Reconciliation & Restoration

Courtesy: https://www.councilfire.ca/youth-pow-wow.html

It was the perfect summer day for a Pow Wow on August 26th, 2017. The sun was out, but not too hot or bright to tire out visitors; just a relaxed, lazy summer day to leisurely watch the performances which included drum circles, jingle dancers, and ceremonial traditions. Held at the big park in the heart of the Regent Park community in downtown Toronto, it ran so smoothly that you would have never guessed this was their inaugural year and it was run solely by youth in the Indigenous community.

Hosted by the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, the inaugural Youth Pow Wow brought community members together to share in Indigenous culture, with many vendors selling their crafts and information booths for various organizations like The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. According to their website, the goal of the fund is “to continue the conversation that began with Chanie Wenjack’s residential school story, and to support the reconciliation process through awareness, education, and action.”

From 1876-1996 under the Indian Act, the federal government established Residential Schools that incorporated religious-based schools for “aggressive assimilation” of Indigenous youth through religion and education. This gave the government legal jurisdiction to remove Indigenous children as young as 3 years old from their homes and communities, prohibiting them to practice their culture and language. Children often faced excessive punishment that included physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse.

Given the immense history of generational pain due to a conflicted relationship with the Canadian government, especially in the Indigenous community’s experience in Residential Schools, present day efforts to empower their youth included hosting this spiritually uplifting Youth Pow Wow. But healing is an inter-generational effort, simultaneously involving the extremes in the spectrum of age, from the young and the old. Other efforts by Council Fire to heal included the Restoration of Identity project.

Known as the IRSS Legacy Project, it addresses Call to Action 82 of the 94 Calls to Action released in 2015 by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Call to Action 82 calls upon “provincial and territorial governments, in collaboration with Survivors and their organizations, and other parties to the Settlement Agreement, to commission and install a publicly accessible, highly visible, Residential Schools Monument in each capital city to honour Survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.”

Given the work Council Fire does with several Elders and Residential School Survivors, the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation approached them to create Toronto’s monument. Communications and Research Coordinator of the project Liana Canzian shares Toronto’s project is “a nine foot by nine foot height turtle sculpture and the turtle’s climbing a boulder. On the turtle’s shell will have the different clans and nations, and on the boulder itself is the seventeen residential schools that existed in Ontario.”

The Turtle is a sacred symbol of Mother Earth in Indigenous culture, and its shell is meant to acknowledge former Residential School students and their Nations and Clans, placing them right within the heart of creation. The Turtle climbing over the boulder that lists Residential Schools in Ontario symbolizes how they overcome the struggles experienced in Residential Schools, showcasing a triumph of the spirit.

Canzian shares that though the project is making great strides in Toronto, out of the 94 Calls to Actions, not many have been addressed. According to CBC’s website Beyond 94, only 10 of the Calls to Action have been fully completed, with 51 in progress- either underway or proposed- and 33 not started. According to Canzian, “right now on Call to Action number 82, only Toronto is in the planning process. Other cities haven’t responded but they did say that Winnipeg and a community in the Yukon has a monument but it wasn’t in response to the Call to Action- they had it before 2015.”

According to Council Fire’s website, the sculpture will be completed by Anishnawbe artist Solomon King and will be placed within an Indigenous Healing Garden, in the southwest corner of Nathan Phillips Square, between the walkway and the Upper Canada Law Society. The project is expected to be complete in 2020.

Working closely with Survivors, Canzian shares the impact of the project, saying “They’re really proud of the work Toronto Council Fire has done and they really believe that the centre is their home. But also they have sharing circles and just being with their own community and meeting each other at Toronto Council Fire, I think that’s part of healing too.”

Prominent Elder and Residential School Survivor, Andrew Wesley has also been active in the IRSS Legacy Project. He sees the IRSS Legacy project as a promising new future for the community. He says “It’s a renewal. It’s like going into a sweatlodge where you go back to your mother’s womb and you come out renewed. I think that’s what the project is all about. To be a whole person again, to be able to come to terms with the pain and the anger.”

