Exercising care

I was on the bus the other day when an elderly woman got on and was struggling to find her fare. She eventually presented a transfer, which the driver dismissed as being two days old, and instead of motoring on, waited at a green traffic light for the woman to produce her fare. The woman said she didn’t want to hold up the bus and got off.  

While now stopped at a red light, another passenger came forward and chided the driver, claiming she could have just let the senior on for free. The driver’s replied that she hadn’t told the woman to get off the bus. The passenger then called out to the woman, who was still standing on the pavement scrambling for her fare and she came back on the bus – for free -and we helped to get her settled in a seat. She was immensely relived and grateful.

What struck me so dramatically about this incident was the bus driver’s complete indifference to the woman’s plight. While we all have rules and regulations to follow in our jobs, there should be a common sense provision allowing leniency in extenuating circumstances, particularly to help those in need. Echoing Gandhi’s proclamation, that ‘the greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member,’ it is an aspiration that we should all strive for as a society, as well as in our own daily lives.

Though I often see incidents of people helping out, I would say that overall in my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a real erosion in people’s efforts to care for one another. It’s interesting that during the pandemic, public addresses were made urging people to look in on their neighbours and elderly, as if this is something that would not have occurred to us naturally.

I do feel that we all have the desire within us to care for our fellow human beings and that these days, it often gets expressed more readily in the virtual realm, through social media campaigns and Go Fund Me sites. But it seems to me that we’ve lost the natural instinct to care for one another in our everyday interactions. Caring is like a muscle that needs to be exercised, and when we switch off to anything but our own immediate circumstances and are not present to those around us, indifference or apathy often settles in.

Multiplied many times over, it is this apathy which is eroding our society and destroying our world because when we cease to care, we cease to act. Conversely, when we care about something, we’re invested in protecting it or improving its outcome. The biggest challenge in today’s world is in getting people to care, and to turn that focused measure of concern into productive, transformative action.

Caring means reaching out and doing what you know is right – at times extending beyond the stated rules. If we all made the effort to care a little bit more, our positive actions would continue to reverberate out and create a more peaceful, loving and beautiful world.

Tropical treats

It would be difficult to sum up the two months I spent in a place as rich and eclectic as Costa Rica. And though I travelled around a fair extent of the country, immersing myself in nature and volunteer experiences, I feel, as I often do, that I learned more about myself than the country I was in, particularly what I’m capable of and what’s truly important to me. Of course, I could wax lyrical about Costa Rica’s beautiful scenery and stunning wildlife, but being there so long meant I also experienced much more in terms of ordinary everyday life and the challenges of navigating my way through it.

As a solo traveller, I needed to organize and arrange everything myself in advance, and once there, had to make several adjustments along the way. So the greatest necessity for me was to be adaptable – to be open to whatever I encountered, however much it differed from what I was expecting. Despite all I had read, Costa Rica was more complex – and expensive – than I was prepared for.

Many of my plans went awry and various travel mishaps ensued, and even with the greatest vigilance, several items broke or got lost on the journey. The other major challenge was in adapting to a new culture – and language, and I often had to confront outlooks and values that were quite different to my own. And while I mercifully avoided any major illnesses, I struggled with the extreme tropical heat – sometimes inside as well as out, and water irregularities – such as frequent cold showers or no running water at all.

But it was the constantly having to decide, plan and experience things alone that was the most difficult and emotionally exhausting aspect. I’m proud of how I was able to navigate it solo, venturing well out of my comfort zone and having many incredible adventures. I even managed to make a few local friends along the way.

Volunteering in various places and staying with local people meant I was privileged to be able to look beneath the country’s prevalent tourism façade and to see the conditions in which Ticos live, giving me a deeper, multi-faceted view of the place, flaws and all. For me, so much of the value of travel is going beyond the shiny surface and learning what a place is truly like for those who call it home.

I’m always grateful for my ability to travel the way I do, and my experiences in Costa Rica helped me to strengthen my capacity to face and overcome challenges and to be brave and bold in attempting new and audacious ventures, all of which was very validating. But perhaps most crucially, seeing what I could and couldn’t live without shone a glittering light on the things that are the most important to me in my life. For me, the true wonder of travel is the way in which it necessitates us to be more mindful and introspective, while at the same time reminding us that it’s a big, varied world out there full of intrigue, interaction and possibilities.

Awakening to spirituality

During my recent travels, I spent some time volunteering at a spiritual community and retreat centre. I was less drawn towards the specific ritual practices on offer, but was instead very keen to connect with like-minded, spiritually intuitive people. Sadly, the reality turned out to be quite different. Apart from my growing discomfort with the emphasis on hallucinogenic-induced ceremonies, my greater issue was the disconnect I experienced between the expectation of being an active part of the dynamic community I had been invited to, and instead feeling increasingly unsupported, neglected or ignored.

