Everyday warrior

What are the characteristics of a warrior? How would you define yourself as an everyday warrior?

These questions came to my mind when I was planing an asana class where the main poses were the different variations of Virabhadrasana or Warrior pose.

In the yoga tradition, and as far as I know, the most famous warrior is Arjuna who is one of the main characters in the Bhagavad Gita. We meet him right before the battle of his life, the battle of Kurukshetra. Luckily for him, he has Sri Krishna as his charioteer and closest friend.

What I like about the Gita is that although it is known that Arjuna is a great warrior, the first we learn about him is that he is in despair. He is invaded by doubt and maybe even fear and he doesn’t know if he wants to fight this battle or not. What? A warrior that shows weakness right before the battle of his life? How come? How can we relate to that?

Arjuna teaches us that a warrior isn’t always on top of everything. A warrior experiences moments of doubt, of despair and fear, but what makes Arjuna an exceptional warrior is that he acknowledges these feelings and seeks for advice from Krishna.

Krishna then has a long conversation with him where he seeks to encourage Arjuna to make his own decision, but this decision should not be based in fear and distress. Arjuna needs to calm his emotions and see the whole picture. He needs to look inwards and find out what his duty is regardless of the outcome of the battle. Running away is most probably not the best solution because the issues that led to the battle will continue hunting Arjuna and his people.

I believe, there are many ways to interpret this story and make parallells with our lives, but what I have been reflecting about lately is the importance of doing what we can with what we have, with the best of intentions, and allow the result to be as it needs to be. Sometimes, we are put in situations where we feel helpless, where we don’t know what to do. It is wise to pause, calm down, and then proceed. Sometimes, we make the wrong choices or we make mistakes, but what makes us an everyday warrior is that we learn and move forward.

We don’t have all the answers, and that is perfectly fine. If we had them, we most probably wouldn’t be here…

Christmas 2020

For many years, taking care of the environment for me meant not to litter, be kind to animals and be respectful towards plants and other living beings. I rarely reflected about the impact of my lifestyle on the environment until maybe five years ago, maybe a bit longer.

I must confess that I sometimes find it as mission impossible to live a more environmentally friendly life. Just when I replace a bad habit with what I believe is a better habit, I discover I have other hundred bad habits I need to change. It seems like the world we live in is made to make us fail in our attempt to take care of the environment and all living beings in the planet – not just plants and animals but also other human beings.

So, how have I contributed this Christmas season? I don’t see my performance as successful, I know we can do better, but at least we are trying. Here are some of the things we did, and some of the things we learned this year:

Presents

I have always liked to give Christmas presents that I think will mean something to the receiver. Either something I know they need, or like or might find amusing but lets face it, most of the people I know don’t need anything. They are completely capable of getting what they need and want whenever they feel like. So, we followed some advice I found in ‘fremtiden i våre hender’.

  1. Give edible gifts. We gave edible presents to some of the people we really wanted to give a present to. Either bought from local producers or made by ourselves (cookies). I bought also gift cards to local small businesses to some.
  2. Give experiences. We gave our son a gift card to a place he likes to go with his friend, and he was very happy to find out that he can spend the amount inviting other friends.
  3. Give used. My daughters have been wanting to have bell bottoms for a while, so I bought them used. At their age, most kids barely wear something before growing out of it. I found some online, and got them delivered by the postal service. My husband wanted a new jacket, I also bought it used from a family who ‘had so many jackets’ that they never used most of them. So his jacket was as new, just without the price tag.
  4. Make the gifts yourself. We bought some white tea cups at a second hand shop and ceramic markers. The girls really enjoyed decorating the cups for their uncle, aunt and cousins. We also crocheted a couple of stuffed animals for friends. It was fun for my youngest who had never had the patience to finish a crochet project, and for me who had never made a bigger one before. We had yarn at home, and just bought some more when we were running out of colours.

