Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Tracy I
Writer, feminist, vegan, runner, sailor, philosopher, yogi, sometimes knitter, co-founder of Fit Is a Feminist Issue, co-author of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey (launching in April 2018, published by Greystone Books)..
In August 2012, both 48 years old, Sam and I decided to become the fittest we’d ever been in our lives by the time we hit 50. That gave us two years to make and execute a plan. We decided to blog about our fittest by 50 challenge and also about feminist issues in fitness–stuff that bothered us, made us feel strong. Along the way we brought some more bloggers on board. First as occasional guests. Then as regular contributors. Our fiftieth birthdays came and went. We hit our goals. We wrote a book about it.
And we kept blogging. And blogging. And blogging.
And after seven years and hundreds of thousands of words of training updates, race reports, posts about doing less, posts about intuitive eating, rants about this and that outrageous sexist sport incident thing, post after post about what’s wrong with dieting, missives about putting away the scale, more race reports, more posts about getting back on track after falling out of routine, travel fitness logs, justifications and defences of rest, telling everyone why hormone replacement therapy was a life saver for me, … I’ve run out of steam for these topics and issues.
The clarity that it is time to step away hit me when I was away on my ten-day meditation course a few weeks ago. It’s not as if I’d even been toying with stepping away. But I have been feeling uninspired (and therefore, uninspiring) lately. Since Around the Bay I’ve had no end of setbacks. Though I felt strong the first day back, I soon had debilitating back pain that kept me almost immobile for weeks.
Since then, I’ve traveled enough to interrupt my training schedule. Then, as I’ve tried to ease back into running, my Achilles has been acting up. My physiotherapist has told me not to run. That makes the window of opportunity to train for the Toronto Scotiabank Waterfront Half Marathon on October 20 ever-shrinking. I should not have signed up for it before seeing my physiotherapist. The clock is ticking and I don’t know how I can go from zero to 21K — and without injury — by race day. I don’t really feel like blogging about that.
The clarity came so strongly during my meditation course –it was like a full-body knowing set in and said: it’s time to take a step back and make space for others on the blog and for other things in my life. I think feminist commentary on fitness still matters. And hearing personal stories of triumph and struggle and getting on task and falling away and getting motivated again still matters. But I don’t feel I’ve got anything much left to say.
Not only that, we have built a diverse and energetic team of amazing regulars over the years, along with a huge group of guests. So I can easily leave without so much as a missed beat on the blog. Though Sam and I co-founded it and it grew up around our own challenge, the shape of the blog has changed over these past seven years and it really is a team effort now. I’m enormously grateful to everyone who contributes to the blog’s success by creating smart and relevant content on regular basis.
I’ll be writing a short series over the next couple of weeks as my way of saying “good-bye for now.” In part 2, on Thursday, I’m going to talk about some of my favourite posts by the other authors. In part 3, next Tuesday (August 27th), I’m going to reflect on the posts of my own that I like the best. And finally, in part 4 (August 29th), I’ll reflect a bit on how the blog has shaped, influenced, and forever altered the way I engage with fitness pursuits in my own life. It has meant a lot to me, not just as a way of motivating me to stay on task and try new things, but also by creating a sense of community and camaraderie that I had not anticipated.
On the 29th, it’ll be almost exactly seven years to the day since my very first post. That seems like a fitting date on which to call it a day.
I wrote this #tbt post during the 2016 Olympics, when sexist media coverage was happening almost every day. I was reminded of it last night when I was at an amazing documentary that tells the incredible story of Tracy Edwards and her all-woman crew on the sailing vessel Maiden, the first all-woman crew in the Whitbread Around the World sailing race (in 1989-90 — it takes nine months). One of the ongoing themes in that film is the sexist media coverage (endlessly so) and how demoralizing it was for these women, who were engaged in a difficult and dangerous undertaking that took skill and courage. They were expected to fail. And when they actually turned out to be competitive, they were “sailing like men.” Read on about why sexist sports coverage matters.
