Can you relax without stimuli?

The other day, I shared a short relaxation session with my colleagues where the main focus was to use the breath. I know that for many, the idea of sitting ‘just’ breathing sounds intimidating and maybe even boring, so I divided the session into three parts. One where we would connect the breath with soft movements (achievable for all kinds of bodies), another with a simple breathing exercise, and the last one with a body scan. The whole session lasted for approximately twenty minutes.

After the session, one of my colleagues told me it was very nice to ‘check in’ with herself. She said that while she was sitting there, she noticed how she was feeling and realized she hadn’t take the time to notice before. This reminded me of something I have been reflecting a lot about lately. It seems to me that most of us rarely take the time to slow down and just be, to check in with ourselves.

It is, of course, understandable that we all have different ways to cultivate our well-being, some choose to go for a run, others to watch a TV show, and although this does allow us to disconnect from everyday tasks, it is not necessarily bring long-lasting well being for our body and mind. During the years I have been practicing Yoga, I have come to the conclusion that there is a difference between sense indulging and self-care. I don’t necessarily think that indulging is wrong, it is nice to sometimes give in to a guilty pleasure, and as mentioned above, it can be part of our toolkit to disconnect from everyday life, but the thing is, I don’t think only indulging is going to bring real peace of mind because the satisfying feeling only lasts for a short period of time. In addition, we might seek activities that stimulate our mind and body like food, alcohol, and even entertainment, which feel good at the moment but do not allow for our nervous system to reset and restore.

I believe self-care requires more work, but less fuss. Self-care might bring some immediate comfort, and at times it can also bring some discomfort. In the long run, however, it brings peace of mind.

I might be biased by my enthusiasm towards the practice of Yoga meditation, but in my view, the only way we can really relax and take care of our well-being is by bringing silence to our body and mind on a regular basis. The challenge is, however, to have the patience to bear the noise our mind makes when we turn off the external noise. This is where the work starts because we need to learn to be with the noise of our mind as if it was background music. It is there, we notice it, but we choose not to do anything about it at that moment. We do not judge, we do not try to change it.

These moments of external silence but internal noise can be precious because like my colleague put it, it is then we have the opportunity to ‘check in’ with ourselves. We create the space to feel and think, we allow our mind to express itself. Sometimes, that is all we need. To give ourselves some ‘self-attention’, sometimes, we need further reflection on what is going on and what we need to do about it.

Making room for moments of silence and softness in our life not only helps us deal with our thoughts better, it also has an effect on our nervous system which in turn influences our state of mind. In addition, when we learn to quiet the mind on a regular basis, we are able to benefit from this practice in moments of intense distress.

To begin with, I recommend a combination of techniques like soft movement with breath for the busy mind. Practices like soft yoga asana, Tai Chi or even Qi Gong, going for a walk but with the awareness of being with yourself, with your breath, and trying to leave other distractions aside. Simple breathing exercises can also be very useful. Some help calm down the body and the mind, others are energizing. Yoga Nidra, is als a very good way to relax, and the fact that you need to focus on different body parts keeps your mind busy. If your mind is very very busy, I recommend writing. Sit in a quiet place for five to ten minutes and let words flow. No structure, no purpose, just write. Avoid reading what you write. Just leave it. This is a very nice way to ’empty’ the mind. Once you have practiced this for a while, you can start journaling. There are different ways to do it. I often like to sit down and write my reflections of the day, often, a specific aspect of it takes more place, and I discover quite a lot about myself and my interactions with the world. I often realize that something that seemed overwhelming when traped in my mind, wasn’t that bad when put into words in my notebook.

Whatever works for you, try to create at least one moment of quiet calmness in your everyday routine. With practice, you will notice the difference it makes in you. You might notice that the urge to indulge will reduce as you create more space for what I like to call ‘real’ self-care.

On spirituality, Halloween, Yoga, contentment, less stress and less waste

Human History is marked with quite a few gruesome actions done in the name of religion. I believe, however, that humanity needs spirituality. Spirituality and religion are not the same. In my view, religion is the institutionalizing of spirituality, and if we are not aware of this, we might end up putting our mind and well-being in the hands of someone else, which in turn is the opposite of spirituality.

