The first snow – a moment of regret? or an invitation to contemplate?

We spend so much time in the waiting room of life, anticipating a future in which the conditions will be right for us to take action.

The first snow fell today, in silent sprinkles. I am watching its flakes drift and glide in a zig-zag as they fall, in a manner similar to leaves.

I am surprised by the thought of thousands of perfectly formed crystals falling from the sky against the bright grey-white light of the winter morning.

Snow, where I live, is the harbinger of change.

Its arrival means that winter nature will be asleep soon, that Christmas is around the corner and that the clock will soon tick over into a new year.

While a new year is a somewhat arbitrary marker in life’s path, it is significant because we make it so.

I ask myself this morning – how do you face a new year without some nostalgia or regret? It must be possible, but how?

I think the answer is in a daily feeling of “nowness”, or mindfulness in today’s vernacular. I have successfully integrated meditation into my life, mostly due, in an amusing twist, to technology. A dear friend introduced me to the Calm app on my phone and my Garmin watch has a feature where it measures my stress and suggests that I breathe. Both the daily meditation from Calm and the breathing helps me to find my centre for the day, or grants a moment’s respite during a stressful hour.

As some of my readers may know, I am a liberal and progressive, yet faithful Roman Catholic. As such, I have always tried to incorporate daily prayer into my life, with varying success and at different levels of intensity over the years. I find that mechanical repetition of prayer becomes a chore rather than something I look forward to, so have sought to find ways of approaching prayer more mindfully, more contemplatively.

One of the methods I use, is listening to Taizé music. These simple, repetitive chants are very similar to the mantras sung by yogis. The Taizé Community is an ecumenical movement that invites all Christian orders to unite in song and contemplation. Taizé songs are sometimes so beautiful that they bring tears to my eyes, making me feel a great emotional release and spiritual uplift. They seem to open a door to the sanctuary of transcendent feeling that comes of gaining a glimpse of the reflected, warm golden light of love.

Another method that I have used with success is the Ignatian daily examen. This method of practical prayer and contemplation was prescribed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Order of Jesuits. The examen is simple, yet elegantly effective. At the end of the day, take a moment to:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward to tomorrow.

Obviously, this is a religious approach to mindfulness and that won’t work for many. I do encourage you to check out Taizé and the Ignatian Examen as both can be practised and enjoyed in a secular, fashion as well.

I have found going through this can help open the door to self-examination and awareness. I have found that being in this state can avoid nostalgia and regret in those moments when we become aware of the flight of time’s arrow. They make us more aware of where the arrow is leading us.

Indeed, they possibly allow us to be in sync with our actions enough that we mindfully and willfully shoot an arrow into the future with each of our actions, confident that it will land in a future place that we will be one day happy to inhabit.

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Language and dimensionality: The movie “Arrival”

I watched the film Arrival last night. It was an interesting exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has two versions:

  • Linguistic Relativity — claims that language shapes and colours our worldview (i.e. if you don’t have a nuanced set of words for different types of snow, you are less likely to see the different varieties unless you focus on noticing).
  • Linguistic Determinism — claims that language determines how we view the world (i.e. if you don’t have a word for green, you can’t see the colour)

Arrival takes the linguistic determinism interpretation with the main character, a linguistics professor named Louise (Amy Adams), actually having a piece of her mind unlocked which allows her to perceive time differently, based on learning the script language of the Heptapods.

Generally, linguists reject the linguistic determinism hypothesis because it seems to contradict the laws of physics — as Steven Pinker put it in his book, The Blank Slate, learning a new language doesn’t rewire the cone cells in your eyes.

However, on a deeper level, I think there may be something to linguistic determinism — call it a mindful or meditative, perhaps even a spiritual level. For example, Buddhist koans and Christian plainsong have been said to induce ecstatic transport, increase focus and alter consciousness. I recognize that this isn’t linguistic determinism proper, but there is a linguistic behaviour here (chanting) at play that seems to have the potential to alter one’s perception of reality.

The fact is that we don’t  understand the brain well enough yet to be able to know how different stimuli and practices come together in the network or palimpsest or whatever configuration of mental representations through which our minds are organized .

Now, these altered states may not be determined through language strictly but through a combination of language, memory, shape, colour, sound and attention… who knows.

The idea of the link between symbols, representation and our consciousness is pretty fascinating and I am happy that Arrival was abe to produced such a nuanced and engrossing experience based on it.

Meditating so that writing becomes fun and not work

Amazingly, I have stuck to two of my New Year’s resolutions: meditating and writing.

Each day, I have been spending two hours (at least) focused exclusively on editing JPC or working on my book project.

