The Upside of Anger

Some of the most fertile soil on the planet is the soil that has lived the transformation of a forrest fire. img_0423Lately, there has been a fire in my belly, a determined force within me, and a strong urge to create movement, change, and real transformation. The kind of anger that I consider to be my friend as long as I find the balance between feeling it and containing it. Like any fire, it will burn out, but also needs to be contained with elements of water and earth. I try not to add too much additional fire, air, or give it too much space to expand. I also don’t want to suppress it or suffocate it. This anger has an upside even if I can’t yet see what it is, what it will serve exactly, or how it will manifest.

I wrote another post on this topic 3 years ago, titled “Don’t tell me to calm down!”. In reading over what I wrote, my perspective is the same now as it was then. In fact, I would re-iterate everything I wrote about the healthy aspects of anger, its important messages, and knowing how to distinguish between what is happening and what we perceive is happening in order to respond appropriately when anger strikes. Anger can in fact cloud our perception. I would also say that a clouded perception can result in misinformed and unnecessary feelings of anger. When we don’t take the time to observe ourselves and what an emotion is signalling, we do risk causing undo harm – especially if we choose to act on anything while in an emotional state and before having clarity. The harmful consequences are sometimes immediate and sometimes experienced later on. Either way, anger isn’t bad, it’s the actions that we take when we are angry that that lead us to believe that anger itself is a bad thing. We just need to learn how to pay attention to it, listen, give it space to shift, and know when it is helpful and when it’s harmful to ourselves and others.

This specific fire in my belly is a unique kind. It’s familiar and unfamiliar to me at the same time. I have always known sadness better than I know anger. In fact, I used to get so uncomfortable and feel guilt when anger arose that it would melt into tears, self-punishment, and shame. This time, it’s not melting. It wasn’t triggered by anything in particular (I don’t think) and I am not afraid of it. It’s been with me for three days. I am watching myself get more easily frustrated, flustered, impatient, and yet, not breaking into tears – I am able to stay with it and limit my reactivity to the burning sensations of heat and power. I try to express it without harming anyone and give warning to people when I do feel myself bordering on being misunderstood as an impatient or angry person or when I know I am simply not being myself. I think it may be an arising of a part of myself that I have either suppressed or ignored for a long time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either that I am experiencing this after having had a cranial-sacral therapy treatment where themes of anger and distrust come up in the form of physical resistance to a process of surrender during the treatment. It was a full moon in the last couple days. Thanksgiving came with some family conflict. But still with those things combined, I can’t yet see or understand what its message is. All I can do is trust its usefulness to my growth, give it enough space to burn within mindfully contained limits: “mind the fire”, if you will. Part of what it’s teaching me is to learn how to befriend it and use it as a motivator for the urges I am having to create movement, change, and transformation.

I have a feeling it’s the social justice kind of fire. I am day-dreaming of cutting out the bullshit in social services provided for people; telling the people who crossed lines with me to f-off; and carrying myself more proudly with a greater sense of self-respect and communicating simply through my presence and way of being rather than through a reactivity that creates fear or giving in the discomfort of holding my personal power. The upsides are a sense of being head-strong, determined, beautifully powerful, and commanding respect by giving respect both to myself and others.

Anger ain’t a bad thing. It may just be a fire that fuels change.


Victim, Villain, Hero, Oh my!

085The point that I am interested in making in this post is related to the impact that it has on our health when we get stuck in the loop of the drama triangle. Essentially, it is impossible to play out one of the three roles of victim, villain, or hero in our interactions AND be in a state of mindfulness at the same time.

I took this picture at a small little art show on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, a few summers ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t note the artist’s name and yet I keep finding appropriate topics to suit her messages.

“Holding onto it only makes you sick” reminded me of the narratives we create, play out, and reinforce in our lives when we’re in conflict with others. Therefore, reminding me of the drama triangle model that I had come across in the past. Every story has a victim, a villain, and a hero, which I believe was originally coined as the “drama triangle” by Karpman, S. as a model for fairy tale and script drama analysis. However, the model also proved to be quite useful later on in psychotherapy, conflict resolution, and as a basic model of human social interaction. To read more about the theory as it relates to human interactions and conflict resolution, here is a link to a short summary written by Gary Harper: Conflict Drama: Victim, Villain, Hero?

