Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

regal queen Aggs

This is Aggs. Aggie in full. Agnes in her later years.

I was 18 years old when I separated myself from the Catholic church, the church of my upbringing and my family.  In all honesty, I never resonated with Catholicism as it was presented to me.  I never understood the concept of God, the Supreme Being, as an angry, vengeful, spiteful entity.  Atoning for sins, being born essentially evil, condemning people for coupling and living in love differently from the mainstream, never made any sense to me.  This felt like fear-mongering and I, for one, could find no solace in the teachings.

The day I made the decision to leave and never go back was an unusually sweltering day.  The Catholic school I attended had monthly masses at the local church, so off we went, scratchy woollen uniforms sticking to us, to sit in a super-heated, poorly ventilated building and have “holy” shoved down our throats.  As the mass went on (and on), and the building became hotter and hotter, several students became woozy and started to pass out from being overheated.  Our minds were foggy and our egos were as fresh and shy as our teenage years, so our responses to the priest’s call-out were timid.  This was not up to the priest’s standards so he went on a tirade telling us we would not leave until we responded appropriately.  Over and over and over again he called-out and we responded, louder and louder until we were practically shouting in the name of God, and not in a good way.  That was it for me.  I had no intentions of ever again being bullied by some out-of-his-mind “representative of God”.  There was no peace there for me, so I shot the building the bird as I left and never went back until a few years ago when it was a Christmas present to my mother.  I still don’t feel comfortable there.

I walked out of that building and away from established religion, and walked back towards what had always made sense to me–finding the face of God in nature and in animals.  I could find peace there and peace was what I needed.

Fast forward almost 10 years and you will find me deep in the pit of the belly of the beast–the dark night of the soul.  My grandfather was dying and was moving to and from ICU and the cardiac ward at an astonishing pace.  My 3 1/2 year relationship disintegrated before my eyes and out of the blue, leaving me shocked and breathless.  My cat was diagnosed with cancer.  I was beginning to seriously question my sexuality.  I was unemployed and had no idea what path to take.  A number of friendships hit the rocks and drowned.  And my parents weren’t quite split yet but they were certainly heading there.  To say I was a train wreck would be a gross understatement.  I was unanchored, unhinged and drifting through fields of pain and confusion.  In the midst of all of this, I decided I needed some time and space on my own.  I needed to breathe.  I needed to see if I could drag my bloody stump of a Self back to some sense of peace, so I rented a family friend’s cottage for a week.  I packed my car with every spiritually-based book, every art supply, every tarot card, and every journal I owned and off I went to find my mind and to heal my heart.

What happened instead was that I got sick.  Unbelievably sick.  Out in the middle of nowhere, sitting on a Muskoka chair, staring off into the Bay of Quinte, I felt a scratch in my throat.  The scratch progressed quickly to a throat full of razor blades and a deliriously high fever.  I was beyond miserable; I was wretched.

While I was on my own, the cottage was closely surrounded by other homes.  One of these homes belonged to Russell, an interesting man who always seemed to be picking up and adopting stray animals.  The day of the fever, sitting like a lump on the deck, I happened to glance over at Russell’s and saw a tiny orange kitten sitting on his deck.  Russell and his wife had gone out so I decided to steal a moment and to say hello to this creature; I needed some animal time.  Reaching Russell’s deck, what I saw before me was a perfect mirror for my own Self and it made my stomach drop.  This tiny handful of a creature was a wretched soul as well.

She actually looks better here.

She actually looks better here.

There was green goo coming from her nose and her eyes, she was emaciated, and her ears were full of mites.  She was sneezing. She was coughing.  She was very obviously dying. And my heart hit the dirt when I laid eyes on her.  Her saving grace, I thought, was that Russell had found her.  Knowing how much he loved his animals, I knew he would take good care of her.  I knew he would save her.  I spent a bit of time with this beast and then, feeling like crap again, I turned back towards my cottage and walked away.

Following me, tail high and at a good clip, was this wretched little soul.  I didn’t want her getting comfortable at my location since it wasn’t my place so I marched her straight back to Russell’s.  Again she followed me.  And again.  Three times I attempted to return her to her home and three times she followed me back to the cottage.  By the third time I had had enough.  I gave up, sat down on my chair and stared off into space again, only this time I had a dying orange cat on my lap.  We made quite the pair.

The weather turns quickly on the Bay of Quinte and it wasn’t long before the wind picked up and the afternoon sky began to grow dark with storm clouds.  Russell had yet to return home and this left me in quite the quandary.  Not knowing whether the owners of the cottage allowed animals inside I was reluctant to take this creature in with me, but I certainly couldn’t leave her out in a raging storm.  When the heavens opened up and still there was no sign of her people, Sick Orange Cat came inside.  I laid out for her a bowl of water but no food; again, I didn’t want her to get too comfortable.  I knew she would be going home.

