Embracing the cosmos in Barrie

Barrie Renewal

Barrie has a problem. In the last ten years, its population has doubled, and now stands at 100,000. With a large proportion of its newcomers working, shopping, and finding their friendships in Toronto, Barrie is in danger of becoming a community of strangers, and that, says Gary Machan, « could be a prime breeding ground for trouble down the road if we don’t deal with it.’’

Machan is a community worker with the Barrie Community Health Centre. No one at the centre knows what the specific antidotes will be, and so it has launched a civic renewal project to identify and implement them.

The project is in its early stages, but of this much Machan is certain: success will depend on individual citizens assuming responsibility for Barrie’s well being.

What intrigues me is that he thinks the route to responsibility will lie through nature —  even for avid city dwellers.

He comes to this perspective through the centre’s stress reduction program. « Stress is the number one epidemic of our times,’’ he says.« People have very little down time. They’re worn out, and they’re flocking to stress reduction clinics.’’

Both parents in a family will be working, they’ll have children to contend with, commuting will leave little time for relaxing at home, Saturdays will be lost to shopping and other errands, worry over job security will be constant, and they’ll be stretching to meet expenses.

The centre’s clinics use guided meditation to help them relax, « to find that inner still point,’’ as a first step in asserting control over their lives. « We find that the guided meditations that are most powerful for people are those in which we use nature imagery. Not focusing on breathing. Not focusing on light. But focusing on the image of a lake, or a strong oak tree.

« There’s something inherently healing about nature.’’

His observations about nature have entered his speculations about spirituality, which he sees as a vital source of strength. Spirituality is what gets people through the hard times, he says. It empowers you. When you’re worn to the nub, « it’s that hidden whatever that just keeps you going.’’

But when I ask for a definition of spirituality, he guffaws in self-deprecating good humour. « I wonder myself what I mean by it,’’ he says, explaining that he uses it to refer not to religion — although he accepts that it could be used that way — but to unity with the cosmological, with nature in its broadest sense.

« Trying to define it is like trying to look at the sun,’’ he says. « If you do, you go blind. But you can look at things the sun does.’’

People who have this sense of the cosmos, « tend to be more gentle in relationships with others, more involved in communities, more caring, more forgiving, more compassionate.’’ They are the ones who accept responsibility, he says.

Machan isn’t alone in his observations. In my travels around Ontario, I’m finding more and more people saying that their inner beings are tied, somehow, to nature.

How, I ask Machan, do you inspire a sense of the cosmological? What kind of programs do you establish, especially for students in public schools?

He doesn’t know. He will inch forward, he says, searching for what works. In the meantime he sees a silver lining in a study commissioned by the centre, Georgian College, the United Way, and the Simcoe County District School Board.

It found that 68 per cent of Simcoe County students do not believe society will care for the environment, and this has thrown a dark cloud over their their hopes for the future. But, it also discovered that 80 per cent of them feel they can make a difference to the world.

Machan is hoping he can persuade them to make a difference through caring for the environment. And that in the process, they’ll discover the kind of meaning in life that he is calling cosmological or spiritual.

If they do, there’s no doubt that Barrie will be the better for it.

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