Digging deeper into the layers

For long, I have been interested in understanding emotions. Their source and how to better deal with them. My interest comes from observing myself acting in unskillful ways when taken over by emotions such as frustration, deception, hurt and fear.

I have used Yoga teachings to try to better deal with my emotions, with some good results, but I am still hunted by them and I still lose control over my actions because of them. It is not because Yoga teachings are ineffective, it is, I think, because of limited understanding so far. Maybe my inability to go deeper than just seeing their source.

During the last few months, however, I have had two intense experiences that have led me to reflect on how I work with these emotions and try to figure out a better way through.

The first was a big fight with my husband earlier this year where we both contemplated (again) the solution to separate. After further discussion, however, we decided to keep trying. I decided then that I wouldn’t go into the same cycle again. I needed to get to the root of my frustration. Through reflection, a therapy session, and some reading, I realized that I haven’t been a good communicator during all these years. I have always thought I was, but I wasn’t. Out of fear to be rejected or perceived as a problem, I have often chosen the “suck it up” path in everyday small frustrations that unfortunately didn’t disappear but just accumulate until, for some reason, I reach my limit and explode for the smallest thing. Then, the focus is all on that negative emotion and explosive reaction, and a lot of time and energy is then spent regretting my behavior, apologizing, and forgetting what got me there in the first place.

Maybe because of the culture I grew up in, I have had an unconscious negative relationship with my own needs, and I have used what I have learned through the study of Yoga to confirm this attitude believing that if I practice “non-attachment”, I would at some point not need anything. What I think now, is that at the level of spiritual development I am, I need to set myself more realistic goals that can allow me to better walk the path with a more peaceful mind. Befriending my mind, understanding my needs, reflecting on which ones only I can meet, and which ones I can communicate in a constructive way to people around me.

The second experience I had this Spring was at work. A couple of weeks ago, I felt frustration escalating again towards the leadership in the school. This has happened quite often towards the end of the school year. The problem is that when I experience frustration, anger, sadness, and/or fear, I struggle to go deeper than that. All I want to is to get rid of the emotion, so I either judge myself for feeling as I do and suppress the emotion, or I find someone or something to blame for how I feel. Luckily for me, started listening to the audiobook Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, and I think this is going to be a game changer for me, not only to better meet the needs of the people around me but to show more compassion and understanding towards my own instead of getting lost in the overwhelm of my feelings ignoring the need behind them.

Reflecting on my marriage, my frustration often comes from feeling lonely. It can be in everyday life or when planning for a family celebration, vacation, or project. The need is to be a team. To get help. To feel that we work together towards a common goal. I have, however, been unable to communicate this because asking for help felt like nagging. Heading toward our daughter’s confirmation this Spring, my husband was much more helpful than he usually is, and I was so thankful! This made the process less tiring for me, and it felt like we were sharing the joy of celebrating our daughter instead of me running like a headless chicken all the time. I expressed my gratitude towards my husband and explained that I have been needing to feel like a team, but was unable to express it in a constructive way because I hadn’t taken the time to formulate my need in my head. Now he knows, and if he forgets, I will be able to remind him.

At work, I realized that my frustration came from a feeling of uncertainty, insecurity, and unpredictability. Because we are a small school, and we have changed principals quite a lot in the past, changes have happened in a way that sometimes has felt ad hoc and without taking into consideration the professional development of teachers. There aren’t any bad intentions from our leaders, just circumstances making things difficult for some, including me. The insecurity comes from my own self-doubt, but the uncertainty and unpredictability come from not knowing what my tasks for the next year would be and whether I would have a say on what I am asked to do or not. I realized that I have come to a point in my professional life that I don’t want to continue being subject to circumstances to that level, and then decided to change jobs. I have been offered a position where it is clear which subjects I will be teaching, with an open possibility to develop in other areas. There isn’t necessarily something “wrong” with the school I’m leaving, but there isn’t anything “wrong” with me either seeking for more predictability. That is what I need, and thus, that is what I should seek. If the school I’ve been working in for years, is unable to offer that, why keep exposing myself to the frustration described above?