To be in a state of mindfulness involves being in connection with ourselves; seeing clearly what is happening in reality beyond our mind’s interpretation and commentary; and to respond from a place where the ego doesn’t get in the way. Where ever there is drama, there is either suffering or the potential for suffering. From a mindful state of being, however, there is no story, just direct perception, and therefore, there is no suffering and no drama. Also, from a state of mindfulness, there is space for healing, change, and a letting go.  What we hang on to psychologically, has a real impact not only on our mental health, but on the physiological and physical realms of our being.

Too often, I meet people who are caught in the drama triangle and psychologically attached, convinced, and even comfortable staying there. They are also sometimes people who are quite sick, with many different physical and physiological conditions. I completely understand it and I have been there and continue to get caught in it every now and then. Unfortunately, without either a meditation practice or some means of checking in with ourselves to jump off the story-making-merry-go-round, there is a real risk of increased suffering. “Holding onto it only makes you sick” is not just a saying or a metaphor.

Take the time to keep your mind healthy. Take the time to examine the stories you tend to play out and shift from passive victim to assertion, from hero to problem-solver, and from controlling villain to collaborator, as described in Harper’s article. Even if it’s for no one else but yourself – for your own health.

Witnessing the Art of Dying

Recently, I had the fortune of being by my uncle’s side and supporting my aunt who was caring for him during the last 48 hours of his life and this is what I wrote:

Witnessing the Art of Dying

“Je veux mourir à la maison” he had decided. And so dying at home it would be. After all, he was a man who precisely calculated everything and he lived this way intentionally. The kind of wealth he had doesn’t come from rushing through things blindly. I am referring to the wealth of love, respect, and dignity, that one only earns from being so giving.

Ironically, “Hourglass” was the title of the song that was playing right before his ending: a beautiful cello composition that encapsulated his graceful state of being. The lake still frozen and the clear sky lit up by the moon, filled those last two nights with a silent and peaceful solitude. We stayed awake since we knew he would be leaving us soon, and because every one of his last moments was to be held with gratitude.

As he lay there dying, audibly labouring each breath, he was just waiting. And we sat there by his side, holding the space of tranquility, hoping to assist him in this process of surrendering. The sun would rise and we would pull up the blinds and say: “Il s’est rendu au matin”. My aunt would ask the nurse to stay until the 6 AM morphine, and then we would brew some coffee and go back to our quiet sitting.

There were times when I would close my eyes next to him, meditating. Embodying the serenity that he himself had set up the conditions for in his waking. Other times, I would focus on his breath, his transforming being, seeking to understand what was objectively happening. I also found myself reciting mantras in my head to remind myself of my own mortality, while wondering what was this cancer that inhabited his physical body.

What I could hear, but he was not saying, was his voice in response to us caring: “Ok, chère”, “Merci, chère”, “T’es bein fine, chère”. All of sudden, the term “chère”, dear, rung loudly in my memory and with a whole new meaning. It was not just a term of endearment, but one that he always spoke with softness, respect, and authenticity. And to his wife, I could hear him saying “Je t’aime Bé”, “Merci, Bé”, “Je vais n’ennuyer de toi, Bébé”. It’s this love that he shared with his wife wholeheartedly that I mostly had the gift of witnessing.

He opened his eyes on his day before last and asked “Y’ai quelle heure?” “10 H”, my aunt replied. “Avant-midi?”, “oui”. He was awake for that moment and maybe for no reason but to see it drift into its past. It’s likely, that in his state of vulnerability, he was accepting, and facing his death with humility. He had said everything he had to say in preparation for his passing. And so, when he went, he went peacefully.

And therein lies the art of dying. He had mastered it by having learned the art of living.

