Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

The fear of risk: Eagles wait to soar


In the wide, stick nest across the street from us, two “baby” bald eagles (they’re now almost the size of their parents) are getting ready to fly. Only one appears at a time, a high brown hulk, sitting on the edge of the nest, repeatedly opening and closing its wings, as if testing out the equipment. It will hop from one side of the nest to the other, flap its wings some more, then stop.



These short-distance hops and the wing fluttering have gone on for weeks. Sometimes, one will bend down from the side of the nest, look below, then sit up again. A few moments later, it will peer over the side of the nest again. To me, it’s thinking: Gee, that’s a long way down. The nest is about 100 feet up in a thin Douglas fir.


Yesterday, one of the babies sat perched on a branch to the right of the nest. This was progress – for the first time, it had ventured beyond the nest itself. But, ever the impatient one, I’ve been wondering: What are they waiting for? Are they trying to get the courage to jump off? Why don’t they just go for it?


Too ready to judge them for cowardice, I remind myself of my own fears about jumping off into new creative work or a different career path. It feels risky to leap when you don’t know what’s waiting for you. It takes time to build resolve. The eagles remind me of the courage required to let go and surrender to flight in all of its forms.


As for the height itself, I’ve had my own surprises. Normally, I love being in high places; I’ve climbed to 20,000 feet and feel exhilarated when I’m on a mountain or looking down at some astounding panoramic view. Yet, last year, when I tried the zip line set up in downtown Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, I felt petrified just walking up the few flights of stairs to the launch site, then stepping down three small steps to take off. It was only about three stories up, for heaven’s sake. I couldn’t believe that my legs were wobbling. I was teamed up with a construction worker, who’s used to spending weeks at least 30 floors up on high-storey buildings, and he had the same reaction. This surprised us both.


Years ago, while up in a hot-air balloon in Langley, BC, I was too afraid to let go of the vertical supports to take photos. We were only about 1,500 feet off the ground. This mystified me. I told myself it was because we were moving around in the air, not resting on something solid.



Next month, the CN Tower in Toronto will open its Edge Walk, letting harnessed people walk on, and hang out from, a platform that has no guardrail and is 1,168 feet up. I doubt that humans will ever stop pushing for new high-level thrills. Yet, fear is always there, waiting.


I’m feeling more compassion for these young eagles now and their probable fear. Let them take more time before they fly. Maybe they’re just exercising what I need more of: patience.


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July 30, 2011 at 12:32 pm Comments (0)

Compassionate living: What questions are you asking?

We’re all conditioned to find answers to life’s challenges, but sometimes, we might not be asking questions that are “right” for us. This week, while going through an old file, I came across some provocative questions I’d written down in 1990, taken from the July/August issue of Common Boundary magazine.

The questions spoke to me then, and they still grab me now, even though I haven’t produced answers for any of them. Here are two that I wrote under the magazine’s heading The Psychological Dimensions of Compassionate Living:

  • What is appropriate self-love and healthy narcissism? By contrast, what is self-indulgence?
  • What is the shadow side of compassion?

Under the heading The Spiritual Dimensions of Compassionate Living, I wrote these questions:

  • When does spiritual practice encourage narcissistic preoccupation or striving?
  • How do the meditative arts and the expressive therapies foster psychological and spiritual development?

Here’s what I wrote from Common Boundary under their heading Models of Compassion in Action:

  • Much social action seems to be driven by moral obligation and/or guilt. How would social action based on a contemplative ethic be different?
  • How can we distinguish compassion from guilt-based giving, self-righteousness, “do-goodism”, and codependency?
  • How can groups reach consensus when people have differing inner truths?
  • Where does meaningfully endured sacrifice end and violence to Self begin?

I think that each of these questions is wonderfully rich. It could take months to answer them, but I would like to address each one in upcoming weeks. For me, the easiest question is the first one. With healthy self-love, a person accepts and honors his or herself — strengths and shortcomings — and extends this love to others. Such “narcissism” means that someone is aware enough to recognize flaws and takes responsibility for them.

Self-indulgence occurs when someone is so focused on “fixing” him or herself, he forgets those around him and does not take time to extend love to others. Too often, cynics in western society dismiss meditation and other contemplative practices as “navel-gazing” yet they are so much more than that.

Looking inward and learning greater self-awareness, which, in turn, can result in more compassion and understanding towards oneself and others, is much different than reinforcing an ego identity and growing pompous and vain. The first deals with a far vaster, inner sense of Self, ultimately beyond self, whereas the latter is limited to the external self and what keeps it propped up (job, money, status, possessions, etc).

Which of these questions would you like to ponder? I’d love to hear your answers.

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July 21, 2011 at 3:43 pm Comments (2)

Developing nations deserve more than “Third World” term

For decades, I’ve used the words “Third World” without thinking too much about the term. I recently wrote it in a magazine feature I was doing about people who had volunteered in different countries in Latin America and elsewhere.

After submitting the article, my editor told me that his workplace preferred the term “developing world.” I thought about this, and I agreed. The term “Third World” does have a paternalistic tone and I realized that I didn’t even know its origins.