I have found that the time I spend writing and editing has become an inspirational and meditative time that I look forward and crave, because instead of stressing about not having written, instead, I think of writing as a relief from the stress of everyday life. This has made all the difference, taking writing from being work and transforming it into something exciting and relaxing to look forward to.

I got here by meditating in the morning, a little at lunch and in the evening. Each time for about 5-10 minutes. During that time, I try my best to calm my mind and then focus my thoughts (or blank them).

This has led to each meditation session being a source of inspiration for my writing or editing.

I will check in again soon with an update if this still continues to work.

Replacing fear with mindfulness

In our interactive era, you spend a lot of time with yourself and the internet. You ask yourself a lot of questions.

I think it is important to listen to the questions that you are asking yourself and be mindful of why you are asking them. If you find yourself asking whether you spend enough time working, then you probably ought to work more. If you find yourself asking whether you should be developing more of a homelife, then you should focus on people.

This is a question of managing fear.  We fear that there is a line that will be blurred and that we will not meet expectations, whether our own or those of others. But that line is ill-defined – the only thing that you will be judged on by others is your level of confidence and mindfulness.

Being mindful and confident means living without fear, because it means that you are present in your life and in the lives of others. We live in a world where our selves are shared out so much, that we often fall into the trap of not really being in the moment. Not really being in our relationships: friendship, family, intimate, work.

When you’re not really there, you tend objectify things, because you have to manage them as objects in your mind, rather than as holistic human experiences that occupy your soul and mind. Call this a concept of “nowness” if you will. People hate to be objectified because it is reductive, and it signals to them that you are not present in your life, so they do not really exist to you fully.

Try practicing “nowness” in your life. Be present in your work, your relationships, your spirituality. Don’t just go through the motions or skitter through your days. Many will achieve this through prayer, contemplation or even just through breathing.

In doing this, you will help others feel welcome and all aspects of your life will improve.  This will mean transformation – certain relationships or activities may fall away because they are actually not meant to be part of your life, your now.

When you are mindful and present, you will naturally ask the questions I mentioned earlier as you need to. The answers will be obvious. The only that will stop you from answering them will be fear.

Don’t be afraid. Be mindful.

Why religion is practical

We make a lot out of the spiritual and moral sides of religion, but rarely do we discuss the practical value it adds to our lives. I thought I would spend a few moments discussing what Catholicism, my religion, brings to my everyday life.

Closer family ties. I was born into a blended Catholic-Orthdox family. As such, I enjoyed two Christmases, two New Years and all of the lovely Orthodox holidays such as Name Days and Family Slavas. They were a chance to get to really build relationships with my extended family – that’s one of the reasons that I am so close to my cousins. We share those happy evenings of wonderful food, foot hockey in the basement and building forts out of chairs and pillows while our parents drank Turkish coffee and talked about politics and business. They were salad days whose memory lives on the strong bonds and common outlook that I feel with my cousins and uncles.

Personal calm and healthy perspective. The religion I practice everyday is Roman Catholicism. It brings me many things related to physical and mental health, peace and serenity. I pray everyday – that doesn’t mean mindlessly running through memorized verses. Not at all. Rather, it means taking a moment to talk to God and the Saints. I think while I pray, reflecting on my impact on the lives of others, how I can be a better, more productive, more helpful person.

Stable community. Another benefit of religion is community and companionship. I find much solace in the fact that I can go to my church, St. Ann’s in Ancaster on Sundays, at least, and see familiar faces, hear the news from people’s families and spend a moment in idle conversation with a visiting priest. It’s a lovely way to experience a stable and supportive community outside of work.

Physical health and detox. The final practical benefit, fasting, I would like to highlight is directly related to physical health. I fast during Advent, the period leading up to Christmas; and during Lent, the period leading up to Easter. Fasting helps me lose weight, detoxify my body and reset my metabolism. Depriving myself of addictive sweets, meat, caffeine and alcohol is a reminder that I should not live a life of excess. It also makes me savour those tasty things in small quantities when I can eat and drink them again.

So there you have it. A few practical reasons to practice a religion.

How I did with my 2011 new year’s resolutions: a journey of growth towards principled living

Last year, I had an ambitious list of new year’s resolutions. Here’s a recap and a report on how I did:

1. Get fit and lose weight. Partial success – I got fit for a part of the year, but then a stressful term and many preoccupations caught up to me and I gained it back again! So I am at 172 now, exactly where I was at this time last year.

2. Organise my time to get two books written. Half-Success. Well, I got one done! Understanding Human Communication, 2nd Edition came out. I am still working on the other one: Understanding Public Relations in Canada, and thinking about yet another on the topic of social media philosophy and strategy.

3. Keep a clean driving record. Yay! Success! I kept this one!

4. Take an advanced driving course. I just didn’t have time. Life caught up to me. I do have plans to eventually acquire a sports car, so this one will eventually come true, I guess. I learned this year, that this is really a back-burner issue.

