We all do as good as we can

-and if not, can we understand and forgive each other?

Some days ago, my youngest daughter who is almost twelve was very upset. She felt she had messed up with some of her friends and wanted some advice. She is friends with especially two girls in our neighbourhood. One of them had just gotten a kitten, and the other one was still on vacation with her family. The latter had sent my daughter a message asking her how the new kitten was, and she replied by talking about the kitten but also added her opinion on how the youngest children in the family are behaving around the cat. It wasn’t a nasty message, but seen from the outside, it was an unnecessary comment.

What happened next was that the receiver of the message shared my daughter’s message with the kitten owner, and not surprisingly, she was upset. She then wrote an upset message to my daughter asking her why she was criticising her siblings.

My daughter understood what she had done, and didn’t know how to fix it, so she came to me. Beside repeating to her two golden rules I once read to keep away from drama: 1) Talk with people and not about people and 2) Avoid having a conflict by mail/messaging, I asked my daughter, what the intention of her message was. Was it to gossip? Was it to criticise her friend? She wasn’t sure about her intention, but she acknowledged that it wasn’t kind. So, I told her the easiest thing to do was to then go to our neighbour’s house and apologise directly. She was afraid of meeting her friend’s mum. I told her I understood her fear, and that all she could do was to say ‘I’m sorry’, to take responsibility of what she did and accept that the people involved might be annoyed.

It all turned out well. Her friend accepted her apology, and the next day they were out playing as if nothing had happened. It wasn’t a big ‘crime’ my daughter had committed. However, this episode kept me thinking about two things that I find very important in my interactions with other people:

  1. The importance of being clear about my intention behind my actions
  2. Having the courage to face the consequences of my actions.

The first one, is one of the main principles of Karma Yoga, and I find it so helpful. When I am clear about the intention behind my action, I can be at peace with myself even if the result of the action is unexpected or even unpleasant because ideally, the intention behind my action was thought through. When I however act from impulse, emotion or anger, I can also go back to my intention, acknowledge it and accept the consequences. This can be scary because I don’t like conflict, but if I show up with an attitude of humbleness, I feel I am doing what I can do to straighten things up. All I can do, is learn from the experience and move on.

I know it is not that simple because it requires that the other part has the ability and willingness to show understanding and sometimes even forgive. I know from own experience that it is not always that easy. I have been on the other side too. Feeling frustrated, confused, hurt or even insulted but it is easier if I manage to take a step back and tell to myself that we are all doing as good as we can.

They key is to be a good communicator. I think it is often important to let others know how their actions affect us so we give them the opportunity to reflect. After that, what they choose to do is out of our hands and ideally should be out of our head for our own peace of mind.

We planned to meet my husband’s parents this summer close to a national park called Rondane. We know they are fond of hiking and so are we. I checked possible places to stay, and I chose a place that had good reviews. The description of the cabin I booked seemed just quite right for seven people, and the place had a quality certificate given nationwide for good food. To our big surprise, the cabin was much shabbier than expected and since the place is run by one man alone, things are not always perfect. He does everything! No other staff whatsoever. From day one, we had the impression that something is not quite as it should be. He seems forgetful and a bit lost in space to be honest. In my opinion, something unforeseen must have happened this year or in the last couple of years. When I read his website, it seems like it was a pretty well run and successful place.

Even though the cabin did not meet my expectations, especially thinking about what I had thought would be comfortable for my in-laws, it was still possible to live there and have a good time together. Seeing that my in-laws didn’t really mind the place and seemed more or less comfortable, we decided not to spend time and energy complaining or even trying to find another place to stay in. Since we made that choice, I then decided to show some understanding towards the man. There is no point on staying and be irritated all the time. During our stay, we heard many people complain, a family even left the place before they had planed to and refused to pay for the time they spent there. I totally understand them too. Summer vacation is important for all of us. There is a lot of expectations connected to it. It is a time where we want to relax, have a good time with our family. We save for it, spend money on it, and time to travel where we want to be.

I decided that even if I think the man that runs the place is doing as good as he can, he needs to know how his actions affect others. I decided to not make our stay unpleasant by complaining, but I will write a letter to explain how the place wasn’t as it should be and suggesting he improves. I know that if we come back to this area, we won’t be staying here, and I unfortunately won’t recommend the place either. This is not good for him and the place he runs.

So what is my point here? My point is that it is important to constantly be aware of what the intentions behind our actions are, and to be willing to be held accountable for them. Constantly reflecting on what we do and how we do it gives us the opportunity to also acknowledge that we are all doing as good as we can. This allows us to be less judgemental towards others. But this does not mean that we don’t speak up when other people’s actions affect us in a negative way. To continue cultivating a peaceful state of mind, we can then find a way to express ourselves that invite to reflection and dialogue instead of conflict which brings us back to the principle of intention. When we speak up, what is the intention behind it?

