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Focus and Framing in Art and Life

Framing and Focus – How we look at the picture

After a break from taking and posting photos every day for 100 days, I discovered that I missed it a bit, so I asked myself what that was about. What came to me was that I missed choosing what to focus on in each photograph. It was stimulating each day to challenge myself to look at very familiar surroundings and to find an unfamiliar way of looking at them. Certainly there were mornings when I resented the “have to” feeling that I set up for myself. But almost every time I would move through that feeling into one of accomplishment, especially on days when I managed to surprise myself with something I hadn’t seen before.

The two words that came up for me as I thought about this were framing and focus. I’m using them in a non-“art-speak” kind of way, but it’s useful to at least look at what the capital-A Art world means by them. Framing is what an artist does to bring the viewer’s focus to something in the picture. It is about deciding what the viewpoint is, for instance, a lone tree might be framed by a wide, open field in a photograph, or a figure might be hunched in the lower corner of a painting. The framing can elicit a particular emotion from us, or hint at the intended meaning of the art.

What we choose to look at

For me, both framing and focus are about asking what gets included, what gets left out, what gets highlighted or emphasized. Why

choose this view over that one? When I take a picture focused on the blossoms, I’m allowing myself to get fascinated by them and ignoring the roots or bark. By shooting a close up of the grain of the wood in a fence, I have decided that the function of the fence doesn’t matter. Context drops away because of the tightness of the frame I’ve chosen.

Even a broader, landscape view will tell only part of the story. If I focus on the mountains across the Straight of Juan de Fuca, capturing both the ocean below and the sky above, you’re going to pay more attention to the relationship between the elements of the photo. The mountains seem to emerge from the sea to jut almost immediately into the sky – it will feel grand and impressive. No matter that in reality if I were to take the ferry over there I’d have to pass by boarded up buildings, road construction, and billboards before rising into the slopes of the Olympics.

The focus we choose determines the story that is told.

Focus and framing happen in other art forms too. This is even true in written and verbal art. A novel is usually written from one particular point of view. We could call that the framing. The author chooses what to tell us, and when. Some modern writers play with this, and tell old stories from an alternate point of view! (for instance Wicked by Gregory Maguire, or The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood) But in any story, we can always ask, which perspective is the writer asking me to look at this from? What is being left out of the story?

Focus and framing are everywhere. When you paint a picture, you can compose it in such a way that the eye naturally wants to settle somewhere in specific. And of course there is the actual framing of a picture, or the cropping of it. And this is something that can be great to play with in our own art.

Here’s a fun focus and framing exercise!

If you’re like me, not everything you make comes out the way you wanted. I always have have a number of pieces lying around that, for one reason or another, just don’t quite satisfy me aesthetically. Here’s something I sometimes do with them other than toss them directly in the “cut up for collage” bin or paint over them.

  • Take a piece of art that you perhaps don’t like so much as a whole. If you don’t have one, you can also do this with photographs in magazines.
  • Make two L-shaped pieces of card stock or cardboard. You might even want a few                                                   pairs in various sizes.
  • Play with using them to isolate certain parts of the art.
  • Can you find a focal point you like best? Can you frame it in such a way that it has a new or different meaning to you?
  • You can cut a segment out of your piece and use it in a new way – if it is small, perhaps it can be the front of a card, or put in a smaller frame, or used as an inspiration for a whole new piece!

Sometimes our lives need this kind of attention too. Are there places in your life that you need to “zoom in” on and see more closely? Are there situations that need more context included? Or that need reframing from a new perspective?  What do you habitually leave out when you tell your story? Is there something hiding just out of sight of the lens that could use your focus?

If  loss or change has knocked your life out of focus and you need help finding a way through the turmoil, I can help. Click here to contact me for a free consultation. You don’t have to cope alone. Video appointments available.

 

 

“It Moved Me” – Emotions and Art

Emotions and art are deeply connected

It is probably safe to say that emotions and art have been connected since the very beginning. I doubt the cave paintings at Lascaux  were made or viewed without any reactions by their creators or other community members. Whether they were created as mythic storytelling, depictions of particular hunts, or something completely different, we can imagine that, like us, the early artists and viewers felt something while looking at them. Perhaps they felt emotions of fear, or pride in the hunt, desire for status, or appreciation and gratitude for bounty. So what’s with the connection between emotions and art and the idea of movement?

What’s moving, emotions or me?

What do we mean when we say something “moved” us? We use the expression about emotions and art all the time… a piece of music or a poem is moving; a film moved us, sometimes “to tears.” But I’ve been musing about a couple of different ways to look at this idea of movement.  What is moving, precisely?

