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


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.

Facing My Panic Monster

In support of National Mental Health Week, and being inspired by my friend Kama’s honest and beautifully written account of her experience with depression (, I have decided to share my personal experience with anxiety and panic. I am acutely aware that mental illness is incredibly stigmatized in our society. While so many of us (and maybe all of us, to some degree or another) struggle with our mental health, we don’t talk about it enough. We don’t share our personal experiences, but we keep silent. This stigma is real, and creates shame. Shame that something is wrong with us, that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t successful. In my opinion, this societal stigma and resulting personal shame is truly what should be called an ‘illness’, and needs to change. Societal stigma is really what makes us ‘sicker’, what drives us to the edge or tragically, sometimes over the edge.

So, I’m taking a deep breath and sharing my story. Because I want to break this stigma. Because I want to help in any way I can, to make others feel less alone in their own struggles with mental health. Because I want the conversation to be opened and shame to be lifted.

My first panic attack felt like it came out of nowhere. It leapt up from behind me, and took everything away from me, within a span of 10 minutes. I had worked hard my whole life, chasing goal after goal, to get to this point in my life – a great job, a happy relationship, an awesome group of friends. This was 12 years ago (before kids), and people would describe me as ‘type A’. I was a high achiever, worked all the time, loved my job (so was happy to work all the time), and while admittedly ‘tightly wound’ and had trouble relaxing, I didn’t feel that I needed to relax when I had so many projects on the go and so much to accomplish. I was presenting at a conference, and really excited about my workshop and speaking to others about a new framework for working with volunteers from a community development perspective. I was showing up under personal stress, as my father had just had a major heart attack on an airplane and was in a hospital in Vancouver, far away from where I was in Kingston. I remember calling my father and speaking with him, worried about his life, from the conference hotel in Kingston. But I pushed my worry feelings for my father away (or deep down), so I could be on my ‘A game’ in presenting an amazing, inspiring session at the conference. I practiced my session, getting ready for my moment to inspire change.

The session began, and I started to speak. I had been waiting for this moment. But as I started to speak, I immediately like I was about to faint, that my knees were buckling out from under me. I felt sweat under my arms, like I was so unbelievably hot. And then the strangest and scariest part happened, where I felt like I left my body, like I was watching myself, a different self, facilitate this session. I was having a breakdown. I don’t how or why, but no one noticed and I actually got through the session (with pretty positive reviews). But I left the session feeling incredibly afraid about what happened, and utterly exhausted from keeping myself together. I went back to my room, closed the door, fell on my bed and sobbed.

This was the beginning of a private hell that I experienced for 2 years. The only person who knew what I was going through at the time was my amazing and supportive wife. I came back to my home and life, and I continued to have uncontrollable panic attacks. I was volunteering at the United Way, and I went to a session where we had to go around and introduce ourselves, and I had the same sensation, of pure physical terror when it was my turn to speak. My job was doing a lot of public speaking, and I was miserable every day, anticipating when this would happen next. It happened when I drove my car, and my greatest fear was that I would faint behind the wheel, and kill myself and others. I couldn’t predict when I would have these feelings, this physically terror that would leap up and grab me. It continued to show up out of nowhere, choking me with its power. And the fear of when this might happen next was constantly on my mind, weighing me down. The fear of the panic attack became larger and more powerful than the panic attack itself, to the point where I couldn’t differentiate between my panic reacting to the fear or to a certain situation. It felt like a miserable, never-ending vicious cycle. The fear spiraled into shame, and I was convinced that I was ‘going crazy’.

As the Type-A personality that I am, I decided to attack this problem like any other problem that I have faced in my life. I was determined that there was a solution, and that I was going to find the solution. I read every book and article possible about anxiety, and I recognized that what I was experiencing was called a ‘Panic Disorder’, different from generalized anxiety. I created my own version of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), determined that this would not ruin my life. I drove back and forth across the Gardiner, with the windows open so I could breathe, to prove to myself that I wouldn’t faint and that I could drive. I continued to put myself in stressful situations so I had to face my monster, again and again. I learned how to do a body scan meditation and I practiced breathing every evening.

But truthfully, none of these strategies really worked. I was angry with my condition, and I wanted it gone. I was working incredibly hard to get rid of it, to fix myself so I could move forward. I split myself into two – the part of me from before my panic attacks that I approved of, and then this newer part of me that felt uncomfortable, uncontrollable and scary, and I wanted gone. After much internal fight and pain, I decided that I needed professional help. I was at a loss in terms of helping myself. I found myself a wonderful therapist, where the first 6 months was spent with me just crying in her chair. I was holding so much shame. And then we started to talk, and over time, she helped me to accept myself and my panic. Through acceptance, she taught me to face my fear. Most importantly, she taught me to be gentle with myself, with all parts of myself. The irony of it is was that my panic attacks only started to subside when I truly accepted this part of me, without judgement and without shame.

My story doesn’t wrap up like a present with a nicely tied bow. Mental health is a continuum, and we all have good days and bad days, good moments and bad moments. We live in a highly stressful society, with not enough time for self-care and not enough focus put on our personal or communal mental/emotional health. I continue to struggle with anxiety and I have had panic attacks from time to time. However, they are less intense than before, and I am better at taking care of myself during those moments. I have learned how to check in with myself on how I am doing, on a daily, or sometimes hourly basis. I have found self-care strategies that work best for me – my top strategy being to run to the beach as fast as I can, so my adrenalin is physically released, and the waves of the water can remind me to breathe. Most importantly, I remind myself to let go of judgement and shame, be kind and gentle, and love all facets of myself unconditionally, including my panic.