Bikes, Cars and Karma Yoga

Our car broke down some weeks ago, and we decided to try out a life without a car for some time. This means that we are using our feet, our bikes and the public transportation more often than before, and we occasionally rent a car from a car collective we’ve joined.

This is possible because we live in a city where the infrastructure for pedestrians is very good, public transportation is quite efficient, and lately, the authorities have been investing a lot in improving the bike lanes.

However, almost every day, I observe distracted car drivers creating dangerous situations for themselves, pedestrians and cyclists. Needless to say, this really scares me when I’m biking with my kids even though I keep drilling them about predicting possible tricky places where a car can suddenly appear.

Today, I was riding my bike alone so I was going a bit faster than when I am with my kids, when I started approaching a gateway. Luckily for me, I instinctively started slowing down because from behind came a car, and without using his blinkers, it turned just in front of me. I had to stop abruptly, and almost fell off the bike, and the driver never saw me. I wasn’t angry, but this isn’t the first time this happens to me in the last few weeks, and I really considered going in to talk with him but I decided to let it go because I didn’t want to end up in a conflict. I still don’t fully trust myself not to get angry.

I think the key word here is distracted mind. I have been there too as a car driver. Driving my car in a hurry, or with a million things in my head, or trying to find something in my purse on the passenger seat, or all the three above plus more. The more I reflected about it, the more I was making connections with some of the principles of Karma yoga.

We all play different roles throughout the day and in this particular story, the man was the driver. According to Karma yoga, each role has its dharma, it’s nature and purpose. So, let’s say that the dharma of a car driver is to get from A to B, but not only that. According to Karma yoga, he should play this role in a skilful way, and my interpretation of this in this story is basically to find the most effective way to get where he needs to go, get there on time, and stay safe. That, in my head is the dharma of a car driver. The problem is, most of the things we do, most of the roles we play, we don’t really pay attention to them. Maybe because we do so much…too much? Our minds are distracted. Maybe, if we started paying more attention to what we do, and ask ourselves what the purpose of it is, how our different attitudes and actions affect the role we play and those involved, we would avoid scary situations in traffic, or conflicts with people we cross throughout the day.

If, when I decide to sit in my car (when I had one), I spend ten seconds to remind myself of my dharma in that moment: get to where I need to go in an efficient way and stay safe. I might then avoid distractions, drive slower, show consideration to other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. What if I’m in a hurry because I left home later than I should? I then have to remind myself that rushing, not stopping at intersections, driving on red lights is selfish and does not fulfil my dharma as a car driver.

This is what I love about the teachings of the Gita, it is all so practical! It is all intended to help us live a more skilful life and thus be more peaceful and influence our surroundings in a positive way. Lately, I try this quite often, sometimes to play with my mind, sometimes to come out of challenging situations. I stop and ask myself, what is my role right now? How is the skilful way to play this role without attaching to my ego? I sincerely believe that if we all did this, we would be less stressed.

One thing did come to my mind though, when this man sat in his car, he “became” a car driver, that was his role then, but it doesn’t mean that he stopped being a father, or a husband, or a son, or an employee/employer. Maybe, one or several of his roles was one of the reasons why he was distracted. Maybe he was worried about something, maybe he was rushing because there was some sort of emergency. So, yes, we are constantly juggling all the roles we have, but when all these roles keep us in a state of constant distracted minds, we need to take a step back and reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it. It might be time to reconsider our priorities. But that, is subject for another post. 😉

Parenting reflections

I am a mum of three. Needless to say, all three are quite different, so part of my job as a parent is to figure out ways to guide them through life respecting their personality at the same time as I try to teach them the values and attitudes I believe are important in life. That is partly tricky, isn’t it? I get to choose the values and attitudes that I think are important for them. That is why, in this role, I feel that I have to be constantly observing and reflecting and adjusting , at the same time as I have to believe in my instincts, otherwise, both my children and I would be lost in space.

Some days after the summer break had started, I had to take one of those pauses to reflect as I started noticing that I was constantly ending up in quarrels with my youngest daughter about almost anything and everything and nothing at all. My youngest is the one that challenges me the most, and it is most probably because she is so herself. She is pickier than the other two with food, she can often be quite dissatisfied with what I perceive as trivialities, situations with her friends, siblings and us parents turn often into drama, and what challenges me the most is that it is not very easy to have what I perceive as a ‘reasonable’ conversation about all these issues with her. Situations often start with me being very patient, trying to explain, she getting more and more frustrated and either start crying or answer back, to me then loosing my cool and getting all stern and teacherly.

Obviously, my way of approaching challenging situations with her is not working . I do think that my job as her mum is to point out the attitudes that won’t help her in life and encourage her to change them, but the way I do it is not working. If you have been reading my blog, you know by now that I am a student of yoga, so I use what I learn in all possible situations. Reflecting on my daughter and our challenging interactions, here are some points:

I don’t always agree with my daughter’s attitude and/or actions, but judging her won’t help me guide her appropriately. Labelling her, even if it is only in my head, as immature, picky, drama queen, or other is a waste of energy and time. She behaves in ways that don’t always help her or that sometimes create unpleasant moments at school and at home, but it is part of her learning process. When I bring my judgement to the situation, I just add negative emotion to it.

