Meaning is Staring You in the Face

boreddeskworker

As anyone who has changed jobs for quality-of-life reasons knows, meaning is an important part of life. Currently I work part-time for an organization that distributes scholarships to engineering students. Given my background as a yoga instructor, musician and trauma therapist, it seems an unlikely choice. I took the job for one reason: I was new to Canada, and it was offered to me. The reasons I stay, despite my doubts, are more complex.

The truth is, I often crave more meaning at work, and the fact that I hang out with people like me – people who work as therapists, life coaches, and professional change-makers – only adds to it. My urge to leave my job started about 6 months in. Once I had gotten the hang of things, I realized I could be a little more satisfied and fulfilled. But I wasn’t ready for a new job search, and I had a nagging feeling that I might learn more by staying put. So I decided to stay.

As I stayed, I started looking for meaning in other parts of my life. I wasn’t quite up for another commitment. So small changes became the rule of the day: I’ve spent more time with friends, getting to know them on a deeper level; composting more; and learning about causes I care about.  Unfortunately our society is designed in such a way that it’s hard for fulltime workers to do such things, so, as a part-time worker, I feel like it’s kind of my duty.

It’s not to say that I don’t just chill sometimes – I still have days where I spend an afternoon watching 80’s fantasy movies, for example. But since I enjoy contributing to something beyond myself, and since time has a funny way of draining away into pursuits like scrolling Facebook, I do maintain a certain discipline about it.

The result has been surprisingly fulfilling. I’ve realized that for me, stressful fulltime employment, as well as complete unemployment, both took away that sweet-spot pace of living that allows you to really grow. Thanks to my sweet husband paying our rent for awhile, I can give up a little cash in exchange for time to develop myself as a friend, sustainable home-maker, and artist.  Skills that I couldn’t find time for when I was fully employed, and felt guilty doing when I was broke and seeking work.

In Western society, there seems to be a terrible crisis of meaning, but I wonder if the real issue is that we lack the ability to see it when it’s staring us in the face. Even, and perhaps especially among “conscious” communities, there’s this thirst that is palpable, as people are constantly in transition into new, ostensibly more meaningful lifestyles and jobs. But there are also people who work in, say, insurance, and are still apparently quite happy and fulfilled. Having been on this quest for many years, I still struggle to just settle the fuck down and enjoy the moment, and I admire people who can (like, a lot). Perhaps the mindfulness movement’s best contribution has been show Westerners we can do just that – slow down and enjoy the taste of our food, our children’s play, or our partner’s caress – things we normally take for granted.

Perhaps Western society simply damages the way we perceive meaning – for example, in no other culture known to man has there been such a movement toward “conscious employment”, where people create work for themselves, at great financial risk, because they are so afraid of a meaningless 9-to-5 job. Now, I’ve never worked for a large corporation, so I have little room to talk. However, the engineering field does offer an interesting perspective. People used to become engineers because of a great sense of purpose in building up society – the bridges, buildings, and technology that gave us the lifestyle we have today. But many of my coworkers have remarked that this inspired motivation is strangely absent now, even in the profession’s publicity outlets – a large paycheck, it seems, is enough motivation to join the field.

It feels rather poignant to me that the profession that helped Western society arrive where it is today, has become strangely silent on its role in the future. It could be part of what has become increasingly obvious as the world’s lack of “get-it-togetherness” on climate change. Wouldn’t it seem that engineers are ideally placed to take a leading role in this? And why not shout it from the rooftops?

The whole thing, actually, reminds me of my own life. Having had the privilege to earn a master’s degree in helping people, and having been surrounded from an early age by educated, wonderfully caring people, I have nevertheless felt doubtful of my ability to actually do any good. And I don’t think I’m alone in that – as a society, I think we are deeply doubtful of our ability to tackle the enormous challenges that face us. I suspect that our collective voice is drowned out by the deafening roar of consumerism, or something. Bu tthere’s also this hazy disconnected feeling, where people are generally to busy (or something) to simply chat with someone on the elevator. Where we are so self-important that only something that hasn’t been invented yet, is worthy of our working efforts – the broken workplace, the broken country, are disposable in exchange for something new.

