What I Learned from the Sea Turtles

I had the amazing experience of swimming with sea turtles in the Caribbean ocean this past month. The sea turtles lived right at the shores of our resort in Akumal Bay, Mexico, and I could just slip on my snorkel mask, walk into the water, swim a few meters and there they were. My heart jumped to my throat at my first sighting of these graceful creatures, quietly eating sea grass at the bottom of the ocean. So I spent 2-3 hours a day snorkeling and watching them, fascinated with their graceful swimming through the water, using their powerful flippers as wings for flight. Now back to real life, or juggling work and family life, I am so grateful for this precious time that I had to just be in nature and appreciate these animals. When I get stressed and overwhelmed (pretty much at some point every day), I remember the sea turtles, and I know that they are still living there in Akumal Bay, eating and swimming and quietly living their peaceful life.

I am, in no way, a biologist, but I am an avid learner, and immediately when I returned back to cold Toronto, I took out books from the library about sea turtles. I wanted to learn, to better understand and appreciate their existence. Sea turtles are endangered, and their beautiful existence is threated by our human activity – habitat destruction, climate change, and slaughtering for food. As Jane Goodall wrote: “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. The greatest danger to our future is apathy.” And so I continue to learn, so I can try to understand, and my caring will deepen.

Sea turtles are way older than us humans, and are tracked back to at least 150 million years old, living with the dinosaurs during the Jurassic period. Land turtles go back even farther than that, and sea turtles evolved originally from land turtles (the turtles we normally think of). Sea turtles have evolved to be different from land turtles in two significant ways. One, sea turtles have flippers instead of feet to swim. These flippers are designed like bird wings, to be aerodynamic, and extremely thin and sharp (one book even said that the ends of the flippers are razor-sharp – watch out snorkelers!). Thanks to these aerodynamic flippers, sea turtles look so beautiful like a bird of the sea, flying through the water.

Second, unlike land turtles, sea turtles cannot pull their head into their shell. The stereotypical image of the turtle pulling its head into its shell does not apply to sea turtles. The biologists have rationalized this evolutionary adaptation as a way to for sea turtles to be more aerodynamic. Having a hole for the sea turtle to retract its head would make it less aerodynamic. Instead, sea turtles have evolved to have a hard skull to protect them, as their head is exposed.

Sea turtles need to breathe air. I watched them swim up to the surface of the water, poke their little head up, take a quick gulp of air and then swim back down to the sandy bottom. Their breathing is fascinating, because they live in the sea, are comfortably at home in the sea, but need to come up for air. They don’t seem panicked by their need for air, not worried about if and when they can get their next breath. If they are actively swimming or eating, sea turtles need to breathe every 20-30 minutes. But when sea turtles are sleeping, they can go up to 10 hours without taking a breath. Their heart rate slows down to as little as 9 beats a minute to conserve oxygen.

Lastly, I am fascinated by learning about sea turtles inherent sense of direction and home. Sea turtles know where they are, both in the ocean and on land. Did you know that the pregnant female sea turtle always swim to the same beach where she was originally hatched, to hatch her own eggs? This sea turtle may have traveled thousands of miles through the ocean, but as soon as she is pregnant and ready to hatch her eggs, she will find her home beach to lay her eggs. Home is ingrained in her memory. How does she find her beach? Biologists believe that sea turtles can sense the angle and intensity of earths magnetic field. I was blown away when I read about this. Turtles magnetic sense is their super power, as they possess their own internal compass that provides them with a constant orientation and sense of place/space relative to the Earth’s magnetic field. To be honest, I don’t understand this at all, and the more I read about it, the more I realize what I don’t know. Learning is just as much about recognizing what you don’t know then understanding what you do know. As I read more into this, I found out that on earth, we are surrounded by a ‘magnetosphere’ – a magnetic field made up of vertical and horizontal magnetic lines curving from pole to pole. Sea turtles can sense this magnetic field, and have a magnetic memory for the places they’ve been.

