Qu’Appelle?

May 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

 When suddenly from out of the shadowed shore,
I heard a voice speak tenderly my name.

“Who calls?” I answered; no reply; and long
I stilled my paddle blade and listened. Then
Above the night wind’s melancholy song
A woman’s voice, that through the twilight came
Like to a soul unborn – song unsung.

I leaned and listened – yes, she spoke my name,
And then I answered in the quaint French tongue,
“Qu’Appelle? Qu’Appelle?…”

– Pauline Johnson

Legend tells of a young Indian brave canoeing home from a hunting trip one evening when he thought he heard someone calling his name. “Who calls?”, he asked aloud.There was no reply. “Qu’appelle?” he tried again, this time in French. Then came a reply from the hills on the other side of the placid, moonlit lake: “Qu’appelle?” It was his echo.

Light enough to let it go

Our train passes into Saskatchewan atop a valley, along the Qu’Appelle river.    The Who-is-Calling river and the valley our train snakes over.

Who is calling?

I put the last of my boxes on a greyhound bus to Vancouver two days ago, in a hectic and uncomfortable frenzy.  As I let go of my life there, I clung to my belongings like a life vest, held tight to my chest, not able to throw much of anything away.   Mason jars and old notebooks found their way into boxes stuffed like a Christmas morning stocking, full of mediocre gifts I will open anew next week in a place I will call home with the awkwardness a newlywed calls her long-time boyfriend “my husband.”

I am shocked by how little I now care about the place which only two days ago gave me such enormous pangs to leave.    It occurred to me that the reason this move has been so difficult is that is has been somewhat involuntary.  I woke up at the crack of dawn each morning over the last two weeks, at a quarter to five, but not by choice.  I was being moved.  Wake up and move it!  If I resist this I will only suffer more. It is time. It is time to move.  I am so stressed I decide to write this Haiku poem to calm down:

Packing everything

the dishes became sacred

evidence of a past

With the wrong attitude it is easy to feel a kind of defeat in the act of letting go. We feel defeated until we are free, and then we notice a strength that emerges:  It’s over.  And the world gets bigger.

I thought I was clinging all along to my apartment. I discussed the intricacies of my love for my apartment over and over again with my friends, until I realised I was staring a leading roll in my very own Woody Allen film, taking neurosis to new theatrical heights!  With every belonging I put into a box, my life in Montreal seemed to get richer and richer, the men more handsome, my friendships deeper.  “I’m going to Paris for a job interview,” an old friend, born and raised in Rome, told me when we passed one another on the busy sidewalk in front of the Premiere Moisson bakery. The smell of fresh baguettes, the bicycles and tulips all annoyed me.  I am moving and you’re no longer supposed to be so interesting.

Is it light enough to let it go?  Leonard Cohen asks us.

Don’t look down the ground is gone,
there’s no one waiting anyway
The Smoky Life is practiced everywhere

Come on back if the moment lends
You can look up all my very closest friends

Light, light enough
To let it go
It’s light enough to let it go

While I am letting go, songs and poems from the last decade I have spent in Montreal return to me unexpectedly .  An old boyfriend once wrote in a poem he left taped onto his door one evening after I had been away, that while I was gone he felt like a box of jewels after the theft.  I looked around my empty apartment one day and this line came back to me with surprising alacrity.  My empty apartment, a box of jewels after the theft.  I am the jewels and I am also the thief, I suddenly realised.  We all are.  This is how we make a life and this is how we leave.

Move it or lose it! I awake before the alarm I set for 6am by a force larger than me. It’s anxiety again.  An old friend who comes to tell me it is time to grieve.   It is time to feel, not only this loss but all the ones that came before.  It seems silly now to close down to how they are linked.   Is there anything too large to let go of?  Is there any pain that will always be too hard to feel?  Anxiety is usually safer than the sadness that lurks just below.

Qui appelle? 