Food

  1. Simplify a little. We enjoy good food, but at times, it can be too much. So, we try to be more moderate with the amount of food we buy. We planed for Christmas Eve and the days following towards New Year’s Eve and for New Year’s Eve too. We try to have some special dinners and some simpler dinners as well, and have some days with leftovers so we don’t throw anything away.
  2. Choose vegetarian dishes wisely. I became a vegetarian two years ago, so we also cook some vegetarian dishes during the Holidays. Some days, the rest of the family eat the typical meat dishes while I eat an alternative. Other days, we all eat vegetarian. One thing we have discovered during the last two Christmases is that there is really no point on making dishes that are supposed to look like Christmas dishes. They are complicated and mediocrely tasty. It is much better to choose some of our favourite vegetarian dishes, especially those we know from Indian cuisine.
  3. How much sugar do you really need? We are trying to limit the sweet treats to one a day. We made dessert for Christmas Eve and we had the leftovers for Christmas Day. We baked some cookies that we have shared with friends, and we bought some chocolate for some other days.
  4. Buy locally as much as possible. My husband really likes eating good food during the Holidays, and he took the job this year to look for local farmers and producers and bought all from potatoes to meat and strawberry coulis.

Other traditions

  1. Advent calendar. Here in Norway, the Advent calendar is a big thing for kids. Having three kids, it makes it expensive and not so environmentally friendly to put a gift for everyone each day. One of our kids needs to have a stricter diet, so giving them chocolate every day is not an option either. Therefore, we vary between small presents (mainly things they need like socks, gloves, soap, etc), activities (bake gingerbread cookies, decorate the house, watch a Christmas movie, etc), and the occasional chocolate treat especially before the break when we have busy days and it is not possible to have an activity for the evening where everyone can participate.
  2. Christmas tree. I checked online what was more environmentally friendly, and apparently, getting a real tree is better than plastic, just by a small margin. It needs however to be a local tree from a conscious farmer. Therefore, this year, I took the kids to a farm where you can cut your own tree. It was the first time we did it, and my three kids thought it was fun but it made me doubt the whole tradition. While we were there, it felt wrong to kill a tree to put it in our living room for some days and then turn it into compost. I asked the farmer how many years it takes to grow a tree like the one we cut, ten years he said. Ten years!! Almost the same age as my youngest. I know we also ‘kill’ carrots and potatoes, but they are necessary for our survival. A Christmas tree isn’t. So, next year, we have to come up with an alternative. The same farmer sells trees in a pot, maybe that could be an option? My husband suggested we plant one in the back yard, but the kids can’t accept the idea of not having a tree inside the house for Christmas…Maybe plastic is not that bad anyway? We’ll see what we do.

This makes me think about the importance of once in a while taking the time to reflect on the traditions we have. Ask ourselves why we have them and how they affect the environment and other people. Some of them can be replaced by other less harmful traditions, some of them we can let go of.

We have definitely a long way to go to become a more environmentally friendly family, but I am happy we are aware and trying.

The song in my head

I constantly go around with a song in my head. Luckily, it isn’t always the same song but don’t ask me how my mind decides to change it. It just happens. I don’t seem to have any control over it. You might have noticed that not only songs seem to appear in our minds uncontrollably. Many (if not most) of our thoughts are like that.

In February, I went to a ten day retreat with my Yoga teacher in Munnar, India to learn more about meditation. We practiced silence during two of the days during our stay, and what I noticed this time is that many thoughts kept coming back like a playlist on loop. Even thoughts about events in my life that I felt I was over with. I think this happened because my mind was desperately trying to find things to cling to. I sometimes suspect my mind for trying to torture me emotionally…

Luckily for me, I am have been practicing japa since I started studying Yoga five years ago and it helped me to calm my mind. Japa is the repetition of a mantra, and it is used as a technique in the Yoga tradition. We can read about it in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:

1.27-29 The word expressive of Isvara is the mystic sound OM. To repeat it with reflection upon its meaning is an aid. From this practice all the obstacles disappear and simultaneously dawns knowledge of the inner Self.

The mantra mentioned in the Yoga Sutras is the word OM which is known by many people. The beauty of it is that it is easy to remember, it is powerful and it is very soothing to repeat either aloud or in your head. I repeat OM as part of my meditation practice, but it can also be repeated mentally whenever and wherever.

