Not perfect but certainly unique

I’ve been living outside my country of birth for over twenty years now. I first moved to France when I was 19 years old, and then to Norway when I was 23. It was especially in Norway that I experienced several times being hesitant between what I felt was the natural thing to do, and what I observed the locals did (or didn’t do). During years, it became a sort of internal battle, and I must confess that my inner impulses often lost because of the fear to not fit in, to be seen as strange (who’s ‘normal’ anyway?). It is as if moving to another country suddenly confirmed all my insecurities and created new ones.

In recent conversations with some other ‘foreigners’, I have discovered that many experience the same. A yoga student was telling me the other day that she dislikes the fact that there is no culture of feedback in the company where she works or at least feedback she feels she can grow professionally from. She would appreciate constructive feedback to improve, but there might be this fear of ‘hurting’ people’s feelings by pointing at what could be better. When I asked why she didn’t bring this up, she seemed unsure. I completely understand her because I can relate to the experience. More often than not, I also choose to go with the flow, but why? In my case, I am afraid of my idea being rejected but if you think about it, if that is the worse that can happen, I might survive no?

A colleague was sharing a similar story. He volunteers as a coach at his kid’s sports club. Here in Norway, it is traditionally parents who organise and coach kids in many sports activities after school. My colleague had observed how the behaviour of the kids sometimes comes in the way for better opportunities for them to learn, and he had some ideas of how to improve this but again, he felt pretty unsure about bringing this up with the other parents. ‘This is maybe the way it is done in Norway’, he said. I think that the sports club is lucky to have him among the volunteering parents, and they would benefit from hearing his ideas, but it seems like he wasn’t completely agreeing with me. And I get it. I know it is easy for me to sit there and listen and want to push him to act when I haven’t done it myself in so many other situations. Of course, this doesn’t only happen with foreigners, it happens to many everywhere.

Coincidentally, I had been reading about svadharma while preparing a workshop about Karma Yoga this week, so I have been thinking a lot about how important it is to be courageous enough to see our uniqueness as an asset, and use it more often to encourage small changes around us…or at least try. Somehow, many of us believe that there is one right way to do things and many other wrong ways. Or, if everybody is doing it the same way, and I see another way, it must be because I am wrong.

It is well-known that the best way to help someone is to focus on his/her qualities, and use them to help him/her grow and develop. Why do we forget to do the same with ourselves? Do you know what you are good at? What comes naturally for you? What do you do that makes you feel a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning? If not, don’t panic, you have it (everybody has it), but it is for some reason hidden from you. Maybe you have been spending too much time putting your attention ‘out there’? Comparing yourself with others? Following other’s path without noticing that it is not yours? Or maybe you have been too busy criticising yourself? Focusing on your less good sides? On your ‘darker’ sides? Have you ever thought about the fact that in order to be light, we need darkness? That we need two sides for a coin to be a coin? So you too have very good and less good aspects in your personality. It is good to try to improve the less good ones, but it is not good that they take all your attention and cloud your good sides.

Here are some challenges for you (and for me). In the weeks to come, start every morning by writing down three things that you see as qualities in you. Don’t allow your mind to play you tricks like saying ‘this is silly’, or that you don’t have any unique qualities, or that yes, maybe but so and so are even better than you. Then, before you go to bed, think about situations during the day where you used these qualities for the benefit of the whole. How did that make you feel? Do you think you need to use them more? Last but not least, is there something you’ve been wanting to suggest at work, in your neighbourhood, at home, or wherever but you haven’t dared? Maybe now is the time! Try, and if your idea isn’t accepted, at least you won’t go around for the rest of your life wondering what would have happened if you had dared to try.

Karma Yoga

In the Yoga tradition, there are different paths, all with the same end goal: to clear the mind so we can see our true potential. Karma Yoga is one of my favourite paths because it is for the practical life. Through the practice of Karma Yoga, you can continue living the life you are living and still live a spiritual life. It is all about changing the attitude you bring to your actions. I sincerely believe that if we all were familiar with the basic principles of Karma Yoga and tried to follow them in our everyday life not only we would be able live more peacefully and relaxed, but we would also make this world a better place.

To begin with, we need to look at the importance of the intention behind our actions. In order for an action to be liberating, it needs to come from a space of clarity as opposed to a state of selfish desire or neediness.