Katherine Marr

The Mindfulness & Yoga Trends: addressing the concerns arising from one-size-fits-all approaches being taught

028I have received a few emails now from various students and clients asking me to address some of the complaints they have heard from people regarding the risk factors associated with mindfulness and yoga practices. Articles are being published by people who have attended a mindfulness workshop, for instance, only to feel triggered and have a panic attack upon leaving the room. There are now people researching the risk factors of mindfulness and meditation, announcing that mindfulness is not as therapeutic as people have been claiming. And, as the trend of yoga continues to be rampant, there have been many publications and warnings about how the physical practice of yoga can actually cause injury. I agree that this is an important topic to address and I hope to help clarify some of the misconceptions about mindfulness and yoga that are leading to these adverse effects in the first place.

The main problem in the health-related fields where mindfulness is being applied and where programs are being developed is that practitioners are teaching, packaging, and trying to sell the practices to large groups and in a way that falsely communicates that the same techniques can be applied to all people for the same benefits.

The one-size-fits-all approach could not be more misinformed. The Yoga Journal and other popular publication sources will publish articles titled “Yoga for depression”, or “Yoga for back pain”, or “5 meditation tips to alleviate anxiety”. So, the question that any well-informed therapist would ask is “Whose depression, back pain, and anxiety are we talking about?” The tools in yoga and mindfulness are infinite. The therapeutic application of the tools needs to be highly individualized and very specific to the individual’s constitution, symptoms of suffering, the causes of suffering, their therapeutic goals, their lifestyle, and more. For many people, individual guidance in the form of a prescribed practice is the most optimal choice for wellness and healing.

As it relates to mental health in particular, there are two important responses I have to anyone whose anxiety or trauma has actually been triggered by a mindfulness practice.

The first thing to note is this: if you have been living your life in reaction, dissociation, and slight disconnection from the reality around you in order to survive and protect yourself from harm or the threat of harm, it is natural that you would experience mindfulness practices as triggering because you are bringing to your awareness the very patterns of thought that you were previously either unconscious of or intentionally avoiding. Some of the students or clients I work with therapeutically will actually walk into a session angry with me at times and say “great, I knew i was messed up, but now I know I am even more messed up than I thought”. And to that, I say “perfect”. They don’t like that, but i then explain. It’s perfect because it means they are doing the work. It’s perfect because they are stepping into the awareness which is where the real work toward change can begin. And it’s perfect because it means change is happening. Silent practices in particular where you are being asked to quiet or focus your mind on something may be quite frustrating as this would naturally have you become more aware of just how easily distracted and restless you are. In this sense, ignorance can be bliss. But, hopefully, with the right guidance and support in finding the most appropriate tools for you, you can stay with this discomfort, stay with the practice, and gain a helpful understanding of the root of your suffering in order to address this and move toward freedom from the suffering as you learn to observe the patterns more objectively and live your life more consciously and connected.

The second important response I have is related to the tools being selected. If you suffer from panic attacks, PTSD, or any other anxiety-based disorder where the breath can be restricted, being asked to focus your attention on your breath may very well be one of the most unsafe places to be. Being silent and left with your thoughts if you suffer from flashbacks and serious emotional suffering could be more hindering than helpful. And I share this understanding from my own mistakes made as a practitioner. So, I have no judgment toward those who are learning as teachers. Following 5 minutes of a simple breathing meditation, one of the youth I work with proceeded to engage in serious self-harm as soon as she returned to her room from the practice. In those 5 minutes, she was reliving the atrocious events in the form of memories that she has spent her life trying to distract herself from. I have since received a lot of mentoring and coaching from knowledgeable practitioners and I make a very clear point in my studies to understand not only the beneficial effects of the various tools in yoga, but also the contra-indications. One very simple and fairly safe statement is that, for some people, the best way to expand the breath and quiet the mind is by making sound or chanting. With the appropriate selection of physical movements, breath can be taught in synchronicity with the movement, without having to focus the mind on the breath, and with clear intentions of the desired effect of alleviating problematic symptoms and addressing the root cause of the suffering.

In yoga therapy, we ask ourselves three questions as we enter a therapeutic assessment: what is the desired effect of the practice? where do we want the person to feel the effect (at the level of the mind? in the breath? where on the body?, etc.) and for whom is this effect intended (taking all individual factors in mind about the specific person).

