Post #2008: What I did on the long weekend…..

I guess I just dropped out there for the last ten days or so didn’t I? It’s not like I didn’t know I was going to disappear for a few minutes, because I had big plans that came to fruition over the last ten days, but I didn’t give any warning either. I just stopped posting again – which sometimes happens just because, but this time happened *because*.

Over the last ten days I pulled together a fabulous cocktail party for Brian’s birthday, drove up to our cabin at Link Lake for three days, and then left on Thursday for a four-day meditation retreat on Denman Island. It’s this last item I’m going to write about now, the other two adventures will be the subject of blog posts later this week (though the photo above was taken at Link Lake, I was not taking any photos while on retreat!)

Originally, my friend K. stated a desire and intention that we do a silent meditation retreat together – this was about a year ago, when I was pretty new to meditation and didn’t have any particular practice/tradition/sangha except an interest in breath-focused, sitting meditation – so I did what we all do in such circumstances: Google. In my searches I had discovered The Hermitage on Denman Island, and was caught in particular by the teaching description of Dr. Cheryl Fraser, a professional therapist and a Dharma teacher who was offering a meditation workshop suitable for beginners in May 2014. Without enough notice, my friend and I could not attend, but I kept my eye out for the 2015 spring program and when it arrived online early this year (or late in 2014), I noticed the same teacher and a similar sounding workshop and let my friend know to which she replied a definite yes! to going.

So I signed up and around the same time (at my friend Carmen’s suggestion) I got involved with Mountain Rain Zen Community which is close to my home and has some great teachers (the local teachers are fantastic and the head teacher Norman Fischer is full-stop amazing). After a fashion I learned that there was a non-residential retreat with Norman Fischer scheduled for the first weekend in May, and my friend K. was showing signs of not having signed up for the retreat on Denman (as in, she never confirmed that she had signed up – I had a feeling it wasn’t happening for her). So I was thinking I would cancel because it was out of the way for me, because I was getting a different retreat opportunity and so on and so on.

But then! My friend C. signed herself up at least partly at my encouragement, and so I didn’t cancel. Instead what ended up happening is in the month of May I had my first two significant meditation retreat experiences – and I regret neither.

This past weekend marked a bunch of firsts for me including: first residential retreat, first retreat more than two days in length, first meditation sitting of up to two hours, first time not absolutely hating yoga (but I still don’t like it very much). And even though I was entering something pretty new to me on one level (all meditation all the time, no phone, no reading, no writing) – the fact that I have a daily practice, belong to a meditation community, attend my zendo weekly, am used to sitting in small and large groups, and have spent lots of time in alternative communities – meant that I felt pretty much at ease from the very first sit to the last. Not that I was comfortable most of the time – I am not someone who finds meditation physically easy, and there are certainly lots of emotional ups and downs in any practice – but the setting and discipline didn’t freak me out at all.

That was not true for everyone, and I realized (for the billionth time) that even though I have only been at this for two years, I am not longer a *beginner* meditator. I’m not super experienced, mind you, but I’ve stopped asking myself why meditate (I know the benefits first hand), and I’m not worried about my ability to sit through discomfort the way I used to be. That’s a start anyhow.

And it’s where I started from this past weekend, which doesn’t mean there weren’t internal struggles (I had the happy fun times experience of working with judgement for at least two solid days), or that it was easy (I felt fucking heroic at the end of two hours of sitting, let me tell you). But I did realize after sitting for four days that somewhere along the past two years of practice, I have “leveled up” and I am not only able to sit, but also to accept the teachings that go along with meditation. Which is to say that I am at a point in my life where I don’t simply listen to the dharma talks in order to get the meditation instruction, but I go to meditation practice in order to hear the dharma. Or to put it another way, it has become increasingly apparent that meditation is just the gateway drug and it’s got me hooked into something much more potent (which is not magic, which allows me to continue in my atheism,  and which has psychology and neuroscience as its basis – so don’t worry, I haven’t gone crazy).

