Just another grateful day

I’m going to start 2012 the same way I start every other day of my life: by remembering how grateful I am to be alive, to have been born not only into this human corporal being, and in a country where I can live in relative ease.

Meditation on gratitude has been part of my morning ritual for the last few years. As I am making tea, I consider all the things that I am grateful for. I almost always start with where I live. I feel blessed beyond words to be back in the Rocky Mountains. It is a privilege and an honour to live here. Many people around the world vacation here; they spend hard earned pay to come here for a week and experience the beauty and peace of this magnificent landscape. I get to wake up every morning and breathe mountain air and gaze on another flawless sunrise.

I am grateful too that I live in Canada. It’s by no means perfect, but I am thankful that I live where I can work hard each day to change what I don’t like, and still return home each evening alive, un-harmed.

My gratitude is deepest when it comes to my family. I have a loving wife who adores me and cares for me and for whom I would do anything. My children are like shining stars to me, and I love them more than words can say. I don’t see them every day, but my gratitude to have them in my life grows each and every moment. I am grateful that they have two loving households, and that we all work so well together in the interest of raising these amazing boys.

My gratitude extends to each member of my family. As 2011 ticks over to 2012 I am grateful, and meditate daily, for the recovery of my step-father Ernie, who married my mother just months ago, and who now is very sick. He is a good man, and I am thankful to have spent time with him over the last few years, and hope I get to spend more time with him in the future. My mother needs you, Ernie: I am grateful for you being in her life.

I am healthy, strong, and have all my wits about me most days. I’m pretty grateful for that blessing.

And I am grateful for my talents, and that I have found a way to align those with a way to earn a living. I can write, and have found a publisher who believes in me. For this rare, precious gift, I am so deeply grateful. And I have a job that allows me, each and every day, to work with amazing people in an effort to make the world a better place. How fantastic is that?

For all of these gifts I am appreciative. None have come particularly easy. Hard work, and years of patience, have been required to attract them to my life. I have never thought that the world owed me these blessings, but I do believe that I deserve them and the contentment that being grateful for them brings. Maybe if I had felt entitled to them I would not wake every single morning with a song of gratitude in my heart and the mantra “how can I express my gratitude for all that is precious in my life this day?”

The science behind gratitude has been in the news lately. Western medicine and psychology are waking up to what indigenous and contemplative cultures have known for thousands of years: that if we are grateful for what we have in our lives, we are happier; we want less, and are satisfied with our place in the universe and feel less anxious about what we don’t have.

To me it just feels like saying thank-you. I was raised to say thank-you, and we’re raising Rio and Silas to do the same. Every single day I want to say thank-you to the world around me for giving me this one precious heart-breakingly beautiful life to live as I choose. It’s not always easy; in fact, sometimes it’s very hard. But it is always filled with wonder.

So 2012 begins the way 2011 ended: by saying thank-you. I am grateful.

Turn on lights, sit before the tree

The boys went back to their other house today. We’ve had an amazing Christmas, sledding, playing games, making Lego and being together as a family. I spent Christmas with my father for the first time in seventeen years, and that was the greatest gift of the season. I love Christmas and this was a really good one. Now, the house quiet and the boys gone for another week, and I’m experiencing the post-Christmas doldrums.

Everything looks the same; the tree is still up and the mantel still decked with ornaments and lights and boughs, but something is missing.

There is a saying in Buddhism: before enlightenment, cut wood, haul water; after enlightenment, cut wood, haul water. Before Christmas, turn on lights and sit before the tree. After Christmas, turn on the lights and sit before the tree.

Of course, celebrating a family Christmas isn’t the same as enlightenment, but there are some similarities. Christmas is one time of the year that many people experience peace, if only for a short while. For me it often comes after all the hullabaloo of the day is over, and I can sit quietly with my family and look at the Christmas tree, and hold them in my arms and feel completely at peace. Others feel it during a once-a-year trip to the Church; others still while offering some generous charitable gift at a homeless shelter or the Salvation Army.

Whatever its cause, this harmony is a glimpse of a possible permanent peace that comes from enlightenment; the enduring end of suffering. In short, that suffering ends through unconditional love.

For a few, including Gautama Buddha, suffering can be conquered through devotion to meditation and a lifetime of practice, study, laughter and good will, the rest of us only catch fleeting glimpses.

And so it is at Christmas. The company comes and goes, the day passes, and soon the New Year is upon us and before we know it, the brief moment of peace is a fading memory.

We turn on the Christmas lights and sit before the tree, but the peace it brought has slipped away.

