Mind Full or Mindful?

imgresTo end this month of gratitude and mindfulness, a post on meditation seems only fitting.

Last month I met Jackie. I have been curious about meditation and spirituality for some time but it was a few months ago when I was absolutely exhausted that I succumbed to that niggling feeling of needing “more”.

I was so busy contorting myself to keep all of the plates spinning and the thought that something was missing seemed idiotic. Even I recognized that I couldn’t possibly toss another in the air and sustain life at the most basic level. And then this thought: what if I just let some of these plates drop?

I am good at following rules and I held staunch to the golden one: finish what you start. So you see, the mere idea of saying “no” was counter to my beliefs.

But what if . . .

The worst that would happen is that I would cut my feet. And cuts heal.

I felt like I had known Jackie my entire life, and about 30 seconds after exchanging names, we hugged. In that embrace I felt calm.

I know, I know. Insert eye-roll here.

Sitting across from each other, I dove into my story. I explained to Jackie that I felt as though something was missing from my life. I have all the material things anyone could want. I have health. I have freedom. I have it all. But that’s not enough. I want to enjoy it. I want to live my life without feeling frenzied, harried and EXHAUSTED! But what’s worse, I felt shame for even admitting that I wanted more.

I know, I know. (There may be lots of eye-rolling here.)

Jackie sat across from me, listening to every word I said. She nodded empathetically and when I was finished with my rant, she quietly said, “I relate to how you feel.”

Jackie started to explore her spirituality when she was my age and living a very similar life. She too was baring the responsibility of child rearing and being a supportive spouse; she was also felt that there was something more like what I described.

Thirty-five years ago, Jackie discovered the power of meditation and began in earnest to study Buddhism over a decade ago, which she is quickly points out is a philosophy not a dogma.

I tell Jackie that I am just dipping my toes into this new way of thinking, that I am reading Jon Kabat-Zinn and struggling to practice Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) and in this little time, I have come to discover that “niggling feeling” has quieted, softened.

Jackie nods when she hears this. She leans forward, her blond hair brushing her cheek, and I get a good look at her face. She is radiant. Her eyes sparkle, her complexion is clear and she is focused solely on me. She never glances to her phone or excuses herself to tap out a text message. I am struck by how infrequently these kinds of interactions are becoming.

“Originally my practice was based more on mindfulness until I discovered Vipassana; in Toronto I sit with Satipanna Insight Meditation Toronto.” Jackie goes on to describe a patchwork of experiences from sweat lodges in earlier years to silent meditation retreats that define her journey of spiritual discovery.

When I ask her what benefits she feels meditation brings, she is simple with her reply. “Learning to approach life with more calm, happiness and compassion.”

“You sound so enlightened.” I say this as a compliment.

Jackie looks somewhat aghast. “Oh no! I am just a beginner.”

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From My Book Shelf

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The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown Ph.D., LMSW

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The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion and Connection by Brene Brown Ph.D., LMSW

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Mindfulness For Beginners by Jon Kabbat-Zin

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Everyday Blessings: the inner work of mindful parenting by Jon Kabbat-Zinn

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Mindful Parenting by Kristen Race, Ph.D.

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The Mindful Way Through Depression by J. Mark G. Williams

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About Jacqueline Carroll:

Jackie has  has worked with both Asian and Western teachers.  Since 2001 Jackie has practiced specifically Vipassana Mindfulness meditation, supported by a Metta practice.

Jackie is inspired by her practice with various guiding teachers:  Sayadaw U Pandita, Burma, Sayadaw U Vivekananda, Nepal, Bhante Gunaratana, USA, Ayyang Ripoche, Ayya Medhanandi, Perth, Ont,  Ajhan Viradhammo, Perth, Ontario, Marcia Rose, New Mexico, Michelle Macdonald, Ottawa, Ont., Randall Baker and Jim Bedard, Satipanna Insight Meditation Toronto, Toronto, Ont.

