Thursday, March 29, 2012

Accepting the Challenge

I don’t often use profanity in this blog because I believe it’s possible to express myself without using such words for emphasis. I also believe that I can make a stronger, more valid point without it. But for the purpose of this entry I’m going to use a particular phrase which violates my personal preference to watch my language: 
“Life’s a bitch, then you die.” 
This is a common enough phrase that I’m sure I don’t have to explain it. The sentiment is that life is hard and at the end of it you don’t really get any reward for your suffering because it just stops. Quite a bleak and negative message and one which I often hear from people dismissing the concerns of someone or making excuses for their own inaction in the face of difficulty. 
It’s a way to fob off the challenges we face. 
“My boss is really driving me up the wall. They don’t have respect for my time or talent and it’s quite disheartening.” 
“Life’s a bitch, then you die.” 
I disagree. If your employer isn’t showing you respect and it’s affecting your quality of life or opinion of yourself then it’s up to you to do something about it. You could either approach them directly, see if there is an opportunity for mediation or, if it’s really bad, you should look for a new job. It doesn’t help anyone to accept a situation where you feel undervalued. By standing up for yourself you can learn how to take charge, create change and assert yourself for a positive a outcome. 
“I spent all weekend working on my novel but then my computer died and I lost everything.” 
“Life’s a bitch, then you die.” 
That’s harsh. I’ve had it happen to me. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t lost many hours of work in one thirty second glitch of technology. It’s frustrating and can easily make a person feel like giving up. But what sets a successful person apart from someone with a victim mentality? The ability to try again, to stick to it and to accept the downs as well as the ups. Sometimes technology fails us. Sometimes other people fail us. But accepting defeat is choosing to fail yourself, and that is really and truly your choice, not  down to life. 
'Strength' is about trusting in your
own ability to survive.
Prints available. 
There is a wonderful analogy that Pema Chodron uses in her teachings. She says that life is like standing in an ocean. A wave comes along and knocks you over. For a moment you’re under the water, salt stinging your eyes, water in your nose and mouth but you get up and wipe your face. Then another wave comes and knocks you down again, and again you’re unable to see, there’s sand in your mouth and you can’t breath. But the trick is to keep getting up because you can. Eventually you’ll get up quicker and quicker and eventually you might find you don’t get knocked down at all anymore. 
The difficulties in life are not there to keep you down, put you in your place and limit you. the challenges we face are there to teach you how to be strong, show you where you’re already indestructible and remind you that growing and learning are never ending.      
I think a better phrase is: “Life is a series of opportunites, so what are you going to do with yours until you die?” 

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Only Constant

I love family traditions. My family is extremely close and as I grew up we had many traditions which I came to equate with that close bond. Some of them were very simple, such as where we traditionally sat around the table during mealtimes, while others had a bit more elaboration, like how we would hang our stockings at Christmas time and the ritual of getting a plate of cookies and eggnog with rum in it for Santa. 
There were also many neighbourhood traditions. I grew up in an inner city community that had the feeling of a small town. Many of the families that lived there, and still live there, have done so for many generations. We were all very neighbourly and connected. One such tradition was the annual Christmas party hosted by one of the families on our street. 
The thing about these traditions was that they were safe and predictable. I looked forward to them fondly because of the general comfort in them. I knew how they would play out every year and I expected the result to be memorable in a warm fuzzy way. 
The Death Card represents
letting go and accepting change
As human beings we do this a lot. We take a holiday somewhere and it’s so amazing that we keep booking the exact same holiday every year because we want to re-capture that sense of amazement. Or we always order the same thing off the menu of our favourite restaurant because we know we’ll always enjoy our meal. Or we buy the exact same make and model of car as the last one because we’re familiar with the brand. 
It’s easy to say this is just fine and dandy because we know what we like and we stick to it, but I have come to learn that this insistence that we stay with what we know can be extremely problematic. 
If you always holiday to the same place then you never get the chance to discover somewhere new. If you always eat the same thing then you never know what other fabulous meal you might be missing. If you always buy the same sort of vehicle you could be limiting yourself to a model that doesn’t fit your lifestyle. 
In addition to missing out on new discoveries, you’ll also start to stagnate. Sticking with what you know, what you’ve always known, is extremely limiting. There is very little room for personal growth and life can become boring. 
Besides that, this stagnation generally doesn’t fly. Nothing lasts forever' can be a great comfort to someone going through a difficult time, but it applies to the remarkable, entertaining, joyful and happy times as well. When you rely on that meal being perfect every time there’s going to be an awful lot of disappointment when its not up to snuff. And I do mean ‘when’ not ‘if’ because the harder and longer you hold onto something the more the universe will challenge you to let go. 
Change is constant. When something is uplifting or makes us feel good we tend to cling to it because we are so adverse to feeling bad, but just because something gave us a sense of happiness once doesn’t mean it’s always going to. Nor should it. And we will be far less disappointed in life and we accept that the one thing we can rely on is that everything is changing all the time.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Life doesn't have a manual

