Christmas 2020

For many years, taking care of the environment for me meant not to litter, be kind to animals and be respectful towards plants and other living beings. I rarely reflected about the impact of my lifestyle on the environment until maybe five years ago, maybe a bit longer.

I must confess that I sometimes find it as mission impossible to live a more environmentally friendly life. Just when I replace a bad habit with what I believe is a better habit, I discover I have other hundred bad habits I need to change. It seems like the world we live in is made to make us fail in our attempt to take care of the environment and all living beings in the planet – not just plants and animals but also other human beings.

So, how have I contributed this Christmas season? I don’t see my performance as successful, I know we can do better, but at least we are trying. Here are some of the things we did, and some of the things we learned this year:

Presents

I have always liked to give Christmas presents that I think will mean something to the receiver. Either something I know they need, or like or might find amusing but lets face it, most of the people I know don’t need anything. They are completely capable of getting what they need and want whenever they feel like. So, we followed some advice I found in ‘fremtiden i våre hender’.

  1. Give edible gifts. We gave edible presents to some of the people we really wanted to give a present to. Either bought from local producers or made by ourselves (cookies). I bought also gift cards to local small businesses to some.
  2. Give experiences. We gave our son a gift card to a place he likes to go with his friend, and he was very happy to find out that he can spend the amount inviting other friends.
  3. Give used. My daughters have been wanting to have bell bottoms for a while, so I bought them used. At their age, most kids barely wear something before growing out of it. I found some online, and got them delivered by the postal service. My husband wanted a new jacket, I also bought it used from a family who ‘had so many jackets’ that they never used most of them. So his jacket was as new, just without the price tag.
  4. Make the gifts yourself. We bought some white tea cups at a second hand shop and ceramic markers. The girls really enjoyed decorating the cups for their uncle, aunt and cousins. We also crocheted a couple of stuffed animals for friends. It was fun for my youngest who had never had the patience to finish a crochet project, and for me who had never made a bigger one before. We had yarn at home, and just bought some more when we were running out of colours.

Food

  1. Simplify a little. We enjoy good food, but at times, it can be too much. So, we try to be more moderate with the amount of food we buy. We planed for Christmas Eve and the days following towards New Year’s Eve and for New Year’s Eve too. We try to have some special dinners and some simpler dinners as well, and have some days with leftovers so we don’t throw anything away.
  2. Choose vegetarian dishes wisely. I became a vegetarian two years ago, so we also cook some vegetarian dishes during the Holidays. Some days, the rest of the family eat the typical meat dishes while I eat an alternative. Other days, we all eat vegetarian. One thing we have discovered during the last two Christmases is that there is really no point on making dishes that are supposed to look like Christmas dishes. They are complicated and mediocrely tasty. It is much better to choose some of our favourite vegetarian dishes, especially those we know from Indian cuisine.
  3. How much sugar do you really need? We are trying to limit the sweet treats to one a day. We made dessert for Christmas Eve and we had the leftovers for Christmas Day. We baked some cookies that we have shared with friends, and we bought some chocolate for some other days.
  4. Buy locally as much as possible. My husband really likes eating good food during the Holidays, and he took the job this year to look for local farmers and producers and bought all from potatoes to meat and strawberry coulis.

Other traditions

  1. Advent calendar. Here in Norway, the Advent calendar is a big thing for kids. Having three kids, it makes it expensive and not so environmentally friendly to put a gift for everyone each day. One of our kids needs to have a stricter diet, so giving them chocolate every day is not an option either. Therefore, we vary between small presents (mainly things they need like socks, gloves, soap, etc), activities (bake gingerbread cookies, decorate the house, watch a Christmas movie, etc), and the occasional chocolate treat especially before the break when we have busy days and it is not possible to have an activity for the evening where everyone can participate.
  2. Christmas tree. I checked online what was more environmentally friendly, and apparently, getting a real tree is better than plastic, just by a small margin. It needs however to be a local tree from a conscious farmer. Therefore, this year, I took the kids to a farm where you can cut your own tree. It was the first time we did it, and my three kids thought it was fun but it made me doubt the whole tradition. While we were there, it felt wrong to kill a tree to put it in our living room for some days and then turn it into compost. I asked the farmer how many years it takes to grow a tree like the one we cut, ten years he said. Ten years!! Almost the same age as my youngest. I know we also ‘kill’ carrots and potatoes, but they are necessary for our survival. A Christmas tree isn’t. So, next year, we have to come up with an alternative. The same farmer sells trees in a pot, maybe that could be an option? My husband suggested we plant one in the back yard, but the kids can’t accept the idea of not having a tree inside the house for Christmas…Maybe plastic is not that bad anyway? We’ll see what we do.

This makes me think about the importance of once in a while taking the time to reflect on the traditions we have. Ask ourselves why we have them and how they affect the environment and other people. Some of them can be replaced by other less harmful traditions, some of them we can let go of.

We have definitely a long way to go to become a more environmentally friendly family, but I am happy we are aware and trying.

