Monday, January 28, 2013


When people see some things as beautiful,
            other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
            other things become bad.

Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Ch. 2, Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu; Trans. Stephen Mitchell

A natural human inclination is to think of things in pairs. The preceding meditation from Lao Tzu's wisdom, however, describes another human tendency: the attaching of a value or judgment to these pairs -- one side characterized as 'good', the other 'bad'.  Or more properly, when we attach a value to one element, by default, the other assumes its opposite. Even the Taoist graphic above tends to elicit this bias: light (good) / dark (bad); yin (compassionate, flexible, patient -- good) / yang (aggressive, rigid -- bad); female ('good')/ male ('bad').

The second portion of this quote attempts to describe a 'healthier' perspective. In place of judgment (of one or the other), we are encouraged to explore the relationship between, the existence of one's dependency on the existence of the other, the natural (and necessary) sequencing or cycling of events, their temporal harmony. So common as to almost be cliched, we check the weather in the morning; and are pleased to see a warm, sunny day in store with a light breeze and low humidity. The prospects of a rainy, cool forecast, with winds from the East -- well, not such a happy prediction. But then where would we be with only the former. . . and none of the latter? It seems that the real trick is to establish a posture that values, accepts, and welcomes the current state -- since we seem to have very little choice over it anyway! 

As usual, a couple of conversations. The first with a neighbor I'd not seen for some time, she just having returned from a four-day, solo retreat in an idyllic spot on Lake Huron.  We met in the late evening street, walking our respective dogs. I was feeling cold and tired and a little resentful that our one Westie was doing her usual delaying tactics; the other two were worrying our neighbor's dog, five times their size and rather bemused by the whole exchange. I made a comment about 'hating re-entry', a reference to the transition from a period of blissful solitude and reflection to the urgency and 'noise' of the day-to-day routine and demands -- very likely a projection of my own past experiences. Our neighbor, not unlike her dog, seemed a bit bemused by my (evaluative) comment, considered it for a moment and replied that 'it is what it is' (the 'it' being the present circumstance). I had initially considered my comment to have been an expression of some sympathy and support for what I'd assumed to be a surrendered state of peace and insulation from the busy-ness she was about to re-engage. I was reminded, on reflection, that I'd done precisely what Lao Tzu warns of: celebrating one state and, by extension, denigrating, debasing another. The alternative: valuing, accepting both -- for what they are.

On a semantic level, a conversation with my wife triggered a similar awareness. She and her instructor in Alexander Technique had been discussing what she considered to be the guiding principals of this approach: Inhibition and Direction. Again, my subjective response, my associations, particularly to the first of these is, well, negative. Years of psychology linking inhibition with repression, forced containment of instinct, etc. had jaundiced things for me. And I was reminded how easily we apply a value. In practicing the technique, which in my elemental understanding, has a great deal to do with cultivating an awareness of body posture, then 'directing' oneself to adopt an appropriate and helpful orientation, one must 'inhibit' counter productive postures to enable healthier ones. Hardly a negative act.

Action, reaction. Sympathetic, parasympathetic. Flexion, extension. All paired, all intimately bound to each other. Not a 'good guy', or a 'bad guy' amongst them.

A large part of mindfulness teaching is based on cultivating a balance in our day, in our views, in our attitude. The wisdom is contained in the concept of equanimity. In brief, this is the practice of accepting what comes with a calmness and a composure, with a nonjudgmental perspective; the capacity to consider the 'polarities', extremes, or opposites from a balanced point of view -- without attribution, without assigning a 'valence'.

That this wisdom has practical value is underscored for me almost daily as I review the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy with individuals struggling with anxieties and mood issues. The approach espouses very little different than adopting an equanimous view of circumstance: collecting 'data' for a variety of interpretations, or 'automatic thoughts' -- those which both support and challenge the (reflexive) 'hot thought'; all with the same goal -- developing a more balanced view.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


The following piece is not about mindfulness. It was, however, precipitated by a conversation, two actually, about same. The first, a short one, with my wife, following her (usual) proofing of such writing. 'That's pretty grumpy' in summary comment -- and 'where's the connection to mindfulness?' The second was with a zealous young man, fresh from a frustrating confrontation with an institution which, in place of accommodating him, had chosen to 'apply the rule book'. In need of grounding, we discussed and redirected. From reactive and impulsive action to alternatives. From impugning the 'opposition' to an understanding of the position occupied by the 'down on a lower rung' foot soldier with whom he'd been dealing. From immediacy to patience. From blindered vision to perspective. From reflex to intention. And, deciding if 'this is the hill I wish to die on' -- picking his fights. Hitting the pause button and becoming self-aware. This piece, then is my. . .


