Road to Enlightenment

I want to be free.
Free from the judgment of others.
Free from society’s ideals and expectations.
But mostly, free from myself.

The above series of brief thoughts is profoundly meaningful in my life’s journey, and I imagine in many others’. The last line, however, is perhaps not only the most consequential of all, but also the most complex and challenging freedom to achieve.

I am harder on myself than anyone else is. This is probably true of most of us. I set high expectations and lofty goals for myself and I think that usually this serves me well in the kind of life I choose to live. Sometimes, this can cause disappointment or self-deprecation.

But beyond my desire for self-acceptance, there is an intricate and almost contradictory truth: there are elements of myself that I don’t particularly like and which don’t serve me and my relationships well – those aspects mainly relate to attitudes, reactions and emotions. In short, I want to continue to learn to love and accept myself as the person I am, but in order to be content with my existence and to feel I am living a progressive, blissful and healthy life, I need to continue to change and grow in the ways that I can. I know that there is a very natural and constructive way to strike this balance, which involves being content in who you are in the moment while seeing the need for change and working steadily towards those changes with patience and focus.

Some of my attributes and tendencies are innate in my personality and some of them are a product of the environment in which I’ve lived my life to this point: both macro and micro. Furthermore, certain of those attributes have developed over the period in my life in which I began to explore more complex, mature relationships with the people around me. It is in those relationships – with family, friends, colleagues, lovers, partners – that we experience the greatest highs and lows and perhaps our deepest disappointments and injuries. For me, this is certainly true.

I’m not quite ready to explore some of those aspects of me here, just yet – to a degree because they are not easy to articulate, but chiefly because this process means laying myself a little barer and holding myself more accountable to the changes I want to see in myself.

So, for now, I’ll simply reiterate my philosophy of responsibility for self. I know that only I can choose to change and grow, and this includes recognizing my opportunities for growth; big and small, easy and difficult. It means listening openly yet discerningly to those who care about me and who are willing to constructively share perspectives as well as to my own internal voice. This discernment involves wisely sifting through information for pure truth, which is sometimes obscured by fear, pain, alternative purpose. Moreover, it requires more objective observation of the world, other people, myself and the interaction between them all. Ultimately, I know that I must take full responsibility for myself – my choices, attitudes, reactions, actions. While “shit happens” and people will hurt me, it’s ultimately up to me how I move forward. If there are two facts I am certain of in all of this, it is these:

1. There is much in life I cannot control.
2. I can control my state of mind and what results from that.

I do see this lifelong journey of freedom, discovery and focused change to be one of spiritual and emotional enlightenment and I have to say, I’m pretty excited because I can already see the benefits that some of these changes will beget.

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Remembering the Holocaust

      Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On January 27, 1945 the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated by Soviet Soldiers.

A number of my family members, Hungarian Jews, died at Auschwitz. Several of them miraculously survived, including 3 of my grandparents. I wrote a bit about this in the early days of my blog (read here), and also wrote about a different perspective in my series on Inspiring Women (found here), after reading a book called A Train in Winter.

Today is an official occasion to remember the horrors of the Holocaust and those who suffered and died or were impacted profoundly beyond the gates of those camps post-liberation. As well, we remember those that fought for freedom and helped to liberate all those whose lives were yet spared. More than remembrance, the events of WWII form a part of who I am. I will never pretend to truly fathom the experience of those who lived the Holocaust in reality, but somehow I feel that my very essence is made up of fiber impacted by those events. I was shaped in part by grandparents whose experiences were not at all unlike the books and movies that tell the personal stories of Holocaust survivors; of betrayal, loved ones lost, deaths witnessed, cruelty and violence undergone, spirits crushed and lives forever altered. My childhood was impacted by two grandmothers who physically survived Auschwitz itself but were left very different in their emotional and spiritual existence. Some who survived the Holocaust described themselves as having ‘died’ there.

