On spirituality, Halloween, Yoga, contentment, less stress and less waste

Human History is marked with quite a few gruesome actions done in the name of religion. I believe, however, that humanity needs spirituality. Spirituality and religion are not the same. In my view, religion is the institutionalizing of spirituality, and if we are not aware of this, we might end up putting our mind and well-being in the hands of someone else, which in turn is the opposite of spirituality.

Living a spiritual life for me means to take responsibility for my thoughts and actions, to do what I need to do to cultivate a calm and content state of mind. This is, of course, beneficial for me, but I believe that through that work, I also benefit my surroundings because I start seeing the connections. I see how my attitudes and actions affect me and the world around me. In addition, when I take my well-being into my own hands, I demand less from the world. Furthermore, when I learn to know myself better, I accept my place in the world and play my roles from a place of giving instead of receiving.

Spirituality can be anchored in different traditions, but for many people, it can be a personal practice without any adherence to any tradition. I know a few people who in my view live a spiritual life without even being aware of it, even less calling themselves spiritual. In my case, spirituality came in the form of Yoga practices. That is why I write about it, but if you find another path that works for you, stick to it.

Contentment is an important aspect of Yoga. I sincerely believe that many of the struggles we experience today would reduce or even disappear if we had a more conscious approach to contentment. Contentment is a state of mind, and it needs to be cultivated inwardly. In order to cultivate contentment, we need to slow down, to let go of the excess of actions and impulses we are used to having in our lives. We need to prioritize. We need to reflect on what can stay and what needs to go. We need to be aware of our impulses and work towards a less dependant relationship to our senses. The more dependent our happiness is on sensory input, the more we want, the more we demand from the world around us. This has a direct impact on the people we mingle with and the environment. Just think about it for a moment, if you manage to cultivate a content inner state, you will consume less, or at least more mindfully, and this will have a direct impact on the environment. If on the contrary, your happiness is dependant on material things, the more you buy, the more you own, the more you want. Happiness from material things lasts for a short period of time. It doesn’t take long after we have acquired something before we want something else.

I believe slowing down and prioritizing are crucial to cultivating contentment. It is difficult to live mindfully unless we slow down. I have Halloween as an example. Our youngest daughter loves Halloween, ever since she was in preschool. She used to say that Halloween was her favorite ‘season’. For her, there was Spring, Summer, Halloween, and Christmas. To begin with, Halloween represented another thing ‘to-do’ in a busy everyday life with three kids. It represented, to be honest, stress. However growing up in Mexico, Halloween and Dia de Muertos kind of merged when I was a child, and it was something I also used to look forward to. So, throughout the years in our home in Norway, we have developed a tradition for Halloween. A more conscious approach to it. Since it is important and fun for our girls, we take the time to prepare for it to make it a fun season and avoid stress and impulsive shopping. The girls and I start planning for their costumes before the Fall Break. They decide what they want to be. During the Fall Break, we go to the second-hand shops to find clothes and accessories to make their costumes and start the process. We then use our spare time to work on the costumes. Some years ago, we found a recipe for ‘spider cookies’ we like to bake every year. The girls usually invite a friend each to join us. To avoid too much waste, we pop popcorn to give away to the kids that come trick-or-treating, and I don’t buy Halloween decorations. We don’t have space to keep them and I don’t want to create waste just for one day. The only decoration is a pumpkin that we carve together. When our son was part of the celebrations, we used to run a competition. Each kid would draw an idea for the pumpkin and my husband would choose the winner. This year, I was made aware of the amount of water and energy that goes to cultivate all the pumpkins we buy for Halloween. So, we made baked pumpkin seeds for snacks and I used the pumpkin ‘meat’ for pancakes. Next year, our goal is to cultivate our own pumpkin! On November 1, I bake Pan de Muerto, the culminating part of our Halloween celebrations.
I think that Halloween is perfect for us living up north. It is the time of the year where we gradually stay indoors more, and we then have handcraft activities to do. It has become a project between the girls and me instead of another stressful thing I have to plan on my own, on the run. And the whole process starts all over again in mid-November to start preparing for Christmas as we now try to handmade presents for family and pick what we think would be useful presents for friends.

I don’t mean to say that this is the perfect way to do things, but I am content with how it has developed so far. I know there is room for improvement when it comes to being environmentally friendly – like the pumpkin – but nothing is ever set in stone, so we learn as we go.

