Saturday, September 27, 2014

My conversation with "The Walking Monk"

One day in June, my daughter and I were out for a run when we passed, not once, but three times, two strangers walking along our route. The third time, one stopped us to ask for directions. He told us he was walking across Canada, and handed us a business card. My daughter suggested I email him, which I did. Sometime later Bhaktimarga Swami, ,  and I connected via phone.  His blog is  "The Walking Monk"

The light bulb idea 
I caught up with Bhaktimarga Swami, commonly known as "The Walking Monk",  by phone shortly after he completed his fourth “Can Walk” across Canada. Our conversation transcended religious doctrine, dogma and belief systems.


Swami, born in Ontario as John Peter Vis, adopted the Eastern monastic lifestyle of the Hare Krishna movement some forty years ago.  In 1996, he  completed his first pilgrimage across Canada, journeying from west to east. Since that time, he has completed three more cross country treks, each time travelling in the opposite direction, and along different routes.

He conceived the idea to walk across Canada one day while walking in a ravine in Toronto, an activity he undertook initially to rehabilitate low back problems.  “It was almost like a light bulb lit up,” he told me of the moment that led him to walk across the country, “as a monk might do it; (to) travel kind of lightly, and meet people along the way, spend enough time in a place, as long as it takes to milk a cow, as we say in our tradition”,  before continuing the journey.

More than a metaphor
In many religious traditions, the journey is a metaphor for the growth of the soul as it enters more profoundly into an encounter with the Divine. Since Swami has crossed the country on foot multiple times, I asked him if walking is more than a metaphor for him.

Not surprisingly, it is. “It’s a natural position of the spirit or soul to wander in this world and to walk it in wonder and in appreciation. So (wandering) puts you in that spot where you need to be, that place of humility which is the basis of success in life.”

Swami explained that walking along busy highways with vehicles barreling past or trekking through remote and beautiful landscapes is a lesson in detachment. “You learn to take it all in, the heat, the wind, the rain, the cold, the black flies, the mosquitoes, attention by the public, no attention, traffic – with all of that, you learn detachment.”  These external factors, along with the physical discomfort that comes from walking thirty to forty-five kilometers per day, and the spiritual challenges of facing your own deficiencies, help a person learn disentanglement from this world.

We discussed the idea of detachment in light of today’s culture, with its emphasis on self and acquisition. At the core of the self “there is this passion to move about and pick up on all the little nuances the world has to offer”. We shared the belief that our passions may become misdirected, and we may find ourselves walking in a direction that leads us away from our deepest yearnings.

The role of the mantra 
Chanting the mantra is an essential part of Swami’s journey, helping him to keep the spiritual in his midst.  “God is present in sound,” said Swami. “Hallowed be thy name. So, the name, the sound is sacred. We,” by which Swami meant the Krishna and Christian religious traditions, “have the same understanding…The Absolute or the Divine is there with you in their sound.”

The word “mantra” comes from two Sanskrit words, “mana” which means the mind, and “tara” which means to free.  Chanting the mantra frees the mind “so that your mind is not on the acquisitions you’re trying to achieve.” The mantra “pulls you out of that mode“, illuminating the beauty all around, and providing spiritual strength; “it keeps you a bit on your toes, otherwise the forces of temptation could get to you.”

Humility from standing under
Our hour-long conversation ended with Swami providing an exegesis of the verb “to understand” that he picked up from a Catholic priest. In order to understand, it is important to go under, to stand humbly and look up, then “you understand your real position.”

Walking “brings about a lot of revelation and epiphany about our smallness, our insignificance and about how much bigger the universal machinery is than our self. Getting to the point of taking the humble stance is the end product” of the long and arduous spiritual journey, which, I am sure Swami would agree, is always a walk in progress.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The wheels of life go 'round and 'round


What kind of wheels do you have? Do they tell your story? Can wheels teach us anything about life? 

From strollers to bikes

Photo courtesy of John Kasawa
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
My first set of wheels preceded my earliest memories. I was a babe in a stroller with my mother pushing me through time and space, introducing me to the world, and the world to me.

