Kyra Shaughnessy

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What it Means to Be a Spiritual Activist

To Do or Not to Do

To put it mildly, there is a bit of an obsession with “doing” in the current market culture. Productivity levels, infinite growth as a norm, success as climbing the social ladder. We are encouraged to use our time to produce so that we can consume. Hmmm….

In response to this trend, still relatively recent in the grand scheme of things, there has been a wave of “be-ers.” Mainly sprouting from the new age spiritualist movement(s), the swing of the pendulum has led many to strive towards Being as opposed to Doing.

Somehow all this Being created a popular vision of spirituality as inactive. With the main goal of most spiritual paths I have come across being some form of non-duality, I think it’s time we talk a bit more about spiritual activism.

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Widening Awareness, Broadening Definitions

I learned early on that in certain circles identifying as “spiritual” was shooting myself in the foot. No one would ever
listen to my opinions again, period. For some, the word conjured up pictures of meditating masses wiling the world to change and then carrying about a daily life of middle class consumption. I took this as a challenge of translation.

I say translation because it is my experience that people with the same mother tongue can at the same time be speaking a completely different language. Our “language” is based on the assumptions and inherited meanings associated with every word we, or someone else, says. If I say the word “spirituality” to someone they will have one understanding of the word and I may have another. Sometimes it’s in our best interest to consider what word would best communicate our true meaning to that specific person, rather than just using a word that’s comfortable to us as individuals. More on this later perhaps.

For myself, spirituality has always been intimately linked to social change and activism. With an awareness of the associations some people may have with the word spiritual, I learned to broaden my definitions and use terms that communicated the essence of things. Animism, radical interconnection, philosophy of oneness, permaculture, holistic worldview, epistemology, call it what you will…The basic gist is that everything is connected. Yes, everything. And that simple fact is a motivator for major, radical, transformative change on all scales of human life.

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The Spiritual Activist

Identifying yourself as a spiritual person has nothing to do with checking out from the hard challenges of the world. For many it is in fact the complete opposite.

More commonly, a spiritual approach simply means that one is also dedicated to personal transformation as an integral part of the process of creating a better world. By that I don’t just mean processing years or lifetimes of childhood trauma and social programming. Whether in the name of justice or the sacred, respecting life/the
ecosystem means including oneself in the picture. What good is being revered as a hard-core, dedicated political activist if we still replicate oppressive patterns in our intimate relationships, be it with our partners or our bodies? Similarly, “channeling the divine” in mediation or song is not so impressive if it leads to an ego large enough to crush a 16-wheeler.

What I think is beautiful about the combination of the words spiritual and activist is that, for me at least, it brings together those two strains, the Being and the Doing, to allow us a Whole way forward. All of a sudden we don’t either have to be dedicated to the Present Moment and the Higher Self or to Social and Ecological Justice and The Future Generations. It’s all part of the same deal. It’s all part of being fully Alive and Aware.

It’s also about Being and Doing what you are able to be and do. Not striving towards some imposed standard.

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Runaway

Of course, people do exist who choose a spiritual path as a way of avoiding certain things in the world and in themselves. There are also those who choose the activist path as a way of directing and venting unprocessed rage or trauma rather than examining or trying to heal its roots. Whether we choose action or transcendence as our route of escape, the driving force is the same. Whether it leads to burnout and alcoholism or ascetic self-denial, if the motivating factor is fear (of oneself, the world, the past…) it’s a similar situation.

That being said, it’s no good judging others motivations and feeling holier than thou for having “figured it all out.” Being aware of where people might be coming from can simply serve us as a guideline for communication and compassion. Being aware of where we are coming from is integral to clear intention, “right action” (to borrow a Buddhist term) and having our choices and actions perceived the way we want them to be.

Ok, But…Where are you Really From?

I come from a mixed heritage background. West-Indo-European would be one simplified way of describing it. On my mother’s side Irish and Scottish meet Trinidadian-Indian and on my dad’s Welsh, English and roots somewhere in Scandinavia add to the mix. The result is four children of very questionable origins. There is, however, a question of tact involved when interrogating someone about their particular mix. If you’ve ever gotten a negative response to the question “where are you from?” and walked away feeling shocked or confused, let me try and clear some things up for you…

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Be Prepared to Share

The number one thing that irks me about the way many people approach the subject of origins is that, more often than not, they are not looking for a conversation. What I mean by this is that the majority of people will ask me where I’m from, get an answer, say something like “ohhhh that explains it,” and move on to another subject or simply walk away. “Um. Excuse me?” That whole interaction just became really hurtful to me because there was no real exchange. It feels like being an information booth or a computer, which I’m not. When I get a chance to return the question, with honest curiosity, I am usually met with a shrug and “I’m from here,” or “it’s not very interesting.”