Wesley came to Council Fire about fifteen years ago. He shares his journey, saying “I guess in a way I was a walking legend of the IRSS Movement from my own experience. I attended most of the TRC Hearings across the nation and it was a true experience. I think I told my story, my testament in the Saskatoon hearing.”

In response to this painful Canadian history, the Truth and Reconcilation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created to facilitate healing for the Indigenous community. According to their website, it was created as “a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.”

For a long time, Wesley did not agree with reconciliation saying “it meant that you have to reconcile with the churches, with the government. Then I told myself, why should I reconcile? I didn’t do anything wrong. I was sent to school, I got beaten up for being an Aboriginal person who was speaking a different language. So why should I reconcile? Then I started to understand what reconciliation meant, that you have to come to terms with the harm that was done to you in order to get into that journey of forgiveness.”

Despite the abuses he faced, Wesley has gone through a tremendous journey of healing and forgiveness, having to look within to his inner child and give him the love and compassion he never received in Residential Schools. He says he has “been to the mountaintop of pain” and come back down to share the ways in which he knows he’s healed, and what else is left to work on.

“I’m not angry anymore. But if I see something is wrong, done wrong to another human being or any creation species, I’ll get angry, I’ll get defensive. I think I’m a very caring person now. A very loving person. I still have a hard time hugging, you know especially women. Because I was beaten up by a woman so there’s still that. But other than that I think I may be in the 90% area of healing right now.”

Before arriving to Toronto, Wesley lived off the land, trapping animals and observed two types of animals: the ones that will give up and die, or the ones that chew off the foot stuck in the trap and escape, carrying the wound for the rest of its life. That’s what he believes forgiveness is.

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget what happened. That will always remain with you. It’s just that forgiveness makes you handle and control your anger and also to empower other survivors to show that you’ve been there and this is what you can do to heal yourself. Otherwise you’re going to be angry for the rest of your life. And the next thing you know, your children will carry that anger.”

Tasunke Sugar standing next to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn holding an IRSS Legacy t-shirt. Photo Courtesy: https://www.councilfire.ca/youth-pow-wow.html

That’s possibly the most important reason to heal, so it doesn’t get passed down to the next generation, and why healing is a process for every age. So it would only be fitting that this year’s Youth Pow Wow’s theme is “Restoration of Identity”. It will be taking place on August 25th, 2018 once again at the big park in Regent Park. This year’s Arena Director is Tasunke Sugar, who is a youth that works at Council Fire. As a young father, he takes his work in the community seriously and hopes to create a better event than last year’s, learning from the mistakes of the past.

In discussing last year’s Youth Pow Wow, Sugar says “It was our first Pow Wow at Council Fire since 2003. So it’s been a long time. All the people who were working on the Pow Wow at Council Fire were all inexperienced in throwing a Pow Wow. So getting advice from Elders and regular Pow Wow people like MC’s, drummers, and dancers and stuff like that was crucial to the success of the Pow Wow.”

He believes it’s important for the youth to have their own Pow Wow because the meaning of identity is changing in this modern age. He says, “I think being in the city gets hard for a lot of youth, to hold on to their identity as people of the land, with all the buildings and cement. There’s this huge disconnect with the land which takes away our identity as people of the land. So I think giving the youth the opportunities to feel connected to their culture and who they are as leaders is important.”

In discussing the phenomenal cultural impact the event has, Sugar says “These Pow Wows are giving the youth responsibility, pushing the youth to carry those responsibilities in a good way. So I think that’s what it’s all about. Also it’s about the restoration of our identity as you know with our project coming up. Having the Elders there, and having the youth in power and being able to make decisions. It goes toward restoring their identity as leaders, as warriors. Also, the youth get to learn from Elders.”

Although it is a Youth Pow Wow, Andrew Wesley is designated as the Elder for the event. Sugar explains “It’s always good to have an Elder at the Pow Wow. The Elder will speak on behalf of our Elders, of our ancestors. Also they usually say the prayers, conduct the prayers. Andrew Wesley is our Elder, our main Elder at Council Fire so we thought it was only right to have him there at the Pow Wow.”

