Spring reflections

The Spring is here and with it comes the awe of nature waking up to life after a long Winter. I enjoy observing how days are getting longer and longer, feeling the warmth of the sun, the birdsongs, and seeing plants and trees growing leaves and flowers.

Spring always brings me so much joy, but the start of the season is always challenging for me. I don’t know why, but I often feel tired physically, mentally and emotionally, and it takes a lot of inner work to get myself through it without allowing this tiredness to push me into a negative space. It has taken me some years to understand this pattern and even more importantly, to accept it.

My theory is that I spend so much energy keeping up with life during the dark and cold Winter, that when the Spring comes, my body is exhausted. I tried this Winter to follow better the rhythm of the daylight and allow myself to rest more and do more indoor activities that inevitably require less energy such as sewing, knitting, reading, playing board games with my kids and watching movies. Still, the tiredness of the Spring did come along.

Spring is also a quite busy period for me. As a teacher, May is an intense month with many holidays sprinkled throughout the month, and although I do appreciate the breathing pause they bring, they also interrupt the rhythm of school life in what I see as one of the most critical periods of the school year as we should be wrapping up, doing our last assessments to start writing report cards, write the end-of-the-school-year student reports, and prepare for next school year. In addition, all clubs my kids are part of, want to mark the end of the school year with celebrations, and on top of all that we have the Norwegian national day and all the expectations around it. Fighting all this, my desire to be outdoors and enjoy the better weather.

So, even though the light and the milder weather call me to be more active, I am trying this year to work with my expectations and what my different roles require from me. Not an easy task, but I keep learning:

  1. Prioritise: I can’t have a hundred items on top of my priority list. Remind myself of what is important for me and make my list accordingly.
  2. Put some things aside both practically and mentally. I can’t do everything right now. Some things will have to wait. This is very connected to nr1.
  3. Keep my sadhana rock steady. At least twenty minutes of sitting in silence preferably preceded of some yoga asana.
  4. Say no when needed. This one is very though because I don’t want so seem rude nor disappoint anyone, but it is also very necessary.
  5. Good enough is good enough.
  6. Give myself time and space to feel tired, confused and frustrated but do not feed into the emotions. Time and space will always allows me to get some perspective and find a way to get through situations.
  7. Make choices based on what I know and the resources I have with clear intentions and trust that whatever happens will be for the best. I must confess that making choices is one of the most energy-draining activities for me, but I am learning to follow this little formula. Trust is an important ingredient to not spend too much energy on them.
  8. REST. Go to bed early, listen to my body and mind and take a break during the day when I need it. I often eat lunch with my students or in meetings, but when I can, I take a half hour break during my work day and go for a walk in the park, literally. Walking in nature always recenter me. When I get home, if my kids are at their respective activities or with their friends, I take a coffee break to rest my mind and body.
  9. Move outdoors. I have as a goal to walk at least 7km a day, some days I walk more, some days slightly less. The key is in using my legs as my means of transportation. I walk or ride my bike to and from work and to whatever errands I have during the day.

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.

A serene mind for meditation and meditation for a serene mind.

6:7 “With a self-disciplined mind, you experience a state of constant serenity, correctly identifying with your highest Self (Atman) who remains unaffected in heat or cold, pleasure or pain, praise or blame.” Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (p. 82). Integral Yoga Publications.

The practice of meditation requires self-discipline. We exercise and develop discipline by taking the time to sit in silence every day no matter what. Furthermore, we exercise mental discipline when we sit in silence and keep bringing the mind back to the here and now.

There are different ways to focus the mind while siting in silence, one of the most common ones being bringing our attention to the breath. We observe the breath either by noticing it coming in and out of our nostrils, or by feeling the rise and fall of our chest/belly as we breathe in and out.

The repetition of a mantra or affirmation is also a good tool to focus the mind, and as we notice ourselves engaging in our thoughts, we go back to the breath or the mantra until we manage to let thoughts come and go without engaging with them. This is what is called dharana in meditation, and could be the equivalent to mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition.