Time for a Google search. Wikipedia explains that the term “Third World” appeared during the Cold War. It referred to countries that weren’t aligned with capitalism or the allies of the North American Treaty Organization; the latter were the “First World.” How’s that for political branding? I see now how presumptuous the language is.

The “Second World” were communist allies and the Soviet Union. So, ideology  determined the pecking order of nations. Fear, so prevalent during the Cold War, helped to cement this us-versus-them outlook and form of identification.

I’m sad that I didn’t think sooner about the associations of the term “Third World.” Such labels and unnecessary divisions serve to further a sense of global separateness, rather than connectedness. I’m glad that my editor paid attention to the language I used and offered a more current, compassionate alternative.

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July 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm Comments (0)

Do your choices lead to social change?

Have you ever wondered if today’s overwhelming array of choices — whether it’s food products, sex partners, careers or reading material — disempower, rather than serve you? If so, then you’ll enjoy a 10.5-minute animated presentation narrated by sociologist and legal theorist Renata Salecl.

Her premise is that under capitalism, too many choices create anxiety for us. (Raised under Communism in the former Yugoslavia, Salecl challenges that form of ideology too.) As social beings, we’re inclined to choose what others choose, she says, and we worry about how others will regard our choice. Not clear on “What do I really want?”, we become frozen, pacified, and indecisive. (I agree, although many independent thinkers do disregard popular opinion and make choices that seem to serve themselves far better.) We try to make an ideal choice, but there never is one. Therefore, we experience loss (reaction to the choice(s) we didn’t make), which can provoke more anxiety. Sounds cheery, right?

Salecl mentions a lawyer friend of hers who gets anxious when he has to order a bottle of wine. If he gets one that’s too inexpensive, he worries that he’ll look cheap. If he buys something pricey, he figures his fellow diners will think he’s showing off. So, he buys a moderately priced bottle and then feels guilty and anxious for having others’ supposed opinion of him determine his choice.

That makes me think of a food line-up I was in years ago at Capers in Vancouver, BC. A man in a suit in front of me, whom I later learned was a judge, seemed to have untold difficulty deciding which juice to choose from the refrigerated shelves. I watched him, amazed, as he seemed to wrestle for about five minutes with the choice. Later, I thought: How on earth, while on the bench, does he choose people’s fate? Are those choices easier for him because they’re pre-determined, more or less, by the law?

I recognize how quickly I feel overwhelmed when shopping somewhere with too many choices; that’s one reason why I rarely go to Costco or ever shopped at Granville Island Market. Salecl says that too much choice precludes social change because people end up feeling so anxious and powerless, they don’t want to risk more vulnerability. Afraid to lose what they already have, they won’t join others to organize and confront authorities to seek change.

In Salecl’s view, the myriad of choices under capitalism reinforces the myth that “Everyone can make it.” If individuals don’t reach their dreams, they feel guilty for their perceived failures, or shame for being “poor”, however that’s defined. Unfortunately, instead of criticizing society for this, people too often turn their criticism inwards, railing at themselves for not measuring up and never feeling good enough. A variety of malaises can result, from anorexia and bulemia to workaholism and other addictions.

Overall, Salecl’s premise is that the ideology of choice prevents social change. Workers (what she calls “proletarian slaves”) end up believing that they are in charge and have control (as consumers) when someone else (a boss or company) determines their livelihood.

It sounds dismal but too true. Unfortunately, Salecl’s presentation doesn’t present solutions. I think that self-awareness and nurturance of an inner sense of self, beyond the socially created “ego”, is a huge first step. If you are aware of your true desires (not those imposed on you), you can mindfully make more choices that serve your real needs, not those that advertisers and the consumer world say are yours. If we could all internalize the belief “I’m okay exactly the way I am” rather than “I’ll never be good enough,” that would spawn a massive social revolution. External change, inspired by inner growth, makes for the greatest and most meaningful change, in my view.

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July 9, 2011 at 1:09 pm Comment (1)

2011 Sustainability Congress: one step closer to regional change

Okay, so I learned a lot more than what dematerialization is — and it’s not when someone on Star Trek vaporizes, then reappears in regular form. It is the process of directing more activities “to achieve an improved quality of life that is not based on increased consumption of materials, will allow continued economic growth, and help redress the imbalance in resource consumption between industrialized and industrially less developed countries” (Metro Vancouver definition).

When I first heard about the 2011 Sustainability Congress hosted by Metro Vancouver, BC, I was skeptical. The five featured male panelists were all what I’d call power brokers in mainstream business; I hardly expected them to come up with grassroots solutions that weren’t blinkered by privilege and prosperity. They were David Berge, Vancity’s senior vp of community investment; Tun Chan, director of The Vancouver Foundation; Stephen Owen, vp of external, legal and community relations at UBC; Robin Silvester, president and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver; and Bing Thom of Bing Thom Architects.

