Kyra Shaughnessy

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How Learning Languages Promotes Peace

Language has been a hot topic in Quebec (where I was born and raised) for as long as I can remember. I’ve had ample time and opportunity to mull over ever aspect of language as an element of culture and connection (or disconnection). Unfortunately I think far too much attention is paid to the ways in which languages divide us rather than the incredible potential they have to bring us together! What if rather than seeing language “barriers” we saw language opportunities? What if we understood language as a portal into an entire new perspective, an entirely different vision of the world? What if learning languages was a way for us to experience even more deeply the reality that surrounds us, as I truly believe it is?

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The Way We See The World

Last week I watched an excellent new documentary called “L’Empreinte” (roughly translated, “the imprint” ). In it, interviewer (actor, ecologist…)Roy Dupuis asks Innu poet Josephine Bacon how their interview would be different if he spoke her language. She replies laughing (in French) “Well, for one thing, we wouldn’t need to talk so much!” and then goes on to explain how when people share a language they understand certain things, they share a certain basic worldview that doesn’t need to be spoken about. This little snippet of conversation sums up perfectly my reflections on the importance of language.

In many places such as India or Europe, where multiple recognized language groups still exist within close geographical distance of each other, it’s not uncommon for people to speak three or four languages fluently, plus various dialects. This was also the case in precolonial “North America,” or Turtle Island, as it is also known. From a purely practical level, knowing these languages was essential to trade and harmony between neighboring peoples. Perhaps this is why it’s becoming harder for us to assert the value of learning multiple languages…trade is no longer a local affair and business nowadays is conducted in one or two major languages, English usually being one of them. We don’t always take into consideration the wealth of cultural wisdom, history and insight that we lose by closing our minds to other languages.

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Re-Evaluating Our Values!

I feel that the aspects of division that have built up around languages around the globe is generally the result of societies and individuals that have learned to undervalue language diversity through the influence of colonial and capitalist mindsets that see less-used languages as either “useless” or threatening to the “dominant” culture. Because of this mindset many cultural groups, including the francophone population of Quebec, end up in a reactionary and defensive mode in order to ensure their cultural survival. It is indeed all too easy for languages and traditions to be lost in the onslaught of majority English-speaking media that pervades our homes and societies.

Interestingly enough, much of the English speaking population of Quebec, themselves a minority within a minority, has as a result also gone into a type of defensive mode because of feeling threatened with cultural oppression and extinction. Within that we have a number of First Nations peoples and languages that are for the most part completely ignored in the dialogue about ongoing struggles around language and culture issues here.

There are hints that this dynamic is shifting, that we are slowly beginning to create dialogue around these issues and remove the age-old blinders that have kept us separate so long. All the better! While I use Quebec as an example I am familiar with, these types of dynamics exist worldwide. It is up to us to re-evaluate the way we value language and culture if we want to preserve some of the incredible wealth and wisdom that comes along with maintaining global diversity!

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The Body – Land- Language Connection

There are soooo many elements of this worth discussing and questioning! First off, there is the reality that human beings and their languages develop according to their environments and the landscapes they are embedded in. A common example of this is the fact that people in northern countries often have way more words for different types of ice and snow then people living in less frigid geographies. So! If languages develop essentially as an extension of the land they are spoken on, doesn’t it make sense that learning the languages that evolved there would give us a much deeper level of connection to place? It sure makes sense to me!

Secondly, most people these days are of mixed heritage. I would even go so far as to say we all are, only some of us in a much less distant past. If we follow the logic of languages evolving within the context of specific types of geography, then we can also reflect on the fact that our bodies also are the result of centuries of other bodies evolving in specific landscapes! Think about it. The places where your parents and grandparents grew up take on a much greater significance when we take into account how we are effected by them, as do the languages of our ancestors. What better way to deepen our connection and understanding of personal and collective legacies—the cultural fabric of our families and “tribes” if you will – than by learning the languages (and thereby learning the landscapes and the worldviews) of the places we come from and the places we live in?

