How do we measure spirituality?

Last fall, I wanted to start a series of workshops about what I find are some of the most useful principles taught in the Bhagavad Gita to cultivate peace of mind. For this, I had to revise some of the chapters I have studied during the last five years through the guidance of my Yoga teacher, Prasad Rangnekar. I mentioned this to a good friend of mine who likes studying philosophy and especially Stoicism, and he got curious about Yoga and my engagement in it. He asked me if I could recommend a couple of books about Yoga he could read. I gave him a short version I have of the Gita but warned that it was difficult to read it from start to end without taking the time to study it, preferably through the guidance of a teacher. I also gave him another book that summarises the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Yesterday, we went out with my friend and his family for a hike, and at some point, he asked me “How are your Yoga studies doing?”. I got excited with the question because for the moment, I am taking an online course with my teacher about the origins of Yoga and its development through the years until today. His next questions took me by surprise: “What do you want to achieve by studying Yoga? What kind of title will you get in the end? Are you aiming to climb up in some sort of hierarchy?”. I had to think a bit about what he meant, and what I could answer. I study because it is interesting, and because I see positive changes happening in the way I perceive myself and interact with the world through the practice of Yoga, but I don’t think there is a specific title I can get from my studies, I said.

This, or course, kept me thinking and that is why this blog post. It has happened, during the last five years that I have at times asked myself what would happen if I spent the time I dedicate to study Yoga to study something that can give me some sort of degree. I don’t have a Masters degree, for example, and I know that I will eventually need one if I one day want to change jobs. The thing is, however, that I think my life is busy enough as it is for the time being with three kids and a job. In order to add one more item to my ‘to-do list’ I would then have to sacrifice time with my family and time for my personal growth. This personal growth happens through the study and practice of Yoga, and cannot be measured as we are used to measure things in this side of the world.

So that is one aspect of my reflection today, it is difficult for some people to understand why someone would invest time, energy and even money in studying something that doesn’t give any sort of degree. This said, that is personal growth, isn’t it? Who can measure it? And why would anyone except for myself and eventually my teacher measure it?

Secondly, as I was answering his questions, it kind of hit me that I am literally on a path. I am slowly walking into something without having a very clear idea of what the ‘end goal’ is. Although I know that the ‘end goal’ is self-realisation or union with Universal Consciousness because that is what the scriptures say, it is way too abstract for me to say ‘that is my goal’ for the time being. But I walk with faith and curiosity, because so far, everything I have learned and applied has made positive changes in my life.

Thirdly, I realised how little my friend understands Yoga, and how limited my own knowledge and understanding is. I also realised how difficult it is to understand a spiritual tradition without proper guidance. It actually made me feel humble towards all spiritual traditions. My friend asked me if I am aiming towards becoming a guru. In my understanding, there is no such thing as ‘aiming towards becoming a guru’. I don’t think one can decide that one wants to become a guru. Maybe the simple fact of doing so disqualifies one to become one (hello ego!). Why would anyone want to become a guru anyhow? I guess it is because he doesn’t understand what a guru is. I’m not even sure I understand completely what a guru is, but I do understand that there is no prestige attached to it. Teaching and guiding others in the Yoga tradition is part of the cycle of life. It is a big responsibility, and should not put people in a position of power. My teacher keeps reminding us to be very careful of calling anyone a guru. According to Yoga, the natural thing to do is to help others once one has reached a certain level of understanding because we all have the same divine potential. If I remember right, it is part of what in yoga is called lokasangraha. Spiritual maturity is not measured with how many scriptures one has studied, it has to do with an internal process.

Yoga has taught me to walk life (as opposed to run) with as much awareness as I can. It has also taught me to be curious and be patient. It is teaching me humility and faith. One day, I will take a Masters degree that will benefit my profession, but it is not the right moment yet. I am way too busy with other aspects of my life, and when I am not fulfilling my responsibilities as a mum, wife or teacher, I spend time studying something that I think benefits me directly and those around me indirectly. It is not easy to measure, and I won’t get any titles for it but I believe in it. Actually, one thing that is certain about the spiritual path is that it pushes us to let go of things, we eventually loose everything we thought was so important, we do not acquire anything new…

One last thing, this is how I choose to live my life right now. I do not expect everyone to feel or want the same, let alone understand it. I am not annoyed with my friend when he asks all these questions. I like them because they make me reflect, and allow me to see things from another perspective.

Do I want to take up this fight?

About two weeks ago, one of my daughters and I decided to ride our bikes to a beach close to our place to go for a swim. We packed our things, and off we went taking a path that we have been taking either when walking or by bike during all the years we have been living in this house. It is a street that leads towards a neighbourhood with apartment buildings, and in between two of these buildings, there is a big garden. In the middle of the garden, a path leads towards the shoreline. When I walk or bike towards the sea, I always choose this way because the view from the garden towards the sea is beautiful. In addition, there are almost no cars there, so I think it is safer and more pleasant.

