Mental Health in a Time of Crisis: An Interview with Your Mind Matters

In some earlier blog posts I have written about the rising concern of the mental health crisis in modern societies. In particular, I argued that the malaise and discontent we experience in our culture can be partially attributed to the individualism and consumerism that is promoted and admired in the West.

On a broad level, our sense ‘common purpose’ has fractured, as we have become more polarized and divided by our politics and individual differences. The social glue that once held us together has begun to fade.

Modern societies are facing a set of interwoven crises which Professor John Vervaeke says are symptoms of our loss of meaning and connection to the world, and to others. We’ve seen the following mental health issues scattered through the news headlines over the past few years. [1]

These existing issues of course will be compounded by the current COVID-19 pandemic.

So, how can we cope during this difficult time? What insights can we learn from ancient wisdom and modern psychology?

I asked Vanessa from the mental health-based organization Your Mind Matters for some clarity. Part 1 of the interview is recorded below.  

 1. Tell me a bit about your organization and how you got started.

Your Mind Matters is a non-profit organization and mental health platform for mental health awareness, education and support. We provide information and resources to educate people about mental illness and provide peer support to individuals struggling, particularly youth.

I started it when I was in my undergrad at the University of Toronto and I was really struggling with mental illness and my own mental health problems and saw that so many others around me were as well. I then decided to start a student group on campus to raise awareness, inform students about mental illness and the prevalence for youth especially in a university setting, and provide resources on campus relating to mental health.

In doing this, I realized how important this work is and decided to practice mental health advocacy beyond university, so I turned Your Mind Matters from a student mental health awareness club into a non-profit organization.

It goes without saying, but my own struggles with mental illness fueled my passion for mental health advocacy and pushed me to start this organization.

Although mental illness sometimes knocks me down and pushes me around, it inspires me to make a change and keep pushing forward despite it all. It also keeps me going knowing how many people out there are struggling, and my own experiences have made me realize how hard it is and I never want people to feel that way, so I’ve decided to do what I can to help others.


2. In my personal experience, a lot of internal tension comes when you act in a way that does not align with your core values. What does the concept of authenticity mean for you, and how can we live a life that is congruent with our deepest belief?

Authenticity is so important to me and something I value very deeply on a personal level. To me, authenticity is stripping yourself down and taking off the mask and all those external layers and getting to the root and true essence of who you are, unapologetically and without shame or fear.

Think of it like an onion: you peel the layers one at a time and it makes you cry. But, when you strip all those layers and get to the root of who you are, you’ll find our who you are at its core and hopefully learn to accept and love that person underneath all the layers.

Authenticity and to be fully yourself is the most vulnerable form of bravery, but to me it’s the only option. It means knowing who you are and what you stand for and not straying from it or compromising yourself or your values. It’s having a clear sense of what your values are and upholding them however and whenever you can. To live a life that is congruent with our deepest belief, we first need to dig deep and learn about ourselves.

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We need to fully understand what these beliefs are and why we have them. We need to discover our intentions and our deeply rooted core beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. And then we need to decide how we’re going to live a life that is congruent with our beliefs. It means doing things for yourself and not fearing judgment or ridicule and letting go of shame and guilt. Some people will not agree with us or like us for who we are, but that is okay. It is better to be who we are than to transform into someone we’re not just to satisfy someone else.

This means getting to know yourself and liking the person you are and then it’s being that person as much as you possibly can. It requires not really caring what anyone else thinks because your foundation is so strong and your values are so clear and concrete that no one can shake the core of who you are.

Authenticity is doing things because we’re intrinsically motivated, not extrinsically motivated. It’s not having ulterior motives except being who we are and doing what we believe in on a fundamental level. It’s saying, “this is me, take it or leave it” and not caring if they “leave it” because you know that it’s their loss and that decision is more about them than it’s about you.

Being authentic is so hard these days and not easy to come across, but being an authentic person is such a valuable and coveted feat. There’s something so empowering, so powerful and so attractive about someone who knows who they are and sticks to it at all costs. We do this by learning to love ourselves and the person we see in the mirror and then being as much of that person as we can no matter what.

To use another metaphor: it’s like a tree with roots that run so deep and that are extensively intricate and no matter how hard you try and shake the tree, it will not move. It is so strongly rooted and firmly planted in the ground that no external factors can shake it. That’s authenticity to me.

Having such a strong foundation that no one and nothing can shake. When you have roots that strong, it’s hard to be inauthentic. I think it’s important that we start appreciating authenticity as being the strength that it is, because it’s not seen often but it is needed so badly to create a world of more honesty, compassion and deeply rooted and upheld values.

There’s something so empowering, so powerful and so attractive about someone who knows who they are and sticks to it at all costs. We do this by learning to love ourselves and the person we see in the mirror and then being as much of that person as we can no matter what.


3. Social media has us constantly comparing ourselves to others. It is easy to fall into the trap of judging our lives and our accomplishments in comparison with our peers. Do you have any advice on how we can be more accepting and kinder to ourselves?

