Published Writing

Saint Julian Press

Guest Cabin at Loretto Maryholme Spirituality and Retreat Centre, Roches Point, March, 2012

Guest Cabin at Loretto Maryholme Spirituality and Retreat Centre, Roches Point, March, 2012

I am delighted to announce that Saint Julian Press has published a poem I wrote titled “Preparation” on their website

Saint Julian Press is a new nonprofit imprint whose mission is to identify, nurture, and publish transformative literature and art by encouraging the work of emerging, established, and world-renowned writers, poets, and artists. In our vision we seek to build a world community by embracing and engaging in a global literary and artistic dialogue that promotes world peace, cultural conversations, and an interfaith awareness, appreciation, and acceptance.

Thanks to Ron Starbuck (Executive Publisher-CEO/Author-Poet)

Below the Surface

Edward Steichen, "Eva,"

Edward Steichen, Eva

There are moments where I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel like a complete stranger. All the things I normally feel compelled to do: check my emails, surf the internet, have a beer, listen to music, etc. are gone. I am a completely different person. Everything feels entirely new and I feel like I’ve dropped something very heavy, like a traveler who has left his entire luggage at the door.

Even my relationship to the person I spend my life with has miraculously shifted. I realize that I don’t know her at all and at the same time I suffer the fact that I habitually take her for granted. Suddenly there is this capacity of listening to her more deeply. A great mystery has undermined all of my fixed ideas and preconceived notions. It is the feeling George Saunders describes so beautifully in his article, “Buddha Boy“:

“You know the feeling at the end of the day, when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away and, for maybe the first time that day, you see, with some clarity, the people you love and the ways you have, during that day, slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted out some mildly hurtful thing, projected, instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion? That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?”

It’s extremely odd and discomforting, but at the same time it is bittersweet because it is a taste of a new possibility, a taste of real freedom. I have stepped out of the old recorded tapes that constantly play in the background of my psyche, telling me who I am.

I have ceased, for the time being, lying to myself or believing in the stories I create about myself. I am no longer living in mental constructions or concepts which Herschel says are, “delicious snacks with which we try to alleviate our amazement.”

Of course, we can’t stay on the summit forever. We start leaking out this gathered energy like a sieve and then it’s back to the level of reaction. These moments of a profound inner separation are merely a preparation for something to penetrate into my daily life. I don’t think they are the ultimate goal. I need to go further, to include more, and this leads me to a deeper questioning.

I think that something within us is aware that our stories aren’t real, even though we are continually living in them. We gather these moments of seeing ourselves and find that we don’t sleep as peacefully as we did before. To see ourselves, as we are, becomes more important. Even when the forces are heavily weighed against us we can try to oppose a continual passivity with something that is active on the inside. Rainer Maria Rilke describes this war against passivity when he says that, “what we choose to fight is so tiny! What fights with us is so giant!”

I see that either I am moving outwards towards dispersion or I am gathering all the pieces of myself inwardly and moving towards wholeness.

So maybe along comes a moment where I am inwardly active and without any manipulation, I can see the thoughts, the emotions, and the bodily sensations that are continually taking place. I am able to openly inhabit my life by being in relationship with it directly. I allow a life that is beyond the surface of my self to come into focus.

There are two currents present in the moment of seeing – a vertical one as well as a horizontal one – the level of my ordinary manifestations and that of another level which is the seeing. There is an acceptance of myself as I am and in this moment.

In my negativity, for example, I can see my reactions as well as the pull to self calm the situation by pushing it away or by escaping from it.

We need to see all this movement in ourselves, all these energies at work. We need to be in relationship with all this magical chemistry that is taking place. Now, ask yourself, “Who am I?” It’s the eternal question, the Zen koan of all Zen koans. The ego will immediately try to fortify itself but if we answer that question truthfully, all the freedom in the world is in not knowing.

How can I be available to that question? I think that anything I have understood in my practice has had emotional involvement; it’s been learned through the heart as well as the head. It is the clear distinction Jung made when he said that “the utterances of the heart- unlike those of the discriminating intellect- always relate to the whole.”

So how do I try to bring more emotion into my efforts? Well, I can try to remain close to my own mortality that continually follows me, perched on my shoulders. The presence of death is so constant and so familiar that I forget about it. I can make use of it as a constant reminder to make an effort.

