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Category: Meditations

Impossible Things

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” –Doris Lessing.

This quote from the British novelist sums up how I feel about the martial arts. Except, I don’t know if karate is what I am meant to do. It’s just something I started, and have kept close to my heart since the beginning. I am not the best, and don’t bring to it any special talent or physical advantages.

I was really meant to be a famous Canadian poet. Except I’m not. But I probably have some special talents and abilities in that direction. Writing is for me, at times, an act that satisfies a deep need to communicate about essential things, like love and art. But it also carries with it the heavy baggage of expectations, since I was groomed from a young age to succeed as a writer. (For example, there are all kinds of awards I should have won by now, like the National Magazine Award, the Governor General’s Award for poetry, the Archibald Lampman Award, the CBC poetry contest, etc., etc.) Writing’s a good and essential thing, but despite being a great gift, writing is my job.

Karate, on the other hand, is a gift that I received unexpectedly. My husband and son had been doing it, and I finally decided to try it out, because I liked the atmosphere of the dojo, and the attitude of the teachers. So one day I found myself kneeling on the dojo floor, reciting the student creed.

When I first started doing karate, I had no expectations at all, and therefore no baggage. When I was a white belt, I felt that if I managed to get a yellow belt that would be awesome.

I liked doing it, so I kept going, and since I was mostly working contract, I was able to attend a lot of daytime classes, which made it easier to continue. And so I kept on learning, becoming more fit and getting new belts, until I arrived at the brown belt, with three stripes.

Karate is a gift to me because it’s offered me a space to unfold and transform without pressure. I have worked mostly with Sensei Fortunato who teaches the daytime classes, and his gentle, non-judgmental approach to his students has helped to create this positive atmosphere. And every chance he gets, Sensei Dom reminds us that we are trying to achieve our own personal best, and not to compare ourselves to others. Neither of these outstanding sparring athletes is ever judgmental or impatient with their students. Their approach has helped create a special environment where renewal and self-discovery are possible.

In this place, I’ve been inspired, as I watch people with serious medical conditions become some of the best karateka, and even saw my teacher recover from a potentially career-ending injury with grace and patience. And I know almost everyone who comes to the dojo has their own difficulties, worries and stresses, even if they’re not necessarily obvious.

I suppose I was meant to do karate, because I have done it, and continue to do it, against all my expectations and preconceived notions. And I’m glad I didn’t wait until I was fitter, or weighed less, or had more money. The conditions do seem impossible at times, so it’s important to just show up, however you are feeling, and join all the other miracle workers on the dojo floor.

 

 

 

 

 

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Indian Country

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Kanehsatake traditional pow-wow in  1991, the year following the Oka Crisis.

When I was younger, I was involved with people who were part of the Oka Crisis. At my university, I met ‪‎Indigenous people from every part of Canada, and many of them told me their stories. Many were too angry for story-telling, or too traumatized. They were veterans of the siege at Kanehsatake: survivors who spent two-and-a-half months surrounded by the Canadian Army, razor wire, military helicopters, soldiers, and the constant threat of imminent death.

During the winter following the Oka Crisis, I travelled with friends to northern Quebec and visited ‪‎Cree‬, ‪‎Innu, Abenaki and Huron communities – stood in a chief’s house in the middle in winter. It was the size of my kitchen and was heated by an oil barrel in the middle of the room. I also sat with friends in a wigwam, eating beaver, ptarmigan and bannock, passing around the salt and a tub of grease – ptarmigan is a dry meat.

Kanehsatake Spiritual Gathering, early nineties
Kanehsatake traditional pow-wow, 1991. Rebecca Belmore’s art piece,  Speaking to their Mother, is pictured. © Jennifer Dales

Then, just last summer, I sat by the blazing hot sacred fire in Kanehsatake‬, and said a prayer for my friend’s son, sending it up to God with tobacco and cedar. I walked around greeting old friends, fingering jewellery and beadwork, doing the round dance, sitting in the shade of the Pines, cooling down after the heat. 