Expecting someone to divulge their whole family history and then not being prepared to share anything of yours…well…it doesn’t exactly encourage connection, to say the least. Even if you think your family roots are completely banal, opening up your side of the conversation will make most people feel a little less exotified and a little less alienated at the very least and will allow you to connect on a human level.

The fact is that most people are a mix of a few things if they take the time to look in to their family tree. In Quebec for example, most people (well, most white, francophone people…) will claim to be “Quebecois.” What this actually means is “I am French, Scottish, Irish and First Nations…Possibly German, Polish or Italian as well. But my first language is French so I identify with the history of French speakers in Quebec, and therefore call myself Quebecois”. Or something along those lines. How is that not interesting?

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Yup, It’s All Relative…

Now to lay it all out, it’s true that my reaction, and most people’s reactions, will be different right away depending on who the question is coming from and the context in which it’s being asked. If someone who is also visibly of mixed heritage or a “visible minority” asks me I’m less likely to feel offended, it’s true. This may seem unfair. However, first off, they are almost definitely in it for an exchange, rather than simply satisfying their curiosity, and will offer up their story for mine. Secondly, there is a certain amount of shared experience that creates a baseline of solidarity. If you haven’t been asked every day of your life where you are from you may not know that it often feels incredibly alienating. Being singled out on the regular can make you feel like you don’t belong, even if most people have no harmful intentions.

Of course, if you are someone with lighter skin you, or at least your ancestors, have probably still experienced some form of exclusion, oppression or other challenges. It’s just that in a culture that accepts whiteness as the “norm” and where light skin is equivalent to “being from here,” in a North American context, we probably don’t have the same experiences in daily life. When someone asks me where I’m from I inevitably react differently depending on their attitude and the way they phrase the question, as well as sometimes, unfortunately, what they look like. I don’t like admitting this, but it’s true, and based in lived experience.

Mostly my reaction will depend on how people approach the topic. If I feel that the person has no awareness of the fact that as someone who is considered a “visible minority” I probably get asked where I’m from a lot then I will be slightly less enthusiastic about the encounter. Partially because this lack of awareness comes from a place of privileged ignorance about the experiences of a large part of the world. But that’s why I’m writing this piece. Because I’d like more people to be aware of the potential sensitivity of this issue and how to approach it in a way that increases connections rather than repeating a pattern of exclusion and alienation.

Starting from a point of genuine curiosity combined with a desire for exchange and a willingness to share about yourself is a wonderful place to start!

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Don’t Dig too Deep

Another point that might confuse some people is that those of us who are constantly pointed out as being mixed or “from somewhere else” don’t always feel like sharing our family histories! Crazy, I know.

It’s important to be willing to accept and respect someone’s boundaries if on a given day they just don’t feel like getting in to it! As someone who was in fact born in Canada, in Quebec,in Montreal…I don’t always feel good about people pointing out that I don’t look like I’m from here. I do not always appreciate being reminded that everywhere I go I am assumed to be from elsewhere. When I say that I’m from here…it would be nice if sometimes people just accepted that as the truth, or at least let the topic go for five, ten, thirty minutes.

Instead most people, at least those who have not been sensitized to this whole topic, will dig deeper. “No but, where are you really from?” “Well, I was born in Montreal, in Quebec,” “No but…where were your parents born?” “Well, my mom grew up in Winnipeg and my dad in Nova Scotia,” “Okay, okay but…like…where do you get that lovely tan?”Gahhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is where I feel like jumping off a roof or returning to the wild never to be seen by humanity again.

In these types of situations I know what the person really wants to get out of me. I know what they are really trying to ask (“why are you brown?” or rather “why aren’t you white”). Unfortunately I have learned to read my interrogators pretty well by now and people who take this particular tack tend not to be looking for an exchange, but for information. I also know, were we to meet again, they will not remember a single word I said to them about where I’m “from.”

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Of course all of this is a very personal perspective. Given conversations I’ve had in the past with people who get identified as “other” by those around them, I do know that a lot of this is common ground for many.

So what I mean about the approach people take is as simple as be sensitive, treat me like a human being (worthy of exchange, not just a passing curiosity), and accept my explanations at face value. Respect how people choose to identify and what there boundaries are in the moment when it comes to sharing their family histories. Start out with openness and a desire to connect rather than simply to satisfy your curiosity, and everything should be fine…!