About heart sizes

I consider myself lucky to work with knowledgeable, reflective and inspiring people. I can say that all my colleagues are, each in their own way, a source of inspiration for me. I observe how they work, how they are with each other, and learn. It is very motivating to work with people like them.

Like in any work space, there are some people I work more closely to because of the subjects we teach. During the last five years, I have been working closely with the other language acquisition teacher, and especially during the last year and a half, I have been inspired by the way she approaches challenging and what I see as at times overwhelming tasks. I have never seen her stress or heard her complain or judge others. Instead, she does the best she can do with the circumstances she is in. She doesn’t seem to be interested in playing the super hero, but she always does what I see is the best for her students. She always puts their well-being first. I think she is the perfect example of a yogi even though she doesn’t call herself a yoga practitioner.

To me, it seems like she is always focused on what her intentions are, does her best with the time and resources she has, but is not attached to the result of her actions. She doesn’t seem to be invested in the outcome. Not that she doesn’t care, she does care, a lot, but she seems so centered in her self, that she is not looking for any form for validation in what she does.

The answer according to my understanding of yoga is yes. I believe that when we have a peaceful mind, when we work out of the heart, we are detached from the fruits of our actions, and then work for the benefit of the whole and not just for what we perceive as our individual benefit. Many of us can at times be stuck in the mind which can either lead to acting selfishly to get something in return, like some sort of validation or material benefit, or acting out of fear or judgement.

Unfortunately, this colleague is soon leaving our school as she and her family are moving abroad, and thinking about her and the years we’ve worked together, a phrase came to my mind ‘she has a big heart’. I started playing with the thought. Why do we say that? Are there really people that have bigger hearts than others? Then, I remembered something my yoga teacher often says: do everything from the heart. What does that mean? My colleague is a very responsible, efficient and professional teacher. Are does qualities of the heart?

So, going back to my question, does my colleague has a bigger heart? I don’t think so, what she has is a peaceful mind that allows her to work out of her heart. I believe we all have the same potential as she has. I believe some people wear their heart on the sleeve more easily than others. What can we do then? Continue working on ourselves. For me, the practice of meditation is the way to calm the mind, work on myself and create more clarity in my life. Meditation in the yoga tradition is not ‘only’ to sit down in silence for a certain amount of time every day, it is to strive towards living a conscious life and observe our thinking patterns to then adjust them towards what brings harmony and peace inside and around us. It is to strive towards a living following certain principles, two of the most important being non-attachment and practice. Keep practicing, until it comes naturally.

I strongly believe that if we find the inner source of lasting peace, we can deal with the outer world in a more skilful way that allows us to contribute to the well-being of those around us.

I am thankful for having worked with this colleague for the last few years, I have learned many lessons from her. I will keep her attitude and work in my mind for the rest of my life.

Week 49. Reflections

Last Sunday, I went to Nidaros Cathedral to the service that marks the start of Advent. It is called lysmesse which means Light Service. Although we are not a Christian family, we have been going to this service for some years because of our children who have been in the Scouts, and recently, our youngest has joined one of the choirs connected to the cathedral.

I enjoy this service. The cathedral’s pastor has always a very nice sermon that I feel is addressed even to the youngest. A message of hope and a reminder of what is important to prioritise during this time of the year and otherwise. It feels comforting to be inside such a magnificent building, protected by the cold, surrounded by beauty and light, listening to the beautiful voice of the Girl’s Choir.

This year, because of the pandemic, very few people were able to attend the service. The Cathedral opened up for only fifty people to make sure they could keep the safety guidelines. I was lucky to be asked to come as support for the choir.

During the service, I sat alone, close to the choir. Calmness started to take over the place. Dimmed lights, beautiful stained glass windows, everyone silently listening to the pastor and the choir. I started to think about older generations who lived in a world that looked quite different from ours and to imagine the feeling of coming into such a magnificent building, in the middle of Winter. Maybe times were hard, maybe some of them were also anxious about what the future might bring. So they came to their holly place, to listen to their spiritual leader. To get some comfort, to regain hope.

I grew up in Mexico, where the majority of people are Catholic, but my parents were so disappointed with the Church even since they were kids, that they consciously decided not to raise their children into the Catholic religion. My father had seen the church in his neighbourhood receive money from the poorest who sometimes didn’t have enough to feed their children at the end of the month, while the priest lived in a big house and drove in a luxury car. My mum couldn’t make any sense of the sermon which often seemed more like a reprimand towards the congregation. There was a clear distance between the priest and the congregation. A relationship of power too. It felt like the priest was the intermediate between people and God, and he had the power to decide who is close to God and who is not.

I have studied Art History and I teach History to middle schoolers, so I know of the things humans have done in the name of religion, and I understand why, many people, especially in the West, have decided to distance themselves from it. In addition, especially in the Christian tradition, many of the texts used during the liturgy don’t make any sense if they aren’t explained properly. They seem so detached from people’s reality.

Still, the older I get, the more I study Yoga, the more convinced I am that we do not benefit from living a life without spirituality but spirituality requires individual work. It requires that each individual takes on the work of seeking, exploring, experimenting, questioning, reflecting and internalising. We have been so disappointed and critical of religion because it has been misused for power and oppression, but if we peel off the layers of institutions, rituals and systems, the message at the core of each religion is the same: seek the love inside you and spread it around you. Each spiritual tradition has its core values that we are encouraged to cultivate in order to live a better life and create peace and harmony around us.

