The Masks We Wear

I’ve been experiencing anxiety for the last couple of weeks.  It feels like an unwanted guest in my body, making my heart pound with anticipation, my mind spin with worry, my neck ache with panic.  As I sat having my mid-morning green smoothie and eggs, my mind went something like this–Ok, Donna, just focus on eating the eggs.  Come into the present. Breathe.  All is well.  I am resilient and strong, peaceful and calm.  This is absurd.  I’m sitting in my warm, cozy apartment, listening to some house music and my mind is all over the place!  It’s creating things that aren’t even true!  Why am I feeling so anxious?  What’s going on beneath it?  I know trying to talk myself out my feelings doesn’t work.

Then I think–What am I going to do today?  What might help me calm down?  Maybe I’ll think of something I can speak about at the next Toastmasters meeting.  It will be Halloween.  Do I want to talk about anxiety?  Hmmm…masks…I could make a speech about the masks we wear, the mask I wear.  Yeah, that could be interesting.  Maybe I could even make it funny. Ah, yes…I am the spiritual, artistic type and so what do I do with a situation like facing anxiety?  I find the opportunity in it!  I create art with it!– I put on a Chipmunk outfit!

So, I grab my pen and journal and start writing what I’m thinking.  This sometimes crazy mind that just keeps chattering on, non-stop.  I notice as I start to write, my nerves calm down a bit.  The words feel a lot less threatening on the page than swirling around in my head.  What’s really worrying me right now?  What am I afraid of?  In the midst of this mid-life transformation I seem to feel both afraid of changing and afraid of not changing.  What if make some changes but I can’t handle it all?  Or worse, what if I end up confined to my box of self-limiting beliefs?

As I stretch myself out of my comfort zone more and more, the pendulum swings from excitement to terror.  Maybe I’m moving too fast or maybe too slow.  Do I need more action or more patience?  Should I be doing more or sitting more in stillness and quiet?  What is it am I learning through all of this?  Compassion, humility, trust.

I long to live a life that is completely true to who I am.  I long to help and heal, to write and create, to share and connect.  I long for a life of passion and purpose.  I long to be open-hearted, holding nothing back.  I long to speak freely and honestly.  I long to drop the mask I’m wearing and simply be completely myself with people, vulnerable and naked, with nothing to prove and nothing to hide.

The costume I wear tonight is not unlike the persona I put on every day.  The persona of Happy, Nice, Calm Woman Totally in Control.  But it’s just so tiring trying to keep the mask on all of the time.  There’s so much energy going into an image that isn’t even real.  This chipmunk costume is like the protection my ego builds around me.  The ego tricks me into believing I need this coating–indeed a furry one–in order to survive the arrows I perceive to be hurled at my heart.  But really it’s a veil that blocks me from directly experiencing the world around me.

Do we want to live our lives behind a veil, a mask, only to wake up to the reality that fear has been keeping us feeling small and separate?  As long as we are busy trying to create and maintain our image by getting stuff, getting ahead, achieving and succeeding, we are robbed of experiencing the present and deeply connecting to what is.  I know for me, when I am seeing through the eyes of love rather than the eyes of fear, I have a much better understanding of what’s really going on.  When I see through eyes of love, I feel compassion for my fellow human beings, knowing they are just like me.

I dream of a world where we can slow down, pause more, truly SEE each other and freely express our joy as well as our suffering.  Imagine the energy we all would have if we could end the pretending and defending…if we could remove these masks we wear!  If we could simply be human.  If we could simply BE.  I dream of a world where we can all be in touch with our own mental suffering and through that deep connection with ourselves, we can profoundly connect to the suffering in others.  I believe if we can connect in this way, we would realize the truth, that there is no separation between us.  That behind our masks, we are all made of the same stuff.






The Way of the Bodhisattva

The deeper I go, the scarier, and more exhilarating, it gets!  When I pay more attention to my outer world, I realize there are also ways in which I am possibly causing harm to myself or to others.  And when I turn inward and listen to myself, to my inner truth, it becomes impossible not to make changes.  This, I believe, is the way of the bodhisattva.  It is a path of deep investigation, deep questioning and an endless determination to develop a compassionate, loving and open heart in order to to be of service to the world, to help eliminate suffering and encourage the awakening of  all beings.  There is a constant feedback loop between the inner and outer world, giving guidance toward a life that is moral, truthful, joyous, generous, kind and wise.

