Slow progress that often feels like going backwards

First, in January, I wanted to quit my job and do something else. I came to a point where I felt that I had had enough of the high tempo, the stress and the increasing demands of being a teacher. I felt that I wasn’t qualified for these demands and that I probably wasn’t skilled enough to have this job. I started seeking for a new job. I thought I could change professions. Maybe become a baker (I am not kidding), or something “more practical”.

When I calmed down, I realized I do like my job and I wondered if the problem is not the job in itself but the attitude I have towards it. Yes, it is demanding, yes I am often running against the clock, but a lot of the stress comes from my constant worry of not doing things “good enough”, my anxiety of not being “as good as”, and believing that I have to solve all these challenges and problems that my students encounter in and outside school. However, if I tone down the “I”, the job becomes lighter. If I try to see each situation as it is and not as something related to me, it makes it easier to deal with it. It also helps to have a more pragmatic approach to the job. In a day, I have the time I have to do my work, and if the tasks keep piling up all I can do is prioritize and the rest can wait. Maybe most importantly, do my job with the right attitude but avoid putting my worth in my job. Stop worrying about how I am perceived by my students and their parents and rather concentrate on why I do things as I do.

The second semester turned out to be less stressful. I want to believe it was partly because of my change of attitude.

However, shortly after that, my worries about my kids and marriage started. I must say that I have to laugh when I think about it, but I haven’t been laughing much related to that during the last few months. And the same questions kept coming just in another setting, am I doing enough? Have we done enough? We should have this and we should have that. Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we have that? Why is our relationship like this and not like that? Why am I not able to fix all these?

From the self-blame ride, I slowly but steadily move towards the ‘other-is-to-blame’ ride. This other is, of course, my husband, and as usual, when I get caught in this way of thinking the spiral goes downwards.

Luckily for me, I was invited to take part in a group to study the Upanishads through the guidance of my Yoga teacher, Prasad, and with some time, mindful silence and reflection, I managed to remember that I tend to get caught up in a big mental knot. Do you see the same pattern as with the job? I do! Self-doubt, an exagerated sense of responsibility, and what I think is pure and simple a restless mind that for some weird reason likes to invent drama.

To begin with, it annoys me that I still get into this negative spiral and don’t manage to get out of it before I make a big deal about things, but I feel at the same time that these mini-crises have their purpose. They allow me to see better my patterns of thinking and thus adjust my attitudes and actions.

I see that my husband and I dread having “difficult” conversations. I thought it was just him, but I am the same. The minute I sense some resistance from his side, I give up, or I give in. I need to gather the courage to push a bit more, to argue and listen, and maybe the answer is still not the one I want to hear but at least we have a better understanding of what we think or want.

I think we are in a transition period as a family and also as a couple. Our kids are getting older. We need to make some changes in the way we “run” the house, and in the way we see the kids and we see ourselves. We need to accept that they have to make certain choices that we don’t agree with, but we also need to be clearer about what we stand for. I tend to worry that the kids don’t feel like we care enough and maybe sometimes give in to things they ask for that go against what my husband and I believe in or sometimes even can afford. But my husband made me realise today that the most important has been to have a safe home for them to grow up in where we are present. At least we have managed that and the basics like schooling and having healthy routines, the rest, is just a bonus. And let’s face it, they are teens now so no matter what we say and do, they will be in some opposition, it is part of growing up and growing out of our home.

It is nice to know that we both want to live a simpler life. We both find meaning in slowing down, being in contact with nature, staying physically active, eating what we believe is healthy, and otherwise, trying to enjoy life. We both want to be more in contact with friends and family. Each on our side, we have noticed that we have isolated ourselves from people because we have been overwhelmed for years by the day-to-day life, but we believe that one of the points of being here must be to have close relationships that keep teaching us lessons about ourselves and others. To help each other.

So, I still get caught up in the mess of my mind, and keep forgetting to go inward when things feel heavy and overwhelming, but luckily, I do manage to change my perspective and learn from it. For that, I am thankful, and I have to say that this is thanks to the practice and study of Yoga.

Things are not and will never be perfect, everything is in constant change, and I am more and more convinced that the best way to go is towards silence beyond the noise of my mind.

The same but different

You might have heard this quote before:

“Hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting them to die.”