5. Take at least one real vacation. Again, life caught up to me. I have never been busier or more stressed than I was in the last six months. Well, at least since my tenure year – that was pretty stressful.

6. Enjoy nature. Yay! Success! I got out for a quite a good number of walks, particularly in the first six months of 2011.

7. Pray and meditate more. A mixed result. I have definitely prayed and meditated more. But I have also had moments of complete self-absorption and dark anxiety, which weren’t in the spirit of this resolution.

8. Make more time for art and culture. Again, a mixed result. I have been to symphony more than ever before, but haven’t really been to the opera or the ballet, both of which I love.

9. Play the piano more. This wasn’t successful. I haven’t played much at all. Feel a little sad about this one.

10. Take life a little less seriously. Well, I think that while I haven’t really succeeded in doing this, in trying to, I learned something about myself. That is that I think taking life less seriously is heavily tied to prayer and meditation.

All in all, this year of resolutions was mixed. I think it was mixed because many of the resolutions I made would have been completely life-changing had I been successful. I have discovered that it takes time and dedication to change your life. It also means a fundamental and basic change in perspective. What this requires is not a change in the rules that you impose on yourself in your life, but rather a change in the principles that guide you.

What I have discovered is that one of of the most difficult things to do is to find the first principles which are at the root of your behaviour and your perceptions. Are you motivated by love? Do you want to build a good life filled with good things? Do you want to be a constructive and supportive force for good in the lives of others?

We can quibble over definitions of the Good, but the fact is that the Good is something we understand in context, given the people we are dealing with and the situations that they are in. That is where wisdom comes in – you have to understand and empathize with others, as well as have a connection with the history of human experience, feelings and stories to really be able to establish what is Good in a given circumstance.

What is most important is to make sure that your principles are always point you away from nihilism, selfishness, insecurity, cynicism and destructive thinking. Your principles should push you – stubbornly and relentlessly – toward the Good.

If you calibrate your principles this way, you will find the Good Life. Even if it takes you a long time and some errors along the way.

I will post a new set of resolutions for 2012 on New Year’s Day.

Merry Christmas everyone.

 

A beautiful conversation followed by terribly sad news

Today started off with a funny feeling. I felt off. When I went to do my morning push-ups regimen, I was weaker than normal. Something wasn’t right. I got into Mac very well dressed with a neatly pressed polo and fine woolen black slacks, ready for an important meeting. However, when I checked my messages, I realised that the big meeting I had prepared myself for had happened yesterday! There had been a scheduling error. How annoying. A bad start to the day.

Things brightened considerably after that. I had a wonderful lunch with McMaster communications alumna Emily Morrice and her husband Brad Morrice. What a wonderful thing to see my former student doing so well. Confident, successful and happy. It was a pleasure to speak with them. They work in Christian mission in Montréal, which is a challenging and exciting thing to do given the general apostasy yet feeling of seeking meaning that characerises the lives of many French Canadians. We had a very wide-ranging and stimulating discussion on topics are varied as “how do you talk about love and sin in contemporary life” to how can one have personally liberal and progressive views and still lead a life guided strongly in a set of non-relativistic, loving principles. It was exciting to chat with them and learn of their ministry. They are doing good in the world. They are doing it gently. And that’s beautiful.

After that I got some terrible news. Another of my former students and a good friend suffered a terrible tragedy as his wife gave birth to a stillborn child and she herself was now in critical condition. Life can seem so terribly cruel. A young couple, awaiting their first child – so full of joy and expectation, of the possibility of bringing new life and new love into the world – is brought down by accident. Life is so fragile. My prayers and my thoughts have been with them all day.

We all live steps away from death or injury or disability. We don’t know the amount of time that we have to live and love. I think that is why it is so crucial to lead a good life, a loving life, a life that makes a contribution every day to a better world. Some days that contribution could be creative – a poem, a painting, a new way of solving an engineering or financial problem, whatever. Another day that contribution can be to bring joy or peace to another. On yet another day, your contribution could be to help right a wrong, to stubbornly stick to a higher principle that you believe in, or simply to be an example of upright, reliable and decent behaviour to others.

Today, at lunch I spoke with people who have given their lives to spreading love and faith and order. In the evening I heard of others before whom life had thrown a terrible challenge.

I challenge you, my friends, to make your days count. I challenge you, as I challenge myself – to make each every day a contribution, an offering. You will step more lightly and you will sleep better. When you are not there, others will remember you and sing your name with admiration and gratitude. Each of your contributions to the good, no matter how small, is a step on your road to freedom.

Live a principled life, a good life, and you will have no regrets.