Surviving the Season

All we have to do is keep breathing.

Clark

This time of year can be very stressful for many of us. It is joyous as well, of course, but there is no doubt that it can be quite trying at times. We often find ourselves stretched rather thin. There is so much to do, so many people to see, and so much to eat that we can catch ourselves wondering, in the midst of the whirlwind, how we’ll ever make it out alive. But there is a calm at the centre of the storm, and it’s as close as our every breath.

I am blessed to enjoy the company of all of my family, but even still I have caught myself in moments where my patience is being stretched and tested, wearing thin at points. It’s at these moments that I stop and take a conscious breath, feeling it pass through my nostrils, reminding me that all things pass.  This is a valuable reminder, and can help us through even the most stressful experiences.

As fun as it may be to take a break from work to reconnect with old friends and to indulge our appetites, the flip side is that we can feel as if we are falling behind in our responsibilities, losing touch with people who once meant so much to us, and gaining weight all the while. But we need not add extra stress to the flurry of thoughts and mixed emotions that can pop up at this time of year. We can simply accept whatever is happening at any given moment, coming to appreciate that it is all equally fleeting. This is a beautiful realization. Even if we harp on things or harbour resentments, in the end they will pass. The joys pass just the same as the pains. By acknowledging this we can develop a greater ease with life, enabling us to broaden our sphere of compassion and undertake greater challenges.

With this wisdom, facing a week of excitement and occasional strain doesn’t seem so overwhelming. We can keep the Christmas craze in perspective and instead honour the stillness at the heart of the season. It’s here to appreciate, if only we’ll give it a chance. It won’t assert itself as all the Christmas music, movies, decorations and advertisements will, but it is likely the greatest gift of all.  So take a deep breath and feel your shoulders release as you exhale, letting go of any other remnant tensions that have accumulated. You don’t have to give everyone a Christmas card or a box of chocolates to maintain contact. But if you’re rested and relaxed, you may be able to offer them your real presence when next you meet.

Take it easy on yourself. Enjoy the coming New Year and dive back into whatever comes next rejuvenated and ready to roll.

I wish you all a wonderful 2015, abundant with love, laughter and a light heart!

Happy New Year 2015

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Leisure of the Season!

Well. Here we are. In the thick of the season. December 22nd. I finished my 10-Day Vipassana meditation retreat yesterday morning and caught a ride with my roommate back to Toronto. It was strange to finally speak to these people I had been sitting beside, living and eating with for the past ten days, and I felt a lot of energy light up in my body, having become so sensitive to my insides throughout the process of intensive meditation. Ten hours a day for ten straight days. It can really put you through the ringer. But it feels great to come out the other side. Everyone is all smiles as ‘noble silence’ gives way to ‘noble chatter’. I would highly recommend anyone check out Vipassana for themselves.

I don’t think I will go on too long today. I just finished writing a long letter to a friend, having felt urged to do so during the silence of meditation. While there we are not permitted any distractions from the work at hand, so without pen and paper I found myself composing this letter to my old friend in my mind and I feel much better having put it all down. I told my Mom yesterday that Vipassana is almost like popping zits in your mind. I have also described it as bloodletting for the unconscious. Either description will do, as far as descriptions go, but only direct experience can really teach you anything.

Some might imagine one would emerge from such intensive introspection with grand insights on life, but I don’t feel like rattling off any of that today. I’ve been through enough of that for a few lifetimes, I suspect. It will surely still stir and surface from time to time, but right now I am just happy to be home with my family and eager to meet up with my friends. I came out of my 10-day sit with a deep sense of gratitude and simplicity, and further strength to monitor the vicissitudes of my mind with calm, detached clarity. We don’t need to take our own narratives too seriously.

After these day of quiet meditation (based upon the Buddha’s meditation technique) I didn’t even think it strange to head straight to church. Love knows no walls. I feel no contradiction between any religious tradition with love at its core. It’s all the same song. So after rising at 4 AM and meditating, the transition was surprisingly smooth as I found myself in the familiar pews of my home church buzzing with the wondrous music of the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. I grew up attending Islington United Church (my father being the Senior Minister there for 22 years now) and felt a renewed sense of blessing yesterday at the great gift of community and music we share there. I felt as if I was a tuning fork just vibrating in that pew. I sensed great communion with those around me. But it wasn’t in any magical or mystical way. Life is already magical and mystical enough without me trying to build it up with fancy language. We were just sitting there sharing the beautiful experience together very deeply, in complete simplicity.

