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Community as Participation and Reciprocity

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Community as Participation

A Meditation on Punk Rock, Citizenship and Reciprocity

Here are two things that you may not know about me: the first is that very late last year, I officially became a Canadian citizen. The second, is that I grew up deeply entrenched in the music and ethic of punk rock thanks in no small part to my father (something for which I am eternally grateful). I share these things because I have been thinking about community, belonging, and reciprocity a lot lately. More specifically, I have been considering what it means to belong to a community, how I feel about it, and what gives rise to a strong sense of give and take in the communities in which I am involved.

For most of my life, I have felt kind of like my legal status; a landed immigrant (before the days of ‘Permanent Resident’). When I traveled, my passport was different, I said things with a weird hold-over pronunciation from preschool years in California, and I had no ‘roots’ here - no local family lineage or history. Thankfully, as I grew older most of those things mattered less to me. I considered myself Canadian, my parents and siblings began to set our own roots, and I got used to pronouncing pasta in a way that got laughs.

What all this means is that I began to become a part of the place that I resided.

That happened in a multitude of ways. First, I simply existed - I am in class pictures in elementary and secondary schools, in faded newspaper clippings for random community events, and in the memories of those that shared those years with me. Second, I made this place a Place: a piece of land and landmark that carries significance to me. A multitude of memories and feelings and experiences (both good and bad) that tie me to the physical landscape of my town. Third, I have come to accept that this is where I a from. It is not shameful (as it was in my youth), it is a point of pride. This distinction is important because it denotes choice. An adoption, rather than a circumstance one is born (or moved) into. I like that people (mostly) smile and nod on the streets, know each other by sight if not by name, and genuinely seem interested with what is going on.

All this is to say that community is a multifaceted and complex idea. I think that it involves not only circumstantial events, like moving somewhere for work or to be closer to family, or to simply start again, but also includes things like participation, a sense of belonging, and a reciprocal attitude.

Quesnel feels more like a place I want to be the more I treat it like I care that it exists, and imagine it thriving in a future not yet come.

So where does punk rock fit? It matters in my own story because as a newer Canadian citizen, I now have the privilege of voting. I can partake in our chosen form of democracy, and ideally effect the change I want to see.

I will say right here, I don’t care what your political affiliation is, the following thoughts are on participation and giving back as a ethic of community, not as a persuasive argument for any political party or candidate.

The punk rock I grew up on was staunchly anti-authority. Lyrics usually fell into general genres of rallying against oppression, defeating the status quo, or just lamenting a feeling on non-belonging and (perceived) powerlessness. As such, I came to really develop a cynical view of power structures. I didn’t trust them, I didn’t believe they told the truth, and I thought participation in the system was a form of ‘selling out’. It was a convenient way, ironically, of finding my own sense of community, and opting out of any real participation.

Looking back on it now, it reminds me of William Golding’s essay “Thinking as a Hobby” where he outlines different levels of thinking. In his three grades, I was definitely caught in Grade Two Thinking, characterized by reveling in tearing things down without being able to build them back up again. As Golding puts it, “To find out the deficiencies of our elders bolsters the young ego but does not make for personal security.” I would interpret that also as not making meaningful personal connection - a fundamental component to building community. See, Golding says that the real goal should be to reach Grade One Thinking: the place where one not only wants to point out deficiencies, but also wants to work (and I think this requires others to work with) to build up something more meaningful in it’s place.

Luckily, I have been able - through introspection, lots of reading, and wonderfully intelligent friends who like to talk - to figure out what it means to be a Grade One thinker. It means to give back. Punk Rock made me really proficient at taking; taking my good fortune for granted, taking a critical eye to positions of power, and taking nothing at face value (which encouraged me to read and write and explore and think). But what I have come to see, especially as a counsellor, citizen, son, brother and husband, is that I need to rebuild as well. To ask the question: now that the buildings have crumbled, what do we erect in their place? I need to give energy back in the form of participation, volunteerism, kindness, openness, and compassion. I need to be mindful of my impact on the communities (geographic, political, familial [including friends], collegial to name a few…) of which I have the honor to be apart.

The truth is, all of this thinking came to a head when my wife and I began discussing the voting coming up in the next few days and weeks. I am a little older, and my conceptions of what matters has changed, and I really do think that taking part means showing up. I am saying this as a man with a little cynical devil that still holds permanent residence in my mind, one that tries to convince me that doing nothing is as effective as casting a ballot.

Comments on WTF Facebook pages don’t make change, showing up and giving back does.

I’ll see you at the polls, band t-shirt and ripped jeans and all.

