I’m currently riding the rails, VIA Rail train # 669, a 5 hour journey from Montréal to Toronto (for my American readers, VIA rail is our Amtrak). It’s pitch black outside. This is a trip I’ll be making weekly now for a new internship I’ve recently taken on, independent of my doctoral program. This is in addition to three classes, two of which have a lot of work, and seeing two clients. It’s enough to make anyone nuts! It’s also a perfect time to be mindful, which is wonderful, because the holidays have derailed my practice.
I love the train. It’s very quiet, calming. While it makes reading journal articles for school a challenge, I love feeling the rumble of the train on the rails as it barrels head-on in the darkness, whistle blaring. Inside, the train is quiet with dim lighting, and I’m listening to music. I can feel the firmness of the seats underneath me and against my back (it’s hard not to)! Around me, there are people sleeping or working. This weekly 10 hour journey (5 hours each way) will not only provide me with an opportunity to catch up on work and blog, but to reconnect to my mindfulness practice and to notice small aspects of genuine human connection between passengers or passengers and train employees. This is something I recommended to a client today, and it’s something I plan to try.
Now, some of you may think I have it all together. Trust me when I say I don’t. I get overwhelmed looking at all the psychology and mindfulness books I want to read saved on my Amazon wishlist! In fact, just last week, I was freaking out, asking my wife if I’ve taken on too much. As usual, she was very supportive and told me she’d do whatever it takes to make sure I can succeed, all while she’s studying too. Why do I mention this? Simply to communicate that even in the most chaotic situations, mindfulness or simply finding a way to enjoy your surroundings can reorient you. Take a few minutes, feel the ground beneath your feet, or the cold winter air in your face, and enjoy the 5 hour ride.
Hello readers. I know I’m not doing terribly well at this blogging thing, seeing as I disappear for long stretches of time. I’m hoping to get better at it. So what is drawing me back here? For one, I just joined Twitter (@Matt_Fleisch1990) as a way to help spread awareness for my PhD research, and I’d like to draw in readers from Twitter. However, the deeper reason is that writing can be a healthy way to cope with, and try to understand, loss especially when it’s unexpected. A PSA: this is a long one.
On June 11, 2019, at the young age of 29, my best friend Darrin passed suddenly and tragically in his home in his mother’s arms. Darrin lived with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). DMD “is a genetic disorder characterized by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. It is one of nine types of muscular dystrophy. DMD is caused by an absence of dystrophin, a protein that helps keep muscle cells intact. Symptom onset is in early childhood, usually between ages 3 and 5. The disease primarily affects boys, but in rare cases it can affect girls. Muscle weakness can begin as early as age 3, first affecting the muscles of the hips, pelvic area, thighs and shoulders, and later the skeletal (voluntary) muscles in the arms, legs and trunk. The calves often are enlarged. By the early teens, the heart and respiratory muscles also are affected” (https://www.mda.org/disease/duchenne-muscular-dystrophy). While Darrin’s diagnosis wasn’t the exact cause of his passing, I do believe it contributed as his heart and lungs were both functioning at less than 50% capacity each.
When I heard my best friend had passed, I was in shock. Darrin and I have known each other for 20 some-odd years and he was best man at my wedding in October of last year. He also attended our civil wedding ceremony a number of months before in May, a decision my wife and I made to help jumpstart her immigration paper from the U.S. His mother set up a private viewing for my wife and I, and when we went, it felt like someone had struck me in the stomach upon seeing him in the casket. I cried immediately and felt sick. As Jews, we don’t do open-casket funerals, or wakes/viewings so I wasn’t used to this (as if anyone can get used to it). Walking into his entertainment room where he spent so much time was equally wrenching, for the first thing I saw was his empty wheelchair at his desk, faced in as though someone was working there. I had to leave the room.