This is a wonderful time of year for reconnecting with friends and family as everyone comes ‘back home’ for the holidays. Tonight I will head back out to the east end for some more soulful, groovy organ jazz at Sauce, just as I did two weeks ago before my retreat. Funky Monday is a strong draw whenever I am in Toronto. It will surely be a fine night.

So I think I will keep it simple, short and sweet today. I just want to wish everyone a lovely Christmas season, no matter what tradition you may come from, or what you may believe or celebrate. I don’t have trouble taking any excuse to pause and reflect on my blessings, no matter what the cue may be. Love has no story to sell us. It isn’t trying to convince anyone. It just shines like the sun, for one and all. Any chance will do to stop and receive the rays seems wise to me. I hope you let them in.

As I say to my friends this time of year, encouraging everyone to lean back and enjoy the calm at the ‘centre of the storm’, a hearty LEISURE OF THE SEASON!

Leisure

🙂

Scatter Joy

Today feels like another off the cuff kind of day. I am staying at my parents’ condo in Mississauga for a few days, having arrived on Friday. I will be away from my room and routine in Montreal for about a month. My writing has been up and down in waves in the past months. When I got somewhat settled in Montreal six months ago I imagined I might soon be done revising the book I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. Nope. Just a bit more than 10% of the way there. Time to shake things up in the New Year, I think. Perhaps a new approach. I can’t say I’m all that concerned about it, either way. Those old feelings do pop up from time to time, but I don’t take them too seriously. I’ll just keep chipping away at it. I trust I can find a way to increase my efficiency.

A friend recently suggested I look at it as if cleaning out my drawers. I don’t need to fold every shirt meticulously in my first pass. Maybe I would be wiser to dump everything out on the floor first to see what is essential. I like this idea. I think taking a step back to look at the bigger picture is helpful. No need to get every hair in place if you’re about to cut it all off.

But enough about that. I am heading off on Wednesday for another 10-day silent meditation retreat. Vipassana. It will be my third sit. I finished one just six months ago. It will let out on the winter solstice, December 21st. I feel as though it is a nice way to lean into the wild Christmas season. I just guided a breath-centred meditation here in the condo building this morning, and many in attendance expressed their gratitude for this taste of ‘calm before the storm’. I think it is important to keep in touch with this fundamental silence, especially when life is about to ramp up into full gear. Everybody seems to get a little bit crazy this time of year. I am inclined to honour the calm at the heart of the season, no matter what else may be buzzing around the periphery.

As we sat together in meditation (along with a number of ‘first-timers’), I felt subtle vibrations emanating from my body. It felt joyful. It also felt intuitively ‘right’. I can’t pretend to understand it, but I simply sat there in a state of surrender allowing everything to be ‘as it is’ moment to moment, as I encouraged everyone else to do the same. We made a connection. It was a great start to the day.

Walking around my parents’ condo later today I bumped into a card on my mother’s bookshelf which declared “SCATTER JOY” in big letters on the front. It is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He has long been one of my favourites. When I first encountered his writing it hit to my very core, and it continues to stir me from the same depth to this day. Bumping into this phrase today felt like a little reminder.

I went for a walk in the cool air and felt like I was doing the simple work of scattering joy all around me, nodding and smiling to those I passed, even stopping to chat with some. It was all so effortless, so natural. None of it was planned. It just popped up in the moment.

It’s been a strange week – packing up shop in Montreal for a month and coming back here. I have had a busy few days with a variety of events since coming home; I attended a basketball game with friends on Friday; I attended a funeral for a friend (far too young to leave us) on Saturday; and I attended a family Christmas party yesterday. It’s been quite a broad range. But all the way along, scattering joy seems to be the best work I have done. Tonight I am off to meet a cousin in the east end of Toronto for some groovy, soulful organ jazz.  It’s called Funky Monday at a bar called Sauce. I trust I’ll have the chance to scatter some joy there, too.

Maybe if we all scatter some joy in our wake, wherever we go, life will brighten up for everyone around us and reflect back for us. That seems to make sense. It even sounds obvious. No need for any profound insights or ‘big ideas’ today. I’m just encouraging myself (and anyone else up to it) to scatter some joy. Get at it!

ScatterJoy

I won’t be online next week as I am heading off for a meditation retreat. So it looks like it will be my first missed Monday post in six months. See you again on Monday the 22nd!

🙂

The Wisdom of Simplicity

RiverCanoe

Row, row, row your boat,

Gently down the stream,

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream.

