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Monday, 30 January 2017

A Cultural and Spiritual Transformation


I am still grappling with a succinct "reasons why humans hate/discriminate against/kill each other," but it is in this same vein that I am motivated to study religion/theology and its dynamic intersection with culture. We indeed need a cultural and spiritual transformation.
And, if you even glimpse at the news sporadically, you are more than aware of how much room for change there is in our many religious, political, educational, and cultural spheres. There is so much more room to love more widely and more deeply. I think all hands are needed in this--no matter your career/hobbies/skills/passions etc.--because each of us have our own ever-widening circles of influence where we can be more loving and encourage others to do the same.
And to those of us who are able to devote ourselves 'full time' to questions of religion and culture (I would place many students and scholars of religion more broadly in this category, as well as those in leadership positions of spiritual communities), well...... I hope we can find creative ways to use our insights and knowledge to evoke positive change.

p.s. please feel free to kick me in the pants whenever I (again) begin to fret more about trying to walk delicately on egg shells in some imagined-path to a tenure track job than I do about following my passion.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Unafraid of Contradictions

This quotation reminds me to not accept or construct false binaries; not everything in this world is either black or white. It also reminds me not to not jump to conclusions--especially when it's about the character of another person--and not to hate that which I've barely taken the time to know. It reminds me that these beliefs which say 'I am right and you are wrong,' or the beliefs which discourage real dialogue (even when under the guise of conversation) are painful not only in the sense that they destroy positive relationships that might have otherwise flourished, but they also imprison us. We become chained to our dogmas, to our safe interpretations of our world. It is sometimes the same walls which surround us and makes us feel protected that close out the world around us. What a pity.

"I am not an idealist, nor a cynic, but merely unafraid of contradictions. I have seen men face each other when both were right, yet each was determined to kill the other, which was wrong. What each man saw was an image of the other, made by someone else. That is what we are prisoners of."
- Donald Hogan (1972)

I wonder what we all see when we look at the people in our lives. When we see them in a positive/negative light..what is it that has encouraged/allowed us to paint them in that way?

Below are some thoughts/questions I have, which I originally wrote out for a different purpose, but they seem applicable to this conversation.

1) What convictions do you hold? Especially, which convictions do you hold to when it comes to the nature of God, reality, truth, love, etc.? Because we all hold to something. Throughout different periods of my life I have considered myself to be a Christian, an atheist, and a bewildered agnostic (to name a few!), and in each of these identities I held strong convictions. What are the convictions that you hold to?

2) How do these convictions affect those whom you love? (Or, since many religious scriptures call us to be loving to strangers and even enemies, let us go one step farther: how do your convictions affect others in your community more broadly speaking?) Is there any degree or form of hurt that results?
And, importantly, is their hurt worth more or less than you maintaining your conviction? This can sometimes be an extremely difficult question; and, like all difficult questions, I do not think there is always an easy answer.

3) In what light do your convictions paint those who think or act differently than you? Try to think of some specific people—perhaps you could choose a spectrum of “different worldviews.” How do you view these people? Are they ‘lost,’ ‘blind,’ ‘deluded,’ ‘deceived,’ ‘ignorant,’ ‘hell-bound,’ ‘naïve,’ ‘plain stupid?’ How does your worldview paint you? Are you among the spiritually elect, the elite, or the enlightened? Has God ‘chosen you?’ and what might this say in terms of the love of God.

4) What would others think of your idea of them? (And how do you think they perceive you?)

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Why 2016 Wasn't The #WorstYearEver

2016 was difficult but it was also good. Some shitty, horrible, heart-breaking things happened but it was not the infamous "#worstyearever.

I've learned a lot about myself as an individual (and a small amount about executing self-care), a lot about what it means to exist relationally/ with intentionality, and a lot about what I value in myself and others, who I want to surround myself with, and who I want to strive to become.

I think our broader communities and societies have learned a lot about what it means to fight for justice, to give voice to the oppressed and to show our support, to protect what is sacred, to stand up against what we believe to be wrong, to amplify love in the midst of hate, to choose to live vulnerably and to admit our brokenness to each other even when it’s tempting to appear like we’re self-sufficient and totally fine, to act selflessly and care for those who are in need, to persevere when things look rough, and to find ways to make positive changes even when they are small and may seem insignificant. This year had bad things (all years do) but it also had loads of good come from it. And I think history has shown that times of significant difficulty open us up to being more loving than we were before; we are often not challenged to step up when we are in our comfort zone. A ‘the stars shine best in the darkness’ sort of thing. 