For a long time my practice has involved trying to maintain an attention on my breath, always and everywhere. Often I forget and I am taken by my mind functioning, the endless circle of associations. I am swallowed up in that current again.

No matter, I just return to this body, breathing.


As Above, So Below

The León Cathedral, León, Spain.

The León Cathedral, León, Spain.

I am sitting in the silent whisper of a vaulted cathedral. The noise of my own mind is all that there appears to be. Once in a while, tourist’s footsteps can be heard echoing through the massive room. Sometimes the mild disturbance of the footsteps captures me. When they do, my attention is brought up to my head as though I was a cork rising to the surface of a body of water.

I remember that I am in a church; that I am here now.
I keep bringing myself back from the great distances that thought can travel.

No expectations.
Just sitting here, remaining active on the inside.
I sense the hard surface of the wooden pew, I breathe in the heavy scent of the cathedral’s atmosphere with its vast history of contemplation.

Can I have contact with a sacred substance?

The church bell rings out an invitation every 15 minutes with its distant song that vibrates into space.
My eyes are closed.
My thoughts grow quieter.
Slowly I am sinking deeper within myself.
The breath naturally deepens and expands the lungs.
I am being breathed.
I seem to be worlds away from the person I happened to be who entered the church moments ago.

One could read a thousand books on meditation and be none the wiser for it.
It would be like glimpsing a mountain through a train window and afterward telling people you had been there without actually having set foot on it.

Each time, the mountain must be climbed anew.
Its terrain is forever changing and shifting.
I always have to approach it in a different way; from a fresh perspective.
Fearlessly I climb, stripping off everything that is in the way; even the climbing itself.
Vertically. Horizontally.
In-Between is Now.
The axis mundi.

(Parabola, a quarterly print magazine about the study of the myths, rituals, symbols, and arts of the world’s spiritual traditions, has featured this poem on their website. You can visit there wonderful magazine here.)


I Heart Meditation (Alive Magazine, June 2009)

Meneer de Braker | Rainy Buddha

Meneer de Braker | Rainy Buddha

The practice of meditation bestows a myriad of health benefits including increased concentration and a general feeling of well-being. But undoubtedly one of the most important benefits is reduced stress and improved heart health.

Heart disorders are common in today’s always-on-call, wired world. People suffer an estimated 70,000 heart attacks each year in Canada, and the number of people living with some form of heart disease is steadily increasing.
Rigorous scientific studies have proven that regular meditation practice has powerful health benefits that can lower high cholesterol levels and normalize blood pressure.

Scientific Support

An article published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke (2000), demonstrated the effects of teaching meditation to people suffering from atherosclerosis
(hardening of the arteries).

Utilizing ultrasound technology, researchers found that people who practised meditation for 20 minutes twice a day for seven months reduced the amount of plaque (fatty deposits) in their arteries. They reduced their overall heart attack risk by up to 11 percent and their stroke risk by up to 15 percent. Meditation may trigger the body’s self-repair mechanisms.

Previous studies have shown that meditation can also lower blood pressure, another major risk factor for heart disease. Researchers reported that people who practised meditation had lower blood levels of stress-related biochemicals, including serotonin and adrenaline. Meditation also increased the formation of nitric oxide, which causes blood vessels to open up. This, in turn, lowered blood pressure.

In 2004 the American Journal of Hypertension reported the results of a study which showed a significant lowering of blood pressure in a group of adolescent African-American meditators compared to a control group that didn’t meditate.

Heart Health

These results reveal that meditation is not only a method of relaxation and stress management, but it can also have a profound influence on the heart and its activity. Scientific studies indicate that meditating for just 20 minutes a day can result in a healthier and stronger heart.

In meditation we have to start where we are. In the beginning the most important thing is to develop the habit of meditating every day and not to be too concerned about how much time to allocate for it. Start with five or 10 minutes daily until you are comfortable with longer periods of time. You can even take a two-minute breathing break several times during the day.

Meditation is a skill that requires practice and more practice. Your heart will benefit from the deep relaxation and stress reduction that meditation brings.

Quick Meditation

Need to quickly relax or find some immediate inner calm? A simple 3-step breathing meditation can be effective when you have almost no time at all.

