A little theory of mine

On my way home on Friday, I heard on a French radio station a program about the increasing use of laughing gas among teenagers all the way down to 14 years old and its consequences. It reminded me that not so long ago, I read in the newspaper that in certain cities in Norway, the use of cocaine and hash has become as common as alcohol among high school students. A friend of mine back in Mexico told me recently that the use of drugs among teenagers has increased in the last few years too.

I can’t help but wonder if this is not partly a result of the way my generation is bringing up our kids in what we call the “Western world”. One thing that I think kids in France, Norway, and among the middle and upper classes in Mexico have in common is easy access to what brings sensory pleasure.

We can start with food. Many kids nowadays can eat sweets and drink sugary drinks daily if they want to. What in some cultures used to be limited to special occasions or at least the weekends, has become part of everyday life. Whenever a kid feels the need to be rewarded somehow, they can do it through the sense of taste.

Another way to get an immediate reward is by buying things. It is enough for a kid to express their wish for something to get it almost right away. It can be toys at a young age, clothes, makeup, and devices. What used to be left for birthdays and Christmas, is now part of everyday life. So, when special occasions come, we tend to give more than our kids need.

Lastly, we have the immediate reward electric devices give. Either through social media or gaming.

So, my theory is that we have created a generation of pleasure seekers. Kids nowadays are used to satisfying their senses almost constantly. It is not enough to go for a holiday by the beach, there is the pressure to make it exciting for the kids. So we book activities, or rent or buy equipment so the kids do not get “bored”.

As we all know, the more we get, the more we want. There is always something more exciting to experience, something bigger, better, or tastier.

Added to this is our well-intentioned need to protect our kids. Whenever they experience something unpleasant, especially socially, we intervene. We solve the problem for them. We remove them from the situation. We demand others to solve our kid’s problems. Leaving them incapable of dealing with disappointment, sadness, or pain. We do this to protect them, but we forget that the muscle of resilience needs to be trained.

My point here is not to criticize. I belong to this generation and I have observed in myself and my husband many of the behaviors I describe here, and I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good in some cases. Wouldn’t our kids benefit from having to strive a bit more to get what they want? Wouldn’t they benefit from learning to live simple lives? Wouldn’t they benefit from learning to be satisfied inside out instead of believing that the world around them owes them and that their happiness is in how much they get and how much they experience? Wouldn’t they grow for experiencing difficult situations and getting through them?

I know that the curiosity to drink alcohol and use drugs is not new. I know that the problem of substance abuse can have many reasons, but I wonder if the unlimited and often unconscious access to sensory pleasure is not also contributing to this tendency.

It is great that we have enough to give our kids everything they need and more, but maybe we sometimes need to stop and wonder where happiness really comes from.

Body image vs healthy body

I have joined a clothing redesign course this Spring. I went to the first session this week, together with five other women and our teacher. The goal of the course is to acquire some basic knowledge about different kinds of fabrics, how they are produced, and the impact they have on the environment as well as to acquire basic skills to adjust or recycle garments to create something new.

As we set to work on our garments, I noticed that most of the other women in the course, at some point, made negative comments about their bodies. Mostly because they felt they ‘needed’ to lose some weight. I was surprised by this since most of the women in the course are either my age or older. Beautiful women, all different with different backgrounds, professions, and skills. I couldn’t help but feel sad, that still at our age, women struggle to accept their bodies and the conversations often lead to the ‘need’ to go on a diet.

Coincidentally, my youngest daughter (12 years), told me this week that she wants to start taking better care of her body. I did my first diet when I was around 14 years old, and from there, I spent most of my teenage years feeling bad about my body and trying different ways to lose weight. When I first came to Europe, I was 160cm tall and weighing 45 kilos, and I still felt that I was fat. Besides the unnecessary pressure I put on my body during those years, I regret having spent so much energy and time worrying about how I looked instead of enjoying my years in high school. Therefore, I want to do what I can to help my daughters (and son) develop a healthy relationship with their bodies. So my youngest and I engaged in a conversation about what is a healthy body instead of what is a nice body. Is being slim the same as being fit? Why do I eat like I do? How can my daughter create good habits? Why should she?

