Star Gazing

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When I was a boy churches were full. Now they’re empty. For millennia, religious authorities were the arbiters of moral value and atheists kept a low profile. Today, everything’s changed. Churches are renovated into condominiums. The day of rest is no more. Even the word ‘religion’ sounds old-fashioned.

This is modernity. Science rules, and religious belief is unscientific. Hard scientists seem compelled to attack religion, even though social scientists find it sublime.

To preserve their faith, believers must either deny science or juggle two realities.

What everyone seems to have forgotten is that there’s more to religion than belief. It’s about experience, and the natural human longing to be awed. I call it a religious instinct. We can all imagine our ancestors staring into the night sky asking irresistible, unanswerable questions. Then—humans being what we are—someone invented answers.

Mindfulness bridges religion and science. Its focus is an objective, non-judgmental perspective. Its goal is to let go of reactivity, which means changing your behavior in ways that you choose. Mindful thinking trains you to choose well, so it’s also a moral practice.

UPCOMING MINDFULNESS WORKSHOP IN POINTE-CLAIRE VILLAGE STARTS APRIL 10: Beliefs and The Power You Give Them

Mindfulness of Beliefs

“I like to believe,” says a character from the TV show The Village. If you google that phrase you’ll find all sorts of things that people like to believe. I once liked to believe in reincarnation, and then— even though I still would have liked to—I stopped. Reason got in the way.

two dead trees in water

Questioning beliefs is hard. The possibility that they’re wrong seems to threaten who you are. That’s why people sometimes defend incredible ideas. Flat-Earthers are still with us; anti-vaxers are ushering in a new age of childhood diseases. We integrate our beliefs into who we are, so that we don’t just vote for conservatives or progressives; we are conservative or progressive—even when we don’t even care enough to join the party!

This is reactive believing, and it’s all about defending our choices. There is another way to use the mental factor of belief—by applying mindful thinking. First, you temporarily suspend your decision about whether something’s true or not, so you can check it out. Then you decide whether it’s credible—and worth holding onto even if it’s true.

This is easier said than done, but not because evidence is hard to evaluate—that’s the easy part. The difficulty lies before that—simply allowing for the possibility you’re wrong. This is is not a rational decision; it’s deeply emotional. To question your beliefs is to question who you are. Once you open that door, who knows what’ll happen?

Although testing beliefs is central to the Buddha’s teaching, it’s one of the hardest principles for Buddhist communities to implement. Preserving the founder’s legacy is their mission, and to do that they insist that all he taught is beyond question. There is no place for the possibility that the man might have been ordinarily flawed, and sometimes wrong. As happens usually with religion, often with politics and not infrequently even in scientific communities, advocates feel compelled to establish ‘truth’ beyond question, and end up trapped in dogma.

You however, have no such monumental beliefs to defend. Your job is entirely different, and thankfully much simpler—simply to know what you believe and why. That’s what mindful thinking is for, and that’s what we’ll be discussing in our upcoming workshop.

UPCOMING MINDFULNESS WORKSHOP IN POINTE-CLAIRE VILLAGE STARTS APRIL 10

The Power of Clover Honey

I take a blackberry from its box, wash it with others, put them in a bowl and set them down between us. I take one. It is delicious—perfectly ripe, sweet, tart, juicy, firm and succulent. How many adjectives for a humble berry?

Perhaps an infinite number. You see, the berry is changing every moment, and so are you, and so is your perception of the events taking place in your mouth and sensory nervous systems, and so is your sense of where and who you are.

Look: I begin to bake and am tempted, when opening a jar of clover honey, to place a pearl of it upon my tongue and let it dissolve. It lingers deliciously, cascading endorphins far beyond my mouth.

And then half-consciously, while reaching across the counter for a measuring spoon, I pluck a blackberry from its bowl. Realizing suddenly that this is a treat worth savoring, I bring my full attention to the bite of the fruit.

It’s as juicy as ever, but now it’s tart on my honeyed tongue—no treat at all. The magic is gone.

It’ll come back. I’ll be patient.

The Cost of Silence

Zoe’s parents were very protective and shielded her from any danger and discomfort.

Her parents lavished all their love on her, and little on each other. They never held hands or kissed. They were often short with each other. They held opposite views on politics and religion. Neither would even consider the possibility that their marriage was in trouble. They agreed on one thing: to keep their conflict hidden from Zoe.

