G is for Ground.

(excerpted from my 2017 book “Life on the Ground Floor”)

I’ve been cutting down my shifts in the last few years so I can spend more time on Ethiopia. I work about ten a month now. It’s just enough to keep my skills up. Fewer, and my fingers fumble.

When I graduated, I did twice as many. During those months, being in the ER was simpler than it has been since. My flow was natural, my hands steady, and my patients’ faces grew as indistinct as the date or time. It was the hours outside of work that started to hurt. It is easy to ignore your own worries when there is a never-ending list of worse ones placed in front of you. My rela­tionship failed. Friends fell away. Beauty too. I felt fine.

I wasn’t. Fatigue caught up with me and I slowed down for a minute, looked around, wondered where everyone was.

If we in ER gather in community, it is to talk about how to resuscitate a baby, to poke needles into fake plas­tic necks, or to practise for poison-gas subway attacks. We don’t practise joy, how to stay well in the face of all the sickness.

Doctor, Nurse, heal thyself.

Or not. Those who work in the ER burn out faster than any other type of physician. I’m not sure if it’s the shifts or the long, steady glimpse of humans on their worst day.

I think most of us would say that it’s not the sickest that affect us, that it is the minutes in contact with them when we feel most well used. In a macabre way, we hope for the next person to have something really wrong with them, but it is more rare than you’d imagine to see a criti­cal patient in Toronto, even in the trauma room, someone whose system needs the order the alphabet can bring.

Most of the work here is in minor. ERs are open all hours, and since the service is free, people often come in early, instead of an hour too late. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with their bodies at all. There are so many measures in place to keep people well, or to catch them before they get too sick, I can go weeks without intubat­ing someone. Worried minds, though, latch onto subtle sensations that magnify with attention, and lacking con­text, they line up to be reassured. The two populations, the sick and the worried, mix together, and separating them keeps us up all night.

Suffering souls, though, there is no shortage of them. They circle this place.

Some sleep right outside, on sidewalk grates, wrapped in blankets, waiting. One is splayed in the clothes he lives in, face pressed against the metal grille in a deep, drunk sleep. Every few minutes, a subway passes below the grates, and a rush of warm air flutters his shirt like a flag.

Businesswomen spin in and out of an office tower’s revolving doors. They cross the street, eyes dancing between their phones and streetcar ruts, pretending not to notice the figure on the ground. Shoppers with bags from the Eaton Centre dangling from their arms lean into the road looking for taxis, jump out of the way of rushing cars.

A guy across the street notices the body. He glances at it, then at the hospital, makes a calculation that there must be no better street grate in the city, and moves on. Others step over him, as if he was downtown city furniture.

Within a few blocks of my ER, there are a dozen shel­ters for abused women and the homeless. There are health clinics for indigenous people, gay men and women, refu­gees, detox centres, beds for kids who’ve run away from home. On my way to work I pass them, pierced, dyed, smoking. Sometimes I’ll see them in the ER, shyly pulling away a bandage from the cuts they made on their arms.

Seaton House, a men’s shelter just up the street, holds more than five hundred. It has an infirmary for the old and the sick, a special floor where the most craven alco­holics are given brandy every hour, so they don’t die on those grates. A patient told me that the floors are patrolled by gangs, and if you’ve a bag, they will pin your arms from behind and rifle through it, taking what pills or dol­lars there are.

“They call it Satan House.”

He was new to Toronto, to big cities even. He sat on our bed, his bag empty and eyes wide.

“I can’t go back there. Drugs. Bugs. Fights. Can I stay here? Just one night?”

Sorry, man. Here’s a list of other shelters, a central access number, a sandwich, a prescription for the medicines you lost, a number for our social worker who can help you fill it, a bus token, a bandage for your foot. But I’m sorry, this ain’t no hotel.

He held his backpack tight, under the sheets, shook his head, no fucking way. Security hoisted him from the bed, a guard on each arm, walked him down the hallway, out the door, into the night.

We give out clean needles, single-use vitamin C sachets so people can dissolve crack or black tar heroin in its acid instead of sharing lemon juice and scarring their veins. Some people come in just for sandwiches, or to use the phone. Others, to sit in a chair.

One of my colleagues rolled a man in a wheelchair out into a storm. The man had been pretending he couldn’t walk, but when Jeff’s back was turned, he would stand, grab hand sanitizer from the wall, and drink it down. He’d been doing it for hours before someone noticed. After Jeff pushed the man out, he sat back down at the desk in minor, began angrily filling out the man’s chart, paused, then slammed his pen down and, furious, snowflakes melting on his scrubs, wheeled the man back in. Our trust gets broken and broken and broken and broken, but underneath it is an even deeper caring.

A few years ago, I heard an overhead page—“Dr. Maskalyk to triage”—and I walked out, to help decide which way to direct a stretcher I’d guessed, and instead saw a bailiff who touched me with an affidavit, dropped it, furled, on the ground.

“Sorry,” the registration clerk said to me, bashfully. “I thought he was a friend.”

I picked up the rolled paper. A lawsuit. It named many doctors. I couldn’t remember the complainant.

I got his chart from medical records. It didn’t cue me. I’d met him once, two years before. I could remember the night. So busy, running from minor to major every few min­utes. I have a vague memory of his back, but not his face.

The chart was mostly empty. “Flank pain” was his complaint, and I scratched in only a few physical findings. In the margin was a note from the nurse: “Verbal order, Maskalyk, morphine 5 mg IV.” You get calls like that all the time, from a worried nurse, asking for pain relief for someone writhing in a stretcher. Sure, sure, I would have said, after I asked a few questions, 5 milligrams.

In the years that had passed, I had touched a hundred backs, seen many people in pain. This man was fine. There was no bad outcome. He had CT scans, MRIs, all negative. His charge to me was that I contributed to his opiate addiction. He named every doctor who had crossed his path.

The case dragged on for years. My lawyers kept tell­ing me that it would go no further, but it kept limping. Every few months, another letter, until whoever was helping that man exhausted what money he had and the case was dropped.

Some of my colleagues haven’t been so lucky. Some­times that person with back pain that sounded the same as the hundred before in fact has a hemorrhage, or an infection, and becomes paralyzed. I received an angry letter from a family doctor who said I was incompetent for not x-raying the leg of a young woman he had sent to the ER. She hadn’t fallen, hadn’t endured an injury. I examined her leg. No swelling, no chance of a break. Not blue, good pulse. No emergency as far as I could tell. Does it hurt when you do this? Stop doing that, I said, every doctor’s favourite piece of advice. Rest it, see if it gets better. It didn’t. The bone had a tumour in it.

Shoulder pain in a drunk man, sleeping it off in the hallway. This time, I got an x-ray. Negative. The pain persisted. I CAT-scanned his neck. Broken. The pain was from a pinched nerve. He hadn’t complained of neck pain, couldn’t remember falling. But I didn’t feel along his neck until much later. I should have. I didn’t even put a collar on before I sent him to scan. A screaming radi­ologist called me in minor. “What the hell are you doing sending him up alone?”

First shift, after I graduated. A pharmacy student with severe asthma. Often, patients with chronic disease know what they need. Adrenalin, intramuscular, he said, requesting our most powerful drug. I found a nurse, told her what I wanted, stepped away to write on his chart, turned back to see the colour drain from her face, watched him fall back onto the bed. How did you give that adrenalin? I shouted, my finger already on his neck. Intravenous, she said, knowing her mistake, that in a living person, it must never go straight into the blood, that it is too much for a beating heart to take.

Shit, I said, lacing my fingers together before ham­mering down on his chest.

He lived. I told him what had happened, then my chief and the nursing supervisor. The patient understood, probably better than anyone in the world. At least my asthma’s gone, he said, wincing as he tried to sit up.

I could go on. No matter how careful I try to be, I make mistakes. The next one is just waiting.

We are taught all kinds of things as we work our way down the alphabet. To spot a hurt person, to remain sus­picious, to learn from our errors. It can be difficult to rest from the worry.

“You will fucking too see this patient,” I said to a resident who refused to assess a woman with AIDS who couldn’t stop vomiting long enough to take her pills and had nowhere to go. “Because it’s your fucking job, that’s why.” Anger shook me.

“You stupid jew cunt!” a patient yells at my colleague.

“Handshandshands!” a security guard shouts as the man they are watching undress pulls a knife.