USA women’s gymnastics team in Rio, with their team gold medals. Photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Blake TPX
We’ve all heard it before: more money and attention go to men’s sport because men’s sports are more popular. For women who are athletes, it’s a constant battle to be taken seriously for their accomplishments. On one front, the women need to work hard to keep the focus on their athletic achievement (as opposed to their looks, who they want to date, or what they post on social media). On another front, they struggle to get their share of media coverage.
Just ask Canadian tennis player, Eugenie Bouchard, who was once famously asked “to twirl” in an on-court interview and also, on a different occasion, asked who her ideal date would be. More recently, CBC sportscaster, Adam Kreek, blamed her Olympics singles loss on what she does on social media. He said:
Is there not just something incredible about watching elite women athletes blow everyone’s mind with their incredible athleticism? In case you missed it, the latest almost unbelievable achievement in sport goes to US gymnast Simone Biles, who completed (though not to her own satisfaction) a move that is reported to have revolutionized gymnastics. The move is called “the triple double: a double back somersault with three twists spread out over the two flips.”
According to Slate, it is “the single most spectacular skill that any female gymnast has ever attempted, on any apparatus, in the history of the sport. It’s got an “astronomical difficulty rating” and looks almost impossible (but for the fact that she is doing it!):
From the same competition, the US Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Biles completed a stunning and unprecedented dismount after a gripping routine on the balance beam. According to the article in Slate, Biles “destroyed a new balance beam dismount, the most difficult and daring in the history of the sport: a double-double, or a double somersault with a full twist in each flip. This is a skill that is usually reserved for the floor exercise—an apparatus that is 40 feet wide and outfitted with 11 centimeters of springs. Biles did it off the end of a lightly padded plank 4 inches wide and 4 feet off the ground, and she made it look easy.” And landed it perfectly:
This is really just an “in case you missed it post.” Simone Biles is not to be missed. Keep in mind too that she purportedly had an off-weekend, by her own lights it was not her best. She expressed disappointment over her floor routine because she didn’t complete the triple double to her own high standards. And it was all still enough to secure her first place.
She’s making me fall in love with gymnastics all over again. I really don’t even have a question to end on today, other than the rhetorical: “doesn’t watching Simone Biles do gymnastics make you want to watch more of Simone Biles doing gymnastics?”
I’ve had a lot of questions since my post on Tuesday about the 10-day Vipassana meditation course, so I thought I would follow up with one more post about it. These points are in random order and are themselves random.
Waking up at 4 a.m. No question, it’s not easy to wake up a 4 a.m. If you’re staying in one of the residences, they assign someone to take care of the 4 a.m. gong. And then there is another at 4:20. And you’re expected to be meditating in your room (not in bed!) or in the meditation hall by 4:30. Once I relocated to the cabin I needed to wake up on my own. I’m really glad I had my Timex Ironman watch. I don’t think I have ever used it so much. I set the alarm for 4 a.m. daily, and I used the timer whenever I was meditating in my room and also to wake me up from naps that I took during the longer breaks.
The food We had two meals a day — breakfast at 6:30 and lunch at 11:00. At 5:00 we had a tea break and new students could have fruit (anyone who for medical reasons needed a meal at that time could pack up some extra at lunch and heat it up for dinner). The food was simple but good.
Breakfast was the same set of choices every day: Oatmeal, stewed prunes, bran cereal, granola, raisins, sunflower seeds, flax seed powder, nutritional yeast, cinnamon, almond milk, soy milk, cow’s milk, bananas, apples, oranges, sometimes sliced fresh pineapple, 12-grain bread for toast, butter, vegan margarine, peanut butter, tahini, and jam. Instant coffee, black tea, green tea, hibiscus tea, peppermint tea, chamomile tea. I always had a coffee and a tea, both strong because I needed the caffeine.
