Coffee or early morning yoga practice? The dilemmas of a mum on vacation and my understanding of the idea of pleasure in the Bhagavad Gita.

“Al que madruga, Dios lo ayuda”, we say in Spanish. Basically, if you wake up early, you get a helping hand from God. For me this means that if you put all your effort towards your goals, you’ll get some help from the Universe. I thought of this recently while debating with myself on whether get out of bed and do my daily yoga practice or stay a bit longer in bed and then enjoy a cup of coffee on the couch.

I don’t always feel like getting out of bed early to do my asana and sadhana, especially when on vacation, but I know what a difference it makes in my day. Asana helps me get the energy in my body moving so I feel less lethargic and more motivated. Sadhana helps me cultivate a calmer clearer mind. Yesterday, I even got what feels like the only rays of sunlight available in days before it continued raining… the whole day…

This reminded me that it is important to keep on doing things that benefit me longterm even though it is not always things I want to do. When on vacation, a good cup of coffee while sitting on the couch is often more appealing than following the discipline of sitting in silence followed by yoga asana. The coffee on the couch requires less effort, but I know the benefits from keeping up with my practice so, most of the time (but not always), this argument wins over the pleasure of not doing anything.

I have been reflecting lately a lot about the principles I am studying while reading the Gita. Krisna is constantly advising Arjuna to cultivate a steady mind through, among other things, refraining from seeking pleasure and personal rewards through his actions. This is part of what is called Karma Yoga. I must confess that it has taken some time to understand the sense of this. It is not dogma. It is not because it is a “sin” in the way we understand the word in the Christian tradition. Seeking pleasure in the sensory world is normal because it makes us feel good, but it is not something that will bring us lasting peace of mind and happiness.

Sometimes, we believe we do something “good” for ourselves by giving in to indulgences. We even find some good explanations like feeling restless, stressed, sad, tired or bored, just to mention some. Yoga is not encouraging us to live an ascetic life, but it warns us from fooling ourselves to believe that sensory pleasures will bring lasting peace of mind and contentment.

Giving in to indulgences, especially when we loose control, can often end up on making us feel even worse than before. I have experienced to sit down for a cup of coffee with a chocolate square after dinner, and then have one square more, and one more “because it was a busy day at work” or whatever, and then end up eating the whole tablet. After the first feeling of pleasure, I feel almost nauseous and have bad conscience for not stopping after one or two squares. So the pleasure turn into a moment of discomfort.

Or sometimes I get so attached that I believe I can’t be happy without them. Because sensory pleasures have only a short lasting effect on us, we tend to seek them over and over again. Or we move from one to the next one, to the next one never being completely satisfied. It has happened (and still happens more often than not) with social media. I am tired, I know I would benefit from a good and long night sleep, but I check my mobile “one last time”. After verifying there are no important messages, I then pay a visit to Instagram, and I just keep scrolling , and then Facebook, scroll, scroll, scroll and before I know it, I will only get six hours sleep, again! What good did I get from it? Just instant reward of the senses. I’m not even sure what kind of reward though.

We are so lucky to live in abundance on this side of the world, most of us have all our basic needs covered, and we can have almost anything what we want. Still, most of us aren’t quite satisfied. We are running from one thing to another, we are tired, we are stressed. Often, because we want to make enough money to get more things, to experience more, to keep going, and we keep the circle going.

Yoga encourages us to work on building a sense of inner okayness called contentment which is independent of external influences. This requires practice and patience. Practice in the form of sadhana but also practice in every moment of our day by keeping certain principles in mind. Patience because the feeling of okayness is not going to come right away, finding pleasure in a quiet mind is not as straight forward as enjoying a chocolate, but the more we practice, the more we see the results, and these results are more stable and long lasting than the enjoyment of a chocolate.

The idea is not to stop eating chocolate or enjoying my cup of coffee in the morning, but to keep in mind that these are temporary pleasures, and the more I get, the more I want. So I need to create a very conscious approach to them. If I get my coffee, great! I enjoy it. If not, well, I can drink tea or water (haha). But first and foremost, avoid allowing the cup of coffee coming in the way for my more fruitful and balancing practice of yoga that brings more longterm effects.

