Category Archives: Daily Dharma

japanesewaveThere is no inner peace without outer harmony. There is no outer harmony without inner peace. So where do find balance? What brings us into accord?

It is the habitual nature of the mind to search for some kind of solid ground, security: that object, person, feeling, situation or place that will allow us to feel settled and without fearful or desolate emotion. The problem is that our environment becomes a mirror of our minds, and we enter into a feedback loop with that which we see we’ve created. If we feel trapped, we begin to fixate on the encroaching conditions around us. If we feel lonely, we fix our emotional bearings on the bleak landscape and scarcity of our world.

When I counsel clients who are in emotional/psychological distress, I encourage them to foster a sense of courage and resolve. The phrase I use is to ‘stay at the helm.’ Much like a sailor in a storm, our survival is inextricably linked to the stability of the ship. When we feel it thrown about in the rising and falling swells it induces a sense of panic. But being on a vessel upon the sea, we have to remember that we have intrinsic knowledge about the way of the ocean. We know if we encounter unexpected weather or potentially capsizing waves, that it is the nature of the universe within which we must navigate.

So where do we find our equilibrium in such unpredictable waters? First of all, what is helpful is to remember is that we are on a journey; though we cannot control the weather, we can determine our course to avoid trouble and to make calculated choices based on risk and reward. Where do we want to go? How much is it worth to us to get there? And thus we can embrace the consequences with a much stronger sense of purposefulness and stewardship of our inner values (and re-chart our courses!).

Secondly, we must remind ourselves that our vessel is much sturdier than we might think. It is not the physical structure on which we sail through churning waters—it is our spirit, our limitless consciousness. So, we begin to develop a tremendous sense of confidence and trust in ourselves. We begin to relate to the fear–the uncertainty and doubt, the lonliness and feelings of irrelevance in the great ocean—with an abiding sense of assuredness and steadfastness. Hold the wheel, stay the course, steady as she goes.

One of the familiar teachings on the Buddhist path follows thus: To a tiny boat, a wave seems overwhelming. To the ocean, the wave seems insignificant.

And yet, without seemingly inconsequential tides and currents, great swells would not arise in the ocean. “Emptiness is form; form is emptiness.” Thus is the experience of our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations; they define our experience, and yet, they are not us. We are all sailors upon the sea, and have the potential, birthright, and immediate and everpresent capacity to greet the sun, wind and rain with equal regard and response.

From the upcoming book, Mindful You: A Guide To Living & Loving Fearlessly, Consciously And On Purpose


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buddha_birdAs human organisms we are defined by our capacity for self-reflection and higher consciousness. At the same time, we are the inheritors of a 30, 000 year old neurophysiology/brain which predisposes us to scan for threat and negativity. We are sensitive creatures, and we derive our learned responses and self-meaning from our early life conditioning and associations. We are often guided not so much by our conscious, integrated choices but by our unconscious (fear-based) drives.

Why is this so important to understand? For one, we operate at our best when we connect our identity and thus the meaning of our lives with an open, curious and compassionate state of mind/being. The aforementioned pervasive state of threat and defensiveness presents a difficult foundation from which to embrace a ‘groundless’ way of being and thus interact directly and neutrally with our subjective reality.

Ultimately, what serves us best is to be mindful of these unconscious patterns, to work with them, and see that in transcending our own perceived sense of limitations and ‘stuckness’ that we can have a purposeful, spiritualized life. By spirit, I don’t mean anything ethereal or mystical. I mean that we might engage the world in the myriad ways it moves us–with the intrinsic knowledge that we are inextricably part of the universe, of the matter and energy of stars, galaxies and light particles. When we get a glimpse of being able to transcend the sensory biases that, though necessary for functioning as a physical organism in the world, keep us ‘stuck, ’ then we get out of our own way, let ourselves vibrate with being. We are more open to possibility, to limitlessness, to love.


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panicbuttonHello. You, yes you…in there. That free-floating ‘self’ and beating heart within a consciousness on this journey. I’d like to talk to you about that thing. You know what I’m talking about–that thing that haunts you just beneath the surface. No matter how much you talk about it, smoke, eat, drink, exercise, cry, sleep, have sex; it’s still there. Pervasive and unrelenting. You can dim its light, chill its heat, but you feel it everpresent. It is like low-level dread.

