Who knows what is best for you?

“You can rise up through the efforts of your own mind; or in the same manner, draw yourself down, for you are your own friend or enemy.” Bhagavad Gita ch6v5

This quote is from chapter 6 in the Bhagavad Gita where the path of meditation is explained (Yoga Dharana). Krishna, Arjuna’s friend and guide emphasises that we have the power to make our lives good or bad.

Notice how Krishna talks about the ‘efforts of [our] own mind’.  The mind is key and the outer circumstances are secondary in this theory of Yoga.
The work of self-observation and self-reflection is crucial in order to decide which aspects of our life and mind we can continue cultivating and which ones we need to change, and more importantly, how.

In the quest towards making choices that will improve your well-being, you can start by avoiding taking your mind and body too seriously. What does this mean? Avoid over-identifying yourself with the shape of your body or the state of your mind. Avoid the extremes of overindulging or neglecting yourself. In both cases, you are feeding into your ego mind which prevents you from reaching deeper into your Higher self which, according to Yoga, is Pure Potential.

Overindulging 

What do you associate with overindulging? How do you overindulge? We often think about food and alcohol, but there are other ways to overindulge: sex, work, sleep, social media, reading the news… It is basically any activity we do to stimulate our mind through our senses where we lose control.

Beside the possibility of harming our health, by losing control of our senses, we also lose the opportunity to keep a calm and clear state of mind. Patanjali talks about thoughts that bring pain, and thoughts that bring suffering. Thoughts that bring suffering are selfish thoughts. Whether we like it or not, when we lose control over our senses we are being selfish. We are seeking to feel good through the experience of sense objects. The problem is that, when we seek comfort by satisfying our senses, we end up in a negative spiral. We either experience momentary pleasure in sensual experiences, but the moment the stimulus is over, we start craving for more, or even worse, we don’t experience satisfaction until it is ‘too much’ leaving us feeling overstimulated, and maybe even remorseful for the loss of control over ourselves.

Overindulging often comes from a conscious or unconscious feeling of void. This void is felt in different ways by different people and we often connect it to past experiences or trauma. The truth is that if we all observe our mind, we all experience some sort of emptiness. For some, it is stronger, and for others it is more bearable. 

So, what to do?

  1. Slow down: when we slow down, we are more aware of what we do and why we do it.
  2. Make sure you rest enough: lack of sleep and rest can lead to overindulgece. The mind seeks stimulation to get out of tiredness or the emotional instability tiredness brings.
  3. Enjoy life with moderation: we are not encouraged to neglect ourselves. We are encouraged to use our senses to experience the world with its ups and downs but we are warned of the consequences of being controlled by our senses. Instead, we should aim to live a life of discipline, where we control the senses.
  4. Try not to put your well-being in sensory experiences. Cultivate contentment that is independent of the external world. Contentment is mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is anchored inside ourselves, no matter what is happening outside us.

By contentment, supreme joy is gained.” Book II sutra 42 Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Swami Satchidananda writes in his commentary on Paranjali’s Yoga Sutras that one must understand the difference between contentment and satisfaction: ‘Contentment means just to be as we are without going to outside things for our happiness. If something comes, we let it come. If not, it doesn’t matter. Contentment means neither to like nor dislike.’

“ The contact of bodily senses with objects and attractions in the world creates feelings like sorrow or happiness, and sensations like heat or cold. But these are impermanent, transitory, coming and going like passing clouds. Just endure them patiently and bravely; learn to be unaffected by them.” Bhagavad Gita ch2 v14

The Bhagavad Gita invites us to live a life of moderation and of constant awareness over and control of the senses. The problem with putting our happiness in sensory experiences is that they do not last. Everything we experience in the outer world is transient. If we want to experience a constant feeling of contentment, we need to put our focus inwards. According to Yoga, all we need is already inside ourselves, beyond our mind and our body. If we take the time to slow down, to make contact with this inner core, we will gradually experience this feeling of contentment that is independent of anything that is happening around us.

  1. Take time to know yourself in all aspects of your life. Observe what happens when you sleep less, what happens when you sleep more. Try different techniques to improve sleep: reading, light exercise before bedtime, meditation, yoga, staying away from electric devices. Observe what happens with your body and mind when you eat certain food. Be honest with yourself. It might be possible that you feel satisfied after overindulging, but what happens next? Do you experience discomfort? If not, continue as you do. If yes, what can you change? If we take the time to listen to ourselves, to observe how our body and mind react to different stimuli, we find out what best suits us.
  2. Create habits and stick to them. We are all different, and it is good to listen to advice, but if you keep jumping blindly from one thing to another, you are not listening to yourself. It has taken me many years of either overeating or dieting to finally realize that something in between is what is best for me. I have tried different things and have come to a sustainable diet. Something that I can live with, that doesn’t complicate my life, on the contrary, it makes it easier.
  3. Be patient. Be consistent. Be kind and compassionate towards yourself. 