So, if ever you read or hear anything about the risk factors related to yoga and mindfulness practices, it is most likely that the person who has experienced adverse effects was either taught in a group format with a one-size-fits-all approach that was not suitable for that individual, or they may have received the guidance from someone who did not have enough experience to support them through the discomfort by re-evaluating the person’s experience and the tools being applied in order to continually adjust the practice for the desired effects.

I welcome any questions, comments, or experience you may have to share related to this important discussion.


The Power of Deep Listening


My grand-mother and I were sitting on her couch. The television was on. She was talking. The conversation seemed to be somewhat trivial. She seemed to be simply looking to keep her mind occupied by telling me about daily routines and things I was trying to find interesting. My attention went between the television and my grand-mother as I examined my frustration about not being able to hear the television because she kept talking. My uncle (her son) was dying. I was visiting with the purpose of supporting her with this loss and to potentially see my uncle one last time. In a flash, all of my understanding of meditation and the deep forms of yoga came to serve me and I realized the preciousness of the moment I was letting pass by. I tuned out the television and paid attention to my grand-mother. The moment I started truly listening to her is the moment I started to see her for the amazingly resilient woman that she is. she must have felt my listening because she began to cry. She cried as she stroked the front of a flower catalog and said “these are the flowers I ordered and planted in front of Doug’s house. I don’t think they will bloom in time for him to see them.”. I had never seen or heard of my grand-mother crying: a woman who has lived in and out of mental health hospitals, was about to turn 89, and was losing one of her four children to cancer. She gave herself less than 2 minutes in tears and said “it’s so sad”. I would have missed that had I not tuned out the television and given her my ears. Through deep listening, I noticed and go to know my own grand-mother.

Thank you yoga for all that you teach me. Yoga is deep listening.

“Look Deep Into Nature, and Then You Will Understand Everything Better” ~ Albert Einstein


Understanding the very law of impermanence is one of the most powerful realizations along a path of embracing all that life has to offer. And we don’t need to look further than nature to gain this understanding; the weather, the seasons, the trees, the movement of the ocean, the cycle of the moon, the Earth’s constant rotation, the death and re-birth of all matter, and more. Everything rises and passes naturally. Suffering does not exist within this rising and passing. We humans simply experience suffering when our mind mistakes what is permanent with what is impermanent. Let me explain.

Moods, emotions, relationship qualities, life’s circumstances, and sometimes, even, some of the most atrocious events, arise in our lives that are not pleasant to go through. Equally, pleasant experiences and circumstances come up in all shapes and sizes. Our mind tends to cling on to pleasant experiences, not wanting them to pass and has aversion to/ repels the experiences that are not so pleasant. This is natural, in a way, for the mind to do. However, we often don’t observe and examine what is actually happening in a given moment in order to live it simply as it is in that moment. We live the present moment through a lens of past impressions and future anticipations. A present moment that is pleasant may come with the illusion that life is “finally going well and everything is resolved”, projecting the pleasant experience onto all future experiences and feeling possibly at peace within this false projection. Similarly, an adverse circumstance that leads the mind to fear what is next may come with a thought of “my life is over”, or “it’s never going to get better”. There are exceptions to this false understanding, especially if you have a mind that is able to stay present or if your experiences have been such that you have gained the wisdom of not projecting onto the future anything that is temporarily showing up in the present. This very wisdom of understanding what is real and what is the mind’s interpretation of what is really happening is what I am referring to when I say that understanding the law of impermanence is one of the most powerful realizations along a path of embracing all that life has to offer and being free from suffering.