The Fall Sky

On my bike
to and fro
Every day
across the seasons

Bright Summer sunlight
on endles blue skies
Cold Spring rain
wakes me up before work

But nothing makes me feel richer
than the Fall sky
gray clouds
and low sunlight shining through
A rainbow here
and a rainbow there
and even sometimes
a patch of blue sky

All at the same time
Remind me of how lucky I am
to see and appreciate
on my ride
To and fro
this beautiful and varied
Fall sky.

Allow and give your mind a break

Whenever I am in a course or retreat with my Yoga teacher, Prasad, he reminds us to use the time we spend at the retreat to reflect about what we are learning, but avoid trying to solve our lives during that time. I have always interpreted this as an invitation to reflection and a warning against over-thinking.

Throughout the years I have been studying with Prasad, I have gradually learned to mentally put my life on hold for some days whenever I am at one of his courses or taking a silence retreat on my own. Surprisingly enough, I manage quite well to stop worrying about the things I usually worry, I don’t make any plans, I avoid ruminating about past events. The only times my everyday life pops up in my mind is through reflection on how I can apply what I learn in the course or retreat to my life to have a positive change.

Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been able to meet my teacher in person for over two years now, and the possibility to take silent retreats has also been limited during this time. I try as much as I can to create space for myself to slow down and reflect in everyday life, but my mind is used to going at a certain pace when I’m at home. It is more difficult to ‘tame’ it here. This means that during the last six months, I have been feeling the need to take a break. It is not a break from anyone or anything else than my own mind, and I have been going around believing that I can only do it if I get out of the daily routine, preferably on my own.

Yesterday, I took our daughter to a meeting with the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration (NAV). My husband and I had decided to apply for an assistant that can be with her a few hours a week and take her to one of her after school activities or maybe that can support her if she wants to start going out with people her age. People with PWS usually have such assistants. Some of them start at a young age to release the load from parents, but we had never really felt we needed it. However, our daughter is a teenager now, and we considered it important to start now because she will most probably need an assistant as an adult too.

Right before the meeting, I noticed our daughter getting into a bad mood, and when I asked what was going on, she managed to express her discontent with our plan of getting her an assistant. Once at the NAV office, she was clearly frustrated, and was answering the person who wanted to meet her in short phrases without even looking at her. I tried as much as I could to stay quiet and let them talk since the purpose of the meeting was for my daughter to talk about herself, but as the meeting went on and she clearly expressed she didn’t want to have an assistant, I felt I had to chip in and explain that this was meant as a measure to give her more freedom. But it didn’t help.

Our daughter can be considered as high functioning despite her PWS diagnosis , and this can be a big burden for her because she is aware of her struggles and knows that she’s different. At this age, she’s struggling to accept that she has different needs than her peers, and she has – like many teenagers, I would argue – a slightly distorted idea of what she can achieve independently. Because of her condition, we cannot trust that she won’t seek food when she’s not with someone who knows her. She can also get stuck in situations when something unforeseen happens or when she misunderstands a person or a situation. She can also be quite passive. If no one suggests her something to do, she can sit for a long period of time doing nothing. Especially this last aspect of her condition is what affects me the most as a mum because whenever I prioritise to do something else than to get her engaged in some sort of activity, I feel I am letting her down. Also for all these reasons, we would like her to have an assistant. Unfortunately for her, she cannot see this, and it is difficult to talk about it without making her feel bad.

So, during the meeting, I sat, most of the time, feeling tired, helpless and frustrated because I know that if she refuses to have an assistant, she won’t get it. I felt incapable of dealing with the situation other than stay calm, be quiet and let the person from NAV talk. She decided to finish the meeting saying that if my daughter doesn’t want an assistant, she cannot be forced to have one.

Many thoughts were flying in my head, and I was mainly wondering if it is right to allow a person with special needs to decide something that most probably won’t benefit her. Especially when she’s only 13 years old. But at some point, I told myself what I tell myself with my other two children, she’s an individual and she will have to live her own life. Yes, she’s only 13, and certain things we can still decide for her like her diet, when she goes to bed, how much time she spends on her screens, etc, but certain things she just has to decide herself and live with it. I also realised that maybe she’s happy not doing anything from time to time. Maybe the only one having a problem with that is me.