Self-neglect

“I must emphasize that you have to lift yourself by your own efforts! You must not allow yourself to be demeaned by your ego-self. Know that the self can be both friend and foe – a friend when used to conquer the mind, senses and body; a foe, when it drags one into the mind, senses, and the body. True Self (Atma) is the ally; the ego-mind self is the enemy.” Bhagavad Gita ch6 v5-6

Some feed into their ego by overstimulating their senses, some, by self-neglect. Many move from one to the other constantly beating themselves for either overindulging or for not taking care of themselves.

In any case, we are only feeding into our ego mind creating stress and distress for ourselves. Neglect is not only harmful for ourselves because how can we function to our best when we don’t take care of ourselves? How can we show genuine care, compassion and love to others when we don’t do it towards ourselves?

Therefore, the best thing you can do is to find MODERATION in your life.

“It is impossible to practice Yoga effectively if you eat or sleep either too much or too little. But if you are moderate in eating, playing, sleeping, staying awake and avoiding extremes in everything you do, you will see that these Yoga practices eliminate all your pain and suffering.” Bhagavad Gita ch6 v16-17

Note that ‘practice Yoga’ doesn’t mean to do physical exercise (asana), but the practice of cultivating a peaceful and clear state of mind. If what we seek is to live a more peaceful and clear life, we need to start by taking good care of ourselves. Even if we are taught that we are much more than our body and mind, these are the vehicles we have to move around and experience life. Therefore, we need to take care of both. The best way to do so is by living a life of moderation in actions and in thought.

Who will you spend the rest of your life with?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? What is the obvious answer?…You!

You might spend a lot of time and energy trying to make sense of your relationships with other people. You might invite people to your life and say good bye to others often connected to what they bring to your life, but how much time do you spend trying to figure out the person who will be with you until your last breath, namely you?

If I ask you how well do you know yourself? What would be your answer? Hopefully, you know your likes and dislikes, and you know your strengths and weaknesses. Often, however, our introspection stops there. We know how we think, how we feel and how we act in different situations, and we limit ourselves to believe that there is nothing we can do about it believing that that’s just how we are.

Yoga teaches us that there is more to ourselves than what we usually think, and taking the time to get to know ourselves better can help us:

  1. Accept ourselves better
  2. Gradually let go of the aspects of our mind that bring suffering to bring lasting peace of mind
  3. Cultivate the qualities that bring inner peace

Rude honesty, acceptance and refinement

The work of introspection starts with self-observation, honesty and acceptance. Observe your behaviour, thoughts and attitudes, and find what doesn’t help you cultivate inner peace, what creates distress, what hurts others and yourself. Honest reflection is required here but do this with the same kindness you would use to rise your own child. Do this with acceptance and without judgement, because if you don’t accept yourself, the work of refining your thoughts will be very difficult. Being judgemental towards yourself will mislead you and you will get stuck in the negative emotion created by your judgement missing the opportunity to go deeper.

Let us say that you have a tendency to get very angry and you don’t like how you behave when you do so. Every time you get very angry you end up doing and saying things that you know hurt others. After an outburst of anger, you then end up feeling frustrated and angry towards yourself regretting the whole situation for hours or even for days. Ruminating, blaming yourself for not being patient, blaming others for their behaviour, blaming the world for being as it is.

Do you see how much time and energy is invested in a pile of emotions that are not helping you? What we learn through the study and practice of yoga is to first and foremost accept that you experience anger but you are not anger. Anger is an emotion that comes to you as some sort of messenger, and you are invited to listen to this emotion, figure out why you get angry. The tough part is that you need to look inside yourself to find the answer instead of pointing your finger toward other people, or the circumstances that make you angry.

In yoga psychology, we learn that anger is often connected to our expectations or to fear. If we manage to recognise the source of the emotion, we then are able to do the work by asking ourselves if we can change or let go of the expectation or if our fear is unfounded. This kind of process requires patience, time and a lot of practice. Awareness is the first step, acceptance is the next one and then we can start the work of refining our perception in order to change the behaviour.

That is where the regular practice of meditation comes in handy. When we sit in silence with ourselves, we learn breathing techniques that help us slow down and relax. We learn to observe our thoughts as if they were some sort of movie playing on the screen of our mind. When we sit in meditation we do not act. We just observe. With practice, we can bring some of the elements of meditation to our everyday life. When I notice that I am angry, I can take some deep breaths to calm myself and create some space between the emotion and the reaction. I can observe my thoughts and allow them to stay as thoughts and not as actions. I can then remind myself where this emotion comes from, and choose the best way to deal with the situation without hurting myself or others in the process.

Another useful practice is to start noticing your self-talk as you go about throughout the day. Whenever you catch yourself being nasty towards yourself, stop, and try to change it to constructive self-talk. It is okey to be critical, to want to improve, but it is not okey if you are constantly putting yourself down.