At the end of the day, it all falls back to the same: I and only I am responsible of my own well-being, and I have to be very clear about what brings real well-being and what brings temporary well-being. This doesn’t mean that enjoying the pleasures of life is wrong. But if what I want is real contentment, real peace of mind, I might have to give up certain pleasures in life to work hard on a more longterm and lasting goal. It is said that those that have understood this principle enjoy the world more than anyone else precisely because they know very well the difference between temporary pleasures of the external world and the steady and balanced contentment of the self-cultivated inner peace.

Ultimately, when we read verses like this

One whose mind remains undisturbed amidst misery, who does not crave for pleasure, and who is free from attachment, fear, and anger, is called a sage of steady wisdom. (Bhagavad Gita Ch2 v56).

It is not because otherwise some superpower will punish us. It is because any of these states of mind only create distress and is needless for someone that is trying to cultivate a steady mind.

The whole art in here, is to find the right balance, and that is a constant work in progress. In the meantime, after I publish this post, I will reward myself with a good cup of coffee ;)… if I have any left.

Silence. How and Why.

Please note that meditation and silence are not advisable if you are under extreme mental stress or emotional distress.

[…] Those with agitated, uncontrolled minds cannot even guess that the Atma is present here within. Without quietness, where is meditation? Without meditation, where is peace? Without peace, where is happiness? Bhagavad Gita 2:66

Cultivating silence is gradually becoming part of my yoga practice. It can be for a short period of time like some hours during a day, or in the form of one to several days retreat where I spend time on my own.

The way I see it, spending time in silence is like an extension of my daily sadhana which is basically doing simple breathing exercises for ten minutes, and sitting in silence between 10 and 20 minutes. I sometimes write for fifteen minutes instead and sit in silence for five minutes. The purpose of sadhana is to get into the habit of calming the mind, and the more I practice the easier it becomes to keep a calmer mind in my everyday life. This doesn’t mean that when I sit, I don’t think. More often than not, I engage in planning, evaluating, analysing, ruminating, etc., but when I notice that I’m engaging in my thoughts, I slowly and gently let the thought go and focus my attention on my breath.

Why cultivate silence? I have noticed, since the very first time I was in a silent retreat with my teacher Prasad Rangnekar, that when I go into silence, my body starts slowing down and this has an effect in my nervous system reducing stress. When in silence, I am also able to observe my thoughts easier. It is very useful to know what is occupying my mind and work with it either practically by making some adjustments in my life, or by letting go of thoughts that don’t serve me and only create internal noise or even distress.

Most of us live quite busy lives with work, family and other obligations. This keeps our mind going on all the time. Then, when we have some spare time, what most of us do is to “relax” by going into our phones, reading a book, watching TV, meeting friends, etc. None of these activities are bad but they do not allow our mind to relax completely.

In the yoga practice, it is known that a relaxed mind is a clear mind. Cultivating a calm mind is the means of the yoga practitioner towards self-realisation. Seen it in a more practical way, when we take time to quiet the mind, to observe our thoughts and emotions, we gradually get a better understanding of how we function, and we are able to make adjustments to our patterns of thought and behaviour. Thus we live a more skilful and harmonious life following our real priorities and not making decisions by impulse or because everybody is doing the same.

Going into silence can sometimes be unpleasant because as we finally slow down we might be confronted to difficult thoughts and/or emotions that we have been pushing away in our business. It is important in this cases to receive these thoughts/emotions with an open heart, with a calm attitude, observe them and not try to push them away again or run away from them. It is also important not to engage with them either. This means that we allow them to come, but refrain from analysing, justifying and/or judging them or ourself for having them. When we try to cultivate stillness, we avoid solving problems, otherwise, we are engaged again in too much mental activity. This said, I have experienced that after a period of silence, solutions to problems come almost by themselves precisely because my mind becomes clearer.

There are different ways to cultivate silence, one doesn’t necessarily need to go hide in a cave. The simplest one is, as mentioned at the start of this post, to create the habit of sitting down in a calm place for some minutes and do nothing other than breathing slowly and deeply. When you notice you’re engaged in thinking, gently let the thought go, and go back to your breath. It doesn’t need to be for a long period of time. You can start with two or three minutes and as you get used to it, increase the time.