Auschwitz and the other concentration camps were factories of dread and despair, but also some of the most beautiful aspects of humanity shone through in the relationships that formed there: love, companionship, kindness, empathy, hope, perseverance, sacrifice, courage, creativity.

I don’t really know how to observe this day, other than to reflect on the bravery and endurance of my family and all those who faced similar fates; to consider how fortunate I am to be free, safe, happy and privileged; to have been shaped by events that undeniably changed our world eternally; to be realistically aware of the capacity of man to do unimaginable harm; and to choose instead to ensure my impact on this world is positive.

Zichronam Liv’racha (Hebrew – may their memories be for a blessing)

Broken and Beautiful

We are all broken.

Life is full of beautiful, wonderful experiences. It is also inevitably peppered by challenge and difficulty; that seasoning being heavier for some than others. Our struggles may have marred our childhoods, adolescences, adulthoods, or all of the above. Arguably, some of the most severely impacted are those who had abusive childhoods or experienced profound illness or the death of someone close to them. The most jarring trials frequently involve pain and damage caused by those we love – parents, spouses, etc. We surface with baggage: insecurity, self-doubt, disappointment, anxiety, mistrust, heartache, unforgiveness, anger, resentment, and so on. In short, we emerge broken.

One of the themes I’ve consistently written about is the concept of finding opportunity in our struggles. I believe that while none of us wants to struggle or experience pain, we always have a choice in the way we deal with those challenges. We get to choose our reactions and our actions. We may use our adverse circumstances to induce lessons learned, or we can hide them deep inside us and allow the pain to poison us. I want to take this notion a step further.

We all have brokenness – our life’s struggles cannot and should not be compared; we are all different and are all impacted differently by what we experience. Still, we can look at the similarities and bonds that connect us rather than judging one another. When used for good, for positive change, for building relationships, for creating opportunity, our brokenness is not all for naught. Our brokenness can in fact become beautiful.

The Japanese art of Kintsugi involves repairing cracked, broken pottery using molten gold. The Japanese believe that the damaged pottery, with its mended fractures and breaks, is even more beautiful and valuable than before. This is a very meaningful metaphor for each of our lives, and the scars and cracks in our beings which result from our ordeals. In giving ourselves the permission to work through and heal from those trials, we may in fact emerge stronger and more complete than before.

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In order to utilize the pain of our circumstance to create beauty, we must find repair; healing, forgiveness, growth. We must also accept in ourselves and each other the reality and asset of our brokenness. In our lives, we can benefit from these two choices to catalyze amazing transformation.

As imperfect human beings, we are so often afraid to face and share our brokenness, even though none of us is complete and faultless. We set unattainable expectations of ourselves and each other. I have long felt that when we seek and choose positive and effective relationships, we find the strength to heal and the desire to grow, but this starts with openness and communication, which takes time and comfort. These uplifting and bolstering relationships can be of any type, but ultimately we should ideally choose to share our lives with people with whom we can be ourselves, and who bestow upon us acceptance and support. And, in the context of a romantic partnership, an ideal mate accepts us without judgment and loves us in our brokenness; helps us to see our value, encourages us to aspire to change and greatness. This is very different than a mate who demands change, who points at our weaknesses and brokenness and calls us inadequate. Rather, it is a choice we make for ourselves; to want to be better and have better for ourselves, and that desire is based on love and acceptance. We are pushed to be extraordinary.

Perhaps we were never meant to be flawless and uninjured – we can use our experience and pain and turn it into wisdom and opportunity. In embracing our flaws and imperfection, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we can uncover profound beauty and value within ourselves, and discover opportunity to achieve the successes and attitudes we strive for. In our restoration, we are stronger and more precious than before.

Perhaps we were never meant to be complete and self-sufficient – in sharing our pain and experience with others and accepting our need for them, we exchange this wisdom, offer acceptance and inspire evolution and advancement in our own and others’ lives. And, not only do we grow and nurture others, we benefit these relationships with deep intimacy, too.

We are beautiful in our brokenness.