It’s moving day and the apartment is now a shell of someone else’s former life.   It’s grubby and run down.   I don’t want it anymore.  I’ve stopped dreaming about where I would put the new shelves, or how I would operate my home office out of the front bedroom.  The cats are gone, and now their old grey fur is just stuck to the green carpet on the back balcony, a balcony I will decide not to clean because I don’t have the time.   The cats are ghosts that roam the empty hallways at night, at least that’s what I think of when I hear the old wooden apartment creaking in the darkness.  I still see them there, outstretched on the wood floor or curled up on a pillow if I turn my head too quickly.  I see the way the streetlight flashes off one of their eyes and large alert pupils.  Then my eyes adjust to a brown shirt lying on the floor, to the button that caught the light.  It’s so interesting how loss comes back again, gentle, then strong, then unavoidable, forcing a feeling you didn’t even know you were trying to avoid.

Is it light enough to let it go?

The train weaves down into the fertile Fraser valley.  This isn’t a reunion, I think, this is union.  I now know the geographical distance between that life I left four sleeps ago when the train pushed off from Montreal’s Central Station and the one I am travelling towards. An airplane can trick us into believing that geography is but a minimal obstacle, traversable.  But my body and soul know otherwise.  Away from home our skin gets harder, protective, we are always plotting and planning the inevitable: a homecoming.  I want to say I feel like my grandfather, who wrote on his return from war: “When we had our first glimpse of salt water at Port Moody, I never regretted for a moment we were riding on a one-way ticket.”  The truth is, we are constantly negotiating what is light enough to let go of, and there are rarely one-way tickets, only the present moment and the ebb and flow of memories on a quest for wholeness.


The Soul of a Home

May 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

Thomas Moore wrote that “when we devote ourselves to soul, other attachments may have to be loosened, and when we grant soul its own intentionality and purposes, we may have to ease our attachment to long-held values and expectations.”

This well articulates where I stand in relation to my choices these days. As one friend noted, I am moving away from Montreal for reasons that are at a “gut level.”  Even I am not fully conscious of what might await me on the other side of this decision.  I have few expectations, and thankfully, relatively few fears.

I have thought a lot about the nature of our homes over the last while as I have been forced to change my own.  I like to look at the physical structure of one’s living space as a metaphor for what a person is going through in life.  A friend of  mine who is in the midst of a difficult divorce recently moved into a new apartment that has a musty basement she is curiously fascinated with and sometimes afraid of.  Is the basement perhaps a symbol of her unconscious being made conscious?  Of course, it would be only up to her to decide on its meaning.  When my Mom went through a divorce of her own, she moved into a travel trailer.  A desire for freedom maybe, or a longing to escape?  Perhaps simply a need for “a room of one’s own”, its smallness by its nature made it all and only hers.   A home with wheels is a fruitful metaphor.

When I look at what I am going through in relation to my home I see many metaphors.   This month, I decided to cut loose my ties with a particularly beautiful apartment that was a symbol of everything I had tried to accomplish in Montreal over many years of  hard work, building community, and a vision for the kind of life I wanted.  But my soul had other plans.

The beauty of this apartment has made it really hard to let go of, and I have held onto it over two absent winters. Each time I come back here I am reminded not of what I have accomplished but of what I have lost.  Perhaps this was the plan all along.  Perhaps the beauty of this apartment is an invocation to feel; or more importantly, an invocation to grieve.   The beauty of this place – the way sunlight moves through the rooms, the blossoming apple tree outside the kitchen window, the high ceilings and birdsong – reveal the possibilities for my life, and also force me to become conscious of where my work still lies.    An apartment cannot create intimacy, love, compatibility, peace, or a flourishing career —  only the soul – and its unique destiny – can do that.

I wish I could say I had been worthy of this place enough to fully embody its potential–  and by worthy I suppose I mean conscious, realistic, and self-aware.  Sweet apartment, you have been a blessing in that you have not judged me, only asked of me to grow and change, what I wanted all along.

And so I move on.  Today I am thinking about the home I am moving into in a couple of weeks.   I had hoped for a sunny and bright-walled cabin.  But my soul has other plans.  The new cabin’s walls are a dark wood, and the windows are small.   A womb-like haven for a journey homeward?  When I stepped inside I felt my heart would be happy there.   I look forward to its plans for me.