At the height of the storm, when the windows of the cottage were shaking from the force of thunder, I heard Russell’s car crunch up his driveway.  With a sigh of relief, I packed Sickness in close to my chest and made a run for it across the grass.  Soaked, sick and holding this equally soaked and sick bundle, I knocked on Russell’s door and met them with, “Here’s your cat.”  Except, it turns out, she wasn’t theirs.  She was from a barn up the road, a barn I had seen before, packed with pathetic, uncared for, disease-ridden cats.  The sight of them had always broken my heart.  This little stray had shown up on Russell’s porch and out of the goodness of their hearts, they had fed her and had intended on sending her back up the road.  Which is what they did.  Taking her from me, they drove her to the barn, and to certain death.

I can’t say I understand what happened next.  Free from the waif cat, I was in the shower hoping to steam the sickness out of me when I was suddenly rocked by violent waves of the most hideous sounding, gut-wrenching sobs. They took me over and brought me to my knees.  Naked, vulnerable and kneeling on the bottom of the bathtub, with snot running from my nose and hot water streaming over my skin, I begged God, the entity I had not named in nearly a decade, to bring her back to me.  “Please, God,” I cried, “bring her back and I promise you I will do everything I can, I will use every last red cent I have (and I didn’t have many) to either give her a good life or a good death.  Please.  Please bring her back to me.”

No more than a half hour after the shower collapse, I was sitting in my chair, alone and terrified as the storm outside intensified.  It was black as pitch with the wind heaving and beating up against the cottage walls.  In the midst of all this mayhem, I thought I heard a different sound outside the patio door.  I thought I had heard the tiny meow of a cat.  I also thought the fever had made me nuts.  How does one hear a tiny kitten meow when Nature is waging war outside?  I have no idea, but I heard it again and proceeded to walk towards the door.  There she was, Sick Orange Cat, staring at me through the glass, soaked to the bone having run down a country road in the dead of night, during a psychotic thunderstorm, and back to me.

I kept the promise I made to God that day.  For the next 16 years I did everything I could to give this little creature the best possible life, and in the end, I almost used every last red cent I had to give her a good death.  No words can ever explain the connection I had to that cat.  She was more than a cat, more than a companion, more than an animal–she was my pathway back to God and she showed me, without a doubt, that “someone” is always listening and loves me enough to respond.

When I met God, She was wearing a red fur coat, and my life has never been the same.

lounging Aggs 1999

I miss you, Aggs.  Be at peace.

All my love,


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This is a man’s world

But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing

Without a woman or a girl.

James Brown “It’s a Man’s World”

I’ve been thinking about Vipassana training ever since I read the hilarious description of it in Sarah Macdonald’s book Holy Cow:  An Indian Adventure. Vipassana is like Survivor for the spiritual seeker.  Touted as having been discovered by the Buddha over 2500 years ago, Vipassana is a hard core mind-training regime with the aim of burning off all the impurities in the mind that separate the seeker from “the truth”.  Without this separation, the seeker is on the high road to enlightenment.–Ontario Vipassana Centre

Who wouldn’t want that?  Lord knows I relish the idea of someone or something cutting in on this infernal dance I do with my ever-changing mind! Peace?  You offer peace and liberation?  SIGN ME UP!  My initial excitement, however, quickly turned to stomach-twisting dread as I began to research the process.  10 days in the company of strangers where not a word is to be spoken except during a participant’s meeting time with her spiritual advisor.  Silence.  Okay, I can handle that.  You are not to connect with other participants at all.  This means no physical contact, not even a light, supportive touch on the arm if someone appears to be emotionally distraught, no facial expressions and no eye contact with anyone around you.  You are to move around one another without acknowledging one another.  No pens.  No paper.  No cellphones.  No music.  No external distractions.  This is a 100% commitment to spending time with nothing but your own mind, and it is done through hours and HOURS of seated meditation.  When you’re not meditating you’re learning about a meditation technique.  And when you’re not learning, you’re meditating some more.

Have you ever tried to sit on the floor for several hours at a time?  When in India, we spent our days seated on the concrete floor of the ashram’s meditation hall.  It took one day of this for the most fire-poker hot agony to set in on the body.  People were writhing and shifting all day long. By day three people were losing their composure altogether and started crying.  I was popping Advil like candy, something I do only in the most dire situations, and people were rolling around on hard sponge balls trying to work out their muscle cramps.  But in India we could talk to one another.  We could process and journal and hold one another if we fell apart.  We could connect as we crumbled and that made all the difference in the world.  In Vipassana there is none of this connecting and comforting and I began to wonder why we would need to be so harsh in order to reach enlightenment.  Surely the Divine, the most compassionate force in existence, wouldn’t expect us to torture ourselves in order to be free!

