Lost and found

I went for a hike in the forest with two colleagues the other day. Both of them grew up experiencing nature like we do in Norway, hiking, camping, sometimes walking in the mountains for days. At some point during our hike, one of them said that she finds it exciting to sometimes get lost in nature to then find the way back. She told a story from her childhood where she and her family were hiking somewhere in Mali and got lost. They had to walk in the dark back to the cabin they were staying at. My colleague’s mum had to focus on her white shoes to not stumble as she had bad sight. It was fun, she said. In Mali. A family of five, lost in the mountains.

Her story inspired me because I don’t think I would remember as fun getting lost in nature as a kid, maybe not even now as an adult. I can imagine me getting scared, worried and maybe even angry and blaming it on my husband, as I often do. My kids complaining and blaming it on both of us.

Maybe I’m exaggerating or maybe not, but I found this story inspiring because my colleague’s family chose to have an attitude of adventure and playfulness in a moment that I most probably would have perceived as annoying and even dangerous. It brought me back to a reflection that has been coming and going in the last few years about the power of staying calm in all situations. This ability to stay calm comes with being able to take a step back from a situation and see solutions, but I also think it has to do with faith.

Observing my mind and my actions, I have noticed that I have had a tendency to get overwhelmed and almost panic in situations where things don’t go as expected. I have been afraid of challenges, problems and conflicts with people. Partly because I dread the unpleasant moments, but partly because I am worried about my ability to deal with difficulty. I don’t really trust myself. So I often have chosen to stay in my comfort zone, or to escape from the discomfort often making things worse because I don’t necessarily physically run away, I try to escape by acting impulsively, out of fear turing the situation messier than it originally was.

Since I became aware of this, I have been trying to work with it. I am trying to calm my mind down in moments of stress, distress or emotional pain, and instead of reacting impulsively, I try to take a mental step back and observe. It is an interesting exercise, to learn to give myself the space to feel scared, hurt or annoyed but not feed into the emotion. Take a deep breath and see possibilities, see options, and act -or not- from a space of calmness. Stay with the feeling without fighting it.

Life is like that, it has its ups and its downs. We instinctively seek for the ups and dread the downs. That is our nature, but lately, I have been reflecting in the beauty of going through the downs with a calm mind too. Experiencing whatever life is offering with an attitude of faith in ourselves, the process and the teachings they bring. Get lost, and find myself again. I believe that when we find our way back, we often continue slightly changed, mostly for the better.

The truth is that we all are born with this immense strength, we can overcome anything because that is our instinct. The key is the mental attitude. The teachings we draw from each situation. The energy we spend on them. The way we take care of ourselves and others in the process.

I share here one of my favourite poems from David Wagoner that I feel talk about what I just wrote.

Lost by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Saving our children from painful situations

A friend and I were talking the other day about our sons who are the same age and soon will have to choose what kind of studies they want to do for high school. Here in Norway, they can choose to go the ‘regular’ pathway that can lead them to university, or they can choose to learn a profession and come out being able to work. The latter is, of course, less prestigious than acquiring a university degree, but a good option to those who either have a clear idea or know well their skills, or who are tired of so much theory at school and want to do more practical work throughout the three years of high school.

My husband and I believe that, if our son chooses to choose a profession oriented pathway, we will support him. She is of the idea that her son (and our son) should choose the pathway that allows them to go to university. She has good arguments, and I don’t disagree with her, but what triggered this post was what she said at some point:

‘I want my son to make choices that will allow him to do something with his life in a way that is as painless as possible.’

Or something like that. Her argument is that, if they choose the profession pathway, and they change their minds in some years and want to go to university, it might be too late for them to study for and pass the exams required for those who don’t follow the ‘regular’ pathway. Valid arguments.

Can we really prevent our kids from experiencing pain?, and maybe most importantly, should we prevent our kids from experiencing pain?

The answer, is of course neither yes nor no. It is our instinct and to a certain degree our duty as parents to protect our children as much as we can, but lately, I keep thinking that this well-meant attitude might harm our children more than help them, and what is more, will exhaust us, because lets face it, no matter how much I try to keep pain away from my kids, pain will reach them at some point. Pain is part of life.

How can we harm our children by protecting them from pain? Well, it is through the experience of pain that we learn resilience, patience and perseverance. It is through painful situations that we often grow because we are pushed to take a self-check, to evaluate our situation, to learn and move forward. Maybe the key is not to spend most of our time and energy preventing our kids from making mistakes, but rather create a relationship of trust so when they make mistakes, when life gets tough, they know they can get through it by their own strength, and/or get our support if they need it to gain the strength to stand up on their own feet again.

