On being a mother: between ego and sacrifice

Among all the roles I play in life, motherhood is the one that keeps me reflecting the most. Where is the line between my responsibility and my kids’ own path in life? Where do my attitudes and behaviours stem from? A genuine wish to guide my children or my ego? How much am I ‘supposed’ to sacrifice in the name of motherhood?

I understand that being a mother is not what defines me. I understand that motherhood is one of the roles I play in life, but who I am is not limited to being a mum. I understand that I would harm myself and my kids if I were too attached to this role because every action then would come from ego. This said, I do believe that of all the roles I play in life, being a mum is the most important right now. My kids came to the world into our family, and at least during their first eighteen years or so, we have the responsibility to create a safe environment for them. Since they are young, they are still creating their own perception of who they are and the world around them. I know that this perception will change through experience, but I feel that I have the responsibility to at least try to help them have a positive experience of these first years.

Still, when I think about myself as a child, I can recognise that already then, I had my own way of perceiving things. Sometimes, no matter what my parents or other adults said. This means that as a mum, my job is to be clear about what my intentions are, but at the end of the day, the way my kids develop will be pretty much out of my hands. I can only guide and live the life I want them to be inspired by, but they will eventually live the life they will choose and learn the lessons they came to learn.

The way I understand it, ego, or ahamkara in sanskrit, is the aspect of our self that limits us. When we let ego guide us, we act in limited ways. Ego feeds itself, among other things from believing that its importance in this world is connected to how much control we have of our surroundings. Ego is the part of us that is attached to the practical world: what we do, the titles we have, the ideas and believes we have, the material possessions we have, our achievements and our defeats. So, as a mum, how can I keep ego in check? By letting go of control? By not being selfish? By sacrificing everything to my children? Maybe, but there is a catch in this idea of sacrifice too.

One of the basic principles in Karma yoga is yadnya which is translated as sacrifice. Anyone that is a parent would say that in order to be a good parent, we need to make some sacrifice. But what does sacrifice really mean? Can our understanding of sacrifice also feed into our ego?

Sacrifice is explained by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita as offering our actions to something bigger than us. So, yes, we play our role of parents as a sacrifice when we keep in check our intentions and avoid acting out of fear, own ambition, or a need to control our children. Sacrifice is by no means a concept of self-neglect because connected to the concept of sacrifice is the idea of sustainability. Can I go on like this for long? Also, because once we put ourself in a role of martyr, it is very easy to feed the ego with it. So, where goes the line between not being selfish and neglecting yourself? From personal experience, I know this line is very thin, and it keeps moving.

I have observed myself rejecting projects or even opportunities using my kids as an excuse. ‘I don’t have time because I want to be present for my kids’. I do want to be present for them, and I think I am, but to be honest, I have, in some occasions asked myself if I wasn’t using my kids as an excuse to not come out of my comfort zone.

This weekend, I signed up to a webinar of an hour and a half each day. In addition, I had some small things I wanted to do that do not include involving the whole family. To begin with, I felt bad conscience, I felt selfish and stressed. Especially towards one of our daughters who needs daily physical activity, and who is quite lonely during the weekends. But I had to let go of my need of always having control over everything. It is ok, from time to time, to dedicate some of our common free time to my own personal and professional growth. I think our daughter has appreciated the opportunity to spend time on her own with her things, and just relax for the weekend. I have made agreements with her, and both yesterday and today she went outside to move either walking or biking. My family do need me, but it doesn’t collapse if I sometimes let go of my need to organise and control everything. This for my own peace of mind, and for my kids to discover that they are completely capable of managing their free time on their own.

Parade

Under the candlelight
In the silence of the early  morning
I sit alone on my mat
One by one 
or several at a time
start marching in
like in a parade
The housewife and her 'to-do list'
The mum and her worries
The teacher and her uncompleted tasks
The body and its needs
The daughter and her regrets
The yoga teacher and her self-doubt
The blogger and her ideas
Loud chitchat
In the silence of the early morning
I softly wave them away
one by one
but they are sneaky and persistent
teaching me to be patient
Tomorrow I'll sit here again
ready to greet them and let them go
over and over again


Where did you loose your key?

According to Yoga, we seek happiness and love because that is the natural state of our Higher Self. This Higher Self (Atman) is who we really are. The issue is that most of us don’t have contact with this Higher Self. We live deluded believing that we are our lower self which is our physical body, our thoughts and everything we perceive and identify as ‘me’.

One way to the Higher Self is through meditation which requires practice and non-attachment. This non-attachment is our tool throughout the day and during our practice to reach the state of meditation. Sitting in silence every day is a way to train the mind to slow down and focus which in turn is a tool to gradually detach from what is in our way to see our Higher Self.

The challenge is, that this Higher Self seems so difficult to reach. Most of us are dealing with a very limited mind. So, it is easier to reach towards what we can see in search for happiness and love getting lost in our senses, acting in selfish ways and in worst case scenarios acting in self-destructive ways. Unfortunately, nothing in the tangible world can give us lasting happiness or a lasting feeling of being loved because everything is in constant change including our perceptions and expectations. What made me happy today, might not be enough tomorrow. The most trusted and loved person you have can suddenly change his/her mind and walk away from your life.

Once a seeker in the path of yoga accepts these basic principles, life’s small and bigger challenges take a slightly different form. We are affected by them, but we have the tools to work ourselves out of the negativity that can be created by our emotions, especially those like anger, fear, jealousy, desire and greed.

