What I Was Missing All Along

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I believe that, on the most basic level, all human beings are the same. Inside, we all want the same things and are driven by the same desires. We all want to be loved and to find a place where we belong. We all want to do work that has meaning and provides a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. We all have the same basic needs for food and shelter, for social contact and emotional connection. We are of the earth, and we are all the same.

For a long time I felt an emptiness within me becuase things were missing in my life, and for years I had been relying on substances to fill the hole with artificial joy. Recently I wrote an article for NOW magazine about how kratom, a plant from southeast Asia with opioid-like properties, could be used as a treatment option in the current opioid crisis killing people on our streets everyday. It was an easy article for me to write becuase I already knew a lot about the stuff since I had been addicted to it myself for over three years. What started out as a harmless indulgence became a controlling drug habit as I grew to depend on it to regulate my emotional state and keep me focused on my freelance work.

After many, many attempts to quit I finally did it this year and have been clean for a long time. Writing the article for NOW was part of my healing process. I was using a drug to fill the hole in my life, but it never worked because the effects of drugs are always fleeting. What they give on one hand, they take away with the other. Kratom made me feel awesome for a few hours, but later I would feel like garbage and the withdrawals were terrible, so I kept taking it. I was trapped in a feedback loop and it took me a long time to figure out how to make the lifestyle change to push that shit out of my life for good, allowing me to figure but what it is I really need.

My experience with kratom made me wonder why people do drugs at all, becuase I’m sure that for many it’s a similar reason. We feel like something is missing from our lives, or that we can’t handle the problems that we have and need an escape so we can feel better, if even for a little while. When I started with kratom, it was because I was horribly depressed and alone, and I couldn’t get any work done at all. I needed something to turn me around, and for a while kratom did exactly that. But now that I’ve come through to the other side of addiction, I see that it wasn’t what I really needed in my life. Only once I made the change and got through withdrawals did I come to grips with my inner self and what I was missing all along.

The daily practise of meditation, regular workouts at the gym, and sobriety have given me time for self reflection. I feel inspired again, happy again, and open to the world. I picked up my guitar again, started practicing several hours a day, and over the past few weeks I’ve written a bunch of original songs. I’ve been playing and listening to music obsessively and it has healed my spirit in ways I couldn’t image when my mind was clouded. The high that I needed all this time doesn’t come from any drug, but from the sounds of music, from the power of singing my own song, and in joining others in the creation of that beautiful noise.

Music and meditation were what I needed in my life all along to feel happy and fulfilled, not drugs and alcohol to make make me numb and complacent. Without all that shit clouding my mind, I’ve aligned with my spiritual self and can feel the full flood of emotions and inspiration coming back. I’ve been writing poetry since I was 10, and I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13; songwriting is the natural extension of those two things. Had I came to this conclusion earlier in life I would be in much happier and more prosperous place right now!

Take it from me, don’t look to drugs and alcohol to solve your problems, or to make them go away. You will never win. They always come back. Do some soul searching and figure out what really aligns with your spirit and provides that feeling of limitless happiness and potential. Do this and you will arrive at the true meaning of your life.

The Difficulty of Practicing Non-Judgement

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I’ve taken the Meyers-Briggs personality test several times in my life, and every time I score higher on judging than I do on perceiving. If remember correctly, I’m an ESTJ (extraverted-sensing-thinking-judging). Recently, through my daily practice of meditation and self reflection, I’ve noticed that I am indeed a judgemental person. Everything I see and do has to be weighed, analyzed, compared, labelled.

It’s not my fault. Evolution crafted the human mind this way. The cerebral cortex is an engine of abstract thought and judgement, and without it our primitive ancestors would not have survived and we would not be here today. The cognitive abilities of the human mind are limitless, powerful, and expansive. Our judgemental mind a crucial part of that.

But there is something to be said for the cause of not judging so much. When we constantly exercise judgement on other people and the world around us, it taxes our psychological resources causing stress and occupying headspace. Every ounce of stress we expose ourselves to depletes our minds, so stress management is something that everyone must learn at some point in their lives.

We can save ourselves from an enormous amount of cognitive strain by letting go of our judgemental minds, and just letting things be. During my daily meditations thoughts always come up, memories and plans, feelings and premonitions, but when these things emerge I try not to appraise them, but let them skitter across the void of my consciousness until they fade away and are forgotten again.