Don’t misunderstand me, I do want my son to make choices that allow him to live a happy and meaningful life, and I do say my opinion whenever he is about to make a choice, but I also try very hard to remind myself to let go of the need to control him. I have to accept that he needs to make his own choices and deal with the consequences. I just hope that the day he makes a mistake or a choice that brings pain to his life, we will be able to support him in a way that helps him reflect, grow and move on.

I see it as a teacher too. I am thankful that I teach in times where we have a lot of focus on students’ social and emotional well-being, but I also feel that sometimes we feel obliged to micro-mange them to avoid emotional distress. If football games during playtime get too rough, we ban them. Parents contact us often when their child has had a conflict with another child often with the expectation that we will ‘fix it’ without the kids being involved to ‘avoid the distress’ caused by heaving to deal with the situation.

Although I understand the intentions behind this kind of expectations, I think that kids need to experience all sorts of emotions and learn how to deal with them. Both their own emotions and other people’s emotions. Maybe instead of banning the football game, we can have the necessary conversations – over and over again – to help them reflect on what went right and what went wrong, and more importantly, how they can do better next time. We help the students better by creating the space for them to talk and find common ground, and understand how they feel and how their peers feel. Maybe sometimes kids need to find their own solutions without adult involvement.

If you’ve been around for more than twenty years, you would agree that in life, we go through phases, some phases are more painful than others, but often, the most painful ones bring also a lot of growth. I teach students between 13 and 16 years old, and many changes happen during those years. Some teenagers go through tough periods trying to figure out who they are and what they want. It is painful for them, and often even more for their parents. The parents that suffer the most are those who try very hard to steer their children into a specific direction believing that that is the right direction. Or being overly worried about their child’s confusion. What I often observe from the outside is that the kids that have been raised with a set of clear values, that have parents that are present and available, manage to go through and beyond phases of confusion and pain and grow from them. It requires patience, resilience and perseverance from both themselves and their parents.

Reflecting about this, I have made myself some mental guidelines as a mum and as a teacher that I try to follow:

  • Walk the talk. Live my life as much in line as possible with what I believe in. Accept my mistakes and grow from them. Reflect with my children about them. I don’t need to pretend that I am perfect, or devoid from emotion.
  • Be mindful of how I react when my children make a mistake. Try to show understanding and be open for discussion instead of being judgemental.
  • When appropriate, share my views or opinion on something, explain why I think like I do, but make it clear that the choice is theirs (and hope for the best).
  • Remember that each one of my kids is an individual with their own path to walk. Be supportive, be present, but not controlling.
  • Help them go through difficult emotions. Explore and accept the pain to then let go and learn from it.
  • Keep learning together with my kids how to better support them in their own path. After all, parenting is all about learning by doing.

Whose expectations?

My husband and I are what we would like to call low-maintenance. We enjoy holidays and special occasions, but we don’t feel like we need to make what we call a ‘big fuss’ out of them to enjoy our time. (I sometimes suspect it is more laziness than low-maintenance, but who cares as long as we both are happy?).

The challenge to this attitude came almost twelve years ago when our youngest daughter was born. She has high expectations, especially for birthdays, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Norway’s national day. I understand and I try to balance between complying to her wishes and keeping things to what I think is reasonable both when it comes to our economy, the environment and our energy.

During the last few years, as she is getting older, I am trying to be more sporty and supportive when she has big ideas trying to encourage her to take some of the responsibility to run them through. She doesn’t always only think about herself, she also plans how to surprise friends or her siblings for their birthdays, which I think is a nice way to show that she cares.

The interesting part is that, often the more I agree, the more she gets things her way the more she wants. As a mum, I am trying to figure out whether this is good or not. I don’t want to kill her personality, but at the same time, I feel I have to remind her about how important it is to focus on the positive and be thankful for what we have instead of focusing on what we feel we lack.

Like today, for example. It is Norway’s national day, and it is a BIG deal for children. Usually, there is a big parade downtown where all schools take part, and many celebrations with friends and family throughout the day. Because of the pandemic, the last two years, the parade has been cancelled for most students, and the celebrations have been restricted.