At lunch, we usually had brown and white rice, some sort of stew or stirfry, veggies (roasted or steamed), salad with optional toppings of shredded beets, shredded carrots, raisins, chickpeas, sprouted lentils, choice of dressings (including a really delicious sunflower seed dressing they made there), and about 4-5 times we had dessert. Same choices for tea and coffee as at breakfast, with almond milk, soy milk, or cow’s milk. My favourites among what they served for lunch were: the thai tofu curry, the grain pilaf, the roasted beets, the roasted broccoli, the Persian rice, the sunflower dressing on shredded carrot with chickpeas and raisins (I made that every lunch time), and the cassava pudding (OMG it was amazing; I need the recipe). I always had a strong black tea with soy milk with my lunch.
Having only tea and fruit at 5 wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I didn’t feel terribly hungry but I was grateful to be a new student because the old students only got tea, no fruit.
The silence: what if you had an issue? A few people have asked me about this. The course was conducted in Noble Silence, which means no communication. But that was only among the students. The goal was to enable an inward experience to work on the technique. I think this was a good idea because it prevented (as much as possible) us from comparing where we were at with where others were at. And it prevented people from having negative and complaining conversations about how hard it was. That could have created a downward spiral of commiseration that wouldn’t have served me well.
However, we were definitely not left alone in our heads with no recourse. If you needed something or were having difficulties, you could talk to the course managers about it. That’s how I ended up getting moved from my room in one of the women’s residences to a cabin of my own. It’s also how I ended up being permitted to sit in a chair during the evening discourse rather than having to sit on the floor, which was causing me some difficulty. We could also speak to the teacher, which I did on two occasions to ask her about ways of easing my body during meditation. She made some suggestions that were helpful. Finally, the teacher checked in with us periodically, calling us up to the front in small groups and asking us questions about our progress. During those periods we spoke.
So it wasn’t as silent as all that — I did talk a number of times during the course. You could also speak with the kitchen servers if you had questions about the food.
Was it hard not to exercise? I went for a walk most days and did a lot of stretching. Frankly, that was about all I could handle. At first I was bummed that I couldn’t go running, but with ten hours of sitting in meditation in a day that went from 4:00 a.m. to about 9:30 p.m., I used most of the off-time when I wasn’t eating to lie quietly on my bed.
Was it hard to follow rules? There are a lot of rules. From noble silence to indoor footwear in the dining hall to showering only during your designated 20 minute time-slot to meditating during all meditation time, remaining within the course boundaries while at the centre, respecting a modest dress code, not bringing any of your own food, maintaining a fragrance free environment, meditating only inside and never outside, not to mention the 5 precepts (against killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and using intoxicants)…to name a few. They give a lot of advance notice. I think someone who really felt like these rules would challenge them and make them feel controlled (or defiant) probably isn’t temperamentally suited for this type of thing. Myself, I didn’t experience them as a big issue, not for just ten days. But some struggled with the modest dress code, with the silence, with the fragrance free policy, and with the requirement to meditate during all of the meditation times.
What was the best part? That’s a tough one. I liked most everything, even if it wasn’t what I would call “fun.” I enjoyed the nightly discourses (the talks) by SN Goenka. These are videotaped recordings of talks he gave during a 10-day course in 1991. They are excellent and engaging, and gave context to what we were learning. I also relished the silence and the permission not to engage in social interactions. And I liked the challenge of it all–I felt as if I was doing something that would change me in ways I couldn’t anticipate. I’m pretty sure I was right about that.
What was the worst part? I’m not sure I would define this as necessarily “bad,” but it was definitely a lot more physically demanding than I anticipated it would be. But the worst part was probably the first three days when we were doing the breathing meditation (Anapana) and I couldn’t focus for more than a minute or two at a time. It was mentally and emotionally frustrating. Plus I was exhausted — the 4 a.m. wake-up was pretty difficult and never got easier for me during the entire ten days.