So it is with the reconciliation of the two extremes that healing seems to be coming about for the community: partnerships between the Elders and the Youth, remembrance of the past with celebrations for the future, learning from the wisdom of the land and navigating through the city life. Though the road to restoring identity continues, it is clear that the mountaintop of this journey is truly within sight.

Activism, Culture

A Better #MeToo

Scene from “A Better Man”. Photo courtesy: tvo.org

At a very young age I learned that men are sexual predators, not to be trusted. Before I should’ve known what sex was, before I could develop my voice to say “no” to defend myself- before I should have to learn to defend myself. That’s why as an adult I’ve had very few romantic relationships and always tread with great caution.

Still, despite all my trepidation, I faced many abuses and betrayal. That speaks to how prevalent and pervasive this parasitic abuse on women is, that despite all the caution and precaution I’ve taken, I am still a target. So when men use excuses like she was asking for it and point to the way she dresses, they are deeply ignorant to their own ignorance. There is no immunity for women.

The nature of these experiences is it leaves remnants of pain in women affected. And too often we are silenced with intimidation or shame, further adding to our pain. This was exhibited in the way Harvey Weinstein operated decades of sexual abuse, where he paid to silence women like Rose McGowan. When we could no longer stay silent and the floodgates opened, more men were exposed. And in the midst of it, women over social media used the hashtag #metoo to describe their personal experiences with gender-based violence.

To give voice to our stories I think is healing because it means we are not afraid to speak truths that are so vehemently repressed by abusers. We are in effect saying after all we have been through, we can still bare the consequences of speaking the truth. And when we give it away, other women see themselves in these situations and see they were not imagining or insane, and they are validated. It’s just that simple, to share a story to heal ourselves. And I think that’s why #metoo was so popular.

Around the time this all happened, I went to watch “A Better Man” at Toronto’s Hot Docs Cinema. There were crisis counsellors present, pamphlets on intimate spousal abuse, and a friend told me she couldn’t get through it without breaking down in tears and turning to a counsellor. This is how bad it’s gotten for women, and I wasn’t sure how I’d react.

The documentary is about former lovers who meet over twenty years down the road to unpack the horrific abuse director Attiya Khan’s partner inflicted upon her, which I attended the screening of intentionally on the birthday of my most significantly abusive ex. We have a very complicated relationship with each others’ birthdays, let alone with each other.

A few years ago, I had ripped out all connection between us, all channels of communication including mutual friends, phone, email, social media- everything. I had enough of the abuse and I wanted to move on. But for some reason, despite us no longer having mutual friends and me having a new Facebook account, his profile kept popping up on my “suggested friends” list despite having no relevance to my new account.

His profile never went away and I knew it was a sign. I have this unusual gift of receiving spiritual messages from The Divine, The Universe, Source or Spirit- however you’d like to define it. It usually comes through dreams, but divine messages can manifest itself through different forms. I knew at some point Spirit was asking me to send him a friend request and happy birthday message on his birthday. Begrudgingly, I eventually did.

Friend request accepted.

Only for me to discover he had in the previous year taken another girl out on my birthday, defiantly posting the picture on his Facebook. In the moment, I was painstakingly heartbroken by such a fundamental betrayal. Now with hindsight, I see the experience as symbolic of our contrasting characters. Because he’s all about outer appearances and I’m all about inner work, things will never work out between us.

Not only was I upset that this would be my memory of my first love, but Spirit conspired to put me through even more immense pain after I hoped to walk away from it all, showing this moron up on my “suggested friends” unrelentingly. Subsequently, he posted a picture of him and his friends arrogantly celebrating his birthday for years to come without acknowledging his cruelty. With no qualms about causing the death of my innocence to protect his ego. No acknowledgement, no accountability.

Birthdays are very significant to me because when I was a child I had a traumatic experience I associate with my birthday, where someone who was meant to protect me threatened to kill themselves if I didn’t show enough that I cared for their life. Someone who was responsible for my life forcing me as a child to be responsible for theirs. Knowing this about myself, I still had enough light within to put aside my own pain and send well wishes to someone who only brought me darkness.

Through the contrast in which we treated each other’s birthdays, I understood all I needed to of his character- and mine- that I could forever let this go and know there would never be a “what if” for me. There was never going to be any regret in my heart; I was either going to be alone or find someone else- anything else was better. After that ordeal, years down the road, I was led to this documentary- yet again on his birthday.