My tricycle was an empowering set of wheels that allowed me to chase after my older sisters on their bicycles, until they reached the corner at the end of the street. The corner was my “stop” sign, and it meant head for home.

If the tricycle was empowering, bicycles gave me a whole new experience of freedom. From the shiny, blue bicycle I received on my seventh birthday to the 10-speed road bike that carried me through the high school years, bicycles opened up the world to me, enabling me to travel around corners and tackle steeper roads.

Image courtesy of zirconicusso
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

From cool cars to mini vans
During my university years, I drove around in my sisters’ classic 1967 white Ford Mustang, a car that my father bought for a song, and lovingly restored.  Just when I thought I had arrived at the height of coolness, cruising around Vancouver in the Mustang, life moved on, and with it, my sisters, who sold their car.

Tony, a blue Toyota Corolla, entered my life when my younger sister arrived at university.  While the Corolla was not nearly as cool as the Mustang, owning a car was something of a status symbol, and I felt pretty special. However, life continued its forward march. I married, leaving Tony behind with my little sister who drove it for another two decades.

My husband and I started out with Homer Honda, his zippy, copper-coloured Civic hatchback. It was small enough that he could push it up a steep driveway on a winter’s morning as I gave it the gas, and nearly asphyxiated him. It was fun and sporty; the perfect car for a young, carefree couple ready to rock on down the highway.


Image courtesy of mapichai
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
With the birth of our second child, we graduated to a Civic Sedan. It wasn’t long before two children were three, the Civic became an Accord, and we bought a second car, a red Mazda Protégé to transport kids to activities. Before long, we caved into the pressure from three kids cramped in the back seat, and “upgraded” to the mini-van we named Dream Chaser.  We had traded “cool” for the meaningful responsibilities and rewarding relationships of family life.

When I was twenty something, I found it amusing that “old” (fifty something) men drove around in sports cars. I get it now, being fifty something myself. Middle age is one of those quick stops on the highway of life when we can comfortably own a sporty car. So while I still drive a sedan, there is also a coupe at my disposal.

Wheels of the future
It’s hard to say what wheels are in my future. Maybe my trike will reappear as a motorized scooter, or my two-wheeler as a wheelchair with someone pushing me once again.

From stroller to coupe, my wheels have corresponded to the phases of my life.  They have been symbolic of the transitions from infancy and dependency to adulthood and responsibility. With each transition, there came a developing awareness of personhood and life.  And just as a wheel once set in motion revolves until it runs out of steam or someone applies the brakes, my life and my understanding of life continue to evolve.

From the empowerment that came with madly pedaling my tricycle to the joy of pursuing my children’s dreams in a mini-van, from the skinned knees of falling off my bicycle to a car crash that left me shaken, wheels symbolically tell the story of my life, representing its ups and downs, the easy drives and the tough journeys. Rounding out corners and expanding boundaries, wheels chart our progress from beginning to end, reminding us that nothing is permanent and that change is always certain.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Summer reading



My high school Literature teacher was fond of reminding us that bestsellers were not necessarily good books. A bestseller, in his definition, was a book that appealed to the masses but was of dubious literary merit.  One of my conclusions from his somewhat disparaging comments on bestsellers was that there is no accounting for taste in books.
With that disclaimer, if you are looking for something to read this summer, here are a few suggestions.

Non Fiction:
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife is Eben Alexander’s account of his own near death experience. In this memoire of his miraculous recovery from a mysterious illness that attacked his brain, Alexander, himself a neurosurgeon, describes his experience of existing in another dimension of reality while he lay comatose for seven days. While Alexander’s attempts to describe the ineffable fall flat, and his proof is unconvincing, the book seems to have a broad appeal; it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for well over a year.

Two standout non-fiction books, also bestsellers, are The Juggler’s Children and In the Garden of Beasts.  

In The Juggler’s Children, Carolyn Abrahams, well known for her work as a medical science reporter for the Globe and Mail, describes her search for her ancestral roots through DNA analysis.  The book reads like a novel and the scientific explanations are easy to follow. If I were to take one lesson from this book, it would be that we are all members of the same human family.  A National Bestseller, and a 2013 finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, this book deserves its accolades.