Would I recommend it? This is the sort of thing that someone needs to get curious about on their own and apply for only if they’re drawn to it. In that sense, I can’t say I would recommend it as something for everyone. I don’t think it’s for everyone. My suggestion would be for anyone who was intrigued to take a careful look at the “What to expect on a course” page on the website. I suggest looking more carefully than I did (I kind of read it but didn’t take in the intensity of the schedule). I don’t think I would have been dissuaded had I fully appreciated what I was signing up for. But I would have been better prepared, psychologically, for what I was about to undertake.
Okay, I’m done talking about it now. I feel a strong commitment to continuing to work on the technique of meditation that the ten-day course introduced me to. I do think that employing this technique on a daily basis can and will improve my life. Already I have experienced clarity about a number of things and, though that is not the exact purpose of the technique, it is a result of it.
My question: has anyone gained a curiosity and interest in the course (and possibly a desire to apply) from reading about my experience with it?
A couple of weeks ago I posted about how I was about to take unplugging and meditation to “the next level.” I was preparing to attend a ten day meditation course at the Ontario Vipassana Centre, Dhamma Torana. It was not a retreat. Or a vacation. I mentioned there that there would be ten hours a day of meditation. I mentioned there that we would be getting up at 4 a.m. I also said I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And maybe that was a good thing because it meant I didn’t get scared. Had I known exactly what was coming, I might have been at least a little bit afraid.
And that would have been entirely appropriate. Because ten hours a day of meditation is not trivial. I think it is the most grueling physical undertaking I have ever endured (more cumulatively taxing over the ten days than running that marathon a few years ago was).
Before I left, I have to admit that the thing that attracted me the most was the silence. The entire course is conducted in noble silence. Though it is not everyone’s cup of tea, I absolutely love noble silence–where people occupying a space together refrain from talking or communicating in any manner, including gestures, written notes, or eye contact, and more generally maintain as quiet an atmosphere as possible. Though it is somewhat challenging because the urge to interact, even with a smile of greeting, is so strong, once you’re in the swing of things, noble silence takes off the social pressure and let’s everyone do what they need to do for their own practice.
I arrived at the course on Day Zero. We were still allowed to talk until 8 p.m. that night. Everyone was directed to the dining hall to register, check in their valuables (that included all electronic devices), find their room, start unpacking and be back to the dining hall for dinner and an orientation meeting. No meditation to speak of on Day Zero (I think–I actually can’t remember Day Zero so much). Day Zero was also the day to sign up for your shower time–that would be your 20 minute shower time for the rest of the course. Mine was originally at 7 (half an hour after the start of breakfast) but then changed to 7:20 when I moved my room (more on that later).
One thing I do recall from Day Zero is a conversation I had with an “old student” (that’s what they call students who have already completed one ten day course in the past). She said she thought she would never do it again because it was “so painful.” “Painful?” I really hadn’t thought in terms of pain. But she made it sound as if everyone knew that. Nope. Not everyone. But then the next thing I knew it was time to go into silence and I couldn’t really ask about it again until I got an interview with the teacher later in the course.
The course is designed to teach the Vipassana meditation technique. It starts with Anapana, a breathing meditation that focuses the breath on the small area between the upper lip and the top of the nostrils. We spent three days on that, learning to feel the sensation of breathing, and, finally, to focus on the sensations we could feel in that area between the upper lip and the start of the nostrils. Three. Days. It’s a challenge to stay focused for ten hours a day on such a small area, but there is a reason for that and it did pay off in the end.
During those days, we were instructed that if we got uncomfortable we could change our posture. That was good and I found myself changing quite a bit because my usual meditation posture turned out not to be great for long sitting. I had to spend a lot of time stretching out my legs in order to alleviate discomfort. Also, my mind wandered all over the place. This is normal in meditation, I know. But I couldn’t keep my attention on the requisite area for five minutes in a row at the beginning. My mind just ran all over the place. So between the shifting postures and the mind run amok, I struggled those first three days.