As silly as it might sound to some, for me this has been an eye-opening Spring. I am not wrong about having needs, I just need to listen to them and express them in a way that helps me and does not mess up with others. In light of Yoga, I would also argue that many of these needs can be met by myself if I continue working with myself. For example, insecurity. No amount of validation from people around me will heal my insecurity if I don’t work with it inwards. Other needs like closeness when I feel lonely, help when I have too much on my plate, and a pair of ears when I need to digest an experience, are absolutely possible to communicate to my husband, friends, family, and colleagues.

Discussing my “amazing” discoveries with my husband. He asked some critical questions about my inability to express my needs better. I confessed that it often feels that they go against my wish to be flexible, kind, and reasonable. He then reminded me that any idea I have created in my head of who I am or should be is nothing more than “ego”, and it obviously stands in the way for me.

More about supporting children and youth

I think I have shared before that I believe one of the most important tasks I have as a mother and as a teacher is not to protect my children and students from unpleasant situations but to help them see that they are part of life. Instead of solving their problems for them, I should help them find strategies to get through them. This view has developed through the years in both parenting and teaching. Before, I was more anxious about my children experiencing conflict, or getting physically hurt, but this changed gradually when I realized that I cannot sweep away every single moment of distress and uncertainty for them. I also became more aware of the fact that one day, they will have to stand on their own feet.

In order to stand on their own feet, they need to learn strategies to overcome challenges. They can only do this by experience. On one side, this allows them to see their strengths and continue building on them, and on the other, after strugling finding a way through, they will learn where they need to develop new skills. If every time a difficult situation arises, I step in and solve it for them, the day they encounter one as adults, they will feel helpless. They will eventually learn like we all do, but why not allow for these moments when they have my support? When I can ask critical questions. When I can point out the good in themselves that they don’t see. When we can reflect together.

On this side of the world, life is filled with distractions that trigger our instinct of seeking pleasure: social media, unlimited access to sweets, fast food, entertainment, and the list continues. Our children can easily believe that a “good life” is a life filled with pleasant experiences and entertainment where there are no challenges, no problems, and no suffering, but I think that they will end up feeling empty if they are not encouraged to rather spend more time learning about themselves, experience life in its full range, and use these experiences to figure themselves out. This includes what we would define as good or pleasurable experience, but the challenging or difficult experiences too.

As a Yoga student, I am still finding the right balance between what I like to see as frolicking through life and the inner journey. In my understanding, Yoga teaches us that life experiences are here first and foremost to bring us closer to understand ourselves, and to grow spiritually. This means that we do not need to reject life’s ups and downs. We do not need to seek the downs either. We are encouraged to open up to life as it is and learn. We are warned of the danger of getting stuck (attachment) in a world of dualities: like/dislike, pleasure/pain, and rather treat them equally calmly. This is one aspect of Yoga that when I think about it, it makes me feel uplifted, until I get stuck in a difficult situation, and have to remind myself to allow, to move through it, and let go of my judgement and my fear. This is, what I would argue is step two in the context of my reflections in this post related to supporting children and youth.

Step one is to allow for challenging situations to happen to our young ones, and to help them nagivage through them, draw the teachings from them, and to remind them that life as we experience it is filled with ups and downs and it is how we deal with them that makes the difference.

Step two would be to put more attention in their inner life to better navigate through the world and avoid either indulging and thus risking of harming themselves (over eating, becoming an addict, not sleeping enough, over training, etc), or the world around them (overconsumption being an example), and to not fear when going through a difficult patch, because they have in them what they need to get up, brush the dust off and learn.

Living Yoga little by little

I recently watched a Reel where a woman shows how she gets rid of stress by one by one taking out of her home her kids, her dog, her husband, and some objects representing house chores. Funny video, and relatable. I also sometimes wish to take everyone and everything out of the house, except for my cat, of course, or simply run away from it all.