Living a spiritual life for me means to take responsibility for my thoughts and actions, to do what I need to do to cultivate a calm and content state of mind. This is, of course, beneficial for me, but I believe that through that work, I also benefit my surroundings because I start seeing the connections. I see how my attitudes and actions affect me and the world around me. In addition, when I take my well-being into my own hands, I demand less from the world. Furthermore, when I learn to know myself better, I accept my place in the world and play my roles from a place of giving instead of receiving.

Spirituality can be anchored in different traditions, but for many people, it can be a personal practice without any adherence to any tradition. I know a few people who in my view live a spiritual life without even being aware of it, even less calling themselves spiritual. In my case, spirituality came in the form of Yoga practices. That is why I write about it, but if you find another path that works for you, stick to it.

Contentment is an important aspect of Yoga. I sincerely believe that many of the struggles we experience today would reduce or even disappear if we had a more conscious approach to contentment. Contentment is a state of mind, and it needs to be cultivated inwardly. In order to cultivate contentment, we need to slow down, to let go of the excess of actions and impulses we are used to having in our lives. We need to prioritize. We need to reflect on what can stay and what needs to go. We need to be aware of our impulses and work towards a less dependant relationship to our senses. The more dependent our happiness is on sensory input, the more we want, the more we demand from the world around us. This has a direct impact on the people we mingle with and the environment. Just think about it for a moment, if you manage to cultivate a content inner state, you will consume less, or at least more mindfully, and this will have a direct impact on the environment. If on the contrary, your happiness is dependant on material things, the more you buy, the more you own, the more you want. Happiness from material things lasts for a short period of time. It doesn’t take long after we have acquired something before we want something else.

I believe slowing down and prioritizing are crucial to cultivating contentment. It is difficult to live mindfully unless we slow down. I have Halloween as an example. Our youngest daughter loves Halloween, ever since she was in preschool. She used to say that Halloween was her favorite ‘season’. For her, there was Spring, Summer, Halloween, and Christmas. To begin with, Halloween represented another thing ‘to-do’ in a busy everyday life with three kids. It represented, to be honest, stress. However growing up in Mexico, Halloween and Dia de Muertos kind of merged when I was a child, and it was something I also used to look forward to. So, throughout the years in our home in Norway, we have developed a tradition for Halloween. A more conscious approach to it. Since it is important and fun for our girls, we take the time to prepare for it to make it a fun season and avoid stress and impulsive shopping. The girls and I start planning for their costumes before the Fall Break. They decide what they want to be. During the Fall Break, we go to the second-hand shops to find clothes and accessories to make their costumes and start the process. We then use our spare time to work on the costumes. Some years ago, we found a recipe for ‘spider cookies’ we like to bake every year. The girls usually invite a friend each to join us. To avoid too much waste, we pop popcorn to give away to the kids that come trick-or-treating, and I don’t buy Halloween decorations. We don’t have space to keep them and I don’t want to create waste just for one day. The only decoration is a pumpkin that we carve together. When our son was part of the celebrations, we used to run a competition. Each kid would draw an idea for the pumpkin and my husband would choose the winner. This year, I was made aware of the amount of water and energy that goes to cultivate all the pumpkins we buy for Halloween. So, we made baked pumpkin seeds for snacks and I used the pumpkin ‘meat’ for pancakes. Next year, our goal is to cultivate our own pumpkin! On November 1, I bake Pan de Muerto, the culminating part of our Halloween celebrations.
I think that Halloween is perfect for us living up north. It is the time of the year where we gradually stay indoors more, and we then have handcraft activities to do. It has become a project between the girls and me instead of another stressful thing I have to plan on my own, on the run. And the whole process starts all over again in mid-November to start preparing for Christmas as we now try to handmade presents for family and pick what we think would be useful presents for friends.

I don’t mean to say that this is the perfect way to do things, but I am content with how it has developed so far. I know there is room for improvement when it comes to being environmentally friendly – like the pumpkin – but nothing is ever set in stone, so we learn as we go.

‘Bad’ habits

I once read in one of Mr Iyengar’s book something like this: thoughts become actions and actions become habits. I think my paraphrase is way too short, but that is the part of the quote that stroke me the most. It was in the context of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras and the importance of gaining awareness of our own thinking processes. Ever since then, I try to observe my own habits. It is fascinating to see how many of them are created without intention! Especially the habits that are behind conscious or unconscious ideas of myself and those around me. My behaviour becomes a ‘bad’ habit in certain situations as a result of an idea I have of myself and/or the other person.