I forgot to mention too that we had to wake up at 4 a.m. and were supposed to meditating, either in our room or in the hall, by 4:30 for the first two-hour session of the day. I mostly did that session in the hall because otherwise the temptation to go back to sleep was just too strong.
Here is the timetable:
Day four: Vipassana. Each evening we had a discourse, or Dhamma talk, by Goenke, the teacher whose method we were following. He explained Vipassana as a technique for enabling people to experience the reality of impermanence (based on Buddhist teachings, but offered as a nonsectarian technique that can be practiced by anyone of any faith or none at all). The idea is to observe the bodily sensations (of which the first three days training develops the ability to be aware) with equanimity (a balanced mind that neither craves or is averse to any particular sensation). This is supposed to be possible after some time practicing awareness. Though he didn’t call it a “body scan,” it’s something like that though much more subtle and “advanced” perhaps (I’m not sure if “advanced” is the right word — it’s definitely different) than mindfulness meditation.
The thing with Vipassana is this: though it may sound perverse, it’s not designed with the goal of “feeling good.” Not in the moment of meditation, in any case. It is designed to sharpen the mind’s awareness and equanimity with respect to bodily sensations and to maintain an attitude of neither aversion or craving towards any particular sensations. Why? Because, as taught by Buddha and countless others, aversion and craving is the source of human misery. We get miserable and suffer when we get what we don’t want or when we don’t get what we want. (I don’t really want to debate the finer details of this picture — it does make sense to me).
The course emphasizes repeatedly that it is the technique that we are there to learn. It’s a practical thing, not a ritualized undertaking to be done without attention and alertness. They emphasize as well that proper practice has immense benefits. Through the technique, as practiced (purportedly) by Gautamo (the Buddha) 2500 years ago, the student comes to experience the ever changing nature of reality at the level of bodily sensations (which are themselves ever changing). Developing equanimity towards sensations such that we don’t react and increase our misery then carries over into the rest of our lives (so they report–I just got back a couple of days ago).
There are several layers of teaching delivered in the evening discourses, but I’m not going to get into all of that here. The main thing is that attention to sensation. Okay, so this brings us to the sittings of “strong determination.” Remember how for the Anapana part of the course we could shift position? Well, not so much with Vipassana because the whole point is to be able to observe whatever sensation you’re experiencing and not react to it — to bear it with equanimity. So on the fourth day they introduced the idea of these three sittings per day (8 am, 2:30 pm, and 6 pm) where for a full hour you weren’t supposed to move.
Before the first day of Vipassana instruction (day 4), when we were told we had to remain in the Meditation Hall for the full two hours without leaving (!!), everyone who knew what was coming was already in the foyer stretching and getting primed. It kind of reminded me of the start of a race.
It was about the time when he said we shouldn’t move for the hour that I started to panic. Why? Because I had up until then been moving every 5-10 minutes because of pain and discomfort. My knees and quads and hips were okay for about 30 minutes in a cross-legged posture if I really pushed it, but after that I needed to get some relief. My preferred method was to stretch out my legs. But when I met with the teacher she suggested instead that I just bring my bent knees up in front of me and hold on to my legs for a bit (kind of like a sitting version of the fetal position, which seems appropriate).
The thing is, you are motivated to move as little as possible during the sittings of strong determination (or, as I liked to call them, “hard sittings”) because in a silent hall with 100 other immobile people, the slightest shift on your cushion makes noise. There is peer pressure not to be the one to make a sound. That’s amazingly motivating and got me to sit through all sorts of pain and discomfort for longer than I anticipated. Not that I never moved. In all the seven days of Vipassana, I only completed three of those hard sittings without having to shift my posture at all. Note that you were not supposed to leave the hall when in the sittings of strong determination.
Ten days alone in your head is a long time. Besides the physical demands of Vipassana, there’s the whole mental side of the house. I became very aware of my thoughts as the source of my own misery. I mean, I was interacting with no one else and yet at times I was having all sorts of drama.