I'm always banging on about how life doesn't come with a rule book. There are no rules, despite what your parents, teachers, colleagues, employers and friends have told you.

I know it's easy to think there are rules. Like: You should always wear clean underwear because you never know if you're going to be in an accident, or: You should never call anyone after 10pm, or: Don't set a porcupine loose in a balloon store.

But these things that people tell us aren't rules. For me, a rule is hard and fast and though it can be broken the general idea is you shouldn't do it. If something is a rule, it shouldn't be crossed and those who cross it are not just rebellious but potentially dangerous. It's also seen as something that applies to everyone regardless of your age, gender, culture, upbringing, belief system or experience.

But the world is full of billions of people and consequently, billions of perspectives and ideas, and billions of different ways to go about living life.

Which is why I like to say that life doesn't have rules but it has many teachings. Part of living life is about figuring out which teachings work best for you. Arguable, that's all life is about. Figuring out who you are, what you believe and what lessons you are going to live by is entirely your choice.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Weekend Without

Lately I've been reading a lot of blogs about 'switching offline' for the weekend. People are challenging themselves to drop the Internet for two days or more, if they can manage it, as a reminder of different ways to spend their time.

I thought this experiment sounded quite nice and I have been mulling over when I could try it out myself. The idea would be to pick a weekend when I didn't really have anything on and I'd just keep my computer shut and my phone switched off. I'd get on with my creative projects and not bee obligated to go online.

Well, the universe decided I'd not have a say as this weekend I managed to find myself without a connection. I couldn't even get 3G on my phone. I was cut off entirely without expecting it or planning on it. But I didn't mind terribly. I had other things on my plate keeping me quite busy.

I was busy taking driving lessons for a test I sat on Monday. I didn't pass - just to get that out of the way first.

but the lack of Internet did bring a few things to light. First of all, it's a great distracter. Just like television or video games, the Internet is something we use to distract ourselves from daily stresses or worries. I think it's good to take some downtime but sometimes these distracters actually turn into a way for us to completely avoid dealing with a situation, and that's not very healthy.

In other ways, it was a dropped lifeline. I've had my license for ten years and driving isn't just something I do to get from A to B. Driving is something I absolutely love. When I'm driving I become very mindful. I'm just there, in the vehicle, in the moment. My mind is on shifting, changing lanes, watching the traffic around me, feeling the road under me. But that's in Canada and that's on the right hand side of the road.

On the left I can't quite seem to wrap my head around the size of the car or the feel of the stick in my left hand, rather than my right. My confidence was shaken and I couldn't even text a friend to share this.

I think it's easy to make blanket statement about the Internet being a time waster, but just like television, it has its advantages. Through Facebook and email I am able to keep in touch with friends and family. I'm able to market what I do and keep my marketing in my own hands. I can share my writing through my blog. If I want to look something up it's simple and easy to do.

On the other hand, I was able to really focus and I had to remember that having confidence was about being able to believe in myself, rather than having other people affirming I could do it. It's nice to know people have your back but you have to be there for yourself too. I couldn't rely on a comforting text and I had to do a lot of hard work to remind myself that, just because I can drive in one country, doesn't mean my skills are 100% transferable.

I love Dinosaur comics - This man is a genius. 