So how do you kill a rat -- or at least turn him (females deal much better with ambiguity and lose/lose situations than guys, regardless of species!) into a hopeless neurotic? Simple. Create a prohibition with no reasonable, alternate choice. In B.F. Skinner's laboratory, this might have looked like posing the 'choice' of pressing a bar to get food; and, in the bargain, electrifying the floor on which one is standing. Do what's good for you and what's bad -- all at the same time. Hmm?  As the good Dr. Skinner discovered, in the short run, you get a really confused rattus norvegicus; long term, one with tummy ulcers and. . . Or you could just plunk him on a bicycle in and around Stratford.

So, when the invite to join the incipient Stratford Bike Club arrived in the in-box, I had a careful look at the ambitious scope proposed. Laudable to be sure: raising a cycling consciousness in the community, arranging rides, disseminating information on safety, rules of the road, bike repair, liaising with area cycle clubs. Open to all ages. As a veteran rider (7000 K logged this year), cycling advocate, and longtime member of the former and now formally dissolved Festival City Cycle Club (insurance premiums became prohibitive), -- a free Big Mac and spare inner tube to the first person who can name the designer of the club's logo* -- the mandate had a familiar ring to it. Back in the day, it only made sense to promote all these sensible and appealing benefits of two-wheeled transport: community-building, environment-saving, health-enhancing. An absolute no-brainer. Evidently the siren song persists. Been there, done that -- and frankly still own the T-shirt.

The hiccup, then, as now: Stratford, as a political and committed community of motorized, four-wheeled citizens, we're not really interested in supporting those weird folk that trundle about on bicycle, blocking our right of way, and who generally don't act their age. Bikes, like Trix, are for kids, right?

Strolling along our main drag, you may have noticed a creative bit of iconography making an appearance over the past year or so, not unlike the image at the left. I, like you I expect, and always assuming you own a bicycle, made the purchase with the expectation of riding (i.e., not walking) it. If I'd wanted to walk, pushing an awkward, ungainly thing along ahead of me, I'd probably have invested in a shopping cart. But as a respectful citizen whose mom raised him up good, I am content to acknowledge that sidewalks are (as the word implies) for walking -- not riding. The riding part should take place adjacent to that part of the landscape starting with 'side____' -- again as the word and icon suggest.

Now glance to your left (or right, if you happen to be walking east on the north side of Ontario St. -- and if you're looking in the front window of the Milky Whey, you've got it backwards). No, beyond the string of parked cars -- all the way to the four lanes of traffic, politely populated with eighteen-wheelers and sport utes. And cast your mind back to our confused brown rat. We want to do our 'green' bit, reducing our little part of the carbon footprint. We want to promote a healthy lifestyle, support new club spirit. These would be the 'good' things associated with pressing the little bar in Dr. Skinner's box. But each time we do so and dutifully receive our food pellet, we get that old jolt from the cattle prod. Who knew that our pedals and bike seat were installed by Ontario Hydro? We're provided the 'choice' of getting ticketed for riding in the relative safety of the sidewalk or getting honked at, cursed out, or merely squeezed into the side of one of those parked cars. Ah, the joys of choice.

Oh, I have some solutions -- bit radical perhaps, but solutions nonetheless. Perhaps we could begin by providing a viable option to the 'don't ride here' interdict. Stratford's current idea of a 'bike path' is to build this town's equivalent of the Allen Expressway -- essentially a road to nowhere. (For those of you that may have missed it, the most glaring albatross runs along the northeast culvert of Gibb Rd. --aka, line 29 -- for one kilometer between Hwy. 7 and the rail line; happily ending in a deadend.). The Brits seem to have this sorted quite economically in high traffic areas by demarcating sidewalks much as we do our roadways: one side of the line for pedestrians, the other for cyclists.  Then there's the old fashioned idea of painting cycle lanes on existing roadways. And perhaps the most radical of all: turning the downtown core into a pedestrian / cyclist zone.