The life for students at the Centre is likely as close to monastic living as I’ll ever come. The schedule is rigorous and exacting. Besides the scheduled sittings (ten hours a day) and the evening discourses, the meal schedule was strict. Breakfast at 6:30 and you had to be out of the dining hall by 7:15. Lunch at 11 and you had to be out of the hall by 11:45. Tea break (with tea and fruit for new students, black tea for old students) at 5 and you had to be out of the dining hall by 5:30.
The course was fully gender segregated, with men’s and women’s residences on opposite sides of the grounds with course boundaries that did not permit any intermingling at all. There were separate entrances to the Meditation Hall and we meditated on different sides of the hall. The Dining Hall had two identical halves with separate entrances and a curtain drawn down the middle. We didn’t see or eat with the men at all. We even had separate walking trails.
There were some times in the schedule where you could meditate in your room. But we were given strict instructions that we were to be meditating at those times, not sleeping or walking or sitting outside. Meditation was not to be done outside, ever.
They also had a fragrance-free policy that was well-articulated ahead of time and I went to great pains to respect. I bought special products and other than my toothpaste, nothing had a scent. I appreciated the policy because though I am fine with the scents I am fine with, I react strongly to scents that I can’t handle. I had some difficulties in my residence with someone using essential oils. When I brought this to the attention of the Course Manager, it happened to be the same day another student had asked to move out of a cabin into a residence room instead. So I was offered my own little cabin and I absolutely loved it. It felt like an upgrade and I had my own space, and a bit more space. I didn’t want to develop a “craving” but oh how fortunate I felt.
I can’t really get into the full measure of details but suffice to say that I am enormously grateful that I had this opportunity. These courses are free. The Centre runs fully on donations from old students. No one can make a donation who has not completed at least one ten-day course. Once you complete, you can donate with the idea of paying for someone else to attend (or more, or less of course, according to your means and what seems right to you).
On the last day, we learned a new type of meditation called “loving kindness” (metta bhavana), with which I am somewhat familiar already. It was a really beautiful way to end, and it is suggested that a few minutes of metta bhavana be added at the end of each Vipassana session provided you are physically and mentally fit (that is, not in physical pain and not in any kind of emotional tumult).
After we learned the loving kindness meditation in the morning, we were released from noble silence at 10 a.m. We had lots of longer breaks that day, and much of the time was spent in chatter, finally being able to meet and speak to these women I’d been meditating and eating and living alongside for the past ten days. It was overwhelming and exhausting in its own way, but lovely to exchange our reflections on our experiences.
I had a profound experience there. I had no issues with the rules. As my experience of noble silence, the rules kind of let me off the hook. I followed the schedule for the most part, oversleeping three times but not by much. I did my utmost to remain in the same posture during the hard sittings. I stuck to my shower time. We had committed to five precepts — no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, no intoxicants.
The only one I struggled with was the no killing because summer in that part of Ontario means mosquitoes, and I confess that though I didn’t kill a single mosquito outside, I did kill a few that made their way into my room at night. Maybe 6-8 in the ten days, which isn’t so bad. But when you’re lying in bed with your aching limbs (even my fingers ached from holding on so tightly when wrapping my arms around my legs and clasping my hands together when I was taking a break from sitting cross legged) and trying to fall asleep because of a 4 a.m. wake up…it’s hard.
I’m going to follow their suggestion to give it an honest try for one year. That means one year of two one-hour sittings each day. My schedule is to do one at 5 a.m. and one at either 5 p.m. or 9 p.m. depending on how my evening looks. Being on leave until September 2020 will help a lot.
The course is for not for everyone, but it is for anyone who is already meditating and is already of the mind that much of our misery lives in our head, and that equanimity in the face of difficult challenges is a worthy approach to minimizing that misery. That doesn’t mean that the world needs no changes. I like the idea of training my mind through the practice of awareness and equanimity, and I believe that the more people who engage in this sort of life-changing practice, the more the world will change for the better.