My favourite book on Buddhism is called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, by Jack Cornfield. For the longest time I had only read the opening chapter, the title of the work being enough to keep my mind occupied.

Life is punctuated by moments of bliss, pure love, complete peace, clear vision, and total unity, but then they are gone, and we’re left doing the dishes again, trying to hurry the kids off to school and meet some deadline at work. We crave a return to those moments of perfection, and sometimes grow weary or resentful of the day-to-day humdrum that occupies most of our lives. We crave distraction from it; we want to escape.

But as the saying goes, both before and after enlightenment, life is almost entirely made up of routine. It can be either tedious, or blissful; the choice is ours to make. Even for those achieving enlightenment, it is a reality. In fact, for those conquering suffering, facing that choice may be the key to creating a lasting peace.

The boys are gone and the house is quiet. There is no monumental war of Star Wars Lego figures taking place across the living room carpet. Nobody is asking for one more piece of Christmas candy. I’m sitting by the fire, the tree lit beside me; and every single moment I am making the choice to be at peace with myself and my life. It is a gift that transcends the season.

Peace on Earth…and Eggnog with Rum

Silas, my six year old, wanted to know what Buddhist’s do to celebrate Christmas. We’ve been talking a lot about spirituality, and its distant cousin religion, lately, and I’ve been telling him and his brother Rio, 9, about the Christmas story. At random times of the day I’ll fire questions at them, pop quiz style, about the birth of Jesus, and offer them a range of ideas to ponder about his life and death. I want them to understand why people started celebrating this season, and how it came to pass that we associate it with the giving and receiving of presents.

I also weave in as many of the other holiday traditions around the approaching darkness, including the Hindu festival of Diwali, known as the festival of lights, and the Jewish Hanukkah when the nine branched Menorah is lit as a meditation on the meaning of the holiday.

Though all of this, the boys know what my beliefs are, but I insist that they should make up their own minds on spirituality. I remind them that belief in the teaching of the Buddha – that there is a path to the end of suffering – is not exclusive, and can be paired with any other set of spiritual beliefs we choose.

But Silas is persistent; he understands that there is something a little different about Dad’s beliefs and administers his own pop quiz as we walk to school one morning.

What can I tell him? I love Christmas, but not because of the birth of the son of God. I believe that Jesus Christ was born, possibly even in Bethlehem, on Christmas over two thousand years ago. But I don’t think he was the son of God in the literal way the bible would have us believe. I think he was a prophet and an Avatar, like the other great spiritual teachers Mohammad and the Buddha.

What I love about Christmas is that it’s a time of peace and good will and love towards one another. It’s possible that peace, good will and love were what was born as the “son” of God on that night so long ago. I have said elsewhere that I think that the bible should have stopped by saying that “God is love” and left well enough alone. I also believe that love is the infinite power of the universe to create life, and that all living things are manifestations of love’s will to exist in the vastness of time and space.

It’s not so much of a stretch, then, to say that Jesus Christ as the “son” of “God” was the emergence of very focused, intense love into the world at a time when humanity was particularly troubled. With true love comes peace, between nations, but also within. Peace was the prophet Jesus Christ’s greatest message; so it was with Lord Buddha: together they taught that peace within one’s soul is needed before we can have peace between nations. And from that comes good will towards one another.

That’s a lot for a six year old to think about, and the conversation diverges to a discussion about which Star Wars Lego set he might find under the tree.

I don’t know what Buddhists do at Christmas to be honest. I’m not part of the club. I know what I’m going to do at Christmas. I’m going to continue to greet every person I meet by silently saying Nameste, which means “the spirit in me greets the spirit in you.” What better way to welcome the spirit of the season into our hearts than through this benediction?

I’m also going to make an extra effort to bring peace, even just for a moment, to those who need it the most: the weary, the downtrodden, those who are suffering for whatever reason, big or small. I’ll do what I can to teach peace and be at peace during this time when we must be the light that shines through the veil of darkness. I’ll do this by telling perfect strangers and my closest friends with a smile, with small talk, and often without words, that they are loved.  I’ll likely slip-up and get frustrated or flustered over the holidays, trying to impose my notion of perfection on an already perfect world. That’s why God, who loves us and wants us to find peace, gave us rum and eggnog at this time of the year. Or maybe that’s the Buddha.

For more seasonal merriment see: Holiday Shopping with the Buddha Claus.

Lighten Up

One year ago my family and I moved into our home in Canmore, Alberta. 365 days seem to pass very quickly and now, in many ways the nearly six years I spent on the coast feel dreamlike in their signature.