I don’t want to detail about all the many things that passed through my mind as I was sitting, walking, or lying down in my cabin – they probably aren’t much interesting to anyone but me – but the most revealing aspect of the depth of my experience on retreat came as we left the grounds towards home. It turned out that after four days of meditation, C. and I were so relaxed that we made a two-ferry, long-weekend, six-hour journey with a one-sailing wait trip home to Vancouver without a word of complaint, a feeling of frustration, or a whisper of disappointment. For real. Mind blown.

I’m back at work today and still feeling a little of the afterglow (I increased my daily sitting time by 15 minutes this morning and was startled when the timer went off because it seemed like no time at all) but also a bit fragile, a bit afraid of the demands on my attention, the requests I must fulfill. To compensate and to boost my spirits, this afternoon I booked the time off for two weeks of vacation and two more retreats in the next few months (July and November) – things I had planned before this last weekend, and which allowed me to leave retreat a bit more easily. Which means I’m going back, as soon as I can pretty much make it happen, it really was that good – but not in any way I can really describe.


Post #2007: The after conversation (what I should have said).

Yesterday I was waiting for the bus on Nanaimo Street when a car pulled up alongside me and a woman got out. She approached (I was the only one there) and said, “Excuse me, we’re going around the neighbourhood asking a question of our neighbours – do you have a minute?” To which I said yes, thinking perhaps it was about the increase in break-ins or some new development that was making people unhappy. I did not notice that her hands clasped a small bible, but even if I had, I would have said yes anyway.

“Do you believe that all the suffering in the world is caused by God?” she asked. To which my unconsidered response was “No, I do not believe that. I’m a non-believer,” and as the pained look spread across her face I said, “I hope you have a good day.” Then she got back into the car her friend was waiting in, and they drove away.

The exchange took perhaps only one or two minutes, and as they left I realized how inadequate my response was – for it is not true that I am a non-believer. I do believe in the miracle of science, the capacity for humans to change themselves, the wonder of natural beauty, and the tenacity of life struggling to survive this time and place. And more to the point I have faith – faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, that mostly we will continue to do our best to fix things, that I will find the strength to exist even in times of great suffering, that my love – though physically finite – reverberates through the people with whom I connect.

I sold myself short by saying “I don’t believe,” when really I meant, “I don’t believe in God”. I don’t believe in a world controlled by an entity. I don’t believe in the limitations set forth in the books of any religion. But that’s such a small part of what there is – I would rather be understood as turning toward instead of turning away from.


Post #2006: We are all loving machines

Yesterday I had to go the hospital for my (now) annual thyroid ultrasound. Readers of this blog will know that there was a little thyroid cancer scare over here a few years ago which turned out to be not much more than benign growths, but I have a cautious doctor and so I am on a regular check-in schedule just to make really, really sure that there is nothing to be worried about.

ANYhow….. I left work at lunchtime and went to the gym, and then took the bus up Burrard Street to the hospital. Somewhere between leaving the gym and going into the hotel next door to grab a coffee, I was seized with a great and loving feeling. The substance of that feeling was something along the lines of how grateful I felt to be going to the hospital, where I would get care and attention; how impressed I was that inside the huge city system in which I live, that I could be singled out for assistance; how full of great feeling I was that I existed inside a network where people cared for one another and willingly took jobs in helping professions.

It was a feeling I’ve had before, but usually brought on by the nostalgia of music or the largess of art and performance, sometimes by the tremendous courage of people in struggle – but never  triggered by the function of a public institution. I’m pretty sure my feeling was just welling up there on its own, and I happened to notice it long enough to direct it towards the thing next in front of me.

On previous visits to the hospital I have been a fear machine, an anger machine, a pain machine – which are the conditions in which many of us end up needing hospital care – as suffering machines. But yesterday I got to experience St. Paul’s as a loving machine. Which was pretty awesome because I went into my appointment super-relaxed after having eaten a macaron cookie and chatting up several hospital staff. My technician showed me all the pictures from before and told me that nothing had changed for the worse (which they aren’t supposed to, but she did anyway).

