Experiencing God

*Disclaimer* God is what you want it to be. I personally think of God as myself and everyone else, the energy of the world and everything else. This post was inspired by a sermon by Doug Klassen.

We never know what will bring about a religious experience, an experience of God, but it often has to do with contemplation.

I find it easier to be close to God in beautiful places. Like the beautiful churches in Italy. I’ve always felt closer to God there. It’s hard not to. I always thought that if I lived in Italy that I would go to church at least weekly, just to be in that space. The beauty created by human hands is inspiring.

The beauty created by the earth is even better. One of the ways my parents encouraged contemplation was going outside, and going to the mountains. It’s easy to feel close to God, yourself, and everything around you when you’re looking at a snow-covered alpine meadow, or through an aspen grove, or up at the amazingly endless blue sky. Much of my progress over the last year has been due my effort to get outside more and go for walks.

Another way they encouraged contemplation was through music. They are both musicians and have very strong spiritual ties to it. They are trained classically, so from the time I was born, I was taken to long concerts without words. This makes you think your thoughts, and I have had some pretty cool experiences. But I have also had near-religious experiences at concerts of my favourite bands. Sometimes, when everyone’s singing along, you get a feeling of being on the same level as everyone in the room and it’s powerful.

I remember reading a Christian novel when I was about 12. I didn’t know it was Christian until halfway through. My mom had no idea why I was reading it, but somewhere near the end I was overwhelmed by this feeling that God was with me and everything would be alright. I was surrounded by love, and everything was fine. It was an amazing feeling that I will always remember.
Jill Bolte Taylor speaks of feeling this way during her stroke where the left hemisphere of her brain was completely shut off, and she could only live in the present. It’s hard to turn off our right hemispheres when we use them so much to process the overwhelming amount of information we are exposed to in any given moment.

The right hemisphere is also engaged in creative activities. This is another thing we can encourage. It has always been important to have music in church. It allows us to concentrate on the present moment and get closer to God. I think my experience while reading the book happened because of being wrapped up in it, but also reading the religious words about God being Love. There are good environments, but even a good environment needs a kind of trigger, I think for those especially overwhelming experiences. Maybe the trigger is something we think, or hear, or read.

So as a girl who didn’t go to church, I got those feelings too, and it certainly was because of contemplating myself and the world that surrounded me while also experiencing the moment for all it was worth. We have to make time to be quiet, to think and to empty our minds of thoughts, worries, plans and analysis. We also have to know that we are loved by God and we are good enough. We have to hear those words. I think we are more likely to experience it if we know what it is.

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Always Learning

Learning is the process of acquiring new skills and knowledge. It’s easy to see how babies and toddlers learn. It’s easy to see that anyone in school is learning. Do we ever think about how we are learning constantly? We do not live in a static world. There are always new people, new situations and new information coming at us, and we process it and learn from it.

We are always capable of learning. After puberty it takes a bit more work than before, but it is entirely possible. A couple years ago, I read a book called, The Brain That Changes Itself, which is all about learning and how our brains are much more capable than we ever thought.

It is so important to keep our brains plastic (changing), and working. This means that we have to do stuff that’s hard. Learning a language as an adult is one of the most difficult things you can make your brain do, but it is so good for you. When we challenge ourselves, we see what we are capable of. If I never went out of my comfort zone, I would never learn anything new about myself. The learning that is done when I push myself, and even fail, is far more valuable than the learning that I do from the comfort of my easy-chair.

That’s not to say that I’m not learning if it doesn’t hurt. I am open to learning in all situations, from all people. I never know what someone might have to say that is surprising. For example, I get canker sores when I’m stressed. I have gone to doctors and tried every dreaded remedy from salt to prescription gunk. Nothing really works, but that doesn’t stop me from listening to anyone who proposes a solution. They might be right!

I often see this and find it frustrating: Max has a problem. He goes to a doctor, who doesn’t help. He goes to 2 more doctors who don’t help. He deems the situation unsolvable and shuts down anyone who has a suggestion otherwise. If I have a problem that is not currently solved, I try to keep an open mind so that when I eventually run into the person who has the solution for me, I hear them and am able to solve my problem. I know that it gets difficult, and we lose hope, but we mustn’t. You don’t take every suggestion to heart, but you listen. A solution will come, and we must be ready for it.

Just because someone says it, doesn’t mean it is true for me. Sometimes people are wrong, and I use my brain to figure out what is right for me. I keep my mind open, and alert.