Harmony

How often have you heard someone say that they seek to find balance in their lives? I would guess quite often, and I think the idea is a noble one. When we say we seek to find balance, we might mean that we are trying to keep grounded in the midst of difficulty, or that we are trying not to spend too much time in any one facet of our lives, like our work. Perhaps we are referring to our emotional state, and finding a place of peace and quietude inside of us. Or, we are trying to ensure that our own and our partner’s needs are met equally.

Again, I stress that this is a very noble pursuit and one which is probably lifelong for most of us. But, I challenge us to think of this concept of balance in a different way, and so replacing the idea of balance with harmony.

I know I’m not the first to say this, because this idea came up in my life years ago in conversation with someone close to me. What resulted from a beautiful and profound conversation was that balance is not what we should or can seek, for a few reasons.

I’ll begin to explain my point by providing a visual: what do you imagine when you picture a scale in balance? The two sides of the scale sit precisely across from one another, neither higher nor lower. When the scale comes perfectly into balance, there is no movement. And, as long as nothing touches the scale, and no weight is added or taken away from either side, the scale will remain in balance forevermore.

Life is not like a scale. Day by day, even hour by hour, circumstances and environments change. We are impacted by other people, the weather, our own internal physiological workings, and many other conditions often out of our control. Because of this, we can never truly have life technically in balance, nor should we want it to be I’d argue, as this alludes to a lack of growth and change.

Furthermore, change is good for us, most of the time, even when we don’t like it. And when something changes within us or around us, it will impact other areas of our being or our life as well. The idea is to remain in a state of harmony as much as we can, even when our life is changing, and even when those changes challenge us. Harmony, in this context, means there is accord, peace, synchronicity. We find ways to move with the change of our lives, allowing change or even negative circumstances to stimulate us to grow.

This can be applied back to the ideas we often hear discussed about finding balance. For example, if we are busy in our work life and wish to find ways to protect our personal time too, we find strategies to ensure that where one day might be overrun with work, another day might be dedicated to play. It is not the ratio of work to play that matters, it is rather important that each of our needs are adequately met, whatever that looks like for each of us. We are all different in this respect and as long as we are not anxious, resentful or excessively fatigued by the proportion, we can find a way to feel harmony with the manner in which our life is composed. Likewise in relationships, there will always be compromise, but if both parties work at meeting each other’s needs and both feel at peace with what they are giving and receiving emotionally, physically and spiritually, it is immaterial that the quantity of give and take be exactly equal. I think we would all agree that in enjoying life, quality is more important than quantity and the joy we receive from quality relationships and experiences is immeasurable.

In my own life, part of seeking harmony is in being content with current circumstances without having to actively change them, and change them quickly. Rather, I am working at living within them and choosing to let them impact me, help me grow and consciously making an effort to ensure present circumstances are as positive and joyful as possible for all those involved. As with any self-reflection and self-improvement challenge, this isn’t easy, particularly when we start out in discord with whatever is happening in our lives, but this presents an enormous growth opportunity. I have the chinese characters for harmony tattooed on my forearm, placed there shortly after the aforementioned conversation that started this thought process rolling years ago.

This isn’t to say that many times we must choose to change our circumstances (relationships, jobs, finances, living situation) in order to bring about positive change, but sometimes we simply do not have immediate control or cannot act quickly. If you are looking for continuous growth, movement and peace in your life, then I challenge you to think about harmony, rather than balance, as one of the keys to happiness.

Inspiring Women, Part 3

In the first two parts of this series, I’ve discussed stories of particular inspiration and which highlight the distinctive traits which have the potential to make women into astounding leaders and game changers.

In the last part of the series, I want to write about a topic that has long been very dear to my heart, and which can be a destructive barrier to the flourishing of such potential. This topic is body image and eating disorders and it connects back to some ideas I touched briefly upon when I first started this blog. I also reblogged an article a couple of weeks ago about the impact of parenting on disordered eating.