For me, a lack of clarity, poor communication and disrespectful treatment are always upsetting, but it was even more unnerving occurring at a place identifying itself as a haven of higher vibrational energy. It became increasingly clear to me that while no malice was intended – quite the opposite in fact, as I believe their good intentions were genuine, the problem was that the community members were overstretched in running the retreat centre and didn’t have the ability or energy to address the pressing needs and issues of the volunteers.

The irony of being at a place that offered guided spiritual practices led by people unconcerned with the volunteers’ welfare was too hard for me to take and I left the place early. However, when an opportunity arose to voice our concerns, the community members seemed receptive to the issues and recommendations we expressed, and I truly hope that they will make some positive changes in future and view it as an opportunity for learning.

The experience also brought home to me what it means to be spiritual. For me, at the root of any spiritual practice is the ability to be present, and the way in which I began my own spiritual journey. Being present in my immediate environment is the basis upon which I can develop the clarity and understanding I need to respond to situations with intelligence and equanimity. With clarity and presence, you can then incorporate other practices, such as kindness and empathy. 

For me, it’s imperative that this kind of foundation is firmly in place before embarking on any ceremonies or rituals, or the lasting value of these experiences will be fairly limited. Of course, guided retreats and ritualistic ceremonies can have a place in supporting your spiritual journey and helping to direct you into other realms of perception, but fundamentally, the real work happens with what you do yourself.

 Spiritual awakening can’t be bought as a shiny package that will magically transform you. True spirituality comes from the work that you do within and emanate outwards. It’s a slower and less dramatic process than a ceremony or a retreat but the reward for the hard slog is its endurance and sustainability. It’s the certainty that you can be in a spiritual place at all times because you are drawing your resources from within and bringing them with you wherever you go in your everyday life and beyond.

A new year of kindness

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It always feels odd starting a new year starting in the bleak of mid-winter, when all around feels cold, lifeless or dormant. In the midst of a deep freeze, it’s hard to feel it as a time of renewal or rejuvenation, or be energized to make and follow through on New Year’s resolutions. But one change we can enact today or any day, which carries a lasting impact, is to treat our fellow beings with more kindness and respect.

I was on the subway recently and nearby, a disheveled looking man in worn-out clothing was hunched over in his seat, reposing. Many moved away or kept their distance, but one man across the aisle reached over, tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a pair of work gloves, apologizing that they weren’t better gloves, but that they would at least help keep his hands warm. The recipient thanked him, put them on his hands and resumed his slumber.

 I smiled at the man for his kind and spontaneous act, which I found to be very moving. It also served as an important reminder that it is up to us to decide how we view and interact with one another, especially the vulnerable people we encounter in public spaces. We can choose to look away or instead, we can see in them as we might be one day ourselves, in a precarious situation in need of help.

I don’t have solutions for the issues faced by many of these people. But what I do have is an ability to alter my perspective and behaviour. I’ve taken to carrying around extra granola bars in my backpack and often when I encounter someone on the street or in the subway asking for money, I ask if they’d like something to eat and if they say yes, I hand them a bar. Sometimes I chat for a minute and other times, it’s just a brief exchange. But the look in their eyes always says the same thing – thank you for acknowledging me as a human being.

In the depths of winter, when many of us are at our lowest, as well as grappling with the darkness and cold, it’s worth remembering and acknowledging that we all struggle in different ways. Our shared problems and challenges are one of the main things that unite us. Let us at least begin the year by opening up our hearts more to show greater kindness, compassion and respect to one another, to see the humanity in others that we cherish in ourselves.

Joy to our inner world

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While on the bus this week, I watched as a little boy and his nanny got off and the boy turned around and said, ‘Thank you driver for driving us.’ Many of the passengers heard him and smiled, and the simple act of appreciation instantly lifted the mood of the bus.

For me, it was also a timely reminder during a season ratcheted up with commercialized bonhomie and good cheer for us to connect with everyday simple pleasures too. It’s hard to get away from the manufactured hype, as if the flick of the Christmas switch instantly channels us along a cascade of holiday preparations, bespoke gift buying and mirth, while for many, the ‘spirit of the season’ does not align with their current reality of struggles, anxiety and hardships.

It’s interesting that the chosen word for 2023 is ‘authentic’, which is a word we need more than ever at this time of year, to acknowledge what is authentic in our lives and in the world around us. It’s important to take time to detach from the pressures and relentless messaging of ‘getting the holiday right’ to pay attention to what is around us all the time, and to take pleasure from various things that are with us on a day-to-day basis. It could be a simple meal or petting a dog, seeing the moon glowing in the sky or a conversation with a neighbour or friend. These are gifts that are easy to acquire when we tune into our environment and can bring us both immediate and lasting satisfaction.