A New York Times bestseller, In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larsen, takes the reader into the Berlin of the early 1930’s during Hitler’s rise to power. Through the experiences of the United States Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and his flirtatious daughter, Martha, Larsen elucidates the slow, quiet march of insidious events that eventually led to the Holocaust and brought the world to war. 

Fiction
The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson, is a fun read. A bit of slapstick, a bit of black comedy, this book revolves around an unlikely but likeable hero whose talent with explosives shaped world history before, at the age of 100 years, he meets up with an assortment of criminals and incompetent police.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is about a man who sets off to mail a letter to a former colleague who is dying, and ends up walking from one end of England to the other. As he walks, Harold works through his past. While he cannot save his friend from dying of cancer, he finds healing for himself, his wife and their relationship.

Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese, is the journey of a teenage boy through the mountainous backcountry of British Columbia with his estranged father, who is dying of the drink, and wants to be buried in the “warrior way”.  The book deals with the formation of identity, and with the complexities of coming to grips with our personal and collective histories. 

Tackling a classic
In a pique of ambition, and in honour of the book’s 100th anniversary, my book club tackled Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis.  This book is challenging to read.  There is virtually no plot and the rambling sentences require lots of focus on the part of the reader. There are elements in the boy’s memories of childhood, and in his attempts to make sense of the world that are universal, and, these, I suspect, have contributed to the book’s status as a classic.

My old teacher probably thought well of Proust, but may have not liked some of my other choices, leading me to conclude that a good book is one that the reader enjoys. Whatever your taste, I hope you find one book this summer that satisfies your reading palate.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

World Cup 2014: Did the bishops of Brazil miss the pope's memo?


Are the Bishops of Brazil and Pope Francis on the same page when it comes to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, or did the Bishops miss their CEO’s memo?

At the start of the tournament, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil added their voice to that of Brazilians who for months had been protesting their government’s lavish spending on the tournament. When millions of Brazil’s citizens lack basic needs and are living in poverty, the construction of enormous stadiums was hard to justify.

The bishops issued a brochure in the shape of a “red card” to express their concern “regarding the inversion of priorities in the use of public money that should go to health, education, basic sanitation, transportation and security”.  They were concerned, too, about the displacement of the homeless, and an increase in sexual tourism and human trafficking. 

The bishops want the 2014 World Cup to be more than “bread and circuses”, more than a well-orchestrated government distraction from Brazil’s social and political challenges, and are pushing for reforms. Through a campaign called “Steilpass” (translated either as “the decisive turning point”, or, in soccer lingo,  “assist”), the Brazilian bishops, in collaboration with the Conference of Religious in Brazil, presented the Brazilian government with ten proposals focused on building a more just society.  Among the proposals are calls for universal health care, access to a complete public education, meaningful work for all, promotion and protection of youth from violence, respect for cultural diversity, and democratic control of justice and the media.

The bishops’ message to government seems to stand in contrast to the cordial message of Pope Francis on the opening of the tournament. While Francis makes no overt references to Brazil’s problems, the shortcomings of human relationships are implicit in his message.

Francis looks at the world’s beautiful game as a metaphor for the improvement of the human person and, therefore, of society.  “Football”, said the pontiff, “can and should be a school for building a ‘culture of encounter’ which allows for peace and harmony among peoples”. 

Francis draws three lessons from sport that can contribute to peace.  The first is the need to train so that one can grow in virtue.  The second is to look to the common good because “in life, when we are fominhas (individualistic and egoistic), ignoring those who surround us, the entire society is damaged”.  And, the third is to respect both one’s teammates and opponents. The pope indicated that teamwork and respect for others are key components in winning both on the pitch and in life.

“No one wins by himself, not on the field or in life!” said Francis, adding “that by learning the lessons that sports teach us, we will all be winners, strengthening the bonds that tie us together.”

Despite the difference in the tone and content of the message of the Brazilian bishops and that of the pope, their underlying substance is not all that radically different. Both are concerned with the dignity of the human person and the flourishing of human society.