Unconscious and bad habits are not always easy to discover, I must confess, and I am always amazed when I do. Like this weekend. My husband and I don’t buy wine very often, but yesterday, we both felt like having some red wine. Here in Norway, you can’t buy wine – or any alcohol except for beer- at the grocery store, you have to go to something called Vinmonopolet (the Wine Monopoly). Therefore, it requires a bit more effort to get it. So Saturday morning, we went downtown to run some errands, and we bought ourselves a bottle of red wine.

We went home. I had some things I wanted to get done, and Arve had his. At some point late in the evening, I was sewing some patches on a blanket when Arve got up from the couch, opened the bottle and served himself a glass of ‘our’ wine. He sat back on the couch with his computer on his lap and the glass of wine in one hand. He looked so content. I felt offended. Trying to be as diplomatic and constructive as I could, I made a remark about it, and he replied something like: well, you seem always so busy, I just didn’t want to bother you. I seem busy?! He has ‘always’ the computer on his lap! Again, I tried my best to find a way to lead this conversation to a space of openness instead of conflict (which is not always my strength, if I am honest).

It turns out, he’s right. Every single evening, I talk about all the things I ‘have to do’. I don’t always end up doing them, but I do talk about them. So, all my husband can do is to grab his computer and do his own thing. So, I have the habit of thinking that he is not interested in spending time with me. That he prefers to do something else.

Added to this ‘bad’ habit of mine is the unconscious expectation that my husband ‘shows interest’ in me, and this has to happen of course as I imagine it. It is as if I kind of expect to get an invitation from him instead of saying clearly that I miss spending time with him and that I would like to enjoy a glass of wine together.

After our chat, he did invite me to watch a movie that he had been wanting to watch. It was nice even though I didn’t make it awake all the way to the end of the movie. Not because of the movie. Certainly not because of my husband. It has just been a hectic week, and with the wine… I am happy I gathered the courage to have this conversation without being confrontational. We had fallen into a habit of thought. I thought my husband was not interested in spending time with me during the evenings because he sits with his laptop on the couch. He thought I was too busy to want to do anything with him. We fell into the habit of believing what the other is thinking instead of talking about both wanting to spend some time together.

A similar eye opener happened some years ago when we were going through a difficult situation. It was tough for both of us, and I started resenting my husband because I felt that he wasn’t giving me much emotional support through this. So, in addition to struggle with the difficult moment, I was being resentful towards him. Acting passive-aggressively. When I finally gathered the courage to have the difficult conversation, it turned out he felt I was pushing him away. I was acting as if I had full control over my emotions and didn’t need his support. It was, of course, a way to keep the pain away because I knew that if I showed vulnerability, I would have to face my own emotions and I wasn’t ready for it. So, the easiest was to keep my attention on something else, namely what I thought was my husband’s inability to show empathy. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time I felt like this, but I had never dared to talk about it with openness. It had always ended up in a bunch of complaints and accusations from my side. We had fallen into a bad habit that none of us had had the ability to see even less break, and I believe this bad habit was the result of my own and my husband’s unaware thinking processes. It is often the idea we have of ourselves and others that stands in the way for our interactions with others.

Lessons from this week

  1. Sometimes, good intentions are not enough. Discussing a mistake I made this week with a friend, he told me “I always give important decisions a night sleep.” In line with the teachings of Karma Yoga, I strive to create clarity in my mind. This means that I try to always be clear about the intention behind my action. I try not to act impulsively. However, this week, I made a choice with good intentions but after I gained perspective, I realised it wasn’t the best choice for everyone. Which leads to lesson 2:
  2. Running against the clock will often mean trouble. Had I taken the time to reflect on the options, I might have chosen differently, but during the last three weeks, I feel I have been in a constant race against the clock. My mum always says : move slower when you are in a hurry. My friend kindly told me: ‘the choice is made, you cannot change it. You have to put it behind you, but I disagree with your choice this time.’ I agree with him. No point spending time and energy in regretting, but I should learn from this mistake. Which leads me to lesson number 3:
  3. There is a difference between acknowledging our mistakes and shortcomings and torturing ourselves with regret and self-loathe. If we are to grow in this life, if we are to cultivate more peace inside and around ourselves, we need to see the difference between these two. Someone in my sangha wrote a very inspiring experience this week where he describes how, he has come to accept his shortcomings in his interactions with the people he loves, he has seen his part in situations where things haven’t gone the direction he wishes them to go, and he is willing to make adjustments in his attitude and behaviour. He sees it will require practice, patience and time, and he is willing to do so. He is not stuck in regret nor he is running away from the consequences of his actions. I think that what often happens in our relationships is that when we realise where we have been acting unskilfully, we struggle to see that it is just a matter of accepting and adapting. Which leads to point number 4:
  4. I should do my best to live in clarity and with pure intentions, the rest is out of my hands. If I notice I can make a change to improve a situation, I should, but I can’t expect anything in return. We all live inside our heads, and I cannot control how other people react to my actions.
  5. Finally, I should continue simplifying my communication with others. Keep it clear, keep it short and avoid getting tangled in explanations. Sometimes, the best I can do is not to say anything.