As an adult, and after many years of loathing my body, I have come to some sort of stability. It always makes me laugh when people comment on my body and tell me that I am so slim. Often insinuating that that is just how I am. If they only knew how many years I spent going up and down in weight. What I have learned during these years of struggle is:

  1. To accept my body as it is with it’s strengths and weaknesses and treat it accordingly. Work with it and not against it.
  2. Phisical activity doesn’t need to be synonym with running a marathon, joining a gym or sweating for two hours each day. Any phisical activity is better than none. It is all about creating habits. I use each given opportunity to move: take the stairs, walk or ride my bike to work, choose a bus stop that is a ten or fifteen minutes walk from my home/destination, go for a short run when I have time. Maybe most importantly, find ways to move that are simple and make me happy, and try to move away from the presure of moving to change your body. Move more and see how your body and mind benefit from it. Energy levels incereas, sleep quality improves, and the mind can also feel lighter. One constant in my life is my asana practice. It is very rare that one day passes by without me doing at least 10 minutes of asana. I have learned to listen to my body and move accordingly. I have also learned to balance between poses and movements for strength and those for flexibility. I keep my practice very simple. I see it as maintenance work to stay in contact with my body, and keep it stable and mobile at the same time.
  3. Have a conscious relationship with food. Choose more of the food that makes me feel good throughout the day, and less of the food that gives me immediate pleasure but empty calories. I know that a diet rich in fiber, fruits, nuts and vegetables is what my body likes, so I eat accordingly, but I do not deprive myself of anything. I just try to control my impulse to indulge. If I have a piece of chocolate with my evening tea, I do not eat in addition a brownie before I go to bed. I try to find a balance. Since I love good food, I do not put just anything in my mouth to fill my belly or my emotional void. I make conscious choices, but I try to be flexible and whenever I get out of balance, I just tell myself, “tomorrow, I’ll make better choices”, and I do.
  4. Avoid throwing myself at every single new advice from “experts”. I do enquirer a bit and like to read and listen to different views when it comes to diet and exercise, but I have stoped believing that there is one miracle diet out there. The best is to listen to my body and stick to habits that are sustainable for my lifestyle.

If you have kids, try to have open conversations about habits and explore what is good for a healthy body and mind. If you struggle with your own self-image, start by being kind with yourself. Be thankful for your body that allows you to take part in life, praise it for its strengths and have realistic goals to work on its weaknesses. Think more about health and life quality than the set of esthetic standards from society.

Sacrifice in Karma Yoga

“Once, a fellow went into the jungle and became very tired. He foud a beautiful tree and sat beneath it. But the ground was thorny. He couldn’t lie down anywhere. ‘How nice it would be if I had a small cot!’ The minute he thought of it, he found himself sitting on a cot. ‘Oh boy, I have a cot!” He lay down. ‘This is very comfortable, but I’m also hungry. I could use something to eat, maybe a banana.’ Immediately a bunch of banans appeared. ‘What is this?’ He couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘It seems whatever I want I can get here. Then how about some gourmet cooking?’ Immediately, plates filled with delicacies, delicious dishes, pudding and desserts appeared. He ate sumptuously and then thought, ‘It would be nice if there were someone to massage my feet to put me to sleep.’ Even as he thought of it, there was already a beautiful angel-like person there massaging his feet. He became excited, ‘Oho! It looks ike whatever I’m thinking, I’m getting. Now I have a comfortable bed, a good, sumptuous meal, and somebody to massage my feet. But what if, while I’m getting the massage, I fall asleep and suddenly a tiger comes from the jungle. What will happen?’ Immediately he heard the roar, and a tiger appeared and devoured him.”

I read this story while studying Chapter 3 in the Bhagavad Gita with commentaries from Sri Swami Satchidananda. He shares this story when commenting on the concept of yadnya or sacrifice that is described between slokas 9 and 16.

Chapter 3 is about Karma Yoga which encourages us to live a regulated life where our actions are the means to our spiritual development. As you might know, the Bhagavad Gita is basically the conversation between the great warrior Arjuna and his friend and charioteer Krishna, who also happens to be a divinity, right before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is filled with fear and self-doubt and is considering leaving the battlefield. Krishna is teaching him the main principles of Yoga to help him make the right choice. I find it fascinating that the teachings of such an old scripture (it is said it was written sometime between 400 B.C. and 200 A.D.) are of so much relevance for us today. It is maybe not surprising though since the basic needs and inner struggles of humans haven’t really changed since then.