Heart-Based Creation

We all have those moments where we find ourselves staring at a blank page thinking….nothing. In fact, I had one of those moments as I tried to begin writing this blog post. Unfortunately many of us experience this “blank” feeling as a big, scary, looming…thing. This moment of uncertainty and emptiness reeks of imminent failure. Rather than communing with this vast horizon,  we find a hundred and one other things we need to do at that very moment. Sound familiar?

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The Heart as Barometer.

Your approach to things will of course depend on the desired outcome. I am addressing those of you whose primary goal is to be able to write, to write regularly, and to write things you feel good about.

If there is one thing I feel that I have learned to do well in this lifetime, it is song-writing. I may not write pop hits. I may not be putting words in the mouths of Celine Dion and Elton John. It’s almost definite that not everyone who hears my music will like it. But the songs I write invariably come directly from the heart and resonate with some part of my Truth. For that reason alone they are good songs, and completing one feels like a success.

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Why? Because I know that a) anything that expresses some truth of human experience is bound to connect with someone out there; b) I know the songs I don’t end up sharing are part of a necessary process of getting to the heart of things. This outlook saves me from feeling like I waste a huge amount of time writing things that I will never share with anyone.

I know I have written something relevant when I feel my heart vibrating in response to what my words express. This may sound cheesy, but it works like a charm. Try it out. Notice! What music, what words, ring true to you? If you use your heart as a barometer and let your mind go off it’s a corner for a while, what direction does your writing take? What I’m saying is, stop trying to write something good and try writing something true. You will feel better, I can almost guarantee it.  

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What’s Love got to do with it?

When you break the creative process down to its fundamentals what you find is Love. When we are able to let go of the process of self-judgment that is firmly anchored in most of our psyches we are left no choice but to embrace whatever inside us needs expression. There may be a ton of crap to get through before you create something that you feel like sharing with the outside world. But wading through the crap is pretty much the only way to get to the other side.

As I see it, creative writing of any kind is a simultaneous process of inner healing and outwards connection. Both of these things are motivated (despite whatever psychological mechanisms may clutter our view of it) by an expansive, unconditional Love.

Sound crazy? Far-fetched? A little too grand? It’s true that a lot of performance art and creative writing is focused on exposing life’s suffering or exploring the artist’s tormented inner world (Dostoevsky anyone?). However, it is my opinion that even the darkest creative expressions are driven from a deep need for healing and connection. The desire to heal and to connect with ourselves and others is, at its root, a form of basic universal love.

 

Raised Free Range: The Inside Scoop From Outside the Box

I grew up an experiential learner, guided by my interests and the love of learning that is natural to all humans. (That’s right; I said learning was natural to all humans.).  As a teenager I chose to go to public school for the final two years of high school. I wanted to have some real perspective on both forms of education.

At this point in the story I am usually bombarded with questions. “How did you adapt? Were you homeschooled or unschooled and what’s the difference anyway? Weren’t you isolated learning at home?” As someone who has experienced both sides of the educational fence, I hope to shed some light on the reality of being raised free-range.

In my life as a self-employed artist I’m often called on to talk about my background. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of misinformation and stereotypes that exist around alternative education, not to mention the sheer disbelief I encounter from people:  “YOU were homeschooled? But…you’re so…functional!” “Ooooh boy. Here we go again” I sigh.

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Homeschooling vs. Unschooling

First off, let’s get our labels straight. Homeschooling is a form of education where, generally speaking, the learner is following some form of curriculum, often provided by the government or other governing body. Most of the time a homeschooler will have someone, usually a parent, who is responsible for giving lessons and evaluating their progress. The option also exists, at least in Quebec, of completing the same exams you would be taking in school.

Homeschooling is often still with religious groups but the reality is that more and more people of all creeds are opting out of the existing educational structures. Many people are choosing homeschooling simply because of the environment of violence and bullying that pervades many large public school these days. Others find that the student-teacher ratio and pressure of standardized tests detracts from the quality of learning. Reasons can vary quite a bit from family to family.

Un-schooling is a term coined by John Holt in the 1970’s and generally refers to a philosophy that rejects “compulsory institutional education”. This philosophical base distinguishes it from homeschooling, which is usually follows a mainstream framework (even religious homeschoolers would tend to approach schooling in the standard North American way). Many people who have received a mainstream education call themselves “unschoolers” when they choose to begin “unlearning” the worldview and values supported by said education system. As with most things there are exceptions and variations to the use of both terms, but that gives you a general idea.

