Category Archives: Stress

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!

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.

 

Listening to nature; Listening to myself

Moving through nature, transitioning with nature

As some of you know, I make an effort to go on some kind of retreat annually. My preference is for that to include at least some time when I can be alone with myself, out in nature, in addition to time for intensive learning. This year (and last year too, actually) I found myself in Central Oregon, in the “high desert” region near Bend. I drove down there this time, and the experience of moving through several different types of forest, of climate, and geology was profound, especially during fall – itself a transitional season, moving from the light and warmth of summer to the cold and dark of winter.

From darkness into light…

I navigated Highway 101 from Port Angeles down to Olympia, Washington in the dark and nearly in the rain. My shoulders stood perpetually on guard, around the altitude of my ears, and I questioned my judgement many times as I squinted against the bright lights of oncoming cars and the constant, unfamiliar curves in the road. On the other hand, at that hour there was little traffic behind me wanting to go faster than I was comfortable with – a small but important blessing!

After a short and poor sleep at a cheap and noisy motel, and a lot of urban sprawl past Portland, my mood matched the sky as I finally entered the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. It was grey with rain-heavy clouds, and the scent of smoke from wildfires was strong. I knew the mountain was there – in fact the map told me I was driving right on the southern slope of it – but my senses didn’t reflect that reality at all. Where was the nature I was so desperately seeking? Where was the view I expected? Was I stuck with a narrow view of dripping aspens (still green, no interesting fall colour yet) and mind-numbing asphalt? Where were the poetic vistas I remembered from my last trip this way?

How many times do we not see the change until it’s already happened?

Suddenly, Highway 26 dropped out of the clouds and I found myself driving along widening canyons more tan and red than green and wet. The sky seemed to lift up and it was as if the rainy morning had never been. The road was the same, the curves were as scary, and yet … now it felt like the road would get me somewhere, the curves revealed a new potential photograph every second. And there were my beloved rock formations, undulating along the roadside where only seconds earlier I had seen nothing worth noting.

It prompted me to wonder, “What changes might be happening underneath the surface, underneath my current mood or mindstate? What is acting as cloud-cover in my life right now?” Luckily for me, the very next day I got to take these questions into my Anamcara training community* and the three-day study retreat that brought me to Oregon. It’s so valuable to me to have a place (and people) who can help me to ask this kind of question in a spirit of mindful curiosity rather than judgement. It’s good to be accompanied and held while we look into the depths.

The metaphor of landscape – nature as mirror

It’s useful to ask myself sometimes, “What’s my inner landscape like today?” I can ask this question from the comfort of my desk or my bed. Sometimes the picture is dramatic: cliffs and canyons, or wild rivers. Sometimes it’s a more placid or domestic scene with meadow or lawn.

When I travel into a specific landscape, like the uniqueness of the high desert, I like to turn the question around a little. “How am I like this landscape? Where is my life dry? What is hardy or tough in me, growing despite the climate, like these junipers? Where am I like the Ponderosa pines, who thrive after forest fires? What makes up my layers, like these layers of rock that have weathered and become exposed over time? Where am I surprised by nourishment, like I was by that river at the bottom of a dry canyon?”

My hope is that these questions will bear fruit in both my work and home life. I would like to reflect some of the peace, strength, and power that I find in the desert. I would like to recognize and nurture the vulnerability in myself and others that is reflected in a landscape where it can take one hundred years to grow a layer of lichen, and where the layers built up over aeons can be suddenly upended by an earthquake, and then eroded again over more aeons back into sand.

 If you feel drawn to working on some of these deeper questions yourself, in an atmosphere of acceptance and creative exploration, I’d like to invite you to contact me for a conversation. You can contact me by e-mail here: openhearthstudio.com  or phone me at 250-595-0405. I am pleased to support people in person at my studio in Victoria BC, Canada, as well as by video conference call for those who live elsewhere.

*The Anamcara Project is a program of The Sacred Art of Living Center in Bend, Oregon. I am in my second year of apprenticeship.  https://sacredartofliving.org/

Inner Peacemaking and the Work of Reconciliation

Reconciliation between nations, peoples, and individuals

is something I am deeply concerned about, but often feel quite powerless about. I was invited this past weekend to present an arts based workshop on the topic of reconciliation. Before I said “yes,” I really wondered what I could possibly do or say in a mere sixty minutes that would make any difference at all. After I said “yes,” I was even more doubtful! In the end, and following the traditional advice to writers, I could only present what I know. What I know is not very much, and pretty narrow in scope, and yet it seems to me that it’s important to start with where I am – only from there can I start the bigger process of learning more and participating in more effective action.