Being in Indian‬ country gets into your blood. When I meet people who have been there, I can feel it, the way I feel the cold on a person’s skin when they come inside on a winter’s day. Indian country’s such a big place; it’s as powerful as an earthquake, strong as a hurricane. From out of nowhere, it changes everything; it rearranges the earth and stirs up the winds. It doesn’t need anything from you. There is nothing you can do for Indian country. It flows on, day and night, under stars and the sun. I hear it asking me how it can help me. Where is my heart? Do I hear it beating? You won’t ever put it behind you now.
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Honour the Treaties

Yesterday morning I watched Aaron Huey’s TED talk on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Lakota Sioux. To me, the most important thing that he said was:

“Honour the treaties. Give back the Black Hills. It’s not your business what they do with them.”photographer_aaronhuey_thephotolifepodcast_0061

In these few words, Aaron voices the transformation needed here in Turtle Island – a shift from the patronizing, controlling approach to First Nations politics, land and culture – to one of respect. Canada needs to get out of the business of Aboriginal nations. It’s not up to us how a Mohawk or Ojibway or Haida community decides to use its land or organize its community. It’s long past time for us to get out of their business and start listening instead of dictating. I believe our future depends on it, because resource extraction in the form of mining, drilling for oil, forestry, etc is destroying our ecosystems. Maybe Aboriginal people will treat the land the same way. But if past experience is any indication, I believe things would be different. I also think that our colonial relationship with Native peoples is stunting our growth as Canadians, and undermining our humanity.

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I recognize that ending our colonial relationships with Indigenous nations does not mean that First Nations become closed societies that don’t need or require relationships with other societies. It’s just long past time for use to get out of the way.

Thank you, Aaron Huey for saying it so well.

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Wayfarers

I recently read a Smithsonian article on Hawaiian voyaging canoe, the Hōkūleʻa, which circumnavigated the globe using traditional Polynesian navigation techniques.

These techniques include navigating by the stars, the rising and setting of the sun, as well as the ocean swells. This voyage is a culmination of many journeys using these techniques, dismissing once and for all the European skeptics who thought that it was impossible for Polynesians to travel so far without technologies like those of the European explorers.

What strikes me about this story is that is shows how a people use their own bodies – their eyes, ears, sense of balance, memory, ability to communicate amongst each other – to navigate the vast oceans of the earth. They do it independent of any navigation technologies. This independence and freedom that comes from relying on your own body and mind for orientation is very inspiring.

It is always an overstatement to say anything about all of western culture, but there is a tendency in westerners to privilege the intellect over the body, and thought over feeling. We are encouraged to ignore the signals that our bodies and feelings send us in order to work longer, or perform better in whatever it is we do. We push away signals of physical and emotional distress because we don’t think we are permitted to have distress. We must not be normal to feel such things.

There is a strong tendency to try and solve problems by thinking about them and by collecting and analyzing information. The internet makes this tendency very easy to follow, since it offers up vast reams of information on almost any subject, albeit without the context of experience, and very often with crucial elements missing.

Perhaps westerners actually create problems by trying to solve them; by perceiving something as a problem that must be solved when it is not; when it is actually a state of being: a message from the body or the emotions, signalling a need to change directions, or to attend to changes around us. It’s as if we don’t understand the language our bodies and feelings speak, and sometimes become very disturbed by the intensity of the signals we receive.

We think our bodies and feelings should behave and be orderly. We expect that by following a logical path we will reach the destination we predicted with our brain, even though we have ignored input from our body and our feelings.

These Hawaiian wayfarers are different. They find the path they need to take by feeling with all their senses – they feel in their bodies the swells of the ocean against the sides of the canoe, they see with their eyes the stars and sun in the sky above, feel with their skin and smell with their noses and hear with their ears the winds, the birds and the life of the seas. And they remember with their minds everything they have learned from their teachers and from their experiences. They apply full intelligence to wayfaring.