I don’t understand what this is about. I certainly don’t have any sense of a magnetic shield that grounds me or provides me with direction. When I learn about this, I get the haunting sense that I am missing out on elements of life that surround me, but I may not have the focus or openness to tap into it. What would it feel like to sense this magnetic field, to have a magnetic memory that grounded us in our place? And what if we connected with our place of birth in the same way as pregnant sea turtles? What would it feel like to grounded by birth and birth place in this way?

What I do know is that the sea turtles, with their ancient eyes and graceful movements, are imprinted in my brain, and my spirit fills with joy when I imagine them eating and swimming at Akumal Bay. I will try to find a way to help these sea turtles, with hopes that we can turn the tide around so they can survive and thrive on this earth. As Jane Goodall said: “The least I can do is speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

SeaTurtle-1600x600px

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Snorkeling

The ocean carries my body, weightless
Swimming is like flying, with the freedom and joy but without the anxiety, as I’ve always been afraid of heights
Nestled in my silence, with only the sound of my breathing, the ocean sings that life is here, life is everywhere, and we are all connected
The ocean is shouting now: have you forgotten the fact that we are all connected? Where have you been, running too fast to feel connection?
Light reflects through the water, where I swim through thousands of brilliantly colored and baby minnows just born
Life cycles to death which cycles to life here
We are all connected

Experiencing Movement

I’ve been thinking (and feeling) a lot about what the experience of being ‘embodied’ is all about. We all live our lives, moment to moment, inside of our bodies, and therefore, every experience we are having, is an embodied experience. Or is it? Let me rephrase that: every experience we are having has potential to be a fully embodied experience, if we allow it to be. I have come to the (sad) realization that I have spent most of the past 42 years of my life disembodied, living my experiences separate from my body. What do I mean by that?
More often than not, I treat my body as a platform for my head to get around. My work is ‘head work’ – thinking, at a computer, talking with people. Like many others, I sit all day doing my work. I generally don’t think much about my body, except when some part is broken down and it slows down my productivity. When I am sick or I have a sore muscle, I then think about my body a lot, almost obsessively – annoyed with it, doing everything I can to fix it (drugs, stretching, nose-rinse, you name it). But I must admit, I don’t pay pay much attention to my body when I am well. It’s the understudy, while my mind is the main actor.
Moving one step up from ‘my body as a platform’, I treat my body as my machine. My relationship to exercise has historically been ‘machine-like’. I know that my body needs exercise to continue to be healthy, and as much as possible I want to prevent myself from death, so I have exercised for the utilitarian purpose of physical health. I bring my car into the shop on a regular basis for maintenance, and I bring my body into the gym to maintain it. So I would exercise (and of course do everything I can to not feel my body while I’m exercising – watch tv, listen to music, distract my mind) and then I would be done, check that off my to-do list and move forward with my day in my head.
So I’ve been thinking about what it would feel like to live, moment to moment, being fully embodied, where mind and body are connected, instead of this Cartesian dualistic split. How would I feel if I embraced my body, instead of functionally using it and tolerating it? How would I feel if I centered my bodily experiences instead of my mind experiences? Or found a way to truly bring them together?
I started to meditate again. I started to watch my breath again, witnessing my thoughts floating aimlessly by, feel the pulsing of my heart. One day, it hit me, intensely and at a visceral level (driving in my car, no less) that I am living inside of my body. I realized that my experience of life, moment to moment, is an embodied experience, unique to my experience because I am inside of my body. This realization frightened me at first, as I felt my heart racing and worried that I was having an anxiety attack. And maybe I was. I pulled over and caught my breath. I allowed myself to breathe. And I realized, in my breathing, that I didn’t need to be afraid. There was nothing to be afraid of. And when in doubt or distress, breathe.
So I am trying to live, moment to moment, an embodied life. What that means is that I try to remember, pay attention and embrace my body. One example of my practice in this, is that I am reframing my relationship to exercise and movement. I came across this article about the ‘Movement Movement’, that literally moved me (ha ha!) into action! This article and perspective gave me the permission to move. And once I was given permission, I started to see how I limit my own movement all the time, and how our societal norms constrains movement. With two kids, I naturally spend a lot of time at urban playgrounds, and I realized that these are natural placements to spark my own playful movement. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and checking my phone while my kids play, I started to use the playground equipment for my own movement, playfully climbing, swinging, trying new ways to move and running around. Let’s be honest: my kids at first were mortified by me. Now they are used to it (although they make fun of me). Other adults generally stared. Although a few times, other adults have jumping in and joined me, which has been wonderful.
I have learned a lot about myself through my exploration of movement. I have learned that I love being outside, and I far prefer moving outside than inside. I have learned that my body loves vigorous exercise, so I have started exploring ‘HIIT’ exercise (High Intensity Interval Training). I have made a commitment to myself to sweat every day, to be present while I am exercising, and I now enjoy the experience. I have found and embraced this playful part of me that comes alive through movement, which was dormant for so long. I have been physically playing with my children more, and watching and following their movement which is so alive and free (especially my 5 year-old). In the summer, we spent a day at Bluffers Park Beach with the kids, and I remember playing with K, and pretending to be crabs in the water. I did the crabwalk in the shallow end of the water, showing Kalan how we could walk like a crab, making funny faces and pushing our bodies to move differently. As we were playing and laughing, my own memories rushed to me, as a child, crabwalking in the shallow end of the lake, feeling alive and full of playful joy. I smiled knowing that for this moment, I was blessed to be having an embodied experience of life.