Outer things are a little easier to handle.  In the last few years, I have really become conscious of what I am eating.  First and foremost, I ask myself, will this food nourish my body with the nutrients it needs?  Now I find myself leaning more and more towards organic foods.  How can I not when I am completely aware of the pesticides that are used on conventionally grown fruits, vegetables and grains?  Also, I have no desire to drink alcohol anymore because I know that not only is it harmful to my body but it clouds the brain therefore making it more likely to do something or say something that is unwise.  Nor do I want to have anything to do with the sale of alcohol or other potentially harmful products.

What about the products I am using on my body–soaps, shampoos, lotions, toothpaste, mouthwash?  A while ago I switch to soaps and lotions with more natural ingredients.  Now I am changing to toothpaste and mouthwash that are made without fluoride.  It’s pretty crazy that our world is filled with toxic products that are sold on supermarket shelves.  Not to mention fast food chains.  Even the clothes we wear can be produced with dangerous chemicals.

How about the toxic information we are fed on a daily basis, on TV, in the news, in magazines?  I was watching an action movie last night and I literally just fast-fowarded to the end because there was just a bunch of violence, swearing and stupid jokes.  (With even more awareness, I would have shut if off after the first 10 minutes!) . How did I even watch crap like that before?   And what about the clutter and clothes I hang on to when there are people in need everywhere!  Why do I buy more stuff when I could be using that money in more useful ways?

Yup, waking up requires making changes.  Some of them easy, others not so easy.  I have noticed how much I judge others, how often my prideful ego tries to prove itself right or smart or better than someone else.  These are engrained patterns that require diligent attention so that they can loosen their tight grip.  How many times have I let fear get in the way of a deeper connection with someone?  How many times have I listened half-heartedly, in defence mode or while formulating my next response.?  This is not to get down on myself.  We all do these things.  By recognizing my imperfections, I am actually getting MORE compassionate towards others and myself.

Deeper yet, what do I do with the calls from my innermost being?  To write, to speak, to share my wisdom, to heal.  I sense that shifts are happening almost daily.  I have so many questions:  Who am I?  What do I really want?  How can best serve the world?  What kind of work will best serve me?  What relationships are healthy for me?  How can I deepen my relationships?  How can I be comfortable with more intimacy?  How can I be more honest with people?  How can express myself better?  How do I live my life in balance?  What is my heart calling me to do next?  Will I be able to handle all the changes?!

We all have these calls and if we are open to receive them, we will be able to hear them.  There are messages which give us a nudge to take some small step and there are the messages that may require us to make huge changes in our lives:  to leave a job that is no longer satisfying, to move from the big city to the country to live a quieter life, to start a new hobby like singing or painting, to be more vulnerable with a loved one.  These kinds of changes require that we take a risk, a leap of faith.  We sense there will be loss.  But we forget that there will be gains–more fulfilling work,  a more peaceful mind, a life of more creativity and passion, more authentic relationships.

Where in our lives might we be trading passion for security, spontaneity for conformity?  We want to be safe.  We want to belong.  But we cannot find security in money or a house or a high-paying job and we can’t find belonging by trying to fit in and going along with what the crowd is doing.  It’s really connecting to our wild, spirited, open and uninhibited nature that will bring us the sense of safety and belonging we are looking for.  It’s by discovering who we truly are that we come home.

In order to serve the world in the best way we can, we first need to be true to ourselves.  If we are playing small, pretending to be someone we are not or afraid to take some risks, then we are not serving ourselves or anyone else.  Do not underestimate the power you have to make a difference!  We can all help each other out:  a friendly smile, a ride home, a listening ear, a kind voice, a shoulder to cry on, a powerful message, a gentle nudge, a heartfelt song, a speech of inspiration.  We can all listen to our inner guidance.  We can all wake up a little more.  We can all open our hearts.  It begins with you!

Do I sometimes doubt this path?  Do I sometimes wonder if I am not thinking too much, asking too many questions?   Do I sometimes wish I had chosen an easier path?  Yes, I do.  But I know that there is no going back, only forward.  I am on the road to awakening, to seeing the truth, to opening my heart and loving without holding back.  This is a journey and there is no way of knowing where it will lead me.  I can only be awake in this moment, be as true to myself as I can today, be as compassionate, kind and loving as possible in the present.  This is what I truly care about.  This is what matters to me–awareness, truth, love.