So now I'm back in London and the Internet is once again at my fingertips. I have loads of emails to catch-up on and work to do which couldn't be done as a result of my disconnection, but I don't mind. It was simply the situation and because I knew there was nothing I could do about it, I wasn't really bothered. In fact, I was amazed at how little it did bug me. And I think that's something I might not have appreciated if I'd planned to go without for a weekend.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Out breath

There is a meditation practice known as Tonglen. The idea behind it is a bit difficult to explain because so much has become lost in translation, but the principle is that doing Tonglen allows us to embrace our shared humanity and awaken our natural compassion. 

As human beings we don't really like feeling uncomfortable or distressed. Emotions such as anger, fear or sadness get labeled as 'bad' and emotions like joy, happiness and excitement get labeled as 'good'. 'Bad' emotions are considered unpleasant and unwelcome so the natural thing to do is reject them. We do any number of things to not feel bad. We buy stuff, we smoke stuff, we drink stuff. All of this might make the bad feeling go away for a bit, but ultimately it doesn't eliminate it. It just sort of masks it for a little while and we get a temporary 'good' feeling. 

When we feel good about something we hold onto it really, really tightly. And generally this makes it last half as long as it could. We get convinced that something was perfect so we try to recreate it so we can experience that joy again. We can become formulaic as we seek what makes us happy. And we can get quite greedy about it. When we find something that makes us feel good we can cling to it selfishly, as though sharing it might mean there is less for us. 

But happiness is unlimited, as are joy and excitement, glee and amazement, contentment and passion. There is more than enough to go around because it is limitless. But it doesn't last forever. And neither do anger, rage, fear, sadness, or grief. They are like passing clouds and every emotion is an opportunity for us to become more aware. 

The practice of Tonglen is about flipping our clinging and pushing tendencies around. Instead of doing whatever you can to get rid of an unpleasant feeling, Tonglen asks you to breathe it in. To sit with it, experience it and know it. It asks you to embrace it for the sake of every other being on the planet who has or does feel the same way. 

 But this blog entry is about the out breath. Because the out breath is when we breath out the pleasant feelings we would normally cling to. The idea is to share that feeling with the world in the hope that it benefits others. Often this out breath is accompanied with classic lovingkindess phrases such as 'May all beings feel this joy' or 'May all beings feel this contentment'.

And it can be from anything - the pleasant feeling that may arise when you have a perfect cup of tea or the absolute thrill you get from receiving tickets to see your favourite artist perform as a gift. The idea is that the experiences which give us pleasant feelings can vary but the emotions themselves are universally understood. What makes me happy might not necessarily make you happy but the feeling of being happy is the same. 

This is my Out Breath post. 

 A fog so thick I couldn't see the Thames. It filled me with a calm sort of awe at how absolutely beautiful the world is. The thick, white blanket of fog transformed a familiar view into a thing of mysterious beauty.
 May all beings everywhere feel this sense of wonder. 
 A patch of bright daffodils on the edge of Hyde park. They were grown in a square, their lovely yellow faces turned towards the spring sunshine. It made me want to skip like when I was a kid, giving me a sense of freedom and delight.
 May all beings everywhere find joy in small things.
The bare twisted branches of the trees spiralled up into the perfect, clear blue sky. The sun was warm on my skin. The music on my iPod was a perfect soundtrack. The breeze was a perfect accompaniment to the sun.

May all beings everywhere find contentment. 

The idea I like best about this out breath is that you can give these feelings as you would give a gift. This was my day and I offer it to each and every one of you.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Not the Only One

I love when I'm listening to a song and the words perfectly match how I'm feeling, what I've been thinking or where I am in life at that moment. When I find a song with lyrics that really speak to my experience I take them on as 'anthems'. They're nice to have because they remind me that I'm never alone in my experiences.

The world is far better when we can see that we are not alone in how we feel. Grief, sadness, fear, anxiety, stress - everyone knows what these things feel like. The causes and triggers for them can be very different but the actual feelings themselves are the same.

We can too easily get caught up in feeling like the things which we classify as 'bad' are what make us interesting. It's an angst ridden outlook to have and one which is simply not true. The things which make us unique, which makes us beautiful and amazing and interesting, are not the experiences we've had but the lessons we've learned from them and how they have helped us grow. It is the ability to grow, change and accept challenges, which are admirable in another person.