For the last five minutes or so of the meeting, I told myself ‘allow’. I sat and heard my daughter talk with the woman from NAV, and didn’t intervene, didn’t resist, avoided having an opinion. I had a similar feeling than when at one of my retreats with Prasad. I gave my mind a break. I stopped the movie of the possible future catastrophes that could happen if my daughter doesn’t have an assistant, I stopped the self-pity of how tired I sometimes am of being a mum of a special needs teen, I just simply stopped, listened, observed and accepted.

Ever since that experience, I have been reflecting about how much I feel is my responsibility everywhere. I think that I am responsible for bringing up my kids according to our values, but I am not always responsible of their happiness and enjoyment. As they grow older, I am less responsible of what they choose to eat outside our home, what they think, what they do and do not do. I am not responsible for their choices. I am not responsible for their social interactions. I observe that as they grow older and contest more and more my views, resist my advice, choose to disobey our rules, I grow more and more worried.

I have to stop. My mind needs to stop. I need to allow more. If my youngest doesn’t like that we are concerned about the effect consumerism has on the environment and gets angry because I don’t want to buy her new clothes when she has a closet full, it is okay. She can be frustrated and show it, and I don’t need to do anything about it. If our son chooses to play on the computer instead of doing his homework even though we keep reminding him to do so, it is his choice and he will have to deal with the consequences. Even our daughter with special needs will have to make her own choices and we will have to allow for her to learn from them.

With this in mind, I decided that for the remaining of the Fall break, I will get into ‘retreat’ mood. I am going to give my mind a break. I am with my three kids this week while my husband has to work. We will enjoy. I will try to share my time between doing what they want to do and what I want to do, and give my mind a break. Whenever I start worrying, I will tell myself ‘allow’.

How many choices have I made in my life that weren’t optima?, and still, here I am. I don’t think I would be happier today if I had chosen differently back then. My life might have been different, but not happier. The most important is to have someone who can support you in the ups and downs in life. Someone who can help you reflect when you need it.

World Mental Health day from my perspective as a teacher

This week, I got a strong cold virus, so I had to stay home from work for some days. This gave me time to listen to morning radio emissions, and I learned that this Sunday is the World Mental Health day.

I think a lot about mental health. My own, my kids’, my students’. I am happy to observe that we are starting to take mental health more seriously in the world, and that people who struggle are feeling freer and safer to talk about it and seek help.

I know that mental health is complicated, there are many factors that affect it, but for a long while, I have been aware of the importance of doing what I can to take care of my mind. How do I do that? To begin with, I try to get to know it better. I observe myself, I reflect about my attitudes and actions, I try to understand where they come from. I try to change or let go of what I see doesn’t help me, I accept as much as I can my shortcomings, and keep reminding myself that I need to be patient. My thinking processes have been this way for over 40 years, so it takes time to change them.

I also do the usual recommendations: I sleep at least seven hours a night, I try to stay physically active – at least ride my bike to and from work every day and go for walks whenever I have time -, I practice yoga asana, breathing exercises and meditation on a daily basis, I keep remind myself to live mindfully, to be in the moment, I prioritise spending time with those who I love, but I also prioritise some time on my own to reset and restore.

This said, I want to write a bit about what I struggle the most with: my job. I don’t always notice it, but whenever I am forced to take a break – like this week because of the cold – I realise how much energy I spend in it and how little energy I have left when I come home.

Every time I talk about this with people around me, the same comes up : the work load. However, I don’t think this is what is draining me. I am getting better at doing what I can with the time I have and avoid feeling bad if there are things I can’t complete because I have to prioritise others. I am not saying that I have a perfect balance here, but I don’t think this is what sucks up my energy.

At this point, I have to specify that my goal is not to complain, I am just sharing my thoughts. I love my job and I feel lucky to do something that feels both meaningful and enriching. Every single day, I learn something new. Either about the subjects I teach, about the world, about my students, about my colleagues or about myself.

I wonder, however, if not the job of a teacher is becoming too demanding. On one side, I think it is good for students that we have their well-being as our number one priority, but on the other side, we also have the pressure to help them get through the school system and preferably with satisfying results (i.e. ‘good’ grades).