So, yes, I am welcoming 2017 with open arms: the liminal space offered by the change of calendar years provides us with a sort of clean slate, and with new energy. We can use this to become better versions of ourselves and to work together to create better (move loving, more inclusive, less selfish) communities. But I’m not running away from 2016 as if I want nothing to do with it, or as if I want to pretend it didn’t leave a mark on me. It did. It has shaped me. It was not always sunshine and rainbows, and yet I have reason to smile. (Wouldn't you say the same?)

Least I seem overly-optimistic, let me reveal my stoic/realist-tendencies via this photo.

Also: not totally related, but I am really appreciating this excerpt from Seneca's letters
Let's not fear what we don't need to.

"There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. [...] What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

[...] Do me the favour, when men surround you and try to talk you into believing that you are unhappy, to consider not what you hear but what you yourself feel, and to take counsel with your feelings and question yourself independently, because you know your own affairs better than anyone else does.

[...] It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass!

[...]The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is[...]. But life is not worth living, and there is no limit to our sorrows, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent[...]There is nothing so certain among these objects of fear that it is not more certain still that things we dread sink into nothing[...]."

Sunday, 25 December 2016

"Peace on Earth" etc. etc.

Merry Christmas! I am thrilled and grateful to be with my siblings and parents for Christmas, as well as with a number of friends-who-feel-like-family in the days surrounding the holiday. I'm enjoying it quite a bit :)

About 25 years later, my siblings and I still indulge in
silly laughter around my parents' Christmas tree.

But I also know that holidays, more than the average day, can place a megaphone to the pain in our lives. Maybe it's the first Christmas without a particular loved one. Maybe you aren't with family or friends or other loved ones. Maybe gift buying has made you broke. Maybe you feel lonely, or wistful, or apprehensive, or sad, or empty, or confused about what is really important.

I find myself in some of these spaces.

I think these pains are legitimate and so are the questions evoked by them. This is my advice--to all of us who have moments (or extended moments) of hardship in the holidays: try to glean what good stuff you can from this opportunity for such reflection. Try to use it as a time to explore yourself deeper and know yourself better. Try to look at the most frightened, puffy-eyed part of you and tell yourself 'you are loved, and you are going to be okay.' Try to walk forward--not running away without ever looking back, but walking steadily with your eyes fixed on where you want to be, yet comfortable to glance around and look your past square in the eye. It's an important part of you, and whatever you've walked through is what allowed you to get here. Try to continually reorient yourself so that you are simultaneously wrapped up in love, supported by love, and are walking toward love. Try to let your heart and hands be loosed of any unnecessary things you've been carrying; it's easier to walk forward without them. Try to ask someone else for a hug, or a listening ear, or a walk, or a sleigh ride if/when you need it. It's okay to need it.

my sister took this in Cypress

There's a beautiful Christian tradition in some churches to physically "pass" the peace of Christ from one person to the next. I've partaken in this whilst in a Syrian Orthodox Church in India: one person starts with the intangible "peace" held symbolically in his hands and, as he passes it to 2+ people, it gradually makes its way through the congregation. It's a beautiful way of enacting the symbol of spreading peace on earth. And this--the celebration of a birth of a baby who people believed would bring peace on earth--is a worthwhile Christmas reminder. It may be about giving/receiving gifts, it may be about spending time with family+friends (both of these can be done in healthy or unhealthy ways, I think), but it's also about peace. And that encapsulates a whole lot of things. I hope you partake in peace this Christmas

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Recognising and Combating Gender Bias in the Workplace

So, this research summarises the ways that gender-bias is alive and well in academia. In other words: it was my disheartening read of the day.

In sum, here are some of ways that female-ness affects individuals in academia (according to what seems like some pretty well-grounded research.)

...I'll let you guess whether these elements are in favour of being female, or not.!

Some Affects of Gender-Bias in Academia

1. The qualities/traits that supervisors draw attention to in reference letters.
2. The perceived hire-ability for academic jobs
3. What students expect/ask of their professors
4. The criteria by which students evaluate professors in formal and informal evaluations
5. The likelihood that other scholars will choose to cite our work
6. The way other colleagues will interact with us when it comes to things like supervisons, staff meetings, etc.
7. The pay received for same or similiar jobs 
8. (There are more...)

Also, this kind of gender bias is not limited to academia, but studies show it is also prominent in politics and the workplace more generally. 

What causes this kind of discrimination?

Well, unfortunately there are some people who are just jerks. These jerks dislike or distrust certain individuals or groups of individuals and don't want to offer them equal opportunities...but I assume a lot of these inequalities are the result of unconscious bias (click here for definition/explanation) being at work in good and well-meaning people.