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On The Road to Peace

We need to completely re-frame the way we value key cultural elements like language. Especially those of us coming from widely spoken language groups! It’s too easy to believe in the narrative of “why learn a language if you can get by in English everywhere?” There is so much more to speaking multiple languages than basic-level communication! Aside from everything else I’ve mentioned, there is the element of respect. Even if you only pick up a couple of words of another language here and there, it can provide a direct connection with someones heart to have the value of their culture recognized in such a way! Respecting “the other” is a huge piece on the road to peace…if you’ll forgive the pun. I could go on and on about this. I truly believe that if we let go of our historical training that tells us that learning less dominant language groups are useless (not to mention our fear-of-failure-based refusal  to attempt learning them…) the whole world will benefit!

More and more people are realizing the incredible power and beauty of language. More and more people are delving into their personal histories and the stories of the land they live on and realizing…there is an entire world of wisdom and magic out there that we can’t even begin to imagine! If this perspective inspires you, I strongly encourage you to find a language that calls to and start learning it, bit by bit! It’s never a waste of time, no matter what you do with it. Delving into the most basic level of another language can open so many doors and will change the way you perceive the world! It’s never too late to start…

How to Make Love the Center of Your Life

Sometimes the universe conspires for certain things to cross our paths. This was the case for me with John O’Donohue’s book “Anam Cara.” The book poetically explores a whole slew of ideas stemming from the Irish/Celtic concept (anam cara) which means “soul friend.” Well, I had heard of soul mates and soul sisters…but soul friends? And an entire book on the topic? Needless to say, I was intrigued…

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When First We Met

My first exposure to O’Donohue’s work was in 2011… or so I thought! Nestled in the woods of rural Ontario a friend and I happened across a video of O’Donohue poetically expounding on the ideas contained in his book Anam Cara. I was smitten! I started talking with everyone I met about this Celtic philosopher-priest-poet who was able to articulate so clearly so many critical thoughts about the nature of human love and friendship. It was then that I discovered from my grandmother that I had actually heard one of his poems recited (by her) at the memorial service of my great uncle some years ago (when I was too young to fully appreciate it ;).

Some months later a friend from Ireland came to visit my mother’s farm/retreat center where I often spend my summers. We got to chatting under the stars one night and John O’Donohue came up. It turned out my friend had a copy of Anam Cara on him that he had bought after the death of a close friend some years ago. The next morning as he got ready to leave he handed me his well-worn copy saying “I think I was meant to give this to you…” The reason I decided to share all this with you is that I think we would all benefit from being more conscious and attentive to the soul friends in our lives, be they family members, partners or “just” friends. As O’Donohue puts it, “in everyone’s life there is a great need for an anam cara, a soul friend. In this love you are understood as you are without mask or pretension….Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home….”

kumamoto-542410_1280The Death of the Word Love

When I was a teenager and more active as a slam poet than a songwriter, I wrote a piece called “the death of the word love.” The piece was inspired by this feeling I had, and still feel at times, that there is an awkward unnecessary taboo around the word “love,” as if it were reserved solely for romantic purposes. “Not so!” say I. I love my friends, I love my family and I love a whole lot of other things on this planet, and saying so does not trivialize the feeling, rather it amplifies it! Saying “I love you” is, to me, an expression of something entirely fundamental to our humanity. Learning to express our love for each other and for other beings around us is an essential skill to living a happy and fulfilled life, in my humble opinion. I was thrilled to find some of these sentiments echoed so well in Anam Cara. “Love is anything but sentimental…In fact, it is the most real and creative form of human presence…all presence depends on our consciousness. Where there is depth of awareness, there is a reverence for presence…Consequently, awareness is the greatest gift we can bring to our friendships. Many people have an anam cara of whom they are not truly aware…”