The real joy of this time of year, as in any other, are the blessings we have in our every day lives and ones we can pass on and share with others. This can also be an opportune time of year to reach out to those we love, those we are thinking about and those who are in need.

Enjoy the holiday decorations and lights, but if this season is about celebrating light, then let’s bring forth our own inner light too. Kindness is in short supply these days and taking time to be kind whenever we’re able and spreading joy are the greatest gifts we can pass along to one another, not just for the holiday season, but for always.

Talk the Walk

I’ve recently started leading guided walking tours for visitors around one of the oldest and most diverse areas of the city. Running guided tours is a venture I’ve often mused about in passing, so when I was recently approached by a ‘free’ walking tour platform, I decided to give it a try.

While I have a background in history and teaching, I’ve never actually led walking tours, and though I’ve been on plenty of them, I really had no clue how to organize one. I decided to choose a multi-cultural, eclectic area of the city, and with much of my family having lived there, I could also weave in some quirky, family stories into the narrative. Preparing the tour ended up being a lot of work to design the route and research and learn the info, while the walk itself took many attempts at tweaking and reframing.

I’ve run a few of these tours now, and like many undertakings, the experience turned out to be quite different than I expected. For starters, walking and talking for over two hours – especially in the cold, while interreacting positively with the walkers – is actually really hard work. It’s also very anxiety inducing, never knowing when you will get bookings, tips or the highly prized positive reviews. And, having started late in the season, tours have been infrequent and group numbers small.

 On the plus side, it’s been interesting to meet people from around the world and to find out about life in various countries, while also getting different perspectives on your own city as seen by other visitors. It’s also given me a chance to hone my ‘thinking on the spot’ communication skills, as every tour has a different feel to it and unexpected situations always arise.

But for me, the biggest challenge has been doing it in the first place – of having the courage and gumption to give it a try, with no idea of whether it would work or not. We’re often afraid to venture out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves, especially as we get older, so for me, just the attempt itself is a substantial achievement. The more we exercise the muscles of trying, the more we can raise our energy, expand and grow as humans and learn what we’re truly capable of.

And in the meantime – before the cold and snow truly set in – it’s just good to be walking and talking out in the fresh air.

Magic making

In the days leading up to Halloween, our interest in all things supernatural intensifies. It feels like presence of the unknown is all around us and magic feels more potent than ever.

Magic can seem to appear out of nowhere, creating a positive outcome we weren’t expecting. But what is less understood is that we have the ability to make magic happen if we are open to the possibility. If we truly want something and do the ground work to achieve it and put the energy out there, we can draw towards us what we need in the shape of the right people or opportunities. Serendipity is a form of magic.

For example, the other day, I was cycling on a side street downtown when I suddenly saw a large dog dashing up the sidewalk on his own. I thought the owner must be near, but he just kept running and ran straight across a busy main street. Fortunately, the cars saw him and stopped in time to let him get across.

 I was still racing after him on my bike when I saw two cyclists and another passer-by intercept the dog, one man stroking and calming him down. Then a dog walker came along and offered a spare leash. While we were figuring out what to do next, a woman came running towards us, who turned out to be the dog owner. She recounted seeing him jump the fence and run up the road but wasn’t quick enough to catch him.

This story could have ended very differently, but for the serendipity of several people being there and working together, ensuring the dog was safe. There are many stories like this with people appearing at the right time and the right place to effect a positive conclusion, which is magic.  

Magic is also present when an individual or community make something happen through the sheer effort, will and determination to break through an existing norm. And the beauty of magic is that it can grow from small scale efforts to movements that touch and inspire people throughout the world.

Magic is what allows us to hope and gives us something to believe in that a situation can change and conditions can improve.  It’s magic that keeps our spirit alive, making the impossible possible. We all need magic in our lives, but we must take an active role in believing and being a part of bringing it about.

Happy Halloween –  embrace and enjoy the true spirt of magic. 🎃

Queuing for jelly beans

I was passing through the ‘Festival Street’ of a recent international film festival, the pedestrianized zone full of food carts and various other promotions. Among the crowds, there were several long lines of people queueing up for things. I stopped at one of them, which was displaying various candies in jars supposedly relating to ‘attributes of the workplace.’ Perplexed, I asked the man heading up the stall what it was about and he said they were basically giving away free jelly beans.