I walked out of the hospital and through the downtown with a feeling of total weightlessness. I went to a bookstore and talked to a clerk. I had nice words with the bus driver who drove me home. I put some thought into last night’s meditation group and offered up something useful (I hope) and then I came back into the house to find out that the province of Alberta is a better place than I had previously predicted. I listened to Notley’s acceptance speech and nearly cried when she mentioned Alberta First Nations.

This morning I told my partner that we were both loving machines with a place on our dial just for each other – and as silly as that sounds, I meant it – because we cultivate love every day in a million small ways and are conscious about doing that. It’s the reason I live with much greater equanimity now than I did eight years ago – because together, my husband and I have rewired our dials* so that we have more settings for love and less for fear, cynicism, and anger. It’s the reason that when I get surges of positive feeling, I no longer shove them down in order to maintain my steady state of outrage, but I bring them up into the light and turn them this way and that to get a better look.

Going to the hospital yesterday reminded me that we are all loving machines, and that it is possible to cultivate those feelings towards even the most impersonal of institutions – in my case, a large hospital in a big city on a busy afternoon. We do not need to seek perfection in order to feel good, and once we make that happen in ourselves we take it out into the rest of the world with us.


* Partner interactions have the capacity to rewire the brain of the other – couples literally rewire each other through the neuroplastic responses to stimulus. This goes both ways – we can create more shared joy and a stronger sense of secure connection, but just as easily we can co-create a more distrustful and angry pattern. How we communicate directly impacts the wiring patterns in the brain of our significant other. John Gottman talks about this in his work, but it is also covered in the brilliant text A General Theory of Love.


Post #2004: Incongruous events.

On Wednesday evening, just after supper, I was at home alone working on this wee meditation pillow when my shed was broken into from the back alley side. I know that it happened after I got home because I had taken the garbage out when I returned from work, then made dinner and then settled into my sewing room. My neighbour from across the alley knocked on my door at 8:30 to tell me that the shed door was open. When I went outside to check two things were apparent: 1) the handle was still locked, as though the door was forced, and 2) the mitre saw I borrowed from one of our land-partners was gone.

I had a moment of distress and not knowing what to do – but then I closed the shed, made sure the studio was also locked, went in the house and called the police (I normally wouldn’t call over something that small – but I wanted it recorded for insurance). Then, as I waited for an officer to return the phone call  I returned to finishing the pillow. After nine, I started working on piecing a quilt for my daughter’s graduation/moving into residence gift – figuring that it was unlikely that I was going to hear back from the VPD at all. At ten, an officer called me and was outside of my house – he came through and took a look at the shed, showed me how it had been forced and said “lots of break-ins around here, but for the record, very little violent crime – get a deadbolt”). It was a simple transaction, I got my file number, and at some point I need to call it into our insurance company. The officer seemed apologetic that there wasn’t much to be done – but as we both knew, that saw was already on its way to the scrap metal yard across the bridge.

My partner is away for work, Wednesday was his first night gone, and I was surprised at how un-upsetting the whole thing was, despite the fact I was alone and had to deal with the interruption on my own. I let the neighbours know, made sure the house, studio and car were locked up tight, and I went right back to what I was working on. I’m going to have to replace that saw and that annoys me, and a deadbolt will get put on the door – but otherwise? A small event, incongruous with my calm and quiet evening, but still nothing to get upset about.

Blueberry flower

Post #1998: Is meditation really my thing?

I have been home with a cold for the last two days which has given me the luxury of a little time that I would not ordinarily have had. On the other hand, I slept pretty much all of Sunday night and straight through to yesterday afternoon, so a good half of that time was given to rest. Today, I have been reading and thinking about meditation, in addition to engaging in some mindful cleaning of both our sleeping space and our studio space – both of which needed focused attention. Perfect when I am feeling ill and have nowhere to be, a slow tidying up of things is right up my alley. I’m thinking that I might even tackle my sewing area while dinner is on the stove in a little bit.