You are not alone. Our system is beautifully adapted to warn of us of danger–perceived or real. And if we are unable to tend to that threat, we never come back to equilibrium with a sense of ecological safety and control. It may be something in our environment: our relationships, our work. And if we can’t take action, or are caught in distorting beliefs about or self-worth to do so, we come up with very debilitating results.  Ultimately, it rests in our broken relationship with ourselves. We identify with the feeling of not being ‘ok, ’ and create some kind of meaning out of it (usually negatively self-directed). That is the survival function of what makes us uniquely conscious as human beings; even a dysfunctional meaning is still something to hang on to. And yet that same capacity for self-reflection and nuanced understanding and distress tolerance in the world knows the threshold is too low. In other words, we know we could be on more of an even keel, that there is something better for us.

So what gives? There is an entire discussion to be had from a mindfulness awareness point of view, advanced by the buddhist psychological understanding of how we struggle between avoiding pain and clinging to desire/comfort. Here though, I wish to simply address that we all have what I call blind spots–the areas of our psyche and behaviour/reactions, just outside of our conscious ‘sight.’ And I use the term ‘blind’ in the true anatomical sense. Most of us understand our ‘sight’ awareness to be the interpretation of visual input through the eyes. But the processing of that data is done in the occipital cortex in the back of the brain. And, most interestingly, research experiments show that when that area is damaged, which results in cortical blindness, subjects may actually still be able to register visual input (see) even though their brain doesn’t register the information! This is a stunning phenonmenon, and tells us a great deal about how we perceive and create meaning. It also provides a very real and metaphoric insight into how we function from ‘blind spots’ in our awareness.

Traumatizing or overwhelming events in our past may embed skewed perceptions and cognitive distortions about our role in the world that severely hold us back, and keep us ‘seeing’ the world in this way–even though we consciously know we are in the present. Why is this? Simply put, during overwhelming events or dynamics in our early past, when our social/emotional development was still limited, our limbic or mid-brain overrides our rational mind. This is noted as the fight/flight (and freeze!) response. It is an evolutionary adaptation to kick us into survival mode when threat is present. The problem is, if those events are never processed out of our system, then we are left still functioning from that limited response, as if the threat never subsided. Worse, if we are caught blaming others for our plight, it further enables the sense of powerlessness.

In short, if you are aware of that ‘thing’ lurking under the surface, or even rearing its ugly head and sabotaging what would otherwise be your conscious choice in the moment, you are very likely falling into these blind spots. In my vocation as a psychotherapist ( and as a teacher of the art of Aikido (, everything is oriented towards neutralizing this limited response, taking conscious control to be calm and confident. As the Zen saying goes, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”


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myk_max_gardenDepression is a real disorder. So let’s get that out of the way, should the provocative title make you want to storm the castle with pitchforks and torches; please know that I am not negating anyone’s experience, suffering or diagnosis. What I am challenging is the simple pathologizing of depression as the sum of symptoms or based solely on neurobiology.

Our mind, brain and bodies are a complex interactive system. While it is the job of family physicians, psychologists and frontline responders in mental health to try and stabilize people with mood disorders (i.e. through drugs), it doesn’t really get to the full picture. In fact, in a recent blog, I pointed out that emerging independent meta-analyses of pharmaceutical (anti-depressant, psychotropic) drugs show placebo is in effect upwards of 70 per cent. Think about that for a second. What that means is that of those patients taking SSRIs for example (anti-depressants), up to 70% or more might be responding to treatment without any actual outside chemical involvement! McGill professor Amir Raz recently conducted a survey where 65% of psychiatrists reported under-dosing their patients. In other words, patients were responding to treatment as if they were getting a prescribed dose of a drug, whereas instead of, say 20mg dosage of Prozac, the psychiatrist was only actually giving them 10mg pills. This points to what is called ‘top-down’ regulation of our system (as opposed to ‘bottom up, ’ which implies that if you treat the body with chemicals, the mind will respond with a correlating psychological improvement.