As we were passing one of the buildings heading towards the path in the middle of the garden, we saw an elder man standing outside. I biked passed him, smiled and said ‘hi’. To my surprise he said, ‘you have to turn around and find another way, this is a private street’. I disagreed and pointed out that we have been using this way to go to the shoreline for years without any problem. There are no signs confirming that it is a private street. I also mentioned the Norwegian law that prevents people from blocking the access to public spaces. He suddenly changed his mind, and told me that we shouldn’t ride our bikes there because there is a garage and cars come out sometimes too fast and we can be hurt. I told him that we would be ok, and that I would not find another way today. We continued our way to the beach crossing the path between buildings.

All the way to the beach, I kept wondering though. Who is right? Is this a private street? I was on one side annoyed by the unpleasant moment, and on the other trying to be reasonable about the whole situation. This has been one of my favourite areas in our neighbourhood for years, especially during this time of the year. Am I willing to let go of this area? Shall I keep using this path and be ready to go through several unpleasant situations if I meet the same man?

When I got home, I actually checked the law. I even imagined myself riding my bike alone one day and being stopped by the same man, and suggesting we call the police to help us out. I was sure the police would agree that this is not a private street. But an important question popped in my head, do I really want to waste energy on this?

I tried to see things from his perspective. There is an area near these buildings that has become very popular among teenagers during the hot summer days. They gather to sunbathe, play volleyball and bathe in the sea. Maybe, during these days, there are a lot of people riding their bikes down this path, and I can understand it being disturbing with the noise. It might also be scary with a lot of bikes passing in high speed for those who are walking.

I have been using this path for over seven years, enjoying the view and the nature, but do I want to get into a conflict just because of that? No. Are there alternative ways to the same place? Yes. Can I let go? Yes. I actually got excited with the idea of discovering other ways to get to the same place. Get to know other sides of the same neighbourhood.

About a week after this experience, I went for a hike with a dear friend, and out of the blue, without me mentioning this little incident, she told me about a similar situation she and her neighbours are experiencing but from the side of the elder man. Around eight houses share the same grounds, and some years ago, an entrepreneur built a whole new residential area near these houses. Everyday, people cross their ground to get to and from the bus. This represents noise and a feeling of loosing privacy since people passing by can see directly into the houses. Many of her neighbours are annoyed About a week after this experience, I went for a hike with a dear friend, and out of the blue, without me mentioning this little incident, she told me about a similar situation she and her neighbours are experiencing but from the side of the elder man. Five houses built in the 80s, share a driveway that helps each resident arrive at their home from the main road. Over the past year, a developer has built a whole new residential area adjacent to these houses and driveway. Everyday, people from the new development use their driveway to get to and from the bus, schools and shops in the area though there are other, far less convenient access routes available to them. This increased traffic (not forecasted when my friend bought her house a year ago even though they’d asked the seller about any existing neighbourhood conflicts) represents noise and a loss of privacy since people passing by can see directly into the houses, and sometimes carry on conversations late at night. Daily, there is also an increased safety risk as children and people riding bikes now use this area intended for the car traffic of several homes, not for the dozens of homes using it now as a walkway. My friend’s neighbours are annoyed by this change, and they are trying to discuss how to solve this problem. Although the context of her story is different because it is mainly about poor planning from the developer’s and Kommune’s side, it made me think about my own story. There are always at least two sides to a story, and most of the time, we need to be able to see beyond our own perspective in order to find solutions that do not create more distress and stress.

In many situations in my life, I often end up with the same question: who is right? Most of the time, I realise no one is completely right, it is just a matter of perspectives. The question is, where am I willing to invest my energy? Do I want to be part of the problem or the solution? Sometimes, after weighing all possibilities, we might believe that our perspective is the right one, and we then have to swallow the bitter pill of engaging in a discussion that will be unpleasant. Sometimes, we have to go through the moment(s) of unpleasantness to see a change happen. So it is a constant dance between what we believe in, what we stand for and trying to see things from other perspectives.

In my little story here, it is obviously not worth the bitter pill. I can let go of my favourite path. Who knows? I might discover a new favourite path in the process. 🙂

Be quiet and reset

My Yoga teacher, Prasad, has taught me the importance of cultivating silence.
At least twice I year, I have created the habit of retiring to the guest house in Mariakloster in Tautra. I am so lucky to have such a place so near Trondheim!
When I am silent, I automatically slow down. When I slow down, I am able to observe my thoughts better and let go of the broken record of rumination, worries, regrets, and attachments. It is often after a period of silence that I move from thinking to reflecting, and that is very helpful.

Sometimes, I experience clarity, sometimes the only experience is the experience of being alone, in silence, in a slow tempo with myself for some days.

This time, I bring back from my retreat two things:
1) A quote from Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” A reminder of the importance of putting our heart in everything we do. A reminder of the importance of accepting and embracing what we are put to do in this life. A reminder to not compare ourselves with others and stop blindingly chasing the bigger, faster greater.
2) Thankfulness for having Prasad as my guide. May I remember to be as patient, loving, and compassionate with my students, yoga students, and my own children as he is with me.

The onion

A very dear friend who lives on the other side of the world recently asked me this question on WatsApp: “How are you on a personal level?” Simple question that has kept me thinking since she asked it.