For days, feelings of guilt and what-ifs consumed me. Thoughts of “Am I grieving the right way?” surrounded me: Why wasn’t I crying more? Am I allowed to continue my life while he’s not here? Why is that, and how can I? Why was I writing a eulogy for a 29-year-old when on the same Saturday as his funeral, my wife and I were supposed to be in Ohio for her cousin’s wedding? Why is he gone when there are other people who only hurt and harm still walking and living? All impossible questions to answer, questions I thought I’d have more time to prepare answers to. You always think you have more time. For about 48-72 hours straight, we are all engulfed in funeral preparations, of which my wife was assigned to compile pictures for a slideshow, and I was to help with the card given to guests and any other errands or logistics. Being immersed in so much so quickly is traumatic and doesn’t fully allow the time for understanding and grieving.
To some extent, I still wonder what I could have done to save him had I been there. It is in these moments that mindfulness and self-compassion are essential. However, despite dedicated practice, I found all I know around this to go out the window. I didn’t know how to sit with those feelings, and for a while, I avoided practicing formal meditation because feelings of overwhelming sadness would engulf me and images of seeing him in his casket during our private viewing would snap into focus. I also suffered a second loss when I found out he wished to be cremated rather than buried, as I was hoping to bury him and have a site to go visit.
A few days after Darrin’s funeral, I came across a TEDWomen talk by Nora McInerny in which she talks about death and grieving. I encourage you to watch it; you can find it here. One thing she said stuck with me: that people expect you to move on, but those are words she (and now I) have come to hate. Instead, she says we move forward, forward with our lives with this person still in them through memories, through the way they influenced us, through their stories. Moving on implies forgetting. Moving forward suggests living knowing a piece of you is gone forever, a very visceral feeling, but in a way that respects those feelings and that person.
My wife sadly has gone through similar loss a few times and has helped me to understand as best I can that there is not a right or correct way to grieve. Even though she didn’t know Darrin as well or as long as I did, this was a tragic loss for her too. To help my grieve, I started a GoFundMe in Darrin’s memory to donate money to the The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto where he took piano lessons. I also light a candle when I need to feel close to him, a candle bookended by the above picture framed on one side, and the little card from the funeral that I wrote on the other. I promised to take care of his mother and we talk at least once a week. I’m going to his home in Caledon, Ontario to help her go through his things, something I’m scared of, being in a space without him. And the most meaningful of all: my wife and I sat with his family during the funeral and I was able to give a eulogy. These are things I’m eternally grateful for.
Grief is painful. If you’ve experienced a loss recently or are coming up on an anniversary, know you’re not alone. I miss Darrin every day, and will do so for the rest of my life. I am now back to my meditation sits and when the feelings of sadness arise, I sit with them, focus on them, welcome them (much easier said than done). I live my life because it’s what Darrin would have wanted. He would want me to move forward, not move on. Despite all his challenges, he never complained and he had every right. He took his loss of mobility, transition into a wheelchair, and all subsequent challenges with stride and grace. He always lived with a big smile on his face, a witty attitude, and a genuine concern for everyone else around him, putting them before himself.
Darrin, you are eternally missed and your memory will always be a blessing.
I also recommend the book below by Rabbi Harold Kushner. It may be almost 40 years old, but its lessons are ageless.
Kushner, H. S. (2004) When bad things happen to good people. New York, NY: Anchor Books. (Original work published 1981).
While we have already surpassed our goal for our GoFundMe campaign, donations in Darrin’s memory are always graciously welcomed and appreciated. If you’d like to make a donation, please click here. To learn more about the Royal Conservatory of Music where proceeds will be donated, click here.
It’s been a while since I’ve written. Things have been busy with my doctoral program, being fortunate enough to study the scientific underpinnings of mindfulness, this elusive yet tangible thing many people strive for. While I do love to read, reading for leisure is something that happens less and less for me now (thank you Netflix); however, when I do make time, I pick up Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, a book that while not long, takes quite some time to get through given the profound simplicity of Tolle’s writing. Tolle structures the book in a Q&A format, and one section tonight really resonated with me. The question posed to him is the following:
“I have been practicing meditation, I have been to workshops, I have read many books on spirituality, I try to be in a state of nonresistance — but if you ask me whether I found true and lasting inner peace, my honest answer would have to be “no.” Why haven’t I found it? What else can I do?” (p. 193).