I am a wayfarer, and each day, in order to navigate successfully, I pay attention to the signals I receive: the weather – is it hot or cold, is there wind, rain, sun, snow? The light in the sky is fall coming closer? The mood of my family, the speed of the bus I take to work, the pace of activity at the office, how tired I feel, how alert, whether there is any anxiety, or sadness, if there is a feeling of joy that needs to take a walk outside under the green trees, if there is pain anywhere in my body, or a burst of energy needing release. I see a news article about a child who has been killed, or a mother who’s been run over by a dump truck during a bike race—then suddenly a feeling of intense fear! What if it happens to my child, or to me? And in the shopping centre,  – bright pieces of jewellery, sweets, clothes, gadgets, noise, people everywhere. Each day I navigate the physical, the emotional and the intellectual. To succeed and not be blindsided, I need all my senses, and every emotion – a full intelligence that flows through the body and the heart.

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We have the most in common with our enemies…

It has often been said that we have the most in common with our enemies. This is, in many ways, true of Israelis and Palestinians. They occupy the same part of the world, have similar desires for nationhood, identity, safety and freedIsraeli times articleom, and even follow religions that are very similar. With a few changes, this angry letter from an Israeli could have been written by a Palestinian:

“But I will not apologise for surviving. For surviving missiles intended to kill me. The fact they didn’t kill me doesn’t mean they weren’t sent with the intention to murder. I will not apologise for living and surviving thanks to being prepared because we have a culture that celebrates our lives and cherishes them…I will not apologise for having a business, a home, a family and friends here who want normal lives and to live in peace with our neighbors. I will not apologise for existing and I want nothing more than to co-exist quietly with neighbors who accept me here.”

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shalom-motherfr/

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Mohawk/Kanien’kéha word of the week

Tree roots – karonta’shón:’a ohté:ram

http://www.firstvoices.com/en/Kanienkeha-Mohawk-EN/word/d71d4009d469ecd8/tree+roots

This week, I wanted to do the word “perseverance,” since I know that many friends and family have been struggling with physical and emotional challenges over the past six months. The winter was hard on everyone – my Dad hurt his knee, my Sensei shattered his elbow, I got sick for 5 weeks, aImagenother friend broke his foot, still another experienced depression.

But we have all persevered, and now the land is green, if not as sunny as I would like. Like the roots of trees, we have deep connections between us and in this beautiful, if broken world. So this week’s words are “tree roots” – karonta’shón:’a ohté:ra.

The word karonta’shón:’a ohté:ram also makes me think of the Great Tree of Peace, where, under its roots, lie all the weapons that were buried when peace was made.

So Creator sent a Peacemaker with a message to be righteous and just, and make a good future for our children seven generations to come. He called all warring people together and told them as long as there was killing there would be no peace of mind. There must be a concerted effort by humans for peace to prevail. Through logic, reasoning and spiritual means, he inspired the warriors to bury their weapons and planted atop a sacred Tree of Peace. – The Great Law of Peace

If you know how to say “Tree of Peace” in Kanien’kéha, please let me know.  I was not able to find a translation for this phrase. And does anyone know if the expression “bury the hatchet” comes from the Great Law?

 

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Separation Point

for Shawn Cox

Before she ran into the road

and you arrived where she stood

is the place you cannot get back to,

no matter how often you drive

along the road,

stop again before the spot.

Before she fell into deep black asphalt

and you fell into the line of her life;

before she abandoned the ditch 

of flitting tadpoles, 

and the day dislodged you from your blessings;

before then is what you can’t get back to.

In the after, safety is luck

and the movements of the whirlpool

where cold fingers drag you.

Now darkness gleams, even in the sun, 

and every crease in your face 

lets night in. 

Every hole in the fence post,

dead tree in the ditch,

black cricket in grass.

The sudden blur of her body 

a divide between dark and day;

your heart cries for the horizon, 

and the black road threatens you with secrets,

a small girl running, unexpected, 

into the deepest place.