As a disclaimer, I’d like to state that I should not be the authority on this topic because I absolutely am one to fall into the trap of comparison via social media. However, it’s something I am trying to unlearn. Self-compassion and acceptance are two big focal points of most of my therapy sessions and have probably become the overarching theme in most of them.

One thing I learned and have implemented that’s pretty life changing is talking to myself the same way I’d talk to a friend. It’s not easy, but if you think of it I’m pretty sure you’ve said some pretty mean things to yourself that you’d almost never say to a friend or someone you love. So then the question is, why do we say these things to ourselves? We need to start holding ourselves up to the same standard and treating ourselves with the same love and respect as we treat those we love.

I also think learning to forgive ourselves is an important part of this equation. We tend to be really hard on ourselves and are our own worst critics. It’s important to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can with what we have and know and that’s enough. We’re bound to make mistakes and be imperfect. What matters is that we learn from them and move on. Let yourself let go of the idea that you are inferior or less-than for whatever made up reason you’ve concocted in your head.

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Also, a note about social media: it’s all fake and nothing is at is seems. Trust me, I used to post nicely filtered pictures of me travelling and eating and acting all happy and like I was “living my best life” (a myth that I will not get into right now because then I’d never stop talking) when really on the inside I was hurting so deeply. It’s important to note that what’s on social media doesn’t actually represent people’s real lives at all and it’s harmful to think it does. The grass isn’t greener on the other side, it’s a filter. And one last thing while we’re on this topic: comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t do it.

You can compare yourself today to who you were yesterday and that’s it. Comparing yourself not only to someone you’re not but someone you’re only seeing little curated and filtered snippets of through a screen is a recipe for unhappiness and low self-esteem. Look in the mirror often and learn to like what you see (and I’m not just talking about looks). Look inward. That’s where you find love and acceptance and self-compassion. Don’t expect anyone else to do this work for you.

I also think learning to forgive ourselves is an important part of this equation. We tend to be really hard on ourselves and are our own worst critics. It’s important to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can with what we have and know and that’s enough.


[1] Of note, I won’t get into the statistics here, but I will link to the relevant studies if your interested that show these trends.

The Intuitive Self – A Discussion with Dante

The nature and question of the sacred has been contemplated by humanity since the dawn of our species. Philosophers, mystics and theologians have spent countless hours in an effort to develop rituals and frameworks to establish a path towards the sublime.

This begs this question however if the notion of the sacred can be fully comprehended by the finite individual. Perhaps rather it is a feeling, emotion or instinct that can only be known by our intuitive, self outside the scope of the rational mind. One of the most explicit representations of this idea can be found in the Tao Te Ching, Daoism’s seminal text. 

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name

Lao Tzu

I will explore this notion in future posts, but for now I will introduce Dante who provided his perspectives on spirituality, and introduced us to his contemplative practices in the interview below. I met Dante through Rosemary and we connected over our mutual interest in Nietzsche, particularly the notion of Amor Fati (love of Fate). I asked him some questions and he provided his responses below.    




  1. How would you define spirituality?

It varies from individual to individual, so I will give you a definition that only applies to my perspective.

Spirituality is a sensitivity towards recognizing reality from a position independent of the ego.  The ego (or subjective sense of self), is blinding towards the state of things as they are.  There is a famous quote: “we don’t see things the way they are, we see them the way we are”.  For one to be “spiritual” one must only have this sensitivity, a desire to see things the way they are.  I don’t see it as inevitably seeking some truth or reality. Rather it is more akin to seeking the discernment to recognize reality when it is presented.  I make this distinction because the truth may come, or it may not, but the ability to recognize it is where the value lays.   

2. What types of spiritual practices do you engage in?

Since abandoning all the major world religions one after another through my childhood, I’ve learned to simplify my practice.

A daily meditation practice is the crux of my practice.  I take my meditations from a variety of sources, and practice what I need to practice.  It takes pieces out of Vedanta, Buddhism, Yoga and secular neuroscience, and blends them into an East-West hybrid that suits my needs quite well. 

One can only sit in quiet meditation for so long before going broke and getting kicked out of their apartment, so I’ve adapted to apply my meditative practices into my vocation.  Modern neuroscience shows states of “flow” in activity induce similar brain function as compared to states of deep meditation.  So when I am doing a job I really enjoy, I find flow states very meditative. This is important to me because I like living in the city.

Finally, I think the most valuable part of my practice to me is the practice of service.  To me, the real value of my practice is the ability to do good in this world.  Volunteer work, mentoring, a kind word, a piece of advice, or even picking up some trash in the park, is an irreplaceable part of my spiritual practice.

3. The Canadian-American writer Saul Bellow said “Science has made a house cleaning of belief.” One of the predominant paradigms in the 21st century is that of technology and scientific progress. How do you reconcile scientific fact with spirituality?

This is an important question for me.  As a scientist and an engineer, I have found many challenges in diving into spiritual practices. 