Even though I was coming down with this thing, I spent all of Sunday at the Zendo that I attend – it was my first half-day retreat, followed by the jukai ceremony for two members of the community. Jukai is like an initiation where the lay practitioner of Buddhism formally receives certain precepts (admissions to a way of life that encourages clear mind). By the time we got the ceremony I was feeling pretty ill so I didn’t take it in as much as I would have liked, but the morning retreat – an extension of the regular Sunday service – was a gentle opening up of practice and a reminder that I can sit even when I am feeling a lot of physical discomfort (something I couldn’t do a year ago).

I have two retreats coming up – my first “real” retreats – both in May. This is not by design – I signed up for a residential retreat almost a year ago, then I got involved in the Zendo and a non-residential retreat was scheduled for May as well – so now I am having both experiences very close together and am looking forward to them for quite different reasons – though I am also trepidatious because I still feel very much like a novice to this whole experience of meditation. I am reading Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier at the moment (after hearing him on CBC’s Tapestry on Sunday) where he writes about his discovery of meditation, including his first ten-day retreat (as a real novice to the practice) and I have to admit that I feel somewhat more prepared than he seemed to be (in his telling – he’s got self-deprecation down to an art, so it’s hard to know exactly where he was at). The fact he got through the ten days and came out the other side still in the practice is heartening! In fact, I love all the stories of how non-spiritual folks find their way to meditation and to Buddhism because – hey – it’s my experience too! And everytime I go to the Zendo to sit I wonder – is this really me? But it is really me, and it rounds out my life in a very satisfying way. I find with Zen in particular, I am able to participate in a non-judgemental way – because my teachers do not require that I believe magical things or focus on the enlightenment experience (two things I find distracting, and that get in the way of my practice).

I am writing this as I am choosing something to listen to in the meditation session that I lead once a week – we alternate between me guiding, silent, and listening to music. Because I am coldish and cough when I talk – tonight will be sound focused. These sessions are utterly unlike the zen sitting that I prefer for my own regular practice, but they are the kind of meditation gatherings that I would have appreciated when I was just becoming acquainted with sitting. Also, they give me a chance to teach as I learn – which is another kind of learning, and provides me more opportunity to think about what is meaningful in the practice.  There are only a few people who come every week – between two and four women – and they have expressed how much this fills a particular need and curiosity. Meditation without ascribed belief. Awareness practice in the company of progressive others who have made a bond over the weekly touchstone of sitting together.

And so it is, that I am sick and spending my days reading and drifting and meditating through my illness – hoping to get back to work tomorrow – but also grateful for a couple of drowsy, dreamy days.

Sage bouquet

Post #1997: And then it was Friday…….

Wow. Started out this week with all sorts of posting intentions – but there have been no extra minutes between my last class, exercise, playing a show, meditating, working, dinner with friends and so on – and now it’s Friday and I am pushing to get more work done so that I have something to show for this rather chaotic week. It’s been interesting too, because often when I am so scheduled I get overwhelmed…. but as I learn to let go of what I “should do” and accept what I “am doing” it has been less stressful to go from one thing to the next. I am seeing the wisdom in the Ghandian quote “action expresses priorities” and recognizing that what I choose to actually do is the priority, the way I am subconsciously (or actively) arranging things. Right now I seem to be prioritizing social interaction, exercise, health-focused activities – and not spending so much time on sewing or crochet projects. The garden has a priority spot only because it’s the season and a now or never type of thing – or else I expect it would be something different outside (hiking!) not more time spent inside wrestling with an extra-curricular activity that doesn’t give me a lot of pleasure at the moment.