3. 9 The world is bondage when actions are done just for your own sake. Therefore, Arjuna, make every action a sacrifice, utterly free of personal attachment. Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (p. 36). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

I find the idea of yadnya or sacrifice very inspiring, and I believe that learning to live following this principle would spare us and others a lot of suffering.

First of all, what is yadnya? My teacher once described it as ‘the principle of interdependence’. If you look at nature, there is a cyclic system of giving and receiving. Rain falls and all living beings benefit from it. The tree gives fruit so animals can be nourished and by doing so, the seeds of the tree are spread so more trees can grow.

3.14. From food, all beings arise. From rain, food originates. Rain is the result of selfless sacrifice (yajna). And sacrifice is the result of actions (karma). Sri Swami Satchidananda. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (p. 43). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

The idea of sacrifice does not mean self-neglect or self-flagellation, it means that we choose to act with awareness and with the intention that our actions not only benefit us but also the whole we are a part of. We act with a sense of purpose, with the intention to learn and grow and to contribute to the whole.

This does not mean that we all have to give up our jobs to do volunteer work. It means that wherever we are, whatever our roles are (yes, we have many so try to identify yours), and whatever we do, we are encouraged to mind our intentions and let go of the need to be rewarded (here, the principle of vairagya or non-attachment is emphasized) because if we only act out of a need for validation or greediness, we are bound to suffer. Oftentimes we will experience that the validation does not come as we expect it to be, or once we get what we want, we will crave for more falling into indulgence which can have a negative effect on us, the environment and other sentient beings.

Going back to the poor man in the jungle, he had found a source to fulfill his needs, but his uncontrolled mind brought an abrupt end to his life. This story, my teacher tells me, is used to talk about the dangers of greediness. Nature offers us what we need to survive, but we often abuse Her generosity.

3.12. “Dear old friend, you should strike a balance in life between giving and getting. When you engage in selfless service (which is sacrifice), your desires are fulfilled, unasked by nature. Righteous people give more than they receive, indebred ones get more than they give. The one who receives without giving is stealing.” Jack Hawley. The Bhagavad Gita. A Walk Through for Westerners (p.30)

We consume more than what we need because we have forgotten to take the time to see that our inner life also needs nourishment and that this cannot come from material things. Our inner growth happens through acting with a sense of purpose, offering all our actions to the benefit of the whole, to something bigger than us, and finding a way to cultivate silence so we can access our inner source of peace and contentment.

3.17. “Arjuna, those who have found pure contentment, satisfaction and peace of Atma (the True Self Within) are fulfilled. They have nothing more in this world to accomplish, no more obligations to meet. Being in the Atma, these people are beyond karma.” Jack Hawley. The Bhagavad Gita. A Walk Through for Westerners (p.31)

There are certain actions where I can easily apply this principle, and I am guessing you can identify yourself with some of them. In the context of my family, for example, or when I choose what to eat. I am also changing my ways when it comes to what I wear, what I buy, what I dispose of and how I dispose of it. There are, however, other arenas in my life where I still struggle to effectively apply this principle. I often forget it. I expect, I seek validation, and when I do not get it, insecurity arises and the cycle of stress is fired up. So, every once in a while, I have to go back to this chapter, to be reminded, to discover new ways, to hopefully internalize.

Reflections over a recovering broken arm.

I have three teenage kids…or almost. The youngest is turning thirteen this year, but she surely behaves like a teen already. Since they were toddlers, I have tried as much as possible to explain the whys of my behavior as a mum. Why they have to brush their teeth, why it is important to have healthy eating habits, why it is important to have a sleeping routine, why we wear a hat and mittens when it’s cold outside, and so on.

I am not sure how much they’ve listened, or how clear my explanations were because the older they get, the poorer choices they seem to want to make. Especially our oldest and our youngest. The one in the middle has less liberty because she was born with a syndrome and one of the recommendations with her diagnosis is to have very clear routines, so she knows there is little room for discussion when it comes to food, sleep, and exercise. Otherwise, she is happy to follow instructions when it comes to outdoor clothing.