As I watched, I saw myself in Attiya’s story- namely the way she celebrated the day she left by throwing a party as a way to reclaim all he hoped to take away from her through his abuse. I finally realized why I had to wish him a happy birthday and years later go to this documentary on the same day. Not just because it was the only day I was available in my busy work schedule- divine timing disguised as professional conflicts- but because I was reclaiming me.

Although we both eventually did the same thing, mark each others’ birthday by decidedly overriding the memory of the other with something else, I wasn’t doing it to be vindictive. Incredibly after all the abuse I endured from him, I’ve never once sought to harm him. Simply because I no longer wanted to be associated with him, and that meant learning to let it go.

I share this story because I think it goes to the heart of the social media trend. Nobody in this situation acknowledged my perspective or the facts of the situation as they so casually disrespected me in various manners. That’s why we tell these tales, because the people immediately involved don’t validate our experiences, so we have to take it upon ourselves to do so, and take control of that narrative and make it all about “me.”

And my particular #metoo is tied to intimate spousal abuse, what this documentary is about. For every woman I think their #metoo will be a little different, I think many tend to gravitate to their worst experience. For me, this is the nature of mine. Through Attiya’s story, I can see though the generations are different, the patterns are the same. Where her’s was more physical abuse, mine was more psychological. Where she kept walking into him in Toronto, I kept seeing his Facebook profile online.

The ways we understand abuse and the ways in which we get triggered thereafter, won’t look the same even if it is the same. Abuse moves through the times. I could’ve easily said it wasn’t because there wasn’t as much physical abuse. But what my friend who went to the screening taught me through chatting with the crisis counsellor is that psychological abuse can be just as debilitating as physical. If it doesn’t feel right, then it isn’t right.

Why I share this story is because a lot of women tend to be isolated in these situations, and many people will seek to deny and discredit their claims. There is so much gaslighting and cognitive dissonance involved which is just an added layer of emotional abuse, much harder to detect than physical abuse. So when we tell these stories, we show others that go through it, actually you are not wrong because this happened to “me too.”

Additionally, why my story is so immediately tied to this documentary is that there are many times when I watched this and thought to myself “this happened to me, too!” It validated so many of my experiences when others sought to make me doubt my reality. That’s why I include it in my story, because it inspired so many #metoo moments for me, which is why I could even share my experiences without once again doubting myself.

Because that little girl I once was never had a protector, I had to grow up way too fast to protect her. But in that process, she died a violent death so that I could stand in her place, in tragic irony. I still grieve her death and innocence, I feel so sorry for that little girl who had to witness so much harshness of life so young. And that exposure would later set the tone for her adult relationships. Still, grief often rises unexpectedly like a tidal wave within me that threatens to overtake me in floods of tears and anguish.

So I can understand that when some women share their stories, they spit hellfire and demon venom over their tormentors, especially with what happened to Rose McGowan. In our broken world, it is very easy for men to intend serious harm on a woman and never bare the consequences, while we are left with huge, gaping wounds to bare. It is a lot of pain to inflict upon a person, so I can understand women’s fury and empathize.

But I also don’t agree in continually joining in on the disparaging because a very real, strong desire in me hopes one day to be rid of all these waves of pain and anger- even if it’s completely justified. To be in a continual state of grief is like drowning from within. So I don’t want any part of the darkness that lives in these men to also live within me.

Thankfully at the screening, I prepared myself for the very worst, given my friend’s reaction. But I felt nothing; I was almost bored. Not to criticism the film, but I think it just showed me my reaction only expressed how far I’ve come in my healing. So far I’ve only mastered non-reaction, apathy, to these people and situations. So far so good.

But a few years ago I had this dream I was invited to a party he was hosting (why did I attend? I don’t know, it’s a dream). There, he said contritely and bitterly, with an undertone of self-loathing “I guess you hate me now,” unable to look me in the eyes, ashamed and head bowed. And I surprised him- and myself- by saying “No” with deep sincerity and compassion. At his most vulnerable, the perfect moment to take my revenge, instead I choose forgiveness. I learn to love thy enemy.