I think that is worth repeating.

A lot of these inequalities are the result of unconscious bias
at work in good and well-meaning people.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied did a Ted-Talk which poignantly revealed the reality of gender bias. Give it a listen by clicking here. It might surprise you. 

My intent is not to come off as preachy or hypocritical. Truth be told, I hold unconscious bias, too---we all do. In fact, to my shame and dislike, I hold unconscious [negative] bias even when it comes to the capabilities of females in academia; when I'm reading a particularly noteworthy text I assume its author to be male. Catching myself at this simultaneously humbles, irritates, and disheartens me. (I caught myself at this just yesterday.)

In fact, studies show that we can even hold unconscious biases against ourselves which affect our performance. Check out Shen Zhang's study on mathematics tests, which suggests that women often underperform when they are being identified as women. A summary of it can be found on Smithsonian. 

Anyway, every cloud has its silver lining and every shitty statistic has the potential to promote change. (...Right?)

Image from Hyperbole and a Half's blogpost on depression

Some Avenues for Positive Change

1. We ALL need to think a bit more carefully and thoroughly at the way we interpret things and individuals. The chance of us holding onto an unconscious bias is extremely likely, but GOOD NEWS, if you dig around your unconscious with a bit of intentionality, you will unearth some shitty stuff! (Keep reading...the good news will come, I promise...) And then you find a way to scrape it away or toss it out! TOSS.IT.OUT!

2. Brainstorm some concrete ways that you can avoid or counter the tendencies of unconscious bias. Are you writing a reference letter for a female student? Make sure you speak to the skills asked for in the job rather than, say, to her ability to care for the elderly. (IT HAPPENED. SERIOUSLY.) Are you evaluating a female professor? Don't write off her confidence or assertiveness as "bitchyness" when you categorise the same action (done by males) as confidence. (AGAIN. IT HAPPENED.) The list can go on.

3. Listen to females when they speak in meetings. Of course, listen to males too, but studies show that when females are listened to in meetings, their original ideas are all-too-often attributed to males. Listen to individuals when they speak, and give those individuals credit for the ideas they bring forth.

4. Consider publishing / applying to jobs with your initials rather than your full name. This goes for females AND males. While it is mostly females who reap the negative results of gender bias, if only females start using their initials it may not have as strong an affect as if males and females both choose this. For comparison, think of LGBT individuals who, prior to legalisation of marriage, could not use terms like 'spouse' or 'wife/husband' to refer to their significant other. As a result, the term "partner" began to become more prominent. But, and this is important: THE TERM WAS NOT ISOLATED TO LGBT COMMUNITIES. Instead, straight individuals (married or unmarried) also began to also use the term "partner," and a type of solidarity was created. In affect, it acknowledged the limits of stigma-free vocabulary that LGBT individuals had at their disposal and decided to use the same vocabulary. I think we can draw a line of comparison for the use of full names when it comes to publishing and job applications. For better or for worse, recogniseably female names are met with unconscious bias. This affects publications, job hirings, and citations or engagement with scholarship. (And probably more.) A natural way to eliminate the affects of this bias is to remove the indication of gender.

(This fourth one is really really shitty and sad to think of doing, but I view it as a short-term fix for a problem that will take awhile to change.)

And, because I just remembered about this minutes before pressing "publish" ...check out these tips directed toward junior women scholars given by tenured female professors.

Okay, that's it. I'm really curious to hear your thoughts about this. Feel free to comment below or to PM me.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Love vs. Loss: Having the [global] world at our fingertips while also holding dearly onto 'home.'

You’ve probably heard that cliché saying that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I’ve contemplated this saying over the past few months for a number of different reasons, and I think I do believe that it speaks truthfully and wisely. And I think it can apply to the more general sort of love associated with good friends and a community—certainly it feels that way for me. I’m “home” in Ottawa right now visiting with friends and family, but between Canada, India, and the UK, I feel like I am torn between a few different “homes” lately. (Certainly, the USA border guard who clarified with me “so you’re a student in the UK…but you’re living in India…and you came here for a conference…but you’re going now to Canada?” seemed just as flustered/confused by my high rate of international travels.)

A screenshot of the major cities I've traveled to since August

I have seen a LOT of the world in the past 5 years and I’m really glad I’ve been able to live and travel in a lot of different cities and countries.

(I tried making a map that pointed to all the places I've traveled to but frankly it got a bit overwhelming..!)