I fear, however, we may be dealing with a situation akin to that famous lightbulb -- you know, the one that's burned out and is in need of changing by a fleet of psychologists. It only takes one of that fleet to change it -- but the bulb has to want to be changed.  Until I stop feeling the zap of the cattle prod in my chamois, I'll just keep a low profile in the country and tend to my nest of neurotic, ulcerated rats. Picking my spots. Acting with intent. Om.
*Answer next week

Monday, January 14, 2013

Back to Basics

Recently a regular member of our weekly mindfulness group had made mention of the commonly observed phenomenon of 'getting dumber' as we get older. A now retired teacher, this was not her comment at all on the typical aged-related diminishment of cognitive skills. Rather she was referring to the certainty with which her former adolescent charges would pronounce on near any topic of interest; and how the 'older folk' were really just not up to it anymore. It brought to mind the old chestnut: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!  And it's corollary: too soon we get old, too late smart.

Her comment dovetailed nicely with an article my wife was reading, in preparation for an upcoming piano examination. Her teacher had commented on the precision with which she played; but had suggested adding 'some colour'. Understanding the 'concept', but not really being too clear on what this might look like in application, she went a-Googling; happening on a blog by Jeffrey Chappell who likened colour, and a number of other 'intangibles' in playing to freedom:

'Freedom means that as you play music, you do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it. It means that you drive the music,  not the other way around. . . At an early phase of study, the musicians job (however) is to be right: to identify what is on the page and to render it accurately. Feeling right is inner and subjective; it is about you. Being right is outer and objective; it is about what is on the page. Having one without the otherit feels right but it isnt right, it is right but it doesnt feel rightcreates an unsatisfying experience.'

Both of the above seemed to be getting at a few similar, underlying issues. Essentially don't run until you're pretty good at putting one foot in front of the other -- often called 'walking'. And to 'walk' means spending a goodly amount of time and effort exploring the basics of whatever the focus might be. Drill, repetition, study, questioning . . . and perhaps above all else, listening -- which, as most of us realize, requires keeping one's mouth shut; ears open and brain available for new information.

A portion of this past Sunday's Tapestry episode (, an interview with Carlos Fraenkel, philosophy professor at McGill, applied an interesting spin to this same challenge. Fraenkel considers engaging in philosophical discussion as essential to the development of the critical thinking process; as well as maintaining an open, self-questioning opportunity to deepen, understand, and revise one's own belief and value structure. His personal and professional experience in a wide variety of teaching environments and in conversation with people from an equally diverse set of religious and spiritual backgrounds, has only strengthened his view that to simply 'swallow whole' a liturgy, value system, political posture, etc. is to truncate one's personal growth and to abdicate one's responsibility to question and to foster accountability.

In Dr. Fraenkel's view, this 'conversation' is, in fact, ongoing, open-ended. In the context adopted above by Mr. Chappell, the only way to 'get it right' is to maintain contact with the 'basics' -- be they in music, spiritual investigation, practice of any sort.

He (Fraenkel) adds one additional caveat. A condition to which we all fall potential 'victim' is that of being born into a particular culture with attendant tenets and belief systems. In short, we 'automatically' absorb those parameters that direct the family, social and work networks, spiritual systems, etc. that predominate in our environment. To 'operate', unquestioningly from those pervasive, even ubiquitous values is to lose touch with 'the notes on the page'. We assume truths -- because they surround us -- which can only be fully understood and empowered when challenged by another (possibly competing, at least different) set of beliefs. Through a willingness to engage this conversation do we 'earn the freedom to improvise' (in Chappell's lexicon); do we fully develop a basis to make healthy and informed choices.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sandy Hook

How will they heal? Come to terms with a tragedy of which most of us can barely conceive? Of a magnitude we can only associate with wartime. Or mass genocide. The seemingly relentless and too oft repeated struggle has begun again; to make sense of a senseless act, this time perpetrated against twenty-six victims, twenty of whom were under the age of seven, by an individual driven by motives which will be broadly speculated upon -- but never known. Sandy Hook School, December 14, 2012. A scant 10 days before the annual festival of renewal, celebration of birth, and traditionally the time of the child and a child's joys.