“I have hep C, and if any of you come close, I’ll spit in your eye!” another man, scratched and bruised, screams, five cops holding him down. He was released from prison a day before, having served twenty for murder. In his hours of freedom, he beat another man nearly to death. “Come here,” he says, looking at a nurse behind me. “I dare you.”

I’ll sue you. I’ll stab you. I’ll come back with a gun and kill all of you. You’re a shitty doctor. You’re an ugly nurse. You’re an idiot. Goof. I want a second opinion. I want to kill myself.

Dying person, dead person. Sick person. Lying person. Faking. Manipulative. Poisoned. Raped. Dead. Screaming. Crying. Writhing in pain. Hopeless. Afraid. Confused. Alone.

Wow, must be stressful, people say.

You get used to it, we answer.

Ground floor, downtown, ground down. Suffering can be contagious, and no matter the job you do, it just keeps coming back.

Your world view skews. If you don’t make an effort to balance it, the ER becomes your new normal. Like a home, you turn to it for what you need. Your colleagues seem like the normal ones, because they can joke while a man, shot dead, lies behind them.

Daddy, a colleague’s daughter said, all you do is work, sleep, and drink. A nurse told me after a string of five days in a row, she took a bottle of wine to bed, and cried.

It’s hard to make it ten years here. Some don’t make it two. It’s worse for the nurses. They spend more time at the bedside, unobserved, unprotected. They watch people die over hours, asking, “Am I going to make it?” again and again. I get asked once. “We’ll do what we can,” I say, and move on.

The ones that last are changed. The shifts, the swearing, the shouts of pain, the anxiety and sadness and anger pour­ing from strangers. Miss a decimal place and someone’s dead. Drug seekers lie to your face so they can flip pills on the street, and you grow suspicious of those in real pain. The addicts and alcoholics who circle this place, lost and dying, whom you can’t help and no one else wants. A security guard had his nose broken one week. A nurse, a chunk of hair ripped from her head. She waited until it stopped bleeding, then finished her shift. I haven’t seen her since.

We work when we are sick, masks over our faces so we’re not contagious. I broke my arm, and didn’t miss a day. We have a silent agreement to not ask for help. Sick­ness becomes weakness, weakness a sickness.

It’s rare to connect with the people I treat. The ones I do best for wake up in the ICU, in a sedative haze, not sure what happened or whom to thank. We deliver more dead babies than live ones. No one shouts, “Mazel tov! It’s appendicitis!”

We don’t develop relationships with patients, claim that we prefer it that way. We dive deep, straight, unapologetically, unsentimentally, into a person’s worst fears, ask them about sex, drugs, who’s hurting them, why they’re hurting themselves. We look in their eyes, watch them cry, put needles into their veins until they’re plump with water, dab blood from their cervixes, know their bodies more intimately than they ever will. When the new shift comes in, we go home and try to live in ours.

I sat in my first suit, tugging at the cuffs, and told the doctors across the table, ones who were deciding whether they would let me into their emergency training program, that I thrived on the type of challenges the ER presented. I didn’t mind odd hours and had healthy habits to make up for tough nights. They nodded, satisfied, and I walked out, past a half-dozen nervous young men and women, their answers the same as mine.

We get ground down anyhow. The pace, we’ll say, images of mangled limbs we take with us wherever we go. It’s hard to leave, even if you know you should. It feels good to be surrounded by those who know what you do, to whom you don’t have to explain.

Some of us make it through. Some drink. Some smoke. The ones who last best, laugh. Even about the black things. Especially about the black things. Without the absurd, there is only tragedy.

A woman, twenty, fell down twenty stairs. One eye was swollen shut. She wouldn’t answer to her name or open her other eye. She pushed at the nurse’s hands that tried to help her, again and again, sought to climb out of bed. I sedated her until she was still, and did a CAT scan of her brain. The scan showed bruising, blood in the grey matter where there should be none, a slick of it pooling inside her skull, squeezing her brain tighter and tighter. I called the neurosurgeon, a German, and explained what I saw.

“So she needs the OR,” I said over the phone.

“Is she . . . pretty?” he said in a heavy accent, chew­ing, swallowing.

“I don’t know . . . I guess so.”

“Zen we must to do everysing,” he said, and hung up the phone.

A few hours later, nurses and I recalled the conversa­tion as we switched back and forth for CPR. We laughed, above an old woman’s still heart, caught ourselves, turned our eyes back to our work, and fell into smiles.

You can see those who are edging out. When we’re unable to meet the sadness, or to laugh about it, cynicism takes hold. Even worse, anger. We curse nurses on other floors for being too slow. We criticize our colleagues’ decisions, their flow, their bad day, forgetting that they, like us, are just trying to make it through a shift, a week, a month, a life, surrounded by all the pain.

Last, we curse our patients. This is a final sign. Touch­ing many people, but being touched by none of them, they close like a flower that no longer sees the sun. It’s as if every person takes away from you something you need.

Not her again, a nurse says under his breath, as a volunteer places a chart of a regular on the desk, as if this wasn’t the point of the place, as if this didn’t happen twenty times a day.

People think that to make it through, we become inured, develop some kind of barrier, beyond emotion. It doesn’t work like that. You can offer an illusion of indif­ference, even tell yourself that you’ve got it handled, but all that tough stuff makes it in just the same. What shuts down is the part that turns it around.

There’s too much to do, a next patient to see, and if you’re never told how important it is to work on anger and fear as it comes up, you put it off, and the frustration diffuses into all aspects of your being, its origins almost invisible. You can get so behind, you abandon the proj­ect. Then, on that fateful day, when you have a chance to do something right for someone you don’t know, or cut a corner, you say to yourself, “Fuck it.”

The end has come. Time to quit.

People do. Plenty. I’ll see them in the hall after many months, when I used to see them every day. Miss us? I’ll ask. Yeah, they say, I do, some of them wistful. But I just couldn’t do it anymore. It wasn’t good for me.

What they mean is, instead of just the worries follow­ing them home, some numbness did too. Joy started to seem for fools, because while there are many things we will never know, what we do know for certain is that one day, a bullet meant for someone else will whip through our body, our foot will turn on a dog’s toy on the second stair and we will fall, or a cough will tickle our chest then sputter a tablespoon of blood, and in an instant we know what it means.

It’s here.

the stuff of life.


pouring through us, and over us, then, for a moment, we’re flowing with it, then we’re lost.

a man died today.  men die every day, women too, but this one we were almost there for.  he lost vital signs on the ambulance stretcher a few minutes before his body arrived.

i told his mom.  people don’t expect to hear that kind of news, not once a child gets old enough to take care of himself, but there it was.

the bottom of her heart fell open, and the grief painted over me, the nurse, filled that small room until it was heard to breathe. i left to take care of a few pieces of unfinished business, having learned something of the language of sadness, how certain people want to be alone with it for a minute, or didn’t mind if i declared myself as one as long as i came back.

i did some paper work, called the coroner, returned to the quiet room and sat beside her, waited.  after a few minutes, she looked up.

i told her about my strange job, the view it offered, hovering near the end.  i told her that most often, the last minutes seem so quiet.  the mind quells, then the body.  when you watch them, you get the taste of a peace we know when returning to a true home.  she held my gaze for a second, tears shaking in her eyes, nodded, turned back to her hands.

i didn’t say it because i thought she needed to hear it.  i said it because it is the truth, and in those minutes, it counts.  like it does in all of them.

after she left, i gathered with the nurses who were there when he arrived.  we didn’t talk about what went right, or what we might do better next time, just what had come up.  i said i felt a sadness that was going to stick around for a while. i’m glad we tried, someone said.  we all nodded.

we’ve started talking about these kind of things at work.  it’s good.  i’m discovering that it helps to have company more than i knew, not just with the difficult things that can seem yours alone, but in the many joys that seem part of this difficult, worthwhile work, that all humans share, how to live, how to love, how to let go.

A Field Guide to Paying Attention.

A Field Guide to Paying Attention

“The power to concentrate was the most important thing. Living without this power would be like opening one’s eyes without seeing anything.”

― Haruki Murakami






Evidence suggests our minds wander from the scene in front of us, into waking dreams about half the time.  It’s impossible to say, categorically, whether one is better than the other, but it seems, when asked, people reported that rather than such flights giving pleasure, they left them wanting more. Turns out we might never be so contented as when we’re alive to what’s unfolding before us, when the stuff of our self touches fully the present, and the real possibilities no dream can ever quite hold.