To learn more about meditation please visit, Harmony Yoga Wellness

Mindfulness, Meditation, and Making the Most of the Day

056It must be about 15 years ago now that I went to my first yoga class.  I had finished law school and landed a job at the University of Toronto, where I would stay for awhile before becoming a litigator.  The Associate Dean of the law school was my supervisor, a bright light at the school whose work ethic and good judgment was jettisoning her career at rapid speed.  This type of life is predictably stressful, and it was she who recommended that I try yoga, because it had done wonders for her:  “It sounds cliche, but it’s transformative,” she said.

This wasn’t an endorsement that I could ignore so I went.  And shoot, it wasn’t transformative.  I just felt twisty and disconnected and wondered what the deep rumbly noises all around me were (ujjayi breathing).  In other words, I had no idea what I was doing or why, which kind of means that I really wasn’t there.

Gratefully I tried again, with a very good friend who introduced me to an Indian teacher from whom she first learned in India, and who she continued to follow when he moved to Canada.  And the classes were, well, transformative.  It was my first real foray into meditation, or less loftily, simple calming the mind (I’m pretty sure he would not call those classes meditation by a long shot, but it’s me writing the post).  My body was doing all kinds of interesting things, but focusing on one’s breathing for an hour and a half (even when it’s raggedy and you should cool it a bit with the pose), is profoundly restful for the mind.

Mindfulness is a pretty catchy term, which is always a signal that one should explain what one’s definition of it is.  For me, it means being more awake to my surroundings and my choices, to live more intentionally.  I have been doing this for quite a few years now, sometimes with great success, and sometimes not.  At the moment, I am operating in a less successful window.  I could cite some reasons, but why bother – I’m just (over-)busy, much like you.

But if my hold on being mindful were stronger, I would know that it is precisely during such times when meditation and a calm mind is most needed and most helpful.  I woke up yesterday really feeling like a shift was due, and set my sights on a 30 minute window for a mindful meditation.  An unexpected turn in my husband’s schedule eliminated this possibility; I was with my 3 year old until the end of the school day, when I’d have my boys on my own until bedtime.

I’m vulnerable to being plowed under when best laid plans like these don’t materialize, but in one of my better moves, I noticed that the weather was clear and warm-for-fall, and my boy and I went outside.  I finally set up the cages for my mushroom logs (best-tasting mushrooms ever, by the way) to keep the darn raccoons away, and the neglected garden got some attention, with some of it put to bed (not the kale though, it’s still going strong). We were outside for a long time, my little guy sometimes helping me, sometimes doing his own thing, almost always talking to me.  We worked.  I worked, but I stopped often to see his centipede, or to find the wet hat lost in the summer, or to pick chamomile.  We came into the house hungry and happy and settled.

It was not a meditation, but it was mindful, and it felt like a breather for an over-active mind.   I was active and productive at home, and yet the world slowed down for me, and the conscious choosing of my time felt grounded and right.  The benefits felt similar to those from meditation, and I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on mindfulness when my allocated 30 minutes of meditation slipped away, because there was still a whole day remaining.

It won’t do for the purists I know, but maybe meditation or at least its benefits can come in different forms, and maybe it’s not quite elusive this way.  A walking meditation maybe, a listening meditation, a gardening meditation, a playing meditation.  Just actually noticing where you are and making the most of it meditation.

Yesterday this happened.  Today is a new day.  I’m going to try.

7 Steps to Mindfulness

IMG_5196A few months ago, I embarked on a quest to be more mindful. I know – sounds like a bunch of hooey, but in truth my journey of self-discovery has been transformative. It’s not for the faint of heart to sit down and dissect every fiber of your being. It’s not easy to admit ones’ flaws but it’s a cake walk in comparison to actually working on improving upon those flaws.

So why am I doing it?