In the Yoga tradition there are many mantras. Sri Swami Satchidananda mentions Japa Yoga in his commentary of these sutras, which I think is the repetition of mantras as a technique to calm the mind and come closer to the True Self.

It is also possible to have a personal mantra (preferably made with the help of a teacher) often repeated as some sort of antidote against limiting thoughts (i.e. ‘I am safe and secure’ if you know you are the anxious type, or ‘I am enough’ if you are constantly torturing yourself with thoughts of self-doubt, ‘I learn and I grow’ if you keep putting yourself down whenever you make a mistake). Usually, one has one mantra and sticks with it for a long period or even a lifetime. It is not advisable to change mantra as we change socks because for it to make a change in our mindset, it needs to be repeated constantly over a long period of time. That is called japa.

So, when, where and why do japa? Whenever and wherever! You can decide to start from the moment you open your eyes in the morning and continue whenever you remember. Most probably, your mind will keep taking over, but when you notice, you go back to your japa to still the busy mind. It is a very good ‘activity’ to have when waiting in line, or at the waiting room before an appointment, while sitting on the bus, while going for a walk, etc. Once repeating your mantra becomes a habit, it can be powerful tool when you are feeling mentally or emotionally distressed. I remember a friend of mine told me she used her mantra when she was lying on the operation table right before surgery, and it helped her feel safe. I use mine when I wake up in the middle of the night and notice my mind is all over the place. Most of the time, it helps me fall asleep again quite fast.

Note that Patanjali tells us that by doing our japa, ‘obstacles disappear’. The obstacles in question are our own mental obstacles. The practice of japa is to overcome our limiting thoughts. Either rumination, regret, worry or limiting thoughts about ourselves. The noice in our head that doesn’t help us.

Ask yourself, how is your self-talk? What do you usually think about yourself? Do you usually feed into your strengths and qualities or do you ruminate on your shortcomings. When you make a mistake, do you show self-compassion or do you drag yourself down through your critical inner voice? Unfortunately, most people have quite nasty self-talk. Whenever you catch yourself putting yourself down stop, take a deep breath, show yourself some understanding and either replace the thought with a positive one, or do your japa. It doesn’t need to be ‘relevant’. You are trying to train your brain to stop limiting yourself.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t spend time reflecting on what we can do better next time, but it means that we talk to ourselves as we would like a good friend would talk to us. You want to have constructive self-talk, not destructive.

On wants and needs

Everything I write is about my own personal experience and reflections, but what I observe in myself, I often observe in others. When I write about it, it is mainly to make some sense of my reflections, but it is also to share and invite you to reflect about it. It might resonate with you, it might not. Either way, it is okay. I do appreciate comments whether you agree or disagree.

So, this week, I have been reflecting especially about the idea of lack. It is something that I have reflected about for a while now because I have noticed how this feeling creates distress in my mind and sometimes has led me to act in ways that haven’t helped at all. I observe how, the wanting of something can often cast a shadow on what I have and the opportunities and choices I have in front of me otherwise. For some people, the pursuit of acquiring something they lack can turn into an obsession.

I wonder why we have this in us. Is it part of our survival instinct? I guess the pursuit of a goal or a need has saved lives and brought what we call progress, but maybe, at some point during our pursuit of this ‘thing’ we lack, we ought to stop, observe, reflect and ask ourselves if the price isn’t too high. Is this pursuit taking all our time and energy? Is it affecting our mental peace? Is it interfering with our ability to see those around us and be present for the people who need us? Even more importantly maybe, is there another possibility? Are we ignoring all the positive aspects of our life because this one thing we believe we need or want so badly? Where does this need come from? Is it a need or is it a want? Can we find the root of it inside ourselves? Can we satisfy this need in another way?

I have experienced and seen many examples of lack: lack of romance, lack of children, lack of money, lack of acknowledgement, lack of respect, just to mention some. Christmas is the time of the year where we hear a lot about people struggling emotionally because they feel alone. Loneliness is apparently getting worse and worse from year to year especially in the Western world. I do believe it is a problem, and I don’t mean to trivialise it, but I wonder if it isn’t yet a state of mind. I know it is easy for me to say when I have a family to take care of, but what if, when we go into the state of lack, instead of focusing on our need or want, on what the outer world ‘should’ do for us, we turn the situation around and focus on what we can do? Maybe we can engage somehow either in an existing group or on our own? Maybe we know about someone who also struggles in one way or another and we can reach out? It doesn’t need to be big things.