My immediate answer was “I’m doing good” but I then started wondering what aspect of “me” am I evaluating when I answer this question? I guess it means that I don’t start talking about how I am doing as a mum, or as a teacher, or as a wife, or as a daughter, or as a yoga teacher but just as Vanessa… but who is this Vanessa? Is she separated from all the other roles that she plays every day? Can Vanessa do well when the mum doesn’t do well? Can the mum be ok when Vanessa isn’t doing well?

I know this seems quite silly, but really, what does ‘on the personal level’ mean to you? I would argue that it has different variables for each and everyone of us, but I think it often implies our social and emotional life. It might also have an aspect of what we can call ‘self realisation’ beyond our obligations. Does it then mean that to do well on a personal level, I have to have a successful social life or have a hobby or be in a romantic relationship?

Through the eyes of yoga, I would argue that my social life and my romantic life are also part of the roles I play: the friend and the lover. So, how am I doing beyond that? Well, if I don’t attach to any of the roles I play in life, if I let go of all my expectations, I can then say that I am doing very well. I feel at peace for the moment, I feel balanced and, above everything, I feel thankful. Nothing exciting is happening right now and still, I feel good.

I was recently discussing the concept of equanimity of mind as described in the Bhagavad Gita with a fellow yogini, and she was saying that although she understands the idea, she is not sure of wanting to live a life ‘without emotion’. A life where ‘you don’t feel sad or you don’t feel happy’, where ‘everything seems the same’. I remember thinking the same when I started studying yoga, and although I am not constantly there yet, I do notice that my spectrum of emotions is not as wide as it used to be. There are no super highs and there are no super lows. There isn’t much excitement in my life, but I feel in general calm and this allows me to appreciate the moments of harmony and deal more skilfully with challenging moments. If this resembles equanimity of mind, I am all for it. I hope it also counts as doing well on the personal level.

I know this question was asked with a sincere wish to know how I am doing, and I appreciate my friend asking it. My point here is to invite to reflection. How are you doing on the personal level? What defines your well-being on the personal level? Have you ever thought about it? Is it dependent on external factors or is it something you work with internally?

Fatigue and humbleness

During the last two or three weeks, as the lockdown was gradually being lifted, I started feeling more and more tired. Monday this week was the worst. I came home from work mentally exhausted. I usually enjoy spending time with my kids after dinner, but I felt I didn’t have the energy to engage in any conversation and even less any activity with anyone. I felt my brain was saturated, and every new piece of information about what needed to be done or any question where a choice needed to be made felt like an insult. This feeling continued throughout the whole week, and I was trying my best to keep up with my days, but by nine o’clock in the evening I was ready to go to bed.

This tiredness was dragging me down into a spiral of negativity with its good old broken record of everything I ‘lack’ and regret playing in the back of my head. Luckily, Thursday, as I was dragging myself through the day, a quote from Darkness by David Whyte came to my mind :”When your eyes are tired, the world is tired also”. So I asked myself : why am I so tired and why am I being so negative…again?

I believe that we have an infinite source of energy and love inside ourselves if we only learn to apply them skilfully. Ever since I have been studying yoga, I try to follow what I see as the main principles of Karma yoga which are acting with clear and pure intentions and let go of any expectation by offering my actions to something bigger than me.

This morning, as I started my sadhana, I asked for guidance. I now have enough introspect to know when I am going down in the spiral of negativity, and I was asking for some support. What came to my mind was the word “humbleness”. Be humble, was the message I heard. I have heard this word from my teacher many times before. Every time I meet him, he encourages us to be humble. I have always interpreted it as in our interactions with other people and other living beings, but today, I found another sense to it.

My mind is always taking over. I am always wondering what I should do next. I am always thinking. But, through my sadhana, I am practicing to gradually tame my mind so I can listen to a deeper voice, the voice that is connected to the bigger picture. This is where the humbleness comes in. If I keep my ego in check, my mind will calm down, and I will be able to listen to what is important. I will be guided. I don’t have to push anything, I don’t have to do anything other than slow down and allow.

I believe that when we manage to listen to this deeper voice, our actions come from a calmer and clearer place and they require less energy. We act out of love and not out of fear or anger. We act out of spontaneity, the spontaneity of the soul. So what do I need to do? I need to keep going. I need to keep doing my sadhana, and keep reminding myself that if I want to achieve real peace and contentment, I need to keep going inwards. I keep staying in the surface, wanting to find answers in the practical world when I know and have experienced over and over again that what I see out there is nothing else than the result of my own perceptions, my own state of mind. If I keep working with my inner world, I will be more skilful and useful in the outer world.

Over and over again, I am so grateful for the teachings of yoga through my guru, Prasad. Over and over, they allow me to drag myself out of the wholes I dig for myself. I can feel my Faith gradually growing. I can feel things changing inside me. Very slowly, and some days, it feels like I take some steps back, but I keep walking, I keep learning.

After my sadhana today, after reflecting over why I have been feeling so tired and finding out that the solution is in my hands, I felt so much better. I spent a lovely Saturday with my girls. I was lighter, I was freer.