I don’t know the answer, so I can only refer to my own life. While I haven’t had the strength or confidence to return to being a trauma therapist, which bums me out at times, I recognize that it’s not my path right now, and there are plenty of other ways to be a good person. Making small choices every day is all any of us can ever do, and sometimes that means helping the person that’s right in front of you, or doing the task you’ve been putting off, but which is desperately needed (organizing my husband’s financial papers comes to mind). It’s important not to get too caught up in what we would do “if only” we had a different career, more time, etc.. No matter what your situation, you still have a wealth available to you, which is the opportunity to make choices every day. This is especially true if, like me, you never had to worry about your next meal. Chalk it up to having a nice, big, fatty brain (thanks evolution!!!) – as humans, we are exceptionally free, and whether that means paying for the next person’s coffee at Starbucks, changing jobs, or speaking up about something important, all of these things create an abundance of meaning – if we can only see them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Rice, People. (On Gluten-Free Baked Goods)

For the record, my opinion on gluten-free flour is this: it’s rice, people.
There is absolutely nothing mystical, strange, or special about gluten free baked goods. I’ve been baking with white rice flour for 4 years – pancakes, cookies and everything in between. And guess what? Rice flour doesn’t taste strange, and it holds together almost as well as wheat. In my opinion, it actually tastes better than wheat, which to me tastes kinda like cardboard. After all, there’s a reason we eat brown rice as a side dish, and not hard winter wheatberries.

This brings up two salient points. One concerns the availability and cost of GF flour. These days gluten free flour is synonymous with Bob’s Red Mill, which is basically a scam. The bags range in price from $4 to $10 for roughly 1.5 pounds of flour. The same flour purchased in bulk, runs $1-$4.00 a pound. It’s fairly easy to see that Bob’s is turning a profit here, and in fact, capitalizing on the term “gluten free” and the limited access to simple flour in most stores. I used to enjoy occasionally indulging in Bob’s products, but now that gluten-free eating is a necessity for me, I find it impractical to use on a regular basis.

Secondly, the Bob’s Red Mill “All-Purpose Gluten Free Mix” isn’t even that good. It’s based on chickpea flour, which doesn’t bake well, and has a bitter taste. It’s a mystery to me why they didn’t just use rice, with a bit of tapioca for that soft springy feeling. Because of the popularity of Bob’s, a lot of people still think gluten-free baked goods are dry, taste bad, or have strange ingredients. People buy the mix, thinking this is what those gluten-free people eat, only to come up with a dry, crumbly end result. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a baked good with plain rice flour, to have my friends and family rave about it, saying, “that was *actually* really good!”

Celiacs should not have to drive to specialty stores just to get something other than elaborate “flour mixes”, when simple rice flour would do. It’s ironic when people say all those “nice gluten free products” should make life easier for us. Unfortunately, the small selection at mainstream grocery stores is not always adequate, nor appealing. After awhile you just get tired of the same old stuff. If grocery stores simply stocked plain, non-wheat flours, it would go a long way toward making this lifestyle more convenient. My only guess is that the overpriced products are the food industry’s way of guaranteeing a profit on the precious shelf space it must dedicate to this tiny percentage (.3%) of the population. Shopping gluten-free is unlikely to ever be easy, at least not until the food industry starts serving people instead of profit. And as we know, that day may be slow to come.

It’s fine to offer sympathy to a person with celiac disease. Just don’t mistake the proliferation of gluten-free products for a kindly gesture from the food industry. As with everything, the goal is to turn a profit, and the fancy packaging is not designed to make celiacs feel good – it’s designed to make gluten-free food profitable. Although the products look appealing, and some of them taste good, this gentrification of food does not necessarily meet the needs of people with celiac disease. Meanwhile, fussy gluten-free eating has become a trend, giving a bad name to celiacs who just want to eat normal food and not get sick. The price gap also reflects the the overwhelming emphasis on wheat/durum/semolina in pre-prepared foods. There is no real reason we can’t introduce gluten-free processed foods on a massive level, thereby reducing the cost and reducing the chance of people developing wheat allergies, without instituting a whole separate “gluten free” trend. This is especially true for those who can’t eat wheat for medical reasons – to us, gluten-free isn’t a trend, but a daily reality.

Jumping Ship

Lately I have very mixed feelings about the time I spent as a counselor, working in a community mental health agency. While I’m glad I was able to help people, and the profession helped me grow as a person, I’m realizing that I gained very few marketable skills in that job. It’s strange how something that requires a master’s degree can have so little translation into any other field. When I started my current job this summer, I didn’t even know how to schedule a meeting on Outlook. Part of this is probably due to the small size of the lovely, family-like rural mental health agency I worked at. If you wanted to meet with someone, you just knocked on their open door!