It’s a nearly inevitable drift, being called away from our chosen focus.  As William James described, even with a simple form of attention, concentrating on a dot on the wall for instance, one of two things eventually happens: 1) the dot grows indistinct or 2) our mind gets called elsewhere.  Ask yourself successive questions about it, though, how big, what colour, how far, and you can hold your attention for a comparatively long time.  This is what genius does, he says.

I’m not sure how it feels to be a genius, but I am getting used to what it feels like to be me, and even when a medical student is relaying to me important details about a patient he has just seen, if I don’t choose to concentrate, I can nod at appropriate times, and accomplish an admirable list of mental tasks without listening to a single word.  Paying attention requires not just a decision, but a particular effort.  In this March month, we are going to explore these facets, the intention, the effort, and the successive questions that follow.  What does it feel like?  Where is it pointing?  What riches does it bear?

The historical buddha, when he was just a boy called Siddhartha, around 9 years of age, felt the pull of concentration one day, underneath a crab apple tree.  While watching the spring scene before him, ministrations of the laity, a farmer toiling with an ox in the field, he was, for a moment, completely absorbed into the scene.  It passed, and he was once again alone on the hill.  Freedom, he thought, lies in that direction. He stood, dusted his legs, and stepped into the sun.

While such full arrival may happen spontaneously, it is also something that can be encouraged by practice.  If we call our minds towards the present, they land there more often, maybe even stay long enough to explore the textures of this infinitely evolving moment and the increasingly subtle world from which possibility blooms.

Join me and our doughty explorers this month as we lay out a field guide to paying attention.  We’ve polished and sharpened cartographic tools, calibrated sextants, and each March Monday, 730 pm sharp, set out towards that unchartable, impossibly slippery, X-marks-the-now through which everything rushes. Avi’s bringing extra life vests.  I think Kevin made some snacks. Well….that got your attention.
See you on the cushion.

Dr James

2016 was everything.

lots to say about this bouncing baby year, but you know, even more to do. sincere wishes of love, but an even truer commitment to show you what i mean. i think that’s the biggest change for me, and while the movement towards it may have been incremental, even unseen, it feels irrevocable for the first time. i know that who i am in the world never mattered, only how i am in it, that it is in love, and kindness, and patience that i will find the freedom to grow forever, and when confronted with injustice or hatred, i must not turn nor retreat from it, but hold the tender ground it is trying to claim and hide from sight.

this past year i learned that the heart does not speak in english, but in nearly imperceptible tugs from an infinite array of strings that travel through all things that have ever lived and ones not yet born, and in those soft pulls, a collected wisdom about how to live, as sure as the one that gathers bodies in their beautiful shapes.

while tempted to go on, i would ruin the promise of brevity held in the first sentence, and i am loathe to ask your reading time now, when i am going to demand it in april when my book comes out. i know. exciting times. you’ll come to the launch in toronto, the after-party, then the one in ethiopia. they’ll be even better with you there.

in the last days of 2016, i kept recalling a quote i read in dag hammerskjold’s book, markings, but it is not his. he attributes it to thomas aquinas, and though i may not have it perfect in my memory, it is something like, “why do you search for rest? you are here to work.”

lots of it ahead. glad to have your company. in it’s spirit, last night i came home from the ER, and put together a mix of songs that kept me warm this last year. different than previous ones, i didn’t favour the album, nor tracks that were only from 2016. why? spotify. still, all of these songs were new to me, and might be to you too.

i’m off to myanmar/burma in a couple of days, and am switching off this mad machineworld that has me so captivated in favour of the subtle one. i’ll see you sometime in february, and be glad. be well. love. j.

for those who dig spotify, the unmixed version is here:…/…/playlist/2MtwsNxZ8iHxUEuJLglRH1

How to Bow.


August Newsletter:

CEC #126 - How to bow

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
-Viktor Frankl

We are born with few tools, but there are some. Our eyes register light. We can cry. We even have a few reflexes. These responses to stimuli are so automatic and reliable in every human, that should we not reproduce them, it can signal something wrong with our ability to interact with the world.

Touch an infant’s cheek, and her mouth twitches to that side, prepared to latch. Startle her, or simulate a brief fall, and her arms open wide, then close, and often, she cries. There are a few others. In most children, with time, these early ones fade, though in some rare people, traces remain. If you stroke Jeff’s cheek, for instance, his leg beats up and down like a rabbit’s and he weeps. Try it.

Others appear. Before an infant has even stood, the parachute reflex emerges, her arms automatically extending as if to catch a fall. Teenagers across the world, at the precise age of 14, reflexively roll their eyes as soon as their parent’s utter a word in public.

Maybe we’re talking about habit now, an action not riven into a neural pathway as part of a nervous system’s normal development, but one for which, over time, with practice, the turnaround has become so fast, it can nearly seem the same.

Nearly. As Frankl says above, there is often a space, even if disappearingly small. For reflexes, not as much. The distance is proportional smaller. Many of them, like the one a doctor taps from the tendon of your knee, do not even travel to your brain, just loop from stimulus to response right in your spinal cord. Most other complex inputs, though,the ones to which our response leads to the patterns of behaviour that form a life, there is processing in our awareness, even if subtle, even if lightning quick.

There was a time, once, when such stimuli lead to longer consideration. Should I try this cigarette? Wow. It made me cough. Should I try another? Oh, I’ve received a message on my phone. Is now the right time to check it? How does this thing work again? With time, and practice, smokesmokesmoke. Checkcheckcheck.


I work in the emergency department. As soon as I open the curtain, I receive many inputs. Does this person’s clothes tell me they sleep on the street? That’s a great risk for many things. Is that a facial droop? My mind races with questions, I can almost fail to recognize properly the worried soul shivering in the hospital sheets.

So I try to slow down. It’s hard, and I often don’t, but it’s best when I do.  If I can, sit down.  I try, at least once, to put my pen away, and not write. And nearly every time, I  take their wrist, feel their pulse.

Bump. Bump. Bump.


It pays to slow down.  If I’m not careful, I can be hurried along then frenetic then overwhelmed, frenetic, hurried along. The space disappears.

We can claim it. That’s what this month is about. Slowing down, making ritual from habit. We’ll do it sitting. We’ll do it noticing the subtle tug of a stimulus, the twitch of our response. Perhaps, we’ll even notice the space, get a glimmer that if we pay attention it grows, and  to the freedom it holds, to ourselves and to others, we will learn how to bow.

Dr J.
Director of Science and Special Events
The Consciousness Explorers Club

Monday Night Explorations for Aug 2016

Start time 7:25pm; address is 967 College, just past Dovercourt at Octopus Garden Yoga.


DATE: Aug 1
THEME: From habit to ritual
MEDITATION: Hold it now…..hit it
INTERACTIVE: Slow and low, that is the tempo.

Everybody catch the boogaloo flu. Actually, don’t. It’s incurable. Before you know it, you’ll be up and down the avenue, breathless af. During this non-Beastie Boy themed session, we are going to tune into automaticity, not the easy response that comes from a natural place, but it’s evil cousin, the habit, the entrained neural pattern that activates our behavior before we have had time to decide whether it serves us. For the sit, we focus on subtle activations, for the interactive, we identify a space in our life where habit has crept in over intention, and next week, see what space ritual has in slowing us down, making us alive to our power.


DATE : Aug 8
TEACHER: Avi Craimer
THEME: Meaning and symbol
MEDITATION: Ritual intention setting
INTERACTIVE: Transform your life with symbolic action

We automatically respond to the meanings of things on both a conscious and an unconscious level. Ritual is a way to take control of and leverage this innate meaning responsiveness. In tonight’s meditation we’ll use a simple opening ritual to enhance our meditative concentration. In the second half, Avi will lead us in a creative process to discover and design symbolic actions to transform stuck patterns in our lives.


DATE: Aug 15
THEME: How to bow
MEDITATION: Full surrender.
INTERACTIVE: How low can you go

The world is a beautiful place, but it is a hard one too. Despite our attempts to know it, it outpaces both our hopes and imaginations. The search can leave us feeling alone, irritated, confused. A question emerges, as possible antidote: are you bowing deeply enough? To the mystery, to the person passing you in the subway turnstile fighting the same big questions, to yourself, as jewelled as any other facet of this net. This week, we sit, and let go. And let go. And let go. Perhaps we find, even with all that letting go, somehow, we are still, somehow held. Then, we bow.