So what does this mean? Am I suggesting that one can ‘think’ their way into/out of depression? Actually, to some extent, yes. But that’s for another article. What I am addressing is that the psyche and the body are an interdependent system. Emotional awareness (and the experience of ‘mood’) are a function of how the oldest and most basic regulators of our brain respond to what is going on in the system as a whole. We have inherited a 30, 000 year old brain that is skewed for negativity. In other words, we have evolved and adapted by automatically scanning our world for danger–mostly through our five peripheral senses. However, feelings are derived from raw information fed to the brain/limbic system from a small area called the periaquaductal grey–which sits atop the brain stem (lizard brain). Neuroscientists have established that this primary organ defines consciousness in all organisms. What sets humans apart say, from chimpanzees (with whom we share 97% of the same DNA), is our pronounced frontal cortex, which regulates rational/executive function. But that tiny matchstick like organ atop our lizard brain is what signifies whether we are ‘ok’ or not.

So here’s how it works: the brain takes in information from two essential pathways: the five senses; and the autonomic nervous system. It then interprets that information through conscious awareness (sight, sound, etc & feelings). If it perceives that input to represent a threat, then it will signal the mid-brain, the Limbic system, to override and make fight/flight/flee signals flood our system. The same goes if basic regulatory functions (hormones, blood sugar, etc) signal that little duct atop the brain stem that things are not copacetic (cool, ok, normal). So, in either case, our ‘higher’ brain never gets to interpret the information–it goes straight into red alert (panic, anxiety, aggression…). Bingo! Mood disorders. What does come into our higher consciousness is then often distorted by the limited, trauma response. This can appear as negative beliefs, self-loathing, and in extreme cases, as paranoia and hallucination.

The bigger problem, however, is that the brain, at its sensory input level, doesn’t distinguish between past, present or future, real or perceived threats. This creates havoc with our (lack of) conscious, rational response. So yes, low serotonin levels or high cortisol (stress) levels in our system can signal us to take action (‘seeking’ behaviour). But these drives to seeking behaviour may need more rational consideration (i.e., do i need serotonin in the form of a cookie? Or maybe a hug, or more importantly, re-assessing a boundary?).

To make matters worse, often these triggers are the old responses based on ‘stuck’ patterning from childhood or unresolved events in our past. Our system is triggered into the same neuro-hormonal response, and in the case of chronic disorders like anxiety and depression, this elicits a chronic response: hypoarousal (depression; trying to feel ‘less’) and hyperarousal (feeling too much, anxiety disorders).

Recent research from the prestigious peer-reviewed journal The Lancet, for example, points to how childhood trauma is correlated with the onset and history of bipolar disorder. Meanwhile, ground-breaking research from UBC shows that parental stress can have a genetic effect on children. Of course, all of this still approaches the issue from a psycho-pathological purview. And while the mind/body approach is supported by evidence-based research, there is an even bigger perspective: that which speaks the the tagline of this blog–spiritual psychology.

Our evolutionary design functions to protect us from danger. But there is a cost. Our very highly tuned psyche/nervous system is still dependent on the threat/response dynamic. We seek pleasure and avoid distress. And that has been critical from an evolutionary standpoint. The problem is, and the contemplative tradition of Buddhism and its exquisite science of the mind shows us, is that if our relationship to reality is only based on seeking pleasure and averting pain, it sets us up to swing between those polarities of experience, caught in a constant kind of ‘over-steering’ and correcting of course. This, really, is the basis for our suffering. And Buddhism, so simply and adroitly, suggests that this inherent disorder is directly treatable from within, simply by virtue of what cognitive neuroscience deems ‘meta-awareness’ (or mindfulness). By doing a kind of ‘exposure therapy’ with our own thought/emotional reactions and patterns, via meditation and self-reflection, we can down-regulate the symptoms that swing us out of natural equilibrium (calm presence, openness, alertness). And in turn, brain research is showing us more and more, the activity of this kind of mindful self-regulation strengthens cortical activity and actual mass/density in the pre-frontal regions (associated with more complex, rational, compassionate thought, and impulse control).