Misery is not unique but the choices we make to grow out of suffering are completely down to the individual. Lyrics can be a wonderful way to share the experiences a person has had and the lessons they have learned from them. 

For a time I used to say all love songs were 'bunk'. I had a broken heart and I was quickly realising that a healthy relationship didn't involve finding someone to 'complete me' or 'be my breath' or 'give me reason to live'.

These are common themes in love songs pumped out for mass appeal. They might be catchy, fun to dance to and have a great music video, but golly gosh I wouldn't for one second recommend anyone base any merit on them.

But then I began to discover how many songs are about self love, self respect and self discovery. And a lot of them deal with heartbreak as the root of learning the importance of loving yourself first, best and always. 

I have put most of these songs onto a playlist which I've titled 'therapy'. They remind me that I'm not alone, other people have been there too and they are making an amazing, creative, vibrant living from what they've learned. They're able to express their suffering through lyrics and come out the other end stronger and better for it. Because they know that life isn't about being knocked down. Life is about how you are able to get up again.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Things I learned from my mum

Yesterday was my mum's birthday so today's post is on honour of her.

My mum has always been a great influence in my life. For all the ways she might drive me up the wall, she has also given me some really incredible teachings to live my life by. I am grateful to her for so many things. I probably couldn't actually list them all but I want to take the time to share some of the most important lessons I have learned thanks to her guidance.

1. You cannot rely on everything to go 'right'.

When I was three I would get really upset when the weather wasn't what I wanted it to be. My mum realised I was very small but even then she knew the importance of teaching me that some things cannot be controlled and it was futile for me to get upset because it was raining when I wanted sun.

It's relatively easy to teach someone that the weather is not something you can rely on because its ability to change so quickly is universally understood. I'm grateful that my mum gave me this teaching at such an early age because it has allowed me to understand that there is nothing in life that doesn't change. People are just as unpredictable and unreliable as weather. Any plan we may have can go awry for dozens, if not hundreds, of reasons.

Thanks to my mum I've been in training since I was three to accept that change is constant and that planning out every little detail can be done but that's not to say that everything will go according to that plan.

2. You choose how you feel.

"You make me so angry!" I would shout.

"I don't make you angry, you choose to feel angry," came my mum's infuriating reply.

I was a child and all I knew was that I was upset, angry and hurt after my mum had said something I disagreed with. For the longest time I didn't understand what she could possibly mean because the proof of cause and effect was so blatant to me.

She said something, I got angry. Clearly she was 'making' me angry.

But as I grew older I came to see the wisdom of her words. Whatever someone might say or do, even if they are trying to provoke a certain emotional reaction, is no guarantee on how we choose to feel. This is because our emotions are based on our experience and our experiences are very diverse. 

The best example of this that I can think of is the weather (good old weather!)

I grew up in a really dry climate. I'm used to snow, but for me, rain is a rare occurrence. I have come to really love a proper, lashing downpour. So when it's pouring buckets, like seriously raining cats and dogs, I can feel happy, inspired, excited, even joyful! I've gotten used to this feeling and expect to feel quite uplifted during a proper rain storm. I choose to feel good about rain. 

Now that I live in London rain is a more common occurrence (But not as much as rumours would lead you to believe) but I still get a thrill out of it. Your average Londoner, however, does not. Most people grumble when it rains. Even if it's not rained in three weeks, one day of rain will provoke a barrage of complaints about how 'miserable' it is and how 'typical' it is.

The rain is indifferent. It obviously doesn't have a motivation to 'make' anyone feel any particular way. One cannot predict how someone will respond to any given situation - except you yourself based on your own opinions, values and experiences.

3. Be mindful of how you say things. 

I'm fascinated with Neuro-Linguistic Programming but long before I learned about NLP training and started taking courses my mum was making me aware of language patterns.

"Can I go to the park?" I would ask.

"I don't know, can you? Are you able to?"

I'd roll my eyes, "May I go to the park."

It may seem pedantic or getting really hung up on semantics but she had a good point. Communicating effectively involves paying attention to how the meaning of a word or sentence can be very different depending on who you are talking to. 