I want to live my life with intention. I want to have meaningful conversations with friends and not feel the compulsion to look at my phone. I want to read books. Real ones – with pages. I want to exercise to strengthen my body and be healthy not to do 100 burpees in 45 minutes and nurse my aching knee afterward. I want to live in the moment and not be so worried about what’s going to happen, what has to happen and what hasn’t happened yet.

But it’s hard. It’s really so very hard.

Especially living in a culture where being “busy” is seen as a sign of importance. Where people proclaim to be Type-A like a badge of honour (because gasp what if you were just you?) and if you’re not juggling more balls than your neighbour: you’re lazy, a slouch, a slacker.

I like to think that I don’t care what other people think of me; I am sure at one time that I did. And maybe subconsciously I still do. With the return of the school year and familiar routines, at times I find myself slipping, disoriented by the rush of it all, losing sight of what is really important to me. And for me.

Breaking this pattern of behaviour doesn’t happen over night but I am slowly implementing ways to be more mindful.

A Pathway to Mindfulness

There are no easy routes. Everything takes time and practice. Practice. Practice. Here are some tips recommended by various experts in the field (a reading list to follow on Friday).

  • Get over yourself and your ego. No one really cares. Everyone is too busy caring about himself or herself.
  • Learn to say no. When you say “no”, you are actually saying “yes” to something/someone else.
  • Let go of judgment. Stop judging others and more importantly stop judging yourself.
  • Carve out “protected time” for yourself. Whether it be a bath, yoga, reading with a cup of tea, exercising, – it doesn’t matter what you’re doing so long as it nourishes you. Do it alone and commit to it. Savour each page. Linger over each stretch. Feel the water.
  • Be honest about your experiences and feelings. Perhaps if we were all more honest and revealed our vulnerability these exceedingly high expectations we’re striving for would be recognized as unattainable.
  • Ask for help and accept it without judgment.
  • Set boundaries and respect other people’s boundaries. “Setting boundaries is a lot more work than shaming and blaming” – Dr. Brene Brown

None of this has been easy and most days I feel like I am failing miserably but then I remind myself I can begin again- right now.

And on the days that I am practicing mindful living, I am happier because I am busy being and not busy doing.

Meditating with Pattern-Making

photo 1 (3)Meditating and me, we just don’t click.  I can remember lying in bed as a child, struggling to fall asleep, and trying to count sheep.  I never even made it to ten before I’d be off track, imagining a wolf hiding behind a fence, waiting for his lunch, thinking about what I myself had had for lunch, and would there be any mango left over for lunch tomorrow, and thinking about how Soandso had sat with Whojimmywhatsit again, and my mind would be off racing.

Fast forward to adulthood, and I have the same problem of extreme distractibility as soon as I am supposed to immerse myself in concentrating on nothing.  I’ve tried and failed to empty my mind so many times, and as much as I love a challenge, I do not like repeated failure.

This past summer, though, as I was hunting for how-to books for making art with my kids, I stumbled upon a series of books about pattern-making called Zentangle.

The Zentangle Method is a way to create images by drawing structured patterns. It was created by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas, who found that she entered a meditative state as she drew her tangle patterns.  According to their web site, Zentangle began when Maria described “her feelings of timelessness, freedom and well-being and complete focus on what she was doing with no thought or worry about anything else.”

And it really is an all-absorbing, relaxing and fulfilling way to focus on something while thinking of nothing.

Carol told me recently about a tip someone had given her about how to occupy herself while sitting keeping her kids on task doing homework.  You know how sometimes, when you are sitting with your kids while they are doing homework and you get the urge to stick a hot poker in your eye just so that you can have something else to think about other than how much you’d like to escape?  Grab knitting needles instead.  It is more productive and less likely to end in bloodshed.  Knitting, once you are past the absolute beginner stage, is a brainless and soothing way to keep your hands busy when your mind has to be occupied.  Knitting also has the enormous value of giving you something in return for your effort, and at the end of the homework session, you will both have accomplished something other than screaming.  Drawing patterns has become that something for me.