Water Is My Medicine

I come down to the water when I feeling unwell
Unbalanced, stressed out, my neck muscles knotted from sitting at a computer all day
My spirit dull from being inside all day
And as soon as I stand here at the water
Seeing the blue blue sky and water
Hearing the waves rhythmically rolling across the sand
Feeling the sun rays warm my neck, back, hands
My body and spirit, intimately connected
Relax, open, breathe.

Choir! Choir! Choir! – Synergy in Action

If you live in Toronto, enjoy music and you haven’t yet gone to a Choir! Choir! Choir! night (at Clintons at Bloor and Christie, Tues or Wed evenings at 8pm), I highly recommend you go. It is such a wonderful, transformative experience. I have gone now several times, and I always leave amazing and inspired. If you don’t know what Choir! Choir! Choir! is, it’s a weekly sing-a-long, where you show up on any of the nights (Tues or Weds), no long-term commitment necessary, and you learn how to sing a song in three-part harmony with a group of a hundred or so people (See here). When you show up, you are directed to stand in your part, which is ‘low, medium, or high’. Within an hour, through the facilitation of funny, talented and charismatic song leaders (Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman), the song is perfected and ready to be recorded. It is simply unbelievable – in an hour, the group sounds amazing! If you don’t believe me, listen to their recordings – there are tons of videos on their website. For example, here’s our recording for ‘Talkin’ About a Revolution’ (I was there for this one).
I have been thinking a lot about the magic of this, how a beautifully created song, in three-part harmony, can be taught, practiced and perfected in an hour. For a goal-oriented person (who also loves music), it is incredibly satisfying! And when I thought about it, I realized that Choir! Choir! Choir! is a perfect example of the power of synergy that can take place in groups, and that synergy is making this magic happen. I define synergy as the interaction or cooperation of two or more, to produce a combined result that is greater than the sum of their separate efforts. The sum is greater than the parts. The relationship between is just as or more important, than the individuals themselves. And in Choir! Choir! Choir!, the cooperation of learning the song is between hundreds of people, coming together for a common goal.
There has been a lot written about the power of synergy in groups. In one of my favorite books “Getting to Maybe” by Brenda Zimmerman and Frances Westley, they write (p.40): “Many are awestruck when they are told that a flock of birds, a school of fish or a hive of bees is up to fifty times more sensitive to changes in its environment than any single bird, fish or bee. In other words, they can respond to stimuli, like predators or windows, much more readily in this group formation than when they are on their own.” How does this happen, that the sensitivity to environment is so much higher in groups?
I like to imagine that we are flock of birds at Choir! Choir! Choir!. The synergy that takes place is because of our intense listening. In this group, our listening senses open up, 50 or more times higher than our listening in our individual, day-to-day lives. The only way that we can learn our part in the song so quickly, is through intense listening to each other. Firstly, we are listening to the other singers in our section, to hear our part. When we don’t remember our notes, we quiet our voice and listen to the singers who know their notes. We hear the right part and we follow along. The right notes carry louder and stronger over the wrong notes. The wrong notes drop away quietly, like rain dried up in the sun. No one even feels the rain, because we are carried by the sun. Once we feel more confident in our own singing part, we listen to the other parts so we can hear the magic of harmony.
In Choir! Choir! Choir!, the act of listening is more important than the singing. The beautiful singing can only happen from the listening. It is not one person who carries the song. Or even three people. The music actually arises from the relationship between the singers, and not within the singers themselves. Like a flock of graceful birds, we collectively take flight.