One thing that I have observed during this year is the joy it bings to my kids when they can do something for someone else. I think it is a mixture between the joy of feeling useful and the joy of someone being happy because of our own actions. It has been small things like crocheting something for a friend, being kind to a stranger in the street by picking up something they dropped, including a friend during playtime. It can also be picking up rubbish from the park or feeding the birds during Winter. Anything that makes us feel purposeful and implies giving instead of receiving.

So, next time you catch yourself in distress because of something you lack, stop, take a deep breath and:

  1. Acknowledge your need/want and do not judge yourself. Cultivate an inner feeling of self-compassion.
  2. Ask yourself why it is so important for you? Is it really this one thing that will make you feel for ever happy? What will happen if you acquire what you want? What will happen next? Can you do something else to feel happy?
  3. Look around you and see where you are, with whom you are. Are all your basic needs met? Do you have all the resources you need to have a simple yet good life? What is a good life for you? How much is enough? How much is too much?
  4. What can you do for others? Are you seeing and acknowledging those around you? Can you give some of the time and energy you are spending in your pursuit for the benefit of others (be it people or the environment)?

About heart sizes

I consider myself lucky to work with knowledgeable, reflective and inspiring people. I can say that all my colleagues are, each in their own way, a source of inspiration for me. I observe how they work, how they are with each other, and learn. It is very motivating to work with people like them.

Like in any work space, there are some people I work more closely to because of the subjects we teach. During the last five years, I have been working closely with the other language acquisition teacher, and especially during the last year and a half, I have been inspired by the way she approaches challenging and what I see as at times overwhelming tasks. I have never seen her stress or heard her complain or judge others. Instead, she does the best she can do with the circumstances she is in. She doesn’t seem to be interested in playing the super hero, but she always does what I see is the best for her students. She always puts their well-being first. I think she is the perfect example of a yogi even though she doesn’t call herself a yoga practitioner.

To me, it seems like she is always focused on what her intentions are, does her best with the time and resources she has, but is not attached to the result of her actions. She doesn’t seem to be invested in the outcome. Not that she doesn’t care, she does care, a lot, but she seems so centered in her self, that she is not looking for any form for validation in what she does.

The answer according to my understanding of yoga is yes. I believe that when we have a peaceful mind, when we work out of the heart, we are detached from the fruits of our actions, and then work for the benefit of the whole and not just for what we perceive as our individual benefit. Many of us can at times be stuck in the mind which can either lead to acting selfishly to get something in return, like some sort of validation or material benefit, or acting out of fear or judgement.

Unfortunately, this colleague is soon leaving our school as she and her family are moving abroad, and thinking about her and the years we’ve worked together, a phrase came to my mind ‘she has a big heart’. I started playing with the thought. Why do we say that? Are there really people that have bigger hearts than others? Then, I remembered something my yoga teacher often says: do everything from the heart. What does that mean? My colleague is a very responsible, efficient and professional teacher. Are does qualities of the heart?

So, going back to my question, does my colleague has a bigger heart? I don’t think so, what she has is a peaceful mind that allows her to work out of her heart. I believe we all have the same potential as she has. I believe some people wear their heart on the sleeve more easily than others. What can we do then? Continue working on ourselves. For me, the practice of meditation is the way to calm the mind, work on myself and create more clarity in my life. Meditation in the yoga tradition is not ‘only’ to sit down in silence for a certain amount of time every day, it is to strive towards living a conscious life and observe our thinking patterns to then adjust them towards what brings harmony and peace inside and around us. It is to strive towards a living following certain principles, two of the most important being non-attachment and practice. Keep practicing, until it comes naturally.

I strongly believe that if we find the inner source of lasting peace, we can deal with the outer world in a more skilful way that allows us to contribute to the well-being of those around us.

I am thankful for having worked with this colleague for the last few years, I have learned many lessons from her. I will keep her attitude and work in my mind for the rest of my life.