He stares at me in disbelief and then I realize it’s quite late at night and I can’t go home safely at this time. I ask to crash on the couch, because the bed is too intimate given our history, my sincere lack of interest, and my general sense of caution. He stares at me with awed admiration and respect for the incredible show of character I display and says with deep sincerity “It would be my honour.”

Today I am not yet that woman, this accomplished Zen Master that has given up all her grievances with the world. And I truly know it is not fair to think that I should be the one who evolves from this experience and none of these men. But I sincerely doubt any of these insecure, weak men have the capacity to play a part in the salvation of my soul. There’s only one person that is strong enough to do that, and that is me.

So I hope that one day I will find that light within me that shines so bright, it burns through all the darkness I’ve been led to.  I hope that one day I will meet her, this wonderful woman that shines bright like a diamond, whom I see so clearly in my dreams. I hope I become her so that others like him can see a better me too.


Love Buttons: Changing the Narrative on Arabic Culture

The instantly recognizable red-and-yellow buttons have been circulating within the Centre for Social Innovation community: beautiful Arabic script that phonetically read out a person’s name with a backdrop of Toronto’s landscape, a clear silhouette of the CN Tower. It is Waleed Nassar’s way of spreading awareness of the Arabic language. “We want to spark a discussion here in Toronto around Arabic culture and we see our buttons as conversation starters” said Nassar.


Nassar is now onto a new project, creating fourteen new buttons with different words for love in Arabic, known as the Degrees of Love set. The idea is to show that if there are so many ways to say love in Arabic, then it must show how loving this language, this culture, and these people are. Nassar created these buttons as a direct response to the U.S. president’s recent travel ban, to counteract the climate of fear against Arabic speaking people.

“Doing the opposite [of fear-mongering] felt like the most powerful answer and that’s why we created the Degrees of Love set. We think it shatters the perception about Arabic culture and creates curiosity around a culture that is so expressive in the way it loves” said Nassar.

These new buttons come out of Nassar’s Toronto-based LoveArabic social enterprise he co-founded, which organizes workshops, classes, and events around Arabic culture, to make the language accessible to all Canadians. He believes promoting the positive side of Arabic culture is the best way to counteract recent negative narratives.

“We want to challenge the single narrative being told about Arabic culture” said Nassar.

Nassar believes teaching Arabic is the most effective way to incorporate understanding of another culture, better than introduction to its food and music. For anyone that speaks more than one language, it’s undeniable we adopt a new persona, access a different aspect of our humanity, one that is akin to the whole spirit of the culture in which that language embodies.

The theory known as linguistic relativity also known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition. Multi-linguists will tell you this is experientially true, that they will access different cultural personality traits when speaking in another language.

And when a language like Arabic can have fourteen different words for love, the premise is that it must ingratiate a sense of loving openness in its worldview to those fluent in the language. And that surely the people have more humanity than we’ve been led to understand, with Islamophobia on the rise.

Nassar has been strategic in his new button designs. He chose to highlight words of love for two reasons. “We chose love because it is something that transcends cultures. Anyone can relate to it and has experienced love before. The second reason is to show that a culture that has 14 words that describes the feeling of love is a culture that is deeper and more thoughtful than what is portrayed by the media” said Nassar.

To Nassar’s credit, the culture truly is deep as Arabic happens to be one of the oldest languages in history, the language in which the Q’uran was written. Typically read and written from right-to-left, Arabic is one of the United Nations’ six official languages.

According to Director-General of UNESCO Ms. Irina Bokova, Arabic is “the language of 22 Member States of UNESCO, a language with more than 422 million speakers in the Arab world and used by more than 1.5 billion Muslims.” That makes it one of the five most spoken languages in the world.

Nassar claims there are many more words for love in Arabic than the fourteen he highlights. But out of the fourteen, he claims his favourite is Al-Hawa, what he describes as “the very first stage of love.”

“When one is not sure if it is love or not and it is still unpredictable. Al-Hawa has another meaning in the Arabic language and it means the wind, which to me is a very suitable word because the wind is also unpredictable and uncontrollable” said Nassar.