But I must admit: the shittiest thing about having done part of my undergrad in New Brunswick, going to India regularly enough to develop a solid community of friends there, and now studying in the UK (at a uni that attracts people from all over the world at that) is that now there's all these people I love who are absolutely not in the same city ../country../timezone../continent. So we're not talking a 3 hour drive to visit someone, but like, multiple hours in an airplane across various oceans. And even though I've been fortunate (?careless?) enough to spend the time and money to fly over said bodies of water on a somewhat regular basis, I'm still never able to be with all my loved ones at once. 

You see, I used to live in this tiny little house with lovely little people and we did little things like grow tomatoes and wash dishes and laugh loudly and rescue spiders and and write poetry on the communal chalk board and play 'keep it up' at the neighbourhood swimming pool and record music in our living room. 'Twas a good simple little life. Now I live oceans away from all of them. 

This is the thing that no one warns you about when they encourage you to be adventurous, to spread your wings and see the world. People warned me about missing home (check), about the difficulties of meeting new people and feeling connected (check), about culture shock (check), about traveler’s sickness (check check), and about various other things typically associated with travelling/moving abroad…and I think I’ve dealt with all of these things pretty well, all things considered… but few people warned me of the danger of establishing relational ties across a number of different cities/continents. 

I call this photo: "The danger of establishing relational ties" ft. my Cambridge friend Rebekah. (Now Rebekah and I are far away and we very well might never see each other again. WHAT!?!? Horrible.)

Don’t get me wrong—I couldn’t have it any other way. That is to say, there’s no way that I could be happy living in a city or country where I don’t make an effort at establishing roots and forming/joining a community of loving people. I would shrivel up and die without such things. But sometimes I wonder how wise it is to have placed roots in so many different places. Because now, wherever I am, there’s a significant portion of my loved ones who will always be miles and miles and oceans away from me. And to be honest that’s not always the best feeling.

Sunset streets in Dubrovnik, Croatia

I consider it a wonderful privilege and blessing to have been able to not only visit a number of cities but to actually feel connected and become a part of a community there. In many ways, there is something incredibly amazing and beautiful about this. But there’s something to be said for simplicity. This is the same simplicity that many people of my generation quickly brush off because “it’s not adventurous enough,” or the same simplicity that some people of my parent’s and grandparent’s generation encourage me (with nothing but the best of intentions) to rise above / go beyond. This is the simplicity of staying put, and choosing the wild and crazy adventure of deeply loving the people and places who are already in your midst. (And, certainly, this need not be dull or boring in the slightest!)

This is my Babcia (grandmother). Her family moved from Poland to Canada when she was a young child and she grew up in Toronto and some surrounding areas. At risk of romanticising my grandparents' era, I sometimes wonder if my life would be simpler if I still sewed my own clothes and grew my own food and walked down the street to say hi to my family and friends who lived there.

But, despite all these reflections, I readily admit there is still something within me that yearns for radical adventure, and that wishes to cover large distances in an airplane so to see something or someone I’ve never seen before. I like being thrown into new and unfamiliar situations. I enjoy going periods where I don’t hear a word of English, and where I have to navigate through social customs and cultural cues. I enjoy the beauty and challenge of being out of my comfort zone, and I find that these are the sorts of experiences which most stretch and push me into becoming a more thoughtful, accepting, and loving person. I’m glad for these experiences.

Back in Gujarat, 2014 (?) when I was doing research on Jain panjrapols. In this photo, a Jain monk was blessing animals that had been rescued from a slaughter house.

This might be where the saying “all things in moderation” comes into play. I’m not sure. I think I’m still struggling to find my own balance in this regard. What are your thoughts? Do you crave adventure? Do you think adventure can be had within a familiar (maybe even mundane) environment? Is adventure more important than your existing communities/relationships? As always, would love to hear your thoughts below or by PM.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Dreaming Big, Pursuing Your Dreams, and all sorts of other overused cliches which I hold onto dearly

Alright, so every who knows me well knows that I am among the least politically-minded/politically-informed people I know. (I'm at least aware of this!) So keep that in mind as I make these fleeting references to politics and current affairs. 

The way I feel most of the time.

I'm very aware that I'm an ideas-person and a dreamer/thinker; I don't claim to have a superb understanding of all the facts and processes...anyway. Now that that caveat is out of the way, let me move right along into my dreaming and my ideas.

Putting aside all the bewilderment, irritation, and anger…one positive thought I have had with this absolute shit show of US election results was this: "absolutely anything can happen; keep your hopes and dreams big."

I wonder why so many of us hold onto such small and narrow ideas of what we can accomplish or what is within our ability to achieve. Many of us settle (in our careers, our relationships, our hobbies) for something mediocre rather than that which we really want.