A tree does not suffer when it loses it’s leaves in the Fall. The Earth does not suffer when there is a hurricane. The elements are simply interacting, changing, shifting, settling, calming, getting disturbed again, and changing moment to moment to moment. Everything about our human existence is no different. Every cell in our body is changing, shifting, dying, renewing, and transforming every single moment. Our moods, our emotions, the sensations in our bodies, the circumstances we are presented with, and more, are subject to the same. There is no inherent suffering in these qualities of change. For those of you who understand the term “gunas” in yoga, these are the qualities I am referring to. The suffering in the mind occurs when there is a reaction in the mind in the form of story, narrative, interpretation, and more specifically, when there is misinterpretation in the form of mistaking something that is inherently impermanent with something that is permanent. In other words, the mind creates a story about a pleasant or unpleasant experience as though it was permanent and then, when the experience rises and passes as it naturally does, the mind re-creates story about this change, forgetting that change is simply happening, has no meaning and that each experience will again rise and pass.

If this is slightly confusing or unclear, simply look into nature for further understanding. Watch the rising and passing of all matter and begin to meditate on this impermanence in a way that allows you to simply be a witness to the process without making it mean anything. And then, apply the teachings to understanding your own being. Witness the arising and passing of everything within yourself and quiet the mind as you witness this. Freedom from suffering and pure contentment may result. And you may then begin to also contemplate who the witness is within you. This witness is permanent. It is the only thing that is. In essence, when you begin to understand this, you will feel at home in your heart.

Dirgha and Suksmah are to Pranayama as Sthira and Sukham are to Asana

diaphragmSounds like gibberish. Dirgha and Suksmah are to Pranayama as Sthira and Sukham are to Asana. This post is for any yoga dorks out there or for anyone wishing to deepen their understanding of what was traditionally taught in the practice to ensure that the tools of yoga are truly increasing one’s path toward being in a state of Yoga. This has nothing to do with any achievement of a pose or end goal of being able to practice a certain breathing technique. This has to do with the depth of the practice that comes from applying and experiencing the qualities of the practices as they apply to you, in any given moment, and appropriately applied for that moment in time.

In the Yoga Sutras of Pantajali, we learn of the purpose and the qualities/ characteristics of asana (physical postures) and pranayam (breathing practices/ control of prana) in the second chapter and specifically Sutras II.46 to II.53.

Dirgha = long, prolonged

Suksmah = subtle, minute, non-forceful, smooth

For a breathing practice to be considered pranayama (and this applies to your breathing during an asana practice), according to Sutra II.50, it must involve a conscious regulation of the inhalation, exhalation, and the suspension of the breath. The three aspects of the breathing process must also be consciously prolonged (Dirgha) and in a subtle, non-forceful way (Suksmah). Any breathing or any application of a breathing technique that does not have these two experiential qualities is not pranayama.

Sthira = steady, stable, solid, strong

Sukham = comfortable, ease, flexible, tension-free

For a physical posture/ yoga pose or movement to be considered an asana, according to Sutra II.46, it must embody the dual qualities of steadiness (Sthira) and ease (Sukham). Like a healthy tree that can withstand the storms due to having strong and solid roots combined with enough ease and flexibility to sway and not snap with the force of the wind, our physical postures represent our resiliency to the storms in life. If we are so steady that we are rigid, we snap. If we are so comfortable and at ease that we are lethargic and non-grounded, we get tossed around and have a hard time facing challenges. Without these dual characteristics, a physical posture or a sequence of postures may be nothing but a physical exercise. Physical exercise has it’s own benefits. However, when it becomes a true asana, with it’s defined qualities, the benefits are multiplied.

Combined, when our physical movements and our experience in our body holds the qualities of steadiness and ease and when our breath is both prolonged and subtle/ smoothe, the practice becomes a whole new experience where the teachings on the mat begin to permeate throughout our life off the mat.

And when we can put it all in a very intelligent sequence to deepen all four qualities (Vinyasa), the practice of meditation is truly blissful. I will share more on Vinyasa in a future post.


On Social Justice

098Yesterday, September 10th, was World Suicide Prevention Day. As a professional who is in touch with people who are affected by suicide on a daily basis, World Suicide Prevention Day is truly a celebration for me. I didn’t make it public and my way of celebrating was to simply take a moment to practice gratitude and remember everything that I stand for in the work I do and the way I live my life. I am grateful for the deep connections I have with people. Yesterday was a celebration of gratitude for the progress we have made in our health systems and for the lives that have been saved through this progress. It’s also a celebration of suffering and an appreciation for how suffering can lead to healing as we learn to overcome it and prepare for a conscious and connected way of both living and dying.