Sometimes the fear is winning out over the exhilaration.  But just now as I write this, I feel excited, I feel my inner passion for expressing what is most important to me, I feel my spontaneity as words appear on this page, somehow falling out of the mix of thoughts and ideas in my head.  If I can keep remembering to choose love over fear, passion over security, spontaneity over conformity, I believe I can create a life in where I am living true to myself: loving, elated and fully alive;  a life where I have become a vessel, an instrument for awakening all beings;  a life with a compassionate, open and fearless heart.

Green Light

Well, I asked for a dream and I got one.  I was teaching a large group of children.  I asked a girl to define the word “ascertain” (verb) and she answered but it was loud and chaotic and so no one heard.  Then we were walking outside and I was still trying to go on with this lesson.  Cars were going by and it was hard to hear.  We got lined up at the corner and I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to cross the busy street but then another group of people started crossing and we saw the light was green and we could cross, too.

In my dream, I was wanting certainty.  I was trying to control the situation and frustrated that things were not going as I wanted.  I felt that I wasn’t being heard.  I felt unsure of myself.  I had to wait for the green light.  This is all sounding very familiar!!  Yes, the same themes keep coming up but that is how healing works.  It’s like digging a giant circle in the earth, going around and around and each time getting a little deeper, a little closer to the core.

Uncertainty–it’s what we all have to deal with in this ever-changing world.  I realized that I have been trying to figure things out.  I want answers and I want them now!  The thought in my head are going back and forth like a pendulum.  It’s like I want to make some decisions so I can move forward but then feeling that I don’t really know what choice I want to make yet.  Or maybe I’m just not ready yet.  The real answer right now is “I don’t know.”  It’s uncertain.

Of course, I can never be 100% certain of anything anyway.  I can weigh the pros and cons, analyze and try to predict the consequences but thinking has never really helped me to decide.  What I heard from a speaker Monday night was–If it comes from the heart, you can’t go wrong.  Tied up in my fear of uncertainty is the fear of failure–What if I make the wrong choice?  What if I make a mistake?  What if I do something I end up regretting?  In the end, I go with my heart, my intuition.  I have always trusted this.  It’s always right.

I watched a Tara Brach talk last night on fear.  (I was actually afraid to watch the talk on fear!)  She talked about how the Buddha had met his fear by saying, “I see you, Mara.  Come.  Let’s have tea.”  I really got it.  I really got how I had been caught up in fear disguised as my analyzing, judging and planning.  And so, for a short time, I allowed it to be.  I just sat with it.  Some of the pain and tightness released and a space opened up.  Next, I imagined myself being held and surrounded by loving presence and the fear melted even more.

What stuck with me was this–Fear is separation.  Love is connection.  When I get caught up in the fear of uncertainty, I enter a state of flight/fight/freeze.  I get scared and I become a small and separate self.  I sometimes feel a sense of urgency to create some kind of certainty.  I think I need to fix things and figure out answers so I can go back to the feeling that life is more stable and secure, with nothing left up in the air;  as if everything could be strapped down and secured so it wouldn’t shift or change.

As I look back over the last 5 years of my life, I realize how much of my false sense of certainty has been shaken up–quite literally by the earthquake I experienced in Japan in 2011.  I thought solid ground under my feet and the sun above me were at least two things I could count on but even the ground I walk on can shift and move.  That earthquake was a huge reminder of the uncertainty that is always lurking beneath me.

The second thing, was my health challenge.  I didn’t know how my body would feel from one day to the next.  This sent me desperately trying to reach for something stable, like a drowning swimmer grabbing onto a life ring.  The third event was moving back to Canada–starting over again in a new country, trying to build a company all the while navigating my mid-life transformation and changing relationship dynamics.  It is all pretty scary stuff!

The truth is that certainty is an illusion.  There may be times in our lives when things seem certain and secure.  Perhaps we have a stable job, daily routines, money in the bank, regular activities with friends and life seems pretty tied down, like a boat anchored to the ocean floor.  We can kind of blanket ourselves in the illusion that things aren’t changing. But we still don’t truly know what is going to happen next.  Attempting to manage and control only provides a veil from the discomfort.  Burying ourselves in distractions only gives us temporary relief from the anxiety.

I can see that the cars in my dream represent the endless stream of thoughts in my head.    How can I possibly hear myself above all the cars!  I believe the dream is telling me to stop trying to control everything, to get quiet so I can receive guidance.  And perhaps it is also telling me to be patient–to wait for the green light.  The green light that tells me–Now is the time;  it is safe to cross.