What Karma Yoga is trying to teach us is that since everything we need is already within us, we don’t need to seek for it in the external world. Therefore, we can detach from the fruits of our actions. We are responsible for the intention behind our action and the action in itself but we are not to worry about the results because they are out of our control. We all have experienced doing something for someone with the best of intentions to then be surprised and maybe even frustrated by the reaction of that person. For example, you make a nice dinner for your family putting your heart into it, spending time planning and preparing but nobody likes it. Your kids even make noises of disgust while eating. A common reaction would be to get upset, right? You put all this effort for ‘nothing’. But, is it really for ‘nothing’? You had a clear and pure intention, you did your best, whether your family likes or not the dinner is out of your hands. You can either spend time and energy getting angry and frustrated, or you just decide that either they need to be exposed to this dish several times to like it (do you know about the 10 times rule?), or you won’t make this dish anymore. That’s it. No drama, no unnecessary use of your energy.

It is important at this point to say that it is not about suppressing your emotional reactions to situations, it is about taking time to observe them and learn something about yourself. You are ‘allowed’ to get frustrated or angry, but you can try not to react to this in a way that is draining both for you and those around you. What was the real intention behind your action? Was it to do something nice for your family (in the dinner example), or was it more about wanting to get some sort of recognition? If it is the latter, ask yourself, do you really need anyone to tell you that you are a good cook? Can you acknowledge that yourself? If you really need the recognition, then say it clearly, ‘I made this dinner with the best intentions and I would appreciate some recognition, even if you didn’t like it’. You are then being very clear both to yourself and those around you.

To summarise: Intention and action are your responsibility. The results are out of your hands and therefore you would benefit from detaching from them to avoid unnecessary worry and/or frustration.

Another important aspect in the practice of Karma Yoga is the concept of svadharma, or personal duty. Swami Satchidananda has a good explanation for this:

“What you’re truly called to do is your dharma. It fits your aptitude, your capabilities and your natural inclination[…] No two snowflakes are exactly the same. As such, you are also unique, you have been created unique with certain abilities that no other person can do. That’s your svadharma, your individual duty[…] Find out what your svadharma is. Ask yourself, how do I feel when doing certain things? Does something come easily? Is it natural for me or am I trying to imitate somebody? But remember, that svadharma is different just an action based on a selfish interest. Svadharma is something righteous. The word “dharma” always implies the benefit of others.” From Sri Swami Satchinanda’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita ch.3 v.33, 34, 35

This is such an empowering concept! We all are born with a set of qualities that makes us unique, and our duty is to use them in every action we take for the benefit of the whole. This is very important, you don’t need to resign your job, or neglect yourself and/or your family to go help others, you can contribute to the well-being of others by doing what you already do with the intention of doing what is most skilful for you and those around you. You can also stop comparing yourself with others or trying to imitate others. There is nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself, but the only one you need to compare yourself with is yourself. You can ask yourself, am I a better version of myself today than last year? How does this make me feel and those around me? If the answer is more peaceful, you are then in the right direction.

Connected to the concept of clear intention is the importance of asking yourself ‘why do I do what I do?’. This can help you get to know yourself better and decide: 1) What am I doing just to do and I can let go of? Make a list of your priorities, if that list is very long, you might need to consider shortening it. 2) What am I doing with a ‘hidden agenda’ that I can stop doing or do with a “clear agenda”? What I mean by ‘hidden agenda’ is that sometimes we do things believing that we want to benefit others, when in reality we are looking for recognition. There is nothing wrong with wanting recognition, but in order to achieve a real state of peace of mind, in the yoga tradition, we are encouraged to start looking inwards for our value. All we find in the external world is transient, and therefore will never fulfil our needs completely. 3) What am I doing out of obligation?

If you find out that you do things out of obligation, can you change the mindset? Can you do things out of love? With your heart put in action? One example is parenting and spending time with our kids. Some parents experience certain aspects of parenting as an obligation, making this task more heavy and energy draining than it needs to be. If you rather see the whole picture and realise that you do everything out of love to your children, out of love to all children, the task will be less heavy and you will feel better. If you cannot find the joy in it, can you drop it? We sometimes feel that we are ‘obligated’ to do things that we really aren’t obligated to do.