In my reflections and my sharing today, it’s not the specific topic of suicide I wish to expand on. Instead, I wish to share my perspective on issues of social justice. While we have made enormous progress within our health care and social systems, the provision of effective therapeutic practices  that are tailored to the individual needs of the people seeking help relies on all other societal systems, including political, economic, and cultural. It essentially all comes down to money and funding. And funding is granted for programs and services that provide evidence that the therapeutic modality is worth investing in for the overall wellness of a population and that it will, in the end, alleviate some of the costs that are incurred when people who are unwell depend on the welfare system to survive. The lines between the provision of healing practices and the commercialization or regulation of these practices become blurred because professionals need to earn a living and anything that is funded by the government, a corporation, or reimbursed by an insurance provider justifiably demands integrity. Healing practices that are complimentary to the medical system are not funded until they have been thoroughly researched and proven to provide the desired outcomes and impacts. They then eventually influence the medical and social service sectors and the research continues.

It may all seem like a bit of jargon. Let me clarify what I mean on a more practical level and explain how what I am saying ties into the social responsibility we have as health care providers and back to the topic of celebrating our progress. The progress we have been making in discovering what works and what doesn’t work to help people overcome suffering is continually being researched. While something is being scientifically studied, it is not yet “evidence-based” and therefore, it is not yet supported by the system. In other words, some of what we now know is most effective in various fields of treatment is only available to those who can pay out of pocket for it. Complimentary or what some call “alternative” medicines, including mindfulness, yoga, acupuncture, various forms of exercise, osteopathy, physiotherapy, nutritional and dietary consultations, and more, then become only accessible for people who have the means to afford them. As research catches up, some of these healing practices have become more regulated and covered by insurance providers for the employed people who are fortunate enough to pay into a benefits plan. This is a huge progress worth recognizing. Counselling, parenting support, holistic addictions treatments, and many other therapies are also slowly becoming covered by governmental health care plans. However, the waitlists are often very long. Again, it relates back to the economy, the distribution of funding, our political systems, and more. Resources are limited. When resources are limited and while researchers are busy trying to prove what works in order to fight for some of the funding, our most vulnerable populations get left behind. Hence, the issues of social justice I am referring to.

As a therapist, I hear people’s stories and I hear the universality of what people live. It doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, Caucasian, Asian, homosexual, heterosexual, etc. Everyone wants connections, everyone wants to contribute, be appreciated, be happy, and to either find peace of mind or minimally end any suffering they live with. In my private practice, some can easily afford a private service with our without reimbursement. In my work in the social services, I earn a salary and there is no thought of a value attached to any hour I spend with my clients – the service is free to them and I am a professional who is compensated through the systems and funding that have made it all possible. The people who teach me the most about social justice, however, are the people who are marginalized and contact me either requesting mindfulness-based counselling in my private practice, yoga classes, or any other non-medical free service because the approach they desire for their own healing is not available to them with the means they have. Some of my clients have been treated through the medical systems for decades and their appointments have simply become shorter and shorter, their medications have been increased, and at best, they have learned to become dependent on a system that has helped them survive. These people come knocking at my door for an approach that will help them thrive, while reducing the medications and increasing their quality of life. Research is catching up and I have faith that the approaches that can compliment the work being done in medical clinics and hospitals will not only be recommended by doctors but paid for through the system.

This is why I open the door to doing pro-bono work with people both in my private practice and in my teaching. This is why I volunteer my time and continually seek to connect with a network of professionals who take on the same responsibility for the overall wellness of our community. And this is why I intentionally remember each day why I do what I do. Over the course of the day yesterday, I found myself wondering about the relationship between these social justice issues and the possible cases of persons who have chosen suicide in the face of feeling discouraged about their own capacity to heal given the means they had at the time.

Happy Belated World Suicide Prevention Day.  We have made huge strides and we will continue on this path with the help of the people researching and providing evidence for the modalities that are most effective in overall treatment of disease and suffering.