When I read a particularly poignant book, for example Love You Forever by Robert Munsch.  I, like the author himself, immediately choke up with  emotions of sadness and an almost indefinable ache – it feels a bit like longing – even though I have not yet lost either a child nor a parent. It “moves” me to a place of being able to feel what the author felt. The movement for me is from my

status quo, whatever it was before I picked up the book, into a new emotional state, a new place to experience life from, one I haven’t known before.

Or how about this? When I read that book (or my other favourite for accessing the bittersweetness of life, Peach and Blue  I can think of it another way. Through their love story I’ve opened the door to allowing an emotion to move through me. I am still who and where and how I am, but I’m letting the feeling enter, and I can let the feeling leave.

So what’s the difference?

Well, aside from giving me the chance to look at those two moving books again (and I could add a zillion other books, works of art, movies, etc. for any emotion you care to name, but then we’d be here all day and the dog wouldn’t get walked!) …

I don’t think one way of experiencing emotions and art is better than the other, but I do see them differently. When I’m the one being moved, for me it’s like I’ve been transported into a role. I feel something from the inside out, and I’m inhabiting that state of mind and heart. It puts me in touch with emotions I might never have known before. Or, even if I have, I’m feeling them from another perspective. When I use art to experience emotions in this way, I think I can say I’m learning a lot about empathy.

When the emotions have been moved through me it feels different. I remain in a bigger sense, more rooted in my own experience. Sometimes it’s because the feelings are ones that I’ve had before, and what moved them into/through me is a reminder of them. But not always. It’s more likely to happen when I’m in a grounded place, or you might even say in a more mindful place, where I’m practicing the habit of witness consciousness and recognizing that while I may have emotions, I don’t have to be identified with them. It’s the difference between believing “I am so angry,” and “I feel anger within me in this moment.”

Letting emotions move on through

Have you ever noticed how kids seem to be able to allow emotions to move on through them? The temper tantrum might be an almighty storm, rocking them right onto the floor with kicking feet and screaming lungs, but when it’s over it’s over. They’re already asking “what’s for supper?” while Mom is holding her heart, still breathing fast, and wondering if anyone would notice if she just walled herself and the family up until the child turns 21. It’s not so much that kids have anything like a “witness consciousness” going on – I don’t think most do. But they do seem to have some ability that we gradually lose as we grow older. Teens and adults hang on to emotions, to pull them out of our pockets to savour later, or to think them over for a good long time in the hope that they will reveal to us the secret of never having to feel that way again.

Choices

Like I said, I don’t think there’s one right way to experience emotions through art. But knowing that there’s not just one gives us some choices. Maybe you find it healing to watch a sad movie that you know you cry at every time. This can be really helpful especially if we actually feel like an emotion is stuck within us. Allowing the art to stimulate the sadness that is already within us, perhaps unexpressed or keeping us feeling tight, can let the sadness move through us more completely.

Or perhaps I might feel immobilised myself – like I am in a rut or habit of a way of feeling or perceiving my situation. Most especially when I’m feeling flat, this is when I find a trip to an art gallery really helpful. I can stand in front of many different pictures, one after the other, and allow myself to be moved into different states with each one. I can “try on different hats” in a way. What did the painter feel while he was making this one? What led that sculptor to create her piece out of that material? Those aren’t just thinking questions, but feeling ones as well. I can notice what my body and heart do in response to the art, and allow myself to get carried along into a new experience. I can then ask, what do I want to do, now that I can see things this way? It’s a way to create action in my life.

So – what moves you? What is moved within you? Share your thoughts on my Facebook page

And if you’re yearning for movement, wanting to make sure that you make the most of your life so that you can stop waiting for “someday” and start creating a fulfilling NOW, contact me for a free consultation. 

 

We’re All Mortal Here

Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

is what I’m reading right now. It’s a fabulous, humane book that looks at what the medical field is missing when all it focuses on is extending our lives. I highly recommend it if you happen to be mortal. Hmm. Any takers?

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you’ll no doubt have already figured out that I have a fairly intense interest in the subject of death. Usually this shows up in the grief arena, but it’s not just the “after-effects” of death that I’m concerned with. I’m sure my nearest and dearest have wondered often enough why I seem to be wired this way. But really, why is it that something that every single human being has in common with each other is so taboo? Nothing comes close to the level of shunning that death gets as a cocktail party conversation. Like most of my colleagues in hospice, bereavement, and other death-focused professions, I’ve often received comments like, “wow, you must be really wonderful to do that kind of work, bless you!”  It’s as if dealing with death and grief is somehow reserved for saints and the exceptional, rather than being as common and un-exceptional as – well, dust – to which we all return. This comment often comes right before the person’s eyes slide off of mine and start to look for the wine table. For some reason it’s not a very lively conversation opener.