It is said that beyond dharana is dhyana – meditation – and through this we can get in touch into our Higher Self (Atman) which is ever peaceful and unshaken by whatever is happening around us.

The practice of disciplining the mind continues in our everyday life. We learn to discern between uplifting and limiting thoughts. We learn to take life as it is without overindulging in our perceptions and judgement of the external world. This way, we are able to stay serene, as the cited verse states.

It is a loop, or an upward spiral. We discipline the mind when we sit in silence so we are able to meet everyday life with serenity, and because we are able to keep cultivate a serene state of mind no matter what, we can easier sit in silence and get in touch with your Higher Self.

To the ideas presented in this verse is connected the principle of the transient nature of the world we perceive including our physical body and our thoughts, and thus the importance of accepting pleasantness and unpleasantness equally. Avoiding to put our stability in this changing world and rather in our inner peace.

Are you your own friend?

5-6  “I must emphasize, Arjuna, that you have to lift yourself by your own efforts! You must not allow yourself to be demeaned by your ego-self. Know that the self can be both friend and foe — a friend when used to conquer the mind, senses, and body; a foe when it drags one into the mind, senses, and body. True Self (Atma) is the ally; the ego-mind self is the enemy.
Hawley, Jack. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (p. 58). New World Library. Kindle Edition.

These are the empowering words of Krishna explaining meditation to Arjuna. Meditation as a 24/7 practice. Meditation as a mindset: to learn to control the mind to quiet the cacophony of thoughts and thus be in touch with your inner peace.

When we sit in silence, we aim to slow down the body and the mind, to shut the senses, and focus our attention inwards. It is inside ourselves, beyond our thoughts that we can find lasting peace that is unaffected by whatever is happening around us. But it takes practice and time, and it requires that we also do some inner work the rest of the day, when we are not sitting in silence.

We can be our own friend and our own enemy when seeking this inner peace. Our mind often seems to live a life of its own. It often seems like emotions and thoughts arise without us having much control. Therefore, we are encouraged to observe the thoughts and emotions that are limiting us, and work towards gradually letting go of them.

You can start by observing your self-talk. How do you treat yourself? Are you your own friend or foe? Can you change your self-criticism into constructive feedback? How do you respond when you make a mistake? When things don’t go as you expected them to be? Do you mentally drag yourself further down? Start practicing self-compassion. Whenever you notice your negative self-talk, say something nice to yourself that will help you in the moment instead of make you feel bad about yourself.

Next, is to observe your recurrent thoughts. Those that keep your mind busy. Where do they come from? How do they make you feel? Are you ruminating about the past or worrying about the future? You can’t change the past, and all you can do about the future is to be clear about your intentions behind your actions, and do your best. Regret and worry won’t help you. On the contrary, since you are spending mind energy in regretting or worrying, you are loosing the opportunity to use that energy in being aware of the present moment. When we don’t spend mental energy in regret and worry, we have more time and space to better enjoy the present and better deal with the challenges it might bring.

Past events do have an impact in us, but we can also do the mental work to let go of what is out of our hands. Acknowledge the emotions that those past events have created in you (or others), and again, use compassion and understanding to let go of them. There is a difference between accepting and acknowledging emotions and feeding into them. You can be your own friend by allowing yourself to feel, tell yourself that you understand, and invite yourself to move forward, to let go.

The future might seem overwhelming sometimes, especially when facing challenges. Tough periods are tiring and draining. Try to find the confidence in yourself that you will be able to walk through this too as you always have. There is always a lesson to be learned, and fortunately, things are in constant change. A period of difficulty will be followed by a calmer period. You can create inner peace to better go through whatever life is throwing at you, and again, with this inner peace, you will be able to better deal with anything.

The inner work we do in our everyday life has an effect in our meditation practice. When we learn to befriend our mind and let go of thought processes that do not help us, our mind is calmer and it is easier to focus our attention when we sit. This again has an effect in our mindset for the rest of the day. In order to slow down the mind, we need to practice meditation both when sitting and when playing our parts in life.

Krishna also mentions the body and the senses. I will come back to them when sharing other verses.