Another way of cultivating silence is by being aware of all the sometimes unnecessary noise we bring into our life. Maybe next time you sit on the couch to catch your breath after a busy day, you just do that, sit and observe what happens with your mind. Or whenever you are doing some chores where you usually would turn on the radio, turn on the TV, listen to a podcast, be completely present with what you do instead.

I had the habit of listening to music when going for a walk or a run. I still sometimes do, but I often chose not to, so I can try to be in silence. This one is very challenging because I always end up engaging in some mental activity, mainly planning ahead. But I’m working with it. Whenever I notice I’m again mentally “busy”, I try to let go.

And there are, of course, the retreats. If possible, leave for a place where it is calm or create that calm space at home. Decide how long you want to be in silence. Maybe it is a good idea to start slowly, with one day, and increase as you feel more comfortable with it. Tell those around you that you want to be in silence, so you don’t need to worry about feeling that you are rude. Slow down, try not to make much eye contact with those around you. Don’t talk. No reading, no music, no radio, no phone. Just you and the gradual peace that silence brings. It might feel very difficult, and that’s ok. Try not to engage with your thoughts. Thoughts will come all the time, the key is to try to let them go when we notice we’re engaged in thinking. It is very important not to be judgemental of your own process. If you feel your mind is all over the place, don’t add distress by judging yourself. Just observe with curiosity, and after the time of silence, decide what changes you need to bring into your life in order to help your mind quiet down. This is where one of the most important principles of yoga steps in: vairagya or detachment. The more we attach our thoughts to, the less our mind is calm. Find out what is it that you are clinging to that doesn’t serve you in life. What is it that you can let go of.

When I go into silence, I like to create myself a routine. I wake up at a specific time, I choose a time to do my asana (sometimes twice a day), I do breathing exercises and sit in stillness several times a day. I also go for walks, and since I am a Yoga student, I usually study the Gita under the guidance of my teacher. While in a retreat, I spend more time reflecting on how the verses I am studying apply into my life. I also write, and I rest. If I feel like taking a nap, I take a nap but beware of not falling into drowsiness, that is why the walking and the asana. If you’re not a yoga asana practitioner, just some mild movement of the body would do.

This is the stage I am at when it comes to silence. I guess the more you practice, the more you can sit in complete silence, and the less you do but remember, we all are where we are in life and we need to take that into consideration when practicing yoga. Often, what we want or think should do is not necessarily what we need or benefit from. If you’re in doubt, seek for some guidance.

Choices

I must confess that, since I can remember, I have had this feeling that someone with superior wisdom than me, would one day come and tell me what I’m doing wrong and what I need to do better.

All my adult life I have been torn between doing what I think is suitable for me (and my family in the last thirteen years) and wondering if I am making the wrong choices. Should I be more stressed? Should I have more friends? Should I go out more? Should I push my kids more to do homework? Should I this? Should I that?

The root of these doubts is most probably fear. Fear of making the wrong choice and regretting for the rest of my life for not making the other choice, the right choice. Especially when it comes to my children and their upbringing.

Then, five years ago, Yoga came into my life and its teachings towards living a spiritual life made sense to me. I continue studying through the guidance of my teacher, Prasad Rangnekar, who patiently guides me but never tells me what to do. Still, when studying the Gita, especially about Karma Yoga, I find myself wondering if I need to change completely something in my life to live a more spiritual life. Am I in the right place? Am I in the right job? Am I in the right relationships? etc.

Luckily for me, I do have some connection with my inner self, with this gut feeling we all have. I don’t always listen to it, but since patience is also an important aspect of the practice of Yoga, I stay mostly put, I observe and I tell myself that when changes need to come, they will come by themselves. Almost naturally. There is a very important concept in the practice of Yoga (as a lifestyle, not only as a physical practice) called effortless effort, and I believe in it. The less we push, the less we fight, the clearer our mind and the more skilful choices we make.

I think I am understanding now that the principles of Karma Yoga are not encouraging us to do something different but do things differently. It is the attitude we bring to wherever we are and whatever we are doing that makes the difference. By practicing these principles, we will then live a more skilful and harmonious life. For our inner peace but also for the peace of our surroundings. It doesn’t mean that I won’t make mistakes, but I will then deal with these mistakes in a more productive way.