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Inside of mood

dark-soul-cloudsI recently read a book by Jonathan Rottenberg, who describes depression as part of the mammalian mood system. The human mood system is designed to drive and shape behaviour – it pushes us in positive directions and away from bad ones. For example, if a bear is fishing for salmon in a spot that is usually really good and no fish appear, that bear will experience frustration and unhappiness. This mood state will cause him to stop trying to fish in that spot and look for anther one. If he finds fish elsewhere, his mood system will reward him with positive emotions.

With humans, if you set yourself difficult-to-achieve goals, or undergo extreme stress, your mood system will shift downward. It’s trying to tell you something, but you may not be as in-tune with your moods as the bear is, and you may not listen. If not, the mood system will downshift your mood again and again, until eventually you either adjust your goals, or become totally incapacitated by your mood. If you don’t pay attention to low moods and learn from them, they will stop you in your tracks.

The mood system knows much more than we do. It has inside information on the health of our bodies, information that we don’t have access to. If, for example, we are deficient in an essential nutrient, or we are severely sleep-deprived, or we are being bombarded by too many demands, our mood system will take all of these elements into account. If we set crazy, unrealistic goals, our mood system will do everything it can to stop us, and turn us onto a better path.

We are sometimes like a frog in a pot of  water that has been set to boil – the water starts out cool, but over time, it gradually heats up until we are boiling. Our mood system knows that pot of water is going to boil eventually and, if necessary, it will scoop you out and toss you to safety, where you might lie for months, wondering why you feel so bad. But at least you’re alive! The mood system gives you signals meant to influence your choices so that you survive and even thrive.

While our mood system sees clearly, and sends us clear signals, our society often places greater value on other signals that override these vitally important ones. Many of these other signals come in the form of prescriptions – you should be successful; you should be happy; you should be rich; you should be thin; and so on.

To go back to the bear analogy – what if the bear could be convinced that if he just kept on fishing in the unproductive spot on the river, he would one day catch the biggest salmon ever? What if the bear believed that if he didn’t catch that salmon it is really his fault – that he wasn’t a good enough fisher? What if he thought he was weird for feeling depressed about his situation and then started worrying about not being happy?

If the bear listened to that kind of talk, he would probably persist in fishing at that unproductive bend in the river until eventually he became so depressed he had a nervous breakdown and crawled into a hole for a long time. When he came out later, he would hopefully find a better place to fish.

But here is the hard part: we don’t always know we are doing things that are dangerous to our well-being. As Rottenberg points out, we live in a time and place that is a perfect storm for low mood.

We hardly get any sunlight and spend all our time indoors. We get far too little sleep, on average. Our diet and exercise patterns are poor. And I would add that modern living forces us to synchronize our biological rhythms to a very fast-paced work world – we have to show up on time, every day, week after week, year after year. All of these factors, and many others, affect our mood.

For these reasons, Rottenberg says that we are now experiencing a depression epidemic. Depression may protect us from futile, often dangerous behaviours, but it is a very costly adaptation. Depression can be even more difficult to deal with than the situation that triggered it. To recover you need help from doctors, therapists, friends, family and often medications.

It is a very difficult, but productive process, where you learn about yourself and grow as a human being. By listening to depression, you discover yourself and the world anew. Ultimately, Rottenberg’s understanding of depression is a very optimistic one, because although he makes clear that there are many ways to become depressed, there are also a great many ways to recover from it, and all of them offer the potential for growth and renewal.

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Keep calm and wear a red suit

I just read an article about how Facebook can cause depression – at the very least, it tends to make people feel they are missing out. And it’s true – as I take in the sometimes carefully-curated FB profiles of my connections, I will inevitably feel I am less: less interesting, less connected, less successful.