Time and again, I’m teaching myself to let go of the things that trouble me by reserving judgement. In my everyday life there are things everywhere demanding my attention, temping my judgemental sense, and it’s difficult not to place judgement on these things. I catch myself judging people and immediately stop myself, telling myself “stop judging people,” and focus on the present moment and whatever it is I’m currently doing. All throughout the day I’m shutting off the judgemental part of my brain so I can live more harmoniously in the world.

If everyone could learn to turn off their judgey-brains every now and then, we would live in a much more peaceful and accepting world. We are training against our own evolution to do this, but the benefits of reduced stress and an increased lightness of being are worth the effort.

I’m Only Human, After All

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Life is a work in progress, and everyone is under tremendous stress to perform. When you’re under constant pressure at work, when your finances are stretched to the limit, or when there are a million commitments and expectations bearing down on you every day, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Sometimes it can seem like everyone wants something from you, and you don’t want to let them down. You’re afraid of what they might think of you, or what the consequences of failure might be. Sometimes you might feel the need to shut down, take a break, and go into hiding for a while, maybe powerwatch the new season of Master of None of Netflix.

This is normal and there’s an expression coined by Millennials that describes it, “Sometimes I just can’t even…”  It points to the human need for physical and psychological rest. When you feel like you “just can’t even”, it’s time to take a break. Self-care is easily neglected in the rat races of our hectic modern cities where life goes by at a mile a minute and you don’t want to miss out on what could be.

But you can’t be “on” all the time. If you try, burnout is inevitable. There always comes a time when you need to take a step back and have a reprieve from the stresses and expectations of life. To use myself as an example, last week I took some time off because I was at a point where I felt like I needed a break from everything. For three days I did no freelance work at all. I meditated, went to the gym, watched comedy specials, went out to a poetry show, caught up on some reading, and wrote a pile of new poems. Even still, there was that nagging sense in the back of my mind that I should be working, but my personal health and wellness had to take the front seat for a while. I was stressed and needed to center myself.

Throughout my freelance career I’ve always been so hard on myself. Since I work alone and live alone, I don’t have anyone in my corner offering moral support when the going gets tough, so I used to beat myself up and blame myself for my failings. Now I’ve learned not to be so hard on myself all the time because dwelling on the negative is pointless, and will only increase the stresses I already feel. It won’t help me move forward. Instead, I accept that I’m only human and I can’t do everything at once. I can’t be all things to all people. There are certain things that I’m not good at or don’t feel passionate about.

In my brief hiatus last week, I took some time to consider what kind of writer I really want to be, and what kind of work I’m really passionate about. When you’re working in any creative field it’s important to do work that you feel passionate about, otherwise it’s nothing more than a means to an end and doesn’t provide any real satisfaction. It became apparent to me that for years I’ve been taking on all kinds of assignments that I wasn’t passionate about just for the sake of making a paycheque, and becuase of this I was always burned out and unhappy with my work. I arrived at the truth that I’m a storyteller, a poet and a journalist, not a digital marketer or web content writer. Moving forward, I have to be honest with myself. I have to do the work I really believe in becuase that’s the only way I’ll ever find real happiness and satisfaction in my career.

Most importantly, I’ve learned not to be so hard on myself all the time. Whenever I’m facing failure, or taking on a new challenge, I don’t stress myself out. I just take it one step at a time, one day at a time. If I fail, I take in stride as a learning experience. I’m not Superman. Some things don’t fit with the interests and passions that drive my career forward. I can’t be all things to everyone, and that’s fine. I’m only human, after all.

The Enduring Power of Empathy

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Growing up, I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my father all the time. One of the characters, Counsellor Deanna Troi, was a half-Betazoid/half-Human possessing extraordinary empathic abilities which made her particularly good at her job. She could closer her eyes and get a reading on the general mood of everyone on the ship, and she could also tell if people were lying or being truthful, among other things. 10-year old me thought this was mysterious and novel, but now the adult version of me understands the true power of empathy and how any run-of-the-mill human can develop it.

As a writer, I would be nothing without empathy. How could I ever understand the people and communities I’m writing for unless I can empathize with them? By putting myself in the other’s shoes and attempting to see the world through their eyes I gain a deeper understanding of whatever it is they’re going through. This is powerful in many areas of life. Whether I’m writing a story about a new CNIB community hub that opened up in the city, or when my roommate tells me about his struggles with obtaining citizenship in Canada, I feel what they feel. I see what they see.