Yet, as one of 600 registrants who attended this free event, held June 25 in downtown Vancouver, I came away feeling contentedly surprised. Each speaker revealed far more insights and sensitivity to the needs of the Metro Vancouver region than I had expected. With a focus on three pillars — environment, economy, and society — the first part of the event highlighted these issues:

  • the value of First Nations culture and our need for connectedness and a revitalized sense of community;
  • competing pressures on land; the impact of population; the limitations of the landscape (mountains, waterways, and a delta) that define the area
  • our region’s vulnerability in the event of a widespread catastrophe such as a pandemic
  • a desire to return to small, community-responsive businesses on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and elsewhere
  • a need for more cross-cultural sharing of all ages in media, neighbourhoods, and religious practices, beyond token events like an annual Multiculturalism Day. One solution: Build up regional town centres and make them cultural hubs.
  • Over the next five years, women will be the biggest growth economy, double the combined growth of China and India (!)
  • Sustainability takes strategic thinking; leadership; collaboration and dialogue; a change in thinking at the individual level; and participation. Tung said: “Knowledge is nothing unless you put it into action.” (Rather than sustainability, Owen preferred the terms “resilience” and “mitigation.”)


“Sustainability was far more than just a buzz word to these executives”


The panel of “community leaders,” moderated by Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, began the Saturday event, which ran from 9 to 2:30 p.m. As a whole, the tone of their talk was warm and spirited, yet pointed, with an obvious “Let’s get to it” refrain. These weren’t guys who just ramble along, spouting rhetoric. They’re results-oriented, solutions-based thinkers who function in a context of success (literally, in Chan’s case — he’s former CEO of S.U.C.C.E.S.S.). It was clear that sustainability was far more than just a buzz word to these executives; they were familiar with top thinkers and contemporary authors in the field.

I enjoyed Thom’s comments the best. He was the most outspoken, considering it lunacy to have built Richmond on land so vulnerable to outside forces, from earthquakes to sea-level rise. He noted that it will cost billions to replace the dykes in Richmond as a result, and he called the decision to run the Canada Line to Richmond “insane.” Instead, “We needed it to Coquitlam.” He stressed the need for a clear head when making such large, regional-use decisions: “We need to think strategically.”

As someone immersed in the arts who makes creativity my lifeblood, I loved these remarks by Thom: “Don’t underestimate the power of culture and the arts. The human heart is only twelve inches away [from our head] but it’s the hardest to reach.”

Johnny Carline, Metro Vancouver’s commissioner and chief administrative officer, said that he heard less on energy from the speakers than he had expected, and I agree. I heard very little mention of transportation issues and alternative energy, other than Owen who mentioned that UBC is looking at bio-energy for its heating system. (I was surprised to hear Owen citing Guy Dauncey, a popular author on climate change solutions, and president of the B.C. Sustainable Energy Association. That pleased me.) Within the “society” pillar, I heard nothing about the homeless and creating affordable housing. Similarly, Metro Vancouver’s initiative to use incineration for waste disposal makes a mockery of clean-air concerns and worries about greenhouse gas emissions. 


We were meant to answer: Where do we need to focus time and resources?

Who should lead the charge?


Following the panel event, attendees broke into groups in separate rooms, to discuss responses and possible solutions, and ultimately, to vote on five priority areas defined by Metro Vancouver: food; climate change; energy; security; and dematerialization. (Before the Congress, we had received by email the worksheet Future of the Region: Building a Shared Roadmap.) For each of the five topics, we were meant to answer: Where do we need to focus time and resources? Who should lead the charge?

At my table, our group of nine was a great mix of thinkers and experience, ranging from a PhD student at UBC focusing on food security issues, and a woman from Society Promoting Environmental Conservation to a businessman who does propane conversions on vehicles. A Metro Vancouver employee served as our informal moderator and kept us on task. We shared respectful, open-minded, and passionate talk, discussing whether a certain area would be best handled by Metro Vancouver, local groups, or at the national and international level.

(I found it intriguing that some of the opinions voiced around security issues in post-Canucks-riot Vancouver echoed the same ones I heard that week at a community meeting in rural Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast: We don’t need a bigger police presence. People at the community level need to be more watchful of each other.)

After a working lunch and our separate discussions, we reconvened upstairs as a plenary, where we each received a small, portable voting machine to vote electronically. The results were immediately tabulated and displayed on large screens before us, dividing us into our professional groups, ranging from business and government to “other” like me. The majority thought that Metro Vancouver was the best level to address all of the areas, except for security. (Click here to see the results breakdown.)

I applaud Metro Vancouver for seeking public feedback on these important issues and hosting such a well organized, multi-media event. We didn’t revolutionize change in the region or the world in a day, but we did create strong footing and inspiration for future action.

To make sustainability a reality, we need to create connections across, and beyond, many otherwise political, social, and cultural barriers. When it comes to saving our future and our planet, we need a broad vision that requires building new relationships with an open mind. This Congress helped to forge that path.

The Congress was live streamed and a video of the proceedings is available on the Metro Vancouver website. The event will be broadcast on Shaw TV on July 10 at 9pm, repeating at July 16 at 4pm, July 17at 3pm and  July 23 at 9am

(For anyone who thinks that technology hasn’t taken over communication, consider this: When Congress moderator Johnny Carline asked who, in the gathering of hundreds, did not own a cell phone, only about 10 people put up their hand.)

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July 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm Comments (0)