Be well, friends,

Jesse

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 12 - Unpacking Our Own Stories

This is the twelfth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

For another project I am working on, I have been writing a lot about the concept of contemplation.  While contemplation can take many forms, my own contemplative practice is meditation.  I use meditation to unpack the thoughts that are taking up space in my mind.  I do not clear my mind, instead I flit from one thought to another to my breath, then back off to another thought again.  While ultimately, I believe the goal of meditation is to flit less and less, this way of practicing has yielded some really great insights into my personal narrative.

What I mean by narrative is the story that I tell myself about the events in my life.  When I sit down, I have a view of my street, and as I see snow clouds rolling in, I am likely to think, “Can you believe it, snow again, what an inconvenience!”  This is a natural response.  Another way of approaching this thought, however, is to look for the way I am telling the story: These clouds are a problem for who?  For me.  Why? Because they don’t give me the weather that I want. I am inconvenienced, the injustice! So, I take it kind of personally.  If nothing else, I find my mood souring, or I begin thinking about all the things I am missing out on because of the selfishness of weather patterns. 

Either way, I am telling the story of disappointment.  I am let down.  I am not getting what I want. 

These sentiments are now going to affect the next thing I do, and the next.  Usually, this can go on for quite a while. Usually, there is a cascade of emotions depending on how I have written my own story.   What meditation has done, however, is allow me to engage in a contemplative way with my emotions.

By unpacking the narrative, the flavor of the story, I can become far aware of my own effect on my day.  I can instead choose a narrative that supports growth and happiness.  I can choose to say, “More rain clouds, I guess that means I work inside today!” or “That’s the weather for you, what can you do!”  The difference, though subtle, is noticeable if one is paying attention.

Spring arriving has me thinking about how we tell our stories.  It is a time of growth and renewal and, naturally, the end of winter.  In each season we see how the cycle keeps moving forward: growth, life, death, birth.  We often get stuck in our preferences - like a preference for personal/environmental and spiritual growth - or get preoccupied with our fears  - ones surrounding stagnation, change and death - and this flavors all the other aspects of our lives.  As Maezumi points out, each of these states serves as a teaching point.  None are intrinsically good or bad – they offer us a perspective through which to see events as they are presented to us:

“So what is life? What is sickness? Who is getting old? Who is dying? What are these different perspectives teaching us? 

It is not a matter of four kinds or two kinds of perspectives as such. Each one of us has a different life and yet the same life-the life of birth, illness, old age, and death. How do we best live this life…?”

For me, contemplation and meditation are about answering Maezumi’s question.  How do we best live this life?  Do we taint our experience with (often unconscious) obsessive insecurity and fear, or do we take the lessons, realize that we each have the same life and work to unpack our thoughts one day at a time?  My practice has allowed me glimpses of the stories I tell myself, and I look forward to learning many more.  This week, consider your own stories.  What are they tell you and what perspective does that bring?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 11 - The Perks of Guidance

This is the eleventh in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

I have officially reached 75 days of practice.  75 days of sitting and contemplating, feeling successful, feeling frustrated, feeling here.  Thank you for coming along on for the ride.

Meditation is a practice, and not all practice days are your best.  As I have said before, I started writing this blog as a means to normalize meditation.  To show you that it is not all “sit and clear your mind and everything else is going to be alright.” I came up against this hurdle when I started sitting years ago, feeling like there was a wrong way to do it, feeling like I wasn’t getting it.  It is hard to stick with something when you don’t feel like you “get it” or that progress is not being made.  I think it is hard to track the progress of mental attunement, especially when you don’t exactly know what progress means!

I have been fortunate to have been taught about meditation, both in person and in books and podcasts, by people who stress the importance of just showing up.  I think that has inspired me to write this series of posts.  And it has inspired the theme of this week’s post: having some guidance can be a really great thing.  Now, I live in a northern town where meditation teachers are not exactly plentiful.  As such, I have had to find guidance through podcasts, books, and a lot of question-asking.  I have not had the perks of an in-person teacher for more than a few days at a time, but that does not mean that guidance wasn’t accessible.  The internet is your friend.

The reason I have been thinking about this so much is that this week I have been using the aid of guided meditation to help me when I sit.  For the first several years that I dabbled in meditation, I never sat without an audio guide.  I just couldn’t sit in the silence. My mind was too loud and distracting.  I found that by making someone else’s voice the focal point of my sit, I could at least anchor my thoughts to that. 

Some days I feel like my mind is a wide-open plain, and as gusts of wind just keep flashing thoughts through my mind, I have no way to anchor myself and not get swept up with them.