Traditionally, our little family eats dinner with a couple of friends and their son who are like part of our extended family, so my husband and I were happy we could keep this plan. My youngest had, of course, other plans. She decided to plan a picnic with her classmates, since it is allowed to meet outdoors in bigger groups if one keeps distance, especially if it is part of your daily cohort.

Yesterday evening, we baked cookies and muffins for the picnic, and this morning, I agreed to follow her to the park for a couple of hours. The weather was decent, and most of her classmates showed up. They played games, ate their lunch, and had what seemed like fun from where I was standing chatting with the other parents.

When it was time to leave, we all picked our stuff up, said goodbye and the girls and I walked to the bus stop. On the way, my youngest told me that one of her classmates had ice cream for breakfast, and that he is allowed to eat as many ice creams as he wants all day today. We have a daughter with PWS, so this kind of attitude towards food is not what we want to encourage at home. So, I said that I didn’t feel one needs to eat ten ice creams to have a good day. This was enough for her to be angry for the rest of the trip home and for a long while.

I must say that I find this very challenging, and I am working very hard with myself not to lecture her every time it happens. I feel that she knows what I stand for, she is allowed to disagree, but I can’t help but thinking that she is being ungrateful, and that my role as a mum is to teach her to be grateful.

Or, is it? One thing is her attitude, and the other is how I interpret it and transform it into my problem. “I have complied to this and that, and she’s still not satisfied?!”. Aha! The ego, comes through. I think. And I love it because this kind of situation teaches me over and over again what I can summarise into three main points:

  1. Be clear about what I stand for and act accordingly.
  2. Never do something with the attitude of ‘sacrifice’. Better say clearly ‘no’ and go through the unpleasant moment than to say ‘yes’ without meaning it and going into the martyr role when I don’t get a positive response for my ‘efforts’.
  3. Good enough is good enough and let other people’s expectations (even my sweet daughter’s) be their own problem.

The good thing is that, like many kids her age, after some time being back home and playing some board games before leaving for our dinner party, she had already forgotten her ‘disillusion’.

Before going to bed today, she said: It was a fun day mamma. I didn’t think it would be because of the pandemic, but it was.

My little cute teacher. Good lesson to remember as I am dreading a meeting tomorrow where I feel I will be confronted to the exact same problem. Expectations vs the reality of what I can provide. May I be wise enough to remember today while I’m in the middle of it.

PS I do talk with her from time to time about how we create the world around us by choosing where we want to focus our attention.

About habits and breaking them

I used to drive to work, but almost a year ago, we had to let go of our car and decided not to buy a new one. I started the school semester riding my bike to work.

I soon discovered that I love to ride my bike. It gives me a feeling of freedom, at the same time as it helps me wake up before my day and get some exercise and fresh air after my work day. I have even bought tires with spikes for the Winter.

Some weeks ago, I had to walk instead of riding my bike. Just for some days, I thought but I soon remembered how much I love walking, especially during the Spring. I listen to an audiobook or a podcast or I simply use the time to either get mentally ready for the day or digest and let go of my work day before reaching home. So for four or more weeks, I have resisted to the idea of riding my bike again.

Today, I was running late for work, so with a bit of regret for not having been more efficient in the morning, I decided to ride my bike. It didn’t take long before I felt again the happiness and freedom it gives me. On my way back home, I started thinking about how I couldn’t understand why I had stopped riding my bike in the first place. I had to laugh a bit when I realised this thought.

When I walk, I don’t want to go back to riding my bike, when I ride my bike, I don’t understand why I had stopped biking in the first place.

I think this is a very simple example of how my mind creates habits, and how difficult they can be to break. It isn’t really a very big deal whether I walk or ride my bike, but it certainly reflects my fondness for habits. Habits can be good, they can help us develop discipline and have a healthy routine, but habits can also create stress and distress, either because they are born without us being aware of them or because we get attached to them.

The first happens, I think, when we forget to stop and ask ourselves ‘why’. Why do I do this? Why do I do it like this? It often happens when we come into new situations without a clear idea of what we want or what our role is, or as a consequence of our fast paced life. I think someone said thoughts become actions and actions become habits. It doesn’t take much before we create new habits.

Habits can create distress when circumstances push us to change them and we resist to this change. Few people like change, but luckily most of us are able to see the new possibilities after the first discomfort has passed.

This little bike vs walk story has reminded me to mind my habits. Take a look at what I do and why I do it. Can I work towards letting go of some? Can I change some? Can I create new ones?

I have one that I have been having the intention to create, but keep forgetting: talk less. 😀

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.