It is impossible not to be touched by this catastrophe, to take on as one's own tragedy this dreadful and mindless event. As adults we identify hugely with the parents, the emergency workers, the counselors, the professionals, the community. We empathize with their grief, their sadness, their anger, their confusion. We place this event in a context, as best we can, along side a growing list of similar slaughters of innocents -- and attempt to decide 'where to now?' What points of adult reference does Sandy Hook touch in us? What needs: blame, forgiveness, analysis, judgment, reform? What identities: victim, vigilante, parent?

Shortly before this tragedy, before our attention was so abruptly drawn to a small town in Connecticut, I had occasion to be speaking with a man about coming to terms with his own constellation of childhood hardships, 'smaller' on scale to be sure, but tragic nonetheless: a young brother's suicide, an uncle's shunning and resulting premature death, a mother's perhaps well-intentioned but projected and scarring mis-parenting and control. We had visited this ground many times before -- but this time there was a difference. As is so often explored in personal work, the concept of writing a letter to an individual, figural to one's emotional development, had occurred to this man; in this case, a communication with his now deceased mother. Freed from the need to actually sending anything, his writing was honest, candid, and direct, citing the struggles and hurts he'd experienced; the presumed psychological impact his childhood was to have on his adult life. What made this exercise unique, in my experience, however, was that he had, in fact, composed two letters: one from his current perspective as an older man looking back; a second, through the eyes of the child, living each day as if it unfolded, different (perhaps) from the one before, without agenda, expectation, judgment, or even context.

The letters were strikingly different. The adult had analyzed the mother figure, compared her (generally unfavorably) to other, more benign influences, struggled with the guilt and conflict associated with both blaming one of the more significant formative influences in his life and needing to make peace with and forgive her. The adult's 'version' of his childhood had, in effect become an oft thought of, well-worn tale, an identity that was one part 'truth' and three parts myth. Familiar in the re-telling, giving the impression of fact; but more interpretation, conclusion, a collection of deductions of how the child must have felt -- than how the child did feel.  The child's letter, on the other hand, was an account of his experiences; to be sure, containing moments of fear, confusion, discomfort, anxiety, shame -- but somehow fresh, renewed each day, freed in large part to be seen and experienced with a beginner's mind, to borrow a phrase from mindfulness literature. 

I was reminded of a film I'd seen a few months ago, Monsieur Lazhar.  It is the story of a supply teacher, employed to take over a classroom of grade four or five children in Quebec, following the in-school suiciding of their former teacher. The teachers in the school and the parents of the young students all have their own 'version' of and solution for the children's recovery from their trauma, ranging from a conspiracy of silence and denial, even removing children to other schools; through the school psychologist's well-intentioned interventions. M. Lazhar himself is not without baggage, having arrived in Canada shortly before, a political refugee seeking asylum from persecution in his home country. While less 'sophisticated' in his approach -- his teaching methods are decidedly 'old school' -- against considerable adult resistance and criticism, he eventually succeeds in giving each child a 'voice' to express his or her unique experience of the tragedy that, courtesy of all manner of adult intention, had become the 'elephant in the room' -- pervading everything, never directly addressed. The healing had begun to happen. Allowing himself the same latitude that he facilitated in his young charges, M. Lazhar too begins to heal -- as he also speaks with a child's candor and clarity.

In the past three weeks -- is that all it's been? -- as I read the never ending litany of responses to, accounts of, speculations around, and analyses of Sandy Hook, I feel the increasing presence of the 'adult'. The projections that spring from the psyches of fully formed, long-entrenched identities, 'mythologies', onto the child. I feel the compulsion to fix, prevent, protect, punish, understand, analyze -- even politicize a tragedy that, in the end, needs be given a voice, a child's voice -- if healing is to happen.