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.

What if?

– Dedicated to a dear friend

What if
The very thing
You believe you're missing
The very thing
You keep chasing
The very thing
You believe will make you happy
The very thing
That is holding you back
The very thing
That is draining you from energy
The very thing
That is standing on your way
Pure contentment
True happiness
To drop it
That very thing
Let it go
And then
Stand still
Be quiet
You will discover
How complete you are
That very thing

Aversion, the other face of attachment

Abhyasa and vairagya are two very important principles for the yoga practitioner. Very simplified abhyasa means practice and this encompasses the daily sadhana, but also practicing the teachings of yoga at every moment in the practical life. Vairagya is often translated as detachment. The less we cling to, the less disturbances we create in our mind, the clearer we live our lives and most importantly, the closer we come to the core of who we are.

The principle of detachment really makes sense to me, and therefore during the last five years, I’ve observed myself, and tried to detach from what does not serve me in my spiritual path. I have had to be quite honest with myself and let go of what causes disturbances in my mind. I am constantly looking at what I do, what I want, and what I possess, and I ask myself if this is a priority, or if I can let it go. This can be things, activities, relationships, habits…

The idea of detachment is not that we stop engaging with the world, on the contrary, we engage maybe even more wholeheartedly but with awareness. Without clinging into it.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the other face of attachment: aversion, and I have discovered that this one causes maybe even more trouble in my mind and in my practical life. There are different levels of it, the highest probably being hate or resentment. When we go around thinking bad of others, we can physically feel how it affects us, our heartbeat increases, our body feels restless, we feel generally unwell. A dear friend of mine once said in one of her workshops, hate is like eating poison and hoping for the other person to die. It really eats us up.

Luckily for me, I don’t hate anyone, but I do have resentment towards things people have done that have hurt me. I have been aware of that kind of aversion for some time now, and I constantly work with it. It helps me to think that people act out of their own perspectives and needs, just like I do, even if this sometimes means that they hurt others, just like I’ve done.

When it comes to the ‘lower’ degrees of aversion, I know now for a fact that I have a tendency to panic in moments of unpleasantness, either created by my emotions, situations or people around me. This often leads to me acting impulsively to get out of the unpleasant feeling making things worse.

Reacting with aversion to unpleasant situations is, of course, part of our instincts, and it is useful when we are in danger, but let’s be honest, in our everyday life, how many times are we in real danger?

Form now on, I will observe myself in moments where aversion arises and try to work with it by 1) Not reacting impulsively to it 2) Being courageous and sit with the feeling 3) Trying to understand where the aversion comes from and see if I can make some small adjustments in my perceptions and life in general. My yoga teacher often says that it is the people and situations that challenge us that teach us the biggest lessons about ourselves.

To achieve this, abhyasa is a very important element. During my sadhana (=daily practice which for me is sitting with myself), I can practice sitting with the unpleasantness, by using my breath to calm the mind and not feed into the feeling with analyses and judgements. And for the rest of the day, remind my limited mind that it is ok, unpleasantness is not the end of the world, it is trying to tell me something about myself and the way I interact with the world.

What does good and bad actually mean?

We all have our stories, our dreams and our deep inner landscapes from which our actions and reactions to life arise. By shining the light of conscious awareness onto the deep within, we can begin to evaluate whether our reactions to life are serving us skillfully and, if not, begin to adopt new strategies and cultivate new habitual patterns. It all begins with the stories within: Change the stories or understand them in a new light and we can change what happens on the surface of our personalities.” Bernie Clark in From Gita to the Grail

We all have our stories, dreams and deep inner landscapes that have been formed by experiences and the environment we live in. We all have our own convictions and perspectives that influence our choices, attitudes, and behaviors and thus allow us to function in the external world.

A keyword in this citation is “skillfully”. I think that in the Yoga context, this means that if our actions and reactions to life are skillful, they will bring us closer to who we really are and by that closer to an independent state of inner peace. When we cultivate this inner peace we are then naturally in harmony with the world around us.

