Reflections about death and life

I think I have a rather anxious mind. I notice that I always find something to worry about. It is of course not on purpose, and I suspect that it is a way to ‘entertain’ my mind. Or a habit? Or both…

Anyhow, one of my rather constant worries is nature. I often think about how human activity affects the local natural environment. Maybe because I notice it more now than when I was younger.

During the Spring, I have learned to notice the amount of birds that come to nest in gardens, the city and by the sea. We now know that we should be mindful when walking on the shore not to come close to where the birds are not to stress them and/or step on their eggs.

I don’t know if it is my perception or if this year there are more bird chicks everywhere, and unfortunately, not all of them survive.

A couple of times in the beginning of the Summer, I came across a dead chick bird. First I felt sad, and I worried for their species. Then, I thought, ‘well, at least that bird is not suffering anymore’. In both cases, I had a long mental discussion about life and death.

Life is interesting, isn’t it? From the moment a being comes to life, it is certain that it will die, and in between, there will be some struggles. For animals, it is mainly a struggle to survive long enough to reproduce. And for us humans?

It seems like most of us would like to live a long life and we wish the same for others, especially those close to us. Death is something we dread, but why? Instinct?

What do we plan to do with a long life? How do we live it? In constant anxiety and worry? How much good do we make and how much harm? Where do we find our propose of being alive?

I like to observe our cat. She has a safe home and food. She spends a lot of time sleeping like all cats, but she also has what I see as her everyday chores. She protects her territory from the other cats in the neighborhood, she ‘talks’ to the magpies through the window and tries to hunt -oftentimes without luck to our big relief. I remember once thinking, why does she stress so much? She doesn’t need to hunt since we feed her, and the other cats have their own homes. But that is her instinct. That is probably what makes her life ‘purposeful’. She most probably doesn’t have the awareness to decide not to stress unnecessarily.

But we do. Still, we often choose to keep moving. Keep running. Either chasing something or escaping from something. Acting impulsively. Creating more suffering for ourselves and others.

Life seems like a mystery to me and I often wonder why we dread death so much when we spend so much time in pain whilst alive.

I believe in working with the aspects of my mind that add unnecessary and unfounded suffering to my life and those around me. I don’t know what the future will bring to me, I don’t know how long I will live, but maybe the most important for me is how I live.

Trust

Is it a given or is it earned? Does the responsibility to create trust lies on the one who trusts or the one to be trusted?

Since it is a word, a concept that we have created, I believe there is no absolute answer to my questions. However, it is important to reflect on it and maybe create clarity around it.

There are behaviours and these behaviours, when repeated, turn into patterns. Either in the one who has the behaviour or in the one who experiences the consequences of it. Or both.

Following this line of thought, if you constantly behave in a way that does not match my expectations, I might lose trust in you. If there is a discrepancy between what you say and do, or if I ask for your help and you let me down, or if you lie…

On the other side of trust, there might be people who, because of past experiences, are distrustful. Either generally or towards people in specific roles. One could then say that we have to strive towards gaining the other’s trust.

Last week, I did something that I think cost me the trust of one of my students. It was, of course, a mistake, and I will now have to work next school year towards gaining their trust again. If I am given the opportunity. If this student leaves the school for some reason, they might then decide that teachers are not trustworthy.

I struggled with trusting last week too, and this is partly what led me into a distressed state of mind. I had an overly strong reaction to a change in my roles at work, and I wonder why I am so distrustful. Is my lack of trust directed towards the person? The role that person plays? Or me? Is my lack of trust in reality insecurity in disguise?

In any case, I think that the best I can do is to approach situations with curiosity. Ask the difficult questions both to the other person and also myself. I need to understand where my distrust comes from and work with it because, like in any relationship, it is difficult to have healthy interactions if there is no trust. Can we build that trust together? What is my part to play?

Most importantly, not take my mind so seriously. Take a break from it. Question my perspective before acting. The longer I live, the more surprised I am by my limitedness that, to begin with, seems so ‘real’ and ‘clear’…

Grading life

I recently sat with some colleagues at the end-of-the-school-year lunch and asked one of them “So, how is life?” He was surprised and amused by my question, and chose to answer by giving his life a grade out of ten. We asked him if he was pleased with the grade he gave to his life, and he replied, yes. Sooner than later we all started asking each other to grade our lives.

As an IB teacher, I started playing with the idea of “the criteria” to set a grade: marriage, kids, work, material comfort, and so on. I asked myself, what are the strands? Many of us were struggling to set a grade. What does a 10 mean? Can anyone reach a 10? Is my 10 the same as your 10? Many agreed that we all had our basic needs met and more.

Playing with this question during the last few days, I have come to the conclusion that no matter what is happening in my life, no matter what I have and don’t have, the best way to grade my life is on how I feel inside. My inner peace, my attitudes, and my general flow of thoughts.

Yoga teaches us that the world around us is transient, and that how we perceive this world is a result of our minds. Each mind has its own perceptions and limitations, so my 10 is of course not your 10. Furthermore, since the world is impermanent and ever-changing, if I put my well-being in what the external world can offer, I most probably will never be fully satisfied. Once I acquire something, I will discover that there is something else to acquire, or I will eventually have to go through the painful process of experiencing losing it.