foliage-539413_1280Abundance

It also speaks to this feeling I’ve often had about love being ever-present and abundant, whereas I feel that “society” and the media often portray it as something scarce, something we have to chase after. How many of our pop songs and TV shows and movies are dedicated to the struggle to find and keep love in our lives? When we can recognize this quality of soul friendship around us and work with its intrinsic qualities, “fear changes into courage, emptiness becomes plenitude and distance becomes intimacy.” When we are able to connect to the depth of love within us, we no longer need to run around in search of it, afraid of never finding or feeling that sense of belonging that comes from truly recognizing ourselves in the other. In fact, many of us are running in the opposite direction of what we claim to desire.  “An excessive concentration on our work, achievements or spiritual quest can actually lead us away from the presence of love…we don’t need to go out and find love, rather we need to be still and let love discover us…” This is perhaps the hardest thing to accept, speaking for myself. When I am feeling lost in a confused state of “lovelessness” and loneliness it’s very hard to sit still and try and connect to that underlying love that exists within us all. I would rather be out running around, keeping busy, seeking some kind of fleeting intimacy. When it doubt though, I find that spending time in nature is the best thing to get me back to center and allow me to open back up to life in the wake of heartbreak (romantic or otherwise).

sunset-142186_1280The Invitation…

What interests me about this whole concept of soul friendship is that it breaks out of constraints of romantic partnership or “possession.” It invites us to take part in intentional, conscious growth and heart-opening with those close to us simply because Love is the foundation of Life. “The anam cara experience opens a friendship that is not wounded by separation or distance…Because they have broken through the barriers of persona and egoism on the soul level, the unity of their souls is not easily severed…With your anam cara you awaken the eternal.” Since being introduced to the book I have gone to it in many a moment for wisdom and insight. It has accompanied me through many a rut in the road and inspired me in many moments of connection. I invite you to take a moment and reflect on those in your life with whom you feel this sense of “belonging”, with whom you feel you could grow beyond your fears and the shadows of experience to sink in to a new trust. After all, it’s from the practice and awareness of love that we all are able to blossom and grow.

Why Your Anxiety is not Just Your Problem!

I was sitting with a philosopher friend of mine discussing life and its many joys and trials when he came out with something along the lines of “anxiety is actually just grief that we’ve had to try and deal with in isolation.” “Now there’s something to chew on,” said my mind. “What if this wave of anxiety that seems to be plaguing so many people is actually the result of unprocessed grief, and the fact that we are trying to deal with it as individuals instead of as a collective?” hmmm…

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FROM PERSONAL TO COLLECTIVE

I don’t know how this reframing strikes you, but to me it made a whooole lot sense.  Some people experience anxiety as a result of nerves frayed by too much stress, too little sleep, too many stimulants, too little contact with nature, genetics and personal history. A combination of all these factors is relatively common these days and is definitely enough reason for anyone to crash and burn.

Above and beyond that though, why do there seem to be sooo many people experiencing severe anxiety “all of a sudden”? Is it just that I have only begun to notice it at this stage in my life? I was raised with an awareness of the ways in which stored emotions can erupt as physical or emotional symptoms. For some reason though, I had never thought very deeply specifically about anxiety and its possible roots. It seemed like just one of those things that some people struggle with for a variety of personal reasons. But what if that dismissal of anxiety as a personal issue is actually a large part of the problem itself?

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BREAKING OUT OF ISOLATION

Many health issues create social stigma, anxiety among them.  We feel embarrassed and humiliated by our lack of ability to “function” for reasons beyond our comprehension. We feel that we should be able to “deal” with this “problem” on our own. We feel the need to hide away and isolate ourselves so that no one has to see our vulnerability and so no one can judge our apparent “weakness.”

To see anxiety, or any number of states of being we may see as “personal problems (e.g. depression),” as a result of isolation and an attempt to process internalized emotions flips our current approach to these issues on its head. What if as someone who experiences anxiety you did not feel ashamed and stigmatized and dysfunctional? What if instead you felt supported by a community of others who understood this as a natural result of built up, unexpressed raw emotion?

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CANARIES IN THE COAL MINE

I am someone who has struggled my whole life with a feeling of occasionally overwhelming sensitivity to the suffering of others. When I say others, I don’t just mean other people. I find the destruction and disregard of Life in all forms deeply saddening and sometimes paralyzing.  Luckily, I am also someone who learned early on to cry, to sob, to sing, to yell, to connect to a sense of greater belonging and to creatively express any manner of intense emotion.

Now, if I were to imagine my life as a witness and participant in our society’s incredibly rapid rate of change, a constant bombardment with violent and coercive images and news stories that expose me to the whole spectrum of suffering and complex problems world-wide without having any clear way to move that all through and out of my body… I can only being to imagine the amount of pure unprocessed emotion that would create.  I can only imagine how those emotions might begin to pile up and fester to the point where all the pressure had to be released in one form or another.

