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.

Do I want to take up this fight?

About two weeks ago, one of my daughters and I decided to ride our bikes to a beach close to our place to go for a swim. We packed our things, and off we went taking a path that we have been taking either when walking or by bike during all the years we have been living in this house. It is a street that leads towards a neighbourhood with apartment buildings, and in between two of these buildings, there is a big garden. In the middle of the garden, a path leads towards the shoreline. When I walk or bike towards the sea, I always choose this way because the view from the garden towards the sea is beautiful. In addition, there are almost no cars there, so I think it is safer and more pleasant.

As we were passing one of the buildings heading towards the path in the middle of the garden, we saw an elder man standing outside. I biked passed him, smiled and said ‘hi’. To my surprise he said, ‘you have to turn around and find another way, this is a private street’. I disagreed and pointed out that we have been using this way to go to the shoreline for years without any problem. There are no signs confirming that it is a private street. I also mentioned the Norwegian law that prevents people from blocking the access to public spaces. He suddenly changed his mind, and told me that we shouldn’t ride our bikes there because there is a garage and cars come out sometimes too fast and we can be hurt. I told him that we would be ok, and that I would not find another way today. We continued our way to the beach crossing the path between buildings.

All the way to the beach, I kept wondering though. Who is right? Is this a private street? I was on one side annoyed by the unpleasant moment, and on the other trying to be reasonable about the whole situation. This has been one of my favourite areas in our neighbourhood for years, especially during this time of the year. Am I willing to let go of this area? Shall I keep using this path and be ready to go through several unpleasant situations if I meet the same man?

When I got home, I actually checked the law. I even imagined myself riding my bike alone one day and being stopped by the same man, and suggesting we call the police to help us out. I was sure the police would agree that this is not a private street. But an important question popped in my head, do I really want to waste energy on this?

I tried to see things from his perspective. There is an area near these buildings that has become very popular among teenagers during the hot summer days. They gather to sunbathe, play volleyball and bathe in the sea. Maybe, during these days, there are a lot of people riding their bikes down this path, and I can understand it being disturbing with the noise. It might also be scary with a lot of bikes passing in high speed for those who are walking.

I have been using this path for over seven years, enjoying the view and the nature, but do I want to get into a conflict just because of that? No. Are there alternative ways to the same place? Yes. Can I let go? Yes. I actually got excited with the idea of discovering other ways to get to the same place. Get to know other sides of the same neighbourhood.

About a week after this experience, I went for a hike with a dear friend, and out of the blue, without me mentioning this little incident, she told me about a similar situation she and her neighbours are experiencing but from the side of the elder man. Around eight houses share the same grounds, and some years ago, an entrepreneur built a whole new residential area near these houses. Everyday, people cross their ground to get to and from the bus. This represents noise and a feeling of loosing privacy since people passing by can see directly into the houses. Many of her neighbours are annoyed About a week after this experience, I went for a hike with a dear friend, and out of the blue, without me mentioning this little incident, she told me about a similar situation she and her neighbours are experiencing but from the side of the elder man. Five houses built in the 80s, share a driveway that helps each resident arrive at their home from the main road. Over the past year, a developer has built a whole new residential area adjacent to these houses and driveway. Everyday, people from the new development use their driveway to get to and from the bus, schools and shops in the area though there are other, far less convenient access routes available to them. This increased traffic (not forecasted when my friend bought her house a year ago even though they’d asked the seller about any existing neighbourhood conflicts) represents noise and a loss of privacy since people passing by can see directly into the houses, and sometimes carry on conversations late at night. Daily, there is also an increased safety risk as children and people riding bikes now use this area intended for the car traffic of several homes, not for the dozens of homes using it now as a walkway. My friend’s neighbours are annoyed by this change, and they are trying to discuss how to solve this problem. Although the context of her story is different because it is mainly about poor planning from the developer’s and Kommune’s side, it made me think about my own story. There are always at least two sides to a story, and most of the time, we need to be able to see beyond our own perspective in order to find solutions that do not create more distress and stress.

In many situations in my life, I often end up with the same question: who is right? Most of the time, I realise no one is completely right, it is just a matter of perspectives. The question is, where am I willing to invest my energy? Do I want to be part of the problem or the solution? Sometimes, after weighing all possibilities, we might believe that our perspective is the right one, and we then have to swallow the bitter pill of engaging in a discussion that will be unpleasant. Sometimes, we have to go through the moment(s) of unpleasantness to see a change happen. So it is a constant dance between what we believe in, what we stand for and trying to see things from other perspectives.