To this, Tolle responds essentially by saying don’t seek outside of you through workshops and books to meet this state of inner peace (don’t worry: the irony of him saying this in a book, his book, isn’t lost on me); rather accept the lack of inner peace as is and through this acceptance, this restlessness will be transformed into peace. This stood out for me because it’s something I wrestle with. I too practice regularly and read on the topic. I’m attending a silent retreat over the summer and the lab I’m studying in at McGill is the McGill Mindfulness Research Lab! One would think with so much exposure it just seep in via osmosis. One of the tenants of mindfulness is non-striving, something easier said than done. However, it can be done by simply not doing anything. Let me explain.
As Tolle writes, people are attached to their drama, it males up who they are (this is something I hope to write about at a future date). This is true no matter who you are: the disgruntled partner who got into a bad fight with their significant other, too afraid to let that anger go, the person who feels worthless because the failed at a task, the list goes on. This is not to say those emotions aren’t real; they very much are. However, how one handles them is the essence of what Tolle (and psychologists) try to get to. These stories can be part of you, but not define you. As Tolle remarks, one may not be happy with a current situation, but they can be at peace with it through acceptance of the present moment.
I will close by saying this isn’t easy, it takes practice. We’re all so wrapped up in superficial details of our busy lives (myself included) it can be hard to simply be. Through acceptance of your daily stresses, pleasures, desires, etc., Tolle claims true inner peace can be found. I would end by saying “I look forward to day when I can find this,” but that would still be seeking from the outside, striving. For now, I will simply sit with the discomfort of this easy yet difficult concept, and just be.
Tolle, E. (1999). The power of now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment. Namaste Publishing; Vancouver, BC.
As I’m many of you have heard, yesterday in Pittsburgh, PA at the Tree of Life Synagogue, 11 people senselessly lost their lives,and three brave Pittsburg PD officers were injured in the line of duty, protecting and serving. As a proud and active Canadian-American Jew, in what is being deemed the worst act of anti-Semitism in US history, shakes me to my core. It makes me feel sick, rattled, violated, and unsafe. This, my friends, presents the ultimate challenge in being mindful. How do we do such a thing after an such an egregious act of hate? I won’t pretend to know the answer, for there isn’t one magical answer that will cure all. In a time where anti-Semitism runs rampant throughout parts of the US and much of Europe, all Jews and those that love and support them need to stand together as one. We need to acknowledge how we and others feel, sitting with the disgust and violation, welcoming it, using it to propel change. We as one species must act to ensure that acts of anti-Semisitm that laid the basis for the slaughter of 6 million Jews and many others in the Holocaust never happens again. Together, hand-in-hand, we stand strong protecting those that need us so they may protect us when we need them.
In closing, I leave you all with my favourite poem entitled “First they came…” written by “German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power…” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came_…):
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
To my readers: you may or may not have been wondering where I’ve been or why I stopped blogging. Certainly, it wasn’t due to lack of interest. Since my last post, I have relocated to Montreal to start my Doctoral studies and recently got married, all of which have dominated much of my time. Now that I’m back on solid ground, I felt this the opportune time to relaunch my adventure through mindfulness with all of you.
I am happy to say that mindfulness is all around me these days, even if I’m struggling to engage. My supervisor runs the McGill Mindfulness Research Lab, I’m putting aside numerous resources on mindfulness I hope to read in the near future, I’ve joined a local meditation studio, and I am engaging in a study on mindfulness, stress, and law enforcement. On the outside, it appears my connection to mindfulness is well-reinforced. However, there is an internal struggle many who practice confront: am I engaged enough? Am I doing mindfulness right? While I am avidly gobbling up all the information I can on mindfulness not only for myself, but for future clients, I find myself getting overwhelmed. There is so much to digest it’s hard to know where to start. This may sound disheartening, but to those who also feel the same way I have good news: the recognition of feeling overwhelmed is in of itself, an act of mindfulness. The recognition of those internal states and racing thoughts shows you are attuned to your body. Address these negative sensations as friends, for it’s your body’s way of telling you you need time to disconnect with the world and reconnect with yourself.