The fear will come up again and again but instead of covering it up with the analyzing, planning and judging, maybe I can surrender a little.  Instead of pushing the fear away, maybe I can say, “Hello fear, I see you” and allow it to be for a bit.  Perhaps I can even transform that fear into excitement!!

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”– Franklin Roosevelt.




I had a realization at my meditation yesterday which was how much I have been attached to the idea of “becoming”– becoming a perfect self in a perfect world where everything is just the way I want it.  Yeah, things are great now but it would be a little better if… Isn’t this the cause of all suffering?  We are never quite happy, never quite satisfied with the way thing are.  We want a little more of this and a little less of that.  It’s this constant striving to add on better attributes to ourselves or to our lives and to subtract everything we don’t like.

I realized how often I make something an improvement project–myself, my health, my relationship, my work.  I’m never enough, healthy enough;  my partner isn’t enough and the work I’m doing and what I am contributing to the world is not enough.  So I imagine some time in the future when this “ideal self” exists.  A self that is more loving and kind, assertive and powerful.  A self that is less fearful and reactive, less passive and inhibited.  Of course, I can never reach these ideals that I have set up in my mind.  It becomes an endless chase like when teasing a cat with a feather attached to a string.

Our society is based on this idea of striving.  We are running around, tired and afraid, trying to get a higher income, nicer furniture, thinner thighs, a more prestigious job.  Work is especially an area where we can end up lost in this striving.  Our identities are so wrapped up in what we “do”.  I read in the book, Callings by Gregg Levoy a clever answer to the question–What do you do?  The answer was “When?”

Our “being” has become something totally separate from our “doing”.  We race around and then at the end of our day we “relax” by drinking beer or watching TV.  What if, instead, we could slow down and bring attention to ALL of our moments?  What if we could be FULLY engaged in whatever we were doing?

I just thought of the phrase “to get ahead” which means to be successful in our work.  But if you think of it literally, it means leaning into the future.  And what about the common phrase, “to be on top of things” which means to be in control of the situation?  Our language is littered with words and phrases that lead us to believe that if we can just get in control and get on to the next “better” thing, then all will be okay.  It’s no wonder anxiety is such a common problem.

But–you say–how would we get anywhere if we weren’t striving?  How would we reach our goals and make our dreams come true?  How could we accomplish anything?  Well, let’s take a look at what “strive” means.  By definition,  to strive means “to make great efforts to achieve or attain something.   I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with making an effort towards a goal.  The problem lies in our attachment to these things, the belief that by getting these external things, we will be finally be content.  Think about it, has reaching a goal or getting something you wanted ever given you lasting happiness?  Momentarily maybe, but then we are just on to the next desire or dream.

When we strive with the underlying belief that something is wrong or missing in our lives NOW, we will suffer.  What if we could examine this belief and start opening up to the possibility that everything is really ok just as it is now, that WE are really ok just as we are right now.  Tara Brach had a lovely little metta prayer for ourselves–MAY I ALLOW MYSELF TO BE IMPERFECT.  And I could add to that–MAY I ALLOW MY LIFE TO BE IMPERFECT.  MAY I ALLOW THE PEOPLE IN MY LIFE TO BE IMPERFECT.

Perfectionism is something I have dealt with over and over in my life.  When I get lost in trying to make my speech perfect or trying to respond perfectly to someone or trying to write this post perfectly, or even trying to meditate perfectly, I contract and I lose contact with the moment, my heart becomes guarded and I judge others. But if I can forgive, and ACCEPT, my own imperfections then a softening happens.  If I can accept my life as it is right NOW, then, fear dissipates.  If I can let go of the way I want things to be, then I can simply enjoy wherever life takes me.  If I can stop trying to be better, then I can actually BE.

I prefer the term UNFOLDING to striving.  In unfolding, we can still have desires, dreams and goals but we surrender the outcome.  In unfolding, we are not trying to “become” but rather we can focus on BEING.  I can BE loving and present, powerful, assertive right NOW.  And in the next moment, I can choose again the person I want to be.  Here there is an expansiveness and spaciousness in which we are free to respond creatively and wisely in the best way we can.

There is no failure here because there is nothing we are striving to “get”.  And we accept, that just as in nature, things are always changing.  Loss is inevitable.  When we simply allow things to unfold, each moment can become rich with meaningfulness.  Each second is precious.  Instead of leaning forward in the attempt to control and perfect, we can sit back into this precious second and find the joy and peace that are there.  Indeed, this moment is perfect.