  1. Just take a long, slow, deep breath in and feel the air fill your lungs.
  2. When your lungs are full, hold the breath for a second or two; keep your mind clear or simply tell yourself to relax.
  3. Now slowly exhale all the air in your lungs. Repeat

Take five to 10 of these deep breaths to quickly feel calm and more relaxed.

Try meditating when you are:

  • waiting in line at the grocery store
  • preparing dinner
  • doing the dishes
  • sitting in traffic
  • feeling upset

Alive Magazine, June 2009

Commit to Sit



As modern life becomes increasingly more stressful, it seems there is never enough time for all we need to do. So the idea of carving out more time for a commitment to sit–and meditate–may seem absurd.

Take just a moment or two to consider some of the real benefits of meditation and you may be surprised at how much easier it can be to manage life’s challenges.

1. Costs nothing

Meditation costs nothing and you can practise anywhere–while walking to work, while in the office, or on a noisy bus. One way to do this is to focus all attention on your breathing. Concen-trate on feeling and listening as you inhale and exhale through your
nostrils. Breathe deeply and slowly.

2. Reduces stress

Meditation reduces stress levels and alleviates anxiety. If we train ourselves to become more mindful, we can learn to observe our moods and thoughts before they spiral downward. We can, in other words, be more relaxed inside.

3. Improves concentration and mental focus

Meditation provides a way to train our mind to settle into a state of calmness and clarity. We will be less easily led into old mental habits such as irritability. When we learn to separate from our old habits of mind, we pave the way for clearer thoughts, improved memory, insightfulness, creativity, and the ability to learn and adapt to new things.

4. Facilitates mindfulness

Meditation is a state of being acutely aware of whatever thought, emotion, or sensation is present without reacting to it. In the process, we gain an understanding of how our mind functions. We discover that we do not have to follow every thought or emotion that arises.

5. Improves circulatory and cardiovascular systems

Scientists have discovered that meditation can affect the body in remarkable ways, including reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, blood flow
to skeletal muscles, perspiration, and muscle tension.

6. Increases appreciation for life

Meditation expands our awareness and opens us to a larger view of the life that is all around us.

7. Supports immune system

Scientific studies indicate that meditation increases defence against tumours, viruses, colds, flu, and other infectious diseases.

8. Reduces and manages pain

Studies show that meditation relieves symptoms in patients with anxiety and chronic pain; further, those who meditate heal almost four times more rapidly than those who do not meditate.

9. Cultivates inner peace and equanimity

Meditation cultivates insight and understanding through a capacity of moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness. In this way, we become healthier, more peaceful, and more balanced.

10. Improves knowledge of self

Meditation facilitates self-discovery. We realize that we can understand and improve ourselves as human beings, not through a theory, not through a concept, but through direct experience.

Quick Guide to Meditation

You can adapt this introductory meditation technique to fit the time you have available.

  • Ideally, find a place that is quiet and comfortable where you will be undisturbed.
  • Find a posture that works for you–either on a chair or cross-legged on the floor. It is important that the spine is upright and that your body is relaxed. Rest your hands comfortably on your lap or thighs.
  • To minimize outward distractions, close your eyes, but do not allow yourself to fall asleep. Become aware of your breathing by focusing on the movement of air in and out of your body.
  • Be aware of the thoughts that come into your mind. Do not try to ignore or suppress them; just observe them while remaining calm and anchored to your breath. Do not let your frequent wanderings discourage you.
  • Simply observe what is taking place in yourself as though you were an interesting stranger. If you become distracted, refocus on your breathing.
  • After 15 minutes, slowly open your eyes. Take a few minutes to allow yourself to come back to where you are. When you are ready, gently lift yourself up to a standing position.

Alive Magazine, April 2008

Immersed in the Sacred: Varanasi, India

Luke Storms, Ghat Life," Varanasi, India

Luke Storms, Ghat Life, Varanasi, India, 2006

In an antique train overcrowded with weary passengers we arrive at Mughal Sarai Railway Station in Varanasi. The world outside the barred window of the train throbs with passengers and porters with suitcases piled on their heads. Women in flowing saris follow casually along the platform as vendors race towards the train to sell warm snacks and sickly sweet cardamom-spiced tea in earthenware cups.

