introduce myself or make an impression. I didn’t feel I really had to do anything. My mind wasn’t racing with thoughts of the past. Nor was it pre-occupied with figuring out next steps. So I just watched, and listened. And kept my mind blank. I was happy just to be.

What the hell is going on here?

Deborah is really good at going with the flow…perhaps some of that is rubbing off. And perhaps all the theory is somehow starting to translate into practice. I hope it’s here to stay. I do feel at some level that there is so much for me to learn and enjoy from being present. That must be why I keep getting these universal reminders–sort of like sticky notes for my soul.

Then I came across this piece by Richard Rohr. Another message. And definitely a sign that I should keep it up:

“The word “Buddha”  means “I am awake.” To be awake is to be fully conscious. The Buddhists sometimes call it “object-less consciousness”; I might  just call it “undefended knowing.” It is a consciousness where we are not conscious of anything in particular but everything in general. It is a panoramic receptive awareness—whereby you take in all that the moment offers  without eliminating anything or attaching to anything. You just watch it pass.

This does not come naturally to us, surely not in our  culture. We have to work at it. All forms of meditation and contemplation teach  some form of compartmentalizing or limiting the control of the mental ego—or  what some call the “monkey mind,” which just keeps jumping from observation to observation, distraction to distraction, feeling to feeling, commentary to commentary. Most of this mental action means very little and is actually the opposite of consciousness. In fact, it is unconsciousness. It is even foolish to call it “thinking” at all, although educated people tend to think their self-referential commentaries are  high-level thinking.”

Finding Peace

If you ask me to boil down everything I desire into one statement, I would say without a doubt that finding peace is it. Seems to me that everything else would take care of itself if I had a peaceful head and heart. A peaceful being. 

I have been thinking alot about this lately, and was inspired by a line I read about a week ago in Thomas Ross’ blog Only Here Only Now…and it’s been rolling around in my head ever since.

“The peace is there always.  We need only the strength to receive it.”

What a revelationt! It’s ALWAYS there! There is reassurance in simply knowing it’s there, even though I may not experience it as much as I would like. But how can I uncover it, or find the strength to receive it?

Every person you ask would likely have a different path to peace, and there is no end to the self-help advice and tips out there to help you find it. But for me, I think it comes down to our earthly concept of time–past, future, and present.

If I can finally accept my past, and not allow it to govern who I am now, or who I will be tomorrow.

If I can allow myself not to worry about the future, to not waste energy on that which I cannot control.

If I can focus on being here, now–present, engaged, and in the moment.

Then peace will be mine.