I invite you to reflect on your convictions and perceptions and see which ones allow you to act skillfully in the world and which ones represent a challenge.

Perceptions can represent a challenge for our inner peace when we are so attached to them that we are unable to see what is happening around us, when we are unable to adapt, when we keep experiencing the same problems because of these perceptions, when they lead us towards separateness by believing that we are right and others are wrong, or when we try to convince others that our own perception is the correct one.

I was recently listening to one of my teacher’s lectures where he says: the whole distress in the world is just a collision of perceptions. He said this in the context of detachment to find evenness of mind as he was elaborating on the teachings from the Bhagavad Gita.

What does detachment have to do here? Well, the more we are attached to our perceptions, the more difficult it is to interact with the external world because we have a premade image of it in our minds either by expectations or by judgments. The more we are attached to our perceptions, the more we operate in the duality of right and wrong, and the more distress we create in our minds.

I must confess that while reflecting on this, I had to laugh about myself because I realized how sure I often am of my perceptions and how it gets on the way between me and people around me. I have been so sure about me having the right attitude, the right idea, the right perception as opposed to the others who were wrong. But who gets to decide what is right and what is wrong? And even more, who gives me the right to judge?

Certain things that I have done in my life are difficult to understand from where I stand today, but I can see that they are the product of my stories, my dreams, and my deep inner perspectives at that time. This must mean that I will experience the same in some years when I look back at some of my actions from today. This experience can only encourage me to be more tolerant and understanding towards people when they act in ways that I perceive as harmful, hurtful or “wrong”. They too have their own stories and needs that influence the way they perceive the world and they act accordingly.

Another important point when it comes to the topic of perceptions is the perception other people have about us. I know I have struggled with this one, especially because of my sometimes explosive character. I consider myself a kind person with good intentions, but if you push my buttons on a bad day, you will perceive something else. I believe in the importance of apologizing and working with myself so impatience and frustration don’t take over, but I now think that most of the time, the perception others have of me is somewhat independent of me, and I should not spend time and energy trying to change it. What I should be spending my time and energy on is to cultivate a clear and peaceful mind so when I act, I act from a space of harmony. This way I can be at peace with myself regardless of what happens on the outside.

So again, I believe there is nothing wrong with having convictions and perceptions, we need them to function in the world, but if we keep experiencing distress because of them, we might benefit from reflecting on them to see them on another light as Bernie Clark suggests and even change them to make adjustments in our actions and reactions.

Anger and other ‘difficult’ emotions

” […]there is an incremental experience of greater freedom as we discover ever more self-control, sensitivity, and awareness that permit us to live the life we aspire to, one of decency; clean, honest human relations; goodwill and fellowship; trust; self-reliance; joy in the fortune of others; and equanimity in the face of our own misfortune.” Iyengar, B.K.S.. Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom.

Emotions fascinate me. Where do they come from? Why do they have so much control over us?  Are they caused by external circumstances?

Or are they all part of our internal storytelling? I think I could write pages and pages about this topic, but I’ll try to stick to two things: how I understand emotions through the lens of my Yoga studies and practice, and techniques to put down the fire when it is at its worst.

Negative emotions. Most of us consider anger as a negative emotion because it feels unpleasant and it can lead to conflict. I personally don’t like to get angry and for many years I’ve tried very hard and with little success not to get angry. So how about going a bit deeper into this emotion? Maybe if we get a better personal understanding of why we experience anger, we can make some changes. I challenge you to be open-minded when you read this and play a little game with your mind.

What makes you angry? We can maybe say that most of the time, the degree of our anger is related to the situation. So let’s start at what for me is level 1.

Anger coming from everyday life’s small frustrations: missing the bus, my kids not being ready to leave the house in the morning, no more coffee in the thermos at the staff room when I really want a coffee… These are “easy” to deal with, right?

Where does the frustration/anger come from in these situations? The gap between my expectations and what life is offering me.