As soon as we step onto the train platform a gigantic mass of humanity simply swallows us up in its wake and takes us up the stairs, through the station, and into a noisy crowd of rickshaw-pullers, hotel touts and postcard selling children. The morning air is scented with a rich bouquet of incense and spices mingled with sandalwood and marigold flowers.

If you had to choose one city to represent everything that is truly Indian, you would probably choose Varanasi. However, Varanasi is not a tourist haven in terms of specific sights. It is more of an experience that shakes your whole entity, your state of mind, and all of your senses. It seems that on the banks of this sacred river anything is possible. The sacred and everyday life merges easily in Varanasi. Devout Hindus consider Varanasi to be a unique meeting place between heaven and earth where gods and goddesses can descend to this world and mortals can be transferred directly to the after-life.

We walk along the banks of the river Ganges as the sun rises like a halo above the city, illuminating the countless temples that form the west bank’s skyline. The arrival of the golden dawn brings thousands of worshippers through the shroud of mist and down the long flights of stone steps called ghats, which reach like roots into the river.

A very active boat culture exists all along the ghats and embarking on a trip at dawn is a wonderfully atmospheric way to see Varanasi. We find a skinny man in a loin cloth who offers to take us across the Ganges for a small sum. As the sky grows lighter and the mist begins to dispel, our boatman takes up his oars and we pull away from the shore, across the surface of the dark and mysterious waters. The chant of early morning prayers, punctuated by ringing bells and the loud snap and bang of morning laundry being thwacked on rocks echoes across the river. Thousands of people stand in the water, facing east across the river, praying and pouring water out of urns held up to the sunrise, heralding the gift of a new day.

Luke Storms, "The Boatman," Varnasi, India, 2006

Luke Storms, The Boatman, Varnasi, India, 2006

As our boat approaches the somber Marnikarnika burning ghat, we put away our cameras since photography is prohibited. Contradictory to the West, life and death coexist harmoniously in Varanasi. Living and dying are both celebrated. The boat drifts by a cluster of foreigners who stare transfixed in morbid fascination as thick grey smoke billows up from several sandalwood pyres while bodies of relatives are brought in on stretchers, entirely wrapped in red and gold fabrics and covered in marigolds. First the relatives wash the body in the Ganges to purify it and then the body is placed on top of an orderly pile of logs by men in white loincloths called doms who are from a special untouchable caste. Next the doms neatly stack more logs on top of the body before lighting the pyre. It doesn’t take long for the fire to catch, and at any one time you can see two or three bodies burning steadily in the river breeze. Later, the ashes will be scattered onto the waters of the Ganges.

A typical body takes three to four hours to burn and often there is usually a large bone left over like the hips or lower back. The unburned bones are simply thrown into the river as well as the ashes after they are sifted by a man called the Watchman for gold and silver, which he keeps. The boatman also informs us that “not everyone is able to die in Varanasi because the sandalwood needed to burn the bodies is very expensive.”

After the joyous, yet solemn process of salvation for the dead, a fascinating place to visit is the old city of Varanasi which is located just behind the main ghats. Winding your way through the deep narrow and ancient alleys that are seething with life is a deeply exhilarating experience. Most of the streets are no wider than eight feet and although they cannot accommodate cars or rickshaws large numbers of aimlessly wandering holy cows are free to roam the streets. There are a hundreds of unique and colourful shops to explore in this bustling marketplace. Down one lane you can find naan bread that has been freshly baked over a fire and rich Indian sweetmeats for sale while in another twisting lane, vendors are selling silver bracelets and earrings, sitars or other Indian musical instruments and brightly painted puppets or wooden toys. There is a magical quality present in these ancient alley ways that is strangely seductive and as old as faith itself.

In the evening the Ganges is ritually put to sleep at dusk. This involves various ceremonies that take place along the ghats. As the river rippled past, we released our offerings to Mother Ganges; a floating candle made from one dry leaf with a few marigold petals on it along with a wick in a dab of butter-oil. The candles are placed in the river where they are taken across the shimmering surface of the Ganges by its gentle current.

Looking out across the Ganges, there are thousands of these floating candles, flickering like constellations on the water. It occurs to me how easy it is to feel connected to the divine in this spiritual atmosphere that has sustained India and her people through the centuries.