It is the same with school. As a teenager and younger adult, I thought that I would not be able to learn from teachers I didn’t like. So I sat there rolling my eyes, thinking about how smart I was and how stupid they were. Life became a lot easier, and productive when I realized that I can learn from anyone, at anytime. That really annoying co-worker? They’re there to challenge my patience, compassion and communication skills. I can learn a lot from them.

People I learn from:

  • My boyfriend, my sisters and brothers, my parents
  • My nieces and nephews
  • My friends
  • My coworkers
  • My twitter friends
  • My cat

GrAttitude

When things aren’t going my way, I can change my situation, or I can change my attitude. Or you can change both! Sometimes it can be hard to see the options in any given situation, and I always try to change my attitude because it’s the one thing that I always have control over. I can’t change the thoughts or actions of other people, but I can change my own.

The first step I took to changing my general attitude about life was to be more thankful. One day I decided that I should let people know that I appreciate them. I like knowing when I’m appreciated, so I thought other people would too. Often, this forces me to go out of my comfort zone and initiate conversation with someone I don’t know very well, or send an email that could easily not be sent. It’s always difficult to go out of my comfort zone, but the rewards are just so worth it. Everyone is always pleased when I thank them, and we both leave feeling better about ourselves.

One surprising encounter of thanks was meeting Dan Mangan and letting him know how much his music meant to me, he was exhausted after a night of playing, but he stayed and talked to everyone who wanted to say hi, and I knew that he stayed because he appreciates his fans. I used to think that it didn’t matter with famous people because everyone is always telling them how great they are, but if everyone assumes that everyone else is telling them, then no one would ever tell them! No one is ever going to say, “I wish people wouldn’t always tell me they’re thankful for what I do.”

The more I thought about all of the things I was thankful for, the better I felt in general. My friend ShayCarl always says, “The meaning of life is hidden behind the word ‘cliché'” and this is a good time for the cliché “Count your blessings.” Remembering the positive things in my life is a skill and habit. The more I do it, the easier it gets and the less I have to actively try to think about it, it just happens. At the beginning it may seem contrived, but you’ll make it your own in time.

Here are situations in which I have shared my gratitude:

  • Thank you for doing the dishes
  • Thank you for meeting me for coffee today
  • I really appreciate your hard work
  • I am so thankful for your friendship
  • Thank you for listening
  • Thank you for sharing that link
  • I’m grateful for this opportunity to work with you
  • Thank you for organizing this meeting

Thank you for reading my blog! I’m so grateful for all of the encouragement I have received and the positive feedback. I appreciate having so many people tell me that they are able to relate 🙂

 

Next post: Always Learning

Anxiety

“My parents should be home any minute. Where are they? What if they got in a car crash? What if they got distracted and won’t be home for another hour? Maybe someone I don’t know will come to the door. Maybe, maybe, maybe…” I’m 9 years old, and not used to being left at home on my own, I panic until my parents come home.

This was the first panic attack I remember. I have had panic attacks about being home alone, driving, school and other seemingly mundane things. These are personality traits that I think have contributed to my anxiety:

  • overactive imagination
  • dependence on routine
  • impatience

The first time I had my anxiety treated, I was 20. I showed up at the naturopath with huge canker sores, looking for a solution. The conventional doctors hadn’t been able to help me in any way. So the naturopath told me it was almost definitely stress and gave me some supplements to even out my moods. It worked really well, too well. It had no side effects, other than completely levelling all my moods. I stopped taking them and was doing much better.

Over the last year I have been able to control my anxiety with:

  • supplements from the naturopath
  • cognitive behavioural therapy
  • exercise

A year ago, I went to the naturopath with the same problem, having forgotten that it was stress. They gave me different supplements, and those have zero side effects. They just take the edge off my anxiety and remind me what it’s like to not freak out about everything. Prescription medication has its place. Sometimes neurochemistry can be unbalanced enough to warrant permanent medication. Most often, it can be used to remind you what normal is, so that you can do the work required to be able to deal with your anxiety without medication.

I use cognitive behavioural therapy (or my own version of it) to be able to change my thought patterns when I am anxious. Basically I change my catastrophization to rational thoughts. First I have to recognize when I am having irrational thoughts. Once I notice one, I try to breathe deeply and slow my heart rate so that I can think more clearly. With a clearer head, I analyze my thoughts and figure out what is rational and what isn’t. I concentrate on the rational thoughts until the feeling goes away. The more I do it, the faster I get. I can also recognize patterns and stop the anxiety before it gets out of control.