CEC_MeditateDATE: Aug 22
TEACHER: Jeff Warren
THEME: The Practice of Perspective
MEDITATION: Layers of Our Discontent
INTERACTIVE: The Art of Moving Out

This week, we explore perspective from two directions: in sitting practice, where we’ll tease out some of the understated and not-so understated ways we find our moments lacking (and in the seeing, a subtle freeing), and, for part two, a wonderful art practice designed to take us out of ourselves into some of the insightful and often healing perspectives that surround us.

CEC_MeditateDATE: August 29
THEME: Liminality
MEDITATION: Opening to possibilities
INTERACTIVE: Labyrinth walking

The middle stage of ritual, begun but not yet complete, is called liminality. Rife with ambiguity, confusion and possibilities, it’s a rich time for discovery. We’ll meditate in that middle space, opening to the compelling nature of our ever-changing experience. Then we’ll take our interactive practice on the road to a local park and walk a labyrinth, a contemplative journey embodying those liminal twists and turns. How we’ll emerge from these rituals – transformed, solidified or something else entirely – is anyone’s guess. We can go for ice cream afterwards and discuss!

happy new day.

2015 sounds like the beginning by James Maskalyk on Mixcloud

i’ll keep this short, as it has been a long night in the ER. how many vodka sodas can a teenager drink on new year’s? i don’t have an exact answer, but not as many as he thinks he can.

the hospital is a living thing, i can tell you that, and the ER is its mouth. it eats sick people, or spits them out. i saw a man sleeping outside, shivering from the cold, a woman with a broken hip, one who was losing her baby. i ate my dinner listening to a neurosurgery resident discuss with his staff doctor the list of patients he had seen in the evening. brainstem tumour. infected cervical spine. cancer breaking through a vertebrae.

this has been one big, bad ass year. there has been no other that presented the same challenges, not the way these ones rolled out. in many ways, it was the hardest in a long while, and at the same time, the most honest. i feel more ready than i ever have been for the intense work that stretches from it.

i wonder if that’s true of us together. my teacher, shinzen (may grace and good fortune bless him), has a theory about fermi’s paradox, why if we live in such an infinite universe, we have received no message from another intelligent civilization. we could be the first. we could be all alone. maybe a message, on its way to us for millennia, is still hurtling through cold space, or we received it before we could understand. there are others, but shinzen suggests that instead of looking to the stars, or to mars, for freedom, maybe consciousness develops to a stage where we realize every answer to any question that matters is embedded in us, every single secret. there are other civilizations, sure, and they have heard our signals or ones like it, and at first it excited them, and they hurried to respond, but as they heard more, realized that other places were also looking for peace while still fighting, love while hating, they slowly saw their own green place, the civilizations rising and falling beneath their feet, their children born again and again, and they knew that if they raced away towards other oceans they would just dirty them too, so they stopped building machines, and let their listening equipment rust and for the first time knew their home.

i’m fond of this theory. certainly, as good as any other. in some ways, I think we are on some kind of trajectory that may recognize that the answers we need are not how to get to Mars but how to live our small life more deeply as it is now.

grateful for all of you who have shared this rare time with me. you have filled my heart time and again.

here is some music for you. love. j.


try to make a mix every year, around this time, that shows my fondness for both music, and the album. nearly all of these are from bands who put out great records in 2015. it was one of the best years i can remember, and hard to choose only a few. and, as i intimate below, hard not to make every song on this record a courtney barrett one. love.

Solo – Max Richter – This guy is my favorite contemporary composer for two reasons. One, he makes really beautiful concept albums, like his latest, 8 hours long, that is designed to play out as we sleep, then welcome us to the world. Two, he is the only contemporary composer I know, while also making me feel I don’t need to look much farther.

Coco Blues – Mbongwana Star – I remember a friend of mine who worked in DRC, where MStar are from, telling me that when he went out to listen to music, the band just played the whole night, no stopping for applause, or to demarcate the end of a number. It was all one long song. I’ve wanted to go there since, and one day, I will. And until then, this.

Oulhin Asnin – Terakaft – Oulhin Asnin means, “My heart suffers”, and the desert blues of Mali have never been bluer, as all Libya’s guns worked their way into souks, then villages, into the desert where the Tuareg people have sang their songs for a thousand years.

Broken Necks – Eskimeaux – Pretty music from brooklyn wrapping its arms around you.

California – Grimes – She is officially le sheet. Produced this poperfect record, sang on it, did the art, finely tuned ear to the ground all the way through.

Brown Skin Girl – Leon Bridges – I listened to this record more than any other. I can’t understand why every band isn’t this band.

Dust Bunnies – Kurt Vile – to all those times you had a headache like a ShopVac coughing dust bunnies, and for those times you just wanted someone funny and smart to be singing to you.

Washed-up Rock Star Factory Blues – Corb Lund – Alright, I’m from Alberta, and you might think I’m choosing this song ’cause i like the plains or pretending i do, or dudes from there too, and in some ways you’re right, but in most ways your wrong. I’m choosing it ’cause when I was in Edmonton, this guy was the lead singer of the heaviest band around, called the Smalls. If you were on the verge of understanding what he was saying over the ratatatat of the drum and the heavy guitar, someone would put their boot in your eye and now he’s singing johnny paycheck and probably always was.

An illustration of Loneliness – Courtney Barret – This is the record of the year. No shit. She is my new favorite band, and every song on her album rules. I don’t have much else to say.

La Loose – Waxahatchee – love and loss never sounded sweet as they do coming from alabama and just from the name, i think i’ll fish this river (then put em back)

River – Ibeyi – twin sisters, born in cuba, raised in france, singing in yoruba, a nigerian language. percussion is spare and crisp throughout, and you’re just like, “God sounds good” no comma.

Demon – Shamir – genderqueer future soul music from the heart of las vegas and why not.

Mmm – Harleigh Blu – how can a song that sounds so sweet be so so sad.

Want Something Done – Oddisee – I lament the loss of the boombap , not just because the vocal refrains these days are so lazy, but because there isn’t enough space to say anything much deeper than “uhhhh”. Anyway, this guy keeps it nice.

i – Kendrick Lamar – but no one nice than this guy.

Dub Storm – Fats Comet – second craziest song i heard.

Cruel Sport – Blank Mass – this is, actually, the craziest song i’ve ever heard. it is a long player, worth listening to in it’s entirety. i mean, if you’re a cyborg looking to have a good time.

Love – 77 Karat Gold – soul music from Tokyo, what in the 2015 more than that?

When life is in your hands


(this piece originally appeared in PenguinRandomhouse’s Hazlitt magazine.)

I knew what had happened, though I wasn’t there. She was tossed from her motorcycle, turned in the air and fell, her helmeted head bearing her body’s weight. The landing snapped her neck at its weakest point. When I saw her in the trauma room, her eyes roved, trying to find mine, but not a flicker of movement anywhere else in her body.

I looked at the CT scan minutes later, which showed fragments of bone, a route her spinal cord could not stretch through. It was cut completely.

I leaned over her face, met her eyes, told her what I saw. Would she be able to move again? No, I said, never again. She asked more questions, then fell silent. I was called away. An hour later, a nurse told me she was asking for me again. I returned to her room.

“Doc,” she said, her voice serious and clear. “Can I ask you to kill me?”

“Oh, darling. You can’t. I can’t. I know why you’re asking, but … I can’t. I’m sorry.”

I work on the other side, I wanted to tell her, of a fine and indelible line. My work is to cultivate vitality, help it find a freedom to go as far as it naturally can so it can manifest its full expression. All my work studying disease has been at ameliorating it—how to mitigate the effects of trauma on the body, not deliver it.

After Carter, a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision, it is no longer a crime for doctors to help end their patients’ lives if those patients are capable, give informed consent, and suffer intolerable pain as a result of a medical condition. Now, many doctors are wondering if we will be drawn into new territory: helping people die who otherwise would live.

If a person comes into my ER threatening or having attempted suicide, I do two things. First, I tell them I’m glad they are here, even if they aren’t. Second, I take away their ability to make any more decisions about their care. It’s a powerful privilege, and one we treat with gravitas. Killing yourself is something you can only do once.