I can’t remember when I heard this quote the first time. I think it was one of my fellow Yoga students during my YTT in 2015 who shared it with us at some point, and I think it is rather paraphrasing something that is often attributed to the Buddha. Regardless of who said it (or not), I have found this quote useful ever since then.

I praise myself lucky because I don’t hate anyone. However, there are of course people that have or still trigger me, and throughout the years I have been practicing and studying Yoga, I have been constantly working with my attitudes towards people around me.

This month, I am studying for the first time the Upanishads through the guidance of my teacher, Prasad Rangnekar, and one of my favorite concepts is the idea that we all are part of the same whole, which in Yoga is often translated to Universal consciousness or Brahman, and that it is through our experience of mind and physical body that we create the illusion of separation, or individuality.

Furthermore, we all have the same need to find lasting peace, love, and freedom, and we seek it in different places and in different ways. Our interactions with the world around us are mainly motivated by an often unconscious seeking to feel ‘whole’ (or loved, or safe, or free) and our actions are tainted by our limited perceptions of who we are and the world around us.

Therefore, I often strive toward removing the I from a situation and focusing on the action itself, trying to understand where it comes from. Try to understand the thinking process that might have been at the source of the action. I often end up feeling some sort of connection with the other person, some sort of understanding. I see myself in them and understand that just like them, I act out of my mind in ways that maybe others don’t understand either.

If you think about it, most of what we do is a result of what we feel and think and has very little to do with the person in front of us. The person just happens to be the receiver of our actions. In the same way, I am receiving something from someone but the I is almost irrelevant. It could have been someone else at my place, but for some reason, fate put us on the same path and I can learn something from it.

The challenge for me is often when I feel people don’t ‘try hard enough’, or when I feel I have done my best, and still the reaction is what I perceive as negative or unfair. But it helps me to remember that my best is not your best and your best is not the neighbour’s best. Also, all I can do is act mindfully and with a clear intention, and the response is out of my hands. This is one of the main principles of Karma Yoga which I really like, and I have already written quite a lot about. What I know about Karma Yoga, I have learned through the studies of the Bhagavad Gita, mainly chapters 2 and 3, but this week, we learned a little bit more through the study of Isha Upanishad, which added a useful tool to guide our actions:

  1. Sattvik Karma (righteous actions): actions that are morally right.
  2. Paropkara Karma (selfless actions): actions that are done selflessly.

No matter how I perceive the actions of others, if I go back to either 1 or 2 for my next step, I will be able to find peace of mind.

When I move my attention inwards, in all situations, I find peace faster. I ask myself questions such as why do I react to this so strongly? Why is this challenging me? How can I identify myself with this person? Where could this action come from? What can I learn from this?

It requires (self-)reminders and practice, but it works, and in all cases, it helps me move emotionally away from the situation and recenter myself… in myself.

And those who see all beings in the Self and the Self in all beings has no hatred by virtue of that realization. – Isha Upanishad shloka 6

Transferring skills

I love working with my hands. Ever since I was a kid, I think. The difference is that when I was little, and as a young adult, I had a fixed mindset when it comes to handcraft and art. I somehow believed that either you were born with the talent to do something or you didn’t so I didn’t explore much since I often felt that I wasn’t good enough.

In the last ten or fifteen years, however, I have learned to knit, sew and bake my own bread. Last summer, I started baking with sourdough, and it is by far my favorite way to bake bread. I love how, since I bake every single day, I am starting to ‘understand’ the dough. When it is ‘happy’, when I should let it rest, when it needs more water or more flour. In most handcrafts, with experience, one learns to feel the material one is working with, and how to make the best out of it. It is the same when I sew using old garments. It is a process of exploring the fabric, the shape the garment already has, and figuring out, what is the best way to approach the task. What can this become?

I was talking with a friend about it this week. She’s a great painter, and she was telling me that the work I have been doing on living a more mindful life most probably is benefiting my handcraft skills. Maybe. I have a more relaxed approach to what I make. If it doesn’t work, I will learn something and try again. I do spend time observing and feeling in between my fingers and deciding how is the best way to continue. I am not an excellent seamstress… yet, nor a knitter … yet, and I am still experimenting with my bread, but all these activities bring me calmness and joy, and a feeling of achievement

So I told my friend I wished I had the same feeling when it comes to human interactions. Especially in my role as a teacher. The biggest challenge with human interactions to me is that we talk, and things go way too fast. I have developed the skill to see people and understand their needs, but communication is still tough. I find myself often being misunderstood or wanting to say something and then something else comes out of my mouth. Maybe I don’t have as much patience with people as I have with my dough, and I want to develop it. Maybe, I need to get past the words to feel the other person and myself and act more skillfully. Maybe, just like with any handcrafted project, I need to know when to put it down for a while to let ideas come to me.