By instilling an awareness of how I say things as well as what I'm saying she has given me an incredibly useful skill. when I moved to London I knew there would be cultural differences but my ability to pick up on differences in speech patterns and phrases has really helped me understand 'two countries divided by a common language.'

If I say, "That won't be too much trouble,' to a fellow Canadian they are likely going to take that to mean, "That's not a problem." But if I say the same thing to an English person they are likely going to take it to mean "That would be some trouble."

This teaching has helped me to be aware of how other people map the world with their language so that I can communicate more effectively.

4. Be assertive.

I remember her telling me very early on that if I was dissatisfied with something but did nothing to make my feelings known then I had to own that because I was making the choice to keep the problem to myself. 

I honestly can't remember how old I was but I know that before I was six my mum had already taught me to complain effectively when I wasn't delivered what was promised. For example, if we had ordered something in a restaurant and my order wasn't right, she would get me to call over our server and explain what was wrong with my meal and ask that it be remedied. 

I wasn't always very good at expressing myself though. My tantrums were so monumental that they have become legendary in our family stories. My mum said I taught her great patience as she had to really stick to her guns and remember the things she'd said because I'd try to trip her up. But she always gave me space to explain myself when I behaved reasonably. By the time I was twelve I was able to express my misgivings about her returning to work full time or always going into my bedroom when she knew that the mess would make her angry.

5. You are capable of accomplishing everything you set your mind to. 

My mum had very little tolerance for 'I can't'. It helped that I was fiercely independent and stubborn, but she has always instilled in me the importance of finding solutions rather than always finding reasons why something can't be done. 

As a result I've often been able to take charge of my life. When I was struggling in High School, lost in a sea of student IDs and suffering from depression, I took the initiative to find a different school setting that was more suitable to my needs. I was able to transfer schools in a matter of months and ended up graduating as valedictorian of my class. If I'd remained at my previous school I would have dropped out entirely. 

Either way, my mum taught me that what happens is entirely up to me. I felt my teachers were ineffective and that the environment I was in was oppressive and uninspiring but if I had dropped out, that would have been my choice and my choice alone. No one could force me to fail. 

I have carried this teaching with me and as a result I've successfully started up a not-for-profit organisation, organized my own art gallery shows and set up my life coaching business. 

Thanks to my mum I know that if I want to do something, I can and will find a way. If I don't then I'll find an excuse.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Patience is something I find difficult to apply to myself. I have a lot of ideas and things I want to do and if I'm unable to manage them all in the generally unreasonable time I plan for them, I can get very frustrated. So I look to practice patience when the opportunity arrises so I may improve my ability for it and my ability to be kind to myself.

Everyone has the capacity of unconditional love. It would be fabulous to have it for ourselves but generally the sense of unconditional love is applied to other people in our lives. The most common example of this would be the love a parent has for their child. In my case I have three gorgeous, delightful and wonderful fur-children. I adore all three of the kitties in my life and my love for them is unwavering regardless of the things they may do. 

It is in their nature to hunt and as a result I am often faced with a live creature in the house. Sometimes I am able to intercede and save the morsel from it's doomed fate. There were a multitude of these incidents last year but three in particular which come to mind when on the topic of patience. One involved a mouse, one a small bird that was still without feathers and one was a frog. All three occurred between the hours of about 3:00am and 5:00am.

I love the teaching: 'Start where you are' because it's about knowing you already have everything you need at your disposal to start changing your life. Every experience is an opportunity for growth or to enhance a skill and figuring out which ones work and which ones don't is all apart of just going with the flow.

I know very well the challenge of insomnia. I have struggled with anxiety for years and the result is that I have very strict sleeping habits to ensure that I am able to fall asleep. When deprived of my sleep due to the disregard of a fellow human being I fly into an absolute rage. Sleep is sacred and my patience, as with most people, is worn thin when I'm tired.

But when my adorable, delightful cats wake me up at 4:00am I am able to remain quite calm. The first time it happened I was a bit miffed but with each experience my capacity to tolerate and even accept the interruption increases.