Although meant to be funny in a very simple way, this Reel kept me thinking, mostly because I have been reflecting lately about how I keep going mentally to the same spaces that create stress related to my family life. We all want to run away from what creates stress in our lives at some point. Even the great warrior Arjuna before the battle of his life, as described in the Bhagavad Gita:

  1. “Sanjaya said: After speaking this way to Krishna, the Lord of the senses, Arjuna, who is the terror of his enemies, said: “I won’t fight” and became silent. “Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (Ch 2 p. 12). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

It is the Eater break and with it comes more time spent together in the house, and multiple expectations, many of them unmet. Some are my own expectations, and I have to “deal” with the emotions they bring, and some of them are my kids and my husband’s and for some reason, they feel like my responsibility too, so I also “deal” with the emotions they bring in me and in them. This has been the dynamic since I can remember every time we are on holiday.

The easiest would be to go on a holiday on my own, but I like to spend time with my family, so this time, I decided to be mindful of my frustrations and use my breath to let go of them or communicate in a positive way. When it comes to expectations and frustrations from others, I am working on not making them mine. Allow my kids to feel what they feel, ask critical questions if relevant, and let go as much as possible.

The Easter break has become in our family a time we spend at home, relaxing, the girls and I usually have some handcraft projects, our oldest son does his thing, and my husband does too. This, in reality, should be a very chill holiday, but I make a mental mess out of it having a bad conscience for not taking the kids anywhere, having a bad conscience for not doing something in the house like Spring cleaning or deep tidying up, or any other chore that requires more time that I have been procrastinating for long. The bad conscience is then mixed with annoyance because “only I see the work that needs to be done” while my husband “just sits there are does nothing”. The funny (or tragic) part is that no one knows about all these thoughts. I go through the holiday dealing with them myself. So, this Easter break, when I went into the shed to get something and I saw, again, the mess “nobody” takes the responsibility to clear, I took a deep breath and asked myself “Do I want to tidy up now?”, the answer was obviously no, so I made a mental note, I will do this at the beginning of the Summer break. No expectation of anyone else doing it, I see it, it bothers me, and I will do something about it, but not now.

  1. “You can rise up through the efforts of your own mind; or in the same manner, draw yourself down, for you are your own friend or enemy.” Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (Ch 6 p. 80). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

I am a strong believer that stress and distress are mostly a result of our thoughts, and although there are situations that do create immediate distress such as illnesses and accidents, it is how we deal with them that makes the difference. Life is full of surprises, and we owe to ourselves to live mindfully in the small moments (like my frustrations of everyday life), so we are equipped to deal with what I see as the “real” moments of distress.

I have now been studying Yoga for eight years, and most of what I study and learn makes sense, it is about time that I have a more conscious approach to its modalities and apply them more actively if I really want to see a change happen in my mindset. Little by little, step by step.

And in moments where I feel nothing else helps, I like to think of the Self, this deeper part of myself that is pure, at peace and unaffected by whatever happens in the palpable world.

  1. “Weapons do not affect the Self; fire does not burn it, water does not wet it and wind does not dry it.” Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (Ch2 p. 16). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

Love, again

I have never managed to think of my work as “just” work. It is almost impossible for me to go to school, teach, and then go home and let go of my day. I believe this is both because of my personality but also because of the nature of my work. I am always surrounded by people. My work is with and for people and we are constantly communicating and exchanging what I would like to call energy. We come to school with our mindset – the one we have that day, and the one we have formed throughout the years – and out of it, we mingle. Students, colleagues, and parents.

That is one of the things I like most about my job because I feel that I am constantly learning about human interactions and about my own mindset and attitudes. At the same time, when I forget to be mindful, it is one of the most exhausting parts of my job because I put myself in the position of “manager of emotions”. My students, their parents, and my own emotions… usually, I have enough with mine!

I sometimes observe in myself an inclination to mentally and emotionally oppose moments of tension. When there is a disagreement, when someone is experiencing distress and several people are involved, if I stop and observe myself, I feel resistance, especially if I feel one side is being more “reasonable” than the other, or when the distress is created by an experience of a situation that I feel is exaggerated, limited or even erroneous. However, once I have taken the time to take a step back and gain some perspective, I know that my rigidity doesn’t help because I end up being dragged into an emotion that is not mine and add to my frustration and judgment.