Following lesson nr5. I finish this blogpost here hoping you had an enriching week. ❤️

A fight with my husband and a burnt bread

Each Summer, I spend quite a lot of time reflecting about the school year. I reflect about my role as a teacher, but also about my general mental and emotional state because there is a connection. If I am mentally and emotionally in balance, I am able to make better decisions both at work and at home.

This summer, I decided I needed to create better routines for myself when it comes to work and home. I realised that since I became a contact teacher, I felt a big responsibility to deal with student related issues and spent often what I see as family time answering emails, writing reports, worrying about my students or catching up with lesson planning. It wasn’t until about a week after the summer break started that I noticed how stressed and tired I had been.

I want my students to thrive, and I would love to be able to help each and every one of them to develop to their own potential, but I need to remember that I am not a superhero, and that nobody is expecting me to be one. Being a good teacher is to act within the framework that I am given with clear intentions, and with support and in collaboration with parents, the school and support systems when necessary. Not all the responsibility lies on my shoulders.

With these reflections in mind, I decided I was going to find a better balance between work and home. I had made myself a mental schedule for school work.

Then, the school year started. I don’t know how I manage, but every year is the same. Every year, I seem to forget how crazy the first weeks of school are. No matter what I do when I finish the school year, I will always end up feeling that I am drowning in ‘to-do’ lists the first weeks of school.

This year was no exception, and you might have already guessed, as the tasks started to pile up and my days gathered momentum, I forgot my resolutions from the summer to balance work and family better, to avoid stressing, to prioritise better.

Half way through my first week at work, one day, I managed to squeeze too many things into my schedule. After a busy day at school, I came home to a busy evening at home. I had promised my youngest to take her somewhere, at the same time as I wanted to bake bread, wash clothes and tidy up the house. With the extra energy saved during the summer, I felt I could manage. And I did… partly. The problem is that the more I multitask, the more hyper I become, the less patient I am, the more things can go wrong. That day culminated with me losing my patience with my husband and (surprisingly) my husband losing patient with me and we had a huge fight. It was a big shock for me, our kids and for my husband as we almost never yell at each other.

Reflecting about it, I came to the conclusion that the reason why I lost my patience was that I had turned into a human tornado that day. I started the day doing one thing at a time, but as my day advanced, I kept seeing things that needed to be done ‘immediately’. So I kept doing, and doing, and doing, and at some point I was tired but I just couldn’t stop. When this happens, I start resenting my husband because he seems oblivious of what ‘needs to be done’, and I keep hoarding things to do until one little thing goes ‘wrong’ and the whole situation explodes in our faces.

The solution: do less. Leave some work for tomorrow. Sit down. Take a breath. Why do I keep forgetting this simple solutions?

I finished my week with these reflections. All good. Until yesterday.

New week, new pile of things to do. New possibilities for me to create chaos (he he). Yesterday, I forgot again my resolution to not work during ‘family hours’, lost track of time, and managed to forget a loaf of bread I had carefully prepared the day before for almost two hours in the oven. I was so disappointed and frustrated! Baking with sourdough is a long process, and I ruined it because I was multitasking again and even worse, I had not stick to my promise to take a break from work during the evening. But I had to laugh too. Such a good reminder.

My husband has forgiven me for yelling and thinks a bread with a ‘well done’ crust is delicious. I am lucky. I have gained some perspective. I know that stress is a choice. It seems like it’s not, but it really is. I will work on not choosing stress in the future.