So what does this mean for sufferers of depression? Certainly, this aversion/attatchment manifests as established mood and behavioural disorders and warrants appropriate intervention to stabilize the patient. At the same time, it represents a inherent and even commonplace challenge/condition which ties us together in our universal experience. And in a world that values material acquisition, despite the psychic, biological and environmental damage it renders, it would seem quite appropriate that we would be disturbed. And yet, our entire culture–from media to our schooling–normalizes the destruction of the world and our spiritual, individual and collective witness of trauma. For practical reasons, we are forced to some extent to deny this harsh reality to survive, and in its place self-medicate with pleasure through self-gratification. In the end, human compassion cannot, however, be assuaged with toys or fleeting pleasures. We all know this to be true; when we die, all we really account for is the love we shared in our lifetime.

I will be exploring this issue much more in an upcoming book. For now, my friends, suffice to say that while depression and mood disorders are de facto a medical issue, they are a humanistic concern as well. In my practices–Aikido, EMDR psychotherapy–mindfulness and social support facilitate the regaining of self-control, strength of self/spirit. And these, in turn, are cultivated not through compensation (either through ego or material wealth), but conversely by compassion and reconciliation of conflict. On a personal level, this may simply relate to the healing of distortions we internalized about our value in childhood, or the validity of our life’s purpose. And thus, we are moved not only personally–but collectively–to enlightened action.


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Winston Churchill famously used them. So did the Dalai Lama. So what are they? Not, as you might have suspected: “I love you.” However, they are equally if not more powerful. So here they are, three simple words that contain a lot of power: NEVER…GIVE…UP. This credo, certainly in the context of WWII and Churchill’s fireside calls-to-arms to the beleaguered British nation might seem self-evident in difficult moments, even the direst of circumstances. When it comes to our own ‘blind spots, ’ however, its meaning is easily lost amidst a cacophony of negative beliefs, emotions and sensations.

Somewhere in your life is a partner, coworker, family member, pet or a situation that seems hopeless. It may regard health, finances or the success of a venture. Certainly, with any one of those things, we may not have the control we desire over the outcome. Situations can be extremely disheartening. And here is an interesting word. Did you know that the root of the word “courage” is coeur, from the french word for “heart.” So, to have courage literally means to have “heart.” This is a profound notion, because it belies our conventional association with bravery and courage, that of resolve, strength, conviction, force. While these elements hold true, at the center is the strength and will of the heart. More specifically, it is the ability to keep an open heart, to risk being wounded and feeling uncertainty in tough times, one which allows us to remain undaunted and fully human in the most heinous situations.

Often in difficult moments, there is a sense of injustice or injury. Certainly, there are times (think of Nelson Mandela in prison, or the exiled Dalai Lama) where there is persecution. The key to our own humanity and strength is not in bolstering some kind of internal fortitude from anger or resistance, but from, as the Dalai Lama reminds us, that even in the face of the most objectionable and injurious behaviour from others, even our enemies, on some level, seek happiness. This is a profound realization, and the ability to see how another’s humanity–not to mention our own instinct for understanding–has seemingly gone awry, is mediated by this ‘intelligence of the heart.’

The next time you feel angry, misjudged or even insignificant in the face of trying times, let the hardness of your heart soften, and notice the pain, for under it and all the associated hopes, fears and fantasies is essentially the vibrant open spaciousness of open-hearted compassion. As Gandhi so bravely pointed out: “Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it.”

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(Click photo for link)
An article by His Holiness The Dalai Lama, From the OCT/NOV 2005 issue of Seed proposes a partnership that may advance our understanding of the experience of consciousness to help us alleviate suffering.

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mykheadsmall.jpgYou’ve taken the first step, which is having the courage to admit to yourself that what you are doing, the way you are living, isn’t working for you, and that you need help. Before this awareness has really sunk in, you are faced with the daunting task of filtering through the haze of therapists and practicioners out there to find someone suitable. So how do you go about it?

There is no magic solution when it comes to finding the right therapist. However, one thing stands out among all other considerations: TRUST. I don’t mean confidentiality, as this is a professional requirement, liability and ethical standard. What I mean is that first and foremost, no matter how you come across your potential therapist, do your due diligence. Were they referred to you? By whom, a trusted friend? Someone with whom you share intimate feelings/insights, a family member, or a work acquaintance? What was it about this counsellor/coach that moved the person to recommend them?