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Self-Direction: The Passion approach

For myself, I tend to say I had a self-directed education. “Wait…a 5 to 15 year-old directing their own education?
Don’t children need adults to direct them in order for them to learn?” In all honesty, no. Mentors, guides and intergenerational exchange are completely essential to the evolution of people of all ages. But, quite frankly, children can learn a lot without the constant surveillance of adults. We are born to learn. The only thing adults need to do with kids is to make sure nothing gets in the way of their curiosity and safety to explore the world and to provide resources when necessary.

As I said before, humans are natural learners. We all start out loving to learn. The current education system is not built around encouraging an individual person’s passion. It operates on the belief that all people need to learn the same things at the same in order to develop as functional members of society.

Self-directed learning relies on the fact that by learning about things we’re passionate about we develop other necessary skills by default. This was my experience and that of most other self-directed learners and unschoolers I’ve encountered. (For those interested in how this philosophy could work in a more formal school setting I suggest you read “Summerhill” by A.S. Neill.)

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Going beyond separation

By seeing all subjects as separate from each other we limit our learning potential. Here’s an example of what I mean. A child fascinated by insects could easily learn reading, writing, arithmetic, biology and geography, to name only a few subjects, just from researching what interests her: bugs.

Tell her she can’t just obsess about bugs because she has to learn things in a more focused way, and you will most likely take the fun out of a few things. We all know that learning anything when we don’t want to is an uphill climb. However, people are willing to learn just about anything if it allows them to fulfill a personal goal or interest. If you want to do any research about insects, you’re at some point going to have to learn to read. You might need to learn some Latin or other languages. You will most likely discover things about various remote areas of the world. Ba da bing, ba da boom. Welcome to the tumbleweed of knowledge approach.

For myself, I discovered an early interest in world cultures, languages, history and human psychology. (Somehow these merged into a brief but intense obsession with Star Trek.) I discovered that music was an access point to all these interests. The first song I learned, at age 11, was Sinead O’Connor’s “The Potato Famine,” followed by The Neville Brothers “Sister Rosa.” It’s likely that in a grade 6 class I would not have gone about researching the Montgomery bus crisis or the Irish potato famine but in the context of self-directed learning I was free to follow my natural curiosity and delve deeper into both topics at will.

Ask me how I learned just about anything I know how to do and I won’t be able to give you one single answer. Everything being connected means exactly that. I learned countless things by extension of following my interests, and because I learned them in the context of my life, was never a chore. Ever subject was connected to every other one. Learning was part of every moment of every day. Learning was life. Simple and exciting as that.

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Unlearning learning

My first shock in going from self-directed learning to formal education was realizing that the majority of my peers had completely no interest in learning. This was really confusing. How could anyone not want to learn. “Well,” said my peers, “try 13 years of having to memorize facts that don’t seem to have any connection to your everyday life”. Okay, I see your point.

I also remember the very moment in my life when I first understood boredom. It was in a grade 10 math class. The epiphany struck as I sat doodling while the teacher went over a trigonometry problem for the nth time. The lights started going off in my head. “Aha! This is boredom!” I flashed back to a childhood of excitedly asking my school-going friends what they had done all day. “Nothing…it was boring,” was the most common response. I didn’t feel like I really understood this whole boredom thing but I knew it wasn’t good.

I suppose I could be grateful to have not known boredom until my late teens and leave it at that. However, I can’t help feeling like the fact that slews of young people are coming out of the school system feeling completely uninspired  by at least 10 years of their lives…is a bit of a problem.

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For each one their Way

I think it’s important to say that I don’t believe that any one form of alternative education is The Truth, the Way and The Light. The point is exactly that there is no one formula for learning. How could there be? We’re all unique individuals with different passions and different ways of processing information.

Standardized education may have certain benefits, but cultivating creativity, self-motivation, independent thinking and personal empowerment is not among them. Yes, this may have been some people’s experience. There are some absolutely amazing and dedicated teachers out there. But a look at the overarching system, from the perspective of someone who experienced other ways of learning at a young age, is not encouraging.

There are many challenges facing parents these days and questioning the education system is no small undertaking. The main crux of the matter as I see it though is that we need to reframe the way we see and approach learning and education. We need to take a new (or old, depending how you look at it…) perspective, one that recognizes the importance of integrated learning and passion and contextual relevance as primary motivators.  We need to accept that we might not always know what’s best. Sometimes we just need to throw the program out the window and go with the flow of natural  curiosity.

I, for one, dream of a world where we cherish, protect and encourage the natural love of learning of every child, every person, in whatever way necessary.

What if You Could Choose to “Live Your Dream”?