Emptiness

May 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Like a box of jewels after the theft.”  C. Fraenkel



 

 



Sufi Stories

February 7, 2011 § Leave a comment


“Like two lovers who have become lost in a winter blizzard, and find a cozy, empty hut, in the forest, I now huddle everywhere with a Friend.  God and I have built an immense fire Together.  We keep each other happy and warm,”  wrote the elegant Persian poet Hafiz, translated in The Subject Tonight is Love

***

In September 2010 I travelled with my friends Husayn and Elizabeth and their new-born baby, the adorable cherubic Daoud from Montreal to Fenton Michigan for one of the holiest nights of the Islamic calendar, the last evening of Ramadan.   

After two days of driving, we arrived at a picturesque farm tucked away in an unlikely suburban Middle-America neighbourhood.  Unlikely, that is, for the kind of ecstatic mystical Sufi devotion that was about to unfold.  I spent a week with the Sufi community, eating and praying and living alongside the devotees who had pilgrimed from across the continent.  Over the course of that week I got to witness an Islamic spiritual community that holds itself to the highest levels of compassion, inclusion, humility, and an earnest striving for truth and knowledge of the divine. The community seemed to me a modern-day embodiment of a spiritual yearning for what Ibn ‘Arabi called the Taste of God or dhawq.  

As fate would have it, one of the holiest days of the Islamic lunar cycle arrived on Sept. 11th, the 9th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre.    The group seemed to me to use this opportunity to deepen their compassion in the world, to close an ever-more-polarizing situation in which Islam and “the West” are pitted against one another. 

The sermons given by the group’s Sheikh encouraged humility, kindness, and a life devoted to spiritual truth and awakening. 

Below is an article I wrote for the online prublication qantara.de which has yet to come into print.  I hope you enjoy it. 

***


Todd Friedmannn, 35, is barreling down the highway on a 1000-km drive from Montreal, Canada, to Michigan, USA, where he will join his spiritual community for one of the holiest days of the year.

It’s the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but Friedmann, who was born and raised Jewish, is driving the long distance for Eid ul-Fitr, the last night of Ramadan. He became a Sufi Muslim over ten years ago and on the 12-hour car ride the depth of his devotion is palpable. 

He now goes by the name Husayn and is dressed in loose cotton clothing which emulates the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammed, but his long ruddy beard and appearance also give him the look of an Orthodox rabbi.

When asked about the perplexing mosaic of his religious heritage, Friedmann quickly cites the Islamic mystic and philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi who famously wrote “I follow the religion of love.”

“I was brought up with the stories of the prophets of Israel: Moses, Noah, Solomon, and David. We studied the Torah,” says Friedmann, who was educated in a private Hebrew school.  “But I didn’t have to leave the stories of the prophets behind when I became a Muslim. The Prophet Muhammed came for all people, for all nations, for all times. 

Friedmann’s journey began as it did for most Western converts to Sufi Islam: in an earnest search for spiritual fulfillment and meaning in what they see as an increasingly materialistic and empty Western culture.

“As I got older I started to notice something very wrong was happening on the earth.  My grandfather lived through the Holocaust and told me about it.  I needed to know: What is this life about? When I discovered the Montreal Naqshbandi Sufi Centre, there was a certainty that was stamped on my heart.  Now there is nothing that can take that away.”

Friedmann is driving to the headquarters of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order of America where over the next week dozens of devout Sufis, about 30% of whom are Western converts to Islam, from a myriad of ethnic and religious backgrounds will converge from all over North America.

Devotees have come seeking spiritual renewal, transcendence from the trappings of the ego, and to bask in the spiritual presence of Shaykh Hisham Kabbani. Kabbani is a globally revered Sufi teacher and official deputy of Shaykh Nazim Al-Haqqani, the leader of the Order who is widely regarded as a saint and said to trace his lineage back to the 13th century mystic and poet Jalaluddin Rumi.

Naqshabandi is one of the major spiritual Orders of Sufi Islam in the world today and “it’s the most popular Sufi tradition in Indonesia, the Subcontinent, Africa and the Middle East,” says Lisa Alexandrin, a professor of Islamic studies in the department of religion at the University of Manitoba. 