In a nearly comical way I continue to ruminate on the extraordinary journey. The part of the adventure that still makes me laugh, in a nervous, slightly manic way, was the extraordinary effort to haul all of our stuff across the mountains from Victoria back to Canmore. Fishtailing into on-coming traffic a fully loaded, 35-foot long U-Haul van on black ice on a mountain road has a way of sharpening the mind.

Five years ago I had almost no processions. Everything I owned fit in a friend’s Delica van. When I moved into the big old Victorian house on Chambers Street in Fernwood that I lived in for four years, the place was practically empty. It felt pretty good.

Over the next few years, it filled up. Old third hand furniture was discarded for better second hand stuff. The bed I built for Rio and Silas was replaced by two beds bought at a garage sale. As if by spontaneous cellular division, children’s socks, toys and outdoor gear just materialized. When Jenn and I moved her possessions from Canmore to Victoria for our two years together there, we unloaded a medium sized U-Haul into the house, and it started to feel like a home.

By the time we were ready to move our combined lives back to Canmore together last December, we had to rent the largest U-Haul on the lot and still made dozens of trips to Value Village to unload our unwanted processions.

I get attached to things. They represent comfort, security, and ease. But they also act as talisman for memories. Before I made the move from Victoria back to the mountains I got it in my head that I would expunge some of these mementos from my life. I had this notion of throwing something away every day for 180 days to symbolize turning around 180 degrees.

That’s the way I imaged our move back to the rocks. Turning around completely; leaving old patterns, old habits, old fears, and old attachments behind.

I threw a lot of stuff away.  I wish I had kept a list, but that too would have been just another damn thing to keep track of and I didn’t need that. I think the most significant thing I discarded during that time was a clay statue that had been sculpted and given to me by my first significant girlfriend back when we were in high school. It had broken several times over the last twenty-two or –three years and I’d glued it back together. For me it represented an attachment to my past that I had to discard to fully embrace the present. It left without ceremony.

When it came time to finally load the U-Haul, we were overwhelmed with the amount of stuff we still had. It took two and a half days to load the truck. The first three-quarters were easy. The last quarter took a day and a half. By the end I resorted to rigging a net of yellow rope to hold all the stuff in. And then we loaded our pickup: plants, cleaning supplies, the third coffee maker, and other random things we couldn’t let go of.

Why are we holding onto all this stuff I kept asking myself, and random passersby?

Why indeed? Some of our things provide us with necessary comforts, like the toaster, the first coffee maker, the tea pot and the cork screw. We need some things to live day to day, to earn a living, to enjoy our time with our families and friends. But much of the stuff jammed and jimmied into the back of the U-Haul, like much of what we surround ourselves in modern society, isn’t needed to enjoy our lives; it comes between us and our ability to live fully.

The mass of accumulated possessions in modern life force us into a sort of spiritual indentured servitude and insulate us from the real world. We must work like dogs to afford all the things we think will give us pleasure: TV screens the size of a fridge, cars the size of armoured vehicles, a basement full of toys, gadgets, equipment and memorabilia.

Some of it is useful. Much of it is clutter, under our feet and in our hearts.

It holds us down and ties us to the past and creates barriers to living fully in the present.

Much of this stuff is also wasteful and necessitates gobbling up vast quantities of minerals, petroleum and the remaining ancient forests so we can live in massive homes, drive massive vehicles and watch massive televisions.

Why? Four reasons: First, because we are afraid of being uncomfortable. Second, because we are attached to our past. Third, because we are afraid of confronting our own suffering. Fourth, because we are afraid of our impermanence: we are afraid to die.

Our things give us physical comfort. Some of them make our lives easier. But at what cost? In addition to the slavish labour we must undertake day in and day out to afford the things that supposedly make our lives easier, many of these so-called comforts distract us from the true source of our discomfort, and keep us from confronting our own fears. What are we so afraid of that we must distract ourselves for so much of our lives?

All the stuff in our lives keeps us looking backwards. Reflection on, and celebration of our personal history is wonderful. But there comes a time when we have to let it go. Too often we hold onto things long after they have served their purpose. Too often rather than living in the present we surround ourselves with mementos to a time of our lives that no longer serves us.

Suffering is a fact of life. We all suffer. Conquering suffering is the purpose of Buddhism. Suffering is overcome through the practice of daily meditation, purposeful living, practicing loving-kindness, among other tents of the Eightfold Path. Too often we don’t even realize the depth to which we suffer because we’re distracted. We watch TV, or listen to our iPods or amass untold numbers of gadgets that keep us from sitting quietly and reflecting on the true purpose of our lives: to overcome suffering, and to help others do the same.