This week, as I was about to start a yoga class, this quote popped up on my phone screen when I was searching for soothing music:

“Look past your thoughts, so you may drink the pure nectar of this moment” – Rumi

This is also what we do in yoga, we try to get past our thoughts to be with what is knowing that our deeper self (if I can call it like that) is the same as any other living being’s deeper self. If we manage this, we certainly ‘drink the pure nectar of this moment’.

Stress, self-inflicted or a result of our environment?…or both?

For the last seven years, ever since I started studying and practicing Yoga through the guidance of my teacher, Prasad Rangnekar, I have been working with myself whenever I experience stress.

I have had the belief that stress is something I experience because of my attitude to what is happening around me and the idea I have of myself, and that if I work with that, I would experience less or no stress.

I recently wrote about an email exchange that affected me emotionally. I was surprised and maybe a bit frustrated with my reaction to the emails I was receiving. I had to deal with my emotions during the whole weekend and to be honest, it was quite tiring. I kept telling myself that the person’s reaction to my first email was not my responsibility and that as long as I was at peace with the intention behind my email, I should be able to stay calm.

Through my studies in Karma Yoga, I have learned that my actions need to come from clear and pure intentions. I have learned too that what should occupy my mind is the why and the how of my actions but I do better by letting go of the results of those actions. Lastly, I have learned that my expectations towards the world around me can be the cause of my own stress and distress.

I use these ideas to try to have a more open relationship with the world. Whenever I experience an emotional reaction towards something that happens around me, I stop and find out which idea in me is causing the emotion. It has helped me calm my mind in many cases. It has helped me accept better what is happening and adapt instead of pushing.

However, during the last two weeks, something happened at work that I am struggling to deal with. I have felt stressed, frustrated, and angry. No matter how much I try to work with my mind, I have been unable to let go. What I am wondering about now is, yes, it is good that I work with my own mindset and try as much as possible to take resposibility for my emotional reactions, however, there are places and situations that generate stress, and maybe my responsibility towards myself is to know when enough is enough. As my teacher often says, taking responsibility for yourself doesn’t mean that you become a doormat. Maybe all the energy I am spending on dealing with my stress could be spent somewhere else in a more constructive way? I find it is important to recognize when accepting, adapting, and accomodating for my own mental health and the benefit of the whole is the most skillful thing to do, and knowing when to be assertive and maybe even leave the stressful situation/place altogether.

Maybe there comes a time in the spiritual development that we can deal with whatever without being affected by it, but I have to recognize that I am not there yet and that I need to stop exposing myself to what is affecting me so much.

What do you think?

Allow and give your mind a break

Whenever I am in a course or retreat with my Yoga teacher, Prasad, he reminds us to use the time we spend at the retreat to reflect about what we are learning, but avoid trying to solve our lives during that time. I have always interpreted this as an invitation to reflection and a warning against over-thinking.

Throughout the years I have been studying with Prasad, I have gradually learned to mentally put my life on hold for some days whenever I am at one of his courses or taking a silence retreat on my own. Surprisingly enough, I manage quite well to stop worrying about the things I usually worry, I don’t make any plans, I avoid ruminating about past events. The only times my everyday life pops up in my mind is through reflection on how I can apply what I learn in the course or retreat to my life to have a positive change.

Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been able to meet my teacher in person for over two years now, and the possibility to take silent retreats has also been limited during this time. I try as much as I can to create space for myself to slow down and reflect in everyday life, but my mind is used to going at a certain pace when I’m at home. It is more difficult to ‘tame’ it here. This means that during the last six months, I have been feeling the need to take a break. It is not a break from anyone or anything else than my own mind, and I have been going around believing that I can only do it if I get out of the daily routine, preferably on my own.

Yesterday, I took our daughter to a meeting with the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration (NAV). My husband and I had decided to apply for an assistant that can be with her a few hours a week and take her to one of her after school activities or maybe that can support her if she wants to start going out with people her age. People with PWS usually have such assistants. Some of them start at a young age to release the load from parents, but we had never really felt we needed it. However, our daughter is a teenager now, and we considered it important to start now because she will most probably need an assistant as an adult too.

