Bikes, Cars and Karma Yoga

Our car broke down some weeks ago, and we decided to try out a life without a car for some time. This means that we are using our feet, our bikes and the public transportation more often than before, and we occasionally rent a car from a car collective we’ve joined.

This is possible because we live in a city where the infrastructure for pedestrians is very good, public transportation is quite efficient, and lately, the authorities have been investing a lot in improving the bike lanes.

However, almost every day, I observe distracted car drivers creating dangerous situations for themselves, pedestrians and cyclists. Needless to say, this really scares me when I’m biking with my kids even though I keep drilling them about predicting possible tricky places where a car can suddenly appear.

Today, I was riding my bike alone so I was going a bit faster than when I am with my kids, when I started approaching a gateway. Luckily for me, I instinctively started slowing down because from behind came a car, and without using his blinkers, it turned just in front of me. I had to stop abruptly, and almost fell off the bike, and the driver never saw me. I wasn’t angry, but this isn’t the first time this happens to me in the last few weeks, and I really considered going in to talk with him but I decided to let it go because I didn’t want to end up in a conflict. I still don’t fully trust myself not to get angry.

I think the key word here is distracted mind. I have been there too as a car driver. Driving my car in a hurry, or with a million things in my head, or trying to find something in my purse on the passenger seat, or all the three above plus more. The more I reflected about it, the more I was making connections with some of the principles of Karma yoga.

We all play different roles throughout the day and in this particular story, the man was the driver. According to Karma yoga, each role has its dharma, it’s nature and purpose. So, let’s say that the dharma of a car driver is to get from A to B, but not only that. According to Karma yoga, he should play this role in a skilful way, and my interpretation of this in this story is basically to find the most effective way to get where he needs to go, get there on time, and stay safe. That, in my head is the dharma of a car driver. The problem is, most of the things we do, most of the roles we play, we don’t really pay attention to them. Maybe because we do so much…too much? Our minds are distracted. Maybe, if we started paying more attention to what we do, and ask ourselves what the purpose of it is, how our different attitudes and actions affect the role we play and those involved, we would avoid scary situations in traffic, or conflicts with people we cross throughout the day.

If, when I decide to sit in my car (when I had one), I spend ten seconds to remind myself of my dharma in that moment: get to where I need to go in an efficient way and stay safe. I might then avoid distractions, drive slower, show consideration to other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. What if I’m in a hurry because I left home later than I should? I then have to remind myself that rushing, not stopping at intersections, driving on red lights is selfish and does not fulfil my dharma as a car driver.

This is what I love about the teachings of the Gita, it is all so practical! It is all intended to help us live a more skilful life and thus be more peaceful and influence our surroundings in a positive way. Lately, I try this quite often, sometimes to play with my mind, sometimes to come out of challenging situations. I stop and ask myself, what is my role right now? How is the skilful way to play this role without attaching to my ego? I sincerely believe that if we all did this, we would be less stressed.

One thing did come to my mind though, when this man sat in his car, he “became” a car driver, that was his role then, but it doesn’t mean that he stopped being a father, or a husband, or a son, or an employee/employer. Maybe, one or several of his roles was one of the reasons why he was distracted. Maybe he was worried about something, maybe he was rushing because there was some sort of emergency. So, yes, we are constantly juggling all the roles we have, but when all these roles keep us in a state of constant distracted minds, we need to take a step back and reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it. It might be time to reconsider our priorities. But that, is subject for another post. 😉

It’s unfair!

One thing that frustrates me to tears since I was a little girl is the feeling of being treated unfairly. I purposely say ‘the feeling of being treated unfairly’ because from what I observe in myself, it is often a matter of perception.

As a kid, I might have been scolded at for doing something I didn’t perceive as a fault but for the “scolding” adult, it was. I see that a lot as a teacher of young teenagers, when I correct a behaviour, my student(s) and I often move into a discussion about the unfairness of me pointing out at this action as inappropriate. This then leads to me explaining how the behaviour is against our school’s common agreements, or how it affects negatively the classroom/school’s environment, and the student in question seeing it as unfair because he/she wants or needs something different. There is a conflict between what the student in question wants or needs and what he/she can/should do at that given moment.