As sensitive beings connected to the whole web of life, it seems obvious that we would be deeply affected by more than our own personal histories. We are part of a collective story unfolding around and within us at every moment. Taking this awareness to the next level means acknowledging how struggles like severe anxiety are issues that go beyond the individual. Those of us experiencing these intense fluxes are perhaps just  the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine,” indicators of a deeper, pervasive malaise. Anxiety, depression and all other forms of instability in our systems are a call to widespread action, to move forward in a direction that respects our collective needs as part of this living earth.

Writing Great Songs Without Music Theory

Everyone has their own process when it comes to writing, be it song-writing, creative writing or writing a thesis. As a self-taught musician I’ve never had a very technical approach. I find a lot of people feel intimidated about getting started trying to write songs. We all have moments where we struggle to create anything we find at all interesting. Sometimes learning about other people’s approaches can be just the thing to kick us out of the rut of writers block. What follows is one of the recurring methods to my madness.

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Stormy Weather

A day when I am going to write a song will often look like this. I am wandering aimlessly around my home, unable to focus on anything, with no concrete plans to fill my time. Everything on my to do list seems suddenly unimportant and I feel a kind of internal rumble that I can’t quite put my finger on. I have a made a dozen cups of tea, cleaned my whole space up and am now restless in a very particular kind of way that I can only describe as the kind of electric buzz you might feel in the air before a storm. Over time I am getting much better at identifying these moments as the build up to songwriting. Being able to tune in to your inner radar and know when you are ripe for writing, if a key element to making it happen.

When I’m in one of these moods I will, eventually, realize what’s going on and sit down with an instrument. Most often this will be a guitar, but if there’s any new instrument around then I will probably gravitate towards that because in my experience new instruments often inspire a whole new range of creativity. I have written many of my best songs by fiddling around with instruments I didn’t actually know how to play! If you feel blocked when you pick up your regular instrument, you should definitely give this a try!

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No Theory? No Problem!

Usually once I’ve settled in to this process of fiddling around, I will start out by making up some repetitive bit of music that I like the sound of. Being self-taught and not very theory-minded, I don’t really tend to approach things in a “this chord goes with that chord” kind of way. I will most often make things up on the spot based on what sounds good to me and what resonates with however I’m feeling that day.  Remember, it doesn’t have to be technically complex in order to be good!

When I have tried writing songs with a more theoretical approach I have rarely been satisfied with the results. That being said, it works for some people, AND I do find it very useful to be able to apply basic music theory in moments of “stuckness” when I have tried all other avenues and can’t figure out where to go with the music. If that doesn’t work then I just give up on the music and write something a’cappella (a vocal piece with no instrumental accompaniment). This is why I call myself a songwriter rather than a musician! I have a very low-level of commitment to being disciplined in practicing an instrument and a very high level of commitment to lyrical content!

Once I have a bit of music going, I end up looping and changing small things in this snippet until some kind of melody emerges for me to sing along with it. This melody then develops words, often just one or two lines at a time which I will then also sing on repeat for a while. Slowly the whole thing builds into something more like an actual song, at which point I might start scribbling some of the words down. The key word in this whole process is slow. While the most common way that I will go about writing a song is all in one shot, I do take a fair amount of time getting it all out! Give yourself all the time you need…

HPIM0761 (Small) Surprise Synthesis

It’s at this point that I realize that what is coming out is something that has built up over however many weeks or months of gestation since a particular thought or line of reflection was hanging out in the back of my mind. It’s a very strange and magical moment of synthesis where a whole bunch of experiences coalesce and blend themselves together through the creative process. And then “poof”. We have a song. Or a poem. It may never see the light of day and be witnessed by the world. But there it is!

I know some people feel frustrated when they write something that they then don’t feel like sharing with the world. For my part, I tend to think that anything I write is part of the creative process whether or not it’s something I want to share. Sometimes we have to dig through a lot of layers before reaching the essence of something. It’s a bit like emotional processing, where sometimes we need to talk through a certain situation or feeling before reaching the core of what we are experiencing and being able to fully articulate it. Above all, don’t get in your own way by being overly critical of every little thing you come up with!