As you read this, patients and families in emergency rooms and intensive care units around the country are making decisions about death and the futility of treatment. These discussions involve physicians helping them to understand an illness’s trajectory, and how low the likelihood might be of treatment leading to a true recovery. It is a shared recognition that death is near. Working to prolong a life at all costs would be a denial of our intimate understanding of the process we are all part of, and the responsibility of physicians to our patients: to create an opportunity for them to thrive, and when that isn’t possible, guide them and their families through the letting go.

We don’t often handle this last transition well. We have let people think that dying is a problem that needs to be fixed—something best done in a hospital, out of sight, instead of something as beautiful and necessary as a birth. Our reluctance to embrace this difficult problem more publicly makes me wonder if doctors are the right people for the even bigger job that may soon be asked of us. I have my own opinions, but there are no medical mission statements that define a life worth living, or teach you how to determine when one no longer is.

This lack of public dialogue is surprising, because privately, nearly all of the doctors and nurses I know have had discussions with people close to them about the care they want at the end of their lives. My parents and wife know mine: If I can’t make the decision, and it seems I will never again show love, nor breathe on my own, let me go. For me, denial of treatment in this instance is an act of grace, not just for the person who is dying, but as an expression of the deeply natural process that we are part of.

The Supreme Court has cleared a way for other endings. If, in the future, I decide that I am in too much pain to live any longer, someone can hasten my death—though to this point, there is no guidance from federal or provincial governments as to how far this help might go. It could be a lethal prescription for those of sound mind who truly don’t want to live, so they can achieve their goal with as little pain as possible. Or it might include a doctor standing at the bedside, administering a drug with an intention to kill someone who, despite their pain, might survive for days, even years.

It would require a change in the mindset of most physicians. If a person comes into my ER threatening or having attempted suicide, I do two things. First, I tell them I’m glad they are here, even if they aren’t. Second, I take away their ability to make any more decisions about their care. It’s a powerful privilege, and one we treat with gravitas. Killing yourself is something you can only do once.

My aunt had a disease called scleroderma, a rare condition that can cause your skin to tighten until the bones come through the ends of your fingers, make your lips so small you can no longer eat. When her hands could no longer work well enough to cut food into pieces tiny enough for her mouth, she let others do it. It was a humble act for a proud woman. Until the end, she was strong and beautiful. Her dying taught me something about how to live.

A person’s right to choose for themselves how to live their life or die their death is, in the end, theirs alone, and seeking the best ways to do it should not be a crime. There are people who are well informed, supported, and emotionally skilled who endure unrelenting physical torment from which they seek release, and will decide to take their lives. My worry is that if we don’t strive to make it possible for people to find freedom even in the face of age, pain, and sickness, choosing to die risks becoming an illusion of choice itself.

I am not new to dying. I’ve seen it happen to adults and infants, suddenly and slowly. It is my impression that in the last minutes and hours of a person’s life, there is little pain. Most people die in peace. But there are things I can’t know. I do not know agony, or the true helplessness of my body passing beyond my control. I can glimpse that in these cases, assisted suicide, or even euthanasia, can be seen not just as an act of mercy, but one of true kindness. If Canada does allow for physician-assisted suicide, it must not be because of our reluctance to address pain—be it physical, social, or spiritual—nor to confront the societal aversion towards age and disability. If we hasten to neither of these things, the Supreme Court’s decision—made to preserve autonomy and prevent people from taking their lives prematurely—may not bear its promise.

I still see the woman with the broken neck in the emergency department. She returns because she got pneumonia from not being able to breathe deeply, or an ulcer in her back from lying in bed. If she remembers me, she doesn’t mention it. We give her antibiotics, at her request, and bandage her wounds. She has not asked me again if I could help her die. It could be because, until recently, it was a crime. Or it could be that she found something to live for.

How to help others (without hurting yourself)

(whistler wanderlust transcript)

There’s something about having mountains to you on all sides, a presence their enormity affords.  You sense that they’ve been here long before you, will be long after, and in that knowing, your troubles seem laughably small.  But it’s not just that. As immutable as they appear, they change, erode, splinter into hard avalanches, become riven with crisscrossing streams, and you recognize that same process is at work on you too, and it gives you comfort to be in such grand company.  Even these are being worked on, ground down smaller and smaller into sand, fitted, placed perfectly, like you, like me.

This is not a piece about mountains, though.  This  is about that thing that pushes them out of the ground, then grinds them back down. In that way, it is the same as any other speech, or conversation, or glance, cause there’s only one thing to talk about.  You can call it love, or god, or nature, but union with it is what our hearts seek, to dissolve into it for good.

I believe that deep service is something you can disappear into, but only if you get it right, only if you learn how to help others without hurting yourself.  For the next minutes, I’ll tell you about the mistakes I’ve made, how I’ve hurt myself, the times I’ve got it right. I don’t want to ruin the talk by saying I don’t have it all figured out, not yet, but i think I’ve found the right question.

Another James, William James once asked us to take the simplest object of attention, a dot on the wall, and attend to it as long as we can.  He said, in that activity, one of two things will invariably happen.  You will find the object growing indistinct or blurred, or your mind will turn to other things.  However, if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot, it’s colour, how big it is, it’s location, you can hold your attention on it for a comparatively long time.  This is what genius does, in whose hands an object of attention coruscates and grows.

So let’s be geniuses about this.  About how to help others without hurting ourselves.  Keep on asking that question  Stay aware. This is some risky territory, and some you should know intimately.  The stakes are high working with the wounded, not just for them, but for you.  You face their same risk.  You can hurt yourself.  In fact, you will.

In 2007, I returned from Sudan, my hopes high that i had participated meaningfully in the emancipation of the brave people starving and fighting in its wide desert, then watched it slip back into a wider war.  The hospital where I worked was abandoned from the fighting, the town burned down.  Months later, around Christmas, I was sitting with friends, in a restaurant near my house.  It was snowing, and I was warm. Someone was laughing, making a joke. I found myself laughing too, and then…..this clear, sweet feeling. It was so unfamiliar, I couldn’t place it.  What was it?  Oh yeah.  Joy.

Like joy, suffering is a shared experience.  You do an fMRI of a person’s brain who watches someone experience pain in their hand, and the brain of the observer lights up as if it was their own.  It’s real. In the act of helping those in pain, if you don’t find a way to transform that, it wobbles you from your centre, and you wonder why you feel uneasy when everything appears just right. The loss of one’s centre, the erosion of solid ground, is a constant attrition, even more urgent when you’re working with those who are in trouble.

People who want to jump right in, helping others before they know how to help themselves.  Our culture is geared to the heroic act. Go go go.   There is little attention given to self-care, and it’s even worse in the caring professions.  I never learned about it in medical school.  What I learned was that doctors have a high incidence of burnout, a high prevalence of alcoholism and depression, even suicide.  There was no talk of prevention, of connecting on a deeper level to what we were part of, that medicine was an activity life developed to put itself back together and if we didn’t make our ongoing self-repair a priority, we would fall quickly into the category of the wounded.

I remember reading the security document before I went to work in a Somali refugee camp. It talked about what to do if I was kidnapped for many months and recommended daily meditation, healthy meals, and regular exercise.  It was the first time, in all my years, that I remember reading anything about being healthy in the field.  Don’t get me wrong.  There was plenty of information about how to roll once you were hurt.  This is how you know you know you’re depressed, this is how you know if you’re an alcoholic.  Have you ever tried to cut down, have you become angry when someone has asked you to do, has your drinking ever caused you to do things for which you felt guilty, have you ever had an eye opener first thing in the morning.  For this, there were checklists,  counsellors, support groups.  There was none of this rigour to help you stay well.

I never once heard the word “meditation” in medical school, and though I was told to give patients advice about how to be healthy, nothing was said about how important it was for ME to exercise or eat well.  How can doctors be an exemplar of health if we aren’t healthy?  How could we know what healing looked like if we’ve never been whole? How could we help others and hurt ourselves?

Let’s talk about how we hurt ourselves.  Let me count the ways.  I work in an ER, so if i’m an expert on anything, it’s how people hurt themselves.  I’m not just talking about those who crash off their bike trying to pop a wasted wheelie, but the people who come in to my ER with less obvious, but deeper injuries.   Alcoholics who sleep on street grates, drinking listerine until they taste oblivion, the young man whose inner life is so painful he cuts his own arm to distract himself from it, the woman whose panic attacks make her want to jump from a window, and endures a sedative haze to keep them at bay.   People who are abused.  People who abuse.