Current Magazine, June 28-July 11, 2009. V.9, Issue 6. Photos: Luke Storms

Kensington Market, Toronto

Jewish Market Day, Kensington Ave., Toronto, 1924 (Wikipedia)

Jewish Market Day, Kensington Ave., Toronto, 1924 (Wikipedia)

Nassau Street is home to the laid back and wonderfully disorganized Ideal Coffee Café, a casual locale with a low key décor of vinyl booths and mismatched coffee mugs. A large coffee roaster sits in the middle of the cafe surrounded by giant burlap bags of fairly traded coffee beans.

“You know what I love about Kensington Market,” my friend says casually sipping his coffee, “It doesn’t give me any corporate logos unless it’s printed on the side of my long necked glass bottle of Coca Cola imported from Mexico.”

This area west of Spadina, called Kensington Market is a unique community of narrow streets and alleys, some of which are lined with colourfully painted Victorian houses. The bustling lanes of the market consist of a variety of food stores selling an eclectic mix of meats, fish and produce. The area is also home to funky dimly lit boutiques selling a wide variety of cheap and used clothing, as well as a number of discount and surplus stores.

On busy days, the market is every bit as chaotic as street markets around the world: with a cacophony of sounds and smells and a culturally diverse crowd. People are attracted not only to the good prices but also to the rich multicultural mix that exists in the market, obvious in the shops packed with goods imported from Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, South America and Asia.

Kensington Market has a rich history. The first settlers to the area came from the British Isles. Their legacy remains today with the English names they chose for the tightly packed streets that make up the market. In the early 1900’s the British relocated to affluent areas of Toronto, and the market began to attract more diverse immigrants to its community.

By the 1920’s, 80 percent of Toronto’s Jewish community had settled in and around Kensington Market, worshipping at over 30 local synagogues. Merchants sold a variety of goods from hand-pushed carts bolted down in front of their homes. The economy began to prosper and their business began to spill out onto the lawns, onto their porches, and even into the main floor of many of their houses. The “Jewish Market” was born.

By the 1930s the carts were gone and the goods moved into the front room of the family home and became the first store fronts of the market. Soon the area became a thriving marketplace with kosher meat processing plants and chicken slaughterhouses added to the mix.

After World War II, the original Jewish population began moving to wealthier suburban areas in Toronto and Ukrainians, Hungarians, Italians, and Portuguese began to move into the neighbourhood to make a new life for themselves.

By the 1960s the Portuguese were the market’s largest immigrant community. They added their own colour to the eclectic mix of cultures in the market by influencing the types of goods sold and expanding commerce onto Augusta Street.

In the 1970’s, Toronto Mayor David Crombie, who was strongly opposed to the massive urban restructuring plans that were popular at the time, crushed plans to tear down the densely packed small houses and replace them with large apartment style housing projects.

Today the neighbourhood is a noted tourist attraction as well as a centre for Toronto’s cultural life as many artists and writers live in the area. Land prices in the area have rose drastically, but despite its increased appeal to professionals, Kensington Market still remains a predominantly working class, immigrant community.

The fact that the market is pedestrian friendly also adds to its charm. The narrow streets and the density of pedestrians and cyclists discourage drive-thru traffic. On weekends and peak shopping hours, it is actually much faster to cycle or even walk through the market than to drive. In 2004, residents and businesses organized a series of Pedestrian Sundays where parts of Augusta St., Baldwin St. and Kensington Ave. are closed to motorized traffic and the market is transformed into a street festival. There is free live music, dancing, street theatre and games all along the closed streets.

The market continues to evolve by attracting people from all around the globe. Every wave of immigrants has changed the city in its own way,” says Toronto Mayor David Miller. “Toronto’s success is neighbourhood-based. The face of the streets is the face of the world.

Nowhere is that more prevalent than in Toronto’s unique Kensington Market.

The Science Behind Meditation


The alarm goes off, and my mind automatically kicks in with its incessant ritual chatter:
I start to imagine yet another demanding day of work, the thoughts churning up those two dubious and all-too-human gifts of anxiety and stress.

I manage to stand and my brain clears enough for me to remember my nightly commitment to myself: to spend at least 10 minutes every morning in a state of tranquil meditation.