We can agree that setting a grade to life is a silly exercise, but it is also a good way to reflect on what really matters. Maybe a 10 is not necessarily the goal. To me, what makes the most sense right now is to continue working with my inner world to better function in the outer world. It seems like a safer investment in this unstable and fluctuating world.

This reminds me of an important concept in Yoga that we find both in the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: santosha or contentment. Contentment is developed inside out and it is directly dependent on our attitude towards life. Cultivate contentment, and the rest will just flow.

Frustration and the way out of it

When things don’t go the way I expect them to, I go through a series of emotions. The first one unsurprisingly is frustration. Depending on the level of attachment that I have to the situation, I can sometimes work with my mind to let go of the frustration and see the possibility in the situation. If my attachment is stronger, the turmoil of emotions doesn’t stop with frustration, and unfortunately, it often culminates in self-doubt. It is an awful feeling, self-doubt, and the problem is that I don’t always manage to see it. So the spiral of negativity takes me really low.

So, what to do? I think that although it is important to be assertive and speak up for myself when I feel unfairly treated, once I have said what I think, the best I can do is to bring my attention inwards to stop feeding into the frustration and counteract the self-doubt that only makes me feel even worse.

Throughout the years, I have been trying to create a method. This time, I have even come up with some bullet points. To begin with, I ask myself:

  • Why am I so attached to this situation? Can I let go? Can I make a compromise with my mind?
  • What is my part in this? Is there something I could have done better? Is there something I can change in my future actions, attitudes and expectations?

And I forgive myself. For the reaction, for what I think I could have done better before the situation and whilst in it.

It is not fun to realize that I could have done better when it is too late, but luckily for me, as long as I can breathe, I can learn. I don’t win anything by doubting myself and my capabilities. The bottom line is that like anyone else, I am constantly doing the best I can with my set of skills and limitations, and it is in moments like this that I am offered the opportunity to stop, reflect and realign myself.

So, stand up, brush the dust, look up, and keep walking. No idea of myself is worth my peace of mind.

Reflections from the school teacher

Yesterday evening was the traditional Yr10 graduation at our school, and today, I noticed I felt like a deflated balloon. It is often like that, the end of the school year. During the last few weeks, we gather momentum, and when all ‘important’ tasks are completed, when we finally can slow down, I feel empty and restless. Maybe this feeling is a bit stronger this year because we happen to have a graduated tenth-grader at home.

This is also the time of the year when I start reflecting on the school year. So here is what I think:

Once again, I can say that being a teacher is at least as much about learning as it is about facilitating learning. This year was no exception. Some of the things I learned are related to the content of the subjects I teach (which is one of the things I love about being a teacher), or the skills I try to help the students develop, but other are more personal, for example, what do I really stand for as a teacher?, what are my priorities, and how can I better deal with challenges for the benefit of my students without overseeing my own needs to stay mentally and physically healthy?

It is often said and written that the role of a teacher has become more demanding, and in many ways it has, but I also think that we need at every moment to stop and think what is the most important task we have at hand and not try to do everything at once. Yes, there are certain areas where we have absolutely no competence and it feels often quite frustrating to stand there and not know what to do, but maybe that is exactly what the point is. We don’t have to have all the answers, we can’t have all the solutions, but by being present, listening, and observing, we can see what the needs are and ask for help, suggest, and refer to those who have the competence.

I learned that the intentions behind the systems that are in place to support children and youth have good intentions, but that because each child is different, each case is different, these systems often come too short. I have unfortunately observed the lack of a holistic approach to challenges and/or issues children and their parents face. This has been at times frustrating and even heartbreaking, but my job is to keep supporting, be there for my students, and keep trying.

I need to do what I preach: be okay with making mistakes. Learn from them and move on.

Lastly, and maybe the most important, I have learned that even though I am passionate about my profession, my job cannot be my priority. My priority still needs to be my own health so I can function in a positive way both at home and at work (maybe better said, first at home and then at work). I do not help anyone by being overwhelmed, stressed and tired.

I think society needs to take more responsibility for children. We need to go back to the principle of a whole community taking part in the upbringing and development of children. The ball is constantly sent between parents (who said they have all the answers just because they gave birth to the child?) and the school, and different instances when necessary, but how about neighbors, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and so forth? I know friends, neighbours and family often stay at a ‘safe’ distance to avoid conflict, or not to add more stress to their own life, but we have to acknowledge that we all have different personalities, skills, and experiences that can benefit a child. We need to accept each other’s help. We need to see our own limitations.

Ask almost anyone in the street how important the well-being of children is for them, and I would guess almost everybody would agree that it should be one of the priorities in society, still, we leave this important role to parents and the school hoping that when needed, support will come from systems that are gradually getting overloaded with work. So, governments too need to invest in children by prioritizing schools, the professional development of teachers, and the systems that are supposed to help children develop to their potential.

When it comes to my goals for the next school year, here are some. Ask more, listen more, and talk less (I have this one every single year. I’m not there yet 😁 ). Remember to be open-minded. I see the age gap between my students and me growing, and thus the way we perceive the world, our experiences, what is important, etc. Stay true to what I believe are the most important tasks I have in this role. Not allow my job to eat my personal life. Be okay with making mistakes, apologize, and move forward.