“The Naqshbandi teachings emphasize the importance of the relationship between master and disciple: Sufi shaykh and student,” adds Alexandrin, echoing the appeal to many Western Sufi practitioners who say through their encounters with Shaykh Nazim and Shaykh Hisham they saw living examples of the teachings of the Prophet.  Devotees see Islam as a religion of love, peace, tolerance, humility and respect, and strive to attain these ideals through the guidance and teachings of their Shykhs. There is also an emphasis on “universal spirituality”, inclusive of different faith traditions.

“The goal of spirituality is not to have labels,” says Friedman.  “It’s to go back to divine presence.”

In 1991 Kabbani was appointed by Nazim to establish a presence in North America and since then 23 Centres have opened across the region.   

The Michigan Centre is a modest farm tucked off a suburban country lane.  One cannot imagine a less likely landscape for the kind of ecstatic and colourful Sufi worship that unfolds here, including chanting, prayers, meditation, and trance-like devotional whirling.



 “It always amazes me how doctrines and devotional practices established by a set of Sufi masters in the 14-15th Centuries can continue to maintain such a powerful presence in the contemporary world,” says Alexandrin.  The Naqshbandi Order dates back nearly 1500 years and traces its spiritual lineage to the Prophet Muhammad through Abu Bakr, the first Caliph and one of the Prophet’s closest companions.  

“We are not a da`wah [conversion] machine or missionaries,” says Kabbani,  who is also an author, renowned scholar of Islamic history and a spiritual teacher to an estimated 2 million Muslims across the globe.

 “We believe everyone has a certain time that comes in their life when God’s manifestation on their heart becomes strong and they will listen to that message and yearn to understand it. Then they begin to give more and more attention to their spiritual needs.  Therefore, we don’t say “converting” or “reverting,” we say when the call [to spirituality] comes, they will pick up the phone.”

Despite the order’s emphasis on inner spirituality, this Sufi community maintains traditional Islamic values grounded in Sharia law: Men and women are segregated for prayer and most women chose to wear headscarves.

***

Friedmann stops for a cappuccino at a chain café in Fenton surrounded by American “big box” stores like Walmart and Target. He is a colourful anomaly in the mainstream landscape of the American Mid-West. 

At the counter he is approached by a man wearing a Harley Davidson T-Shirt, who asks him sarcastically if he is a part of the local “renaissance parade”, before muttering angrily “American’s should dress like Americans.”

“We’re taking [criticism] from all sides,” says Elizabeth Bootman, Friedman’s wife, who embraced Islam when she was just out of high school.   She was educated at the University of Berkley and grew up in the famously liberal Bay Area of San Francisco as a secular American. She now veils her hair and wears modest clothing. But walking the spiritual path as an American Muslim convert is not an easy road: 

Fundamentalist Muslim groups have criticized the Sufi community, seeing it as  divergent from traditional Islam, an accusation Sufi Muslims adamantly refute; and they are often confronted with the anti-Muslim sentiments of the post 9-11 world.

Despite the challenges, Bootman’s faith doesn’t waver:

 “If you’re wondering why on earth a Western person from a liberal country would decide to become Muslim you have to understand the history and wisdom of what Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, brought to earth and how powerful, liberal and emancipating that message was.

 “So many people are interested in spirituality in the West, especially the side of it that is contemplative and introspective and peaceful.  This is what we were looking for when we came to this Order and this is what we have found.


 

Chronicles from an Island: Part III

January 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

 “We are so many selves. It’s not just the long-ago child within us who needs tenderness and inclusion, but the person we were last year, wanted to be yesterday, tried to become in one job or in one winter, in one love affair or in one house where even now, we can close our eyes and smell the rooms.” -Gloria Steinem

Being back on the Island and seeing old friends is helping me remember years gone by.

I have been thinking a little about the circumstances of my move to Montreal, way back in August 2000.

After living in Victoria for a few years a good friend of mine Katrina and I decided to make the big move east together.  We had a huge garage sale in Victoria and sold most of our belongings before saying goodbye to boyfriends, roommates, and our families, and boarding an Air Canada flight on a one-way ticket.