Modern life has become increasingly more stressful. I often feel there isn’t enough time to get everything done that needs to get done-why add something else, something seemingly frivolous like meditation, to an already overcrowded list?

Why Meditate?

However, meditation can provide us with not only more time but also better use of time by allowing us to clear our minds and focus on what is most important in our lives. Stress, anxiety, and depression arise not from external situations but from our response to them. The key to improving our lives is to change our minds (or our mindsets). Meditation provides a way to train the mind and allow it to settle into a state of calmness and clarity.

Recent scientific research indicates that 10 minutes of daily meditation can result in significant changes in the way we conduct our lives. Richard Davidson, a Harvard University neuroscientist and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic a the University of Massachusetts have discovered through magnetic resonance imaging that “meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger.” Davidson and Zinn also noticed that “people who meditate exhibit an increased activity in the left side of the frontal part of the brain that is responsible for a more positive emotional state.”

These studies reveal that the human brain is not as hardwired as scientists had previously assumed it was and that we actually have much more control over our emotions and thoughts than scientific studies of the past had indicated.

The Benefits of Being…

In The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience (HarperCollins, 1989) the psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman wrote,”the single most reported physiological benefit of meditation is the drop in blood pressure.” Goleman also found that meditation might enhance the immune function of the body, with “research showing increased defense against tumors, viruses, colds, flu, and other infectious diseases.”

Meditation may also hold the key to happiness because it gives us the ability to control what the Buddhists have named “monkey mind,” our undisciplined thinking mind that jumps from thought to thought and is fueled by negative emotions and desires. The practice of meditation allows us to turn inward instead of outward towards the perimeter, to stillness and silence instead of being being pushed and pulled in all directions by our reactions to emotional states.

We can cultivate a larger awareness that sees that whatever the mind tells us, we are not that. In this way we can simply observe our emotional states rather than become completely lost in them.

After my 10 minutes of morning meditation, I feel quieter and more collected inside, and I am looking forward to whatever challenges are waiting for me throughout the day.

Alive Magazine, February 2007

Approaching Meditation

Tibetan-MonksPeople who meditate have long known that this practice is beneficial for maintaining health and calmness of mind.

Research confirms that meditation lowers blood pressure, enhances the immune system, promotes a deeper more restful sleep and can slow down cell damage and the ageing process.

On a deeper level, meditation can also improve the quality of your life by teaching you to be fully alert, aware and alive. In meditation we do not strive for results. We simply let go of everything our minds hold on to – our thoughts, opinions and positions to uncover who we are in the present moment.

Here is an introductory technique for the practice of mindful meditation:

1. Find a place that is quiet and comfortable where you will be undisturbed. Traditionally the morning is considered to be the best time to meditate because one is less likely to be distracted by the demands of the day. It is also a good idea to meditate at the same time everyday to establish consistency in your practice.

2. Find a posture that works for you. You can sit either on a chair or cross-legged on the floor. It is important that the spine is upright and that your body is relaxed. You can try sitting on a cushion or a rolled up blanket to elevate yourself slightly to allow your knees to rest on the floor. Rest your hands comfortably on your lap or thighs with the palms facing upwards or downwards.

3. To minimize outward distractions it is good to close your eyes but do not allow yourself to fall asleep. Become aware of your breathing by focusing on the movement of air in and out of your body.

4. Be aware of the thoughts that come up in your mind. Do not try to ignore or suppress them. Just observe them while remaining calm and anchored to your breath. Do not let your frequent wanderings discourage you. When you realize you have been taken away from your path simply make a gentle return of your focus to your breathing.

5. When you are grounded try to observe sensations that are taking place in the body such as the temperature or muscular tensions. Try to have a sense of the whole weight of your body on the floor or chair. Do not try to change anything. Simply observe what is taking place in yourself as though you were an interesting stranger. Remember to always come back to the breath if you fall into distraction.

6. After 15 minutes continue to be aware of your breath and slowly open your eyes. Take a few minutes to allow yourself to come back to where you are. When you are ready gently lift yourself up to a standing position. Continue this practice daily. You will notice that the inner experience of meditation will affect your outer life in many miraculous ways.