But Zoe lived there too. She didn’t ‘know’ what was going on (or not going on) with her parents, but she lived amid the tensions they were trying to suppress, and did what she could to ease them. It was a burden, but she accepted it with the same sense of responsibility.

Zoe’s mother was easy to get along with. Most of her anxiety came from her father. On the one hand he couldn’t handle conflict; on the other he’d sometimes fly into a rage. In either case, he went out of reach. When this happened, Zoe took responsibility for bringing him back.

If she didn’t, who else would? Keeping him happy became her raison d’être. She adopted subconscious behavior that in time became an automated role. Throughout her life Zoe felt competent in these sorts of conflict situations. She was drawn to them.

Sadly, her first marriage resembled her parents’ marriage.

At the time, Zoe’s parents claimed they were ‘protecting’ her. What they didn’t know was that they were setting her up in her role of peacekeeper. The peacekeeper’s dilemma is that she holds all her anxiety inside. She doesn’t talk about stressful situations, and believes that thinking about them makes them worse. She believes the solution to conflict is to avoid it, and that it’s a best to not challenge people.

Zoe’s role is inherently unstable because it’s based on these limiting beliefs: 1) talk threatens peace; 2) silence keeps the peace; 3) ignorance is safer than knowledge.

Who suffers from these beliefs? All three of them. When did they choose them? They didn’t, they simply adapted to their reality. So what can they do? They could examine their behavior and their motives. They could trust Zoe’s intelligence and speak to her (in age-appropriate language) enabling her to see how they handle conflict through healthy open dialogue.

These changes require nothing but natural skills that we all possess—courage, empathy and effort. They take practice, but that’s what mindfulness is for.


For an in-depth look at the limiting beliefs that burden us, and how to unload them, come to our Round Table event this Saturday afternoon March 9th in Pointe-Claire Village.

If Mindfulness is Simple, What’s so Complicated?

We are.

Each of us is a process—an unfolding of conscious and unconscious behavior. By taking shortcuts and automating routine tasks, we get more done. Sometimes we use the wrong shortcut, or it doesn’t work any more. Too much automaticity gets us into trouble.

Things get complicated because automaticity is contrary to mindfulness. Instead of being present, you let things happen without paying attention. Automaticity takes care of business but leaves you with no sense of ownership or responsibility. Instead of learning about yourself and continuing to grow through life, your behavior is governed by old, blind habits. You wonder why your thoughts keep on running, and why you’re stuck in old patterns.

With mindfulness, the confining story of who you are (dictated by those who raised you) loses its power. You let go of unnecessary beliefs and have nothing to prove. You see the self-limiting beliefs that hold you back, such as, “I’m not smart enough,” and “I’m not worthy.”

Mindfulness instantly turns off automaticity and brings your conscious mind to the fore. It gives you a say in your decisions. It helps you understand your choices in life, and where they lead.

Mindfulness takes effort. It never happens automatically. But it is instantly rewarding. You experience the wonder of the present moment; you weaken the attraction of old habits; you learn about yourself in ways that no one else can. Mindfulness reveals your unconscious expectations and enables you to let them go. Mindfulness brings you to your full potential.

How Do You Believe In You?

There are times when everyone wants to stop their mind. That’s why I got into meditation in the first place, and it’s what everyone always tells me when they come to learn mindfulness. They say, “I feel like my mind has a mind of its own!”

There’s definitely something about being human that makes us yearn for control. When it comes to dealing with anxiety, we all want to be able to hold up a hand like a traffic cop and stop the flow of thoughts.

Unfortunately, mind is not a device that you can switch on and off. It’s a process—the entire package of you holding yourself together—bodily perceptions, emotional feelings and mental thoughts. You are a whole person, changing constantly.

In mindfulness we don’t try to stop the mind. Instead, we learn to accept it. We look closely at ourselves and how we’ve turned out. We watch out for patterns like stress, anxiety, and guilt to see how they emerge from mind processes. And, as you begin to understand these patterns more intimately, something natural happens—you fine tune them. The end result is less struggle, greater joy and personal growth.

When it comes to struggling with your story and how you fit in, thoughts and beliefs are a big part of the package. In fact, what contributes more than anything else to your mental balance or imbalance is your story.

This story doesn’t have to be realistic. It just has to be complete in ways that you can accept and defend. Without work it tends to be soft, mushy and confused. With effort, it becomes wise and kind.