We arrived mid august and started our hunt for an apartment, wandering all over the Plateau in the heavy and humid late-summer heat.  We finally settled on a cheap ($625/month) three-bedroom top-floor walk-up way out in the east end of Sherbrooke Street, a run-down mostly francophone area on the very far outskirts of the Plateau Montreal.  Our apartment was bohemian and romantic. It had an antique claw-foot tub, high ceilings, french doors, stained glass windows and skylights in most of the rooms, one directly over the bath. Though it was very run down, it was slathered in thick shiny white paint which gave a fresh and beautiful glow to the spacious rooms –perfect for aspiring artists.  We felt like we had won the lottery when we stepped inside, and handed our new Hungarian landlord the first month’s rent in cash. My dad co-signed the lease for us that day. And our new home was born.

The first night we spent there in our empty Montreal five-and-a-half, we barely slept a wink because of the jarring noises of the traffic barrelling down the busy 4-lane Sherbrooke Street, the trucks might as well have been driving right through our living room.   The heat was like nothing I had ever felt growing up in the breezy sea air of Canada’s west coast.  Sweat dripped from our foreheads and stuck to our backs while the trucks and busses rattled the walls and our dusty turn-of-the-century window panes.  The apartment was stark and empty, save a few bags full of clothes, photos and belongings we’d taken on the plane with us.

The next day, Katrina and I spotted some abandoned mattresses in the back alley behind our apartment (Yes!) and excitedly claimed them as our beds, hauling them up to the third floor, around the narrow bends of the dark stairwell — didn’t have to sleep on the floors anymore after that.  Our bohemian, warm, Montreal, summer life evolved.  School began, and then the weather turned to fall. It was a time of incredible growth, busyness and change, and an overwhelming sense of possibility.

***

About three weeks after school started, I got a phone message from a casual friend I knew who lived in Victoria.  I knew right away there had been some kind of emergency.

The news I got that day was that my good friend’s seven-year-old son had died suddenly in Victoria the day before.  This little boy had been a part of my extended family since his birth.   The news completely devastated me, as it did everyone who knew this boy and his family- very dear friends of mine.

I remember waking up early in the morning, crawling into the antique clawfoot bath, looking out the skylight window at the sky and clouds and crying in disbelief.

It’s one thing to leave a place you love, with the idea of returning one day to a world that is unchanged; it’s another thing to realise that you will never see again someone who you love very deeply.  The excitement and joy of setting up shop in Montreal co-existed with this parallel sense of tragedy and confusion.  Sometimes we have to hold it all together by holding an almost scared space inside for both aspects of our circumstances, the losses and the possibilities.

***

This last year, I have decided to travel by train rather than fly, back and forth between the two ends of the country. I have been flying around for years, a practice that I find, for some reason, really emphasizes the distance and disparate nature of living outstretched across a huge country.    I love to just sit on the train looking out the window at the countryside as it passes by. I love knowing that these two places that I have always seen as disjunctive have an actual continuity, that they are linked by a real, living landscape.  This is integration: Joining two worlds into one whole life, where memories, not just landscapes, have a continuity and an integration also.

As one friend of mine who just stopped by the library today while I was writing this told me, “It’s very difficult to have two lovers.  I’ve done it before and my life was a mess!”

What he meant was that when we live between two places, we might as well be juggling two lovers.  In some senses, the lack of commitment makes things safer and easier. It’s so easy just to hover on the surface with the knowledge that when the going gets tough there is always somewhere else to go.  And what happens if we just stay?

What if we didn’t only celebrate eating locally, but living and loving locally also?  One thing I know for sure is that this is a beautiful place to eat, live and love, at least that’s what these Swans swimming in the Fulford Harbour told me earlier this week: 

I have been reading the amazing writings of Buddhist Psychotherapist David Richo, who has some great insights on grief work and integration.  I love this quote: “In this moment of serene compassion, I lay to rest any complaint, blame or regret. I say yes unconditionally to all the conditions under which I live. I appreciate them as providing just the lessons I need to learn. I feel affection for myself and for all those who walked the path with me. I allow myself to go on as of now, without fear or clinging to the past or to any of its seductions or distractions. I line up all that has happened and simply say ‘Oh, that happened. Now what?’  […]  May I and all those I have known become enlightened because of all that we went through together.”