You may be asking where do I go from here, what do I do with these feelings over being overwhelmed. You may be tempted to run and distract yourself with Netflix, but I invite you to take a different approach. Go find a mediation cushion, couch, or chair, light a candle, put on some entrancing music, let yourself just feel and reconnect to yourself and your environment. Finally, remember there is no such thing as doing meditation wrong. Some sits you’ll be on Cloud 9, others you may feel as though you’re in the middle of a tornado. Sitting with this knowledge is mindfulness and will help you on your journey towards reconnection with yourself, your surroundings, and with those you love and who love you.
Before delving into tonight’s post, I first want to sincerely apologize for my prolonged absence. The past number of weeks have been very busy with exciting life developments (e.g., being accepted into a PhD program, travelling) that have required my attention. This serves as an unintended lesson in mindfulness: sometimes you need to devote your attention to one or two things at the expense of others. Other tasks may be put on the back burner a bit longer, but you will complete your tasks knowing you were fully present while doing so.
Clearly, I’m digressing so let’s get into it. For those of the Jewish faith, we recently celebrated the 8-day long holiday of Passover, in which we tell the story of Exodus. Exodus, of course, is the the story of how Moses freed the Jewish people from the bondage of slavery at the hand of the ancient Egyptians. This is not a new story; indeed the Last Supper is a portrait of a seder (which means “order,” alluding to the structure of how the meal is supposed to go), or the special meal eaten on the first two nights. Indeed, at many seder tables, the story of Passover is told involving family members and friends of all ages, and discussions around slavery and freedom fly fast and furious. So how does this connect to mindfulness? Let’s find out.
On the seder plate (see graphic below), we have various items, with each food symbolizing a part of the story:
Of course, the one thing missing from the graphic that is a stable at every table during the holiday is matzah, a giant cracker made of unleavened bread. Jews avoid anything with leaven in it to remember that our ancestors didn’t have time to let the bread rise as they escaped bondage. Judaism is a very intentional faith and religion; no story is told without a moral and no food is eaten without a symbolic reason. Each item helps us to connect to the story, as do other aspects of the meal which are far too numerous for this post.
During this holiday, we are encouraged to remember how we were once slaves in a foreign land and how we can be better not only to others still suffering, but to our own internal suffering or emotional enslavement. Every day, we encounter our own trials and tribulations: the difficult assignment at work or school, traffic, making a silly mistake. These are things that we may beat ourselves up for: Why don’t I understand the assignment? Why didn’t I live 10 minutes earlier? Why didn’t I watch what I was doing? For many, this can lead to rumination and stress. Remembering the story of the enslaved Jewish people and how they endured, even when it didn’t seem possible, is a reminder we too can endure.
What many people don’t know is that Moses had a terrible stutter, so terrible that his brother Aaron had to help him communicate with the Jewish people as they were wandering in the desert. If Moses, the unlikely shepherd-turned-hero could overcame a severe speech impediment and the many challenges that his people and G-d both presented him with to bring his people to the Holy Land of Israel, then we too must find our own inner Moses (and if need be, Aaron) to overcome the daily stresses of life. This can be one of life’s greatest challenges, but as you will find in time, it will also be one of life’s greatest rewards.
Before delving into today’s post, I want to sincerely apologize for being MIA the past number of days. Things have been very busy (as they are for most people), but as with all things, it’s all about perspective. The busy week serves as inspiration for today’s post on change.
Change is inevitable. For some such as those on the autism spectrum, small changes such as transitions from task to task can be very challenging. For myself and many others, major life changes can be stressful, but exciting. As I prepare for my move back to Canada to start my PhD program in Counselling Psychology, there is a lot on my mind: Where do we live? When do we move? How long will it take to get my fiancee’s immigration paperwork in order? How will we pay for everything? All of these things can be very unsettling because it disrupts the natural order of a comfortable daily life.
Routine breeds comfort, but it can also breed boredom. During this stressful, but exciting time, I have to remind myself of all the great things that will come from this change. Being mindful of how I react to the change can help me keep this exciting time in perspective and fully immerse myself in the enjoyment of starting a new chapter in my life. Next time a major life change presents itself, I challenge you to be aware of how it impacts you and sit with it. You will appreciate it, and yourself all the more for it.