In my studies of the Bhagavad Gita, I have been trying to understand two concepts: swa-dharma and swa-bhava (2:31, 3:35, 18:47). From what I understand, swa-bhava could be translated as each person’s inner nature composed by aptitudes and attitudes, and swa-dharma is each person’s personal duty or purpose in life and it is directly connected to swa-bhava. It is taking for me some time to fully understand these two concepts, but I think that they mean that according to our attitudes and aptitudes, we bring a specific “flavour” to the roles we play in life.

I believe this concepts are taught in the Karma yoga tradition for self-reflection of our role in life, but I think that reflecting in swa-bhava as a mum can be useful too. If I stop and observe my daughter, I can see that she is active, she is social, she is caring and somewhat insecure. She needs a lot of love and attention and can be quite impulsive. I am trying now to keep these and other of her character traits in mind when challenging situations arise, and avoid trying to push her to think like I do and get all frustrated when she doesn’t. I have an example. I want all my three kids to get into the habit of reading. They sometimes read, but it is definitely not an activity they choose above others. We take regular trips to the library, and they always read there, but they don’t always want to bring a book home. The other day, we went into a book store, and I agreed to buy between one and two books to each one of them (they were on sale). She picked four, and I reminded her of my “rule” but she wasn’t satisfied with this rule (of course not). I looked at the books she had chosen and asked if she thought we could find some of them at the public library to borrow. She agreed to leave one, but still wanted three. Since her sister had only found one that she really wanted to read, I agreed to buy the three of them as I know they all end up sharing books. Until then, everything was ok but then, the weirdest (or what I think is the weirdest) thing happened. As I was standing in line to pay for the books, she looked more and more unsatisfied. After I had payed, I asked her, what what was going on? Was it because of the fourth book? I suggested we walk to the library and borrow it, but for my big surprise, she was thinking about something else. She was sulking because her sister had gotten a new bike this summer and not her, and because she wanted a new lock for her bike and she didn’t get one. In addition, her sister keeps borrowing her toys forgetting to return them to her room… To be honest, the first label that came to my mind is “ungrateful”, but I know that spitting out this word, would only make it worse. So, what is my role here? Well, in the old yogic thinking, I think that my role was just to point out how we can, at any situation, focus on what is wrong or choose to focus on what is good. I didn’t get angry, but I just said that I could see how the joy of getting three new books was overshadowed by the thought of not having a new bicycle. She had made that choice, and I could understand her frustration of wanting something new, but I would like her to consider whether she needed it or not. Sometimes we want something that we really don’t need. I told her that I love her, and that I wasn’t angry, and I stopped talking. I don’t know if this made any impact on her, but at least I didn’t get all worked up because of her “ungratefulness”. I just pointed out what I observed can be a bad pattern for herself, and let it marinate in her head. That is my role, I believe.

I must confess that I don’t always know how to react to certain behaviours from my kids but I believe my role in their life is to empower them as they are and maybe help them see the attitudes and behaviours that stand in the way for their thriving, but not to try to make them fit into my box of ideas. It is actually fun to try to be more observant of their different personalities and find ways to harmonise with them instead of keep hitting the wall with my old patterns of behaviour towards them.

I know for example that my son is easily scared when it comes to illnesses and injuries. The other day, we went to this trampoline park and my son was trying a new trick. I was playing with the other two when he suddenly came running towards us with his eyes wide open and fell on the floor beside me. It looked like he couldn’t breathe and I could see he was scared, but we wasn’t pale or blue (as if he wasn’t really breathing). I have to say that the floor disappeared for a moment under my feet and I felt a bit dizzy, but I very fast realised that it wouldn’t help him if I panicked. So I took a deep breath, and asked him to do the same. I asked him to look at me and tell me what he was feeling, but he was unable to respond. So I just continued talking to him as calmly as I could. It turns out, it wasn’t anything serious, but he had fallen hard on his back and experienced a sharp pain in his chest and was afraid he had broken his neck . My role in that moment was to stay calm for him, to try to calm him down. I think my role was to balance the situation by not to making him feel bad because of his reaction but not to scaring him more by over reacting. After a little while, his sisters went back to jumping around and having fun while my son and I sat and chat. When we finally were on our way back home, I did bring up what I observed and said that he has a tendency to let fear take over. I said that it is ok, and I am happy I was there to help him through it, but that he needs to gradually work with it, so fear doesn’t take over when he needs to stay calm. I did say that I was maybe as scared as he was, but I knew I had to stay calm to help him calm down, and that it has required a lot of practice and effort from me manage to do so.

It is curious to think how different we all at the same time as how alike we all are. We go around with different attitudes and aptitudes, different perceptions, different patterns of behaviour, but in the end, we all want the same. We want to be seen, we want to be appreciated and we want to feel safe and free. I think, some of us need more of one or another, but we all need all of them.