So that’s my experience more or less at the ten-day Vipassana course. It was not a retreat in the “wellness” sense — no spas or luxurious bedding or quiet spaces where you could curl up with a good book and take refuge from the world for a bit. I feel confident that it was so much more than that. Instead of being a break, which is how I always experience vacations, it was more of a beginning, introducing new students to a technique that if practiced with diligence, attention, and commitment can change their lives.
Have you ever done Vipassana or any other practice that is designed to transform the way you see and interact with the world? Do tell.
Tracy: Okay, this one started with an article yesterday: “Binge-drinking sending more young women to ER, ‘eye-opening’ study finds.” Binge-drinking is alarming. Ending up in the ER as a result of binge-drinking is alarming. But perhaps most disturbing of all is that the demographic with the most dramatic increase in this consequence is young women between 25-29. Over the period 2003-2016, visits to the ER as a result of excessive drinking increased by a whopping 240%. Overall in this period, among Ontario men there’s a 56% increase, women an 86% increase. But 240%! What’s going on here?
The article notes a few things. One, that the more convenient it is to get alcohol, the more people drink. Another is the efforts of late to suggest that alcohol is a normal part of a busy woman’s life. There are countless memes that glorify and make light of women’s drinking. You know, the whole “mommy juice” and “wine o’clock” message. Sam wrote about it here. And Martha wrote about it here.
Cate: Before I rant, I feel like we should catch people up on why we’re even writing this. We have a little behind-the-scenes facebook group for the bloggers on this site. Mostly it’s a place where we keep track of who’s up next and post some things that we might want to write about. But sometimes we share things that just plain piss us off — even before we exactly know *why* it’s made us so angry.
There were a whole bunch of booze ones that got us going this week. For me, it was a throwaway comment on a post about popsicles — popsicles! — that turned into someone writing about costco selling “mommy juice popsicles” and how oops wouldn’t it be funny if she accidentally gave her kid one. I don’t know why it pissed me off so much — I don’t really have a dog in this fight personally. I don’t have kids and most of my friends are either sober or very low consumption drinkers. But it just really set me off. Why do you think that is?
Tracy: I think it’s because the more alcohol is offered as a normalized stress-response, the more likely people are to reach for it when they need to unwind. And it’s becoming easier and easier to do that (e.g. Doug Ford, Premier of Ontario, is obsessed with making cocktails available at 9 a.m. and beer available at corner stores and with lifting restrictions on drinking in public spaces like parks). This strikes me as a sad turn.
Cate: Me too. And I think it’s because so much of my life has become about trying to be so mindful about my body, about being present for this life. Booze is already present in enough places in our lives — it doesn’t need to be at breakfast. (Nor do I want to inhale weed smoke when I’m riding my bike to a meeting or running. But that’s a different rant).But I’m going to switch gears now. Those plates.
Tracy: Those plates! Who comes up with this stuff?
Cate: I think a lot of people have seen this, but I’ll just haul it out again: Macy’s removes plates that promote eating disorders and shame people for eating. I don’t have to go into why this was outrage producing, but it also made me really sad. It’s another one of those polarization points in our culture — I feel like I surround myself with people who are cultivating consciousness about bodies, privilege, patriarchy, racism, the hidden forces that cause harm in our culture. And then bam, I’m reminded once again that there’s a whole counterforce that has zero awareness that “joking” about dieting carries so much harm: harm to the whole of the fem-identified populace by reinforcing a reminder that bodies need to be policed, that female bodies are always available to public scrutiny — and it causes a lot of harm to the individual people who have personal experience with disordered eating and body image. These “cute” plates are trojan horses of body shaming.
Tracy: That whole thing just sent me over the edge. It is the very last thing I want in my face when I’m eating — a plate that body shames me for taking more than a morsel of food.