Peaceful mind through uplifting attitudes

Both in the Bhagavad Gita and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali we find practical advice and techniques to cultivate a calmer state of mind. The beauty of it is that not only do we attain a more stable state of inner peace, we also contribute to a more harmonious and peaceful environment which in turn help us keep our mind calmer and clearer.

In the Gita chapter 6 we read:

6:8 “He is a supreme yogi who regards with equal-mindedness all men—patrons, friends, enemies, strangers, mediators, hateful beings, relatives, the virtuous and the ungodly.” Yogananda, Paramahansa. God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita . Self-Realization Fellowship. Kindle Edition.

When we learn to meet all sorts of behaviours with equanimity, we are able to better deal with challenging ones. If we get caught up in our opinion, our experience and our feelings around the behaviour (our ego), we most probably end up wrapped up in a more complicated situation. The practice of meditation can give us the tools to keep this equanimity such as breathing exercises and the skill to observe both a situation and our thoughts before acting (instead of impulsively reacting). It is difficult not to judge a situation or react emotionally to something we perceive as ‘wrong’ or ‘unfair’ or ‘hurtful’, but it is possible to observe the emotional reaction arising, and control it before it translates into an action. We can try to tell ourselves that the behaviour is the result of the inner state of the person and has little or nothing to do with ourselves. We just happen to be the receptor. Furthermore, we can try to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. We are all trying to find some sort of happiness, some sort of feeling of fulfilment and purpose, and we act out of what we perceive, what we have experienced and what we know. We can recognise that we too have probably acted in hurtful ways in certain situations as a result of our limited thought process at the time.

If we manage to detach from our need to judge others and react emotionally to their behaviour, our mind is calmer and thus ready for the meditation practice. The less we attach our ego to other people’s actions in the everyday life, the less they will come and buzz in our head while we sit in silence. The calmer the mind, the closer we get to that inner state of ours that is undisturbed by outer circumstances. A lasting inner state of peace. The closer we get to that state, the calmer we are off our mat too. So you can say it’s a positive spiral.

We feel better, we deal with the world better, and we don’t make other people feel bad with our reactions.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we get more detailed advice:

1: 33 “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” Satchidananda, Swami. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—Integral Yoga Pocket Edition: Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda . Integral Yoga Publications.

The way I understand it, step nr1 to start working with our limiting thoughts is to try to replace them with uplifting thoughts. Uplifting attitudes are closer to our true nature than limiting ones, and they give us energy instead of draining us. Friendliness, compassion and delight are much better for us and for those around us than envy, jealousy and judgement. If we sit to meditate with a feeling of compassion, it is much easier to calm the mind, than if we sit with thoughts of judgement.

So, work on your thoughts and attitudes to calm your mind and thus create a more harmonious environment around you so you can live a calmer and more harmonious life.

Easier said than done, you say? I totally agree, but with practice, I think it is possible.

Lack of governance or lack emotional intelligence?

I just finished reading The Lord of The Flies by William Golding. I guess it belongs to the list of books one should have read at some point in life, but for some reason, I had never taken the courage to do so. I had heard about it as a teenager. A friend of mine had read it and she told me it was horrible. I kept that review in my mind for the rest of my life until this Fall when I started teaching Humanities in yr10 and our first unit is about Governance. The teacher that had created the curriculum for this class had the movie version as a possible way to introduce the unit, so I decided to read the book before eventually showing the movie.

The book is about a group of boys that end up in a deserted island after a plane crash and how they try to survive. The oldest kids are around fourteen, and the youngest are six or even younger. One of the older kids is picked as a leader early on in the story, but soon conflict arises between him and another boy of his same age who sees their survival in the island differently. Things turn quite ugly, and towards the end of the book, we read:

‘Nobody killed, I hope? Any dead bodies?’

‘Only two. And they’ve gone.’

The officer leaned down and looked closely at Ralph.

‘Two? Killed?’

Ralph nodded again. Behind him, the whole island was shuddering in flame […] For a moment he had a fleeting picture of the strange glaour that had once invested the beaches. But the island was scorched up like dead wood – Simon was dead – and Jack had… The tears began to flow and sobs shook him. He gave himself up to them now for the first time on the island […]

I couldn’t help but make the analogy between the island and the world we live in, between the boys and the whole humanity. Will we, in the near future look back and see the same destruction around us? Is this what is happening to us right now? Have we forgotten that we all are here for the same reason and that we are part of the whole? Are we so busy chasing God-knows-what that we don’t see the consequences of our actions?