I don’t think we need to be part of a religious community in order to be better human beings, but I do think that we need to be conscious of what kind of values we want to live up to, and acknowledge that each and every individual in this world has an important role to play to take care of herself, other people and the environment. There is more meaning to life than running from one thing to another to tick off all the boxes in our to-do list, there is more meaning to life than acquiring more things. We have lessons to learn in order to grow.

I also think that we have the responsibility to seek what makes sense for us, maybe also the responsibility to seek for someone who can guide us in the right direction? Not just follow each other like sheep either towards or away from religious institutions.

Life is unstable, life can bring us down to our knees, and we need to take care of our mind and our heart. In the world we live now, we are made to believe that peace of mind will come from acquiring things, from seeking entertainment and satisfaction in the senses. Why would I choose to watch a soap opera instead of listening to some uplifting words from a spiritual leader? Why would I choose entertainment instead of a walk in the woods? I think many of us have gotten accustomed to hide our fears and worries behind stuff instead of looking into the bigger picture. I think that we would benefit more from feeding our minds with words of hope and meaning than filling them with information we don’t need. At least ask ourselves from time to time, what can I feed my mind with that will bring lasting peace?

I think we are reaching the point where we have been at the two extremes. One being following religion blindly and being lured by the few who got sick with power and delusion, the other being lost in our day to day life forgetting to seek for something bigger than our wants.

What’s been on my mind lately

Short version : a lot.

I notice my mind has been all over the place lately. Even at night, I catch myself thinking half asleep. I don’t know why. I guess it’s a phase, so I just partly asume but I am also working on noticing and letting go, when possible. If I wake up in the middle of the night and notice my thoughts, I start repeating a short mantra I have and it always helps me go back to sleep right away.

I have also been reflecting about all the things that affect my mood wondering how I can keep a more stable state of mind, and it all goes back to the idea of grounding myself in my intentions and letting go of the expectations. Which keeps being easier said than done. I am so used to do things with a certain attitude that changing patterns is taking time. But I keep trying, I keep reminding myself, and some days, I manage.

My dad used to call me the satellite dish when I was little, because I was able to notice everything. I guess, in a way it is an asset because I can read people quite fast. I can see when someone is distressed, or sad, or angry often before others notice. If I use this ‘skill’ properly, I can show understanding and compassion and even give a helping hand if necessary. The problem is that, this skill, combined with my need for validation and my fear for doing something ‘wrong’ can be emotionally tiring because I read other people’s emotions as a direct result of my actions. Leading me to feel bad conscience in some cases and being judgemental towards the ‘other’ in others. So, it all ends up being about ‘me’ and not about the situation or the person experiencing a certain emotion in my presence.

An example, I go into the classroom, with my lesson ready but I am received by tired and frustrated students. Some of them can at times be rude. My first reaction is often to become defensive. I want to go through the lesson, I want them to learn, but with that attitude, we won’t get anywhere. I get caught up in my emotion, and by the end of the lesson, I am exhausted because I spent the whole lesson fighting against my own frustration and disappointment to act as a ‘professional teacher’.

What can be done differently here? Change the focus. It is not about me wanting to teach them. It is about the whole experience of being in the classroom, seeing each and every one of them, and letting go of my judgement of their behaviour or the circumstances. It is about putting my whole heart in the situation and forget about my own insecurities.

Don’t misunderstand me, I do care about their learning, but ultimately, I can only come prepared to the classroom with a plan that aims to meet their individual needs but if their minds are elsewhere, if they are experiencing some sort of emotional distress (which is very common for their age), all I can do is meet them with curiosity, with openness and at the same time stand my ground by setting a clear framework for our interactions, without allowing myself to believe that their actions and reactions are in any way a validation or rejection of me as a teacher.

I am also experiencing this in other relationships. I am reminding myself to give space for others to be who they need to be without allowing it to affect my inner peace. I have been observing myself for a while now, and I know that most of the time, my reactions to other people are 99,9% a product of my inner world. So why would I believe that it is different for others? How others behave with me has little to do with me and more with their inner world. So, why judge? Why try to see who I am in the gaze of others? Here too, the key is to meet everyone with an open heart but stand my ground. Know my limits, and remember that we are all doing as good as we can out of our own perceptions and belief systems.

So, to summarise, during the last few weeks, I have noticed how much I still live ‘out there’, and how peaceful I feel when I move my focus to my intentions and my actions and let the reactions be what they need to be. Sometimes I wonder what is the purpose of my life. I wonder if I am living the life I am supposed to live or if I should be doing ‘more’ or ‘bigger’. Lately, I’ve been reminding myself that it is not the size of what we do but with what attitude we do it. How we make people feel. How often we manage to detach from the I in order to create a space for the we to be. Maybe that is my ambition in life for the moment. To be able to meet everyone with an open mind and an open heart and keep my mind at peace.