I often feel that I lack the knowledge and the tools to help everyone in the classroom to both thrive and succeed academically. When I took my teacher’s degree, the main focus was on how to teach my subjects. The expectation was that I knew my subjects well and that I am open-minded enough to keep exploring different ways to allow students to approach it. To find engaging ways to teach it and hopefully for my students to learn it. There was, of course some focus on pedagogy, classroom management, and social interactions, but not enough for me to become an expert in teenage psychology and special needs pedagogy.

In addition, challenges and needs keep increasing. We have students with clear diagnosis that are supported by the system with extra resources that allow for the school to have more adults in the classroom. This is good, but often not enough as none of the adults in the classroom are experts in the diagnosis and there is little time to gain enough knowledge about it. We have students with diagnosis that the system do not consider need extra resources because they do not struggle academically but they do have social and sometimes emotional or psychological struggles. We have students who struggle with motivation, socially or with behaviour, students with problems at home, students who have the usual struggles of being a teenager. We understand that all are individuals, and still, we are expected to push them through the same system.

On top of that is my general shape and/or mood of the day. There is little room for me to be tired, sad, angry, or even a bit under the weather. I spend a lot of energy, every day, to stay calm and poised. To allow at the same time as I set boundaries. I explain, I talk with students, at the same time as I make sure I show understanding and try to go through my lesson plan.

I think I talk for the majority of teachers if I say that we avoid as much as possible to take sick leaves because that represents more work for us. We then have to make plans for a substitute teacher and follow up with the students when we come back.

This said, this school year, I have been wondering if it is ‘allowed’ to stay home when being too tired physically or mentally to be on top of things, to avoid making a bad choice, or even worse, to avoid ending up burned out and unable to finish the school year. This keeps me thinking and asking myself some questions:

  1. Am I suitable for the job of a teacher? I don’t mean this in a dramatic way. I keep thinking that like in everything in life, not everyone is suitable for everything. I work with so many talented teachers, and it seems to me that they are in full control of themselves and every situation. Maybe my talent is elsewhere?
  2. Aren’t the expectations contradictory? We are expected to take care of the mental and social well-being of students, at the same time as we help them succeed academically. Do not misunderstand me, I think it is very important to help teenagers go through tough periods by showing understanding and care, but I find it difficult to push them into the box of the school system at the same time. The expectation from the parents, the students themselves and the world we live in is still that they have ‘good’ grades.
  3. Contradiction nr2.: adulthood can be tough, especially in the professional arena, and still, although with good intentions, we keep solving our kids’ problems, sweeping the way for them to walk through childhood and adolescence. How will they tackle adulthood if they don’t learn to sometimes just get through difficult times? Shouldn’t we be sharing with them more tools instead? Allow them to fail and reflect with them? Help them get up again?
  4. And another contradiction: we keep telling students that it is allowed to fail, and that failure is good because it is through mistakes that we learn. Still, we expect from them to be happy, motivated, and put their best effort in everything. If they loose motivation in school or have low levels of achievement, we push them to ‘do better’.
  5. What does it do to the mental health of a teenager to not have any other place in life to show their abilities than in the school system? Why do we keep believing that everyone has to go through the same system to succeed in life? Why haven’t we come up with real alternatives for those who would thrive doing something different than sitting in a classroom through one of the most challenging periods in life: adolescence?

Here in Norway, children and teenagers can join sports clubs, but here too, the pressure is quite high as they grow old. Some of them just want to be part of a club and do sports, not all of them aim higher than that, but in many cases, it seems that the goal of the clubs is to push the kids to become better and better, and this results in many teenagers dropping out. With training sessions several times a week, often late in the evening, and in addition the pressure of school, it becomes too much.

I keep wondering if we shouldn’t go back to a more traditional kind of society where young people can become apprentices without having to go through the school system or decide right away a career. I have a new student who lives in what we could call a ‘special’ community where several families live in a neighbourhood where they share common grounds and some buildings. They cultivate fruits and vegetables, have cows and chicken and the most beautiful part, two families share the responsibility to take care of one disabled person who lives with them. This student is so happy living there. She tells me she milks the cows first thing in the morning before coming to school and in the evenings. She has the opportunity to feel useful outside the school or succeed in any other ‘traditional’ arena.