Productivity is part of why I fail so spectacularly at meditation.  Believe me, I do get the irony of wanting meditation to be productive, but let’s face it, it’s not like I have lots of time to devote to getting it right.  I struggle and struggle and in the end I feel that I have wasted my time and energy and emerged with nothing, but not the nothing I was supposed to be aiming for.

Doodling patterns gets me into that totally focussed state of mind, gives me a feeling of well-being, and at the end of a doodling session, I have an image to show for it.  That is enormously satisfying.  I am working my way through doodling the letters of the alphabet.  This is what I made while the kids did math:

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If you’d like a quick tutorial on how to make one of the Zentangle designs, grab any old sheet of paper and something to draw with and follow along:

 

 

At Issue: Mindful Living

Mindfulness has become a buzzword. It’s joined authentic, vulnerable and validate as words I often hear tossed around but wonder, what does that really mean?

According to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, considered to be a pioneer in mindfulness based stress-reduction, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

Psychology Today says that mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present, observing your thoughts and feelings from a distance without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.

Since the early 1980s clinics have been established to teach the principles of mindfulness. Mindful parenting has been gaining traction as people struggle to find balance amid the chaos of juggling careers and parenting with the demands of everyday life. The University of Alberta offers a new course that promotes teacher mindfulness and NYU’s Stern School of Business has recently collaborated with Global Spiritual Life at NYU giving MBA students an opportunity to transform business leadership. Even Time magazine dedicated their February 2014 cover to “The Mindful Revolution”.

This week, we are trying to figure out what this mindful revolution means to us, how we can live more mindful lives and if we even care to add one more thing to our growing to-do list.

Toronto’s Only Urban Homesteading Store

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Little House In The City truly is a hidden gem in this city – maybe even the entire country!

Located at 555 Parliament St., just around the corner from the ever popular Riverdale Farm, Little House In The City is Toronto’s first urban homesteading and sustainable living store . . .and it’s co-owned by Carol!

What is urban homesteading? It’s really a lifestyle.  It’s about taking a step backwards, living more simply and making a conscious effort to create a more sustainable, low-impact life.

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Take time to sew using these whimsical fabrics.

Take time to sew using these whimsical fabrics.

 

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Buttons galore! Useful for a myriad of craft projects and very pretty to look at.

Little House In The City has a wide variety of supplies to support creative adventures and DIYs in and for your home.  In addition to being ethical and sustainable, these simple activities will encourage a newfound confidence in your homemaking abilities. They also have beautifully crafted ready-made gifts that made with organic or sustainable materials like the stunning cheese boards made of reclaimed wood that Nathalie received for her birthday.

These cheeseboards make for a lovely hostess gift.

These cheeseboards make for a lovely hostess gift.

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The neutral tones of this pottery would off-set a colourful, summer salad or rich, wintery stew quite nicely.

Whether it be cheese making, fermenting, soap making or sewing Carol, and her partner Carla, will guide you in selecting the right tools for the job.

Beginners: don’t feel intimidated!  I purchased the sprout growing kit with organic seeds and I followed Carol’s instructions.  Within a few days we were adding alfalfa to our sandwiches and salads – and I can barely keep houseplants alive!

Coming soon, Little House In The City will offer classes for adults and children, hands-on demonstrations and community events to teach and inspire others to live more mindfully.

Here are some of my favourite things!

Follow Little House In The City on Facebook

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Snakes and Lattes: Board Game Cafe

logo-lattes-blackWhen we were getting to know each other, a past boyfriend asked me what I liked to do for fun when I was a girl.  The idea I think was this information could be a window into our who we are now, as adults.  He said he liked to draw (which I did not like to do).  I also remember that I did not like playing with dolls, or pretend house, dress-up, or building.  My repertoire of fun was limited:  I liked to read, do puzzles, and play games.