Despite the fact that we’re ALL going to die, very few of us live as though that is true, and very few of us spend much time at all talking about it. Yet I don’t believe for a minute that no one is interested. Given a quiet room, some privacy, and a listening ear, I find that most people will engage in the conversation, and even eagerly, when they realize that I’m not going to turn the other way.

Let’s talk about being mortal for a minute

You’d think that the awareness of our inevitable death would create some kind of urgency in us to do something meaningful with our lives. And on an individual basis, sometimes it does. You probably know people in your own life, or not very far outside your circle of family and friends, who don’t need the added incentive of a terminal diagnosis or a serious accident to get them to focus on what’s important. But on a day-to-day basis, really, we let an awful lot get in the way of living our lives fully. It takes letters like the one Holly Butcher wrote  before she died at 27, to give most of us a kick in the motivational muscles to think about or talk about how we want to live our mortal lives, or how we want to approach our deaths.

As I age, stepping ever closer to my own death, and watching friends and colleagues care for their aging relatives, I find that I’m less frightened of having these conversations. Or maybe I’m just less patient with the fear that I do have! In what turned out to be one of the sweeter moments in my relationship with my parents, I invited them a few weeks ago to talk with me about what they thought would be important to them at the time of their death. We talked about what did and didn’t frighten them, and what kinds of support they’d want to have, and what felt unnecessary. I hope the conversation continues. It’s not a one-talk kind of subject in any case, and I need to tell them of my own thoughts and wishes – there are no guarantees that we will die “in order,” after all.

Despite that conversation, and all the others I have with clients, I occasionally appall myself with the realization that I still let the fear of death, or of the injuries and accidents that remind me someone I love is mortal, control me. Just yesterday, after our thin-skinned greyhound bounced Tigger-ishly into a sharp corner of our wooden banister, I held my hand over what I was certain was a deep gash in my dog’s side, afraid to move it in case seeing it would mean that he needed stitches. Seriously. I watched myself think this ridiculous thought, feeling the reluctance to move, even while I knew that I was being completely irrational.

My fear of what might be stopped me choosing to be aware of reality.

If it had been a more serious injury, my delay would not have been helpful. Luckily, the skin held, barely. That episode humbled and reminded me that it’s not all that long ago that I was avoiding conversations around do-not-resuscitate orders and medically assisted dying. I’m no stranger to the “If I don’t talk about it, it’s not real” phenomenon. Along with our uniquely human consciousness of our own death, we seem to be blessed and cursed with an almost limitless capacity, in our fear, to deny it.

Certainly we have more fun on the zip-line rides and bungy-jumps of life when we indulge in a little reasonable denial. And awareness, without acceptance and taken to an extreme, can invite terror and anxiety. But is denial what we want for ourselves, or for the ones we love, when it comes to knowing what we really want out of our lives and how we want to meet our deaths?

Here is what I wish for myself. In all mystical traditions across the globe, there seems to be an understanding that becoming more fully aware of and accepting of one’s own death enriches one’s participation in life. I want to commit myself to this practice of open awareness once again. I don’t want to keep my hand over the wound, to blind myself to what is necessary.

Life and death are of supreme importance.     

Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.    

Let us awaken

awaken….

Do not squander your life.

 –Zen night chant as quoted in Being With Dying, by Joan Halifax

 

Fear and Desire: The Challenge of Something New

Everyone knows that doing something totally new is a real challenge, right?

But then why does it seem like we’re always being encouraged to “just get out there and do it!” without acknowledgment of the stress involved? How do you handle the challenge of trying something new?

Maybe you’re one of those that greet the challenge of novelty with open arms – “Sure! I’ll try it!” you say. Your desire to do it outweighs any anxiety you might have, so you jump right in without worrying too much about it. If that’s you, congratulations! I have no idea how you do it, but I’m very happy for you (and more than a little jealous.) You probably have no need whatsoever to finish reading this.

If you’re like me, this response may sound more familiar: “What exactly do I need to know to do this right? What will happen if I do it wrong? Can I do it privately first, with no witnesses to my failure?” I believe, of course, that my failure is absolutely guaranteed. And that there will be dire repercussions, or at least serious embarrassment. If allowed to run riot, my fearful brain will take me on a ten-month detour to getting around to starting any project.

Working in a field where I am constantly asking my clients to try something they may never have tried before, I think I’ve observed most of the ways folks can respond to the challenge of doing something new. And it seems only fair that I should challenge myself in the same way!

 My current challenge – the video camera

I have had a difficult relationship with the camera (still or otherwise) for my whole life. I think my smile is weird, and I don’t even want to know what mannerisms come to light in video, where every eye-roll, unconscious scratch, and “um” gets immortalized, all ready to be sampled for a dreadful GIF. This might not feel like a big deal to anyone else, but for me, it pushes almost all my buttons.