Let me be clear about “hurt”.  By “hurt” I mean to experience an injury that makes you feel uneasy, or if we wish to explore more deeply a biological metaphor, dis-ease, what happens when we get pushed away from our homeostatic centre, that sweet spot where we thrive. Sometimes  we get pushed way out, sometimes so far out, we never get back.  That’s how we die, you know.  Physically, and spiritually.  There is a hovering around a middle that all of these billion cells serve, the billions more bacteria on it that you can’t see.  We are constantly tugged away from it, by injury, illness, time. Whenever we are moved away, we must spend extra energy recovering back towards it, or get helped by someone else.  This is how medicine works, by tipping the balance back.

In the body, one of our homeostatic homes is 37.3 degree celsius.  This is our core temperature.  Inuit, Sudanese alike, not higher, not lower.  Too low, we spend energy shivering, too high, sweating, seeking shade.  If it goes too high, say 41 C, our body starts to fail.  The proteins denature, unfurl.  What gathers us around our centre, starts to come apart.  Too much time away from it, and our essence leaks out completely.

There is a sweet spot for our mind and, if you forgive me such an ineffable word, our spirit.  Of course there is.  Same process.  If we are moved from the centre, we start to bleed energy, and get sick.  We toss and turn in bed, get angry at people we love, use alcohol and drugs as some type of band-aid for a wound that won’t heal, do acts of self harm to distract us from the pain we are holding on to.  We drive people we love away, the same people who help give us balance. The sickness worsens.

Hope turns to resignation, sweetness to bitterness, and our days seem like something we must survive instead of celebrate.  Like it is with a limping leg, we no longer navigate it with ease, the bandwidth of our consciousness dominated by torment. We forget that we are in service to something much deeper, more abiding: that which moves mountains.   We hurt ourselves when we lose contact with what sustains us.

I know hurt.  Not just from the patients that queue in my ER waiting room, but my own. Deep hurt, almost irrecoverable.  Almost didn’t make it past that push.  There were lonely, dark years, and in them, I was lost and confused.  You see, I thought that the hurt was mine to own, that I had to hold onto it, like a hot coal, punishing myself.  It was only later I learned that the best way to trend back to centre is to learn a practice of letting go, of deep surrender, to trust that there is a part of you that wants you to be well, that will even do the work if you let it.

I’ve seen many colleagues hurt themselves. In a refugee camp where I worked, a nurse slowly become an alcoholic. After a couple of months, his eyes were glassy by noon.   He didn’t last.  Other people descended into bitterness, unable to transform the heavy burden of suffering they were witness to.  Resignation followed, ate away at their motivation, creeped into their relationships as some sort of blame.  Some of them returned home to find it didn’t fit them so well, so they struck out on the road again, hoping that on it they would find an ease they could not find in themselves.  Others gave up on the movement altogether, believing that such intense work can only be done in small and infrequent doses.  It’s not.  In fact, should you be able to work with what comes up, with time, you don’t become more jaded, but more effective.

The stakes are high, with helping others.  Not just in refugee camps, not just for those of you purport to help others as your profession, as healers or teachers or spiritual guides, but for every single person.  There is no activity that you do that is not in deep service to our shared humanity, our shared world, mountains included. Every little thing counts. In Buddhism it is called Pratītyasamutpāda, co-arising, emergence, interdependence of all things.  Indra’s net, every single thing woven together, moving jewels, one is pulled down and the descent is shared.  You can’t hurt yourself and help other people.  Things are too tightly bound for that. You must help yourself to help other people.  Not to the last piece of pie, but on a deeper level.  Hurting yourself to help others makes as much sense as purporting to help them and robbing them blind.   Lift yourself, and the rest will follow.  Get it right so you know the sweet taste of what real help is, so you are moved to do it from that centre place of infinite resources.

Sometimes, people are drawn to working with those who are in need of help because they think that on the path to redemption, they will be redeemed.  Or they like the optics, or the hierarchy it affords, their position of relative authority salving temporarily, their own wounds, allowing them to put off the grit of their own work. I would argue, there is no other work.   Help yourself.

 So how do you do that, help yourself? If I’m right about hurt, if it is a trend away from our homeostatic home, a centre for our mind ands spirit that is the equivalent of 37.3 degrees Celcius, a blood pH of 7.40, a potassium of 4.0 meq/l, then how do you know where it is? What tests can you do?

One way to findcentre is to know where it’s not.   If perfect enlightenment is a sense of happiness independent of circumstances, as at peace to be dragging in your last breaths on a ventilator as you are lying on a beach, hat over your face, then it’s opposite would be a perfect confusion, a sense that nothing is right, not you, not how you are spending your days, nor your evenings.  The symptoms are a friction in your feelings, a sense of discomfort that you are carrying around everywhere, a heaviness in your heart, a tightness in your throat, around your eyes, even in circumstances that made you happy.  The signs are you toss and turn in bed, never feel rested, get angry at those you love because they aren’t helping you, blind that in this one, you must help yourself.

How do you find that place again, when you forgotten even where to look?  Or even that it’s something that can be found?  Well, that’s where helping yourself starts.

With faith.

Faith that you, like anyone else, deserve to be free.  In fact, are bound for freedom, if you surrender to grace.  That there is something inside you, the same thing that as soon as step into the hot sun, and place that hat over your face, opens microscopic holes on your body so that the water you’re made of, that same water in those crisscrossing streams that moves smoothly through the clouds, and through you, evaporates, cools you down to a place where you can thrive.

It does imply, of course, that you know when you’re thirsty, and drink when you are.  This is one of the most important things i can tell you.  There’s an active component to this, an agency, where you participate 50/50, create the fertile ground where the phenomenon can unfold.  You do that, and then you trust.   Like Issa says, that’s how the dew creates itself:  trust, and trust, and trust.

What is the equivalent of cool water for our energetic centre?  How do we stay close to that sweet spot, so we don’t get confused by the entropy that builds when we move from it, and come apart? There are many answers to this question.  Rest. Exercise. Healthy eating. A deliberate cultivation of one’s own natural vitality, the prana that works in you.  But that’s not enough.  You can go to any yoga studio or gym and see people that pay attention to this, but despite their body’s fitness, aren’t at ease in it.

What you need is a practice. You needs to sit in direct, deliberate contact with your centre, and practice letting go, a surrender that does not imply defeat, but release into that power that  moves mountains.

For me, practice means some type of meditation. Meditation in the sense of the word that is not proscriptive to how it’s done, the one that the Greeks share with the Christians and the Buddhists and the Muslims and the Hindus. It is most effective when done with the help of a skillful teacher, and in community.   Calm, quiet reflection on your own essence, your true nature, done with regularity, daily, at first begrudgingly, with experience, more happily. Something that with time cultivates a sense that in times of crisis as in times of great blessing, you are in the middle of a vast space, and being held together perfectly.  You practice first in stillness, then in action, then the space starts to be one of freedom, that follows you everywhere.

How do you know you need this?  You just do. You need it every single day, like water, like air.  Trust me, i’m a doctor.  We’ve never needed it more than in our modern time, where moments of quiet reflection are priced almost completely out of the market.  You’re not doing it just for you.  You’re doing it for everyone, me included.   We need you to be well so you can help. There’s so much work to do, so many people in the world, and things are changing fast.  The greatest challenges are ahead of us.  In fact…all of them. Climate change, disease, conflict over water.  We need you to help us by helping yourself.

We don’t have time to talk about the practice itself in more in depth, the technique, the intensity, how to support yourself and others, in it.  It’s something you can find.  If you live in Toronto, you can join us for our weekly sits.  However you get there, though, you need to know where your centre is, because you will be working with people who need you to show them.  That is the deepest teaching: showing others what it’s like to be well.

How do you know it’s working?  Your symptoms of unease fade, any conflict you had with yourself, or with others, dulls.

You meditate in stillness, then in action.  I sit nearly every day in formal practice.  On a cushion, half an hour, I do silent retreats once or twice per year.  I’ve found a teacher.  A deep teacher. I’ve a group of friends who value the same thing that I do, who support each other.   My awareness grows, and as it does, my trust in it.