Cabin in the Woods

Sometimes what you need is to go to a cabin in the woods
To pack the car and drive far away from the big city lights
Arrive late at night, flashlight helping you to find our way through the forest, so bone tired that you fall into bed
But not before you see the thousands of stars in the black sky and feel the presence of what you have been thirsty for, for months, for years, for a lifetime
The presence you can only call God, because there are no words to describe
How you feel in nature.
You wake up to:
the air so fresh
sunlight flickering through the trees
wind whispering a timeless chant and leaves dancing along
birds chirping the melody
a symphony of music that is only heard when you can hear the silence too.
You are aware of your breath and the flow of spirit from within you.
You are aware of your heart, giving thanks for its beating, and this drum beat joins the symphony
Sometimes you need to go to a cabin in the woods

Cabininthewoods-photo

Water Lessons

“This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” ~ Mary Oliver

I’ve always loved the water. My fondest childhood memories, from where I grew up in Orillia Ontario, are at the beach at Lake Couchiching, swimming, running across the sand, and building sand castles in the sun. I also have wonderful memories at my Grandparents beach, as they lived right on the water (the Ottawa River) in Deep River. The living room window had a beautiful view overlooking the water, and that view framed my visit, my sense of being surrounded by nature. My fondest childhood memories at my Grandparents was spending time out on their sailboat on the Ottawa River, feeling the waves rocking our boat and jumping off the end of the boat to swim.

The water has always been my happy place, my calm place, where the rhythm of the waves match my heartbeat and I know that, no matter what is going on in my life, all is well.

Years later, I am incredibly lucky to live with my family within walking distance to the beach and water (Lake Ontario) in Toronto. I am so grateful for this, and I try to get down there as much as I can. The water and beach has become my grounding place, and most recently, I have been thinking about the water as my teacher. Every time I go down to the water, even as I visit the exact same location, I see with new eyes, and I learn new lessons. For lack of a better word, spirit speaks to me down there, through the waves and the wind and the sun. I feel alive and connected to this spirit, the energy is palpable, both surrounding and within me.

I’ve been using my iPhone to take photos of the water and the beach. Photography has helped me to focus on the many perspectives and lessons of the water. When I look at the photos over time, it is incredible to me how nature dynamically shapes this place and space, on an hour by hour, minute by minute basis. Every moment is absolute. Every moment is changing.

I’d like to share some of my life lessons that I have learned from my water teacher:

• Nature is a constant dynamic interplay between the elements, and it is impossible to separate the parts from each other. There is a reciprocal relationship between the water, sky, air and land. None of these elements are continuously in charge of the others, but power is constantly shifting.
NatureasDynamic

• The wind’s power can be overwhelming, proclaiming her presence, howling in my ears, biting at my face, and waves crashing against the shoreline. She scolds me for not noticing her before. Be present, she hisses in my ear. I am powerful, I am here, and I will always be here.
WavesCrashing

• Sunlight is healing. Even when the air is so cold that my lungs are burning, the sun shines so brightly that I am blinded by its brilliance. I couldn’t even see in my camera when I took these photos, but I’m happy that they captured the sunlight dancing on the water and along the beach.
Sunlightishealing

• Color is infinite and constantly being created and recreated, under the spell of the sun. There are so many shades of blue.
ShadesofBlue

• The sky is often forgotten. In our busy lives, we forget to look up. The wide open sky, sometimes clear and sometimes filled with clouds, warms my heart and brings me peace.
Water-sky

My biggest lesson, once that I think about daily, is that life is constantly moving and changing. But if I can find my inner calm, then I can feel the stillness and peace that exists in the center of change. This stillness and peace is constant, always there and always will be there. I must always remember this.