In my little story here, it is obviously not worth the bitter pill. I can let go of my favourite path. Who knows? I might discover a new favourite path in the process. 🙂

Reflections during my sick leave

A week ago, I woke up to start our day as ‘usual’ since the start of the lockdown. I turned in bed to get ready to get up, and to my big surprise, I became so dizzy that I just couldn’t sit up. Whenever I tried, I would feel so dizzy that I would get nauseous. What to do? Well, as with any other illness, stay in bed.

I spent two whole days in bed, unable to read, or do anything else than keep my eyes closed to avoid getting even more dizzy. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t sleeping that much, so I was awake, in bed, doing nothing. Since I practice Yoga, I thought this would be the ‘perfect’ opportunity to just be. Be with myself, with my thoughts and try to breathe through the whole thing. Some kind of forced silent retreat.

Halfway through the second day, my mind was driving me crazy, so much that I decided I couldn’t just lie down there, so I forced myself to get up, take a shower and try to ‘act normal’. My mind was driving me crazy because of two main reasons: recurrent painful thoughts and the feeling of being useless by just lying there without even having a feber.

My mind was going around and around thoughts of regret, loss, lack and worthlessness. Thoughts that I usually try to tame in my everyday life, but that I had to face when I had nothing to do. I keep noticing that I want to use yoga teachings to become someone else. Someone who doesn’t have these thoughts. Someone who doesn’t ‘need’ anything but unfortunately, given the chance, my mind keeps bringing me back to them. So, I decided to just allow, to allow my mind to go where it wants to go, to accept that this is how I really feel at times. Am I reasonable? Well, what is reasonable? Who gets to decide?

I am now able to sit up and move around, and do stuff almost as usual, but the dizziness keeps coming back so I am in a sick leave for a week. Once I just allowed these thoughts to be, they became less strong and I moved to another kind of thinking. Or is it reflecting? Life is slowly going back to normal here in Norway. Schools are reopening, some people are allowed to go back to work. This is, of course, great news, but I have some resistance to the idea of going ‘back to normal’. Although I think my life isn’t necessarily stressful, it is a busy life. The main activities that occupy my mind and my time are being a yoga student, my work as a teacher, being a mother, and trying to establish myself as a yoga teacher. I want to be good at everything I do and I keep feeling guilty about all other things I don’t do because I don’t have time/energy. For me, doing anything halfheartedly is mentally impossible, I need to put my 100% in everything I do and still, I go around with bad conscience for not doing better.

So, these days, I keep thinking about the importance of silence. Internal silence. According to many traditions, it is in silence that we finally hear our call. That we finally hear what we are here for. I find my three main activities in life very meaningful, but I keep doubting myself. I am tired of running from one thing to another and constantly feeling that I come too short.

There are certain things I feel I cannot let go of. I can’t leave my job because my salary is important for our family budget. I can’t stop being a mum, I don’t want to stop being a mum. Shall I stop teaching yoga? Am I pushing too much? Yoga for me is a personal journey and I started teaching because I want to share what I feel has helped me a lot in my life, but there are hundreds of yoga teachers out there. Does the world ‘need’ me as a yoga teacher? I don’t know.

I also notice that I ‘use’ yoga to put pressure on myself. This sounds very stupid, but I am very honest here. I ask myself? Am I making progress in my spiritual life? Do I need to study more? Am I applying these teachings appropriately? How much do I have to do and how much do I have to let in the hands of the Universe/God/Divine providence/ or whatever you want to call it?

I feel also that I am tired of being part of a system I don’t agree with. I am more and more concerned about the natural world. I feel more and more bad conscience about the way we are destroying it. How we feel entitled to do as we please. I want to be part of a solution and not continue being part of the problem, but to be honest, I have no clue on how or what to change other than the regular small things. I am reading a book by Satish Kumar called You Are Therefor I Am, it i so inspiring. If I could choose, I would take my family and my cat to a place where we can live a simpler life. A life where the important thing is to be in pact with nature and in pact with ourselves, and not to live according to the standards the capitalist society dictates. I keep thinking how important it is to find a passion, a call, but most of our kids are busy doing what we tell them is important to do, and when they have spare time, they are mentally and emotionally numb in front of their electric devices. ‘As long as they do well at school’, we repeat to ourselves. But really? Is that what will bring them peace? Is school giving children a sense of meaningfulness?

So, I am thinking that for the months to come. I will practice more silence. I will do less. I will put my heart in my daily chores. I will be more mindful. I will flow. All this with the hope that clarity will come to me. Where to go? What to do? What to change?

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. 😉