But the thing is, I’ve seen people just being themselves on camera a lot lately (thank you Facebook) from family members to other coaches and therapists.  They look like they’re enjoying themselves. I’ve gradually decided that it’s something I not only “ought” to do, but might even have fun doing. The combination of my fear and my desire to be on camera has led me to really think about what’s going on when I ask other folks to dive into their own creative process with me in the studio.

When we really want to do something we’re afraid to do, we are confronted with one of the most basic realities of our human life. There’s a gap between how we want life to be, and how it is. The swimming pool looks so wonderful, but what if we don’t know how to swim? We’re curious, but we’re frightened. I think these two emotions are a major reality for anyone thinking of doing deep personal work. Choosing to do deep personal work with someone can bring both fear and desire right to the surface.

For you to decide to make art, especially if you don’t see yourself as an artist, might be a little bit like me pushing “record.” And to make art for the first time as a part of your deep inner work definitely counts as the highest degree of doing something new.

So why should we do it?

Quite apart from any benefits that a particular new experience might provide for us, there are some other things going on that I think make it even more wonderful. For one thing, we open to the possibility of seeing ourselves differently than before. Our ego-mind, with its eye on minimizing risk and maximizing comfort, often underestimates our capacity to meet a challenge. When we take one on, we get to experience ourselves as courageous, and that’s an incredibly empowering state, that can help us in every other thing we do.

Secondly, and probably most importantly, doing only what we already know how to do will take us exactly where we already are, and get us exactly what we already have. When we try new things and sit in the fear or discomfort of not knowing what it will be like, we have the chance to change. Indeed it’s the only way we can actually grow as people.

Having now made the jump a couple of times, and pushed “record” on a couple of short videos on my Facebook page and  I am beginning to see some results for myself. For the first one, I scripted myself and spent a good hour setting myself up to do just a couple minutes of filming. And I recorded it (much) more than once before finally I let it go and pushed “publish!” What fascinates and pleases me is that what I’m most proud of is that action of pushing that button (long delayed, overthought, and convoluted as it was.)  The videos themselves are secondary, and can pass away without regret even if they were good and without shame even if they were terrible.

And that is what I hope for everyone who chooses to step courageously into the action of their own creative lives. On the level of soul or personal growth, however you choose to see it, what you paint or sculpt doesn’t matter – but that you dared to confront your fear and embrace your desire to try something new – to paint or weave or write – matters immensely.

 

 

Prayer Beads: What “thoughts and prayers” can actually do

What do the words “prayer beads” make you think of?Prayer Beads in Tibet

If you had asked me what prayer beads were fifteen years ago my mind would have gone immediately to the Hindu and Buddhist mala beads popular among yoga practitioners. If you had asked me thirty years ago, I might have been aware of the Catholic Rosary, but not because I’d ever actually touched one.

When I think about it more deeply, however, I realize I’ve been engaged with prayer beads, or with things very much like them, for at least 25 years.

My first set of prayer beads

was given to me by a circle of dear friends just before my daughter was born. Each of them had brought me a special bead to commemorate my impending motherhood. During a beautiful home-made ritual, they each held their bead, spoke to me about their hopes and prayers for us in our new life as a family, and then strung them together for me. It comforted me for many years, through worries and celebrations.

Later, I received a set of handmade glass beads lovingly created by another friend to accompany me on a solo journey – a pilgrimage of sorts. Each bead reminds me of a particular element of our shared island home, and holding it brings my friend’s love to me every time I touch it. The making of the beads themselves – spinning the glass rods into a round bead in torch fire – must have been a practice of deep attentiveness as well.

Prayer beads take a more central role in my life now.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been introduced to another particular prayer bead practice, called the Paidirean (Gaelic, pronounced PAH-jur-in) in my current studies. Like other prayer beads, it is based on repeating a prayer or mantra sentence or word, and using the beads to count. That might make it sound like a rote practice, with little meaning – adding up the rows like an accountant. The opposite is true. By engaging my body (my fingers moving the beads, my breath with each prayer) my attention is brought more fully to the prayer or the mantra words, and I can drop deeper into their meaning. I’m not looking at a clock because I’m trusting my fingers to tell me where I am in the process.

The “thoughts and prayers” that happen when I use my prayer beads take me to a place where I work to align myself with peace. I feel helpless when confronted with the realities of a dangerous and violent world, and while prayers alone will never accomplish the change that needs to happen “out there,” my actions will never accomplish peace unless they are grounded in a truer knowing of what peace feels like. This doesn’t mean squashing down or denying my fear and rage. It means allowing myself to feel these feelings and allowing them to move through me, to transform into the kind of energy that makes political action possible and sustainable. The letter I can write or the speaking up I can do from a place of compassion will have more effectiveness than hurling angry words rooted in deep fear.

