Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Open Mind, Open Heart: Finding mindfulfulness every day

From reconciliation to quantum physics to suicide, suffering, and death, the topics recently covered by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh always returned to four things: mindfulness, love, understanding, and meditation practice. I was one of the lucky people who attended his sold-out talk “Open Mind Open Heart” on Aug. 14, which the inspirational Buddhist offered at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre. I’ve long admired this insightful Vietnamese monk for his books of wisdom, his commitment to nonviolence, and his role in urging Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against the Vietnam war. Hanh is one who truly walks the talk, literally and figuratively, when it comes to bringing full presence and loving speech to life.

He sat onstage, legs folded on a simple cushion, in his floor-length brown gown and characteristic shaved head. About a dozen male monks stood to his left and about 20 Buddhist nuns to his right, all in the same brown gowns, visiting from his Plum Village retreat in France. Hanh spent one-and-a-half hours sharing Buddhism’s “noble truths”, simple stories, and ways to exercise mindful breathing to help handle challenging conflict. He spoke calmly and fluidly, with no notes, and left room for humour despite his serious subject. He laughed after saying: “If you’re suffering when you’re sitting, breathing, and walking, your [meditation] practice is wrong.”

Any summary provided here will barely do justice to the value of his words, which prompted me to begin reading his book on anger, and wanting to meditate more regularly. One reason why I like Hanh’s approach is that he practices “engaged Buddhism,” which  transforms meditation practice into activism.

Manifesto 2000: Six steps to peace

As Hanh pointed out, it’s a lot easier to talk about deep listening, loving speech, and compassionate behavior than to live it. He mentioned Buddha’s Five Precepts embedded in the Manifesto 2000, written by Nobel Peace Prize laureates, which UNESCO circulated and the United Nations accepted. The pledge, aimed to make individuals feel responsible for creating peace at the personal level, includes these responsibilities, in brief:

1.  Respect all life.

2.  Reject violence.

3.  Share with others.

4.  Listen to understand.

5.  Preserve the planet.

6.  Rediscover solidarity.

Sounds simple, right? Obviously, the world at large is not reflecting that. Yet each of us can begin with making our own behaviour, every day, more peaceful and mindful. Hanh outlined regular exercises in mindful breathing, such as recognizing a painful emotion, scanning one’s body for tension, then smiling and releasing the tension. He said that within three months, this practice would generate a feeling of happiness and joy.

“A cloud can never die”

He spoke of suicide, chosen by so many young people who cannot bear painful feelings. Yet, an emotion can last for only a half-hour if we bring our attention down to the level of the abdomen, feel it in our bodies, and release it. This takes ongoing practice. Hanh spoke of common dilemmas in life: “Many of us sacrifice the present for the future” and “Many Buddhists think they will only be happy when they are reborn.” Yet, he reinforced that joy and happiness are available right here, right now by being in deep contact with others and all around us. To love someone, he said, you have to understand your own suffering and theirs, which gives rise to compassion. This requires deep listening and loving speech, and can lead to reconciliation, even between parents and children who have had no contact in many years. He gave several examples of this from people who have attended his retreats.

Hanh reinforced that the concept of something moving into nothing, such as the common societal view of death, is not true. “A cloud can never die,” he said; it simply becomes rain or hail.

The event began with music, song, and interactive exercises, performed by the monk “choir”. It ended with a beautiful, plaintive song, performed in French and English by an elderly nun with a gentle, lined face, which invited listeners not to fear death. Overall, the afternoon was a wonderful communal experience, one for which I feel tremendous gratitude.

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August 25, 2011 at 11:53 am Comments (2)

Women in transportation in the early 1940s: Keep ’em happy with tidy hair and lipstick

While going through old files last week, I came across excerpts from a July 1943 issue of Transportation magazine, which dealt with the hiring of women. Full of outrageously sexist assumptions, it was written for male supervisors during the Second World War; since men were away fighting, the public transportation industry let women get a variety of jobs such as “conductorettes.” Once the men returned from the war, most of these women lost their positions. (In the next decade, some females got hired as bus drivers. I interviewed a few of them for the employee newsletter when I worked at BC Transit.)