Reconciliation work can begin within the individual.

My usual work involves helping people who are grieving a loss or navigating a major life transition. Reconciliation comes into this work as well, on a smaller scale perhaps. Sometimes it’s between people, but more often I’m working with reconciliation between the parts of a person that are somehow at odds with each other.

 We can experience conflict between new and old ways of seeing ourselves or the world when we go through a trauma or loss. We may feel torn between two (or more) parts of ourselves that want different things as we grow and change. For some people, loss is all about the inner conflict between a side that feels immobile with despair, and one that yearns and seeks for new hope. There may be warring emotions such as anger and guilt or resentment and love. Sweet memories may struggle to emerge next to regretful ones.

These are all pieces of ourselves that in our normal day-to-day lives are easy to ignore or even to truly be at peace with. In times of stress, trauma, or grief the fractures within us become visible and sometimes unbearably painful.

At the workshop, I invited participants to do some brainstorming.

  • What parts of yourself are you MOST comfortable with? What character traits? What emotions?
  • What parts of yourself do you feel most in CONFLICT with?
  • What do you tend to DO to those parts that you find least acceptable or comfortable?

The answers at the workshop were probably similar to some of the ones you’ve come up with yourself. We tend to be comfortable with traits like kindness, creativity, politeness: those things that we get praised for out in the world. Parts like shame, like anger, some things like introversion or assertiveness, tended to be ones that were less universally welcomed.

Love your neighbour as yourself… but what if you don’t love yourself?

I found it interesting that what people (me included) do to those parts of themselves they don’t accept, mirrors pretty accurately what we do to other people we don’t accept. We call ourselves names (“I’m so stupid!” “That would be selfish!”) We silence parts of ourselves – allowing only the “nice” emotions out, while the sadness or the anger are left behind, unexpressed.

 The last question I asked the workshop participants was, “Does this affect your relationships or anything else in your life? How?” Most participants agreed that ignoring, silencing, mocking, or hating parts of themselves didn’t work. At best it created havoc in their own hearts, and at worst it resulted in disastrous interpersonal dynamics.

Creative inner reconciliation: Self-portraits from found objects

Presumably, since you’re reading a blog on an art therapist’s website, you’ve experienced, or are at least willing to play with the notion of creativity as a means of self-expression and self-exploration! Here’s what I asked my workshop participants to do, and I invite you to try too.

I offered them a large and diverse collection of stuff – all kinds of stuff – from sticks, stones, feathers, and shells, to bottle caps, ribbons, beads, and burnt matches. Everything from the precious to the discarded and broken. You can collect such things on a walk outside, from your junk drawer, the recycling bin, from your box of broken jewelry you haven’t got around to fixing.

  • Look over the materials, and choose some. Choose a bunch of things that have some emotional charge for you, negative and positive – both the things you like or are attracted to, and the things that you really don’t.
  • After you bring them back to your workspace, arrange them to create a face – a self-portrait – as abstract or realistic as you like. You can glue them down onto a piece of cardboard, or simply take a photo of your creation and put the materials back.
  • Don’t try to plan ahead while you’re picking your materials. Trust that you’ll be able to make a picture out of what you choose. Let it be as intuitive as possible.
  • Try to bring an attitude of friendly curiosity to your selections and your arrangement – it’s not about making Big “A” Art, it’s about engaging your heart and mind and hands in the process!

After you’ve made your self-portrait, here are some questions that can be helpful in working toward some inner reconciliation:

  • What parts of myself have I allowed into this portrait?
  • Are any parts missing?
  • Does this portrait show me anything new about myself?
  • How can I love this person that I made here?
    • …when I see her or him in the mirror?
    • …when I see him or her out in the world?
  • What does this person need? What do these various parts need?

 There aren’t any perfect answers to these questions. And reconciliation, on the world stage and in our own hearts, is an ongoing, ever changing and evolving process. If you try this exercise, I’d love to hear about how it went for you! You can post pictures on the Open Hearth Studio Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/openhearthstudio/