Other stalls with extensive lines seemed to be proffering various similar promotional items amidst a festival atmosphere where standing in long lines was the norm – to try to get into a ‘hot’ screening or waiting hours for a chance to catch a glimpse of a particular celebrity.

Of course, the creation of a buzz or a trend is a key aspect of its success and we’ve become accustomed to hype driving up the value of any given thing, so long as it is marketed along the lines of scarcity and exclusivity. Media – augmented by social media – continually and perniciously plays on our need to feel special and our desire to be one of the privileged few able to acquire something in limited supply.

Some people will go to immeasurable lengths in pursuit of such things – spending wild amounts of time or money, and in more extreme cases, going into debt or committing acts of violence or crime in pursuit of the desired prize. Of course, often what is being sold is an idea or image, which we in turn re-relate as an image, inflating its wonder on our own social media posts.

For me, it’s not so much evaluating the merit of these coveted objects or experiences, but rather, our diminishing degrees of discernment in assessing their true value for ourselves. I would like to encourage people to take a harder, longer look at the shiny things that we’re going after and ask ourselves – do I really need this?  And what is the true price in my life of acquiring it?

It’s also worth considering whether in scrambling to get that next ‘hit’ of a limited attainable item, we are losing the ability to cultivate slower, deeper and richer experiences and connections. We must learn to judge and evaluate the value of any given experience for ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves manipulated into standing in endless lines, only to come away with a handful of jelly beans.

Sinking my teeth into the matter

When I first began writing this, my tooth was throbbing steadily in the background, the pain being caused by a deep filling I’d had done, which had hit a nerve. While investigating what what was physically going on, I learned some other interesting things in the meantime.

Having a sore mouth meant wanting to eat less, particularly anything hot, cold, crunchy, sweet or acidic. I discovered that I can get by with a lot less food perfectly well, and while I’m still waiting for the pounds to drop off (any day now), I can at least say that it’s helped me explore whether I’m actually hungry and to differentiate between what I think I need to eat versus what will actually make me feel nourished and full.

Having this kind of pain also caused me to rest and tune into my body more closely. I think we all undervalue rest, downtime and recovery, and work our bodies hard until fatigue, illness or injury strike upon us and force us to stop and take a break. I now realize how much better I feel after I’ve rested and recharged, putting aside all the ‘million things I could have been doing.’

Perhaps this has been the biggest revelation of all – our relentless desire to be doing things, acquiring things, achieving things, constantly keeping busy. When an illness or injury strikes, it forces us to slow down and take stock and decide what’s truly important and what we can actually live without. When we crave things, what we’re often feeling is our lack of or loss of something else which we are trying desperately to fill with something like food, entertainment or some other kind of stimulation.

Many of us are plagued by a fear of missing out or making the wrong choices but if we give ourselves quiet times to reflect and tune in, perhaps we can work out what we really need that will keep us feeling healthy and whole, nourishing our hearts and sustaining us more completely.

Nobody likes dealing with pain and I honestly wouldn’t wish a toothache on anyone, as it truly is a miserable experience. But in stopping to consider what I could and couldn’t eat, I am now a lot more mindful about the food I take in, and similarly evaluate other experiences too.

Being without an ability to do something can make us hone in on what’s truly important at a deeper level and we can learn to truly feed ourselves, heal and grow in the ways that we need most.

Calling on each other

Recently, I went for two weeks without a cell phone. Technically, I still had the phone, and could take pictures and access the internet via Wi-Fi, but I wasn’t able to use it for calls or texts. I’m happy to say that I not only survived the experience, but actually found it rather liberating.

I didn’t purposely set out be without a functioning phone, as I assumed my Canadian provider would cover the USA, if with additional charges. However, it transpired that my no-frills plan did not include the States at all, so I was limited to contacting people by email, which I usually did via laptop at my accommodation.

I’ve gone for a long time with an old phone, no data and virtually no apps, so other than the odd missed messages and a couple of times when I had to ask someone at my accommodation to call a cab or an Uber for me, the lack of connectivity didn’t really pose a problem for me. I didn’t even think it was such a big deal until an Air BnB host remarked upon it in her review of me.

In some ways, this speaks to the bigger issue at hand – the growing expectation that people and information will be available at all times through our phones. While such access can be an asset at times, not at the expense of losing our ability to be present.

Phone addiction is a proven reality and ‘fubbing’ – snubbing the person you’re with by being on your phone instead – is rampant. Being so reliant upon and immersed in our phones is also causing us to lose our powers of concentration and deduction.

Phones are useful tools – but they’re tools – not something we can’t live without. Let’s not wait for a technological implosion to figure out how to problem solve and communicate with one another. Let’s cultivate being present in our environment and interacting with one another in person in the here and now.