I pushed those thoughts away and went for a walk. During my walk, I heard a talk with Dan Goleman on Action for Happiness about Emotional Intelligence, and throughout the walk/talk, I thought that maybe what the boys in the book lacked rather than governance was emotional intelligence. Step number one in emotional intelligence is to take the time to accept and understand our own emotions. This allows us to learn the art of taking a step back before acting out of impulse. If the older boys in the book had been able to take the time to acknowledge that they were scared and tired, they might have acted differently. What happened on the island is what often happens in human interactions, the mental creation of the ‘other’ who becomes such a big enemy that anything to ‘get rid’ of him is valid.

Over and over again, I am more and more convinced that if we are going to be able to make a change in the world, we need to start within ourselves. We have to take time to listen to our emotions, understand them, and change the behaviours that are not helping us to be in harmony with ourselves, the environment and other living beings. Feelings like fear, anger and jealousy are connected to our inner feeling of lack, of void, of insecurity which are very human. Everyone experiences them to some degree, and everyone tries to deal with them in different ways. If we learn to tap into our inner peace to fill in that void, we make the world a big favour. If we acknowledge our weaknesses and inner struggles, we are then able to accept those of the people around us. If we can show self-compassion, we can then show compassion to others.

I started wondering, how do we teach emotional intelligence to those who are not ready for it? I guess that we can start by being the example, but how can we help for example teenagers to be more aware of their feelings without it being so awkward that they push the whole idea away? Can emotional intelligence be taught or can it only be learned by own interest?

About discomfort

Thursday this week, I woke up to the exact same symptoms from two weeks ago. It was frustrating and slightly frightening after feeling quite okay for almost a week. It was a holiday, so all I could do was rest…again. Friday, I woke up feeling pretty much the same, so I decided to call the doctor. To my big disappointment and frustration, I was told that he had taken the long weekend off and that I could call back on Monday if I still felt unwell. This is typically Norway, I thought. You need to be dying for health workers to take you seriously.

After a wave of self-pity, I asked myself, are you seriously ill? Do you need to go to the hospital? Or is it just that it is very unpleasant? According to what my doctor told me two weeks ago, I am most probably suffering of something called vertigo, which is not life threatening. I went online and read about it, again, and the general advice is a good dose of rest and physical activity.

So I went back to bed. While lying in bed, I began to reflect about my ‘condition’. I felt exactly like two weeks ago. It was unpleasant, very unpleasant I have to say, but it wasn’t life threatening. I hadn’t fainted, I didn’t have a fever, I hadn’t gotten worse. I asked myself, what are you afraid of? The discomfort or is it fear of something else? It was just the discomfort the dizziness and nausea that was stopping me from getting out of bed. After resting for a while, I decided to get up, roll out my yoga mat, and try some soft movements paying attention to my breath and pausing long enough to feel how my body was responding. I ended up doing about an hour of soft yoga asana and breathing exercises, and then lied down to rest.

This encouraged me to try going for a walk later the same day. I asked two of my kids to ‘take me for a walk’ and off we went. I wonder if the people we met on our little stroll worried my kids were walking with a drunk woman because I couldn’t keep my walk very steady, but we made it. Half way through our walk, my son asked me, what happens if you stop focusing on the feeling of dizziness and rather focus on what you like so much in nature? Wise words. I tried, but it was very difficult, so I just tried to focus on our conversation and my breath.

I could go on and on on how I gradually and gently pushed myself out of bed and pretty much my comfort zone throughout the day and today, but my point here is actually how important it is to face what is unpleasant, what we don’t like. In this case, I know that what I have is not a serious illness, so it is ok to push my mind and my body to feel better. It was actually recommended to try to do some exercise.

How about other situations in life? I must confess that I try as hard as I can to stay away from unpleasant situations. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like what I see as my challenging emotions. So what do I do? I often try to avoid unpleasant situations, and push my challenging emotions away. Does it help? Well, sometimes for a short period of time, but they do come back. I need to learn to be with what is without necessarily wanting to fix it or push it away. Unpleasant situations can sometimes lead to growth, to a better understanding, or to a breakthrough. My challenging emotions are a reflection of my own perceptions and an invitation to create inner clarity. I need to ask myself if what I feel is really so important for me that need to go through the unpleasant moment to try to do something about what triggered the emotion in the first place, or if I can change my perception and let go of the emotion.

I have now learned that these episodes of severe vertigo don’t last that long, and that I can deal with them quite ok. I will go back to my doctor if they don’t disappear in some weeks, but at least they have given me the opportunity to 1) be thankful for my daily yoga asana practice that is teaching me to trust in my body and use my breath to get through unpleasant moments 2) reflect on how fast I tend to reject discomfort 3) keep adjusting the balance between activity and rest…