Burning the seeds of suffering

In yogic philosophy, the physical body is a storehouse of samskaras—thought, emotion, and behavioural patterns—laid down and then reinforced through repeated experiences. These loopy chains may foster activities towards self-actualisation, neutral experiences, or self-destruction.

Journalling your mindsphere is one way to expose and observe patterns of thought. Though I recently looked to my own pile of journals which were written from age 10 onward, with a feeling of irritation and burden. For me, journaling has always helped release tension during moments of emotional distress. So, it really just appeared as huge pile of baggage I have been lugging around with me everywhere I moved, slowing me down from truly welcoming a new day.

I thought that enough was enough. I have come pretty far in trauma processing in the last year, and announced that it was time I burn this bullshit to the ground. On a sunny spring evening, close friends joined me around a fire pit with their own journals, and we watched the pages of our past turn to ash and smoke together. It was an exhilarating experience.

As I looked to the flames, it reminded me of the process of silent mindfulness meditation retreat, which involves an exploration of one’s own body of stories. It can be a practice of meeting and greeting all painful thoughts, emotion, and behavioural patterns with an attitude of compassion… so many times, until they become so boring and redundant, they lose their original potency.

At that point a weight is lifted, and the path moving forward becomes that much more clear and intentional.

Yoga Nidra

Yoga NidraYoga Nidra: 20″ x 24″ Acrylic on Canvas

Year after year,
living blindly in loopy chains,
‘till Life pinned me so eloquently to a corner where from myself,
I could not escape.
She told me, “The architecture of your brain needs to change—
you can no longer run, skip, and jump far, far away,
from your internal pains.”
Meditate to medicate.
Day after day now,
my Heart leads the way.

Yoga nidra is a relaxation practice that allows the practitioner to gain deep insight and awareness into unconscious areas of the brain. It subsequently cultivates an ability to rewire samskaras (ingrained patterns of thought, emotions, and behaviours) in a willful manner which in turn assists a way of intentional living. This piece represents the process of yoga nidra: In the center lies deep, dark, unconscious samskaras—that is, outside of our awareness. As we practice, these patterns gradually flow into the light… such like training a skillful eye with acute abilities. The process is slow moving and not always pleasant; painful samskaras present themselves vividly. However, when awareness is established, change is possible. Positive intentions called sankalpas are planted and cultivated—such ones that bring liberation.

Cerebella

Cerebella: 20″ x 24″ Acrylic on Canvas

The cerebellum lies in the human hind brain and is most typically involved in motor control, coordination, posture, and balance. This beautiful flower-shaped structure contains over 100 billion densely packed neurons, that is, more than twice the amount of neurons in the entire cerebral cortex. It’s projections to and from the prefrontal cortex are what makes the wonders of moving meditations possible.

An Ode to Neuroplasticity

Neurogenesis: 10″ x 20″ Ink on Birch Panel
Long-term Potentiation: 12″ x 12″ Ink on Birch Panel
Long-term Depression: 12″ x 12″ Ink on Birch Panel

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change its structure and functionality throughout the entire human lifespan. Before the late 20th century, this concept was completely absurd; it was thought that proceeding development, the brain one had was the brain one would live with for the rest of their life. But how hopeful it was when neuroscientists discovered that this long held statement was false—this meant that even adults with various neurological disorders and mental illnesses could potentially be treated and have their health related quality of life improved.

The following pieces were made to honor neuroplasticity and the wondrous nature of the brain’s ability to grow, learn, unlearn, and adapt. They are creative depictions of three distinct processes involved in neuroplasticity: (1) Neurogenesis—the birth of new brain cells (i.e. neurons), (2) Long-term potentiation—the strengthening of “bonds” (i.e. synapses) between neurons, and (3) Long-term depression—the weakening of synapses between neurons.

Metta Flow

For Open Streets Waterloo 2015, I created a unique space where metta (maitri in Sanskrit), “loving kindness,” meditation could be practiced. Metta meditation entails the cultivation of loving thoughts. There are five main stages of which consecutively gains more and more physical expansiveness as moved through. The objects that the practitioner is called to send love to are as follows:

1) Yourself
2) A loved one
3) A neutral person
4) A difficult person
5) All sentient beings

Some examples of well wishes one may send to the object of choice include: “May I/ you be safe,” “May I/ you be well,” “May you I/ be happy,” “May you I/ have peace.”

