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.


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


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.

• 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.

• 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.

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

• 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.

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.

Missing My Grandpa

I’ve been remembering my Grandfather lately. For some reason, 7.5 years after his death, several events have resurfaced his memory, and I miss him. It started with our family reunion, when many of my relatives flew in from England and we came together at my Grandmothers house to spend time together. A few years before my Grandfather died, through the wildness of the internet, my Grandfather found a long-lost half-brother who he didn’t know existed. They connected, my Grandpa’s half-brother flew across the ocean so they could meet, and as luck would have it, their resemblance, mannerisms, facial expressions etc, is uncanny. Fast-forward 10 years, and 7.5 years after my Grandfathers death, and sure enough, he attends the family reunion with his wife and daughter, who also looks uncannily like my Grandfather. First tug of my heart.

Second: I attended my cousins wedding, and there is a slideshow shown at the reception with lots of childhood photos. Sure enough, photos show up on the big screen with my Grandfather smiling and playing with his grandchildren, and tears well up in my throat. I am not prepared for the suddenness of such deep sadness in my heart, the emotion that I can only name grief. I can only define grief as missing someone who I love so deeply, who I wish I could have one more cup of tea and conversation with.

Third: my neighbor took my family and I out on his sailboat on a beautiful August day. His boat was very similar to my grandparents boat, and sitting on the boat basking in the sun, all of my wonderful childhood memories of being on the boat with my grandfather came flooding back. As I looked out at the beautiful lake and up at the wide-open blue blue sky and as I looked at my family, I felt thankful in that moment and a strong sense of peace washed over me.

My Grandfather was an intense person, and not always the easiest person to be around. He was opinionated, and lived life with gusto. My Grandfather never took a second of life for granted, and taught me to live with conviction and care deeply about my life and my precious time on this earth. My Grandfather was an outspoken activist, who was not afraid to take risks and speak his mind. My Grandfather was a long-time Anglican Christian, but he had a conflicting relationship with his faith. He wanted so badly for the church to change their views, especially in being accepting of homosexuality as well as recognizing the multi-truths of other faiths and that Christianity is not the only route to God. I remember attending church with my Grandfather and him arguing with the clergy members, as well as muttering under his breath to me when certain parts of the service were not ‘in line with the times’.

Of course, in writing this piece, I decided to google my Grandfathers name (Eric Perryman), with little hope that he would have a presence on the internet 7.5 years after he has passed away. Sure enough, I found two letters that he wrote to the Editor of the Anglican Journal, advocating for change in views. I can hear his articulate, angry (but trying to be diplomatic) voice in these letters that he wrote:

Letters to the Editor – May 1999 – http://www.anglicanjournal.com/articles/letters-to-the-editor-564

“Dear editor, Congratulations for publishing the March opinion piece on collegiality by Canon Gordon Baker, and the editorial on the need for open debate within the Anglican Church on potentially divisive issues. The various points of view on any divisive issue need to be discussed in all segments of the church long before any motion reaches the floor of a diocesan or general synod. If the democratic process is to be followed, then it becomes questionable as to whether collegiality within the House of Bishops can be used as a reason to override the prevailing viewpoint of other parts of the Anglican community. The recent example in the Diocese of New Westminster where a motion agreeing with the blessing of same-sex unions was passed by clergy and lay delegates at their synod, yet put on hold by their bishop, is a case in point. There, democracy and collegiality were mutually exclusive. I have asked our bishop to provide us, the laity, with documented reasoning, which led him to vote against the blessing of same-sex unions. To date he has not responded. He is the leader of his flock and therefore surely has a responsibility to give us his reasoning even though this may be different from other bishops. We, the laity, would be helped immensely in our struggle with divisive issues if bishops would trust us and share discussions and differing viewpoints with us. I hope our bishops will recognize that the time has gone when people were content to leave their brains at the church door”. Eric Perryman Corbyville, Ont

Letters to the Editor – March 1998, http://www.anglicanjournal.com/articles/letters-to-the-editor-31

“Dear editor, I am writing to praise Bishop Michael Ingham’s fortitude and honesty in writing his latest book, Mansions of the Spirit. W. Turner (February letters) took exception to this book because it was allegedly not based on the biblical truths. What are these biblical truths which state that Christianity is the only road to God, that Christians will be given preferential treatment in the next life, that other people not of the Christian faith will be dealt with accordingly? As more and more regions of the world become multicultural and multifaith, Christians have to face the existence of other religious faiths and must be prepared to discuss whether the great religions of the world are all connected to the same truth. In the same way we must be prepared to recognize the connection between interfaith reality and interfaith conflict. We should be thankful to Bishop Ingham for providing us with such a well thought out book to help us become informed, caring and unbiased Christians. I invite Mr. Turner to provide us with documentation illustrating those biblical truths referred to.” Eric Perryman Corbyville, Ont.

He never gave up. I am not sure if the Anglican Church ever moved forward on these issues or not, but I do know that if my Grandfather was alive, he would still be writing these letters and fighting the fight.