Somewhere in the back of my head I began to hear James Brown singing, “This is a man’s world…”  Images of hair shirts, self-flagellation Easter rituals, and women climbing holy steps on their knees crossed my mind.  I know Catholicism like the back of my hand, having been immersed in it (and trying to recover from it) my whole life.  It is a male-dominated religion with a focus on suffering as the path to liberation.  I suppose somewhere in my naivete I thought Eastern religions and spiritual practices would be different somehow.  Could it be Vipassana also falls into this “man’s world” spirituality where we push ourselves to extremes in order to free ourselves?  I have to admit the idea of creating suffering in order to free ourselves from suffering has always baffled me.

There is another way. There is woman’s way. This woman’s way nurtures the body instead of strains it; Life stresses our bodies enough.  It involves community and connection and if you think it’s less challenging to be vulnerable in the company of others, ask anyone how they felt when they broke down in front of a group of people.  It involves yielding to what is, softening and embracing what Life throws our way.  I have always had a strong sense of this woman’s way in spirituality but I could never put it together the way Judith Duerk does in her magical book Circle of Stones:  Woman’s Journey to Herself:

How might your life have been different, if, as a young woman, there had been a place for you, a place where you could go to be among women…a place for you when you had feelings of darkness?…And, what if,…you knew that the [women] would come to be with you?  And would sit quietly by as you went into your darkness to listen to your feelings and bring them to birth…So that, over the years, companioned by the [women], you learned to no longer fear your darkness, but to trust it…

How might our spiritual practices be different if we began to weave more of this into the fabric?  I’m not saying one way is better than the other.  I am certainly saying that the women’s way settles more easily into my spirit; I am Woman after all.  But what amazing new things could come into our spirituality with a merging of both the feminine and masculine ways?  Imagine a spirituality based on balance.  Maybe that is the road to liberation!???

I don’t have the answer and maybe I never will.  I do think, however, I’ll leave Vipassana to the “cool kids” and give it a pass.  I think I’ll just settle my overworked mind and stressed-out body into the comfort of my women’s circle and work it out that way.  In the end, all roads lead to god anyway…right?  😉

Many blessings and much love,


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Great Bell Chant (The End of Suffering) from R Smittenaar on Vimeo.

I hold deep within my heart the genuine wish that all beings be released from suffering.  This blessing….I’m speechless.  May it help ease whatever burdens weigh heavy on your heart.

May the sound of this bell penetrate deep into the cosmos
Even in the darkest spots living beings are able to hear it clearly
So that all suffering in them ceases,
understanding comes to their heart
And they transcend the path of sorrow and death.

The universal dharma door is already open
The sound of the rising tide is heard clearly
The miracle happens
A beautiful child appears in the heart of the lotus flower
One single drop of this compassionate water is enough to
bring back the refreshing spring to our mountains and rivers.

Listening to the bell I feel the afflictions in me begin to dissolve
My mind calm, my body relaxed
A smile is born on my lips
Following the sound of the bell, my breath brings me back to the
safe island of mindfulness
In the garden of my heart, the flowers of peace bloom beautifully.

I bow in reverence,


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Why have I never showcased my own creative writing in my blog?  It seems strange to have an open space dedicated to writing and expression and to remain in hiding.  So here is a poem that won Honourable Mention in The Ontario Poetry Society’s contest in 2008.

Longing II

I miss…

the north land in the summertime

rising glacial rock


like a passageway through time

the ping-scent of pine and cedar

trees lending their needles

cushioning journeys on the land

the aching cry of the loon

haunting reminder of simpler times

I long for simplicity.

the vast expanse of sky

endless, breathtaking

ever-changing portal to mysteries


the canoe

rhythmically caressing water

cradled in the Ancient Ones’ hands

leading us Home

the hungry love made on the belly of the Mother

sacred energy



The absence leaves an echo in my heart.

I am longing.

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Perhaps after the last post you have found yourself saying, “Well, that’s great, Tabitha.  It’s all well and good to say I can find peace by holding in my hands the duality of life but HOW, pray tell, do you suggest I do that?!!!”  There are concrete techniques to help us on the path of accepting and embodying duality.  Here’s a simple one you can do any time, anywhere.

Take a few deep breaths and begin to quiet your mind.  Breathing in and out, bring yourself to a place mentally where you can begin to focus on what’s going on around you and within you. 

