So much of our lives in spent trying to plan for the future and control the outcomes of events. We meticulously schedule our time expecting everything to unfold just as how we imagined.
Then 2020 came – the year of uncertainty. We realized that the world is indifferent to our preferences and desires. So how can we remain grounded and put things into perspective in this chaotic time?
I met Paula through the mindfulness program at my work, and reached out to her thoughts and insights on how mindfulness can help us deal with many of the challenges we face today.
Paula Vital is an award-winning coach, speaker and writer dedicated to helping you move from striving to thriving by accessing the power of the present moment. A lawyer by training and senior advisor in the Ontario Public Service, Paula is very familiar with the challenges of balancing a stressful work-life with time for family and self-care.
Paula has been involved in health and wellness for over 20 years, and is a certified yoga teacher, Body Flow instructor, National Fitness instructor, and avid mindfulness practitioner and coach.
Paula has completed Levels I and II of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training, has two yoga certifications (Classical Hatha and Vinyasa), attended numerous silent meditation retreats, and studied with world-renowned yoga and meditation teachers such as Sharon Salzberg, Phillip Moffitt, Stephen Cope and Michael Stone. She is in the process of becoming an Internationally Certified Yoga Therapist (IAYT 2021).
Paula is committed to finding joy and balance in her own life and helping others to do the same.
You can learn more about her work through her free course of 3 Minute Meditations: 3 Minutes to Your Greatest Self on her website, www.livethepresent.ca.
How did you first learn about and begin practicing meditation and other contemplative practices?
I was a lawyer on Bay Street and after having worked so hard to achieve that, I felt disappointed and let down by the experience.
My whole life I had spent chasing after the next achievement, and eventually began to realize that no matter what I gained in the outside world – job success, travel, material goods, even relationships – there was nothing that was bringing me a true sense of contentment and satisfaction.
Luckily my sister meditated – and I thought that was so weird! Why sit and do nothing when there is so much to DO!!!
But I ran out of options and got curious. Together we did a course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, based on the Jon Kabat-Zinn model. During that course, I realized that there is value in just Being, and that I am more than my thoughts.
This insight was revolutionary! If I am more than my thoughts, and my thoughts are not always true or helpful, then who or what am I?
This was in 2006, and I have spent my life since that point exploring, and eventually teaching, that very question. Once we can observe our thoughts without judgment, we realize our unlimited and interconnected nature, tapping into and endless wellspring of love, compassion and joy.
2. What changes have you noticed since you began practicing meditation?
My whole perspective on life is completely different!
I used to spend my days planning for the future and tackling my To-Do list, never feeling completely satisfied and always feeling rushed, and that I had not done enough.
Now, my only job is to reconnect with the present moment and the one that is observing the whole thing. I then take one small action at a time and do it with complete love and surrender, to the best of my ability.
Turns out that when we worry less about outcomes and relax our expectations about the future, a beautiful future unfolds effortlessly.
3. The concept of ‘Acceptance’ or ‘Surrender’ is commonly discussed amongst spiritual practitioners such as Eckart Tolle. What does this idea mean to you?
We have no control over the outcomes of our actions. We have full control over our intention and the actions that we take in the present moment. Surrender is to let go of the fruits of your action, but completely devote yourself to bringing your full energy and heart to each and every moment.
Surrender also involves checking in at a deep level to see which is the correct action to take in each moment. This requires practice and an increasingly deepening connection to the stillness or witness within. Your very own wisdom.
4. We are living in times of uncertainty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us know family, friends and loved ones who have been impacted. Further, we don’t quite know when we will get ‘back to normal.’ What advice do you have to stay grounded during this time?
Have compassion for yourself. This is a very difficult time! Just getting up, getting dressed and getting through the day is an accomplishment. Congratulate yourself for this.
Develop a very simple but nourishing self-care practice. It could be a walk in nature, 5 minutes of deep breathing, a mindful cup of tea, or some gentle stretches… whatever makes you feel cared for. Take care of yourself, and everything else will unfold.
Connect with another being in some way. If you live alone, consider adopting a pet. Human beings thrive on connection. If you can’t see other people in person, find ways to connect online that are meaningful to you. Write a letter. Start a blog. Whatever will get you in touch with the reality that we are never alone. Turn loneliness into solitude by recognizing your inherent interconnectedness with all beings.
5. Some have looked at this time as an opportunity critically look at how we were living prior to the pandemic and make broader societal changes. How can we create a more beautiful world after the pandemic? What changes do you hope to see?
There is always something to learn from difficult situations. Here is what I have learned so far from Covid-19.
Working with uncertainty is a very helpful skill. We can practice this in heaps right now. We don’t know what tomorrow (or the next hour) will bring… how can we let go of the need to know and just enjoy what is already here? My mother is dying, and each day that I am able to be with her I feel so blessed. If we are breathing, there is more right with us than wrong with us. Covid provides an opportunity to recognize this.
We go too fast. In the pre-Covid days, we were all rushing here and there. Rush rush rush. Never enough time. For some of us, the cancellation of everything (and the realization that anything can be cancelled!) gave us a much needed breather and an opportunity to sloooooow down… slow is good.
Flexibility is the key to continuing to make a contribution. I have needed to learn much more technology than I am comfortable with, and had to homeschool my kids while working during a large chunk of the pandemic. I tend to enjoy plans, routines and structures, and while I still had these they often went out the window with crying and fighting children or zoom calls that dropped. I learned to have a sense of humour and trust that things don’t need to be perfect. I can adapt, we can work together, and somehow we will get through it all. Working from home has been a huge gift to me as well!
Connections, connections, connections. It is so easy to feel lonely and overwhelmed in this scary and unpredictable world. But we are not alone! We are all in this together, literally the whole world!!! I have found ways to connect with teachers that I could only have dreamed of learning with as they now have offerings online, found a new yoga studio I never would have gone to as it is far away (but now virtual!), and cherished my friends and family and our loving connections, whether distanced or online. Nothing is more important than our relationships, and Covid has taught us that.
Hopefully our post-Covid world will not forget these lessons of relaxing with uncertainty, slowing down, staying flexible, and connecting with others. And of course the environmental benefits!!! May those continue!!!
6. Lastly, any final thoughts, books, articles etc. you would like to share?
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
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.
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.