I can’t really remember a time in my life when weight and body image issues weren’t a concern to me. I am very confident in saying that a great majority of women and young girls I’ve come across have experienced similar struggles with self-confidence as I have. For some, this results in more significant and sometimes life-threatening behaviour, including serious eating and image disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa, Anorexia Athletica, Binge Eating Disorder and Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

I’ve known so many wonderful women in my life who haven’t seen their own potential. Looking objectively at someone else’s life or analyzing the things that they say, we question how they could think so little of themselves. Many of us turn around and treat ourselves similarly. I had a friend years ago who had symptoms of multiple disorders mentioned above and who nearly died from her condition. I so badly wanted to help her; to make her see her true value. But, when I look inwardly at myself and my past, I realize that while I’ve never had a diagnosed eating disorder, I have certainly had periods in my life of great obsession over the foods I ate, my body weight, and the way I looked. I have in the past used much self-deprecatory language, and years ago, I tried to use laxatives to lose weight. My knowledge of health and nutrition and the long-term impacts of laxative use meant I wasn’t able to persist with the habit for more than a few days, but nonetheless the desire to go to great measures to lose weight was a compelling one. Rather than starving myself or forcing myself to vomit, my past inclination has been towards extreme dieting.

Statistics show that 19% of normal weight girls in grade nine believe they are too fat and 12% of those have attempted to lose weight (Sullivan, 2002). Approximately 1% of young women have Anorexia or Bulimia (Hoek, 2007), and Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, on average killing sufferers within 10 years of onset (Sullivan, 2002). (Men suffer from eating disorders and disorders of body image too, by the way, but my focus in this series has been on women and therefore the single gender focus here).

Reflecting upon my own experiences and those of so many women I’ve talked to about this issue, I recall countless waits in grocery store aisles, faced with fashion and fitness magazine covers, unable to avert my eyes. I would stand there, looking at the women on the cover, wishing I could look like them and criticizing all the ways I didn’t. As I grew older and realized those photos were electronically modified, I knew in my rational mind that I shouldn’t even look; but the irrational and emotional side of me still longs for a body I’ll never have. Indeed, I’m more confident than I have ever been and generally accepting of the changes to my body that have come via aging and childbearing. I love myself much more than I ever have and I feel strong and beautiful, knowing I take good care of myself in a reasonable way via well-balanced diet and exercise regime. But still, I sometimes find myself wishing for body parts different than those I have.

I know how the preoccupation with physical beauty can distract a woman from all of her other internal potential – her intelligence, both emotional and cognitive, her creativity, her leadership capacity, her ability to nurture and care, her many other unique gifts. As well, a lack of self-promotion and confidence often translates into the non-physical realm, where people undervalue their many abilities. Our culture often has its priorities misplaced and in the case of body idealism, we are even contradictory. On the one hand, our culture puts value on a “perfect” body, and yet we often criticize and misunderstand strong self-confidence as arrogance.

It is probably inevitable that our culture will always identify and impose an ideal on us. But, I content that the confidence women gain through their accomplishments is far more important and has much longer-lasting impacts on self-confidence than the achievement of physical measures such a body weight or size. Not to say that balance and healthy lifestyle habits aren’t entirely crucial to impart as well, but from the perspective of health and well-being rather than on the achievement of physical ‘beauty’.

Thus, it’s our job as women to encourage in each other and in young girls the identification of interests and gifts of emotional and cognitive intelligence, creativity and professional potential and act as mentors rather than critics. Presupposing the inspiring women I’ve written about in the first two parts of this series weren’t at the time unnaturally focused on their physical beauty, they accomplished incredible feats of bravery, survival and philanthropy, while facing great impediments.

Let us inspire one another and build each other up.

