Category Archives: Meditation

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?

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!