Our oldest is 15 years old and turning 16 this year. The last year or year and a half, I had started to let him make his own choices more. I had stopped insisting on him wearing a hat, or mittens, or a rain jacket. During weekdays, we still insist on him going to bed as soon as he gets home from his swimming practice, but they sometimes end so late that he goes to bed at midnight. We tried to keep a routine during holidays too, but this Christmas break, we gave in and let him go to bed when he wanted, trusting that it wouldn’t be ‘too late’. It was sometimes at 2am because he was gaming online with his friends.

The struggle with our 12-year-old is food. She has always been picky, but when she was younger, we had at least the authority to make her eat what we considered healthy at each meal. Now, she can refuse to eat breakfast and no matter what we say or do, she won’t listen. She can spend hours in front of her dinner plate until we give up and let her leave the table. But make a batch of brownies and guess who will eat three in no time.

So little by little, I have been giving in to some of my kids’ poor choices explaining why I disapprove of them and why I would rather see them make better choices, but I didn’t fight, I didn’t nag enough.

Until last Saturday when our oldest broke his arm and ended up at the hospital. The whole experience made me reevaluate in many ways how we are parenting our teenagers. While our son was recovering from surgery, I sat by his side feeling overwhelmed by the love I feel for him, and although his life was never in danger this time, thinking about how frail life is. How, in just a little moment, everything can change. Do I know him well? When was the last time I had a long chat with him? Not because I didn’t want to, but because he is always ‘busy’ with something else, and I don’t want to ‘push’ him. He is a lovely kid, kind, very generous with his smiles, and very reserved. When I ask him, how his day was, his answer would always be “okay” or even “I don’t know”. As he grows older, I notice that “I don’t know” has become a standard answer. You might think – as I did – ‘what is wrong with that?’ In reality, there is nothing wrong with that answer, but I feel that it often can be a way to avoid being in contact with what he really thinks or feels because it might be unpleasant, or because he doesn’t want to take a standpoint that might put him in opposition with someone.

I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable, so, throughout the years, I have avoided pushing our son to talk or to give his opinion. Sitting by his side, remembering how stressed he was right before the anesthesia kicked in, and how helpless he seemed, I told myself that I have to push him a bit more. For his own sake. He needs to learn to notice how he feels, what he thinks and be with it. Share it. Find strategies to overcome unpleasant moments. Be brave. Stand up for his thoughts, feelings, and opinions. He will need these skills in life as he grows older and becomes more independent. It is my job to make him a bit uncomfortable from time to time because he is safe with me. He can deal with his mum pushing him, and this will train him to be ready when the world pushes him harder than me, in less safe contexts.

After the operation, and when he was back in his room at the hospital, I allowed him to check his messages on his phone and answer them, but after a little while, I took the mobile away. He was anxious about not being able to sleep and wanted it back, but I stayed firm. He didn’t sleep very well that night, but I told him that it was okay. He would have the chance to rest at home. Once at home, I have been stricter with screen time – wondering at some point if this was the right time since he is after all convalescent – and pushing him to rest and go for short walks with me. Today, during one of our walks, he told me: ‘mum, I think the medicines I got at the hospital finally had an effect on me. I feel relaxed.’ I told him I don’t think it was the effect of the medicines, it’s been already over 24 hours. It’s the effect of resting while awake and sleeping enough hours. The walking must have helped too. Me making him a good breakfast. Drinking enough water…

I have a feeling that in our modern society we tend to forget that everything in the human system is interconnected. How we feel physically, mentally, and emotionally is dependent on everything we do day after day. The quality of the food we eat, the quality of the thoughts we cultivate, the quality of our sleep, how much physical activity we include in our everyday life, how much we allow our mind and body to rest, how well we are connected with our thoughts and emotions, even how much water we drink. When one aspect of our system is out of balance, we need to look into the whole of our everyday life, and often, the solution is most probably in changing more than one habit.

As a teacher, I see the number of students struggling with sleep, motivation, and even depression increase year by year, and I think it is connected with the lack of a holistic approach to their struggles.

I notice it myself, if I am deprived of sleep, I feel more vulnerable. If I eat poorly for a day or two, I feel sad without understanding why. Some people feel irritated, some lethargic.

I will, from now on, push my kids more to face their thoughts and emotions, to go for walks with me, to eat properly, to give me their phones and turn off the computer, to go to bed early even if they dread not falling asleep right away. It doesn’t matter if they get annoyed, it is partly my job to annoy them, as long as I know it is with the intention to take care of their physical and mental health. And I will continue repeating why I do it: because I love them.