These are all just ways that we choose to spend time, none of them life or death requirements, but it’s amazing how in-knots I can be about how I judge the arrangement of activities in my head. No one else judges how I live my life – what I spend my time on, who I spend it with – except me (though I often project onto others like my husband, it is again – entirely in my head). In part, I credit my meditation practice, with the recent ability to actually listen to what I am telling myself over and over and then bringing a close to some of those persistent and distracting thought modes. On Wednesday night, for example, when the show I played went later than expected (much later), I observed myself worrying about how tired I was going to be “tomorrow” which was pulling me away from enjoying the music of a friend who was on stage. Once I gave up on my projection of how I might feel the next morning, I was able to focus fully and breathe out the “what if” of worry. (As it was, the next day I slept in a little later and had to skip meditation, but still managed to walk to work and do a killer weight routine in the afternoon – it wasn’t like a later bedtime incapacitated me for work or anything).

It’s not that I don’t believe in planning, or intentionally prioritizing one thing over another – but when I just experience what falls into place as I organize my days – I can see that there are clear patterns which emerge over time (often in sync with the seasons or other cyclical events) and that it’s perfectly acceptable to simply be in the flow of things rather than trying to push against it with an idea of myself (and who I could be if only I had more time).



Post #1990: Following this self to one conclusion and back again

I am having a difficult day today – trouble with sleep in the last couple of weeks has left me feeling a bit down – and I missed my class at the gym today because there was a disruption outside our work building and I didn’t feel like wading through it. I’m not complaining about that, but it has kept me at my desk, and so without an opportunity to boost myself I have sunk deeper into my exhaustion instead.

When I remember, it’s times like this that allow me to put my meditation practice into action (as incongruous as that sounds), because if I am truly mindful about my state I tune into the fact that mostly, it’s not the physical tiredness that brings me down, but my feelings about the tiredness. That is, when I am tired, I am not only experiencing reduced energy, but I am also feeling frustration and self-reproach (as though I have chosen fitful sleeps in the last little while), and I start to tell myself negative things about my lack of capacity when I am tired, deriding each effort as not enough. In essence, I divorce what I consider to be *myself* from current state – as though the only me who *can* exist is one with lots of rest, or perpetually happy and productive. As though any other manifestation of myself – whether tired, or ill, or irritable – is not who I am, is wrong – and so I resist those states which only brings about more mental difficulty, frustration, irritation, and exhaustion. You get the picture.

But although this is not a new insight for me, it has taken me the whole day to get back around to realizing this – it is so easy to forget when I am caught up in my own self-referential experience. But remembering! That allows me to step back and empty my mind for a moment, sit at this computer and let the experience click-clack onto the screen. Becoming aware of the nagging voice of frustration, I can dial it down a little, back out of it entirely – so that I am just typing this note to you, telling about how I am the same as you and there is the capacity in all of us to be a little nicer to ourselves. And if we wish to notice the space between the in-breath and the out-breath, we will find that to be a place in which that inner voice is actually quiet, and in which we can take a break from being so into ourselves (and our problems).

And then maybe we return to the flow of things, click clack, without having the bad thought-feelings return.

Post #1970: The violence I have suffered.

I cannot count the number of quasi-violent encounters in my life (they are numerous but require too much explanation) and so the below list is not as long as it could be, but if I reflect on just the very overt cases of violence I come up with the following (in no particular order):

  • sexually assaulted twice in my 19th year by the same person
  • mugged at knife point in a bank machine enclosure at eight in the morning (on my way to work) by a drug sick man who needed some quick cash
  • had my apartment broken into while taking out garbage – when I turned back towards my building there was a man in my window, masturbating and watching me (I moved out weeks later, as I could not encounter anyone in the hallway without startling after that)
  • numerous instances of holes in walls, doors torn of hinges, or broken furniture in various relationships
  • a boyfriend (who only lasted a few months) who broke into screaming/terrifying rages whenever I tried to assert my own needs (such as whether I wanted to live with him or not)
  • more than one boyfriend who had sex with me against my stated interests, or in ways that I had expressly said no to (there are two who stand out in mind as particularly egregious in this regard)
  • grabbed during an argument so hard that bruises were left on my upper arm that did not fade for a week
  • childhood punishments which involved spanking or hitting, and verbal/emotional abuse

I don’t think about these things very often, you know, and I certainly don’t walk around with a catalogue of abuse at my fingertips – but during today’s morning meditation I could not stop thinking about it. Could not stop thinking about all the conversations that have been floating around the Canadian mediasphere in the last week and how strange my responses are to allegations of abuse, even as someone who can so readily come up with such a list. (All the perpetrators in my list are/were men – that as much as I have had other kinds of shitty encounters with women, none of them have taken on the character of violence such as I have listed above.)  And even though I know that there are some men who do a lot of violence in the world – far more men than women – I still find myself judging women (silently, inside myself) for coming forward, for not being tough enough, or for being too sensitive.