All or some of these concepts might sound too difficult to live up to for you right now, and that is ok. You don’t need to apply everything at the same time, reflect on what is achievable for you. It might be enough to observe yourself in action and to note down where you meet distress and stress, and reflect on whether any of the described concepts would help you unknot some knots. Remember that one of the most important aspects in all yoga paths is practice. You need to practice, practice and practice more. Sometimes, you will feel the freedom, love and bliss that right action bring, sometimes you will feel that you keep giving with ‘nothing in return’. That is normal, but the more you advance in the path of yoga, the easier it gets, and I honestly can say that changes do start happening. It works almost like magic but you need patience and resilience and good guidance. Good luck!

Silence 2

I just came back from a weekend in silence. It’s been four months since the last time, and it was only during the evening of my last day that I noticed how needed this silence was. I suddenly sat down to listen to one of my teacher’s guided meditations, and after that, I didn’t stand up for two hours. I felt how my body and my mind wanted me to stay. To not move, to just be.

When I go into silence, I usually ask my teacher what he recommends me to do. This time, he recommended listening to his lectures and continue studying the Gita. The rest of the time, I know I benefit from not occupying my mind with anything else. This means reduce the use of social media to zero (I have to confess that I posted something Facebook on Saturday because I felt I would otherwise forget), no texting, no reading, no radio, no nothing.

I always go into silence with the purpose to slow down, to rest, and to observe what happens. I have learned not to have any expectations, not to have any goal other than to spend time with myself. To be honest, nothing extraordinary ever happens, but some small moments of clarity, of awareness do happen, and I treasure them. I notice better where I keep being stuck in my life, and I decide which way to go. I always come back with some keywords for myself to remember in my everyday life.

Back home, as I sat down to eat breakfast with my kids this morning, I kept thinking how much information we fill our heads with. One thing I like about being in silence is that I never get to know any personal detail of the people I share the guest house with. We meet and greet in the common areas with a smile, but we don’t ask each other the usual questions. We don’t need to. We know why we are there. Some of the most emotional moments I have experienced while being together with my sangha, in silence.

The world is not a perfect place, we humans create quite a lot of trouble around us, and nature has its own force that sometimes hits us quite hard. Life is constantly changing, and we naturally have a tendency to worry about what the future might bring. Every generation has experienced some sort of common fear, my generation is experiencing the fear of the consequences human impact has on the environment. I have been worried about this for some time too. Wondering what should I do, and often feeling bad conscience for not doing more.

What I think now is that we should be careful of what we fill our heads with. It is, of course, important to stay informed with what is happening around us, but how much information is too much information? And what do we do with this information? I believe more and more that each and everyone of us comes to this world with a set of attributes that we can use for the benefit of the whole, but not necessarily to the scale of a Hulk or an Iron Man saving hundreds of thousands of people with super powers, stunts and action.

Most of us can only be everyday heros, maybe even unseen everyday heros if we start living a life of clarity where we know our worth, where we know where we can invest our energy, and we do it, totally. We only have so much time and energy granted each day, and we all have different roles to play, so lets play well the roles we have been assigned and let others play their roles too. Stay informed and do your little (or big) to make a difference, but stop filling your mind with negativity and worry. None of them are known for helping solve any problem. Choose what you read, what you listen to. This doesn’t mean that you ignore the suffering around you, but the more negativity we fill ourselves with is not proportional to the more good we can do. Stop comparing yourself with others neither to feel ‘better’ nor to feel ‘less’. Do your part and feel thankful for being able to do so.

Energy

It is well known for most of us that physical activity in the right quantity and intensity can help keep our energy levels balanced. Yoga asana, if practiced with respect for your own body’s strengths and limitations can be a good way to keep the physical energy at a healthy level. When doing asana it is important to balance between stability and mobility. Generally, poses for stability require muscle strength and are thus more intense, they can be practiced to create heat in the body. Poses for mobility are mainly poses that work with flexibility, those practiced seated or lying down are generally less intense than standing poses. Remember to always keep in mind what the intention of your physical practice is and adapt the time and intensity accordingly.

What else affect our energy levels? Food, sleep, responsibilities, work, and what does yoga have to say about these? We are encouraged to practice moderation:

‘Verily, yoga is not for him who eats too much or abstains too much from eating. It is not for him, O Arjuna, who sleeps too much or keeps awake too much. ‘ Gita 6:16

‘For the man who is temperate in food and recreation, who is restrained in his actions, whose sleep and waking are regulated, there ensures discipline (yoga) which destroys all sorrow.’ Gita 6:17

Key words here are discipline, moderation and the destruction of sorrow. In chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga is defined as the disconnection from union with pain, and in order to achieve this state, we need to find a balance in our physical and mental state through practice (abhyasa) which requires discipline.

