The Power of Deep Listening

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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

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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.

Sharing a Poem: Why I Meditate

IMG_5039 - Version 2It has been a while since I have written. Sometimes, the best way to overcome a form of writer’s block is to share the words of others.

Meditation and Pranayama have become a daily part of my life. Each day, my reasons for practicing and my perspective on the experience change. Here is a poem by Wes Niskar, apparently inspired by Allen Ginsberg,  that was once shared with me by one of my teachers/ mentors.

Thank you for reading.

Why I Meditate

I meditate because I suffer

I suffer, therefore, I am

I am, therefore, I meditate

I meditate because there are so many other things to do

I meditate because, when I was young, it was all the rage

I meditate because of Siddhartha Gautama, Bodhiharma, Marco Polo, the British Raj, Carl Young, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Alfred E. Newman, et al

I meditate because evolution gave me a big brain, but it didn’t come with an instruction manual

I meditate because I have all the information I need

I meditate because I want to touch deep time, where the history of humanity can be seen as just an evolutionary adjustment period

I meditate because life is too short, and sitting slows it down

I meditate because life is too long, and I need an occasional break

I meditate because I want to experience the world as Rumi does, or Walt Whitman or Mary Oliver

I meditate because now I know that enlightenment doesn’t exist

So I can relax

I meditate because of the Dalai Lama’s laugh

I meditate because there are too many advertisements in my head

And I’m erasing all but the very best of them

I meditate because I have discovered that my mind is a great toy and fun to play with

I meditate because I want to remember that I am perfectly human

Sometimes I meditate because my heart is breaking

Sometimes I meditate so that my heart will break

I meditate because a Vedanta master once told me that in Hindi my name “niskar” means non-doer

I meditate because I am growing old and want to become comfortable with emptiness

I meditate because Robert Thurman calls it an evolutionary sport

And I want to be on the home team

I meditate because I am composed of a hundred trillion cells, and from time to time

I need to reassure them that we’re all in this together

I meditate because it’s such a relief to spend time ignoring myself

I meditate because my country spends more money on weapons than all the other nations in the world combined

If I had more courage, I would probably immolate myself

I meditate because I want to discover the fifth Brahma Vihara, the divine Abode of Ah

And then I’ll go down in history as a great spiritual abbot

I meditate because I am building myself a bigger and better perspective

And occasionally I need to add a new window.

Wes Nisker

This Life That is a Paradox

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Replace any “but” statement with “and” and you enter into a conversation of paradoxes.

The paradoxes of life are concepts that I have been learning and examining more and more through my yoga and meditation practice. A paradox, by definition is something that is both true and false at the same time; a person, situation, or thing that combines contradictory features or characteristics; a self-contradictory statement.

For example, life itself is both extremely meaningful, AND completely inherently meaningless. The meaning we derive from anything is a creation of our mind. We can’t know what meaning exists inherently outside of our human experience.

The way I hear people struggle with the paradoxes of life comes up often in the dialogues I have with people in counselling sessions. Paradoxical perspectives are relevant to our healing and important when trying to understand how to overcome any relationship conflicts or mental health issues. Here are some common examples of what I mean by that is this:

– “Everyone is responsible for his or her own emotions, so I can’t take responsibility for how he or she is feeling”. This is true and false. We are responsible for our own emotions AND we are responsible for the impact that our actions have on others. So, we can’t completely avoid responsibility for how someone is feeling if it relates to an interaction we are involved in. By examining the paradox and teasing apart what parts are true and not true and from who’s perspective, it becomes easier to address the problem from a heartfelt place that validates all opposing perspectives simultaneously.

– “My life is meaningless”. True and not true. Inherently, it is. There is no objective meaning attached to the experience of one’s life. This can be depressing for people at times, but when you lift the veil and also include its opposite to say that it also, at the very same time, has a lot of meaning, we enter into a non-dualistic conversation about what the subjective meaning is and what will allow the person to develop the meaning that he or she desires.

– “I am right and he/she is wrong”. Yes, absolutely. AND, no. Righteousness is a source of suffering and when one can both acknowledge his or her own perspective as ell as a completely opposite perspective, resolution begins to take place.

– Non-attachment: when people struggle with standing up for themselves and setting boundaries, the idea of non-attachment is a difficult pursuit. If the problem is that you already let people walk all over you or if your problem is that you do the opposite and don’t let anyone is, the question becomes “when is it appropriate to let go?”. My conclusion again is that it is always a paradoxical approach that will open up the possibilities for helpful action. Let it go, AND address the problem. In other words, let go of the resentment or anger or hurt, AND be assertive, take a stand, or speak up about your boundaries in a clear, non-reactive, and respectful manner.