It is not easy, and it does not come without pain. When you open your mind and heart to the world it can easily flood your senses and overwhelm you. It can be especially hard for men to have empathy because we’re conditioned from a young age to bottle up our emotions and only let them out in privacy, never sharing them with the world. Real men, we are told, don’t cry. They are stoic and steady, always eschewing logic over emotion. As such, men by and large have terrible emotional intelligence.

This is an unhealthy way to go through life. We should teach the next generation of men to understand their own emotions, and those of others as well. All human beings have emotions regardless of their gender and ignoring them is disastrous for your mental health. Many people turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain, to turn themselves off from the world and blind themselves. The problem is that these buried and muted problems have a way of resurfacing in more harmful ways. Only by facing the thoughts and feelings that torment us, as well as the ones that bring us joy, can we attain balance and inner peace. Self-empathy is just an important as empathy for others. You are only human after all.

In our modern times many people are so wrapped up in their own lives, so ensconced in their own affairs, that they shut down when it comes to relating to other people’s pain. We are all too busy to open our hearts, to lend a hand and help our fellows stand or give them a shoulder to cry on when they feel weak. The technological trappings of our modern world have separated our hearts and placed them into compartments insulated from everyone else. We have forgotten how to empathize.

I believe that empathy is one of the keys to lasting peace and unity. If we could all empathize with each other and understand one another’s passions and difficulties with openness and acceptance, the world would be a much better place. We are all so quick to judge and compare, but what we really need is to listen to each other; to accept that everyone is different and must walk their own path.

Challenge yourself to empathize with someone today. It could be someone of a different religion, or race, or gender identity. Just because you prescribe to X,Y, and Z, doesn’t mean everyone else has to as well. Even though “the other” is different, you can understand them, accept them, and even love them. Through empathizing with our fellow humans, we engender unity and a better world for everyone.

Why Every Writer Should Practise Meditation

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When I was 19 years old I discovered the power of zen meditation when I read “The 3 Pillars of Zen” by Roshi Philip Kapleau. For many months I made a regular habit out of practicing the zen meditation techniques I read about in the book becuase I wanted to reap the benefits of enhanced mental clarity and focus. After each meditation session I noticed a significant improvement in the my mental state: I was much calmer and more focused. I even felt physically stronger when I lifted weights at the gym. It seemed that regular meditation really had kicked my mind into a higher plane.

I lent that book to a friend and never saw it again, and I eventually fell out of practise in college. But I have always had the intention of taking it up again and recentering my cluttered monkey mind whenever life gets crazy. Indeed, these days I need mental clarity more than ever because I’m a professional writer, and a strong mind is a writer’s most powerful tool.

The process of writing is entirely cerebral. We depend on ideas and imagination to practise our craft, and you can’t develop good ideas and act on them when your mind is muddled from chronic stress, substance abuse, malnutrition, or lack of sleep. Over the last week I’ve been practising zen meditation again. I now spend 20 minutes meditating in the morning before starting the day’s work, and I’m noticing the same mental and emotional benefits which I noticed when I was 19. The effects of meditation are immediately useful to a writer, or anyone else for that matter.

Every morning, after I’ve eaten and had my glass of water and cup of coffee, I’ll sit down in a half lotus position, hands cupped beneath the pit of my stomach with thumbs slightly touching, and I will breathe–in through the nose, out through the mouth–and attempt to clear my mind of all thought, focusing only on my breath, counting them up to ten without thinking of anything else (this is a lot harder than you might realize). Sometimes, when urgent thoughts come up, I let them rise through the void and watch them as they take their course. It allows me to work things out when they’ve been weighing on my mind causing stress. Then, when I finally break meditation, I slowly stand up and stretch, ready to start the day with calm focus like a clear pond on a spring morning.

It’s empowering to attain enhanced focus and clarity by performing such a simple and ancient act. Meditation is more like non-action, really. In our modern lives where information is constantly bombarding us from every angle, and our attention is constantly pulled in every direction, taking time to just sit and breathe allows the mind to restore and regroup, and you emerge from it stronger than before. Anyone can do this in the privacy of their home, and it doesn’t cost a cent.

If a sharp and clear mind is a writer’s most powerful tool, then meditation is the whetstone we must use to keep it that way. I strive to have a sharp and clear mind, like a blade of glass, able to cut through to deeper truths and expose the still pond where wisdom is found.