If your goal is to improve your energy levels, start by having an honest conversation with yourself about your lifestyle. Are you getting enough sleep? If not, why not? What changes can you make in your everyday life that will allow you to improve your sleep? What is part of your daily routine that you can either modify or let go of that is not allowing you to get enough sleep? You should aim towards at least 7 to 8 hours sleep every night. There is so much research that shows how lack of sleep is harmful for the physical and mental health.

A close and honest look at our eating habits can also be beneficial. I would like you to consider the following points:

  • Pay attention to your relationship with food. Do you eat for other reasons than when you are hungry? Is food intake related to boredom, anxiety, emotional pain? If yes, start by just accepting this fact, observing how your emotional state affects your need to eat, and make small adjustments especially when it comes to eating food your body doesn’t really need. Seek help if you need it.
  • Don’t get caught up in diets, or super healthy trends that are difficult to keep up with. Be rather curious about your own body. How do you feel when you eat this or that? Which food combinations are the ones that make you feel good? I sincerely think this is very individual. It requires time, rude honesty and patience to find out what kind of diet is the appropriate for you.
  • Balance your meals with the healthy amount of different kinds of nutrients.
  • Do enjoy guilty pleasures, but try to avoid overindulging.

So far, I have talked about the ‘obvious’ when it comes to our body’s energy levels: physical activity, sleep and nutrition. Can you think of anything else that affects your energy levels?

For this purpose, I want to suggest a short meditation. Read first the instructions, and then try it out. You will need a timer, a notebook (or a piece of paper) and a pencil. Start by finding a comfortable sitting position. It can either be on the floor or on a chair. Make sure you ground yourself on your sitting bones and from there allow your spine to grow tall, light and strong. Shoulders rolled back and down, chin parallel with the floor. Hands on your knees or lap. Set your timer for 3 to five minutes, and when you are ready, close your eyes, or place your gaze at a point on the floor in front of you. If you choose to keep your eyes open, keep your gaze soft and don’t move it during the meditation. Bring your attention to your breath, feel your inhalations and your exhalations. As always, your mind will serve you with all kinds of thoughts, allow these thoughts to come and go. When the timer is off, grab your pencil and write down on the paper the thoughts that came to your mind during this meditation. Without any judgement, without any analysis. Just honestly, write them down. Do this for some days, and compare your notes. You will most probably be able to then see what kind of thoughts are recurrent.

Our mental activity has a very big impact on our general well-being, and it affects directly our energy levels. Recurring thoughts that stress our nervous system such as worries, ruminating and discontentment, end up making us feel drained. One important aspect in the practice of yoga is the development of mental discipline that will allow us to keep a balanced state of mind regardless of what is happening around us. How? Here are some basic principles:

  1. Awareness and acceptance of the every changing nature of the external world. Change is inevitable, the way we deal with is up to us. We have a tendency to anchor ourselves in external factors: people, money, work, material objects, etc, but none of these are guaranteed to last. Enjoy the ups when they are there, and try to deal with a clear mind with the downs knowing that they will not last forever.
  2. Cultivate contentment or okayness that is independent of whatever is happening outside yourself. Start by being grateful for what you perceive as ‘the good’ and the growth you can achieve by what you perceive as ‘the bad’. Train your mind to deal with both pleasant moments and challenging moments equally.
  3. Build clarity of mind by evaluating everything you do in life and deciding what your priorities are and what you can let go of. Always ask yourself why do I do what I do? Be very honest with your answers.
  4. Do what you have to do with a clear intention and detach from the results of your actions. If we are too attached to the results of our actions, we tend to experience tiring emotions like regret, frustration, and anger over past experiences that didn’t turn out as we expected them to or worry and anxiety for future experiences.
  5. Keep expectations and desires in check. Expectations and desires are not ‘bad’, but if the unfulfilled expectation/desire keep disturbing your mind and draining you from energy, you might need to revise them and eventually let go of them.
  6. At any given situation, especially a challenging one ask yourself these three questions: can I change my attitude? can I change the situation? do I need to withdraw?

The mind’s job is to think so don’t judge your mind, and don’t try to ‘stop’ it. Disciplining the mind takes practice and patience. It is not only about sitting five, ten, sixty minutes a day to observe our thoughts. We also have to start making small adjustments in our everyday life, we need to slow down, accept more, push less and let go of what doesn’t serve us. It is a long and sometimes frustrating process, but it is worth it if you want real long lasting changes.