I think that we do ourselves and the people around us a favour by acknowledging that we all have different personalities and try to work around them instead of getting all frustrated because we don’t act and react the same way. I think that the idea of learning about swa-bhava is merely to encourage us to get to know ourselves well so we know how we act and react at all times, but also to help us decide where we need to make some adjustments to live a more skilful and peaceful life. We all know that we cannot change others but we can try to understand others better, and when it comes to our kids, we do have the opportunity to at least help them see which aspects of their personality aren’t helping them, but at the end of the day, it will be their choice to change them or not.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?), there is no perfect parent, but we can at least be conscious parents by being clear about what our role in the life of our kids is (and this clarity is different from parent to parent) and try to act accordingly. I have many fears related to this huge role, probably the most important role I have in life, but I can’t let my fears dominate me, right? So I learn as I go, and in the meantime, I hope I don’t make too much damage.

Every year, I set myself as a goal, to let the overflow of energy during the summer break help me correct some of the useless patterns of attitudes and behaviours I have towards my kids. It does help, but I need to keep reminding myself, and when I’m tired, it is very easy to fall back to the old again. So another lesson to learn? Make sure to rest enough and have enough energy everyday to be a good version of myself when I am with them.

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.

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…

Self-sufficiency – the yoga practice is not always a walk in the park.

An important aspect of the spiritual practice of yoga is the concept of self-sufficiency and self-responsibility. The practice should guide us little by little to the realisation that the source of love, peace and freedom comes from inside ourselves and not from the external world. Once we manage to detach from the idea that the outer world should fulfil these three basic needs, we can reach an independent state of contentment.

Therefore, we are encouraged to make sure that the intention at the base of our actions and interactions is not a need for validation of the ego or to satisfy emotional needs.

During the last six months, I have been more observant of my actions and interactions, and I can honestly say that when I manage to detach from my need of a reward from the outer world, I can act from a place of peace and the end result doesn’t affect me as much as before especially when it is not what I perceive as in my favor. It requires that at every moment, I ask myself what is the nature of the role I am playing and what is required by me in that role.

Needless to say, this is a quite difficult practice, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships. The unconscious principle of trade is so embedded in me. When I give good, I expect to receive good back. On this note, a fun exercise is to remember that what I perceive as good might not be received or perceived as good on the other end. Or maybe not as good enough.

I recently had an episode with my husband where I went back to the idea that he never actually sees me. The feeling is that I do my part in our partnership, I work with myself to be a positive member of our family by observing my attitudes and trying to adjust them not to add stress and distress to our everyday life. Still, at times, I feel like I am completely invisible, and what is worse, whenever I say something that is perceived as silly or incorrect, I can then be sure to be noticed and not necessarily in a way that I appreciate. The amount of fun my ‘silliness’ can bring to the table is limitless. Joke after joke about what I said. I know there are no bad intentions behind this, but I did notice myself getting upset about it recently.

I am trying to be more assertive and to communicate in a positive way, so I took this up. I explained that in my view, in a relationship, there needs to be a certain balance between positive and negative attention. I can take criticism and even be made fun of at as long as from time to time, I feel appreciated too.

The response from my husband was positive, but this episode stayed in my mind, as it often does when something upsets me. I kept asking myself, am I right? Is it just my perception? Am I being needy?

I don’t have very concrete answers, but I did come to one sort of conclusion. There is of course, no harm on being assertive, but if I really want to be self-sufficient, I could say that sometimes, I attach to my role as a wife and what I believe I am entitled to in that role. If I detach from from it, I would then be ok with what is because 1) I don’t need anyone’s actions to validate me. 2) Maybe I am being appreciated all the time but I don’t see it.

I have another example. As a middle school teacher, I work with teenagers. They are lovely kids, but from time to time, like any teenager, they push the limits. One thing that I have observed really pushes my buttons is respect. Whenever I perceive my students being disrespectful, I struggle to keep my cool, especially if I am tired. After reflecting a lot about this, I came to one way to deal with it. As a teacher, I believe it is my duty to teach my students certain important values that will allow them to live peacefully in any society, and respect is one of them. Whenever they are disrespectful, I can react in a much more skilful way if I detach emotionally from the situation and react only in my role as a guide and mentor. So, it is not my hurt ego responding, or my need to be respected by others. I respond as someone that is supposed to guide them through their years at our school. I must confess that I am still practicing this, but when I manage, I reduce the amount of stress to zero, and I believe it benefits both me and the concerned student(s).

When I started experimenting with these ideas, I had a period where I felt disconnected and maybe even distant from all and everyone. It kind of scared me. Was I becoming like a robot? I felt like I was building a wall between me and the rest of the world.

It is too early to say whether I am or not becoming a robot (he he), but as I continue experimenting with these attitudes towards life, I feel some sort of calmness growing inside me, and at times a stronger feeling of connectedness. I can even say that I feel compassion when I am challenged by someone because I can see where my emotions come from, I can accept them instead of reject them, and I can show understanding for the other person’s behaviour since I know how challenging it can sometimes be to interact with others when we live trapped in our own perceptions, needs and expectations.