Notice your environment:  Where are the shadows?  Where does the light fall?  Can you see that both the light and dark exist together?  What are the sounds?  The colours?  The smells?  Don’t judge them. Don’t try and figure them out.  Simply notice.  Allow your attention to bop from one sight to a sound to a smell without getting stuck there.  Just notice.  Can you notice that all of these things exist together?

Now notice what’s going on in your body:  Quickly do a scan of your body, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes.  Are there parts of your body calling for your attention?  Often we notice body parts when there’s pain or discomfort there.  If that’s the case, can you also bring your attention to a part of your body that feels different, that perhaps is at ease and is comfortable?  Notice the contradictions in sensation, existing simultaneously within your body.  Don’t try to change anything.  Just be the witness and notice.

What’s going on in your mind?  Take a moment and recognize the thoughts that are floating around in your mind.  What are the qualities of those thoughts?  Are they negative or positive?  Light or dark?  Heavy or silly?  Often when we notice thoughts that we consider to be heavy or dark, we strive to push them away, accepting only the light thoughts.  I encourage you, this time, to simply notice the thoughts, like clouds floating across a blue sky.  Your thoughts come and go as quickly and easily as the clouds change form.  See if you can simply allow them to be.

Now do the same with your emotions.  What different emotions are existing within you right now?  See if you can give them attention without getting caught up in one or trying to avoid another.

This exercise can take seconds, minutes, or hours, depending on how deeply you want to move within the experience.  It is a simple, concrete way of moving into acknowledging and accepting the contradictions that are inherent in our everyday living.  When we can let go of the expectation that Life is to be “this OR that”, we have stepped firmly on to the path that leads to peaceful living.

May Peace be yours.  🙂

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The Masters teach that much of our suffering comes from our dualistic view of Life, but what does this mean?  It means:  This OR That; Us OR Them; This Feeling OR That Feeling; This Thought OR That Thought.  One of the keys to finding Peace is to embrace it all, to take it all into us, simply accepting each facet of Life without judgement.  My Yoga Teacher once taught that Yoga encourages us to hold This AND That, one in each hand, without being swayed in either direction.  Living with no preference frees us from the constant movement towards one thing (clinging) and away from another (aversion).  Rumi speaks most eloquently about this way of living in his writing, “The Guest House”.  May you find Peace.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Barks, Coleman, Translator.  The Essential Rumi.  Harper San Francisco:  1995.  p. 109.

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Recently I’ve been feeling in a rut.  My yoga training is over and what becomes of it remains to be seen.  My job, while it pays my bills (barely), does not offer me what I need to keep my soul alive.  Even my body has felt uneasy, shifting with the movement of Time while my mind struggles against the changes.  One evening, in the midst of rehashing the things in my world that cause me dis-ease, I was reminded of a profound teaching I was offered by the most unlikely teacher—a three year old neighbour boy named Alex.

In the waning heat of a June evening, my partner and I sat in the backyard sharing stories of our days when, from between the houses, came a sound I could not recognize. Curious, I leaned over the side of the chair and peered down the driveway that cut the space between our house and the neighbour’s. There he was, Alex, our three year old neighbour. He was seated on a plastic truck and the truck was situated within a deep groove in the driveway. Walking that pathway is precarious enough, but pedalling a small plastic truck up an incline seemed impossible.

Alex, sage-like grin spread wide across his face, settled himself comfortably on the truck’s seat and planted his feet firmly upon the pedals. With fierce determination, he began pumping his legs up and down which only served to spin the wheels of the truck that continued to rest on the spot deep within the driveway’s trench.  Alex, like so many of us, was very much stuck in a rut. His approach to the situation, however, became his teaching.

This small boy revealed to me that there is a different way to experience being in a rut. He did not do what I so often do—he did not kick up a fuss. He did not get angry, or huff and puff in frustration, and he never gave up. Instead, Alex grinned and kept on going. To my amazement, he was having a great time sitting on the spot spinning his wheels. He was fully engaged in the process at that time, in that place, seeming not to care whether he ever reached his desired destination or not. He was living fully in the moment, in his body, and it was perfect.

Eventually the wheels of the truck gripped the pavement and Alex was slowly propelled forward only to be thrown off course by his brother who hurled himself into Alex’s path. Isn’t that just like life?

What did I get from watching this small boy work his way up the incline of a deeply rutted driveway? I got a pure example of what the Masters mean when they teach that it isn’t the destination that matters, it’s the process and how we live within that process that counts. Alex taught me that it is possible to be fully engaged, alive and joyful, even when it feels like I’m going nowhere in my life. He taught me that going nowhere is indeed the destination if I am fully awake to what is going on at every turn. And he taught me that every moment, every situation, is cause for celebration simply because I am alive.

What does Alex teach you?

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