And it strikes me that, perhaps, if more individuals had held onto a bigger dream (being president, etc.) then we wouldn't be witnessing so much madness.

I don't intend to say that the best thing imaginable is for us all to be positions of power and prestige. Surely that is not all of our dreams—there is no cookie cutter model of what excellence/fulfillment is for each of us. For example, being the president of the USA is so incredibly far from my biggest dream/hope that it would be absolutely awful if that were what I pursued. But some people--those among you who are interested in and knowledgeable of politics, for starters--might actually excel in such a role and would indeed want to do that. But for some reason we think it is too unreachable and far off, so we instead pursue Goal # 2...or Ideal Career #3 ....#17...etc.

Some of my favourite artwork in Ottawa, Canada. The artist was building these rock sculptures for decades before he received any formal recognition/salary for it. 

For me, this common practice (of placing aside our actual dreams/hopes/desires to do what seems more acceptable within society) materialises quite a bit in the type of research I pursue. It's sometimes hard to do what is meaningful to me rather than what seems desireable/normative by some academic models.

I really do want to use my research (both my written work and the result that my studies have on my own life) to make a positive impact on society.

I’m constantly asking myself questions about the nature of God/spirituality, about how to develop a community and a larger society in which we are more respectful and more loving toward ourselves and others, about what it is that gives meaning to our lives, and about what gives us energy/passion in our lives to instill positive changes.

Clothes drying and a man walking. (Mumbai, India)

My studies often seem very “airy-fairy” and lofty to people who are more involved with on-the-ground social changes—take activisits who are working toward ending poverty, for example. I seem to be in an ivory tower where it’s all talk and no action. Or my spiritual questions can seem absolutely ridiculous to those focused exclusively on material wealth and business. 


People from both of these camps sometimes try to draw me into their worlds. And I definitely see value and appeal in the world of social activism, and I can also see the appeal in more-pure business-type endeavours. But neither are my consuming passion. At least not in this moment.

I think, instead, I can strive to excel in my area of interest—which for me happens to be philosophical type questions about what it is that makes our lives meaningful. (And which, I might add, for me does include SOME element of practical application that sometimes overlaps with social activism. Anyway.) For you, it might be something totally different. But, I do believe, positive change can come in result to our passionate pursuits of our dreams/goals.

along the Berlin wall

I wish we all had the courage to dream a little bit bigger. And to hold onto those dreams a little bit longer.

Can you imagine the positive changes that might happen if all the good, loving, kind, passionate people in our world truly believed that they could have a significant impact on those in their circles—whatever and wherever those circles might be? So often we let various societal expectations—of all shapes and sizes—restrain and constrain us. But I think it could be absolutely wonderful if we pursued our actual dreams.

Think of some manageable dream which is too often ignored because we are all so used to settling. Maybe it's deciding to close your ears to what society tells you you're supposed to view as successful and instead spend some time working as a nanny, learning to cook new recipes, and writing poetry. (I spent 6 months doing that. It rocked.) Maybe it's changing your food choices so that you contribute to a kinder, greener planet. I don't know. I think we all have must have dreams we are setting aside without really pursuing them.

These are the chickens that my Ottawa flat-mates and I had. Their free-range eggs, along with our homegrown veggies, was an awesome way for us to have access to some local organic food. 
 These are perhaps silly/minor examples, but they're ones from my own life that for so long I rejected or placed aside because they didn't align with what society told me I should/could pursue. 
It's so easy and normative to fall into place and to go about living a life that is more or less fine but is not what we *really* want to be doing. I often wonder if I'm living the life I really want to be living. Sometimes I am, definitely. But other times I fall into the trap of doing what is expected of me rather than pursue the dream I really want.

To wrap up: Dreaming "big" can look like different things to different people. Not all of us care to be a CEO or run for President. (Thank God.) But those of you who do....why don't you take that dream seriously?  And those of you who want to live a simple life and grow your own veggies...why do you leave that dream in order to work in a more normative career that society pushes down your throat? And those of you who want to do whatever else it is that you dream of doing...why have you abandoned that passion? In 1, 5, 10..20 (etc) years, will it have been worth it? Will you feel a tinge of regret for having never tried it?

Words to live by, friends. Words to live by.

Anyway. All cliches and memes aside..I absolutely do think we should all strive to be loving, just, merciful, and humble...and so dreaming "big" will hopefully (a) be fueled by that and (b) naturally incorporate and strengthen our tendencies toward doing good. But we can also keep our dreams big in terms of how we might [positively] impact the world. Because we all have capabilities and passions and spheres of influence in one way or another.