Maybe, I need to move away from the idea that there are right and there are wrong choices. There are choices and by cultivating a calm and clear mind I can make more skilful choices. Choices that are appropriate at the moment I take them out of the information I have. It is very possible that not everyone would make the same choice, and that is ok.

Another thing that I have been reflecting a lot about lately is that for every choice, there are consequences, and it is how we deal with them that makes the whole difference. The first one being that I didn’t choose the other(s) option(s). In addition, almost every choice has a pleasant/positive outcome and some corresponding less pleasant/positive or even directly unpleasant or negative consequences. Sometimes, these consequences are possible to foresee, sometimes, they come as a surprise. In order to live a more peaceful life, I benefit from dealing with both the positive and negative consequences of my choices instead of living in regret and guilt for not making the other choice. Fortunately, sometimes, when we realise that the consequences weren’t at all positive we can then make adjustments or even choose again. Sometimes, choices bring mistakes and all we can do is learn, change our course and move on.

Why do I write about this? Because I observe myself and people around me struggling to stay mentally and emotionally balanced with the choices we make. We decide something with what we believe is a clear mind, but we also want that thing that we didn’t choose, and we don’t want to deal with the consequences the choice we made brings. We even sometimes believe the other choice would be better, we would be happier, but still, we stay “stuck” in the choice we made in the first place. Sometimes, we can’t make the most desired choice precisely because we understand that the cons outweigh the pros, and our wants and desires stay in the way for us to skilfully deal with the choice we made. For example, I really want to go on vacation to a sunny warm place, but I also know that I have to save money. I then choose to not go on a vacation and it turns out that the weather is lousy most of the summer where I live. Would it then help me and my inner peace to go around the whole summer complaining about the weather, regretting my choice, dreaming about how good my summer would have been if I had left for that sunny place, knowing very well that I cannot choose differently?

I guess it all sums up to being with what is and not wasting energy on what could be unless we are willing to take the steps towards it. Make choices out of a clear mind, deal with the consequences or choose again, but avoid to be mentally and emotionally torn between this and that. Avoid cultivating feelings of regret and guilt and rather learn from the mistakes we make and correct our course. Stop living in fear of not making the best choice.

Short reflections

The sweetest victories have been the ones won towards my limited mind.
During the last six months, I have worked on observing my negative thoughts to avoid falling back into old negative patterns of behaviour. When upset, disappointed or frustrated, I have allowed the feeling to come, sat with it, and avoid reacting to it. When I take the time to do so, I realise it is just a matter of the reality not meeting my expectations. I then kindly lead my mind to something else, and continue with my day. It has been so liberating no to engage with nor react to these emotions! The step two of this practice is to work with my way of perceiving myself and the world around me, I basically ask myself two questions: 1) Can I change my attitude towards this? 2) Is this so damaging that I have to move away?(at least mentally and emotionally).

I’d better have a clear mind in my interactions with the world.
If I do not know what I’m doing or why I am doing it, I can’t then act with conviction. I know that my clarity is not absolute, and today’s clarity will change into something else in some time, but I need to anchor myself into something, and that something can only be a product of the practice of reflection at any given moment.

The less we push, the further we get.
Less talk, more listening. Ask useful questions. Show the way towards change even if I don’t agree with that change. Oppose less but draw the line when necessary.

Every single day my kids and my students present me opportunities to be humble, I am learning to grasp them.
Be curious. Be open. Accept my mistakes and apologise. Remember the impact of my words and actions, preferably before I speak or act. Keep building. Avoid breaking. Rebuild when broken. Accept disagreement. Accept negative feedback and attitudes as part of the process. Accept that, like anyone else, I am not to be liked by everyone and that’s ok.

I am one and I am a part of all. I am here and I am beyond. I don’t need to be in opposition.
No need for explanation.

I see your pain, I am with you, but my emotional reaction to it won’t help you.
No need to add on my emotion to situations that already are emotionally difficult. I can show empathy and help without wasting energy in emotion that can be used to be skilful and practical.

It’s unfair!

One thing that frustrates me to tears since I was a little girl is the feeling of being treated unfairly. I purposely say ‘the feeling of being treated unfairly’ because from what I observe in myself, it is often a matter of perception.