I wonder why they feel the need to speak out when I have got on with my life just fine, thank-you very much. Or else I think, well that’s just the way it is, and there isn’t anything you can do about the past. Sometimes I think that somehow it must be all about me and about my choices so it must be all about other women and their choices. But looking at this list helps me recognize just how much violence was a part of all my formative years into early adulthood, and in that context, it seems ludicrous to interpret as solely about me and my choices. In fact, one might look at this list as something to get a little bit angry about, rather than be ashamed of. And if that’s the case, then I might be able to get angry alongside all the other women who are talking about abuse and sexual violence right now instead of trying to downplay the amount of violence that is actually happening – right now and all the time and in particular to young women!

It is true that I pretty much characterize the above experiences as having helped me to get strong, determine my priorities, and plot a life course that included self-sufficiency at its core – but that’s just a way to turn lemons into lemonade, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure I could have developed a lot of the inner strengths I now possess without having had someone break into my apartment to masturbate.

But even so, looking at the list and recognizing that I should be angry about it, and thus angry that the whole damned human enterprise is so fucked, still so misogynist, still subjugating the rights of women at every turn – I am actually more exhausted by it than anything. Because it’s so tedious, so banal, so everyday – and because I’ve long since left it behind – I feel like all I can muster is a shrug before I turn my back on it again. I’m sure I’m not the only woman in Canada who feels just this way right now and is saying nothing as a result – I’m sure that the voices we are hearing are really the minority – not that women who have been abused are in the minority, but that those who have been *and* also speak out are.

Which means that most of the women we know are walking around with stories like this. Stories they don’t tell. Maybe not a list as long as mine – or maybe a much longer list. It’s terrifying really, how much we accept this as the status quo. How much we accept that for our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, our girlfriends – because it’s so exhausting that we just turn our attention to other things rather than fight back.

But that’s exactly what I do, and will keep doing – while at the same time trying to build the positive pole that my life has become – full of good and amazing people (women and men) whom I love and spend much time with.

My life these days truly is one of privilege and without the violence that characterized so much of my younger life – I have the privilege that has afforded me the construction of a life in which I am cocooned in a home that I own, dictating the conditions of my employment, reliant on myself and my relationships so that I do not have to step outside to where it is dangerous very often. It’s not that I live in fear of the outside world – but I am cautious when in large groups of strangers, I do not like to be downtown on weekends among the unpredictable drunks, I am always aware who is walking behind me at night and whether the doors to the house are locked when I am by myself. As much as I am weary, I am also all too aware that it is not about me, this violence. That it is everywhere and is unpredictable in all but its gender.

This is no call to arms, but a pledge to myself and to other women: I will publicly acknowledge my own history of violence so that I can acknowledge yours. I will be compassionate to myself in the telling of my own stories so that I can hear yours with the same compassion. I will not blame myself for the violence done to my mind and body, just as I will not blame you when you speak out to friends or to the media. I will not simply “leave the past behind,” so that you are left standing alone. And finally, I will not accept violence as the status quo for any group of people in any society. 

And to everyone who’s reading this: thanks for listening. I needed to get that out there. xo

Post #1958: My secret weapon


Two weeks of really intensive, high-stress, work have put my meditation superpowers to the test. Apparently I am now able to handle twenty tasks at a time, respond calmly to people who are having mini-meltdowns, and ask for things nicely during a crisis. Also no post-work breakdowns or excessive drinking needed to cope. Meditating daily for the last year has surely been worth the time and effort.