And then there is death. We are possibly the only creatures on earth who are aware, from a very early age, that we will die. My own sons and I have talked openly about this since they were four years old. Is it any wonder that we are also the only creatures on earth who amass such extraordinary piles of stuff? Huge homes, massive cars, cottages, boats, collections of books and music and play-things. Do we need these things to survive? Absolutely not. Do they extend our lives? In some cases, by a few years. The stress of struggling and yearning for them more often ends our lives prematurely. Do we need them to be happy? Some bring momentary comfort, even joy. But for the most part, our things serve the purpose of insulating us from the inevitability of impermanence. They distract us from the suffering caused by this knowledge, persuade us that we needn’t face this fear and surmount it, and convince us that maybe we will cheat death if only we can protect ourselves from the world with our processions.

This has been on my mind for the last year. Why all this stuff? Like many others, I’ve had fantasies of throwing it all in the dump (or having a nice big bonfire), strapping my backpack on and disappearing to some remote corner of the world, taking with me just a little bit of the stuff. But that would only be a temporary solution. In a few years, there would be more stuff.

And I like my things. Jenn and I have a small, tasteful home filled with books and keepsakes from our travels and photos that have meaning.

The solution isn’t external. It’s not about the world the surrounds me, cluttered or otherwise. It’s about the world within.

There is a wonderful scene in the Pixar movie Up. In the film a deeply unhappy older gentleman, Carl, and an enthusiastic boy named Russell take a tremendous journey by tying thousands of balloons to Carls’ house and flying, dirigible fashion, to South America. The house is filled with memories of Carl’s deceased wife Ellie. While alive, she and Carl dreamed of adventure and visiting Paradise Falls, but instead lived a quiet, even contented, life. When Ellie died, Carl was wracked with guilt for failing to fulfill his wife’s dream.

Towards the end of the movie, Carl is unable to let go of all the memories entangled in his home in order to help one of the duo’s tag-alongs, a ten foot tall bird named Kevin. Russell is furious and departs to help Kevin on his own, leaving Carl to confront his memories alone. In a moment of clarity, Carl realizes that all of the things that he thought mattered were weighing his house down, so he throws them all out the front door. Last to go are the symbolic chairs that he and his wife sat in throughout their marriage. The house is lighter, the balloons lift it off the ground, and Carl flies to both Kevin and Russell’s rescue.

Carl realizes that his past is weighing him down, and that he has to lighten the load before he can live fully in the present.

Does this mean that I’ll be throwing more of my books, photos, my beloved mountain bike and furniture out the window this weekend? No. But I am aware of how all the things in my life tie me to my past, and distract me from addressing what is truly important. I’ve made a commitment to lighten up, both physically and emotionally so that spiritually I can strive for some manner of freedom from suffering.

15 Stages

For the last month I’ve been working on the story edits for The Slickrock Paradox, book one in the Red Rock Canyon Mystery series. This is always an amazing experience. As this is the third book that I’ve worked on with the same story editor, we’ve developed a bit of a rhythm. I’ve also begun to notice a pattern in my response to this initial editorial process. Here are, somewhat tongue in cheek, the 15 Stages of the Story Editing Process:

1)      False sense of hope that comes when you finish your “final” draft and send it to publisher.

2)      Uncomfortably long wait while your publisher amasses an editorial (SWAT) team.

3)      Awkward questions from said editorial team: “did you send us the wrong draft?”

4)      Forewarning from the publisher that soon the editorial team will be done. For now.

5)      Anticipated arrival of the marked up draft, complete with intro: WE have some work to do.

6)      Utter disheartening sense of abject failure that accompanies reading the mark-ups. Drinking commences.

7)      Misplaced frustration with those who have killed all your darlings.

8)      Inevitable regret for having slept through grade 9 phonics.

9)      Self loathing for having made all the same mistakes over again. Shame.

10)   Grudging acceptance that the story is better without the 47 pages of exposition that have been cut.

11)   Just plain hard work re-writing the story so that it makes a shred of sense.

12)   Strange affection for those who have taken a well tuned chainsaw to a year of your life’s work.

13)   Recognition that creating a good (even decent) novel is a team effort.

14)   Further acceptance that the writer is not the captain of said team.

15)   Perverse – even borderline masochistic – willingness to do it all again.

As posted on Twitter @stephenlegault.