As a kid, I might have been scolded at for doing something I didn’t perceive as a fault but for the “scolding” adult, it was. I see that a lot as a teacher of young teenagers, when I correct a behaviour, my student(s) and I often move into a discussion about the unfairness of me pointing out at this action as inappropriate. This then leads to me explaining how the behaviour is against our school’s common agreements, or how it affects negatively the classroom/school’s environment, and the student in question seeing it as unfair because he/she wants or needs something different. There is a conflict between what the student in question wants or needs and what he/she can/should do at that given moment.

So, sometimes unfairness is a matter of perception, but what happens when we experience doing our best in something for then seeing it being taken away from us without clear reason? Some years ago, out of the blue, a friend that I considered as one of my closest friends, suddenly decided that she didn’t want me in her life anymore. When I asked for a reason to at least have the chance to apologise, my friend got even more angry and accused me of harassing her. We don’t live in the same country, so this made things even more difficult. I asked myself several times what was it that I did to be treated like this, and honestly, to the day today I really don’t know. In this friendship of so many years where we never ever had dispute, this really felt unfair.

After some days of reflecting, I decided that all I could do is to respect my friend’s decision. I sent her a message telling her that I love her and that I would be here in case she wanted to reestablish contact, and I let her go. From the yogic perspective, I went into this conflict with the intention to do my part to fix it, I measured my words and tried my best, her reaction to it was completely out of my hands. Why spend more time and energy thinking about the unfairness of the situation? Why make the situation even messier by engaging in negative thoughts and feelings when none of them would solve anything and just add distress for me?

If there is something I am more and more convinced of it’s the fact that even when it seems like people do things to us, it is all about their inner world. Why do I know this? Because I experience it myself. All my interactions with others and the world around me are a result of my way of perceiving myself and the outer world.

I guess at this point you are wondering if I mean that we should then just accept unfairness and let go. Not really, but like with everything, I think we do ourselves a favour when we peel off the layers of emotion in any given situation. I am not saying we shouldn’t experience emotion, but we should try to not feed into negativity and rather approach life in a practical way by seeking clarity in our mind.

I recently had the privilege to learn a big lesson from another friend. She lives abroad, has a child and is divorced. She was facing a trial about the custody of her child, and like in many trials, the lawyer in the opposing party had dug into her personal life to find aspects of her past and personality that could be presented in a bad light. It was very tough for her who has been taking good care of her child and taken every decision thinking of the child’s best, to be depicted in a completely wrong way. After the first emotion of unfairness and frustration had passed, she decided to stay calm throughout the whole process and not even respond to these accusations. She had prepared her case well, she had done all the right things for her child, and didn’t have anything to prove. She even had the compassion to understand the tactic, and let go of it in her mind. This, in my opinion is the big lesson for me to learn here. She let go for her own well-being. Thus, by letting go, she was able to stay calm in court, talk from reason, and go home with peace in her heart. She was, of course, nervous for the outcome but had the wisdom to see that she had done her part and the rest wasn’t in her hands.

This is the very principle of Karma Yoga. In her role as a mum, my friend did her duty by always acting with her child’s best interest in mind, she presented herself to trial well-prepared, the rest is not in her hands.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t fight when we perceive something as unfair? I don’t know for sure, but I think that we would benefit from asking ourselves what is it that we are fighting for and why are we fighting for it? What is required from us in that particular role? How much will this fight cost emotionally? What would happen if we let go?

This morning, I was reading verse 11 from ch2 in the Bhagavad Gita where Sri Krisna says to the warrior Arjuna “The wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead” which for me, in the context of spirituality, is a big statement. We don’t lament our losses, because they are losses in the transient world. The transient world is constantly changing and nothing that we acquire in it is really ours. What is even more important, no matter how much we loose ‘out there’, we don’t loose anything inside ourselves. Sometimes we even need to let go of something in order to learn a lesson, in order to be able to move on and win something that truly benefits us. If we are sure of our integrity, of our attitudes and our actions, no one can take that away from us. We can loose an unfair battle, but we can also rise tall, and move on to the next level.

It is interesting to use the Gita here, since it is a song about the dialogue between Arjuna and Krisna at the battlefield right before a big battle Arjuna needs to fight against, among other things, injustice. But I think the key here is to remember that Arjuna should engage in this fight following his duty as a warrior, and not driven by his own negative emotions…