Here is some of the content from “Eleven Tips on Getting More Efficiency Out of Women Employees”:

  • “Pick young married women. They usually have more of a sense of responsibility than their unmarried sisters, they’re less likely to be flirtatious, they need the work or they wouldn’t be doing it, they still have the pep and interest to work hard and to deal with the public efficiently”;
  • “Older women [Does that mean fortyish?] who have never contacted the public have a hard time adapting themselves and are inclined to be cantankerous and fussy”;
  • “General experience indicates that ‘husky’ girls — those who are just a little on the heavy side — are more even tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters”[Gee, I didn’t know that physique and temperament were so closely linked];
  • “Retain a physician to give each woman you hire a special physical examination . . . [this] reveals whether the employee-to-be has any female weaknesses which would make her mentally or physically unfit for the job”;
  • “Numerous properties say that women make excellent workers when they have their jobs cut out for them, but that they lack initiative in finding work themselves” [Yes, we’re all so helpless without direction — as if]
  • “Women are inclined to be less nervous and happier with change”;
  • “You have to make some allowances for feminine psychology. A girl has more confidence and is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick and wash her hands several times a day”;
  • “Women are often sensitive; they can’t shrug off harsh words the way men do. Never ridicule a woman — it breaks her spirit and cuts off her efficiency”;
  • “Even though a girl’s husband or father may swear vociferously, she’ll grow to dislike a place of business where she hears too much of this” [obviously, they never listened too closely to some women]
  • “Get enough size variety in operator’s uniforms so that each girl can have a proper fit. This point can’t be stressed too much in keeping women happy.”

Regardless of laws or legislation, attitudes are often slow to change. But I’m pleased that today, we see far more women working in transportation, and most receive equal pay and respect and have equal rights to their male counterparts. Kudos to those who endured the early days and helped drive a new path forward, to make it easier for subsequent generations.

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August 19, 2011 at 9:12 am Comments (0)

Social media: Have we forgotten the “real” world?

At a social media seminar I attended this week in Vancouver, one of the presenters said: “The real world is so key.” She was referring to live-blogging events. I had to laugh at the irony. We have to be reminded to participate in activities that occur beyond cyber-reality? How sad.

As a writer and communicator, I firmly acknowledge the value of the Internet and social media in connecting with others and sharing information. But if this activity ends up alienating and isolating us from the flesh-and-blood world, it’s ultimately substracting from, rather than adding to, our lives. Do we chat with a near-stranger online, or visit a real friend face-to-face in a cafe? Do we choose to email rather than phone someone? Are personal encounters diminishing, replaced by Tweets and cyber-dialogue?

I think of family trips we took when I was a child. While driving through spectacular scenery, from the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert in the U.S. to the orange-red canyons and mesas of Arizona, my mom had to repeatedly urge my sisters and I to look out the window and admire the view. We were often too engrossed in some card game or crossword puzzle in the back seat to even notice what was around us. Unwittingly, we were shutting out the world and our relationship to nature. (This was many decades before the term “nature deficit disorder” was coined.)

Social media can create the same real-life siloing. On the same night as the seminar, I attended a talk and reading by musician/author Sylvia Tyson at the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt, BC. She read from her new novel Joyner’s Dream, which reinforces one family’s connection to music through multi-generations. In the Q&A afterwards, someone asked Tyson if she was on Facebook.

“I’m one of the original Luddites,” she replied. (That was a no.) Applause followed from at least one-quarter of the sold-out audience of several hundred. I assumed that those who clapped were honouring the value of person-to-person sharing, the kind of connection that Tyson created that night through her spoken word and recorded music.

I don’t advocate shunning the digital world. Let’s just keep it in perspective. To me, nothing beats the unadulterated, non-enhanced connection, in person, with people and nature. Once we’ve stopped valuing that relationship, and making time for it, we might as well become heartless cyborgs.

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August 6, 2011 at 10:49 am Comment (1)