Save the world, and save ourselves…where to start?

My yoga teacher keeps repeating to us every time we meet him, ‘slow down and simplify your life’. I think that if we are going to succeed in reducing the amount of pollution we create, we need to follow this advice. I keep observing my life, and the life we collectively live and I must confess that it feels like this big knot that I don’t really know where to start unknotting. I want to use less my car, but I pack my days with so many things ‘to do’ that this is going to be almost impossible during the winter months (it is quite difficult to achieve already now, but I’m still managing…almost every day). I want to produce less waste, but I do buy food that helps me cook faster: pre-cooked pulses in tetra pack, vegetables at the local supermarket that come packed in plastic because the option to buy at the Asian shops downtown seem too time consuming for the moment, cereal for the kids for breakfast, etc… Why? Because I don’t have time during the week to spend that much time cooking, and I still want to give my kids a varied diet (exclude the cereal in this statement).

I could continue writing about how I am NOT contributing to stop global warming and waste production, but I think you get my point. My point is not to go on a self-blame ride either, I am just observing, and hopefully, will find better ways to really simplify my life so I have time to make choices that don’t affect the environment in a negative way.

I see this happening at the bigger scale too. I was lucky enough to be among the teachers at our school that took the middle school students to an interdisciplinary day about biodiversity some days ago. One of the highlights of the day was a political debate led by a couple of our students where local politicians were confronted with questions about the environment written by our students or asked ‘live’ by the audience during the debate. All politicians in the panel seemed to agree on the fact that we need to take care of the environment to take care of biodiversity, but their answers were for me quite wishy washy. One of the questions was about protecting the bumblebees. All the politicians in the panel agreed that keeping or increasing green spaces in our city was the way to go, as well as encouraging people to grow grass on their roofs, and many other very innovative and positive ideas.

Our school is by a big public park . It has mainly trees and grass, and some weed does grow like dandelions, and other wild flowers. During the last four or five years however, the municipality (or whoever owns the park) has started to rent (or lend?) the park to different instances to run festivals. There is a kids festival in the Spring, a “neighbourhood festival” at the end of the summer with concerts, this weekend was another kind of festival. I understand the motivation and the thinking behind it: to bring people together and promote culture, but here we are again wanting too much at the same time. Every time these festivals are finished and the organisers take their stuff away, the grass is damaged by the amount of people tramping on it in the lapse of some few days/hours, the equipment they bring, the cars/trucks they need to use to transport all the stuff they need for the festivals. This is what I see, but what about the insects and birds that live in the park? How are they affected by this? So what is the priority here? Protecting the park to protect biodiversity or to use the park as a festival arena? Can we have both? Do we need to prioritise something?

This brings me to another advise I have been hearing from my Yoga teacher the last five years: prioritise and live with clarity. What is your clarity now? Is it to experience this and that, to not miss out, to do this and do that, to get this and get that, or is it really to take care of the environment? If we take this seriously, we need to start making some serious changes. Changes that I feel need to be made both individually and collectively in order for them to make an impact.

I have started to think that to simplify our lives is not what we have grown to believe is to simplify our lives. To buy fast food because we don’t have time to cook, is not to simplify our lives. To use the car instead of public transportation because we don’t have time is a sign that we don’t have a simple life.

I am trying to take small steps, but I must confess that I still feel that it is not enough. I am much more conscious of what I buy and where I buy it, I have stopped eating meat, and serve less meat to my family. I am trying to encourage my kids to reflect on what the want and what they really need. I am avoiding using the car as much as I can except when I have to drive to the other side of town to take my girls to swimming on weekdays. This makes me wonder, should we give up swimming just because of that? Should we change clubs to the one that is at the swimming pool on this side of town? Oh, but we like that other club so much better! That is one of the dilemmas we’re in for the moment.

So what is my point? My point is that I think that in order to be able to start taking more care of nature, we need to start slowing down, look at our lives and prioritise what really matters and let go of what we can let go of. We have to create some clarity, what is it that really matters right now? We need to live closer to nature too. How can we respect something that we have become disconnected from? We certainly don’t need to panic or loose motivation when we look at the challenge we have before ourselves, but we need to take it seriously and reevaluate what we think is simplifying our lives because I believe a lot of it is simplifying it short term, but not longterm.