Listening to a guided meditation helped me to find my way back.  This week, I have been going through a fairly typical upswing in deadlines and workloads and have found that sitting with myself has become a fertile ground for all kinds of thinking, and not a lot of letting thinking go.  After a few days of this, I decided to meditate with the guidance of an old teacher, Michael Stone, through one of his podcast episodes.  The episode is a meditation of breath and lasts about 15 minutes (link here).  This aid was anchor I was looking for.  These kinds of guided meditations often remind you to focus on the breath, bring your thoughts back, or pay attention to the body – things that can get away from us when we are left with our own silence.

So that is what has come to me after 75 days of sitting - more acceptance of the process, more struggle, more success, more redefinitions of both.  Of course, Maezumi’s excerpts have also been there the whole time.  This week I want to share one of those excerpts just because I think the message is a wonderful one:

In your daily life, please accept yourself as you are and appreciate your life as it is. Be intimate with yourself. Taking good care of yourself is always the best way to take care of everything. Then your life, I am sure, will go all right. I want you to be a truly intimate being. Beneath your robe is the same as outside your robe. Inside and outside the robe are one. There is no division. Please take good care of this life. Enjoy yourself!”

Taking good care of yourself also means accepting your practice as it is right now.  Sit, breathe, enjoy yourself.

In the coming week, where can you let go of non-acceptance? Where is there room to let in some enjoyment? Is there a form of guidance that you can accept to have a little help on your journey?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 7 - The Fabric of Crazy Thinking

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

As I sat down to write today’s blog post, I was a little lost.  I didn’t feel like I had any great insights this week or had experienced anything that was worthy of a blog post.  I was restless and kept getting up from my computer to pace around the house, trying to think up some great lesson or hurdle or experience that I could share.  I was feeling the need to perform, to produce interesting content without sounding too cliché.   The truth of the last week is that I had been practicing, had missed a couple sittings, had “made up” for them by sitting twice a couple days, and just generally struggled with balance and finding time in an otherwise busy-feeling schedule.

The truth, as I expressed it to my partner, was that without that nugget of wisdom, I felt like a fraud.

She asked me why I didn’t just write that?  I couldn’t, I said, it was way too vulnerable.  It would be too much of me, just…out there.

Meditation is as much about personal practice as it is about the practice of a community: as Rumi puts it, a community of spirit.  Somehow, in my feelings of inadequacy, in my need to produce a weekly blog, I convinced myself that vulnerability, openness, and raw experience should be cordoned off. It was a subtle script running in my head: You can be vulnerable only when you feel strong, on-track, and capable.  

I think we all really know that those moments are not when vulnerability yields its greatest rewards.  We like to see the struggle in the other and to know that struggle is universal and normal.  We have enough people that only show us their “good face.” We need to know we are all human. 

So I felt like a fraud. Though strangely enough, as I confess this in the moment, this process is absolving me of that feeling.  I think we can only feel like a fraud when we hide, deny, mask and pretty-up our surface.  When we believe the fraudulent story we tell ourselves – the story that we should obfuscate real emotion, real experiential personhood.

Maezumi has something to say about this too:

"Regardless of what you think, even your crazy thinking itself is nothing but that, do you see? It is no other than the dharma."

What this says to me is that, like everything else, our “crazy thinking” is still the practice.  We are not just taking part in finding clarity on the cushion.  We are exploring the dharma, the Zen principles of living, even in our crazy-making.  Even in my feeling like a fraud, I am practicing the way of meditation as clarity.  To put it simply: Crazy thinking and the associated stories are all you, they are me, they are as much the fabric of our lives as every other thing. 

What a relief! Our stories are all equal in that they are just stories.  Under close examination the fabric of those stories comes undone and unravels. What is left is just your experience, here and now.

As you move through the next week, I invite you to take a look at your stories.  If they were all made of the same stuff – nothing, or everything - how does that inform the way you move through your day, your week, your life?

 Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 6 - The Unforeseen Benefits of Living the Practice

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

After two days in a row without a formal practice, I sat down this morning a little shamed and guilty.  The weekend had been a whirlwind, and I had not made it a priority to find time away to sit in the midst of out-of-town company.  In all honesty, I am still a touch protective/private about my practice – though my friends know I am writing this blog and that I have a regular practice, I still do not go out of my way to put it out there and ask for some time away.  Perhaps it feels selfish, or maybe I just don’t want to be that “in your face” about it with other people.  Whatever the motivation, I don’t excuse myself to sit when I have people in my home – which means sometimes it doesn’t happen.

However, today with the week staring anew, I decided I too would start anew and get to my cushion early in the morning – no more excuses!

This is what greeted me:

"Please do not forget that your life itself is the practice. Practice is no other than your life."

All my insecurities left me.  I gazed out the window, started my timer, and just began to breathe. 

As I sat there, I reflected on those words, that life itself is the practice, and I asked myself, was that true for me?  Has my practice worked its way into my life?  I thought back to my busy weekend, where I had been able to connect with friends I had not seen in a long time, and I thought on our conversations.  I thought about the honest and openness of our talks, of the genuine sense of connectedness and the ability to share where we were in the moment.