Woman with Prayer BeadsDo you have a prayer bead practice?

Or do you have another way of connecting to Source (God, Spirit, or True Self, however you might name it)? How does it help you to ground yourself during times of fear or anger? How do you sustain your ability to act and move in the world? If you’re interested in this practice, or other mindfulness practices, you may find a workshop HERE that works for you.

Mentors and Memories

 Mentors

This past week I learned of the recent death of the first person I ever consciously identified as a mentor. His name was Don Evans. He was my professor of Philosophy and Religion, among other courses, at the University of Toronto in the mid-1980’s. He had been on my mind a lot this January. I didn’t really know why, except that I was feeling some regrets at losing touch with him in the late 90’s.  It has felt, over the past year or so, like I have circled around once again to encounter who I was when I first met him, with new layers of growth and understanding.

 I would have liked to share my journey with him, and to express my gratitude to him for what he gave me. Even more, I would have liked to get to know him again and to hear about his life over the past twenty years. When I knew him I was too young to have a mature relationship of reciprocal compassion. Instead I had the privilege of being a student, and later a mentee, to be a sponge that soaked up his offerings of information, values, compassion, spiritual guidance, and perspective.

It was bitter-sweet to read his obituary  and to learn how widely appreciated he was, and how blessed he was in his family. When I first met Don, he wasn’t Don to me, but Professor Evans. I was 18 years old (barely) and still completely unclear about my direction in university, or life for that matter.

 The first course I took with him was the Philosophy of Human Sexuality, which was a very clever title to get university students to voluntarily study ethical philosophy and some early psychology. Beyond the cleverness, however, he was kind and compassionate. I was taking this course with my boyfriend (naturally!) and Don remembered and took an interest in the evolution of our relationship through all the years I knew him. When I was 20, when we caught up with each other casually on campus one day, and I told him we were getting married, Don put on his pastoral hat and insisted that I recognize the deeper value of the ritual, and that I should expect the change from living together to mean something. My immature view of it was that a wedding was just something formal. I don’t know if he ever realized that his brief conversation that day held me to a vision of commitment and intimacy that I’m still figuring out. Perhaps he was just having a fatherly moment, and feeling as apprehensive as my parents were at our decision!

Mentors mean relationships                                                                                                                                                                                       

The biggest difference between a role model and a mentor is that you can have a role model that you never meet in person. A mentor knows you. I can look back now and see several important people who have been beautiful mentors to me. The best have been those who were quite conscious of their role. Teachers can be mentors, but aren’t always. A teacher can limit their sharing to the information they are trying to pass on. A mentor also includes an awareness of the social or emotional needs of their protégé. A mentor gives you a glimpse of what it’s like to do something with grace, with skill, responsibility, and with wisdom. Sometimes they are the ones to be honest or challenging with you when friends or family can only be encouraging. Mentors often hold us to a higher standard, or to a discipline that they know is necessary for our growth or development.

Life transitions often require mentors

After that first course, I also studied the Philosophy of Religion with Don, and eventually joined his meditation classes outside of the university curriculum. He was the first person who introduced me to practices that were truly self-nurturing. I first learned the power of metaphor and visual imagery in his meditations. What he taught me eventually meshed with what I learned in poetry and literature. Don helped me understand that imagery has power beyond and deeper than the “I like it “ or “I don’t like it” distinctions of skilled or unskilled poetry or art. It has power in our bones and in how we live our lives. The right image is able to draw us further forward, plunge us deeper into an experience, or inspire us when we are at our lowest.

 I lost touch with Don at just about the same time as I lost touch with myself. It wasn’t a sudden event or a rupture; I just drifted away – across the country, and into a new stage that required different things from me. My focus shifted into the rigours of intense parenting, and away from nurturing my own spirit. It has taken me a long time to find my way back. Other teachers, other paths, and even new mentors have found me and helped me, but there, back at the beginning, was Don. How sad and yet sweet it is to find him again now. May your rest be only as tranquil as you wish it, old friend. Ido hope that I will meet you again, in one form or another.

Who are your mentors?

Spend a little time this month with your mentors – those in memory or those who hold you now. What have they brought you? And what do you bring to those who follow after you?

100 Morning Walks

The Challenge

I took on a challenge a bit more than 60 days ago to go for 100 consecutive morning walks, and to post a picture from each one on my social media accounts facebook and Instagram. Initially the purpose of this challenge for me was to dip my toes into being more consistently visible in the online world, the introvert’s nightmare! I wanted to become more comfortable there, so that I could begin to be able to connect with, and hopefully help, more than just the few local folks who can come in for appointments.