The Return of Gooderham and Worts, (Tourism Toronto, March 2007)

distillery-district1Situated among the forty-plus buildings that comprise Toronto’s Distillery District in a dramatically reinvented old Pump House is a café named after one of the greatest French writers, Honoré de Balzac.

Balzac’s is a busy place where affluent couples relax over lattés and croissants and artsy Torontonians come for their caffeine fix before visiting the numerous art galleries. The cafes soaring walls and dark-wood-and-raw-stone interior with its décor of French tables and chairs is reminiscent of Parisian cafes.

In 2003, Balzac’s cafe was the first business to open here in Toronto’s refurbished Distillery District. Today the area is a postcard scene filled with galleries, artists’ studios, artist workshops, restaurants and retail sites. However underneath the reputation that the Distillery District is the “ultra-chic’ place to be and be seen in Toronto there is a rich human history.

In the early 1830’s an Englishman named James Worts came to what is now called Toronto to scout for a location to establish a mill in which to process flour grown from newly settled lands in Ontario. James Worts’ bother-in-law, William Gooderham, arrived in 1832 along with 54 people that included their wives, children, and servants to join him in the milling business.

In 1834, depressed because his wife had died in childbirth, James committed suicide. William Gooderham, took control of the factory and re-named it Gooderham and Worts. The “Worts” was for James’ eldest son, James Gooderham Worts, who inherited his fathers’ share of the firm. In 1837, with a surplus of wheat, William Gooderman tried his hand at producing beer and whiskey. It wasn’t long before he discovered that more money was to be made from converting the grain to alcohol rather then flour.

Over the next 150 years the company Gooderham and Worts developed into the largest distillery in the British Empire. It produced millions of gallons of distilled whiskey and spirits that was exported throughout the world. After World War l, prohibition was enforced and the business slowed down. In 1990 after over a century and a half of continuous production the distillery ceased operations.

In late 2001 Cityscape Development Corp. and Wallace Studios purchased the property for $15 million, and began converting the 13-acre sight into a pedestrian-oriented arts, culture and entertainment neighbourhood. Matthew Rosenblatt, a real estate broker for Cityscape is quoted in the Globe and Mail describing, “Our vision was to combine the romance and relaxing atmosphere of European walking and patio districts with the hip, cool dynamic of an area like New York City’s SoHo or Chelsea, where creative minds get together and you feel as if anything could happen.”

Balzac's Coffee HouseIn 2003, after the massive restoration and development project was completed and the district was reopened to the public. All the prospective tenants were hand-picked by the new property owners and absolutely no franchise or chain operations were allowed. As a result, the area has attracted a plethora of unique boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and coffee shops, as well as The Mill Street Brewery, a micro brewery well known for their organic ale. The upper floors of several buildings have been converted to studio spaces and leased to artists or office tenants with a “creative focus”.

The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, a new theatre built on the premises is home to The Soul Pepper Theatre Company as well as to the George Brown College Drama Department. There are also plans to develop residential condominiums, offices and more retail space on the vacant lands that surround the district in the near future.

Throughout the year the Distillery is filled with activity day and night with live music, outdoor exhibitions, fairs and special events all year around such as the Distillery Jazz Festival, Partigras, and the Roots Music Festival. It has also been used as an atmospheric location for over 800 film and television productions in the past decade, including Chicago, X-Men, Against the Ropes and The Hurricane.

We had lunch at The Boiler House restaurant in the heart of the district. They offer a magnificent Sunday Jazz Brunch complete with eggs benedict & endless slices of succulent roast beef. The restaurant’s award winning industrial-chic design includes a massive 22 foot wine rack, intimate private rooms and hand crafted heavy timber tables.

The Distillery District is a National Historic Site that has been designated for protection under the Ontario Heritage Act since 1976. This is because it contains the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian-Era industrial architecture in North America. The public can take a fascinating tour to see and hear about how whiskey was made in the various buildings which were used for malting, fermenting, making pure spirits and storing the young whiskey in barrels in order to age it.

The distillery district is Toronto’s first pedestrian only village and the city’s only historic district. This unique neighbourhood is a wonderful place to take an afternoon walk while exploring the Victorian brick and limestone buildings while soaking in the history of what was once the largest distillery in the world.