Remember, this is a unique relationship. As my mentor told me when I begain working with him: “Welcome to the most honest relationship you’ve ever had.” He was right, and what made it honest was that I trusted him–his feeling, his empathy, his directness and unwillingness to put up with nonsense responses, his care and his brilliant insights and interventions.You are paying for this service, so you want to choose someone who will give you not only value for their fee, but also for your hard work emotionally, and your investment of trust in them. No number of university degrees or qualifications can make up for the connection you find with the right therapist. Don’t get me wrong, qualifications are very important–they are an indicator of professional credibility and training. At the same time, no one can train someone to be a great therapist–this is a quality that is relative to the client’s experience, and also an innate ability to imbue trust, vulnerability and willingness to share openly. Without this feeling between you, you might progress intellectually while remaining emotionally stuck. Therapy is not an intellectual process. My mentor also hipped me to that. Intellect for me was a survival tool, and part of the problem!

I once went to a psychotherapist whom I found out a good friend had also seen. My friend had recently ended a tumultuous relationship with a woman, and was confused and distraught in a number of ways, as happens. However, he only lasted a single session with this therapist. Why? Because the therapist made a rash suggestion that my friend say something to his now ex-girlfriend in a confrontational manner, which my friend thought inappropirate, unrealistic and just not correct. “I can’t say that!” said my friend. He said the therapist got very uncomfortable, defensive and his eye started to twitch involuntarily, saying “Well….why not!?” The point of this story is that while this therapist was for the most part very suitable and helpful for me, he was just so wrong for my friend. There’s no right or wrong, just what’s right for you. That said, a good therapist will screen clients as well, saying no thanks to the ones who are not ready to change or do the work. So it goes both ways.

If you are dealing with specific issues, such as addiction, eating disorders, sexual orientation and so on, you are best to find someone whom specializes in the issues at hand. Perhaps the most liberating aspect of therapy–apart from emotional growth and release–is the self-affirmation that one has finally chosen a truthful, respectful and mutual relationship. If fees are an issue for you, any good therapist will offer a sliding scale. However, a word of caution. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Better to ask for a reduction in fee from someone whom is skilled, experienced and/or accredited than to go low-balling for fees. There is no greater investment than yourself, so whatever your budget, you want to make sure your choice reflects a conscious decision to get the best value you can–with the above hints in mind–rather than the best deal. Trust your intuition–it’s what guides us, and what has guided you on your journey through life to this crossroads. Once you commit, no matter if you change course (or therapists) along the way, you’ve already begun the long journey that begins with a single step.

Michael Gordon May 16th 2007, Vancouver

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Black Gold

An excellent documentary from Britain’s Channel 4 on the real cost of coffee. is about awareness of each of our actions and the ripple effect they have. From the film’s website:

“Multinational coffee companies now rule our shopping malls and supermarkets and dominate the industry worth over $80 billion, making coffee the most valuable trading commodity in the world after oil.

But while we continue to pay for our lattes and cappuccinos, the price paid to coffee farmers remains so low that many have been forced to abandon their coffee fields.

Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. Tadesse Meskela is one man on a mission to save his 74, 000 struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy. As his farmers strive to harvest some of the highest quality coffee beans on the international market, Tadesse travels the world in an attempt to find buyers willing to pay a fair price.

Against the backdrop of Tadesse’s journey to London and Seattle, the enormous power of the multinational players that dominate the world’s coffee trade becomes apparent. New York commodity traders, the international coffee exchanges, and the double dealings of trade ministers at the World Trade Organisation reveal the many challenges Tadesse faces in his quest for a long term solution for his farmers.”

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This is Max. He’s 100+ pounds of Rottweiler/Mastiff karmic teaching. He snores–really loudly. He is a clown, a trickster and a loving soul, though full of fear at times. We adopted him from the BCSPCA. In many ways, he really symbolizes daily learning around patience and unconditional love. What a love bug…max.jpg

Average Rating: 4.9 out of 5 based on 221 user reviews.