I don’t know what I believe about life after death. But I do know that my Grandfather taught me some of my core values, about living my life with gusto and integrity, and taking risks. I am striving to teach these values to my children, and in doing so, his spirit is kept alive.


Thinking about Friendship

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendships lately. Candy Changs words resonate with me, in her amazing ‘Before I Die’ TED Talk (which if you haven’t watched, I highly recommend): “Two of the most valuable things we have is time and our relationships with each other.” As someone who struggles with feeling that I never have enough time to do what I need to do in a day, Candy Changs words hit me hard. Because sometimes (okay I admit, often), I think that I don’t have time for relationships with others. I struggle with time, with the feeling of not having enough time, and I often put my to-do list ahead of my friendships.

We were invited to my friends sons birthday party last weekend. These are friends that I have known for 20 years – unbelievable if I think about it, I have known them for half of my life. They are pretty much my oldest friends. In the 20 years, we have had times of intense closeness and times apart, and currently, they live far away and we don’t see them very often. But when we do see them, there is magic there, that feeling of joy when you are with someone who has known you for 20 years. We almost didn’t go to the birthday party, because it was far and we had just schlepped to IKEA and back dealing with an annoying furniture mishap. There were excuses, lots of excuses. I was tired. I needed to grocery shop, get ready for the week, etc etc. I thought I didn’t have the time.

Thankfully, we decided to get in the car and go. And I am so thankful we made this decision. It was such a joy to see my friends again, to hug and reconnect. I am so happy that I was present for their experience of celebrating their son turning five. Its amazing that we met as young adults (practically children still!), and now here we are, watching our children running around in a playground.

For me, valuing my relationships means that I need to be present. In this world of increasing distractions, presence is not always so easy. But it is critically important. And for me, presence is practiced and friendships are deepened through good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. I keep in touch with many friends through Facebook where we comment on each others photos and I get updates on everyones day-to-day experiences of living. Facebook is great for keeping in touch, and seeing snapshots of life. But, I cannot make the mistake of thinking that friendship is developed through Facebook. For me, friendships and relationships deepen by being together, sharing physical space, making eye-contact, listening and sharing, and understanding each other.

And friendship is worth making time for.

Learning to Breathe

When I was 23 years old, just graduated from my B.A at Trent University, I hitchhiked out to a small town just outside of Calgary and participated in a ten day silent retreat in Vipassana meditation. I decided to do this because: a) I had friends going and they asked if I wanted to join, b) I had no clue what I was going to do after graduation so this was a good distraction from that big looming question, c) it was completely free, and d) I focused my Philosophy major on East Asian Philosophy and while I read lots of books and wrote essays on meditation, I hadn’t spent one single minute of my life meditating. So, with my ‘go large or go home’ attitude, I jumped with two feet and no fear into ten days of silence.

Every minute and every hour was intense, and I had no one to reflect with about the intensity. There were no books, no distractions, no eye contact, just pure meditation from 5:30am to 7:30pm. The days felt endlessly long. The only sound was the sound of nature (rustling of leaves in the wind) and the gong of a bell for mealtime (which was deafening against the quiet). I spent the first three days fighting with myself, feeling every pain in my muscle from sitting for 10 days straight, feeling incredibly lonely and sorry for myself, and then starting to plot how I would escape in the dark of the night. The only reprieve from the silence was a short video of S.N. Goenka speaking (the founder of Vipassana meditation – https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/goenka), and his joking in that funny buddhist way was so welcome that my heart was full of joy for his video presence. One evening (day three or four), on the video, S.N. Goenka joked that he knew we were all plotting our escape and he asked us to accept that we are here and there is a reason for it. I remember tears streaming down my face with the recognition of how I was feeling (and probably how most others were feeling as well, although I couldn’t ask). And I remember changing my attitude after that evening, and deciding that there is a reason I was here in this place doing this strange breathing activity for never-ending hours on end. And without judgement, I sat and watched my breath.

The meditating technique in Vipassana meditation is very simple (and yet very hard). You watch your breath, in and out, in and out. When you have a thought, you let it go and go back to watching your breath. Once you have watched your breath for, say 4 days (40 hours), you then move onto the next step, which is to pay attention to your body. Specifically, you start with paying attention to your upper lip area (right under your nose). As you breathe, this area is tickled by your breath, so it is the easiest place to start to pay attention to, and if you really concentrate, there is a tingling feeling there when you breathe out through your nose. Eventually my whole body felt completely alive every time I sat down to breathe. I remember walking outside after meditating and everything felt alive, the colours so vibrant, the sounds so intense, my heart so open. I remember one night lying in my cot and waiting to go to sleep, and every cell of my being was alive. I felt this physically. Someone turned off the light in our room and it sent shudders through my entire being.

When the ten days ended, a bell rang out and I ran and hugged my friends, starred in their eyes and we shared stories of how intense we felt. I felt deep appreciation for their presence and friendship. I never formally meditated at all after that. I had grand plans, but we were hitchhiking around and I am not really a very disciplined person. Occasionally, I would spontaneously close my eyes and breathe, and I would instantly feel the intensity and body awareness that I had experienced at the 10 day silent retreat. It was as if my brain had been reworked through this ten day experience, and I had a new secret trick that I could do. But life got busy and complicated, and over the years, I connected less and less to this secret trick.