Friendship

December 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

“A person cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human. To become human, is what this individual person, has been created for.”

-Martin Buber

There is a small gathering around my living room table.  Friends have come to celebrate and say good-bye for the winter.  I am struck by the depth of these friendships.  Our lives -every single one of our lives-  are built upon these kinds of bonds.  I wonder what my life would have looked like without them.  What kind of aloneness did they lift from my shoulders all these years?   When I think about it, I am filled with gratitude.  We don’t have to look very far to find true love.  This is what love looks like: it isn’t exotic or strange or out of reach.  It is something very close.  It is found in the people we love just because they exist; the people we cherish and accept and forgive and support over and over again.  That kind of love can only arrive through some kind of grace; we can’t control it or search it out.  It arrives, and one day we notice ten or thirty years have passed, and love is still there.  We notice there is nothing that person can say or do to make love disappear.  It is always and already present.  Love had arrived long before we ever became conscious of its meaning or impact on our lives.

What Peace Looks Like

December 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Quiet cafe
Lulled by instruments
Arab, Latino
They meet in the space I opened for heaven
A harp and a drum

From the window
A snowfall
Falls

Outside. Inside.

Something white and pure and purposeful

Covers all of it; covers everything

It’s OK

This snowfall is just more evidence:
The war is over

And this, just this, only and always this
This is what peace looks like

-Mary Fowles, Montreal, December 2010

Oh, Montreal!

September 1, 2010 § 3 Comments

A BC friend told me to think carefully about any decision to move away from Montreal.  “They say leaving Montreal is like leaving a lover,” he said in a clairvoyant tone.    He’s an ex-pat of my sexy town.

If it’s true I’ve been in a relationship with Montreal for the last 10 years, then lately I’ve been cheating.

Today, while enjoying a cup of tea in the Dutch Bakery — my favorite cafe in Victoria, which happens to be only two doors down from the most fabulous bookstore on the planet — I noticed I was flirting.

Flirting with a new life, with a relationship with a new landscape.

Back home in Montreal, my favourite cafes are filled with teenagers in leggings with laptops.  When I moved to Montreal at 22, laptops weren’t mainstream yet, and neither (perhaps fortunately) were leggings.

I watch and listen to them around me in a cafe where I’ve been sipping cafe-au-laits for years (and just the fact that I’ve been sipping cafe-au-laits for years irks me), feeling imperceptibly out of place. I notice how the same waitresses have aged through many cold Montreal winters. They are stoic and beautiful and I wonder with a tinge of embarrassment and pride at how I must have aged too.  And then, later in the evening, I walk past what appear to be ghosts of my former self on the sidewalks, standing outside buildings that once housed my favourite clubs, smoking cigarettes.  Places I’ve been haunting for years, ironically inaccessible.

Montreal. The lover maybe I should have kicked to the curb long ago.  Hey, Montreal! Weren’t we supposed to shack up in a cheap triplex and start a family next to the Hassidim.  You more than once betrayed me on that front:  You were too busy teaching me a new language, teaching me solitude and resilience, teaching me to shovel pristine morning snow off my entrance way. I suppose I more than once betrayed you too, since I always, secretly, lived between two places.  I never told you about this.

That’s why I kept sea shells and beach glass on my windowsill all those years, and photos of my family on the walls.

I miss you. I long for you and love you.  You promised me a lot and you usually delivered.

But today, I’m thinking about inhabiting a 10×10 ft cabin in the woods (it even has a wood stove!), spending my days writing, starting a meditation practice, listening to the gulls on the shore.

And calling it the life I always wanted.

p.s. see you tomorrow!

Revelation from Within – Part I

July 28, 2010 § 2 Comments

It’s been hard to find the motivation to write lately.  Montreal is in the full bloom of summer, and I have been enjoying every minute of it – the beautiful weather, the ripening tomato plants on my  back balcony, the many new friends and acquaintances who have come into my life in the last while.

I’ve been spending my time with Sufi mystics, whirling dervishes, documentary filmmakers, sailors, seven-year-olds, qigong practitioners, Ra’da yogis, hula hoopers, new and old dear friends, and feeling truly blessed.

