In Theravadan Buddhism, there’s a form of meditation wherein practitioners allow thoughts to enter their minds and dwell there free of judgement. The thought – no matter how potentially upsetting or disturbing – may be calmly turned over, investigated, and conversed with. It may go, or it may stay – either way, the thought is not understood as threatening. It is a part of the learning process.

It is amazing how effective this style of meditation is for untangling webs of anxiety and processing complex emotional issues. Removing the cloud of judgement, and all the fear that accompanies it, allows for the freedom necessary to properly work through difficult issues.

Maybe it should be unsurprising, then, that writing often has the same effect.

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I have found myself, countless times, writing about feelings I didn’t know I had. Thoughts I didn’t know I thought. I have watched, in semi-disembodied disbelief, as my hands seemed to work on their own accord, giving shape to my unconscious.

It is an unsettling experience to sit down intending to write about a specific thing and instead find yourself scribbling unstoppably about things you’ve never thought about. There’s a strange conflict, where your conscious brain struggles to take back control but your bodily unconscious – perhaps because of the writing muscle’s refusal to leave a sentence unfinished, perhaps because your conscious brain is so mesmerized by the novelty of what it is reading – remains in control.

It is a special thing. We so often try to ignore our unconscious. But in the face of a pen that doesn’t judge and a blank sheet of paper, we can engage with ourselves. Our truths can come spilling out and we can read them back.

There is more to the human experience than reason and restraint. Writing has always allowed people to create new worlds; discovering them is not always just for the reader.


rachaelRachael Heffernan recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

Tonight, a new friend came to visit me. She is the wife of a mentor and colleague of mine and I have been meaning to connect with her for awhile. Our visit was simple enough – talking over coffee and a platter of fruit while my daughter chattered away, excited about this new friend in our home. I watched as my daughter fed her grapes and placed a hand on her shoulder – simple, immediate intimacy with someone she had only just met. Our conversation was punctuated with finding my little one in hiding as she shrieked with delight from behind the cupboard.

I had been promising my daughter this visit all day, mentioning that this friend was coming over and that we would all go to the nearby park together, which we eventually did. While my kid made instant friends with another girl  on the slides, we talked about our experiences living in different places around the world – Morocco, Pakistan, the United States and Canada.

“What was it like living in America?” I asked. We both knew what this question meant without further elaboration. It meant, what was it like living as a veiled Muslim in America? It meant, had you experienced discrimination or violence there? It meant, did you live in fear there?

She told me about some of her experiences, narrowing in on the fact that Americans tell it like it is – for better or for worse – and that this is something she found surprisingly refreshing. People sometimes shouted out that they liked her clothes. Or they would smile at her out of nowhere.

“I think people have forgotten how to love one another,” she said. “Especially the Ummah” she added, referring to the global Muslim community.

“People don’t even compliment each other any more,” she added. “Something as simple as ‘you have beautiful eyes’,” she stated, nodding towards mine.

I hadn’t received a compliment in a very long time and didn’t even know how to react, but my body did. I had a huge smile plastered on my face and my heart lifted up for a minute. She was right. A compliment is something so simple and is, in itself a form of love, of uplifting one another just for its own sake.

How long had it been since I complimented someone?

I recalled a cartoon that had been making its way on social media – an image of a man and his son. He turns to another man wearing a hat and says “Nice hat!” When the hat-wearer smiles, the man turns to his son and says: “See? Look at his face change: Everyone can have magic powers!”

And it’s true. Heartfelt words are magical and they are powerful. They can disarm hostility and relax a hardened heart. They come unexpectedly and so they take us off-guard. We feel vulnerable because we are so used to being in defensive mode. We laugh it off as a reflex.

After she left, I decided to try out her simple strategy for social change and I started on my mother. It helped that she arrived within a few moments and she looked absolutely beautiful. I took the moment to compliment her on her shiny new eyeliner, noting that, in fact, her whole outfit was put-together and nice. She looked lovely.

“Ok….” She didn’t know what to say as a smile slowly crept onto her face.

“You look beautiful, Nanna,” my little one echoed, smiling as well.

The car filled with love as we drove away together.

One thing I have learned time and time again is that the most meaningful and lasting social change comes from the simplest of continuous interactions and compliments are yet another tool in our arsenal of tools aimed at compassion and acceptance.

I challenge everyone reading this to #complimentsomeone in our #drawingboardchallenge. Spend the next month making the conscious effort to compliment at least one person per day, whether or not you know them. That person might be you some days because, let’s face it, a whole lot of us are going a very long time without having anything nice to say about ourselves.

In a world that is becoming increasingly uncertain and where meaningful and purposeful interaction is diminishing, break down your fears and connect with others: no matter how far someone might feel to you, they are usually only a smile away.