Cate: And another thing (laughing). While I’m on the “policing femininity” patrol, how about this thing? Showed up in an ad for an otherwise terrific product on my feed yesterday: “We’d all love to be that girl who runs and doesn’t sweat.”
Would we? Now not only am I being shamed for eating too much, when I try to comply with the Rules of Femininity and exercise, I’m supposed to feel self-conscious and shamed about sweating? Apparently there’s no way to actually have a female body that won’t make me feel like I’m doing it wrong.
I reported that ad to Facebook as “offensive.” It doesn’t have a button that says “offensive because reinforces patriarchy” but I did comment on it in the thread.
I know this is a small and stupid thing — but it’s the casualness of it that just gets to me. THEY SELL EXERCISE GEAR. GEAR I WOULD BUY IF THEY WEREN’T NEGGING ME.
Tracy: LOL. Is there anything else on your mind? I’m with you on the sweat thing, by the way. I mean, I actually pay good money for the hot yoga studio precisely because it feels good to sweat. Normative femininity be damned.
Cate: I think I’m done ranting for now. Sometimes I wonder if my moments of not-quite-outrage about social media memes are misplaced — aren’t there bigger things to pay attention to? But these things are actually signifiers of the bigger things — the particular melange of patriarchy, capitalism, white privilege and unconscious living that has got us to the political and environmental mess we’re in.
I’m going for a run now.
Tracy: I think we have landed in the same place, which is that these messages are even more harmful for being so casual and even (supposedly) funny. And then you’re a big party pooper if you don’t laugh (or worse, criticize!). Like I said to Sam, I can’t even talk about alcohol without sounding like a puritanical advocate of prohibition, like I’m part of the early 20th Century temperance movement or something. But “wine o’clock” just isn’t funny. “Skinny jeans” versus “mom jeans” just isn’t funny. And no, we don’t want to be the girl who doesn’t sweat when she exercises.
Back in March I wrote about a silent at-home retreat that I did one weekend for 24 hours. I gave a detailed post-retreat report here. My focus that time was more on silence than on meditation, even though yes, it included some meditation.
When I re-read the report, I see that it also involved a lot of other things: reading, journalling, colouring, running, cooking, a leisurely morning without an alarm clock. I wanted to unplug and enjoy some silence. It was a great antidote to my normally over-scheduled days, but I sure did keep myself busy.
Tomorrow I am going on a ten-day meditation course at the Ontario Vipassana Centre. It will be my first time at the Centre and my first time in a meditation setting for that length of time. The Centre is dedicated to teaching Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N Goenka in the tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin. According to the website, “Vipassana is one of India’s oldest techniques of meditation, first taught 2,500 years ago. It is a practical method of self-awareness that allows one to face the tensions and problems of daily life in a calm and balanced way.” Some of you may know it as “insight meditation.”
The course will be taken in noble silence. “Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited.” In addition to noble silence, there will be no opportunity for the sorts past-times I engaged in on my at-home retreat. Students may not read, write, listen to music, or engage in physical exercise other than walking.
Each day consists of about ten hours of meditation, with wake-up at 4 a.m. and the last session ending at 9 p.m. It includes regular breaks and rest periods. For the first three and a half days we will practice Anapana, a form of meditation that focuses on the breath. After that, we will practice Vipassana, “the meditation of mental purification through insight.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it’s a course, so I am sure I will learn (or at least be introduced to it in some manner).
I have no idea what ten hours a day of meditation feels like. It will no doubt be a challenging experience and I’m going into it feeling excited and curious. This will be the first time in over a decade that I have turned off my phone for ten days in a row. Totally off.
I also feel super fortunate. You have to apply for these courses and there is a long waitlist (especially for these prime summer courses). The course is offered at no cost, on a strictly voluntary donation basis whereby each student gets to decide at the end of the course how much they wish to donate. Only students who have completed one full ten day course are permitted to donate.
If you’ve had experience with organized meditation courses, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.