This month, my sangha chose as the topic of our gathering “love”. We decided on the topic at our last meeting, and we will all come to our gathering next week with our reflections, questions, and quotes to share. I have been reflecting on the topic of love through the lens of my understanding of the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita. The first thing I can say is that love in the context of the Gita is not limited to romantic love. It is bigger than that. Still, I find it difficult to define it. So I can do as when trying to describe Atman, by negation. Love is not a transaction, love is not conditional and it is not the result of an intellectual process.

I have been thinking that we often mix “love” with “like”. In French, we use the same word for both, “aimer”. However, we can say that love is something that unites us, that is bigger than us and at the same time part of us, so it cannot be subject to our judgment which comes from our limited mind. In the context of the Gita, we learn that we are love. We don’t need to search for it outside ourselves, we have it and we just have to move our attention inwards to see it, touch it, and show it.

If we think of love as some sort of power we have in ourselves, we then can use this love in different situations. We can put love at the base of all our actions. I do my work with love, I talk to others with love, and I navigate through difficult situations using love as a compass. It can sound like a cliché, but it isn’t.

So, when once again this week, I suddenly felt I had the responsibility to manage a situation where students were each other at their mental “corner”, acting out of their minds, opposing each other, with emotions all over the place, I reminded myself of the power of love. Somehow, this reminder allowed me to slow down and let go of the opposition. I stopped and thought, how can I create a space for both of them? Their emotions feel very real right now, both need acknowledgment but they also need to see each other. I don’t know how, but it worked. I managed to open my perspective and create space for everyone and I think everyone felt seen and heard. Furthermore, one of my students approached me with very nice reflections that I think will help them in the future. Because that is what it is all about, isn’t it? Not necessarily about solving conflicts, but helping my students find a way to navigate through human interactions in a constructive way, in a way that respects their individuality but at the same time respects other people’s individuality too, creating a space for everyone to thrive.

I didn’t give any answer because, like most of the time, I don’t have one (which often is a source of stress and distress for me), I just invited them to ask questions that can bring us closer together. I have written this many times, but I will write it again, we all live out of our minds and this is bound to create a conflict unless we accept this fact and put love in between each other to create some sort of consensus. The challenge is to be constantly mindful of this simple principle.

I am very excited to hear what my sangha has to say on the topic. I will maybe share in an other post.

Pondering on Karma Yoga

I studied chapter 3 in the Bhagavad Gita some years ago through the guidance of Prasad Rangnekar, a Yoga teacher from Mumbai, India. I remember that I felt it all made so much sense then, and I believed I understood what it meant for me. Throughout the years, I have revised this chapter a couple of times, reading commentaries from Yogananda, Sri Swami Satchidananda, and Iyengar still feeling that “I got it”.

One of my sangha members asked recently if we could discuss Karma Yoga during our meetings, and I gladly accepted since I felt I could contribute with what “I have learned” so far. So, I started revising Ch2 and Ch3 in the Gita, as well as my notes, just to realize that the more I read, the more I try to wrap my head around it, and the less I am sure I truly understand and am able to internalize these teachings. I remember my teacher saying that Karma Yoga is the path for people like you and me, people who are engaged in the world, but the more I read about its main principles, the more they seem to me as almost impossible to follow in our modern world.

Take selfless action as an example (Gita, ch.2 v47 & 50 among others in ch3 and other chapters in the same book). The only role I play in life that I didn’t choose was to be the child of my parents, other than that, I chose to study to become a teacher and thus, I chose to apply for the teacher job I eventually got, I chose to marry my husband, I chose to have children, I choose my friends, I don’t necessarily choose who I work with, but I choose to interact or not with them outside our duties at school. So where is the selflessness in all this? I can choose to leave my job, I can choose to leave my family, I can choose to not meet my friends anymore. I can make new choices that will lead me into new roles.

Choosing these roles is probably part of human nature, and the drive to stay active. One could even argue that I believe I chose these roles, but maybe they all are part of my karmic bondage. Indeed, Krishna does tell Arjuna that it is not possible to take part in this world without action:

One cannot achieve freedom from karmic reactions by merely abstaining from work, nor can one attain perfection of knowledge by mere physical renunciation.