The elemental force in which the word is used is possibly its strength, as love itself is very much a force of nature, the same way the wind is. But there are others, all of which he goes in great detail to describe in English to give an understanding of its Arabic conception. Al-Ishq is entanglement, like being inseparable, entangled so deeply with another that it seems impossible to let go.

Then there’s Al-Tayam which is much like being lost in love. Al-Walah is sorrow, almost like a bittersweet love. Al-Gharam is costly or a love with its sacrifices. There are many more for us to discover. But the last is appropriately Al-Tabl, which means “The End.” One’s last love, the ultimate one we arrive at ideally having journeyed from Al-Hawa to Al-Tabl.

Nassar hopes these buttons can open up dialogue for people in Toronto on the Arabic culture. “We want people to be more critical about what they read or see in social media, movies and story books in schools about the evil and violent Arabic culture. The LoveArabic buttons are conversation starters that we hope will create more curiosity and dialogue between people” said Nassar.

Activism, Culture, Toronto

Women’s March at Queen’s Park

Hundreds of people came to Queen’s Park at noon for the scheduled Women’s March on January 21st, in protest against the recently elected American President. The March moved its way to City Hall at one o’clock, where guest speakers addressed the crowd.

Ogho Ikhalo from Unifor, a company sponsoring the March, said “it’s an empowering event to help us gather near and far for justice. We gather today in unity. It’s an amazing event and an honour to be here.”

Jean Walker, also from Unifor, said this march is not just about women.

“This is for sons and dads to fight for us, so we don’t have men that abuse women anymore. So that when we take one step forward, they will not take us two steps back.”

Marie Clarke-Walker, Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress emphasized the significance of the March for her.

“We are here today so women can stand in solidarity, so women around the world can be given economic equality, and we are here to stand up for what’s right. We say no to racism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, the alt-right. Together we are stronger than their hatred.”

Beverley Johnson echoes her sentiments and said “women of my generation have fought against these inequalities. And now I see the gains we made are taken away, it’s happening right here too. No more, we have to stand up.”

Howard States, a retired school teacher from Regent Park said “I am here today because I stand up for justice, peace, women’s rights, and fundamental rights.”

Toronto Police were present to monitor the event. Several marchers carried banners and homemade posters to share messages of female empowerment, and were heard chanting in unison as they moved from Queen’s Park to City Hall.

Several speakers addressed the crowd including Indigenous Senior Catherine Brooks, Toronto District School Board Trustee Ausma Malik and Ryerson University’s Consent Comes First, Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education Manager Farrah Khan. They cited several organizations that helped inspire their action.

Khan said “Our Canadian values are about human rights and justice for all.”

New Wave Feminism
Teenage girls come to show off their handmade signs for the Women’s March at Queen’s Park on January 21st.
New Wave Feminism, Part II
A young boy patiently waits as his father pins a Women’s March button on his jacket.
Obama's Legacy
A local man proudly shares his homemade sign for the Women’s March.
A papier-mâché effigy of recently inaugurated U.S. President.
Gaze Into the Beyond
A woman gazes at the growing crowd of protestors behind her.
Protestors Prepare
Protestors look in the direction of the march as the crowd prepares to walk.
Crowd Favourite
Protestors start to march from Queen’s Park to City Hall.
Nasty Women Unite at Queen's Park
Homemade banners expressing explosive messages in front of Parliamentary buildings.
Gaze into a Sea
A young photographer perches atop a subway entrance rooftop to capture an image of the crowd as they continue their march.
A Leisurely Stroll
Police Officers stand by on their bicycles as marchers move closer to City Hall.
Drumming Circle
A small drumming circle forms next to their large banner.
Feminist for a Day.
A local statue is dressed up with a feminist scarf, hot-pink sticky note, and women’s rights protest sign.
City Hall <3s You
The start of the crowd arriving to their destination at City Hall.
In Full Force
Protestors finally gather around City Hall, amidst the large “Toronto” sign at Nathan Phillips Square.