As I continue to learn more about both in my practices, I have decided for now that the two need not be reconciled.  To me, it is like the night sky is to the day.  The two exist on different planes, have different purposes, don’t understand each other and perhaps never will. But they both have an important place in the world, and thus, with a healthy dose of skepticism, should be appreciated and admired for the value they bring.

4. As we grow older, we develop more rigid patterns of thinking, and it can become easy to fall into mundane routines of everyday life. How do you deal with these issues, and maintain a connection to your spiritual purpose?

Learning stops once the mind perceives existence as mundane. 

My solution to this is to remain childlike (to recall Nietzsche’s famous allegory).  The child “is innocence and forgetting…a sacred Yes”.  In this state one is able to create, to will existence through the creative energy the child wields so freely.  Children are capable of learning at an astonishing rate, and psychologists have linked this to their sense of wonder and play.

 I make a point to always consider myself at play, to perceive this life in astonishment.  We’re biological meat sacks flying through infinity on a rock.  There’s a giant ball of fire in the sky that keeps us alive but can also give us cancer.  Looking at the world through this childlike perspective keeps me from falling into the trap of growing up in the conventional sense.

5. It seems like spirituality and eastern contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga have become increasingly popular in recent years. How do you make sense of this trend? 

I think every human has an intrinsic sensitivity to spirituality as I have described it in question one.  Since the beginning of time, people have sought to understand our state of existence.  We find a strange solace in seeing that is bigger than just our selves (or our egos).  This is just a swing of the pendulum of human consciousness.

 I make a point to always consider myself at play, to perceive this life in astonishment. 

A Look at Modern Spirituality: An Interview with Rosemary

One term that seems to increasingly capture the values and belief systems of individuals in the West is ‘spiritual.’ Survey data from both Canada and the United States shows that more people are identifying themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious.’

While organized religion provides its believers with a set of ethics and rigid practices, spirituality seems to be more fluid, subjective and open to interpretation. Consequently, this results in some ambiguity surrounding the term.

Personally, I have been thinking about how to define this term, and contemplating the meaning and implications of a spiritual life. Perhaps it means the belief in something greater than yourself or following the moral imperative to treat all of humanity with inherent dignity and respect. At its core I think spirituality is an attempt to find meaning, purpose and connection in the world. As Robert Fuller notes in his book Spiritual But Not Religious,

We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is “spiritual” when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life

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As part of this blog, I wanted to explore this concept of spirituality, and what it means to different people.

I met Rosemary in a yoga studio where she was one of my instructors. At the end of each class she would read quotes touching on topics of spirituality, some of which deeply resonated with me. So, I asked her a couple questions about what spirituality means for her.

1. What does the word ‘spiritual’ mean for you?

For me, the word spiritual means to be connected with your deepest self. I know that this word is pretty broad – but I think that it means exactly what comes to mind for the person it’s being asked to. For me, it’s finding your true purpose – and perhaps that’s just finding something to believe in (I.e. religion), or pursuing your true passion, or career path. We are all put on this earth for a reason: big or small – and we are all on a journey to find our purpose. Once we realise this, the person can become more spiritual as they connect with their spirit and deeper self.

2. What authors, ideas or practices helped shape your idea of spirituality?

Growing up Catholic, I was always inclined to believe in something more than just the physical. Once I started practicing yoga, I started to go a bit deeper and delved into my inner self. And that’s when I found Alan Watts. I was so drawn to his philosophy and adored his lectures that I began to play him in yoga classes that I taught. His work was such an inspiration to me, and through researching more about him, I discovered Eckhart Tolle (duh).

3. What does one living a spiritual life seek to accomplish?

I believe that they are seeking to accomplish either: discovering their purpose in life, or pure and sheer happiness/enlightenment.

4. Many contemplative and spiritual traditions touch on the concept of ego dissolution. This idea is that our sense of the ‘self’ is an illusion. Does this concept resonate with you at all?

Yes – I don’t believe that we are our ‘self’. I think that we experience our self, and that are souls are the true being.

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5. How does this idea of spirituality connect with the pursuit of happiness for you?

Back when I was completing my masters, I had countless moments where I kept asking myself, “what next” and “what’s the purpose of life”? I struggled with these questions almost every day. What’s going to happen after I graduate? Will I find a job? What’s the purpose of all this? Why are we here?

It wasn’t until I realised that we are just all on the pursuit of happiness.

6. Spirituality has gained a lot of attention recently. Any advice for people trying to find their footing and navigate this complex space ?

Our spiritual journey is ever-lasting and will constantly change. As you continue to explore your spiritually, some things will land on you, and others won’t. Be open to anything that comes your way – signs, books, readings, people. Hey, maybe even reading this article was a sign you needed.

If you are starting to find your foot, or if you ever feel lost, close your eyes and simply ask yourself, “who am I before anyone told me anything?” or “what do I believe in”?

It wasn’t until I realised that we are just all on the pursuit of happiness.