Bhagavad Gita, ch3 v4

There is no one who can remain without action even for a moment. Indeed, all beings are compelled to act by their qualities born of material nature

Bhagavad Gita ch3 v5

So, here Krishna is telling us that part of living this life is to be active. Everything we do and don’t do is an action, but we need to choose the “right” action. The action that will help us grow spiritually, and eventually liberate us from our bondage to the material world.

Work hard in the world, Arjuna, but for work’s sake only. You have every right to work but you should not crave the fruits of it. Although no one may deny you the outcomes of your efforts, you can, through determination, refuse to be attached to or affected by the restults, whether favorable or unfavorable.

Bhagavad Gita ch2 v47

Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjun, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yoga.

Bhagavad Gira ch2 v48

So, “right” action is the one that does not bring distress to our mind, and that helps us keep a balanced mind. Since we cannot control the consequences of our actions, all we can do is control the intention behind our actions and how we perform them. If the result is in our favor, we should be thankful and move on, if not, we should also be thankful and move on. Keep the mind stable. On the other side, we can also explore the idea of acting mindfully to avoid harming others because how can our mind be calm if we know we acted mindlessly or, even worse, with the intention to hurt? I guess these are just two sides of the same coin: the intention behind the action.

I once read in one of B.K. S. Iyengar’s books that Karma Yoga is “contained in the Yamas, the Niyamas, Asana, and Pratyahara” which are four of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. I don’t know if this connection is correct according to tradition, but I like it.

Yamas and Niyamas are useful in the path of Karma Yoga because they give us guidance. The Yamas (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.30) are non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteaya), continence (brahmacharya) and non-greed (aparigraha). Ahimsa is an important aspect of the life of any Yogi and also in other Indian traditions such as Jainism and Buddhism. Only this one would keep us on the right track for the rest of our lives, I think. The Niyamas (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.32) are purity (sauca)- both physical and mental, contentment (santosa), study which leads to the knowledge of the self (svadhyaya) zeal (tapas) and resignation to God (isvara pranidhana).

The way I see it, the Yamas are values that we can have at the base of our actions to make sure we have control of our intentions, and the Niyamas are to be used internally to stop the need to act to get something in return. If we practice contentment, if we keep our mind and body healthy and we focus our attention on what will help us grow spiritually, we will eventually stop craving for external gratification. This sounds so inspiring and beautiful but requires a lot of self-discipline and constant checking in with ourselves.

Pratyahara is the practice of restraining the senses, and in the Bhagavad Gita, we do learn about the importance of having control of the mind and senses in order to be on the path of Karma Yoga.

Those who restrain the external organs of action, while continuing to dwell on sense objects in the mind, certainly delude themselves and are to be called hypocrites.

Bhagavad Gita ch3v6

But those karm yogis who control their knowledge senses with the mind, O Arjun, and engage the working senses in working without attachment, are certainly superior.

Bhagavad Gita ch3v7

In this context, we have five organs of action (karmendriyas) which are feet for locomotion, hands for dexterity, rectum for excretion, genitals for reproduction and mouth for speach; and five sense organs (jnanendriyas) which are the ears, the eyes, the nose, the tongue and the skin. In addition comes the mind or manas because as we read above, we not only have to work with controlling our actions by gaining control over our senses, but we also need to work with the mind to ultimately detach from the need for physical reward.

I am unsure how Iyengar connects Asana to Karma Yoga, but I have learned that the meaning of Asana in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is to sit steady, basically, in preparation for Pranayama, Dharana, Dhyana and ultimately Samadhi which are the remaining eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.

So, Karma Yoga encourages us to act in a way that allows us to keep a balanced mind which in turn will allow us to act more skilfully and eventually liberate us from. the “wheel of karma” which is basically being reborn over and over again to continue paying our karma and, if not acting skillfully, creating more karma…

One who prudently practices the science of work without attachment can get rid of both good and bad reactions in this life itself. Therefore, strive for Yoga, which is the art of working skillfully (in proper consciousness).

Bhagavad Gita ch2 v50

Now, Krishna told all this (and more) to Arjuna to help him make the right choice right before the most important battle of Arjuna’s life. How would this apply in other areas of Arjuna’s life? How does this apply to my life? How does this apply to your life? It would be interesting to hear how you apply these principles in your own life. I will try to share in future posts.