Ordinarily, your story consists of memories, opinions and expectations. It describes who you should be (according to yourself and/or others), and in that way can be quite a burden. In either case, the way you deal with it makes you you. It also makes you vulnerable.

Into this very personal story we fit our beliefs. There’s what we believe in, like god or science. There are conclusions we came to a long time ago and have never reexamined, such as “I am open-minded.” There are logical beliefs in ultimate truth or ultimate relativity, and emotional beliefs such as, “I’m not worthy.”

Somehow, this story must hold everything you think you are—all your thoughts and all your beliefs. Your very self seems to depend on it. Too little and you have no direction. Too much and it weighs you down. How do you sustain your integrity while not taking yourself too seriously? With mindfulness of your story, of your beliefs and of your thoughts you become naturally less defensive and less judgmental. You become more accepting of yourself and others.

These are not trivial matters. Nothing’s more important to each of us than ourselves. Without that, we have no life, no relationships, no significance.

Why Do You Believe?

At the end of my last mindfulness workshop I announced that the subject of the next one would be ‘Beliefs.’ Around the room heads nodded slowly as people thought about what that could mean.

I was encouraged, but wasn’t entirely sure myself. After all, it’s a big topic. Was I opening a can of worms? Beliefs are necessary, right? I mean, at the very least you need to believe in right and wrong.

There are more complicated beliefs. I don’t understand particle physics but I believe particle physicists—as much as I understand them. Students believe that what’s being taught makes sense, until the point where they make sense of it for themselves. Now it’s no longer belief but understanding. So some beliefs are provisional, a stepping stone to knowledge.

Beliefs get really personal too. I know that to do well in life I need to believe in myself, but what sort of belief is that? I also have subconscious voices telling me to sit down and shut up because I’m stupid. I don’t really believe them but that memory can upset me. Somehow, for a while, I believe it viscerally. Can I undo that deep layer of self-limiting belief?

And there’s belief in systems. Raised as a Catholic, I was handed all the answers to life’s quandaries. Then I became a Buddhist and learned a whole other set of answers. When I abandoned that too I went into crisis. With nothing to believe in I foundered, afraid of drowning.

But the water was barely ankle deep. The clouds didn’t open and the earth didn’t swallow me up. I got to my feet.

Apparently, there are some beliefs you can do without.

It’s up to you to accept the beliefs of your tribe or to believe whatever you choose. Beliefs sometimes lead to good behavior, sometimes to bad. The notion that there is one right belief is no longer credible.

Beliefs, however, have power. To have a say in that power you must understand why you believe. So—what is your motive?

A Dishwasher’s Lament

Once upon a time, in the days before automatic dishwashers, I learned to work with draining boards—flat wooden shelves with grooved channels that drained into the sink. There was no special place for crockery or cutlery. Everything was piled face down. You’d think a draining board would be overwhelmed by just a few dishes and spoons, but they never remained there long. We had dryer-uppers (people!) to keep the board clear.

It was an important job. Dryer-uppers wiped excess water from the washed items, then inspected and polished them. Items were sometimes returned to the washer with disapproval. There was an attitude to the art of washing and drying up. Quality control was personal.

I learned all this in my father’s restaurant. It trained me for a career I never followed, and yet that training guided my life. After a preliminary wash, the dining room silverware was put aside until morning, when it was plunged into boiling water and polished while hot with linen napkins. Then they were arranged in nested regiments—the original ‘spooning.’ This whole process brought attention to every knick and scratch, so that over hundreds of mornings you came to recognize each utensil.

One day a dish rack appeared impudently on the draining board. Now there was no place for the huge frying pans that arrived every few minutes. I don’t know whose idea it was, but it was stupid. It got in the way, disrupted kitchen routine and upset everyone.
It disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared.

Then one day Dad announced another purchase: a brand-new automatic dish washing machine. Designed exclusively for the hotel and catering industry, it would outperform and replace washer-uppers and dryer-uppers, saving on wages and producing superior results.
Except it didn’t. First of all, someone had to stack and unstuck them. Plus, while they took their sweet time, sauce-encrusted plates accumulated in ugly piles, causing another log-jam in the kitchen routine. Next day Dad had it removed. “Bloody waste of time,” he fumed. “What a shit job!”