Interestingly, and gratifyingly, it has grown into much more. What I notice happening is that it isn’t just the walking that has grown into a true “practice,” but the noticing has too. I would say that my intention and ability to see, to be aware, and to find some pleasure in the seeing and awareness, have grown exponentially over the past two months.

I’m not sure that I was aware of my need to find pleasure when I started,

but I can tell you, that to do anything every single day for that long (with more than a month yet to go) it’s absolutely vital to be genuinely interested in it!

It hasn’t been completely delightful every day. Some days it’s been cold and wet and I’ve been grumpy and tired, so “pleasure” wasn’t really part of the story. But even those days, there was something happening, or something to see, or focus on through the camera lens, that engaged me, and pulled me out from underneath my dripping hood.

I recently co-hosted a webinar with Jann Dodd, PhD, a psychologist from Houston, Texas, on the subject of Positive Psychology. Her community is still pulling itself back together after Hurricane Harvey, and before we talked, I wondered if it was a bit of a stretch that she could so wholeheartedly be coming from a place of positivity.

One of the things she really brought home to me during the webinar was that the real definition of “happiness” in the research and science of Positive Psychology, is NOT rainbows and fluffy kitten unicorns, but a combination of three factors.

Pleasure, Engagement and Meaning

Pleasure is the one we usually think of, and it’s certainly part of happiness, but only one facet. The other two, and far more predictive of a “happy” life, are engagement and meaning.

To consider ourselves happy, in other words, research has found that people need to be actively interested and engaged with life around them – friends, family, hobbies – whatever it is that keeps us attentive and involved. And that we need to be using our skills, strengths, and character for something that has meaning to us. Often that means a larger purpose. It doesn’t have to mean an earth-shattering Nobel Prize winning purpose, just something that has greater meaning to us, like giving our customer great service and a smile, to make their day better. Pleasure is part of the recipe too: we need to know how to feel it, but it needn’t be present in huge quantities or all the time, for us to live happy lives.

When I started it, I had no idea that my #100MorningWalks had anything to do with happiness – with pleasure or engagement or meaning. Yet two months into the process, I had the wonderful synchronistic experience of learning that what I was doing was something perfectly calculated to increase my happiness! Having a solid practice in place (my public promise to show up every day!) has given me engagement, meaning, and enough pleasure to make it a reasonable gamble to keep going outside for that walk every day.

I will keep you posted, but I think it’s working.

Even with the downpour, and even though I absolutely reserve the right to be cranky once in a while, I do feel lighter.

For those of you who have joined me visibly in the #100MorningWalks posts, thanks for the company! And I sincerely hope that it has begun to work its magic in you. If you haven’t tried it, you might find it “enlightening!”

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Are you interested in using your creativity to heal, but don’t live in Victoria?

Are you more comfortable seeking help on-line?

Did you know that Frances offers her services on the web as well as at the studio?

If you’re a new client and would like to explore whether on-line sessions with Frances would fit for you, you can book a “Your Way Through Grief, Loss & Change” Free Consultation at
https://openhearthstudioschedule.as.me/

Mindfulness: Reflections on an Emerging Practice

Mindfulness

Mindfulness has emerged over the past couple of years as a major buzzword in both mental health and spirituality. Various forms of meditation have existed for centuries as a vital element in just about every form of spiritual and religious life across all cultures. Jon Kabat-Zinn was probably the first westerner to introduce us to the physical and mental health benefits of attuning our attention to the present moment, without judgment. In his words:

 Mindfulness is never about doing something perfectly, because it is not about doing or accomplishing at all. It is about allowing things to be as they are, resting in awareness, and then, taking appropriate action when called for. Silence, deep listening, and non-doing are often very appropriate responses in particularly trying moments — not a turning away at all, but an opening toward things with clarity and good will, even toward ourselves. Out of that awareness, trustworthy skillful responses and actions can arise naturally, and surprise us with their creativity and clarity.  (From this website: https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/pages/faq)

Meditation and mindfulness have taken a greater and greater place in my life as I have matured. I first encountered meditation in my studies of world religions in university in the 80’s. I embraced it at the time as a way to reduce some of the stress of my perfectionism. It didn’t hurt that many of the guided meditations I participated in were also meant to evoke pleasant visions and experiences of spiritual connectedness.

My mindfulness practice began with curiosity.

Through the years I continued to explore. I have practiced the body-centered mindfulness of yoga, the centering prayer of the ancient Christian tradition, and attempted to empty my mind according to some branches of Buddhism. I was searching for a way to feel whole, free, and deeply connected.

As a young counsellor, I found myself teaching my clients meditation as a way to lessen their anxiety or stress. When I became a parent, mindfulness showed up in my preparations for childbirth and guided meditation became a part of bedtime rituals for my young children when they had a hard time falling asleep. I wasn’t disciplined in a daily way, but it was always there in the background.