The examples could go on. Here is how yoga and meditation practices become relevant in the teachings of the paradoxes:

In yoga asana (physical postures), a close examination of the alignment principles of the postures teaches you that in order to create the balance of strength, stability, and flexibility, you are never doing any action without an equal opposite force. The equal and opposite force may not be in the same moment or in the same practice. You may melt into deep passive stretches one day and balance it our with a strong yang practice the next. Sometimes it is with the same practice and within the very same posture: you externally rotate your shoulder while simultaneously stabilizing with a slight internally rotating effort. You elevate the shoulders, AND slightly create a force of depressing them to find a balance. You engage your quadriceps, AND relax them… in the exact same moment.

In meditation, you are focusing the mind, AND softening the effort. Your object of meditation can lead to the insights or understandings of the paradoxes inherent in the very object you are concentrating on. For example, if my object of meditation is my breath, my breath is both a separate function from all other functions in the body AND it is one and the same as all other functions. Sensations in my body are real and have important messages to be paid attention to. At the same time, they are nothing but sensations that are rising and passing.

By observing events, situations, people, or objects through a lens of its paradoxes, we can basically drop away from the suffering that comes from ego-based states of right/wrong, bad/good, etc. Everything is exactly what we perceive AND its opposite quality. Once you validate both perspectives, something shifts with objectivity and clarity and we begin to see things for what they inherently are, noticing that the meaning we attach to it is just that: meaning we have attached to it.

Our yoga and meditation practice can teach us so much and this is just an example of how to use the practice to develop transferable skills that can enhance your life off the mat or meditation cushion.

I thank the teachings of this life that is a paradox 🙂

Stigma – Examination of What Ending the Stigma of Mental Health Entails

125By definition, according to a few on-line dictionaries, stigma is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person”. Synonyms and related words include shame, disgrace, dishonor, humiliation, bad reputation.

People who experience serious struggles with mental health have been taught, in many societies, to hide or suppress their challenges and keep quiet about it due to the fear of having a bad reputation and fear of shaming themselves or others by admitted to what has been previously perceived as weakness of mind and character. It’s like being entangled in a complex web of suffering compounded by the fear of judgement by others and its subsequent consequences of self-isolation.

I offer my criticism of the current efforts toward reducing the stigma of mental health with a certain amount of lightheartedness. I applaud the fact that there are many efforts being made. I just think the nature of the efforts is a bit backwards. Meaning, some of the efforts (public awareness campaigns, fundraising initiatives, advertisements, and health promotion strategies) are actually contributing to the many misconceptions that people have of mental health challenges as opposed to changing people’s perception in a helpful way. Depression, anxiety, and other mood or trauma related experiences, are first and foremost normal and not an illness. They are states of mind and they are states of mind that can be transformed, but it does take work. Transformation of an unhelpful state of mind doesn’t happen with the same treatments as a physical health condition. transformation doesn’t occur through prescription of medications or through a reinforced person that something is fundamentally wrong with you, requiring medical treatment. Transformation of a state of mind requires practice in doing just that; transforming your state of mind (your state of thinking and self-perception).

“Reducing the stigma” or “Let’s end the stigma” campaigns are in fact trying to encourage people who struggle with mental health challenges to recognize it’s pervasiveness, normalize it, and reach out for help. This, I agree with. Most campaigns and advertisements are also trying to educate the general public that people with mental health challenges aren’t to be treated as intentionally harmful when they’re actions are harmful. The effort is geared toward eliminating the discrimination of people who suffer. This I also mostly agree with. People aren’t “crazy’ for the most part, they are simply and truly unhappy and the ripple effect of their unhappiness affects others and it also scares others who don’t understand it. People who are hurt, hurt others…often times.

The language that I have a hard time with and that I have noticed having a negative impact on the very people the campaigns are supposed to advocate for, is the language of disease and illness. Equating depression or any other mental health problem is NOT the equivalent of cancer, or heart disease. It may be related. There are ties between our body and our mind. mental health and physical health conditions are both linked to stress/ distress. There are some parallels in the treatment approaches. And I do understand that the intention, when making this link, is to send the message that there isn’t any stigma attached to asking for help with a physical health issue so why should it be different when admitting to a mental health challenge?