That was where I was living my practice.  

I believe that being able to sit on a regular basis and be with my thoughts has yielded a few different things, but of them, an appreciation for the important people in my life has surfaced time and time again.  Actually, I think that I have always known I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some amazing individuals but contemplating this aspect of my life has given me the ability to verbalize these thoughts.  From my perspective, one of the differences of this weekend was that I felt comfortable enough with my own internal process to freely acknowledge that deep appreciation.  To allow for connection, bolstered by the afterglow of sitting and connecting with myself.

So here I am, picking right back up and sitting right back down!  I will continue to practice both on the cushion, and off.  As Maezumi points out, I don’t really think we get the choice.  Life is our practice, there is nothing else we have but this moment.

In the coming week, I invite you to ask yourself the same question:  Is your life your practice? Where is your sitting/meditating/writing/creating/contemplation practice effecting, improving and deepening your moment to moment living?  Looking on it now, is there somewhere you could invite it in?  So many possibilities! Until next week,

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 5 - Examining the Other Shore

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

There was something redeeming about opening my email a couple of days ago and seeing that I had made it to Day 30.  One of the reasons that I decided to write these blog posts was to create some accountability for myself, and to semi-publicly proclaim that I was going to actually follow through on a 90-day commitment.  As I write this, I sit with 32 days (having missed a total of 2) of regular meditation under my belt.  As these blogs hopefully convey, it has been a learning experience.  Each week brings new insights, new obstacles, new perspectives on the way my mind works and has allowed me to connect and speak to a community of people who also have an interest in meditation.

One of the things I have been exploring through this process is the idea that meditation “solves” some of the problems that we have in life.  These can manifest as stress, anxiety, bills, loss, grudges, worries, fears and a whole host of other unpleasant emotions.  When you dive into the literature on Zen meditation, however, it becomes clear that this  is not the intent of developing a practice.  Meditation is not an escape, but a return.  A return from the thoughts listed above, back to the body, the breath, the presence of now.  As Meazumi puts it:

“We have a practice know as the paramitas. Paramita means "to have reached the other shore." Dogen Zenji says, "The other shore is already reached." In other words, the meaning of reaching the other shore is to realize that this shore is the other shore. This life is the unsurpassable, realized life. There is no gap.

So if there is purpose to our practice, it is to realize that this shore and the other shore are the same. The purpose is to close the gap, to realize that there is just one shore, there is just one life. To reach is extra. Until you realize that this shore where you stand, this life that you are living, and the other shore, the life of the buddhas, are the same shore, you cannot appreciate your life to the fullest.”

As I see it, Maezumi is reminding us that when we sit, that sometimes we can get caught reaching for a better version of us.  A version that doesn’t worry, or fear, or love too deeply, or have the aches and pains of living. 

A version detached from suffering. 

In this same excerpt, he brings our attention the idea that reaching for the other shore allows us to convince ourselves that there is another shore.  That there is something outside of us that we can get to that will solve our issues.  When I sit to solve the problem of interpersonal strife or work stress, I am reinforcing the idea that I am that stress, that thoughts are things to be solved.  That they can be escaped by receding into practice.

I have come to realise that this is not the case.  That as Maezumi points out, I was (and am) already that other version of me.  I am that version of me because there is no other shore, and as such no other me.  The grass isn’t greener on the other side because the other side is make-believe.  The stress we try to escape in practice is a pattern of thoughts that you can not get away from, because things that are not real can follow you anywhere.  Instead, we turn to those things and sit with them.  We look at them and try to internalize the thought there is no other shore, and in doing this, we sit with who we are here-and-now.

To be clear, I am not saying that there are not real problems and concerns that we face in our lives.  There can be many, and they may pose real risks and hardship.  However, the thinking portion of these problems exist only in the space between the neurons and atoms of our mind.  The anxiety of returning to work tomorrow steals from me the option of being here right now, fingers on keys, contemplating mindfulness and enjoying the view from my living room window.  There is no meditating practice that will banish my obligation from work.  There is, however, a practice that will “close the gap” between the ideal me, who doesn’t worry, and the experiencing me, who is here, enjoying my afternoon.

My goal moving into this next week is remind myself that there is no other shore. That this is the moment I exist in, and that it is my sitting practice that can bring me back to that.  I do not sit to be another version of me, I sit to actualize that I am (and that is all there is).

This week, I encourage you too take some time to look at where you might be reaching in your own life.  How much of your time is thinking about who you should be or could be.  What would happen if you looked around to realize that you have everything you need in this moment? That you were already standing on the other shore?

Be well, friends.

J