Not only have new people, new opportunities and new creative ideas been a welcome addition to my days this summer, so have new teachings and new insights.

I’ve come across the work of a woman named Byron Katie.  Katie, as she likes to be called, while in the midst of a debilitating depression, became aware of a process of inquiry that can liberate our mind from habits of negative thinking.  Blown away by her method, I have for the last two weeks been reading her books and working through the exercises.

The main premise for Katie’s work is that “when we believe our thoughts we suffer, and that this is true for every human being.”  After doing her excercises, I’ve come to know that this is also true for me.  When I believe my negative thoughts about people, about myself, about my world, I suffer.

And this is the root of all war. “Defence,” says Katie, “is the first act of war.”    The thoughts that get stuck in our minds polarize us from the people we love, the people who love us, and from the beautiful, perfect world as it is in this moment.

There is a back story to this search of mine, and I’d like to share with you some parts of it.

When I arrived back to Montreal from my film shoot in Morocco in June 2008 (it feels like a million years ago now), I felt that everything I had wanted to accomplish had failed; that the goals I had wanted to attain on my  journey had fallen apart.  My efforts and hard work seemed to count for nothing, and the world, my relationship, my friendships, my plans, all appeared to have turned upside down.

Around that time I discovered the writings of Eckhart Tolle and I turned to his teachings for solace and understanding. I had studied world religions in university and had saught to find a spiritual home in many traditions over the course of my life: Hindu yoga philosophy, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, but for some reason, despite my open heart and efforts, I felt that a block would always emerge from my total integration into one faith or another.

That summer, I read in great depth Tolle’s two books; first, A New Earth, and then The Power of Now.  Poring over the pages and practising what he calls “stillness”, I was able to for brief moments cut through my pain and confusion and experience the world as it was: a living, magical phenomenon of timeless life, as it had always been, gentle and kind.

One of Tolle’s exercises is to simply observe the world without labels.  He asks us to, for example, go outside and look at a tree without labelling it “tree”, in order to experience the totality of that magical phenomenon we call “tree” without the mental construct or label.  So, inside my tiny studio apartment one afternoon, I gave it a try.   I looked at my old wooden chair and removed from my mind the label “chair.”  I then did this with my desk and a few other objects in my apartment until I was able to observe my whole room that way.  From a still mind, what I saw was the totality of the present moment, understanding that the present moment is indeed the only moment that will and can ever exist.  When the mind is quiet enough, removed of thoughts of the past and the future, removed of its endless chatter and judgements, the moment arrives, and the moment is vast, still, ineffable, perfect.

For a few weeks that summer, I began a walking meditation around my neighbourhood.   I walked around my block slowly, observing the world without labels, noticing at what pace I would have to walk in order to experience the present moment most fully.  I experienced a lot of peace in that slow walking meditation, marvelling at the sunshine, the trees, the gardens, and even my neighbours, who for the first time revealed themselves to me without labels.

I thought back to some of the teachings of my first spiritual teacher Baba Hari Dass. In 1997 I had read in his book Silence Speaks, “When the heart softens by getting closer to God, one begins to feel love everywhere.”   At 19 years old, I wasn’t sure what this meant, or that I believed in a God, or knew what “love everywhere” could feel like.

In those fleeting experiences of meeting the present moment, I got an inkling of what he might have been talking about.  Love had always been everywhere, as it is for everyone, we only have to be still enough to meet it.

After my return from Morocco, I didn’t know it yet, but life was about to get a lot more complicated for me.  I could have kept up this practice of present moment awareness, but I simply wasn’t able to.

Byron Katie’s work is sometimes referred to as a method of putting into practice the philosophy of Eckhart Tolle.  While Tolle teaches the “what”,  Katie teaches the “how”.

Her method of inquiry involves simply questioning our negative thoughts with four questions:

1) Is it true?

2) Can I absolutely know that it’s true?

3) How do I feel and react when I think that thought?

4) Who would I be without that thought?

Finally, she teaches us to turn the thought around.  “He doesn’t care about me” becomes, “I don’t care about me,”  and ” I don’t care about him”.  We are instructed to find three examples of how those turnarounds might be true, or even truer, than our original painful thought.