* * *

A wise old owl sat in an oak,

The more he saw the less he spoke;

The less he spoke the more he heard;

Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?

* * *

Looking back, it seems that the wisdom of simplicity was freely offered to us in our childhood. Through various nursery rhymes and songs, we were shown what was already intuitively known in our own simple silence. We sang along and celebrated this simplicity – and our freedom – without giving it a second thought (often without even a first thought). Fun was natural and effortless. We didn’t have to try, we just played. We flowed along with life, whether happy or sad, simply moving with the current.

So how did we ever lose touch with the simplicity of our childhood? How did we let life get so heavy? Where did our innocence and innate curiosity go? (It could be noted here that our compulsive ‘need to know’ or our presumptuous ‘right to know’ are far from the natural curiosity of childhood.)

In exploring our changing relationship with this sense of simplicity, we need not feel as though our innocence or curiosity are all-or-nothing affairs. Many of us keep in touch with these parts of ourselves into our later years. It feels quite natural that these characteristics wax and wane throughout our lives. It seems foolish to limit them in any finite way. Even complicated ‘grown up’ lives still have occasional pockets of peace and simplicity. But I sense that if we cherish these virtues, prioritizing our peace and honouring the simplicity of our lives, we can see our innocent curiosity continue to flourish throughout all our days, no matter whatever else may be clamouring for our attention.

Our exploration of growing complexity and fading innocence need not be a witch hunt, either. But it can be helpful to shine some light on a few probable culprits, if only to open ourselves to rekindling our sense of childlike wonder and gratitude. As kids, the joy of exploration was sufficient to inspire us. The fact that life is an incredible gift needed no explanation or qualification. Like many other joys of life, it was entirely self-evident. I feel it to be as true today as it was then, whether or not we have all kept in touch with it. For many of us, however, the magic of life fades at some point and we begin to want more. We carry on feeding this desire unchecked, most often unconsciously, seeking happiness outside of ourselves (the only place we’re guaranteed never to find it!). How did this ever happen?

Is it possible that we began losing touch with our innocence and simplicity when we started feeling like life owed us something? Is it also possible that some sense of obligation to the world began draining our joy somewhere along the line? Is not the gift of life freely given? Can we not receive it with the same simplicity? How did we tangle ourselves up in means and ends? Can’t we enjoy life for its own sake, connecting and creating together without trying to squeeze something more out of it?

Perhaps we can point out obstacles to this inherent joy and simplicity, and just by seeing them clearly as the illusions they are, we can restore our freedom and independence. The idea that we owe something to life can become quite a burden for us. This feeling of debt becomes easily tangled up in guilt and fear. These are two particularly tough walls to break through, and they seem to have built-in mechanisms for ongoing self-reinforcement – feedback loops of warped beliefs and behaviour.

But if we are left to our own devices, simply learning from our life experience, we’ll come to understand and respect balance quite naturally. Rules of ‘proper conduct’ need not be imposed upon us. Reaching out and supporting one another arises quite naturally on its own. Mandating any behaviour sows with it seeds of dissent. Just as when we were children, we want to be free to behave however we wish moment to moment. Being told to act a certain way, even if it makes perfect sense, triggers at least subtle frustration. We need to find out for ourselves. This is the only way for our behaviour to be authentic.

Imagine you are just about to go and shovel a heavy load of snow for your parents, purely out of the good of your heart. You are getting all suited up by the door and feeling glad that you are saving them the back-breaking labour. Just as you are about to open the door, your parents catch you and say, “Before you go playing in the snow I want you to get out front and shovel the driveway!” Just like that, a gift becomes a chore. You’ve suddenly been completely stripped of all spontaneity and generosity. Now you are merely complying with demands.

Freedom is important. It’s pretty simple. Understanding this in our interactions with one another – especially in relationships where we hold authority or influence – is vital to our collective well-being. Love grows all things. It’s not complicated. Modelling righteous behaviour is more powerful than mandating it. Ideally we would all be responsible for ourselves and thus better-equipped to serve and support our neighbours. I feel that we can grow into this self-responsibility while still cherishing our childlike instinct for play. Curiosity and innocence need never be lost. We can follow our hearts and do our part, playfully and freely.

Does this seem crazy? Is it a sign of a culture’s warped priorities when such simplicity sounds so radical? I don’t know. Honestly. Fortunately I don’t feel any need to solve it. I’m just curious. I hope you are too.

Curiosity

Happy Monday.

🙂