Today at home fifty years later, dishwashers haven’t come all that far. Never mind the baked-in stains, they undermine any notion of old-school care. Most objectionable is that they make drying-up obsolete. When I suggested to our daughter that it would be good to polish the cutlery, she looked at me as if I was losing my mind. Labor-saving devices promote this attitude.

I get it. Dishwashing machines help us cram more into our busy days. I don’t seriously have a problem with the dishwasher—I’m just ranting. The real problem is the cramming.

People learning mindfulness for the first time complain that their minds are running uncontrollably. With practice they see that they have a part in that lack of control, and that shifts their attitude. The point is to stop the endless cramming and let some space into the mind.

I call it stopping. One way to practice is by hand-washing dishes. Go slow, watch your body at work as it turns, reaches and holds each item. Pay attention to what you see and touch. Notice how your breathing reflects your mood, and how anxious or relaxed you are. Get to know yourself. Value the moment.

Your Mindful Journey

You can try to build a practice of mindfulness using the 10-minute guided meditations on my website. However, they’re probably not enough in themselves. They’re definitely here to support you—that’s why I made them—but establishing a practice tailored to your own life experience takes reflection. That’s why we put on workshops throughout the year.

The workshops bring your life into it. What are the situations that trigger automaticity? Why are mental patterns so hard to break? We discuss and demonstrate mindful thinking and attitudes that nudge you towards a mindful lifestyle. In today’s multi-tasking, consumer world, this is no small thing. In that uphill battle you need all the help you can get.

The workshops teach, demonstrate and encourage that process. The technique of mindfulness is simplicity itself—much easier than learning a new musical instrument for example. However, it can be elusive. Making it a lifelong practice takes a steady shift in perspective and repeated recollection. It’s something you gradually get better at.

Everyone has the occasional mindful moment. What enables mindfulness to change your life is daily commitment and recollection.

Best of all, you’ll meet and share your mindful experience with like-minded people. You will be inspired.

We begin a self-compassion Workshop in the Montreal area on September 26. More info HERE.

What’s Best For Celia?

Celia couldn’t stop. She was the administrator of a retirement home, busy from dawn to night. Everyone depended on her and, as she always said, “The only way to get something right is to do it yourself.”

She loved the home. She knew each of the residents by name, as well as their history and their family visitors. She loved to see the old folks relax and settle in, and especially to see the young folks feeling less guilty. It didn’t always work out that way, of course, but that was her measure of success, and on the whole she was pretty successful.

However, the time finally came when she could no longer hide her exhaustion. It was profound. She went to the doctor, who told her to rest.

She tried, but the calls poured in from staff. They needed decisions. The realization that she couldn’t escape her work suddenly scared her. She felt confined by her own creation—almost imprisoned.

The doctor was right. She should rest. But just being told that wasn’t enough. Resting meant a 180° turn-around in her work ethic. That much change intimidated the hell out of her.

When a friend told her how she’s managed a huge transition from a 20-year marriage with the help of a life coach, she decided to see if that person could help her too.

The coach listened to Celia’s story, interjecting questions to make sure she didn’t gloss over anything. Before, she’d always thought of her life story as a series of anecdotes. Gradually she came to see it as a continuous narrative, with all its connections of cause and effect. She began to regard her exhaustion not as something that had happened to her, but something she’d done to herself. That was Step #1.

Next, Celia’s coach suggested she practice some self-compassion. Celia didn’t see the point. “That’s indulgent,” she said. “I was taught to put others first.” Still, she agreed to give it a try.

Things started to change. As Celia began to take care of her own needs, she noticed that she had more to offer. She let go of control and began to delegate.

It turned out that some staff did as good a job as her, if not better. Instead of telling them what to do she listened to what they had to say. She allowed them to explore, and they began to flourish. The spirit in the workplace changed. There was more cooperation. Everything improved.

As for Celia, she felt free in a way she thought she’d forgotten. For the first time in years she booked a holiday. She didn’t receive a single call during her week away from the home. She returned to find everything just fine. In her absence, problems had arisen and been resolved. Instead of putting out fires, she heard all about her staff’s innovative ideas.

On their last meeting, her coach narrated Celia’s journey back to her, from the first session till now, in the very words that Celia had used at the outset when describing her frustration and resentment. It all sounded so foreign to her. She hardly recognized that person and realized that the intimidating journey she’d envisaged was indeed huge, but that she’d made it, and it felt entirely natural.

All because she chose to be compassionate towards herself.