The problem and the criticism I have is that when you tell someone who already believes that there is something fundamentally wrong with him or her (cognitive nature of depression) that he or she has a disease, needs medical treatment, and to not be ashamed of it, you’re reinforcing the very perspective that led to the stigma and the fear of asking for help in the first place. It goes the same for addictions. If you truly believe that addictions is a disease and it empowers you to stay sober, great. It the belief that you have a disease creates a sense of “I am broken”, the disease model is not helpful. Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders (which are the most common mental health challenges, cause of suicides, and the ones most campaigns are aimed at ending the stigma of) are rooted in deep negative self-beliefs and are not illnesses. The person who struggles with any of these is perfectly whole and complete just as he or she is. There is nothing to fix, nothing to change, nothing to treat, other than a pattern of thought that is getting in the way of the person perceiving themselves as whole and complete. There are many practices and complimentary treatments that are aimed at bringing the person back to a state of wholeheartedness that involves tapping into the healing qualities of the body. these practices include mindfulness, meditation, yoga, certain forms of psychology/ psychotherapy, and other alternative approaches to medication.

If we are acknowledging what we now know about Neurological-plasticity and the ability to “re-wire” the brain, then let’s end the stigma of mental health with messages and public awareness campaigns that remind people to let go of a disease perspective and to take responsibility for the health and happiness. If we align our mental health services, health promotion initiatives, and awareness advertisements with the perspective that people are simply not happy, we could make much more progress than what will be achieved by trying to educate people that mental health challenges are illnesses that are treatable through medical services.

I would have more to say, but it begins to all sound the same after a while. If you have any comments, questions, or objections, please respond and I would be happy to expand or challenge my own expression of my criticism of this.

I basically believe that any campaigns fueled by a medical approach to mental health treatment is just missing part of the puzzle… the magnificence and inner wisdom of our whole human system part of the puzzle.

Practicing Self-discipline, Self-reflection, and Surrender for 2015

082Oh! What a day! I love this little work of art. I took the picture in Newfoundland last summer at a small art exhibit. I wish I had the name of the artist. I don’t.

Today has been a wonderful day. 2014 has been a wonderful year. As I have been contemplating and reading various takes on the notion of New year’s resolutions, I have decided to focus on the Yoga of action (Kriya yoga) as I step into 2015. I invite you to join me if what I am sharing resonates for you.

Kriya yoga is the yoga of action and it is comprised of three ingredients: Tapas (to heat, austerity, self-discipline, standing in the crossfire, being willing to keep focused and intentional despite desires to give up); Svadhyaya (self-study, self-reflection); and Isvara-pranidhanani (Surrender, devotion, trusting in the qualities of God, opening to all that is possible beyond oneself).

When setting an intention for something (i.e. New year’s resolution), the three ingredients described above become a part of creating the change needed to put your intention into practice. For example, if one of your resolutions involves getting out of bed without pressing snooze, know that your mind will show up and there will be mornings when your old patterns will dominate. The tapas is the discipline you need to overcome the challenges presented by the mind and to stay focused on your intention. Tapas may mean not picking up the phone to call someone you know isn’t healthy for you, or having the courage to call the person who is. Tapas may involve staying in the crossfire of the sensations of anger without doing anything – simply being with it and  letting it pass. It may involve practicing meditation every day, or getting to the gym, or being intentionally happy… all requiring times of austerity. As you stick to your intention (or don’t), you will notice where you experience resistance, where you experience clarity, and the various states of mind that produce various results. This is Svadhyaya (self-reflection, self-study). Svadhyaya involves awareness of what is, moment-to-moment-to-moment and making any adjustments to the means by which you are trying to achieve your goal as you deepen your understanding of what is. And finally, devotion or surrender comes into play to acknowledge that you can only perform actions that are within your control. For all other factors that may have an influence on the outcome of your intention or resolution, there is a surrendering process that allows you to trust that what will be will be. Without attachment to the fruits of your actions, perform all actions with discipline and self-study, and leave the rest to the inexplicable Creator that some call God. Leave it to faith, or mother nature, or whatever greater source resonates for you. At the end of the day, none of it really matters 🙂

Whether you believe in a God or not, simply act, reflect, and trust. Be happy and content and bring the Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Isvara-pranidhanani to whatever it is that will facilitate that a peaceful, happy life.

Happy 2015. My resolution is daily meditation – practice, practice, practice, and live my life with fun, joy, and receptive to love.