What happens is a miraculous and effortless loosening of the grip of negative thinking, as we meet reality as it is.  What also happens is a kind of detachment from our thoughts, something that the Buddha and eastern philosophies have taught for centuries as a way out of suffering.

Katie teaches that violence cannnot happen in our lives if we question our thoughts; it can only happen when we believe our thoughts.  That is why, if we take care of what is going on first within our own minds and hearts, within our own reactions and judgements, we will not be able to carry out violence towards others or towards ourselves.

Beautiful kitties in the midst of inquiry - meeting for the first time

What I now take this to mean is that when we stop the violence in our own hearts, we end war in the world. The only time we can experience war in the world is through the war that happens, day in and day out, inside our own minds.  We must heal this war inside ourselves first for peace to be possible.

Byron Katie calls this a process. “We’re not just whacked free,” she says.  From the way I have experienced it, this is the kind of love we come to as refugees, when most other techniques of the mind have failed us.   How wonderful to have such a method of inquiry. What a gift.

“We’re stepping into a whole new paradigm here.” she says.

Revolution from Within Part III

June 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

A day trip to the Montreal tam tams a few weeks ago heralded quite a tragic sight: A young blue parrot perched on a crazy woman’s shoulders.  His wings clipped, enslaved to her shoulders, the parrot had taken to virulently attacking his owner.  He used his beak to puncture and scratch the skin on her face and arms, which were pockmarked and bleeding.  His owner was trapped in a prison of her own –  that of a sick mind – and attacked the poor parrot reciprocally, even trying at one point to strangle him – a technique she called “training.”

My reaction to this episode was so strong I realised I must have somewhere inside identified with what was going on.   I have often been haunted by the oppression and abuse of animals.  I’ve always felt that animals, just like us humans, have a deep desire for their own free lives, and  to expand in their own true natures; that somehow they are worthy and integral beings that matter in the grand scheme of life.

But if we’ve imprisoned and abused animals throughout the course of time, we’ve also done it in equal measure to one another, as the phenomena of human trafficking, slavery, exploitation, and abuse of all forms can attest.  That is why, if we chose to, all human beings can identify with the oppression and domination of animals, just as we can imagine what that experience might feel like in our own lives.

Gloria Steinem wrote in her famous book Revolution from Within “The truth is that, like every other part of nature, human beings have an internal imperative to grow.”  What she meant is that with a little encouragement and love the undiscovered potential that exist inside each person can naturally flourish.

Today we’re living in a society in which, however externally free we may be, we are almost never “good enough” – smart, beautiful, rich, talented or powerful enough – and this predicament is its own kind of prison.  We forget that we have an intrinsic worth, and perhaps this isn’t an accident.   Our economy is in so many ways fuelled and sustained by a collective low self-esteem.     Steinem explains: “The idea of an intrinsic worth is so dangerous to authoritarian systems … that it is condemned as self indulgent, selfish, egocentric, godless, counterrevolutionary, and any other epithet that puts the individual in the wrong.”

If we were to at some point stop the internal dialogue (our crazy owner) that tells us we are never quite enough, might our life (the parrot) be a little more free?  Might we consume a little less and  find our own path a little clearer, without the added pressures of measuring up to externally-imposed ideals. Might we find that beauty, power and even happiness can be found through self knowledge?

And finally, with a little practice, there is a revolution from within: “We are so many selves. It’s not just the long-ago child within us who needs tenderness and inclusion, but the person we were last year, wanted to be yesterday, tried to become in one job or in one winter, in one love affair or in one house where even now, we can close our eyes and smell the rooms.

What brings together these ever-shifting selves of infinite reactions and returnings is this: There is always one true inner voice.

Trust it.”

Sometimes the most revolutionary thing we can do is love and accept ourselves; the impulse to declare that we matter has formed the basis for revolutionary movements since the beginning of time.   At this point, we have the power to grow back our clipped wings and fly home to ourselves.

And then, we might hear the Sufi mystic Rumi calling:

Come, come, whoever you are.     Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.  

    It doesn’t matter.

    Ours is not a caravan of despair.

    Come, even if you have broken your vow

    a thousand times

    Come, yet again, come, come.

    Where Am I?

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