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board and graduate researcher in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

It’s a term that gets used confidently, like we all know what it means, but the first thing that happens in any theory of religion class is to reveal that, in fact, “religion” has no satisfactory definition. No matter how we may try – and try many do – we cannot figure out what makes a religion a religion.

To break this down:

Many definitions of religion centre on the belief in some superhuman power, like angels and deities, but this is problematic for multiple reasons. Firstly, not all major recognized religions include belief in any kind of superhuman power: Theravadan Buddhism is rather adamant about its lack of inclusion of anything transcendental in its worldview.

Secondly, for many, simple belief in a deity or deities is not enough for a person to be considered “religious.” There are behavioural obligations, dress codes, eating restrictions, and so on and so forth, that are understood to be part and parcel to ‘actually’ believing in G/god(s).

Thirdly, even those that do not believe can still be considered, and consider themselves, religious. If one is an atheist but nevertheless attends religious services, reads sacred texts, eats according to religious laws, and observes sacred holidays, would they be viewed as a non-religious person? Maybe by some, but not by all.

Fourthly, without a concrete definition of “superhuman power,” it is impossible to determine the exact qualities of the being(s) in which a person is expected to believe, and it becomes difficult to explain how belief in folk heroes, monsters, and fairies is different from belief in saints, demons, and angels. This problem becomes even further complicated by the fact that though the belief in certain figures (such as angels and ghosts) may be intrinsic to one religion, the belief in those same beings may be abhorred in another. What kind of definition, then, would be capable of differentiating between the religious and non-religious superhuman powers in light of these difficulties?

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The idea that religion can be defined solely based on belief in superhuman powers, then, is a pipe dream. In light of the shortcomings of one-dimensional definitions, some scholars have suggested outlining a number of different criteria of which religions must fulfill at least a few in order to retain their status as religions. These criteria often include things like:

  • Dietary restrictions
  • Sacred texts
  • Sacred buildings
  • Belief in superhuman powers
  • The existence of religious professionals
  • A particular way of dressing
  • Etc.

There are, again, many problems with this style of definition.

Firstly, the criteria that are normally put in place in these lists are drawn from distinctly Western ideas of what constitutes religion. This is perhaps unsurprising, as it is a distinctly Western pursuit to try to discover what religion is, or even to attempt to separate religion from other kinds of human behaviour. Some languages do not even have a word for religion, and many do not consider religion to be a particular set of behaviours within a culture, but rather as fully integrated and inseparable from the culture itself. What happens, then, is that these attempts at definition ultimately fall short in their attempts to define religion on a worldwide scale. They do not take into the account oral cultures, or the fact that eating restrictions may have multiple justifications beyond “religious concerns,” or that sacred spaces are often ill-defined and can appear spontaneously, or that some cultures do not have or see the need for dedicated religious professionals.

Secondly, it is possible for some patterns of behaviour, institutions, or practices that are not normally considered religious to fulfill the criteria outlined in the above definitions. Sports fandom, for example, is often cited as a modern form of religion: there are designated buildings and particular clothing, people arrive en masse to participate in certain events at the same time every year, there are heroes and legends, it includes devoted professionals, and fans (or adherents) treat their team, the events, and the players with reverence. The same problem can be found in a large number of cases: political ideologies, recreational groups, community centres, even online communities may fulfill the criteria necessary to be considered religious.

Thirdly, it is possible for groups who want to enjoy the privileges offered to religious groups to simply ensure that they tick off the boxes necessary to be considered one. It is not so difficult to write a text, call a building “sacred,” wear particular clothes, elect a leader and then *poof* enjoy tax breaks and extended rights and freedoms. Most recently, scientology has been removed of its religion status in Germany and declared a business – pointing out the power differential when it comes to naming what a religion is and who gets that privilege.

And with this, it starts to become apparent why it is important to define religion. I would like to be able to say that it would be fine to simply allow people to call themselves what they want, and leave labels out of it, but I can’t, because the issues surrounding definitions of religion are larger than self-identification. It is not only that recognized religions enjoy considerable privileges in our society, but also that the term religion is used to make blanket-statement condemnations, promote discrimination, and encourage us-vs-them mentalities. When people say “religion is violent,” or “this religion is violent,” they are glossing over the fact that we have no way of determining what religion even is. The end result of this behaviour is often that millions of people are lumped in with the few, and the only solution proposed is if religion, or that religion, is left behind in favour of a ‘superior’ way of life. Root causes of issues are ignored in favour of blaming a porous, ever-changing, inconsistent, undefinable thing.

So define we must, because the more we recognize the issues inherent in our own categorizations, the less we are able to condone worldviews of us-vs-them.

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