So it surprised me that it was not until last year that I learned of Snakes and Lattes, which claims to be North America’s first board game cafe.  It’s a place where, for a $5 cover, you can sit and play games until the cows come home.  All the gaming while, you can have coffee/tea and snacks, or a casual meal, delivered to your playing table.

The main appeal of the cafe, of course, are the games.  We’re going leaps and bounds beyond Monopoly and Battleship here, although of course the tried and true are here and popular enough.  There are hundreds and hundreds of games, from traditional favourites to new weird and wonderful that neither of us have ever heard of.  When the options start to overwhelm, you can consult a Game Guru, aka an employee who knows a strange lot about the bazillion games on offer and will guide you to choosing something that you’ll like.

One of the nicest things about Snakes and Lattes is that it appeals to all generations.  I have a friend who is a big more of a board gamer than I am, and this cafe is for her both a destination on date night and for her children for (the whole of) a Sunday afternoon.  You gotta love the democracy of a good game.

I also love – and here my biases are pretty well-defined – that these games are played without screens and with other people and not in a basement.  It’s almost quaint, the idea of a board game, which for me is extra reason to applaud how successful this cafe has become.

Another thing about this place, it’s open like all the time during the week – an ungodly 7am on weekdays (what is it, a bakery?) until “late”.  Weekends commence at a more normal 11am until “late”.

Predictably they sell games too, although the real appeal is getting to play games in a public place with other people willing to do the same thing – kind of like an adult opportunity for parallel play.  It’s a friendly place, with a nice vibe, and if anything can take the possibly ever so slightly nerdy edge off of board games, this is it.

ps.  If you have not tried it, and like politically very wrong humour that targets everyone, Cards Against Humanity is a memorable choice , and good for a group, especially if there is wine.  Or tequila.

pps.  Snakes and Lattes did not ask me to write this and I got no free games out of it.  Darn.

Tequila Tasting in Toronto

It never fails to amaze me the many unique opportunities and experiences Toronto has to offer. There are the obvious: the CN Tower, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the many orchestras, ballets and theatres, to name a few. It’s the hidden gems that continue to inspire me, delight me, educate me and make me thankful to be living in such a dynamic, colourful, and culturally diverse city.

El Caballito is one of these hidden gems. How does a tequila and tacos cantina qualify? First off, El Caballito, located in the heart of the entertainment district, is not just another tourist trap. The robust and lively atmosphere, with dimmed lighting and music pumping, instantly transports you from the hustle and bustle of traditional downtown Toronto to the vibrant streets of Mexico City. The place oozes authenticity and Manny Contreras will attest to its street cred, Certified Master Tequilier and bar manager, was born and raised in Mexico City.

El Caballito offers patrons more than just incredible Mexican cuisine. Whether you’re a scotch aficionado, a wine sipper with penchant for Merlot or a lover of craft beer, after some time in the private tequila tasting room with Manny, you’ll leave El Caballito at the very least with an appreciation for the art of tequila and quite possibly a new affection for the spirit.

Manny Contreras himself is a hidden gem. There are less than one thousand tequiliers working in North America and Manny is one of only two working in Canada after years honing his taste buds in Mexico City. He began at the age of 13 working behind his father’s bar and he is truly steeped in the tradition of tequila.

“You need to know everything about each tequila before you can sell it,” his father told him. Manny sipped from each bottle, discerning the various flavours before he had his first full glass at the age of 21. Manny’s interest in his country’s national drink was more than just a means to make money; it became a passion that propelled him to enroll in a five-year course to become a Certified Master Tequilier.

Tucked away in a room lined with his collection of tequila, that includes everything from Jose Cuervo to Clase Azul, the candle light flickers on the brick wall and the scene is set.

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Manny explains with vivid detail how tequila evolved from being the drink of the peasants to the kings and cycled back again to the peasants. Folklore, European invasions, wars, and big corporations have all had a hand in transforming tequila from pulque (fermented sap from the agave plant) to what we know it to be today.