So, sometimes unfairness is a matter of perception, but what happens when we experience doing our best in something for then seeing it being taken away from us without clear reason? Some years ago, out of the blue, a friend that I considered as one of my closest friends, suddenly decided that she didn’t want me in her life anymore. When I asked for a reason to at least have the chance to apologise, my friend got even more angry and accused me of harassing her. We don’t live in the same country, so this made things even more difficult. I asked myself several times what was it that I did to be treated like this, and honestly, to the day today I really don’t know. In this friendship of so many years where we never ever had dispute, this really felt unfair.

After some days of reflecting, I decided that all I could do is to respect my friend’s decision. I sent her a message telling her that I love her and that I would be here in case she wanted to reestablish contact, and I let her go. From the yogic perspective, I went into this conflict with the intention to do my part to fix it, I measured my words and tried my best, her reaction to it was completely out of my hands. Why spend more time and energy thinking about the unfairness of the situation? Why make the situation even messier by engaging in negative thoughts and feelings when none of them would solve anything and just add distress for me?

If there is something I am more and more convinced of it’s the fact that even when it seems like people do things to us, it is all about their inner world. Why do I know this? Because I experience it myself. All my interactions with others and the world around me are a result of my way of perceiving myself and the outer world.

I guess at this point you are wondering if I mean that we should then just accept unfairness and let go. Not really, but like with everything, I think we do ourselves a favour when we peel off the layers of emotion in any given situation. I am not saying we shouldn’t experience emotion, but we should try to not feed into negativity and rather approach life in a practical way by seeking clarity in our mind.

I recently had the privilege to learn a big lesson from another friend. She lives abroad, has a child and is divorced. She was facing a trial about the custody of her child, and like in many trials, the lawyer in the opposing party had dug into her personal life to find aspects of her past and personality that could be presented in a bad light. It was very tough for her who has been taking good care of her child and taken every decision thinking of the child’s best, to be depicted in a completely wrong way. After the first emotion of unfairness and frustration had passed, she decided to stay calm throughout the whole process and not even respond to these accusations. She had prepared her case well, she had done all the right things for her child, and didn’t have anything to prove. She even had the compassion to understand the tactic, and let go of it in her mind. This, in my opinion is the big lesson for me to learn here. She let go for her own well-being. Thus, by letting go, she was able to stay calm in court, talk from reason, and go home with peace in her heart. She was, of course, nervous for the outcome but had the wisdom to see that she had done her part and the rest wasn’t in her hands.

This is the very principle of Karma Yoga. In her role as a mum, my friend did her duty by always acting with her child’s best interest in mind, she presented herself to trial well-prepared, the rest is not in her hands.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t fight when we perceive something as unfair? I don’t know for sure, but I think that we would benefit from asking ourselves what is it that we are fighting for and why are we fighting for it? What is required from us in that particular role? How much will this fight cost emotionally? What would happen if we let go?

This morning, I was reading verse 11 from ch2 in the Bhagavad Gita where Sri Krisna says to the warrior Arjuna “The wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead” which for me, in the context of spirituality, is a big statement. We don’t lament our losses, because they are losses in the transient world. The transient world is constantly changing and nothing that we acquire in it is really ours. What is even more important, no matter how much we loose ‘out there’, we don’t loose anything inside ourselves. Sometimes we even need to let go of something in order to learn a lesson, in order to be able to move on and win something that truly benefits us. If we are sure of our integrity, of our attitudes and our actions, no one can take that away from us. We can loose an unfair battle, but we can also rise tall, and move on to the next level.

It is interesting to use the Gita here, since it is a song about the dialogue between Arjuna and Krisna at the battlefield right before a big battle Arjuna needs to fight against, among other things, injustice. But I think the key here is to remember that Arjuna should engage in this fight following his duty as a warrior, and not driven by his own negative emotions…