  1. Should we have better systems in place to take care of the mental health of students AND teachers?

Traditionally, students would go to school to get their education. Education is now seen in a more holistic way than before. We understand that a student is not an ’empty’ brain to fill with information, they are individuals that need to be met where they are at. They also need to learn skills that help them continue learning in life, they need to learn social skills, the need to learn how to take care of themselves and those around them, they need to learn to take care of the environment. This is good, but it is a lot for the school to bear. Whenever I am in contact with instances outside the school such as the social services, and express my concern for a student’s well-being, the ball is thrown back to the school, and the question is asked: what is the school doing for this child?

Although I love my job, lately, I feel that I disagree more and more with the way we facilitate for students to learn and thrive. It is draining us and demotivating many of them. I am unsure that we are teaching to help them develop into mentally robust young people, and in the process, it often feels like the teachers’ mental health is being compromised.

‘Bad’ habits

I once read in one of Mr Iyengar’s book something like this: thoughts become actions and actions become habits. I think my paraphrase is way too short, but that is the part of the quote that stroke me the most. It was in the context of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras and the importance of gaining awareness of our own thinking processes. Ever since then, I try to observe my own habits. It is fascinating to see how many of them are created without intention! Especially the habits that are behind conscious or unconscious ideas of myself and those around me. My behaviour becomes a ‘bad’ habit in certain situations as a result of an idea I have of myself and/or the other person.

Unconscious and bad habits are not always easy to discover, I must confess, and I am always amazed when I do. Like this weekend. My husband and I don’t buy wine very often, but yesterday, we both felt like having some red wine. Here in Norway, you can’t buy wine – or any alcohol except for beer- at the grocery store, you have to go to something called Vinmonopolet (the Wine Monopoly). Therefore, it requires a bit more effort to get it. So Saturday morning, we went downtown to run some errands, and we bought ourselves a bottle of red wine.

We went home. I had some things I wanted to get done, and Arve had his. At some point late in the evening, I was sewing some patches on a blanket when Arve got up from the couch, opened the bottle and served himself a glass of ‘our’ wine. He sat back on the couch with his computer on his lap and the glass of wine in one hand. He looked so content. I felt offended. Trying to be as diplomatic and constructive as I could, I made a remark about it, and he replied something like: well, you seem always so busy, I just didn’t want to bother you. I seem busy?! He has ‘always’ the computer on his lap! Again, I tried my best to find a way to lead this conversation to a space of openness instead of conflict (which is not always my strength, if I am honest).

It turns out, he’s right. Every single evening, I talk about all the things I ‘have to do’. I don’t always end up doing them, but I do talk about them. So, all my husband can do is to grab his computer and do his own thing. So, I have the habit of thinking that he is not interested in spending time with me. That he prefers to do something else.

Added to this ‘bad’ habit of mine is the unconscious expectation that my husband ‘shows interest’ in me, and this has to happen of course as I imagine it. It is as if I kind of expect to get an invitation from him instead of saying clearly that I miss spending time with him and that I would like to enjoy a glass of wine together.

After our chat, he did invite me to watch a movie that he had been wanting to watch. It was nice even though I didn’t make it awake all the way to the end of the movie. Not because of the movie. Certainly not because of my husband. It has just been a hectic week, and with the wine… I am happy I gathered the courage to have this conversation without being confrontational. We had fallen into a habit of thought. I thought my husband was not interested in spending time with me during the evenings because he sits with his laptop on the couch. He thought I was too busy to want to do anything with him. We fell into the habit of believing what the other is thinking instead of talking about both wanting to spend some time together.

A similar eye opener happened some years ago when we were going through a difficult situation. It was tough for both of us, and I started resenting my husband because I felt that he wasn’t giving me much emotional support through this. So, in addition to struggle with the difficult moment, I was being resentful towards him. Acting passive-aggressively. When I finally gathered the courage to have the difficult conversation, it turned out he felt I was pushing him away. I was acting as if I had full control over my emotions and didn’t need his support. It was, of course, a way to keep the pain away because I knew that if I showed vulnerability, I would have to face my own emotions and I wasn’t ready for it. So, the easiest was to keep my attention on something else, namely what I thought was my husband’s inability to show empathy. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time I felt like this, but I had never dared to talk about it with openness. It had always ended up in a bunch of complaints and accusations from my side. We had fallen into a bad habit that none of us had had the ability to see even less break, and I believe this bad habit was the result of my own and my husband’s unaware thinking processes. It is often the idea we have of ourselves and others that stands in the way for our interactions with others.