But fast forward 17 years. I am now a crazed mom of two boys (aged 2 ½ and 8), juggling work, home life, and parenting. I love it all but the balancing act is overwhelming. My boys are super amazing and wonderful, but very intense. My 8 year old is the most intense person I know and experiences extreme emotional highs and lows on a very regular basis. My 2 ½ year is, well, 2 ½. Enough said – 2 ½ year olds are generally highly emotional and very irrational beings prone to intense outbursts of rage. Mine went into a serious fit this morning because of a hole in his sock. Sometimes, when I finally get to work at 9am after dropping the kids off at their respective places, I feel like I’ve run a marathon.

And 17 years later, I have realized why I ended up being there (and sticking with it) at that 10 day silent retreat. I need what I learned then, right now. I now use that skill of breathing every day, as my number one critical parenting tool. To be honest, it feels essential to my survival right now. When I feel overwhelmed, when the kids are freaking out or we’re running late or the house is a giant mess, I breathe. It is simple and it works. It gives me a chance to take a step back, center myself, be present in the moment, and then decide on my next move.

Let me be clear about this – I am not some relaxed Buddha. I have good days and bad days like everyone else, and there are days when I yell at my kids and scream in my car and snap at my wife. But, I have decided to approach each day as a meditation practice, as an opportunity to breathe as I face my tasks and challenges. I feel gratitude for those 10 days that I spent 17 years ago, learning to be present.

The Value of Waiting / Non-Action

Alex and I have been struggling with integrating Jewish traditions into our life, in a way that feels authentic and in line with our values and who we are. We are a gay, inter-faith family – Alex is Jewish and I am not. We have tried out different congregations, and nothing felt right. This struggle amplified once we had children, and we feel strong that we want our boys to understand their roots and history and feel pride in their Jewishness. So we started a little group this past January, along with other good friends who are an inter-faith couple with a small child. We named our group “Progressive Jewish Families of the East End”, with the idea Our idea that we would get together for monthly Shabbats, and to build a Jewish child-friendly community. We set up a Facebook group, shared it with a few friends, and hosted our first Shabbat.

Well, three Shabbats later, and our little group has grown to about 15 families, and continues to grow! The last Shabbat was wild, with tons of food and kids running around and lots of new faces. I am thrilled – we have made new friends, deepened existing friendships, and we have fostered a Jewish community beyond what I could imagine. So far, the Shabbats have been very casual with lots of great food and wine and celebration, and only a very time focused on Judaism (the prayer over the wine and Challah before we eat). However, what is amazing is that it doesn’t need to be explicit – it is clear that we are all connected in Jewish community (which means something unique to each of us).

What has also been interesting is my self-reflection on my own personal tensions in building community. While I teach Community Development at Centennial College and have worked in CD positions, it is very different when you are personally invested in building your own community. I teach about the organic nature of community, and the need to be flexible and wait and listen, instead of trying to take control and act. Change doesn’t happen quickly, and authentic change, from a bottom-up CD approach, needs to be dynamic and organic. This is great to teach, but so challenging for me to put into practice.

I am a go-getter, take-action, kind of person. I enjoy waking up each morning with a list in my head of what I need to accomplish and then getting it done, and feeling a sense of satisfaction when I go to sleep at night. I used to battle with this, as it seemed in tension with my Buddhist philosophy, but I have made peace with it now. I have learned through the years (especially as a parent!) how to be more flexible with what I accomplish and more in peace with the moment, through my work and my daily life. However, I still love action, the feeling of moving forward, doing more, improving, making a difference!

Our Jewish group has taught me the value (and challenge!) of waiting and hanging back and ‘not acting’, in order to give community a chance to move at its own pace. We had a lull of no one offering to host Shabbat in April. I wanted to offer to host, but we couldn’t because of both Alex and my crazy April schedule. Some of the group members expressed to me that they couldn’t host Shabbat because their house is too small. How to solve this problem? – my mind immediately went into problem-solving mode, and I mentally wrote a list of community spaces that I would call and get free space and we could do Shabbat there! Before I made any calls, Alex (my wise wise wife) said “hold on and wait!”. Wait? For how long? Wait for what? “Just wait” she says. And so we waited. And sure enough, someone has offered to host Shabbat next week (thanks Ruth!). Her house is small but we are all comfortable to sit on the floor or stand. What is most important is that we get together to build community.

Wu Wei is a central Taoist concept, translated as ‘non-action’. It is often understood as “action without action” or “effortless doing”. Wu wei is not about passivity and just giving up, but its about being engaged in the process, and alert and aware of what is happening. Action is not to be forced, but should be effortless. I need to remind myself that ‘non-action’ is just as important as action, and often more important.

*P.S: If you are an East Ender who fits the ‘Jewish Progressive Family’ demographic, please feel free to find our group on Facebook and send a message to join!