 And then, somewhere along the way, my eclectic practice dried up completely. I can’t place exactly when it happened. I just find, looking back over the tapestry of my history, that there is a hole in the weave, a place where the mindfulness thread broke.

Suffering brought mindfulness back to me.

For a number of years my family went through a period of deep disconnection – from our own selves and from each other. Our marriage broke down. We, and our children, suffered the confusion, despair, and anxiety that such a rupture can create. In our individual and family healing work, each of their stories is their own. The story that is mine to tell is that my healing came largely from observing my son as he took on a dedicated practice of compassionate mindfulness.

 I sometimes say mindfulness saved his life.

While that over-simplifies the story, on a feeling-level, for me, it is absolutely true. I watched him gradually transform from someone I no longer recognized to a more peaceful, loving, and happy person as he went from learning the basics to studying the deeper philosophy of Zen Buddhism. That process reawakened my own desire to engage in the practice again, and in the process, brought me back to my life too.

 My longing for a deeper wholeness and connection to the true Self that lies behind and beyond my habits of personality has returned more strongly than ever. I am assured that this is an entirely “age-appropriate” development! In our second half of life we look beyond the concerns that preoccupied us during our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Meaning eclipses success in our hierarchy of needs. And where else can we find meaning, joy, life, and connection other than in the present moment? Our past is gone and unchangeable. The future is not yet, and is far, far less controllable than we thought when we were younger.

 While I’ll probably never give up my eclectic tendency to explore the many avenues and traditions of mindfulness, I have seen first-hand how powerful a regular practice is, and this knowledge supports me in setting down roots in a morning routine of sitting meditation. Not to mention, it gives me lots to talk about with my kids!

 This winter I invite you to join me in an exploration of several mindfulness paths that intersect with the world of art. You never know, one of them might just fit you perfectly! On Saturday February 3rd I am offering Slow Threads, a workshop on meditative stitching. And on Monday, February 26th there will be an evening workshop on making and using prayer beads from several traditions: To Hold A Prayer In My Hand. See the Workshops page for information on all Open Hearth Studio group offerings. I hope also to have an online Basics of Mindfulness course up and running by the fall!

Handwork: Slow Art for a Busy Life

Handwork and Sewing

In my personal art, my favourite mediums are fibres, textiles, and embellishment, worked by hand. Occasionally basketry, weaving, embroidery, felting, and knitting can show up in my therapeutic work, although not very often.  Handwork techniques are slow, and don’t always fit well into the standard individual session length. But essentially they are simply another way of creating form or making marks, like clay sculpture or painting. Unlike working with clay or paint, however, it is much harder to create a complete image rapidly. The medium forces a pace that is nearly foreign to our compulsion for speed and efficiency. Patience and time themselves become our materials in this work.

Handwork created in community.

Recently I treated myself by attending an embroidery workshop, called “Talking Thread,” at the Makehouse  with Diana Weymar. Diana’s work speaks to many levels of experience, from the intimate and personal to the political place of women in society. You can see more about her HERE. One of the things I liked best about the project she shared with us (Interwoven Stories) and about the workshop, was the experience of community. Ten women gathered around a wooden table, to touch and see the handwork of people from far away, and to create our own. No one was expected to finish anything during our time together, just to spend the time with needle and thread and each other. We talked, laughed, and stitched. It was not hard to imagine a quilting bee taking place in just that way.

Handwork connects us to an eons-old lineage.

Women and artisans throughout time have shaped fibers and textiles into the forms of clothing, bedding, housewares, and even housing for their families and societies. The same movements of the hand create the most ornate royal embroidery and the simplest homespun shift or apron. The work today requires the same dexterity, the same attention to posture, and the same eye-hand coordination that it required in the medieval era in Europe or on this continent many thousands of years before that, in the construction of basketry, clothing, and regalia.

There is something about handwork that is deeply satisfying.

It always reminds me there are no fewer hours in a day now, than there were many thousands of years ago, when needlework began, or even longer ago when felting emerged. A needle moves in and out of the fabric; a breath moves in and out of my lungs. My heart beats. Sewing, beadwork, knitting: any of the handwork arts can have the quality of meditation if we allow them.  One therapeutic value of working this way is inherent in its mindful pace.

The products of handwork are also full of metaphor.

Therapeutically speaking, baskets can hold more than bread or apples – they can hold meaning, feelings like grief or joy, and experiences. We speak often of the need to have containment, or to be contained or held. Clothing can do more than cover us – it can be armour, define us as having a particular rank, or even allow us to be someone else. A relationship can be seen as a comforting blanket, or a binding rope. We speak of assuming a cloak of authority. Even the techniques of textile construction are metaphors themselves – “woven together,” “tangled,” “interlaced,” and “felt.” As we work with them, taking our time, we can spin the fibres of our lives into a thread with which we can create new beauty and new strength

What’s your personal history and connection with handwork?