Francis encourages individuals to forgo selfishness and to seek peace and harmony with one another for the good of the entire human family, while the bishops urge those in positions of power to use the resources at their disposal for the advancement of the common good. Whereas the bishops spotlight the messiness of human society, the pope illuminates the ability of the individual to help tidy the mess.

The bishops and the pope have the same currency in hand; their messages are different sides of the same coin. Flip the coin, and on both sides there is a call to conversion, healing and renewal for the sake of social justice, or, in soccer lingo, “fair play”.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Law Societies regulate conduct, not beliefs


BC Lawyers oppose a Faculty of Law at TWU
At a special June 10, 2014 meeting of the members of the Law Society of British Columbia, 3,210 lawyers voted against approval for a Faculty of Law at Trinity Western University, while 968 lawyers voted for its approval. While the vote seems to indicate overwhelming opposition, the majority of the 13, 114 members of the Law Society did not cast a ballot. 

The special meeting was called because a requisite number of lawyers were dissatisfied with the April 11, 2014 decision of the Benchers, who are responsible for governing the Law Society, to approve the law school at TWU for the purposes of the Law Society’s admissions program.

Non-binding vote
The vote, however, is not binding on the Benchers. In a press release following the special meeting, President Jan Lindsay, QC said, “The decision regarding whether to admit graduates from the proposed law school at TWU is a Bencher decision,” adding that, “however, the Benchers will give the result of today’s members meeting serious and thoughtful consideration.”

The Benchers’ decision came after an extensive process of consultation, and a thought-provoking debate that touched upon issues of equality, discrimination, freedom of association, religious freedom and the rule of law. I watched the debate live, and in my view, the Benchers arrived at a principled decision regarding a contentious issue that involves the conflicting Charter rights of two disparate groups.

The opposition to TWU is based on a clause in the university’s “Community   in Covenant” agreement which upholds a traditional view of marriage as between one man and one woman. Students, faculty and staff agree to abide by the covenant. Many, as the vote of BC lawyers indicates, object to this clause as discriminatory, and tantamount to placing a sign at the gate stating that LGBTQ people are not welcome.

TWU has right to its beliefs
While I dislike the idea of a university requiring its members to sign a covenant that governs the most intimate aspects of their lives, TWU has the right to uphold a particular view of marriage, and those who share the institution’s beliefs have the right to congregate and associate with others of like mind. 

I share the opinion of the BC Civil Liberties Association, an organization that has a record of supporting the rights of LGBTQ persons but who took the position, “to deny (TWU’s) application based on the university’s Community Covenant would infringe the Charter-protected freedom of association and religion of members of the faith-based private university”, adding that these are fundamental freedoms and “that’s what s. 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is all about, protecting our freedoms of association, of assembly, of belief and of expression.” (For greater depth, see also the BCCLA Submission to the Law Society of BC. )

In 2001, in Trinity Western University, the Supreme Court of Canada determined that the BC College of Teachers could not deny education graduates of TWU admittance to the teaching profession based on religious beliefs about homosexuality that were unacceptable to the College.

Unfair to assume a lack of professionalism because of a belief
There is no evidence that teachers trained at TWU fail to professionally and competently exercise their teaching responsibilities when employed in the public school system. Similarly, there is no reason to assume that future graduates of a law school at TWU will be incapable of upholding the laws of the land and representing the rights of clients of all persuasions.   If an individual lawyer trained at TWU should prove incapable of doing so, the public can reasonably expect that the Law Society will deal with that person according to the remedial and disciplinary procedures already in place for lawyers who fail to faithfully represent clients and honorably serve the cause of justice.

In my opinion, for a law society to deny candidates admission to the legal profession because of a religious belief that is socially anathema to a percentage of its existing membership is unjustified, and is discriminatory in its own way.  In the absence of evidentiary proof that TWU’s traditional view of marriage and its code of sexual conduct does harm to others, graduates of its law school should be eligible for admission to the BC bar.

The Law Society of BC is properly concerned with the training, qualification, ethics, competency and conduct of its members. It is not its task, however, to regulate belief by excluding those with whom some of its members disagree.