Yet part of it is deeper. I do feel resentful of the years I spent training for, and pursuing a field that gave me so little in return. In grad school, a professor told us that the average cap salary in our field was $42,000 per year. Given that I started at $31k, you can see that the potential for advancement is dismal compared to other fields. Yet counselors are liable to be sued for any number of reasons, and are able to diagnose much like a psychologist. It’s sad but true, that this young profession bears great responsibility, but receives little recognition. Furthermore, the skills we learned and used were mostly soft skills… listening, conflict management, etc. These are invaluable at a personal level, but they exclude many of the skills that one would include on a professional resume.

And even deeper still, is that the work drained me. I am an introvert, no doubt, and spending so much face-time at work, I found that my social life suffered, as I had very little left over for my friends or family. I spent a lot of time in recuperation mode.

Now that I’m working an office job, I find reserves of energy, creativity and goodwill that I didn’t know I had. I guess the key for me is protecting my energy, and creating a lifestyle that works. The contrast between “me” these days, and “me” before is stark and stunning.

I only wish I had figured it all out sooner. Personal growth takes time, and that I don’t regret. It’s the sense, though, that those early years of my career are gone forever, that bugs me. At 34, I’m learning the basics of working in an office… things I could have, and should have learned before. I’m also having to pay off credit card debt (again!) and rebuild my savings, as the salary of a counselor did not afford for me to save up for any kind of life transition. So it’s as if I’m starting from scratch, despite having worked so hard as a full-time helper of others. Those who still work in the field, my hat is off to you, and you deserve a 200% raise, across the board. Someday I hope our society will wake up to the actual value of mental and emotional well-being, as a crucial keystone to the health of society as a whole, and honor this profession to the fullest extent. Until that time, I advise anyone with doubts: it’s OK to jump ship! I absolutely don’t regret it at all!

Minimalism Ep. 1: Wardrobe

20150927_103746So I’m not doing a “capsule wardrobe” in any formal sense, but in taking the basic principle of “don’t own more than what you use and need”, I’ve found a lot of enjoyment in a minimalist sense of fashion. It started when I looked at my summer clothes and realized I was wearing the same things over and over again. I made mental lists of “key pieces” and got rid of the rest. I’ve bought new stuff since then, but I’m extremely careful about it.

20150927_103319The result is incredibly FREEING. Though I’ve been working on de-cluttering for awhile, taking this process to my wardrobe was a big task. As a former thrift store addict, I had so many things that were “one-offs” that I wore for a season and then grew tired of (or they grew too threadbare to wear!). Of course thrifting is possibly the least environmentally harmful shopping habit. It’s buying things at cheap stores like Forever 21 that I’ve really come to rue. My rule has become, “if it’s not beautiful and won’t last more than a year, don’t bring it home.” I’ve come to view new clothes as a liability… Another thing to tend to, and eventually be thrown away.

20150927_103909My new-ish habit of meditation has reinforced and fueled this. Space and stillness have become precious to me and instead of thinking, “oh, what if I need this”, I’ve quickly acquired a taste for “Yay, one less decision to make!”

I don’t know whether or not guys can relate to this. It seems they have a natural sense of minimalism when it comes to clothing. (Though I would still remind any guy who poo-poos women’s excess, that if it were not for our multiple pairs of shoes, we  couldn’t look so good in dresses!) I celebrate the variety in women’s clothing, but I recognize it’s one way that we are distracted from more important issues in life. As an example, debt repayment is quite a challenge when one is dropping several hundred a season on new clothes.

Anyway, I find the “capsule wardrobe” trend fascinating. Is it a deep yearning for a lighter footprint and more efficient lifestyle? Surely – but another benefit, it gives you a chance to really showcase your personal style, without being swayed so much by trends. In any case, it’s empowering and I highly recommend it.

Falling gracefully

freefall Toma Flickr
Image: Freefall, Toma, Flickr

In 6th grade, my class took a field trip to Washington, DC in January. It was so cold and windy that we all took special care to bundle up, and not just because the teachers said so. While we were walking from one monument to another, I slipped on a patch of ice and fell on my bum. A friend who was walking with me, giggling, said, “Andrea, I’m just laughing because you even fall gracefully!” Then she helped me up.