My Truth and Reconciliation

181Following the summary of the report released by the Truth and Reconciliation’s Committee on June 2nd, 2015, people started posting on social media little blurbs about what an honest truth and reconciliation related the the years of residential schooling of Aboriginal Peoples would mean to them.

Truth and Reconciliation for me would be evidenced when the new generations of Aboriginal People know and honour their histories with a language that indicates empowerment and pride as opposed to shame or victim-hood. This picture was taken in 2007 in Northern Ontario, when I worked as a crew-boss for an employment program for First Nations Youth. I learned so much from the three groups I worked with over three summers. It was these experiences that launched me into my Masters degree in counselling and taught me to be curious and forever committed to issues of social justice as they relate to mental health. It also taught me to be curious and constructively critical about non-Aboriginal authorities and leadership of a matter that was ultimately created by these very same authorities.

I have since lived on Reserve, worked with First nations youth in Vancouver, Norther Ontario, Montreal, and now Ottawa. And in every experience, I encounter young Aboriginal spirits who haven’t even heard of residential school, don’t know if their parents or grand-parents attended, and yet they are growing up in the care of a Children’s Aid Society, away from their home community, and faced with personal challenges of suicide, incarceration, and poverty.

My truth and reconciliation would be for these youth to know and understand the truth without internalizing it. And the education about the truth unfortunately can’t authentically come from me – a white “southerner” would can’t ever really truly understand the individual impact of the cultural genocide. I wish for these young girls and boys who are wards of the crown to know that it isn’t because they are unloveable or unworthy that their families were not in a position to parent them the way they long for. I wish for these young girls and boys to truly understand and have compassion for the suffering of their ancestors toward whom they carry anger and resentment due to their experience of having been abused, neglected, or abandoned. The kids I am talking about are living in the cities of our country, in group homes and foster care, far away from any family they ever knew, and with no plan on the part of their legal guardian (the government) to return them to their home community. The reality is currently, that a return home is not always safe or possible, but I hope that this reality will slowly change. If today’s young people who are experiencing a generational impact of residential schools and cultural trauma are able to observe and learn about their histories without making it mean “my parents didn’t love me” or “I wish I was never even born”, I think we would be making some pretty huge leaps toward cultural healing.

When I listen to a drumming circle, I cry. It’s powerful beyond words and I have learned so much about spiritual healing from the First Nations cultures I have worked within. There is a wisdom to the practices that is beyond what western medicine will ever offer.

How I Now Know The 5 Activities Of The Mind Like The Back Of My Hand

Making-mistakesA few months ago, I shared some of the teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Pantajali with a group of trainees for a power yoga teacher training that was led by my buddy Phil in Ottawa.

In the last half hour of my talk, Phil asked “can you say a bit about the activities of the mind?” I sat in front of 26-ish people, aware that I was experiencing a mind block, gave a vague answer (something about how our mind has different qualities – like a restless monkey or heaviness of having two feet stuck in the mud), and hoped/ tried my best to access the true answer to his question while I pretended to make sense of what I was saying. As I kept talking, I just couldn’t access the knowledge I had about the activities of the mind… even though I had studied and understood this very deeply in moments past. So, I brushed over the topic and moved on to other questions from other students. I figured if it came to mind, I would return to Phil’s question. Funny how the ego wants to make sure we “look good” in the eyes of others 🙂 Only the knowledge didn’t come back to me until after I left the studio and was walking to my car. I played it well! But to me, it was a mistake: nerves and distraction had prevented me from sharing what the teachings actually say and their essence in understanding the practice of yoga. The funny thing about the experience is this: Now I know the 5 activities of the mind better than any other teaching in the Yoga Sutras because of that experience of having made a mistake. I re-read the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras when I got home that night. I have ran through that moment over and over in my head many times since. This blog post is partly a way of sharing the correct teaching with those who attended the training (if they even remember that part of the talk which most likely don’t), and partly a way of honouring the power of making mistakes. Since it was my mistake, I am likely the only one who was in that room that evening who even retained this moment in my memory. Each person in that room likely retained a separate moment that reflected a mistake that he or she made. And that’s the beauty of acknowledging, reflecting on, and correcting our errors.