Chan Meditation at the University of Toronto


Three strikes of the wooden fish signal it’s time to sit down on the cushions, get comfortable, and ready for the twenty-minute sitting ahead. One… Two… Three… Everything is quite slowed and carefully paced in this environment, known as “The Quiet Room” in the third floor Koffler Centre at the University of Toronto.

Keith Brown, who leads the Thursday evening practice says “my role as a facilitator is not to teach so much as it is to allow the wisdom of others to arise in its own time.” Janusz Kuras, echoes these sentiments as the other facilitator. He says “I don’t really consider myself a meditation teacher. For me meditation is something to explore rather than to learn as some form of technique. So what I am trying to do is to facilitate and create opportunities to practice meditation together with others.”

Since 2012, The Chan Meditation student group at The University of Toronto has held free two-hour meditation sessions on Thursday evenings from 7-9pm, open to the general public. Although many practitioners are students, there are several professionals and people generally curious about the practice that will join. And over time, the group has gathered a few regular practitioners.

The night usually starts off with people slowly trickling in. While some wait, they usually sit down and practice a bit before the eight-fold moving exercise, the practice that starts off the evening that is meant to relax the body in order to make it more flexible and prepared for the long meditation sitting.

After a few minutes of slow, rhythmic instructions, Keith instructs practitioners to “join feet and palms… and bow.” This is to signal the end of the first stage, with a careful ceremonial practice of paying respect to one another, and gratitude for the opportunity to meditate together. Practitioners are then asked to sit back down in their cushions.

Many people come for different reasons. Warren Fernandes is a regular practitioner who believes meditation has helped heal him of a traumatic past and issues with addiction. He says “It has completely changed the way I react to most situations, and I don’t let small insignificant issues get to me, as I’m able to stop the negative thought before it can take control over me and potentially ruin my day. It has even helped me to concentrate better in class and to focus on my studies.”

Ayeshah Haque, a healthcare professional at Etobicoke General Hospital who completed her psychology degree at the University of Toronto, says that mental health concerns usually arise during a person’s early twenties, as it had for Warren, because it is when most people will face adversity in life. Haque says “For young adults, bipolar, schizophrenia, psychotic disorders, and addictions happen. Usually because challenges in their life can trigger these issues.”

In a report released in September by the Canadian Association of Colleges and University Student Association, they conducted an online survey of over 43,000 students from 41 Canadian institutions. The largest and broadest ranging database of findings on the topic of mental health among post-secondary students, they collected information on students’ health behaviours, attitudes, and perceptions, with findings revealing that mental health continues to be a concern for students, with anxiety and depression as top mental health concerns that students face.

Moreover, the data has reported a record high in the number of mental health workers among students feeling overburdened and underfunded. Registered nurse Randal Stenger at St. Joseph’s General Hospital Elliot Lake says “Regarding whether or not we are successful in our mental health treatments differs from facility to facility.” This he attributes solely to how well-funded the facilities are, and how many resources are available to patients.

This unfortunate lack of mental health services may contribute to the increased reports of anxiety and depression. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group, suggesting they need the resources the most.

Despite this, it seems that research and personal experience indicates meditation reduces depression and anxiety among practitioners, so it may be key in helping students maintain better mental health. Meditation then seems to be a very viable option for students that may never have an opportunity to meet with counselors too overwhelmed with a high workload.

Mao Ye has practiced for four years, and says it has helped during stressful work periods. “I did so much overtime at work, but I was never nervous or overwhelmed. I was able to handle everything from moment to moment, as it happened to me. It was definitely because of my practice.”

Chang says “Meditation has many benefits. You can easily find academic studies on this topic. It helps with stress relief, pain reduction, insomnia, anxiety, and many other problems. However, for myself, the biggest benefit is the stress relief. This really helps me cope with a busy life and stressful work environment.”

Studies conducted reinforce these sentiments. According to a 2011 study led by a team at the Massachusetts General Hospital, an eight-week program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction resulted in increased concentration of grey matter in brain regions associated with learning, memory and regulation of emotions. This suggests the practice helped make individuals learn and work more efficiently.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Sara Lazar to the Harvard Gazette. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements.”