I made the most progress, when i started to practice in action.  Throughout the day, I’ll meditate while I’m moving.  Riding my bike, waiting in line.  Even at work.  It’s rare that the ER is quiet enough I can leave it unattended for more than a few minutes, so i’ll do it walking down the hallway to see a patient, a walking meditation that cultivates my awareness in the present moment, an aliveness to what my role is.  I’ll bring my awareness to my footfalls, let what troubles I had outside the ER dissolve, leave the unfinished business I have with other patients temporarily, and build an aliveness to the present moment. I’ll pause at the threshold to the patients room and say to myself, “how can i help this person, mind, body and spirit, as truly as possible, and not hurt myself?”.  It’s still a question, you see, but i open myself to it, then I open the door.

I don’t always remember to do that.  I forget, get too lazy. Or despite my practice, I get angry or frustrated, confused about what I’m there to do, but practice makes practiced, never perfect, only better, and as it does, the questions about how to help others and not hurt myself become fewer. In fact, they mostly disappear.

The teacher that i told you about, Shinzen Young, works with dying people, right at the end of their life.  Me too, but not like he does.  He’s a master.  Worked with his own father.  He says things like: does it feel like you want to let go?  If so, let go.   He’ll sit with someone who’s dying for hours, but every now and again, he will leave their side, and find a broom closet to meditate in, to connect with what put him at their side in the first place.  The greater the work, the greater the faith, the greater the practice.

I was in the ER not long ago, and went into the room of a young boy with a painful rash.  He was 7, and I could tell by the name he was Tibetan.  I did what I do with children, treat them like their father isn’t there, introduce myself, sit at about their height, at a comfortable distance, look them in the eye and smile.  Then we just talk.  We talked about his shirt, the weather, what was happening in school these days.  Then we came to rash. I lifted his shirt gently.  It was chicken pox that had been secondarily infected.  Antibiotics would clear it quickly.  I reassured his dad, and left the room.  I was at the desk writing a prescription when his father came up to me and said.

“There is a healing that can happen without even touching someone, just by offering your presence. You did that for my son. He feels better already.  Thank you.”

Tears came to my eyes. Yes, i know that too.  That’s the deepest kind of healing.   I felt renewed.

Here’s how you help yourself: by returning to centre, and holding.  Guess what, that’s also when you start to help others and you get let in on the the best secret I know: the healing heals you too.   

Same equation, same phenomenon, no separation. everything connected, Pratītyasamutpāda.

(SLIDE: back and forth, “help others, help yourself”)

I teach doctors in Ethiopia emergency medicine.  Ethiopia has one of the oldest expressions of christianity, as old as catholicism, and if you ask an Ethiopian, they would say older.  I challenged them to make the ER a church where they can pray with their actions towards a world they most want to see, every little gesture an act of faith towards what is waiting to emerge, an act of love even.  A true act of service, not tied to the fruit of your action, nor reciprocity.  The highest form or service: serving when someone doesn’t even know they’ve been helped.  The questions stop because you lose that which measures gains and losses.



If you practice that way, service becomes something that softens you, rather than makes you hard, a place where you heal instead of one that breaks you down, instead of causing you to find ease only after your second glass of vodka in a refugee camp that is so dry that camels die.

It’s simple then, helping others.  This is how you do it.  You just promise not to hurt yourself, because it doesn’t make any sense, because you’ve more helping do do, you work on yourself.

If you were going to draw it on a map, it would look more like this:  you start to help others, and you hurt yourself, and because ofhat equation, you hurt them too.  Then you help yourself, and then you help others.  Then you hurt yourself, but this time, it doesn’t stick around so long, and the space that you feel away from your centre less scary, because you know where it is, and how to get back to it, and you start to find that in the act of service, you disappear along with your questions about why, and how, and a sense of ease starts to follow you around.  Things flow through you, and you are moved where you belong, like these waves of rock, cresting and falling all around us.

Thank you for listening.


Free your mind.

Original article here.

How to make UpToDate out of date. 

Putting Wikipedia articles through a medical journal’s traditional process can put free, reliable information into as many hands as possible.

James Maskalyk, MD, is an associate editor at Open Medicine, an emergency physician at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto, and an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario.

If you graduated from a medical or nursing school before the turn of the millennium, a single glance in a teaching hospital can tell you how things have changed. Resident and student physicians no longer huddle in groups, listening to their seniors: they lean alone over smartphones or computers, searching for diagnoses and doses. With an Internet connection, you don’t need to talk to the brightest people in the room to get the information you need. With the right access, you are one of them.

Of course, making a sound clinical decision requires more than Wi-Fi. One must accumulate and contextualize disparate bits of knowledge and integrate them into a larger impression shaped by clinical experience, the patient’s evolving clinical trajectory, current evidence, and the limitations of the immediate health care environment. After a consensus has been gathered from other professionals involved in a person’s care about available options, an informed and compassionate discussion makes the process clear and creates the solid ground necessary for a patient’s informed decision.

If the latter points are the “art” of medicine, then the former are its science, and that science moves quickly. New evidence pours in to the tune of 12 systematic reviews per day,1 and accumulating the information and then deciding how to incorporate it into one’s practice is an almost impossible task. A study published in BMJ showed that if one hoped to take account of all that has been published in the relatively small discipline of echocardiography, it would take 5 years of constant reading—by which point the reader would be a year behind.2

Thirty-five years ago, Archie Cochrane remarked that the medical profession could use a critical summary of available evidence to aid in decision-making3 so the echocardiographer could stop reading and do some echocardiography. The Cochrane Collaboration, launched in 1994,4 has led to a better synthesis, but it’s far from convenient or complete. More than half of the articles are out of date, and this situation is getting worse all the time:5 having busy academics decide on what topics are important, reach a consensus about new studies that merit practice change, and then publish a distillation of their analysis, is a losing battle. In 2012, hundreds of thousands of new citations were added to MEDLINE, and the number is increasing each year.6 There have been repeated calls for new ways to aggregate information and translate it to the bedside, including making research articles “living” documents that exist only online and evolve constantly at the hands of many authors7—an approach we have explored in this journal.8 In the age of Wikipedia, even the Cochrane Collaboration admits it needs to change with the times.9

If you type “Archie Cochrane” into a search engine, the first link will be to a Wikipedia article. The same is true if you type in “pneumonia,” “azithromycin,” or “life after death.” Wikipedia is the most heavily used health resource on the Internet—even more than MEDLINE—and is the sixth most popular website in the world.10 In printed form, it would consist of more than a million pages,11 and it grows each day. Anyone with Internet access can connect, provide content, and correct mistakes.

Or make them. Despite its popularity,12,13 in medical circles Wikipedia’s constant evolution has been viewed with skepticism. Although often used to gather information, it is rarely considered accurate or complete enough to guide treatment decisions.14 In the face of this, clinicians and trainees turn to medical resources such as UpToDate with greater frequency15 and confidence,16 because in clinical medicine a small error can make a big difference.

It pays to be certain. Some institutions pay UpToDate hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for that sense of security.17 This has allowed Wolters Kluwer, the owners of UpToDate, to accrue annual revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars and to forecast continued double-digit growth as “market conditions for print journals and books … remain soft.”18 In contrast, the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that operates Wikipedia, a resource with 20 times the numbers of views and wide-ranging articles in 287 languages,19,20 has forecasted revenues of $50 million in the upcoming year.21

As a source of clinical information, how does Wikipedia differ from UpToDate or, for that matter, a textbook or scholarly journal? Wikipedia lacks three main things. First, a single responsible author, typically with a recognized academic affiliation, who acts as guarantor of the integrity of the work. Second, the careful eye of a trained editorial team, attuned to publication ethics, who ensure consistency and accuracy through the many iterations of an article from submission to publication. Third, formal peer review by at least one, and often many, experts who point out conflicts, errors, redundancies, or gaps. These form an accepted ground from which publication decisions can be made with confidence.

In this issue of Open Medicine, we are pleased to publish the first formally peer-reviewed and edited Wikipedia article. The clinical topic is dengue fever.22 It has been submitted by the author who has made the most changes, and who has designated 3 others who contributed most meaningfully. It has been peer reviewed by international experts in infectious disease, and by a series of editors at Open Medicine. It has been copy-edited and proofread; once published, it will be indexed in MEDLINE. Although by the time this editorial is read the Wikipedia article will have changed many times, there will be a link on the Wikipedia page that can take the viewer back to the peer-reviewed and published piece on the Open Medicine website.22 In a year’s time, the most responsible author will submit the changed piece to an indexed journal, so it can move through the same editorial process and continue to function as a valid, reliable, and evolving free and complete reference for everyone in the world. Although there may be a need for shorter, more focused clinical articles published elsewhere as this one expands, it is anticipated that the Wikipedia page on dengue will be a reference against which all others can be compared. While it might be decades before we see an end to dengue, perhaps the time and money saved on exhaustive, expensive, and redundant searches about what yet needs to be done will let us see that end sooner.