In the Bhagavad Gita, we meet Arjuna, a great warrior who finds himself paralysed by fear and anxiety right before the battle of his life. The more we study the Gita, the more we can identify ourselves with Arjuna and realise how limited and limiting our mind can be. We learn to observe our attitudes and behaviours, and with practice, discipline and patience, we manage to make adjustments that bring us to a steadier calmer state of mind.

Learning about the limitedness of our minds, and the absurdity of pursuing happiness outside ourselves is also a powerful tool that helps us better interact with other people. When you start observing your mind and realise all the internal work you need to do in order to live a more peaceful life, you are also able to recognise the same struggles in other people. You might be able to forgive easier when you acknowledge the fact that we all are seeking the same but act (out?) in different ways to achieve it.

Think about this next time you have struggles with someone you expect something from. How can you expect the other person to give you what you believe you need, when the other person is busy in his/her own mind? If you are lucky, this person is aware of his/her struggles, but most of us spend a good part of our lives completely oblivious of our own limitations.

My advice is 1) If you are lacking something, see how you can provide it to yourself. If it is love that you are seeking, find this love inside yourself. Or at least be very clear of how this love should look like and give it the same way you expect to receive it without expecting anything in return. 2) Next time someone hurts your feelings, think about the cliché line “It’s not you, it’s me”, and believe in it. Whatever people do is an expression of their own inner world, of their perceptions and expectations. Even when someone acts in response to your actions, they are acting with their mind as the puppeteer. Just observe this in yourself during the next days. People are just people doing their thing but we have decided who we like, who annoys us, who we hate, who we want to have by our side, and who we want to push away. This connects to another way of interpreting the same line, ask yourself why am I reacting like this? In most cases, it is because the other person’s actions did not meet our own expectations.

I once heard a story, I am not sure if it comes from Buddhism or from the Yoga tradition, but I think it fits here. When we keep looking for what we feel we lack in the outer world or in other people, it is as if we had lost the key for our home, and keep searching for it at the wrong place knowing very well that it wasn’t there we lost it.

Where do we root our contentment?

Have you ever experienced that you study something and believe you ‘have it’ just to discover that you actually don’t have a clue? That just happened to me last week.

I have been reflection about a few things since the beginning of the lockdown, and as usual, I have been sharing them with my yoga teacher, Prasad. I feel so fortunate to have a teacher that challenges my mind! I often feel that no matter which philosophy you choose to follow, the path of spirituality is like a game. There are levels. Not levels of achievement, but levels of understanding. Not so long ago, I wrote a text about the concepts of raga (attachment) and dvesha (aversion), and I think I have also written about santosha (contentment) before.

Last week, I was thinking about my life situation during the lockdown, and I wrote some lines to my teacher sharing my thoughts feeling that I was ‘content’ with the situation. He encouraged me to observe what I wrote and the thinking behind it, and I discovered that my mind is constantly swinging between attachment and aversion. “I like this, I dislike that, I fear this, I regret that, I want this, I wish that, I don’t wish this, I hope that will go away… ” All the time! There is nothing wrong about that but what a way of wasting mental energy! It took me some days to understand what he meant but suddenly, just like that, it hit me! The more I keep labelling what is around me, even if I believe I am being flexible and adapting, the more I am keeping my mind busy with the external world instead of giving myself the chance to slow down, be quiet and listen to what my inner self has to say. As my teacher pointed out, I will never find contentment in any situation, I have to find the contentment inside me.

So where does the “game” comparison come in here? Well, if you study yoga, you might have come across the concept of santosha. I remember in the beginning of my studies, one of my peers recommended to start by being thankful. There is a little routine one can establish by every day making a list of things we are thankful for. Every day, no matter how challenging it might be, has some elements we can be thankful for. This way, we train the mind to focus on the positive instead of the negative. When we give the mind a rest from the negative, we are able to take a step back from it, be less emotional about it and deal with it in a more skilful and less energy-consuming way. We could then say, this is step one in the process.

Then, comes another aspect of contentment that I have been exploring lately, which is the idea of being okay with anything that happens around me. This is connected to the idea of non-attachment. If I let go of my expectations of how a situation should or shouldn’t be, I will then discover that I can be at peace with what is, and try to work with it. I can then learn a lesson, play my part, or let go and walk away.

The latest aspect I learned this week is the fact that nothing in the outer world will ever bring contentment. Why? Because 1) Everything is constantly changing and I am aware of it. So, consciously or unconsciously I will enjoy it but have some sort of attachment to it “Oh, I wish it will never end!”. Or even be anxious about it ending. 2) My mind is used to think consciously or unconsciously that the grass might be greener on the other side. We are constantly making choices, and we choose according to the information we have at any given time, but, there is always this slight element of doubt. “Did I choose correctly? What would have happen if I had chosen differently? Would I be even more content?”

This last aspect is an invitation to really start digging deeper. Yes, Yoga is a lot about the attitude with which we live our lives, and none of the described understandings of contentment is wrong, but if I want to go deeper, I’d better start believing that real lasting contentment is something that I will only find inside, and for this, I need to continue practicing my sadhana and detach from my limiting ideas whether I perceive them as good or as bad. They are only ideas.

I remember reading this somewhere, we often believe that we achieve some sort of wisdom, just to find out the next minute that we were only at the top of the iceberg…