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…

On acceptance and its benefits

I was recently listening to one of my teacher’s lectures on his YouTube channel called 10 ways to live effortlessly through Yoga where the first point is acceptance.

Have you ever experienced investing effort and time into something with a feeling that you are pushing, fighting, getting exhausted and after a while realise that you are still standing at the same point? I have experienced it in many times and every time I try to remember one of my first experiences as a mum.

When our first child was born, I wanted to be ‘ready’, so I read books about pregnancy and birth. Then, when our son was born, I read books about the “normal” development of a baby and a toddler. When our son was maybe a year or a year and a half old, according to what I read and advice from others, it was time to start potty training. I bought a pot and tried different ways to get my son to sit on it and do his job. After some days of trial, we realised he wasn’t interested at all. Swallowing our frustration, we understood he wasn’t ready yet and that we would do things worse if we chose to push him. We waited despite what the books, parenting forums and some opinions from experts or experienced parents had. When he was a bit over two, we tried again, and in a week or so, he was nappy-free during daytime and some months later in the night also. I was so amazed over how easy this was! There weren’t any tears, and there were very few accidents. This taught me a big lesson that I have tried to apply throughout my children’s upbringing. There are some milestones they have to go through to develop, but there is no point on pushing them. I think acceptance is key here. I accepted that my son wasn’t ready, but I didn’t necessarily give up, I just needed to back off, and try a bit later.

Sometimes, we have a goal, an idea, but it is so big, so overwhelming that we don’t even know where to start. This applies also to challenges and problems. Acceptance can also be a good tool in this cases. We need to accept first the situation and then see which small steps we can take to achieve the goal or to improve the situation that eventually will help us solve the problem. We accept that we have to take small steps.

The example that comes to my mind is the challenge we face today with pollution. I have long had bad conscience because I wanted to do something big for the environment, but it felt overwhelming until I decided to take small steps. The first step was to observe my lifestyle and accept that I have some habits that aren’t healthy for the environment. I have made some changes that have demanded changes in attitudes and perceptions and still felt achievable, while other changes are so big that I have to wait a bit. This doesn’t mean that I will settle for doing the minimum but I have to take it step by step to not overwhelm myself or my family. This might not be the way for everyone, but for me, it is either small steps or no steps at all.

The other day, I was talking with a yoga teacher that works also as a life coach. She was telling me about how, for people that experience chronic pain, it can be helpful to learn to accept the pain. Pain is something that scares us, it is part of our survival instinct, but sometimes we need to accept it to tolerate it. I have done the experiment sometimes when I experience a sharp pain, to relax the rest of my body and focus my breath into the pain. It doesn’t take the pain away, but it does help me deal with it better. If I reject the pain, if I start to make a thousand stories in my mind about the pain, I just get more stressed and my experience of the pain is more intense.

It is almost needless to say that acceptance is also a very powerful took when it comes to relationships. All kind of relationships. Accepting others as they are is the obvious one, but also accepting that sometimes things between us and others get stuck, and remembering that nothing lasts forever. We benefit from giving us some space to let things cool down, and then try again. Accepting also that sometimes, there is no solution, things are as they are and we have to learn to live around them.

Lastly, I have already written about strong emotions and how acceptance can help deal with them. Often, we have a tendency of rejecting, hiding or pushing away emotions such as anger or sadness. We don’t want to feel angry or sad because we should constantly feel happy and satisfied. Unfortunately, the emotion doesn’t disappear just because we don’t want it, and we end up with a pile of emotions such as frustration and regret on top of the ‘original’ emotion. Accepting the emotion without feeding into it can take us a step further. When I am sad, I can accept that I am sad and even give myself the space to feel the sadness, slow down, be kind to myself without making a thousand stories in my mind on why I have the ‘right to be sad’. Let the emotion be what it is, and when the sensation is less strong, try to understand where it comes from and see if there is anything I can do to help myself.

Acceptance is not resignation, but it is a tool that can help us save energy that we can canalise in a more constructive way than when we use it to reject, run away from or fight blindly.

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.