ImageI quit Facebook a while ago, but set up camp there once more, this time with a completely open profile, with no security settings. I did this in part because I wanted to use the FB feed to follow news and features – I find the feed easier to use that Twitter – and because FB is the only way I stay in touch with certain friends and family who live overseas or across the country. The lack of security settings is to ensure that I don’t forget that there isn’t really any privacy to be had online, and there is no point in posting a bunch of photos of your kids in the bath and then fiddling with the security settings, thinking they provide any real protection. Better not to post those images at all.
Red Gi

However, recently I was feeling really excited about my progress in Karate, which I study at Douvris Martial Arts, in the west end of Ottawa with my senseis Fortunato and Domenic Aversa. I took a couple of photos of me in my gi and with Fortunato and posted them on FB. But doing so did not give me the chance to write the narrative that goes with those images: the story of how, after many years of “one step forward, two steps back,” I have finally started to get back into real physical shape – ten years of struggling to raise a child, and deal with asthma, weight gain, and stressful work schedules. This real story might reassure Facebookers seeing the images that I don’t have a perfect life, and I don’t sail through my days wearing a red suit and smiling.

Most people in my country and in western countries in general live with hectic, sometimes crushing schedules and stress related to work, family and finances.

And after the years of freedom I spent as a university student, I really expected better, and I was disappointed! It has not been an easy lesson, learning that as an adult, you always have to choose – will it be a house with a mortgage in town, or an apartment, which is more affordable? Will it be a house in the suburbs and a long commute, but you don’t have to work as much? Regardless of the choice it’s not really easy. Who knew that when I was a student and travelling around the country becoming a writer and an activist, I was really just preparing myself to get a job sitting all day in a cubicle with no windows? I mean some of the work in those grey-walled cubes has been interesting, but still. But I could do an activist job, or freelance…and then we could sell our centrally-located house near my son’s school, five minutes from transit! Ah well, such is life. Not much likelihood of finding a job as a feature writer making good coin. Not these days. Not unless you’re a well-established yuppie like Margaret Wente. But I’m not bitter.

But Karate makes it so worthwhile – having the chance to learn something beautiful, difficult and challenging with the two most humble teachers in the world, with a bunch of fascinating people ranging in age from 10 to 70, with professions as diverse as rocket scientist, doctor, boxing coach, programmer, patent researcher, violist, writer.

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The Qu’appelle Valley: one of the stunningly beautiful places I visited in my youth, the better to disappoint me during endless hours in cubicles.
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Inside the snow globe

In Being Human, ghosts are like snow. Like embracing someone who’s just come inside on a cold day. They bring grey sky in the door, and the clean air; they etch you with frost and ice crystals, making your cheeks red and your breath into clouds.

A ghost opens your door and shows you light shining through. She turns your lamps on at night and burns out your light bulbs. Blows the fuse in the bathroom. Boils pot after pot of water on your stove, making herself at home on the chesterfield. Full cups of tea appear all over the house. You look out the window at the full moon; it’s come down from the sky to inhabit you.snow globe

Mitchell tells Annie her lips are cold, a bit tingly, like kissing someone who just came in from outside. Mitchell knows Annie’s in the house. He feels a cold draught under the door; sees her by the window, colour of the moon. He’s burning up with memories of blood; all the people he’s left for dead in abandoned buildings and empty fields. They’re boiling over. Dripping down his skin. Faces of his victims press against the inside of his skull. Voices in the drains at night. He’s a twisting, moving fire.

He reaches for Annie. She soothes him with her cooling touch. He covers himself in her colours—grey and white, winter in the city: starlight and streetlight shining on paths of snow between the cinderblock buildings. She’s nighttime and the moon’s unblinking gaze.

Annie wonders, will she drift through the house forever? She’s so light she doesn’t even dent the cushions; she has no place in this world or the next. She looks through open doors and sees light, but no welcome. How long will it be? How long by the window, looking out? 

Mitchell says
Things move and shift and settle again. It’s like those— what are those snow storm things called?
Snowstorms.
Yeah, ’bout so big, glass?
No, they’re called snowstorms.
Right. Well, them. You shake them and it’s all mad and then it settles again. That’s what time is like.

That’s what Annie’s like, her translucent body. The world shifts and stirs in her, a frenzy of colour and sound. Outside, she hears footsteps on the walkway. Tires screeching in the road. Voices rising over the walls. Then everything settles once more into a cool bank of snow, shining in the streetlight, enveloping the world, cooling its fevers.

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