Do you have memories of a family member sewing handmade clothing or knitting you a pair of socks? Do you keep items that have been passed down to you through generations of sewers, knitters, or weavers? What place does slow work have in your life?

 During the slow, dark days of winter, consider lighting the lamps and sitting with a cup of tea and ball of yarn, a spool of thread, knitting or sewing needles, and see what comes of it. This winter I will be offering a couple of opportunities to join me in mindful handwork workshops. See the Workshops page for more information.

 

‘Tis the Season for…..Holiday Stress?

It happens every year: the decorations go up, and so does the holiday stress.

Even if the decorations aren’t in your house, even if you don’t celebrate a particular holiday, it can happen. Lots of lists show up at this time of year, suggesting ways to handle the holiday stress. And I don’t disagree with most of them; it’s just that they rely on a “do’s and don’ts” formula, with a disclaimer to “do what feels right to you.” A big problem is that, for many folks, figuring out “what feels right” is hardest during times of stress and competing demands.

 Knowing our values is one thing that can help. We generally feel happiest and most fulfilled when we are acting in line with what is most important to us.

But sometimes our own values can be in competition with one another.

As an example, I value love, kindness, beauty, and self-care, among other things. They are important to me, and I get satisfaction from making them part of my life. Some holiday options that relate to these values are getting together with people I love, doing nice things for others, having pretty lights and a decorated tree, and spending a whole lot of time in my pajamas, asleep or reading on a couch (or, to be honest, sleeping on a couch with an unread book on my face.)

 Obviously it’s going to be hard to do all these things all at the same time. It won’t be safe for me to climb a tree and put up lights in my pajamas! And lying on the couch won’t be as fulfilling an experience without the glow of a decorated tree, or without the company of my family.

 In an ordinary year, I usually find a way to fit most of these things into my life so that there is a balance. (I admit it, the balance leans more towards pajamas and couch time. I’m ok with it.)

But some years it’s been nearly impossible.

When I’ve been out of my mind with worry about a family member’s health, suddenly my patience – with other people’s needs, or with other people’s opinions about how to put up the tree – has gone way down.

 If you’re in the middle of a time of stress that comes from more than the season itself, like dealing with a death, financial worries, or a big change, I’m sure you will have noticed similar changes. The hard part is that usually our values themselves don’t change. We still want to be kind, generous, comfortable, and surrounded by beauty. We still want to make choices that reflect our value for homemade instead of bought, our care for the environment or our commitment to social justice. And we still want our holiday preparations or activities to reflect those values.

And that’s where the holiday stress multiplies, and guilt has a chance to creep in.

So what’s possible in that kind of situation? I think a bottom-line, first principle to follow is the same rule the flight attendants quote before the airplane takes off: “Put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping the person next to you.” It’s important to remember that you cannot accomplish anything for someone else if you’re exhausted. If authenticity or honesty is important to you, being clear with others about how you’re really doing will be an action in line with your values.

Here’s where “just do what feels right” isn’t as helpful as it sounds.

Because it might not feel right to look after yourself. You’ll probably feel wrong about neglecting what you see as your duties. You’ll feel bad or sad about missing out on some of what you usually really enjoy. This sounds like bad news right? Like a no-win situation. But I truly don’t see it that way. Sometimes knowing what’s right (what’s in line with our deeper values) can give us the strength and grace to tolerate the harder feelings.

If we can bring the value of compassion to this question, then I think the whole picture changes.

Softening our hearts toward ourselves, leaning into what hurts about where we’re at, softens our hearts all around. We gain perspective and grow compassion for other people’s suffering too.

If I can accept that I’m exhausted, grieving, sick, or stressed, and that I’m going to feel short-changed and sad about letting go of some of the more stressful holiday preparations in order to take care of myself, then I’m at a lower risk of throwing a tantrum while trying to make things perfect for the kids.

 If I can see, accept, and take care of my own stress, sadness, and anxiety, I can help the kids to accept theirs. We can learn together how to soothe what hurts. And it’s not just kids – the same thing goes for partners, aging parents, and anyone else we share our lives with.

 Beginning the honest conversation about what’s really going on for us can be the most valuable holiday gift of all.

 I’d love to hear what values guide you in your holiday decisions. Do you struggle with some of them conflicting with each other when you’re feeling low or under stress? You can comment below, or on my Facebook page, or drop me a line! And of course, if you need some help clarifying what’s most important to you, or managing the realities of bereavement, caregiving, or major life transitions, I’m here to help. You can contact me HERE.