The above is just one of the ways in which I go about writing a song, but it is definitely the most common process for me. Because I work very intuitively it’s sometimes difficult to prescribe a very specific set of steps to people who ask about my practice, but I hope this little description proves helpful or interesting to you!  Happy writing!

How to Take the Pressure off Parents

Despite this oft repeated adage “it takes a village to raise a child”our society seems to have headed in the opposite direction. The nuclear family model and pressures of modern society leave little space for sharing the task of child-rearing. But what would the world be like if children being born today were raised…differently? What if they grew up with models that didn’t repeat the old patterns that so many of us are trying to heal from today? What if there was a whole generation growing up with solid self-esteem and a deep respect for all life? How can we help make that happen?

These may seem like overwhelming questions. Finding community is more and more of a challenge for many of us. Technology keeps us focused on connecting with people far away rather than those around us; cities are designed for cars instead of for people; the media keeps us in a state of fear and mistrust of our neighbours by reporting all the negative news they can dig up; everything has been scaled up…the grocery store is no longer a quaint little shop where you know all the workers, the school is home to thousands rather than a handful of students.

Given all these changes in human social organization, it becomes ever more essential for us to build our own villages. This could mean actually finding a physical location for a more communal living style. It can also simply mean reaching out to friends with similar values and building the relationships necessary for shared child-rearing. If you want it to happen, it is possible!forests-231066_1280

Bring on the Aunties (and Uncles)

There are also lots of people out there who don’t have their own kids and who could be great mentors! Maybe you`re one of them. As someone who, at least for now, doesn’t feel the call to be a mom, I often joke with my close friends that I plan to be the “auntie” for their future children. I love kids and would love to contribute to a child’s upbringing as an adult friend for them to hang out with (don’t all call me at once ;). I feel that I and many others would have a lot of positive energy and influence to contribute as an adult friend for some kids out there in need of community.

To the parents out there what I’m saying is, you may feel like asking for help with childcare is a big favour to ask, or something you have to hire people to do. However, there are actually people out there who would love to get a chance to hang out with kids more! How many times have I heard friends in their mid-twenties bemoaning the fact that they never get to hang out with children or elderly people? Many of us simply don’t have access to multi-generational environments the way we used to! Find those people in your circles and figure out some kind of mutually beneficial arrangement.

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Letting go (when parents lose control)

I’ve had conversations with friends and family who balk at the idea of raising their children with other people aside from their partner. Even between partners there are often some pretty big clashes when it comes to “best parenting practices,” (let alone when the grandparents get involved).  So how on earth can we be expected to agree with other people?

It may seem scary to include others in your ideas and visions of child-rearing, but oh, the long-term benefits! There is, I believe, a strong potential for added freedom for both children and parents when other people join the mix. I, for one, am extremely grateful that I was raised in an environment that was multi-generational and where I was exposed to multiple models of adulthood. On the one hand parents get to enjoy some blessed time for themselves, or for simply getting some shit done, depending on where you’re at in your life. Children get to have a new friend, and speaking from experience having an older friend to hang out with is a lot of fun, no matter what your age!

In the end it comes down to how much control you are willing to let go of. And really, as much as you may want to mold the model citizen, you are still going to have to let go of some attachments at some point. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try and control the outcome of Project Child, there is no way of predicting the way this particular little being will evolve.

So why not…ya know…relax a little (easier said than done, I know!)? Create some clear intentions for the type of support you’d like around you and you kid(s). Find a framework that makes you feel safe and secure in taking some first steps.

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Being the Change

I strongly believe our culture would benefit from taking the pressure off individual parents. We not only need people consciously preparing themselves for parenting in a new way, we need people willing to step up and support them in those efforts. We are all equally responsible for creating the world we want to see. Contributing to the growth and education of the coming generations is a key part of that.

We need to get back to a place where inter-generational exchange and mentorship are natural parts of society. Those of us not engaged directly in parenting have the opportunity, honour and responsibility of offering our support in being positive models to the children of today.