Exercise is the most important factor in decreasing the number of times I get anxiety. Supplements break the habit in the short-term, CBT helps you get rid of it, but exercise helps you from getting anxious in the first place. For example, last January I went to the West Edmonton Mall water park and as a personal challenge, went on the two extremely frightening water slides that are so steep they have trap doors. Before I went on each slide I was extremely anxious, but I got through it by saying, “I can do it. I can do it.” over and over again. After each slide, I could barely walk, and had to sit in the hot tub for 10 minutes while the adrenaline ran its course through my veins. Probably took a couple months off my heart that day.

In August, we went to a theme park where I rode a roller coaster for the first time. It was at least as frightening as the water slides, but afterwards I could walk and didn’t even have to stop and recover. At that point, I had stopped taking the supplements, changed my exercise routine, but not started  using CBT regularly.

I have also found that the following decrease my anxiety:

  • I don’t read, watch or listen to any news
  • I don’t consume caffeine
  • I get enough sleep

Know that you can change your thoughts. Stay away from high stress situations. Ask for help if what you’re doing on your own isn’t working.

 

Next post: GrAttitude

“Let go of who you think you should be in order to be who you are.” -Brené Brown

We all know that lying is wrong. It is easy for us to know when we are lying to our friends, but it is difficult to realize when we are lying to ourselves. Telling yourself the truth makes you vulnerable, and that’s a good thing.

Brené Brown has a very famous TEDTalk called The Power of Vulnerability. I urge you to watch it. Here’s what I get from it:

  • Vulnerability is not weakness, it takes courage
  • Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change
  • Have the courage to be imperfect
  • Connection comes from Authenticity which comes from Vulnerability

To see the truth we must have the courage to be vulnerable. Vulnerability lets us see our imperfections and accept them. We must not be afraid to be imperfect. The way to change is through imperfection, because who would change something that is perfect?

In our society we tell ourselves two lies: 1) I must be perfect 2) Everyone else is already perfect. These lies perpetuate each other. The more we lie to ourselves, the easier it is to pretend that everything is alright, and give everyone around us the impression that we are perfect. Our cycles of obesity, debt and substance dependence thrive on the lies we tell ourselves, surprising our true feelings because we think they will hurt too much.

Have you ever had a friendship where you are not honest with them to the point of being vulnerable? You act like everything is fine, because you tell yourself they don’t want to hear your problems. What was that friendship like? What was the level of connection you felt with them? Now think of a friendship you have with someone to whom you made yourself vulnerable. What was your level of connection with that person? How did it make you feel?

“In order to allow connection to happen, we have to be seen, really seen.” Brené Brown says that whole hearted people have the courage to be imperfect and to love themselves first. They are authentic in a way that allows for deep connections. And that’s what we all want, right? Deep, lasting connections. I would argue that spirituality is about forming a deep connection to yourself, having the courage to tell yourself the truth and embrace your vulnerability.

 

Next post: Anxiety

My Next Step: Church

I was an atheist. Now that I’ve gone to church three weeks in a row, I have a hard time identifying with that label. One day I decided that I needed some formal spirituality in my life in order to address all aspects of my humanity.

Spirituality is a part of being human, just like our emotions are part of being human. Many people connect spirituality with religion, and spirituality without religion is seen as fluffy hippy stuff. I disagree. Wikipedia defines spirituality as “to refind the original shape of man, the image of God.” I am refinding the original shape of myself. Whenever the pastor says “God”, I think of myself and everyone who makes up my experience. I am responsible for my salvation, but I cannot do it alone. We are never alone, and we can accomplish nothing without the influence of others.

Now, I said that you don’t have to connect spirituality with religion, while I am getting my spirituality from religion. You can get your spiritual experience from anything that connects you to yourself. Here is a list of spiritual activities:

  • going for a walk
  • reading a book
  • riding your bike
  • playing with your dog
  • baking or cooking
  • painting
  • creating
  • teaching
  • meditating
  • writing
  • learning
  • thinking
  • playing music
  • looking through a microscope

Add your own activity to this list if it grounds you, makes you feel better and connects you to yourself.

I go to church because it’s an opportunity to learn about the human experience from a book that has been around a long time. I figure anything that’s been around that long must have a bunch of truth in it. Though I listen to the pastor, and respect his knowledge, I choose the truth for myself. No one can tell me what is right and what is wrong. I decide that for myself. This is the problem that so many people have with organized religion. They expect someone to tell them what to do, and are hurt or furious when they come to their own conclusions.

I have been lucky enough to start with a clean slate. I don’t need to be saved, but it’s nice to think about being a good person, forgiving myself and thinking about all the love in the universe that we are all hooked into.

Next post: “Let go of who you think you should be in order to be who you are.” -Brené Brown