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.


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.


At the Top 30 Under 30 Gala on Monday night, the most common thing shared among all of the recipients in the social mixing after the speeches was a common anxiety about the recognition because of the event – an anxiety that hinged on our understanding that we had all encountered significant failures, stresses, and psychological issues from engaging in our work, that we had all made huge mistakes and encountered enormous obstacles, that we had all learned so much in our naivete about international development and had tried to adapt ourselves and our projects along the way. In this way, most of us felt very uncomfortable with this kind of recognition, especially the kind that shows only the successes of our efforts in a glossy magazine.20150202_182454_resized

What is not in the magazine are the endless nights in a faraway place questioning just what the hell you’re doing there, what right you have or don’t have to be there and just how effective your efforts will or will not be.

Particularly for those who are involved with large international organizations like the United Nations, they expressed some disenchantment with liberalist ideology, especially when it didn’t translate well “on the ground” and how they learned a lot more when they quieted their own beliefs and started forging meaningful trusting relationships with the people they were trying to help, rather than coming with a strategy and implementing it at all costs, successful or not.

It made me think of all of the relationships I developed in Attaouia with all of the local families that benefit/benefitted from education in our school so far. I remember jokes we shared in the doorframe of the school when they came to pick up their kids, I remember cupfuls of tea shared in their living rooms while teenaged siblings of our younger students tried out their English skills on me and I stumbled with my Arabic, resulting in much laughter and countless memories. I was welcomed and accepted into a community not really my own in a way I never thought was possible and might not have been possible if I had come from a big umbrella organization like the UN.

It also made me think of the people I connected with during my time at the American Language Center in Mohammedia, particularly my colleagues and my precious students, where we engaged in cultural exchange and meaningful social activism projects that were developed by them, for them and on their terms. I maintain incredible relationships with most people I met there are cherish them like I do anyone from my side of the world. These are my people as much as people from my home town are. I’ve taken their country and their cause into my heart as much as I have that of Canada.

It also made me think about the bureaucratic problems we have encountered with regards to the school and how these have still not been resolved. We are still waiting for an upgraded authorization to let us teach older students and with an uncertain future, it has led to real worry about our building of the school and what it will mean if we never get the piece of paper. It has also made me wonder if it would have been so difficult if we weren’t going at it alone but were part of a larger development agency.

20150202_182530_resizedIt’s all very complicated, but one thing that came from interacting after last night’s gala was a clear picture of a group of self-critical, self-reflective individuals who are trying to do the best they can with what they know now. And that, I think, is more important than all of the work we have done combined. Deconstructing ourselves, asking real questions about our identities, learning to listen and respond, finding similarity (but more importantly, respecting difference) – these are the real seeds of change.