I want coffee -> there is no coffee = I get frustrated. And what would be the easiest way to vent that frustration? I get angry at my colleagues because they never make coffee but they always drink the coffee.  Added to the small frustrations from the morning, this might be the one that makes my mind go wild, and I might send an angry email to all my colleagues complaining about their behavior. Which will most probably end up with me regretting the tone in the email afterward.

How can Yoga teachings help me here? It is a fun mental game and the keyword is detachment. I have first to detach from the situation. The fact that there is no coffee. Take a step back. Is this something that my colleagues directly do towards me? Most probably not. So, it’s not personal, I can relax a bit. But it is unfair, right? I always make coffee and they don’t! Regardless of whether this is true or not (most probably not), we can apply detachment here too. Detachment from my expectations towards my colleagues. Of course, there is no harm at all on bringing this issue up at some point and ask everyone to remember to make coffee when they drink the last drop, but if the thermos keeps being empty when I want coffee, what do I win by still expecting people to make more?

Another level of detachment in this situation would be that since I am so fond of the coffee and I like being a positive member of my community, I decide to make coffee twice a day every day, and don’t expect any reward for this like the thermos having coffee when I want a coffee, or even a thank you from anyone. This is part of the essence of Karma Yoga actually: do your work with a clear intention and detach from the desire of the outcome being as you expect it to be. I can ‘sacrifice’ myself for the wellbeing of the whole and make coffee for everyone.

Or, I can start bringing my thermos from home if this is not an area in my life where I want to make sacrifices. Thus I am accepting that the thermos is often empty, adapting to the situation by bringing my thermos and letting go of the frustration that, let’s face it, is mainly affecting my inner peace.

Now let’s look at anger caused by something bigger than everyday frustrations. Here too, I invite you to be curious and to play a bit with your mind.

Remember that we don’t win much by labeling emotions as negative.  What we see as negative or difficult emotions can, in reality, be opportunities for us to learn something new about ourselves. Anger, for example, can be triggered to remind us of what our boundaries are. It can also be triggered by fear, or even by tiredness. An experiment I consider interesting when I get angry (and when I manage to not act on it) is to turn my attention inwards, because I have come to realize that most of the time, I cannot change situations or the way people act, so the only thing I can do is to be curious about the processes that happen in my mind. I try to be very honest with myself and often, the anger diminishes if I change my perspective on things.

Here, like on level 1 detachment is a good tool. Detach from the situation as it being directed towards you. Even if it is. We all live in our own minds and act accordingly. If you can acknowledge that those around you want the same as you, mainly happiness, love, and peace, and that they might at times be as confused as you often are, well, it is not that strange that they sometimes act in ways that you consider hurtful.

Detachment from expectations is a good tool here too. The idea you have in your head of how people should behave will most probably never resemble reality and then it gets distorted by your perception and interpretation of it. Adapt your expectations. Here again, you can communicate your needs, talk, but expecting others to change is a tiring experience.

And the last one that I personally struggle a lot with is: detach from the desire of the outcome of your actions being as you imagined it to be. Be kind to others, give love to others and every day erase the addition you make in your head. If you really want to achieve internal freedom, this one is crucial. Very difficult, but crucial.

Lastly, there are situations where an emotion is so strong that we cannot work with it right away. Here are some things you can do in the heat of the moment to calm the mind:

  • Don’t reject the emotion but don’t feed into it either. To do this, you focus on the sensations in your body when you experience this emotion, try to slow down by breathing deeper, especially when you exhale and whenever your mind starts making stories go back to focusing on your body and/or your breath.
  • Show compassion and understanding to the person that is experiencing the emotion, that means YOU, but again, without feeding into it. Without justifying and explaining why you “have the right to be angry”. Like you would talk to a good friend, talk nicely to yourself, say that you understand, that you are there for yourself.
  • Imagine that this emotion is something you can hold. Hold it carefully and gently. Give it attention like you would give to a little child when its hurt, and when you’re ready, gently let it go.

And when the fire is out, remember to take the time to learn something new about yourself, and hopefully, next time anger shows its face, it won’t take control over you.