This moment has come to mind poignantly over the years, as I remember how embarrassed I was, and angry with myself, yet my friend smiled at the grace with which I fell. How could this be? It reminds me that often we are at our most beautiful when we are vulnerable in others’ eyes. Sitting there on the ice looking up at her, expecting ridicule, I was met with love.

I think falling is something I still resist (or perhaps, failing). In the practice of Contact Improvisation dance, I’ve been lifted dozens of times into the air, and learned to land gracefully. But there is a difference between landing and falling. Landing is something you plan, falling just happens.

When I moved to Toronto 2 years ago, with plans to start a new career, I did everything I could to ensure a smooth landing. But 2 years later, all my careful planning hasn’t yielded much, and I’m now having to drastically re-draft my idea of my future. In this sense, the landing is turning out to be a slow-mo fall – a fall precipitated in many ways, by lack of awareness that I was falling at all.

When we resist our vulnerability, or resist sinking into the “ground” of the present moment, we can so easily miss opportunities to be lifted by circumstance in ways we simply can’t plan or expect. Moving to Toronto has been a free-fall in which I was offered various opportunities for support. Some of them I took, and some, I passed by. Looking back, I could have used them all. But it was my lack of awareness of my need for support that let me miss out. I thought I didn’t need those arms to catch me.

Still, now that I’m admitting how scary and vulnerable it has been to move to this metropolis and try to make a living here, the web of support has appeared and it is so abundant.

In this life, nothing is certain. We are bound to risk, to fail, to fall. But perhaps in admitting we are falling, and admitting how vulnerable we usually are, we can learn to be lifted, and perhaps, even, to bounce back.

The light of appreciation: Equinox dance, 3-21-15

Last night’s Equinox-centered Conscious Dance Party at Yoga Village held a bright moment of inspiration for me. The guided visualizations of “becoming sky” so I could “see” (and hold space for) my sisters, really tuned me in to the uplifting energy of appreciation. While I’ve always been a perceptive person, I err toward noticing flaws and shortcomings more than I like to admit. While I only want to protect myself and others, this kind of thinking can be a heavy burden that holds me back from truly supporting inspired action.

Last night, the energy of appreciating others pierced my heart like warm sunlight as I looked around and saw my brothers and sisters sounding with heartfelt ferocity. It brought back a feeling I’d had about a month ago at another event. I was watching pairs doing contact improv, their dancing especially poignant at the moment. I thought, “who doesn’t yearn for love?” This thought cracked my heart open and I felt a new spring in my step, wishing that everyone, including me, could receive the love they need – if even for a moment. Even if it just means being fully present to another, or to oneself, which dance helps us to do.

When we can suspend the critical mind even for a moment, much of what we see around us is just love and the need for love. Last night, it showed up as the sounding of 80 people, howling at the equinox moon, howling – among other things – a howl of yearning, a howl of affection, a howl of love. I found it pretty inspiring that given total freedom, this is what we choose to express!

This dance also gave me grounding. This week, I needed a lot of it! My life is changing and I’m ever more aware of just how changeable it is. I’ve learned that my mind isn’t much use to me in that regard, as it wanders into realms of over-planning and worry. There are times to settle in, to ponder what’s important; and there are times to get up and move. Winter lifts its veil and suddenly the earth is firm, bare, ready to be trod upon. It’s time to march, to roam, to put your feet down, down until you reach this knowing: that there is nothing to hold onto in this life but the ever-changing flow of now.

Dig your feet into the floor and feel its support. Feel the lightness of surrender. Breathe in the sweetness of appreciation and let it fill you up, all the way up.

Jan. 31, 2015

sunset january

The other day, watching the sunset glowing gold and smoky violet in the sky, I feel such a deep love for winter. I suppose I’ve tried so hard, year in and year out, to love it, that I’ve succeeded… each year I enjoy the pale colors and deep rest more… I find it so very soothing. I wondered then, if we were able to love a season down to its bones… to really let it soak in, perhaps we would tire of things less easily… and perhaps come August, instead of saying how we hated the heat, we’d be letting it lie on us like an old mangy dog, knowing its time had come to leave us, and soaking it up till the last minute… because we had felt its fullness, and been taken in, taken, by its colors and its moods, as if by a lover.