It's been some months since such an incident has taken place but over a recent weekend my patience was tested once more. I was half dreaming but aware of a crunching sound. At first I ignored it. My brain wasn't entirely engaged and I was able to attribute the noise to the cats eating their dry food. But then it occurred to me that the crunching was in my room whilst their food bowls are downstairs. At this point I woke entirely, grabbed my phone and shone it onto the floor. All three cats were present but it was my own little fur-baby from Canada who was clearly engaged in the crunching.

It turned out to be half a mouse. Half a mouse at anytime of the day is an unpleasant discovery. Half a mouse at 4:00am on a Sunday morning when you had been in the middle of a rather pleasant dream is just the sort of thing that used to make me cry with fatigue. But not this time.

I chased the cats away, got a tissue and chucked the remains out the cat flap. I returned to bed and tossed and turned for a bit. I was undoubtedly awake. I didn't imagine I'd fall asleep very quickly and normally this would be about the time when I'd feel very frustrated, upset and annoyed. Instead I remained entirely calm. My anxiety didn't flare and I realised that I was able to take the situation as it had come. I hadn't impatiently grumped at the cats, nor had I felt the need to cry or get upset. It was what it was and that was that.

Almost immediately I began running a dialogue about it in my head. I jotted down my thoughts and they have in turn become this very blog entry.

By just being right where I was, sitting with my experience and practicing patience with those I love so dearly, I didn't just refrain from getting into my old habitual behaviour; I didn't feel the need or tug at all. I just accepted what was and went with it.

It might seem a small thing but I think it's an important example. It's very easy to be too hard on ourselves and expect miracles. We can head out to practice having patience with strangers and find ourselves ignoring our impatience, rather than actually remaining calm. There's no point in beating ourselves up over it as that just shows a lack of patience for our own capacity to grow. Change takes time and when we start right where we are, when we start with what we're ready for, we can take slow and steady steps forward in our own time.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Labels are for food

An entry about labels is likely going to run very, very long so I'm going to focus on one aspect of labels and labelling. I want to share my thoughts on how we label ourselves. 

I think a lot of attention is given to how other people put us in boxes and the struggle we face to break free, but the boxes we make for ourselves can be just as oppressive. A label isn't just a word, it often become part of our identity. For a really long time I was hung up on the idea of collecting labels. In my teen years I liked to describe myself as a blue haired, activist, artistic, writing freak. I wore my label proudly in a two finger solute to my peers, as if having so many labels meant they a) couldn't possibly find room for more and b) couldn't really define me because I'd gone to such great lengths to define myself. 

It wasn't until I entered High School that I started seeing the huge flaw in the labels I'd given myself. I began to see how fluid the world was, how constant change is and how as good as a label might be one day, it may not fit the next. The problem that arises is once you've given yourself a label (like 'I'm one of life's losers') you've just made it that much harder for yourself when something happens to challenge that label. Because your mind is made up and the label is stuck fast you won't let yourself see the positive aspect of getting your dream job, or losing 50lbs, or finishing an art project. You're inclined to find the downside in everything, because your label dictates it so. 

And seemingly positive labels are just as bad. I know this one is a bit more difficult to comprehend but allow me to present an example. 

I have always labeled myself as a happy, positive person so the idea that I might suffer from depression doesn't really sit well with me. As a result I spent years repressing or avoiding my feelings of depression because everyone knows happy, positive people don't get depressed. But this was outright denial and ultimately my avoidance of the issue caused my emotions to push harder for recognition. Soon I'd developed Panic Disorder and then I was a real mess. 

But my solution wasn't to drop the labels, not yet. My solution was to add the anxiety and the depression to my labels. I was a happy, positive, depressed, anxious person. 

You can see the conflict. 

The better solution, and one I now embrace, was to drop all the labels entirely. It's not easy to do and it's an ongoing project, but it's totally worth it. 

Not that I can't be happy and positive - but I no longer think of myself as defined in that way. I have come to accept that you can't define an individual. Change is too constant for that. We deserve to keep an open mind and open heart to all the ever changing possibilities for our own circumstances. 

It's all part of loving yourself first and best. By dropping the labels you open all those little boxes and open yourself to limitless possibilities.