There were challenges with this article, as there will be with others. A lack of a single, authorial voice in the Wiki process means not only that strong personal recommendations are unlikely, but also that the style can be inconsistent, and the sentences and transitions between them less smooth, resulting in a paper that might be challenging to read. Some “Wikipedians” have little traditional experience in publishing and the editorial process that accompanies it, which can lead to frustrations about content or format that might fit a journal’s preference. (In Open Medicine’s case, we would have preferred a different structure for the article, but deferred to Wikipedia’s standard flow.) Medical articles that originate from Wikipedia might also lack the traditional “senior” author typical of many clinical reviews, whose role is to provide guidance on when a piece is ready for submission, what editorial changes should be accepted or challenged, which journal’s readership might be the best audience for a clinical topic, and who might write accompanying editorials to contextualize new information or frame controversy. Should the example of the dengue article be copied, this may lead to a number of rejected submissions to formally peer-reviewed journals. Also, as time goes by, the Wikipedia-based articles will lose their brevity as they become truly encyclopedic.

The issue of authorship is particularly controversial. We talked about many possibilities, including listing an author even if she made only a single change, or setting a threshold based on the percentage of total changes contributed, and finally settled on letting the most responsible author, the one who had made the most changes, decide who should share authorship according to widely accepted authorship criteria.23 A single change, though, may be an important contribution, depending on what it is, and a case can be made to include all those who contributed: in this case, 1373 people.24 Since the number of changes made to an article are freely available for everyone to see, what of the “senior” authors mentioned in the previous paragraph, who may suggest small but important revisions, or—too common in traditional academia—are added honorifically, without having changed a comma? If a decision is made by a journal to include every person who made a minor change, or only those who made substantial ones, how will a university determine whom to reward with merit? Will medical journals be as tuned to potential conflicts of interest when there are hundreds of authors? Will pharma companies be keen to exploit this weakness?

The line between editors and authors will become more blurred. In the case of the dengue article, we deliberated over whether editorial changes should be made publicly on the “wiki” or “suggested” to the primary author. If journals were truly “open,” recording every change an editor advised, we might see that some publications require more than a careful eye and attention to conflicts of interest. Some require editors to do research of their own, find relevant citations, communicate with experts in the field, and even interpret data. In this case, we opted for a more traditional, invisible role, although a compelling case could be made that disambiguation, in all spheres, brings valuable change.

A trend toward improvement is not just typical of a Wikipedia page, but so too of medicine. Its progress is determined, and marked, by what appears on the pages of medical journals and textbooks—or, these days, on computer screens. It is our hope, and that of the Wiki Project Med Foundation, that this endeavour will encourage other scholars to refine and improve Wikipedia articles so they might become the world’s most accurate and trusted reference, in addition to the most well read (the Wikipedia page on dengue was accessed more than 10 000 times yesterday).24 Freely open and accessible, Wikipedia can improve clinical care at the bedside for physicians around the world by allowing them access to the latest information, regardless of their ability to pay high fees. Already, Wikipedia’s Zero Project is working with mobile communications providers in developing countries to minimize, or even remove, data costs associated with using the site.25 This might encourage greater numbers of clinicians and scholars to contribute their expe=rience and research to our shared, global knowledge, and begin to repair the enormous publishing bias that exists between the high- and low-income world.26 Further, in a time when newspapers and traditional publishers struggle to explain their relevance, medical journals can more easily describe what we deliver: content you can trust.

At least temporarily. Medicine and science, like the diseases they attend to, move fast—much faster than the systems that are responsible for making medical science known. As this editorial is being written, Ebola continues its surge in West Africa. Since the 2014 epidemic started, there have been 1549 changes to Wikipedia’s Ebola disease page, 10 times as many as the year before.27 Which ones are accurate? Given Wikipedia’s history, one would suspect that most of them are. All of them? Without the attention of dedicated, capable, and responsible eyes, one can’t be sure. What we can be certain of is that the story of the 2014 Ebola epidemic, like the recent dengue outbreak in Japan,28 will be told on Wikipedia and that a determining factor for its final sentences will be how much relevant information about how to treat and control the disease makes its way into capable hands.

References here.

here goes everything.


we’ve launched high into the clean, blue air.  below, clouds circle.  i read, that for some, it can take years to fall, that they don’t drop out of the air, splash onto the ground, just like that.

speaking of falling out of the air just like that, i would like to get the customary planefear piece of my travel writing out of the way.   for some reason, i am always seated by the wing, and just stare at them as they quiver like feathers.  not thousands of feathers cushioned by millions of smaller ones jutting at different angles from a hollow frame designed by millions of years of evolution, but two  flimsy feathers bolted ono a metal frame carrying a giga tonne of irish spring soap bars. the main problem is that most plane design takes place on the ground.  to make it better, aeronautical engineers should be seated by the wings and piloted straight into the blackest clouds with scratch pads. it would lead to better solutions like plane parachutes, or more wings.

but i’m not an engineer, i’m just a dj, like everybody else.

and a doctor, but i’m taking time fromthat for a year, at least from toronto’s ERs.  i’m flying to ethiopia to keep working myself out of a job. later this week, i’ll be delivering final exams to six young men and women who, should they pass, will be the second cohort of emergency physicians in the country, some of only a couple dozen in Africa.  there are more than that at my hospital.

next week, with friends from Toronto, we will celebrate them at the second-ever African Federation of Emergency Medicine conference in Addis, the first outside of South Africa.  I make a point of saying that because, South Africa has, in some places, for some people, a robust health system that emergency medicine can fit into.  in Ethiopia, these young men and women will have to grow it.  it’s different.  not only do they struggle for legitimacy, but for the right medicines, the right equipment.   in the meantime, they stand beside the beds of people, and watch them sicken when they know it could be otherwise.

it’s a necessary step, however.  there is always a lag between when you glimpse what’s possible, and the arrival.  only one thing that can shorten it.  it is the world’s only true magic: attention.  in its bright light, the world changes.  the question becomes, what do you pay attention to?  love or war? a place for some or a place for all?  with your decision, a future gets pushed slowly into view.

i’ve been coming back here for five years, and with others, paying attention to this idea: a place in ethiopia, open all day and night, where anyone who is sick or suffering can find what peace the environment can afford, no matter how many others have already sought help that day.  in that place, great teaching, not just on the new types of medicine necessary to make good on such a promise, but on how to take it from black lion, to other parts of ethiopia.  jimma, hawassa.  sudan, liberia, sierra leone.

it’s hard to watch old ways disappear.  day to day, change is almost imperceptible.  those of us who have been watching for years can see the slow turn to something brighter.  worthwhile movements seem incremental, almost glacial.  fear crashes stock markets in a day, threats cancel flights in an afternoon.  true love creeps into open space, timid at first, but then with more courage, and when it does, it becomes lasting,  inexorable, unshakable.

i have taken this flight, many many times, and have never seen it so empty.   my return flight was cancelled because of low numbers.  in a familiar collapse of world geography, there is fear about africa in general. the jaundiced eye knows that as soon as sierra leone is ebola free, attention will swing from it to the iwatch, as certainly as the rubble cleaning from port-au-prince stuttered to a crawl a year after the quake. a few countries away, though, 11 young doctors will be working on developing PPE equipment and protocols that are safe, effective, and sourced locally.  at the third annual AFEM conference, they will share what they know, and the ideas will pour into the gaps left behind, the empty tent pads and land cruiser ruts, like liquid metal, and on them, something that can last.

if you can’t pay attention to helping right now, money will do.  we’ll call it frozen attention.  MSF is sweating hard in those suits.  give here.  and for those of you who want to help these young doctors project, stay tuned.  they’ll need love more than ever.  it’s one thing to teach people how to do emergency medicine, it’s another to ensure they can do it.

almost chemical sleep time.  i’m a ninja at that now.  movie, glass of wine, a dollop of this, smidgen of that, and….soon, suddenly, ethiopia.