“You have to be ready to really taste the tequila. You have to take your time with it. Let it be still in your mouth.” Manny guided us through our tasting with patience while describing the proper way to enjoy tequila. Drinking tequila is somewhat analogous to the vision that I have of the quintessential Latin lover.

There is much fore play: rolling it around in your mouth, breathing in the heady sensations, allowing the first sips to cleanse and prepare the palate.

There is much sweetness and intensity: the lightest in colour the blanco is young, and bites the tongue, while the darker anjeo is aged and has a sweeter, lasting flavour.

There is also the morning after that can leave one groggy and remorseful but Manny maintains it’s not likely if you savor the experience of a fine tequila instead of absently shooting it back in a flurry of debauchery.

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If you’re looking to experience something truly unique, even if you think you hate tequila because of a wasted night in Mexico on your 18th birthday, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.   Book an evening with Manny. He offers a variety of tasting experiences that are suited to all tastes and budgets.

Manny’s Picks

All Time Favourite: Don Julio 1942

Best Value: Tromba

Under-The-Radar: Casa Amigos

For Deep Pockets: Clase Azul

The Leslie Street Spit: A Man-Made, Nature-Filled Wonder

220px-OHEHOpenStreetMapThe Leslie Street Spit is a man-made headland that extends five kilometers south into Lake Ontario from the bottom of Leslie Street.  Since the 1960s, the site has been used for dumping all of the rubble and dirt from excavations from new building construction.  What came out of the ground with excavators got dumped down here until it had grown to its current size.  What the city did not anticipate was that this man-made land would be so quickly colonized by plant and bird life, and what began as a dumping ground has become a bird sanctuary and a haven for city-dwellers looking for a long and car-free walk by the lake.

The site is now a park, but because it is still an active dumping zone, the park is only open on weekends. Parking at the gates to the park is a bit haphazard, and while there is a lone hot dog stand at the end of the route, you will keep your little campers happy if you come well stocked with snacks and drinks.

I have walked and biked the 10 kilometers round trip from the street to the lighthouse at the tip of the spit with the kids many times, and there is always something new to discover.  One year, students from Guelph University were there tagging monarch butterflies; the spit has become a stop on the butterflies’ migration route.  There are 45 species of birds that breed on the headland, and more than 300 species have been spotted there.  Budding bird-watchers will find a lot to spot.  There are marshes and woods and bridges and bright sky and a lake wind.  There are cormorants perching on wooden pilings and butterflies to chase.  The entire route is paved, with makes biking, roller blading and walking with a stroller all equally easy.  You may see one city pick up truck, but the route is closed to cars.  It is amazing to walk here and see how much work nature has done to make this space its own in such a short time.  It teems with life.  It’s a place to go on a wide-open day, when you have no pressing business elsewhere, to meet with the wide open sky and the lake.  Wide open days are precious enough, but when you can say that you have walked among the cottonwood trees or seen the lake’s whitecaps at your leisure, I think the day has been truly well spent.

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Facts and map from Wikipedia.

 

 

Theme Week: Hidden Gems In The City

I can’t tell you how many times I have discovered something- a place or an activity, a restaurant or a park and thought, wow, I can’t believe that I have been living in this city for this long and never knew this existed!

This summer when we explored the Evergreen Brickworks and No.9, I felt very smug. I wanted to proclaim to every non-Torontonian that we have these places in our backyard. I have that same feeling whenever I venture to the Toronto Islands or walk along the Beltline Trail, heck, I even feel that way when I gaze up at the CN Tower. Boastful? Prideful? You bet! I am continually awe-struck by the amazingness this city has to offer.

This week we are going to share a few of our favourite hidden gems in the city. It was painstakingly difficult to narrow it down so we may just have to make this an annual series!

What are some of your favourite places in Toronto? If you’re not from Toronto, what are the hidden gems in your town that everyone must know about?