The National Eating Disorder Information Centre provides information and resources about eating disorders and treatment in Canada: www.nedic.ca

References

Hoek, H. W. (2007). Incidence, prevalence and mortality of anorexia and other eating disorders. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 19(4), 389-394

Sullivan, P. (2002). Course and outcome of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In Fairburn, C. G. & Brownell, K. D. (Eds.). Eating Disorders and Obesity (pp. 226-232). New York, New York: Guilford

Inspiring Women Part 2

Humaira

(courtesy of Intelligent Life Magazine, 2013)

“The courage of a Pakistani hero involves facing the ultimate fact of death. But the fantasy of martyrdom, where it exists, is largely a male one. A heroine needs a more supple courage. She must negotiate: with her emotions, with her adversaries, with her family, with hypocrisies. But not, if she can help it, with her ambition.” (Rahul Bhattacharya, 2013)

With life so full, I’ve not been able to finish part two of this three-part series  as soon as I would have liked. But, the topic has persisted on my mind, because of stories that have had an enduring impact on me, and because of my irrevocable life experience and relationships.

As I alluded to in the first part of the series, there were two key pieces of literature that first prompted me to start thinking about a future blog post about women and their unique potential. The second one was an article I read in the Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine, my favourite periodical. The article was published in an edition that also features a supplement dedicated to inspiring women entitled “16 women you ought to know about” found here.

In this September/October 2013 edition, I read a piece about a woman in Pakistan who, at the age of 13, made it her mission to offer education to children living in squatter communities – including girls. This was almost unheard of, and Humaira Bachal faced many obstacles, much opposition and physical danger. Despite the threats and with great enthusiasm and persistence, she built two schools, called the Dream Model Street Schools, which have provided an education and opportunity to thousands of children who would otherwise have no way to even become literate. So inspiring have her altruistic, leadership and entrepreneurial efforts been that in April 2013, Humaira was honoured in New York City at the Women in the World Summit.

In discovering Humaira’s courageous work, I was reminded that when women take hold of their natural gifts, among them sensitivity, empathy, intelligence, creativity, tenacity and bravery, this can result in extraordinary and profound successes.

I believe that women who strive to do something unique and powerful in order to make a difference must contend with some gender-related challenges. Aside from the very significant socio-political/cultural barriers that exist for women like Humaira, it is true that women face some great difficulties in contending with themselves and their emotions. We sometimes over-analyze and process through an emotional filter; the same filter that can make us powerfully empathetic and passionately caring. We must fight self-doubt and channel these characteristics in order to be catalysts for incredible, affirmative change. I don’t mean this to be a feminist rant at all, as I believe men and women possess innate characteristics that uniquely serve in partnership. But, from a woman’s perspective, I know how my propensity towards emotionality can serve to either inspire or inhibit innovation and accomplishment.

As I began writing this series, I was travelling back from a healthcare leadership conference. It was a very nourishing conference with much significant knowledge to take away. One thing that stood out for me significantly, in a room of over 700 delegates, was that there are so many women in Canada who are healthcare leaders (and of course in other sectors as well). Some of them are the most influential leaders in the Country and have implemented changes that impact a whole province in the way healthcare is delivered and received. Women have a very special opportunity to use their natural capacity for love, their overall emotional intelligence, their cognitive and professional intelligence and their experiences to be combined catalysts for real and lasting change in whatever area inspires them.

I reflect again on the women in my life and they all inspire me in some way. So many are confident, resilient, intelligent, talented and ambitious. And, they care. What phenomenal facilitators of meaningful work are empathy and concern for humankind.

I can encourage you to read about Humaira here.

Identifying My Canadian Voice

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I began the journey of blogging in February 2013, with the intention of it being an outlet for writing whatever might be on my mind, and in particular to explore my love of poetry. I never intended to write about food, and I also never considered that writing about food could actually fit well with my objective of sharing, without boundaries, from my soul.

I was intrigued by the Canadian Food Experience Project because I do love food and cooking, but also because of its purpose: to identify a Canadian voice for culinary arts and facilitate a clearer perspective on our culture, via food. I’ve always been intrigued by our Canadian “culture” and am drawn to any initiative that unites people and builds relationships.