The conversation begins “wow, you mean you actually make a living doing this? You’re so lucky!” Lucky to do what I love, lucky to make ends meet as a young, female, independent singer-songwriter…”Lucky?” Well, I guess that’s one way of looking at it.  My perspective is a bit different. Luck implies a sort of serendipitous divine intervention in your favor. In my experience anyone living from what they love has made a conscious choice to do so.  Without recognizing our choice in matters how we can get back to a state of empowerment in our everyday lives?  Building a life that works for you opens up a world of infinite possibilities. Of course there are lots of challenges involved in “living the dream.” Ready to take the leap and see what’s on the other side?

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The Road Less Traveled

Let’s start with that familiar conversation. The distinction between being “lucky” vs. choosing to live from your passion may seem like simple semantics, but it has huge implications, the main one being that including choice means that ANYONE can CHOOSE how they make a living. That’s right, all of a sudden you are being handed full responsibility for your life. Artists, inventors, self-employed freelancers are not the elite, fortunate few who for some reason get to live “the dream” while the mainstream masses are doomed to a life of 9 to 5 daily grind.

Of course there are many people in the world living in situations of extreme poverty or oppression who this all may not apply to.  But we’re talking about you, who are reading this blog, right now. Seeing artists and entrepreneurs at any level of renown as “lucky” is, in my view, simply a way of avoiding taking a good look at one’s own life and fully reflecting on what it would mean to commit to whatever it is you are passionate about. Harsh words? Take it as a case of “if the shoe fits…”HPIM0748 (Small)

While there may be many people with very legitimate reasons for not pursuing their passions, a large percentage are simply convinced of their own (false) limitations. This fact always strikes me when I respond to people’s amazement at my music career. Whenever I get a chance I ask people what they would love to do and then why they aren’t doing it. I am almost always met with a large wall of “I have to’s” and “I can’t’s,” if not simply with a shrug and a change in conversation topic.

Take a minute. Think about it. Do you spend the majority of your time doing something that feels truly meaningful to you? If so, you can stop reading now! If not, try and conjure up in your mind, without any input from the “be realistic” internal peanut gallery, what your ideal life-work would be. If you didn’t have to worry about making X amount of income per year for this and that reason, what would you do with your days?

What makes you feel totally accomplished and satisfied, what gets your creative (in the sense of “action-oriented”) energy flowing? It might be reading sci-fi novels. It might be having conversations with people where you feel you’ve helped them process some deep conflict. It might be climbing mountains. Whatever makes you tick. Now keep that thing, or things, in mind.

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The Freedom of Responsibility!

I’m pretty convinced that if everyone took full responsibility for their lives we would have a far more engaged, conscious, overall healthier and happier society. Granted, we would no longer have the ability to blame our circumstances or our unhappiness on someone else. When I wake up on the wrong side of the bed feeling like nothing I do is worth a dust bunny’s attention I often long for someone I could blame for my existential discontent. Alas. No such luck.

Now that you have some kind of basic vision in your mind of what you would like to be doing with your time let yourself think about why you aren’t doing whatever it is as your primary occupation. Open the floodgates of inner-commentary. Are there a lot of voices clamouring to say things like “it’s not realistic,” “there’s no way I could make a living doing X” or “don’t be ridiculous”? Most likely.

What if instead of letting yourself stop there you decided to walk through the wall of nay-saying voices and consider the possibility…Consider. The Possibility. What if you decided to turn the whole system upside down and do what you want to do? If no one has ever been there to tell you “anything is possible” and “there’s always a way to make it work,” I’m telling you now!

Of course all this hesitance to do what we dream of doing in life also has a lot to do with our learned definitions of “success.” In my opinion we would all benefit from redefining success so that it lines up with happiness and fulfillment rather then material wealth or social status. If this little piece of writing can contribute in any way to some of you internalizing a new vision of success, than I will have accomplished a great deal.

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Committing to Possibility

Let’s be clear. Doing what you want to do is not about a narcissistic refusal to consider the well-being of others. It’s about recognizing that a) by filling our lives with meaning (by using our time in doing what we love) we are actually contributing to the overall wellness of society and the planet. Miserable people make for a miserable culture. So let go of your attachment to martyrdom and accept that doing something that makes you happy might actually be good for more than just you. Staying at that job you hate because you feel like they really need you is not actually helping anyone.

Of course “making it work” doesn’t necessarily mean you will all of a sudden magically be able to switch to doing what you love %100 of your waking hours. There will be challenges, there will be a lot of self-doubt, and there will be a lot of people who will tell you you’re crazy for trying. There will also be a community of people ready to welcome you, support you and believe in you because you will be giving them motivation and inspiration to maybe, just maybe, commit to their own dreams.