Right before the meeting, I noticed our daughter getting into a bad mood, and when I asked what was going on, she managed to express her discontent with our plan of getting her an assistant. Once at the NAV office, she was clearly frustrated, and was answering the person who wanted to meet her in short phrases without even looking at her. I tried as much as I could to stay quiet and let them talk since the purpose of the meeting was for my daughter to talk about herself, but as the meeting went on and she clearly expressed she didn’t want to have an assistant, I felt I had to chip in and explain that this was meant as a measure to give her more freedom. But it didn’t help.

Our daughter can be considered as high functioning despite her PWS diagnosis , and this can be a big burden for her because she is aware of her struggles and knows that she’s different. At this age, she’s struggling to accept that she has different needs than her peers, and she has – like many teenagers, I would argue – a slightly distorted idea of what she can achieve independently. Because of her condition, we cannot trust that she won’t seek food when she’s not with someone who knows her. She can also get stuck in situations when something unforeseen happens or when she misunderstands a person or a situation. She can also be quite passive. If no one suggests her something to do, she can sit for a long period of time doing nothing. Especially this last aspect of her condition is what affects me the most as a mum because whenever I prioritise to do something else than to get her engaged in some sort of activity, I feel I am letting her down. Also for all these reasons, we would like her to have an assistant. Unfortunately for her, she cannot see this, and it is difficult to talk about it without making her feel bad.

So, during the meeting, I sat, most of the time, feeling tired, helpless and frustrated because I know that if she refuses to have an assistant, she won’t get it. I felt incapable of dealing with the situation other than stay calm, be quiet and let the person from NAV talk. She decided to finish the meeting saying that if my daughter doesn’t want an assistant, she cannot be forced to have one.

Many thoughts were flying in my head, and I was mainly wondering if it is right to allow a person with special needs to decide something that most probably won’t benefit her. Especially when she’s only 13 years old. But at some point, I told myself what I tell myself with my other two children, she’s an individual and she will have to live her own life. Yes, she’s only 13, and certain things we can still decide for her like her diet, when she goes to bed, how much time she spends on her screens, etc, but certain things she just has to decide herself and live with it. I also realised that maybe she’s happy not doing anything from time to time. Maybe the only one having a problem with that is me.

For the last five minutes or so of the meeting, I told myself ‘allow’. I sat and heard my daughter talk with the woman from NAV, and didn’t intervene, didn’t resist, avoided having an opinion. I had a similar feeling than when at one of my retreats with Prasad. I gave my mind a break. I stopped the movie of the possible future catastrophes that could happen if my daughter doesn’t have an assistant, I stopped the self-pity of how tired I sometimes am of being a mum of a special needs teen, I just simply stopped, listened, observed and accepted.

Ever since that experience, I have been reflecting about how much I feel is my responsibility everywhere. I think that I am responsible for bringing up my kids according to our values, but I am not always responsible of their happiness and enjoyment. As they grow older, I am less responsible of what they choose to eat outside our home, what they think, what they do and do not do. I am not responsible for their choices. I am not responsible for their social interactions. I observe that as they grow older and contest more and more my views, resist my advice, choose to disobey our rules, I grow more and more worried.

I have to stop. My mind needs to stop. I need to allow more. If my youngest doesn’t like that we are concerned about the effect consumerism has on the environment and gets angry because I don’t want to buy her new clothes when she has a closet full, it is okay. She can be frustrated and show it, and I don’t need to do anything about it. If our son chooses to play on the computer instead of doing his homework even though we keep reminding him to do so, it is his choice and he will have to deal with the consequences. Even our daughter with special needs will have to make her own choices and we will have to allow for her to learn from them.

With this in mind, I decided that for the remaining of the Fall break, I will get into ‘retreat’ mood. I am going to give my mind a break. I am with my three kids this week while my husband has to work. We will enjoy. I will try to share my time between doing what they want to do and what I want to do, and give my mind a break. Whenever I start worrying, I will tell myself ‘allow’.

How many choices have I made in my life that weren’t optima?, and still, here I am. I don’t think I would be happier today if I had chosen differently back then. My life might have been different, but not happier. The most important is to have someone who can support you in the ups and downs in life. Someone who can help you reflect when you need it.