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

Stressed and demotivated teens

I have been working as a middle school teacher for over fifteen years now, and in the last four years, I have observed an increase in the number of students who struggle with motivation, stress, and depression. There are, of course, varied reasons for this, but there is one thing I have been thinking a lot about lately: lack of clarity. I am not an expert in teenage psychology, so I wonder to which extent, it is possible to lead teenagers to create their own clarity.

Clarity of mind is something that is difficult for everyone, and often, the lack of it can be the root of our stress. When we lack clarity, we run like headless chickens from one thing to another, everything is important, everything is our priority, and we end up stressed and exhausted. We are like this plastic bag being blown around depending on the wind. Therefore, it is often a good idea, when we feel overwhelmed with stress, to take the time to stop and get our priorities clear, know what we actually want, what our assets are, and decide our own direction.

Of course, as a teenager, it is not expected to have life figured out, but I think we should talk about clarity with kids and teenagers. The big challenge here, I think, is that we live in a society that often sends contradicting messages to kids and teenagers. On one hand, many parents give more freedom to kids to do what they want at home, we struggle to keep routines in place, and protect our kids as much as we can from unpleasant situations. On the other, there is this underlying expectation that kids and teenagers have to succeed at school and have one or more afterschool activities where they also should do their best.

I have very talented students who excel in other areas than schoolwork, that already have a passion, but that have very low self-esteem because they don’t get high grades at school, and no matter how much I talk with them, they won’t believe me when I tell them that they are great. They want to do perfectly everywhere, they are very afraid of making mistakes or failing, so they often give up before they even try.

How about sitting down with our teenagers and making a list of what they do and how much time they invest in it? Then make another list of goals, and our own expectations towards them, and try to merge these into a priority list? Maybe such a conversation can also help us create some clarity for ourselves of what is really important for our children to learn in life and which expectations we can let go of.

I also feel that often, we allow teenagers to make choices they are not ready to make. This is also some sort of clarity. Since there is no clear framework for them, they can get lost in bad habits. I can see that at home with our fifteen-year-old son. Until he was around fourteen, going on a hike or a skiing trip with the family during the weekends was an expectation, but since he turned fifteen, we stopped insisting. This has resulted in him doing much less physical activity now, and I am not comfortable with it. I think we made a mistake by not pushing him to at least one trip with the family a week. It might be annoying for him, but it won’t hurt him, and it will definitely be good for him to get out, get some fresh air, and do some exercise. Not to mention spending time with his family.

Getting enough sleep is also a challenge at home. We gave in for some time during the weekends and holidays, but we realized we needed to go back to having strict routines and sticking to them with our son…Writing this, I wonder if this is where part of the confusion is.

On one side, we are not teaching our kids and teenagers anymore the importance of having routines and taking care of themselves, and on the other, we keep telling them that they need to succeed in life by doing well at school and everything else they engage in but we are not giving them the tools to do so.

I also think that although it is good to listen to our children and teens and respect their opinions, we sometimes need to make some unpopular decisions for them that we know will benefit them in the longrun. This only teaches them that they are stronger than they beieve. I saw that with one of our daughters. She hadn’t been thriving at school since she was in fifth school, but she didn’t want to change shools and my husband and I didn’t want to push her, until last year. We finially decided that it would be good for her to change environment and meet new people. It was a bit tough to begin with, but she’s doing great and I think this was a boost in her self-esteem. Not only she managed to adapt to a new school, she even made new friends! Sometimes, our kids can’t find their clarity, and we as adults, need to find one for them.

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’.

A little theory of mine

On my way home on Friday, I heard on a French radio station a program about the increasing use of laughing gas among teenagers all the way down to 14 years old and its consequences. It reminded me that not so long ago, I read in the newspaper that in certain cities in Norway, the use of cocaine and hash has become as common as alcohol among high school students. A friend of mine back in Mexico told me recently that the use of drugs among teenagers has increased in the last few years too.

I can’t help but wonder if this is not partly a result of the way my generation is bringing up our kids in what we call the “Western world”. One thing that I think kids in France, Norway, and among the middle and upper classes in Mexico have in common is easy access to what brings sensory pleasure.

We can start with food. Many kids nowadays can eat sweets and drink sugary drinks daily if they want to. What in some cultures used to be limited to special occasions or at least the weekends, has become part of everyday life. Whenever a kid feels the need to be rewarded somehow, they can do it through the sense of taste.

Another way to get an immediate reward is by buying things. It is enough for a kid to express their wish for something to get it almost right away. It can be toys at a young age, clothes, makeup, and devices. What used to be left for birthdays and Christmas, is now part of everyday life. So, when special occasions come, we tend to give more than our kids need.

Lastly, we have the immediate reward electric devices give. Either through social media or gaming.

So, my theory is that we have created a generation of pleasure seekers. Kids nowadays are used to satisfying their senses almost constantly. It is not enough to go for a holiday by the beach, there is the pressure to make it exciting for the kids. So we book activities, or rent or buy equipment so the kids do not get “bored”.

As we all know, the more we get, the more we want. There is always something more exciting to experience, something bigger, better, or tastier.

Added to this is our well-intentioned need to protect our kids. Whenever they experience something unpleasant, especially socially, we intervene. We solve the problem for them. We remove them from the situation. We demand others to solve our kid’s problems. Leaving them incapable of dealing with disappointment, sadness, or pain. We do this to protect them, but we forget that the muscle of resilience needs to be trained.

My point here is not to criticize. I belong to this generation and I have observed in myself and my husband many of the behaviors I describe here, and I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good in some cases. Wouldn’t our kids benefit from having to strive a bit more to get what they want? Wouldn’t they benefit from learning to live simple lives? Wouldn’t they benefit from learning to be satisfied inside out instead of believing that the world around them owes them and that their happiness is in how much they get and how much they experience? Wouldn’t they grow for experiencing difficult situations and getting through them?

I know that the curiosity to drink alcohol and use drugs is not new. I know that the problem of substance abuse can have many reasons, but I wonder if the unlimited and often unconscious access to sensory pleasure is not also contributing to this tendency.

It is great that we have enough to give our kids everything they need and more, but maybe we sometimes need to stop and wonder where happiness really comes from.