The University of Toronto has conducted hundreds of studies into the scientific benefits of meditation themselves. This includes academic journals, research, and magazine articles on the topic. As well, they offer several courses and programs dedicated to understanding meditation including a certificate in Mindfulness Meditation, and a Buddhism, Psychology, and Mental Health program.

One study from the university had 17 fourth-year students from a Buddhist psychology course meditate for at least 20 minutes a day for eight weeks, keeping a daily diary of their experience. Although given initial instructions, they were expected to practice alone, which resulted in uneven success rates. Psychologist and professor in U of T’s department of psychiatry Tony Toneatto said to UofT Magazine “students reacted to the challenge of meditating in very different ways, and that means people may need individualized guidance or instruction,”

Which suggests having group sittings such as these benefit individuals, especially those new to the practice. The group sittings usually end with a sharing session, where all practitioners are encouraged to discuss their individual practice and learn from others in the shared space, ideally helping guide them in their own journey. Brown says “when I am facilitating the discussions after meditation, I have this feeling that others’ wisdom is already there in the room, and that it is easily surfaced after even a minute of stillness and clarity.”

Facilitators themselves have to go through rigorous training to be able to fulfill their role, suggesting it’s not enough to just invite a group to sit together, but to have formal sittings like these may be vital in the success of maintaining a practice. Brown says from his own training that “the process involved learning how to carry out main tasks of the group meditation, such as using bell and wooden fish signals. We were given guidance and instruction on what kinds of situations to expect from those practicing meditation as well as anticipated questions that practitioners may have.”

Not only did they have to learn to become facilitators within structured learning environments, but they were offered such positions after going through their own personal journeys in meditation. Kuras says they were expected to go on longer retreats and understand the formalities of Buddhist practice, and a dedication and willingness to help others. Afterward, Kuras says “they would be encouraged to take the practical exam based on Master Sheng Yen’s introduction to meditation materials. There is also a written exam to test understanding of basic Buddhist principles.”

Brown has said his own meditative practice has made him more humble to discover personal weaknesses that he could work on. He says “in longer retreats, for example, I am aware of pain in my body which comes from previous karmic obstacles, as well as how I currently react to the pain, and how it distracts me from the practice.  I am gradually learning more and more that what I experience is always the result of my reactions and attitudes, and not to see challenges as obstacles but as opportunities to develop non-dualistic attitudes.”

Kuras’ own journey led him around the world, studying Zen Buddhism from Japan, and eventually to Chan Buddhism in China. He says “through the series of favorable conditions and overcoming a number of obstacles I found myself in Gaomin Temple, one of the most renowned Chan temples in present times. This place has for me almost magical, transforming powers. The power comes from profound Chan wisdom and continuous, sustained effort and dedication of all the monastics and lay practitioners I have had the privilege to practice with.”

Ultimately, many practitioners believe that although meditation has practical benefits, it also contributes to a healthier outlook on life. Fernandes says “the changes that I’ve experienced through meditation and mindfulness practices have completely changed every aspect of my life. I feel like I’ve finally found some sort of peace, something that once seemed unattainable in my lifetime. I’m also becoming very optimistic about my future too; I feel like my true journey is only just beginning and have so much to look forward to.”

Ye says “it has helped grow my relationship with my dad. Before, we used to have difficult arguments with each other. But now with the practice, I think I learned to control my reactions and that has allowed me to have better interactions with him. Without the arguments, we can talk to each other better and can have more mature conversations. So I think it has helped me mature my relationship with my father.”

Chang adds “On my second seven-day retreat, I realized I was a coward facing difficulties in life. I found excuses for myself to run away from life’s problems, and rarely faces problems head on. Before that sitting, I never see myself in that way. But I didn’t feel bad about myself. Part of the meditation practice is to accept who you really are. It is the first step of changing. I believe anyone who practices meditation with the right mindset and method will be on a journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and self-growth.”

Both facilitators agree. Brown says “everyone, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, has the wisdom and compassion of enlightenment within them, and whatever I share about my own experience is only intended to spark or bring out the depth of people’s bodhichitta, or compassionate aspiration.” Kuras added “meditation is the path to our deepest spiritual discovery. It is an entry door of coming back to our real home. It is also the way to fully embrace the world.”