It seemed to me, at first, that these CFEP challenges and the resultant writing would be misfit with the rest of my blog. It could even alienate readers that follow my blog mainly for the poetry. What I’ve found instead is that it has been simply a different way of exploring who I am at my core. Some of my monthly posts really got at the foundations of who I am as an extension of my family and my heritage, as well as the food I grew up on. This helped me to recognize the crucial influences in my life. Others were focused on my own creativity as I set about inventing recipes from scratch; something I’ve not done much of. I have realized through a year of focus just how much I relish the process of creating interesting food, and it emphasized how much I really love baking.

My Canadian voice, vis-à-vis food, is no different than my voice as it relates to my other writing and take on life in general. So in this last post of the project, I have defined this voice by means of a few self-identified characteristics that this blog and the CFEP have allowed me to reveal.

My Canadian voice is broadminded and exploratory, multi-dimensional and exciting.

My family is from Hungary and I very much identify with this heritage. I like to experiment with new flavours, spices, ingredients and even lifestyles (i.e.: vegan, raw, etc.). I believe the multi-dimensional nature of our country makes it a fascinating place to live. I have always had friends who themselves, or their families, hailed from distant lands – India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Israel, and so on and have eaten traditional foods from many parts of the world, right here at home. These opportunities to ‘taste the world’ represent the wonderful compendium of flavours that come together to create a diverse and special ‘food nation’ here in Canada. Together with our country’s First Nations, Canadians are fortunate to have a world of culinary possibilities at our fingertips.

My Canadian voice is colourful, loyal and holistic.

I enjoy delicious food but I also enjoy healthy food. I want to make and eat meals that are not only tempting to the eye and satisfying to the palate, but also make the body healthy and strong. Some of my posts have evidenced my love of fresh and wholesome ingredients, which stimulate the senses and nourish body, mind and soul. If these fresh ingredients can be obtained locally and their purchase supports nearby producers in the process, then the benefits are double. When I support dedicated growers nearby, I can even visit their farms and feel confident about the products I’m eating . In season, I can literally create a rainbow on my dinner plate and connect with a greater good in the process.

My Canadian voice is creative and courageous.

I am not afraid to try new things, inside and outside the kitchen. Without the courage to allow ourselves new experiences, even if failure or pain is an option, we do not grow and learn in the same way. We would be denying ourselves rich opportunities to be better, stronger, fuller people. Cooking is both an art and a science. With copious websites and cookbooks out there, the number of available recipes is boundless. To go beyond and create something unique requires creativity. I’ve pushed myself out of my box in order to start from scratch with spontaneous inspiration and a few key ingredients, to create recipes that put smiles on people’s faces. The writing that goes along with my recipes shows a glimpse of who I am, and I’ve tried to be courageous in sharing transparently, as I do with my poetry.

My Canadian voice is open, honest, caring and relational.

In large part, I cook and bake for others. Sharing my baking with family and friends makes me happy; knowing I have brought them joy. It is key element of relationship-building for me, being a natural nurturer and someone who strives to influence others’ lives positively. In all kinds of relationships, my goal is to always be transparent about my values, feelings and priorities, honest in my communication, compassionate and loving in my actions and present and active in helping the relationship flourish. It is also crucial to admit mistakes in order to open yourself up to learning, and this is the same for cooking as for almost anything in life.

I believe that my commitment to this project and all that I have written about has exemplified these characteristics of my voice – things I strive for, even if not always successful. It has taught me that no matter what I am writing about, I must relentlessly pursue the identification and communication of who I am at my core and a life that allows me to live it authentically.

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A final note to cap off this year-long project, I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to Valerie for challenging Canadian foodies and chefs to contemplate their food identity. She lives her passion so evidently and has created and collected so much enthusiasm, ingenuity and fellowship amongst us in the process.

The Canadian Food Experience Project is Valerie Lugonja’s call to Canadian Foodies and Bloggers alike to unite on the 7th day of each month and creatively discover and share Canada’s unique culinary voice. You can read more about this exciting project here.

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