If practiced traditionally, the meditator began on the first block at the bottom, and then moved up to the next whenever they felt ready. However, street passerbyers were free to enter and leave the station as they pleased; they were flexible to practice part or all of the meditation depending on what their needs were at the moment. Yoga mats were also provided alongside in case meditators wished to prep their meditation with mindful movement.

I didn’t want to fight

Thich Nhat Hanh placed a haunting stock photo of a shocked, dissociated, teary eyed Vietnamese soldier in an article of his about compassion. Every fibre of the soldier’s being emanated an unspeakably tragic pain and worse off—one that was not allowed be expressed. He spoke to me: I didn’t want to fight.

My heart dropped and my gut wrenched. He must have been no older than 20 years old. The following thought was: He could have been dad. But he wasn’t. My dad evaded enlistment during the Vietnam war by hiding inside a wall in his home for a long time. Later, him and my mother fled the country on a small boat by bribing the police with gold. We’re now grounded in Eastern Canada.

During the war, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam for his immense efforts in peace activism. Even after the battle played out through to its brutally long end, the victorious Vietnamese communist government was still threatened by his influence. For these reasons, they banned Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, exercising forceful control over his mindfulness practice communities.

You may be asking why? How could such an innocent practice like attending to the present moment pose such a risk?

I learned the answer after undertaking vigorous mindfulness training myself. It’s because when you practice mindfulness, you develop a greater capacity to question all conditioned beliefs (e.g. political ideologies), and explore in your Heart what truly feels right. When you practice mindfulness, you learn to release hatred for “the other” and replace it instead with compassionate understanding for all sides. When you practice mindfulness, peacebuilding skills grow naturally from the inside-out.

Of course, the Vietnamese communist government did not favour a population of freethinkers and nonviolent resisters.

The image of the soldier is still menacingly burned into my head. Though I can’t help but believe that Thich Nhat Hanh strategically placed that photograph there for me (and of course, others like myself), because it had triggered a deep grief in my ancestral history that cannot be forgotten.

This is not acceptable. This cannot happen again. This should still not be happening now. What do I do? The answer arose spontaneously from the very core of Thich Nhat Hanh’s mission itself: Spread the practice of mindfulness.

The Ebb and Flow of the HPA-Axis

“The Ebb and Flow of the HPA(hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal)-axis,” is a contemporary, long durational art piece I performed at the 2013 Toronto Nuit Blanche portraying two sides of the most prominent physiological responses of the human body in regards to mental unrest in Western culture. The HPA-axis is a communication system starting at the brain, circulating to the kidneys, to then elicit physiological responses which puts the body into a state of stress and vigilance. This response is key for survival when activated in short bouts when necessary, but is however the root of a plethora of illness when switched on chronically. These illnesses include anxiety, stress, epileptic, and depressive disorders.

The right side of my mat represented a hyperactive HPA-axis; as I danced over to that side, my poses would portray pain, suffering, noise, and inner turmoil. To further illustrate this point, I progressively wrote descriptive words with charcoal on the sidewalk. On the right, I wrote phrases such as, “AMYGDALA,” “GLUCOCORTICOIDS,” and “FEAR.” On the other hand, the left side of my mat represented a balanced HPA-axis; as I danced over to that side, my poses would be meditative and peaceful, representing safety processing enamored by yogic practices. Here, I’d write phrases such as; “GAMMA-AMINOBUTRYIC ACID,” “PEACE,” and “VAGUS NERVES.”

The cut up triangular papers in front are copies of a research article by Chris Streeter and colleagues titled “effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder”—the source of inspiration for this piece.

Death by Yellow Fever

Pause.

Pause when you look at me and
blink a few times to
see more clearly because
when you see me
I know you aren’t really seeing me.

Words like
SUBMISSIVE and
OBEDIENT and
DOCILE and
SEX KITTEN

are written all over me;
Your Cursed Words
so far from reality.

See,
My body wasn’t made for you
Yet,
You’ve fetishize me through hungry eyes
You’ve purchased me online as mail order brides
You’ve hired me as Gwen Stefani’s pet puppets in fashionable disguise.

No,
My body wasn’t made for you
Yet,
You’ve casted me in your dehumanizing exotic fantasies
You’ve assumed that I’ll gladly join your groupies
’cause you know,
it was already OK with your primary…

My body wasn’t made for you
to
Claim
Mold
and
Consume

So let me clear the clouds of your faulty perceptions and
So let me unfog the cast on your lenses and
allow you to  s e e  me
for the
Human
I am.