And here is the answer to Phil’s question (as translated by T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga).

Sutra 1.5: This Sutra answers the question of What is the mind? There are 5 activities of the mind. Each of them can be beneficial and each can cause problems.

Pantajali goes on to explain in the following sutras what each of these activities are:

1. Comprehension: The mind has the ability to comprehend an object based on direct observation and when direct observation doesn’t provide all the information for comprehension, one may make inferences through use of logic or rely on reference to reliable authorities such as texts or reliable individuals for more complete comprehension.

2. Misapprehension: The mind most frequently faultily observes reality or misinterprets what is seen. Misapprehension occurs when the mind thinks it has comprehended the actual nature of an object and is often the result of past impressions or conditioning. This may remain in lieu of correct comprehension until more favourable conditions reveal what is the true reality of that object of observation. For example, when we are convinced we have understood what happened in a situation, yet we are only seeing it through our individual perspective and don’t have complete information of a whole picture. In other words, we don’t actually comprehend the information we received.

3. Imagination: this is is fairly simply. the mind taps into the world of imagination in the absence of direct perception of an object. This mental activity may tap into memories to help retrieve images, or words, or the mind simply makes use of connotations, implications, feelings, dreams, and more to help guide us toward comprehension.

4. Deep sleep: this occurs when heaviness of the mind is present and no other activities are occurring. This is a regular and needed activity of the mind, but there is a time for it. heaviness can overcome the mind as a result of boredom or tiredness and this is when it can cause problems vs. being beneficial.

5. Memory: this activity of the mind is essentially the retention of conscious experiences. we can’t retain each moment of our lives, but we retain the ones in which we either learned something or experienced something new, or the moments in which a shift in perspective (for better or worse) occurred because the experience captured our attention. In the very same way that I retained the moment in which I gave a faulty answer to a question I knew that i knew the answer to.

As Pantajali then goes on to further explain how we achieve a state of yoga, what the obstacles to mental clarity are, and sets the stage for the following chapters, he returns to the 5 activities of the mind before the end of the first chapter and he describes how these activities of the mind play into the practice and discipline of yoga over time.

In essence, when we are first learning to develop mental clarity/ correct comprehension (when we are learning to essentially work toward more frequent and consistent correct comprehension of all that is around us and our own true self), the other 4 activities of the mind will come into play. For example, if I sit and meditate on my breath with the intention of fully and completely comprehending all that is related to the breath as it is in this moment in reality, the mind will wonder and play into its other activities: I may experience shortness of breath and begin to have anxiety due to a “misapprehension” that perhaps I am not safe in that moment or I may have to read about or study anatomy to verify what I think I know; I may start to day dream as my imagination about the breath leads to other imagery of objects or perhaps I use imagery/ visualization of my lungs to help for more complete comprehension; Boredom or sleepiness may overcome me and take me away from comprehension or perhaps the deep sleep i had previously better prepared me for correct comprehension of my breath; and finally memories will pop up as i attempt to stay concentrated on my breath and some memories may serve more correct comprehension while other memories will take my concentration away if I follow the mental activity called “memory”.

In the beginning, as one learns yoga, all mental activities (expect deep sleep) are involved in comprehension of an object of inquiry… whether you are trying to sustain focus on your breath, on the words of another, on the sensations in your body, or on the information received through your senses.

Overtime, with practice, patience, discipline, a positive eager attitude, and a self conviction that it is possible to develop a state of yoga (correct understanding and sustained attention toward an object), the mind becomes more and more free from distractions and one becomes totally immersed in the object. As stated in Desikachar’s translation of Sutra 1.41 “The mind then, like a flawless diamond, reflects only the features of the object and nothing else”.

And to conclude, Sutra 1.44, is translated as “When the direction of the mind toward the object is sustained, the ideas and memories of the past gradually recede. The mind becomes crystal clear and one with the object. At this moment there is no feeling of oneself. This is pure perception.”

And that is what we call being in a state of yoga.

Through my mistake, I now better understand the activities of my own mind and my practice toward correct understanding.