Cultivate qualities that bring inner peace

The work of introspection is not easy, and it can leave us feeling vulnerable. It is not easy to see with full honesty into the limiting ideas we have about ourselves and those around us. It can be tough at times. That is why, we need to see ourselves as our most important ally in life. We need to accept, love and show compassion towards the aspect of ourselves that we do not like, and keep cultivating the aspects of ourselves that we know bring peace to our mind.

Both in the Bhagavad Gita and in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we are encouraged to replace limiting thoughts that bring pain to ourselves and others with thoughts, attitudes and actions that bring inner peace and by consequence peace around us.

There are several ways to do this, but I want to highlight three:

  1. Decide which values you want to live up to, write them down somewhere. They shouldn’t be more than five. You can maybe range them from your topmost important. Every morning, read your values, and either choose to live consciously by applying them every moment of the day, or choose one for a period of time. Whenever you are in a situation where you need to make a choice on how to behave, go back to your value and reflect how you are applying it in the situation. It might happen that you sometimes go back to acting in a reactive way without reflecting, and realise that you went the completely opposite direction than the one shown by the chosen value. This is completely okay. Practice is one of the main principles in the yoga tradition, and it is not by chance. Every deep change needs practice. So, forgive yourself, learn the lesson, and keep trying.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we find some guidance if we were unsure on what to choose, in Chapter 2, sutras 29-32, he talks about the Yamas or great vows, and Niyamas or observances. The Yamas are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-greed, and the Niyamas are purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study of spiritual books, and self-surrender or worship to God (the Divine).

Furthermore, in chapter 1, Sutra 33, he gives practical advice on what kind of attitudes we can cultivate towards other people in order to cultivate inner peace:

‘By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.’

In the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 16 verses 1-3, we find many uplifting values and attitudes that can help us:

‘(1) Fearlessness, purity of heart, perseverance in acquiring wisdom and in practicing yoga, charity, subjugation of the senses, performance of holy rites, study of the scriptures, self-discipline, straightforwardness;

(2) Noninjury, truthfulness, freedom from wrath, renunciation, peacefulness, nonslanderousness, compassion for all creatures, absence of greed, gentleness, modesty, lack of restlessness;

(3) Radiance of character, forgiveness, patience, cleanness, freedom from hate, absence of conceit—these qualities are the wealth of a divinely inclined person, O Descendant of Bharata.’

2. Whenever you catch yourself having thoughts that limit yourself. Thoughts that bring distress, stress and/or pain, acknowledge them, accept them, and remind yourself what you want to replace them with. Let’s say I want to live in Trust instead of Fear. Whenever I am worried about an uncertain situation in the near or far future, I can remind myself to trust I will be able to deal with it, and that I will get through whatever life brings.

‘When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.’ Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras translated by Swami Satchidananda

3. Create yourself an affirmation. If you know in which area of your life you struggle the most, for example, having a feeling of unworthiness, or feeling a lack of love, or feeling unsafe, create an affirmation for yourself: ‘I am enough’, ‘I am loved and protected’… During the day, whenever you remember, repeat your affirmation in your head, and especially in moments of distress.

You are much more than what you believe

Lastly, in the yoga tradition, we are constantly reminded that our body and our mind are only the vehicle through which we experience life, but we are much more than that. Every sentient being is at their core what in Sanskrit is called Atma. My favourite translation to English is Pure Potential. We all are this Pure Potential which is source of infinite love, creativity and happiness. That is why we keep seeking love and happiness throughout our lives! The challenge is that throughout our life (and lives, if you can accept the idea of reincarnation), our mind has been shaped by experiences, and this Pure Potential is covered with layares and layers of limiting ideas that do not allow us to see our real nature.

Our job is then to peel off the layers of limited thoughts to come closer to our core. We start by replacing our thoughts and behaviours that cause pain with what doesn’t cause pain, and little by little we are able to let go of everything that limits us to finally see the infinite goodness in ourselves and others.

Whether you believe in this or not, you should at least know that we all are capable of much more than we limit ourselves to believe. We all have the ability to change our mindset. It is not easy, it won’t happen in a day or two, but with practice and perseverance, you will notice the gradual changes.

The onion

A very dear friend who lives on the other side of the world recently asked me this question on WatsApp: “How are you on a personal level?” Simple question that has kept me thinking since she asked it.

My immediate answer was “I’m doing good” but I then started wondering what aspect of “me” am I evaluating when I answer this question? I guess it means that I don’t start talking about how I am doing as a mum, or as a teacher, or as a wife, or as a daughter, or as a yoga teacher but just as Vanessa… but who is this Vanessa? Is she separated from all the other roles that she plays every day? Can Vanessa do well when the mum doesn’t do well? Can the mum be ok when Vanessa isn’t doing well?

I know this seems quite silly, but really, what does ‘on the personal level’ mean to you? I would argue that it has different variables for each and everyone of us, but I think it often implies our social and emotional life. It might also have an aspect of what we can call ‘self realisation’ beyond our obligations. Does it then mean that to do well on a personal level, I have to have a successful social life or have a hobby or be in a romantic relationship?

Through the eyes of yoga, I would argue that my social life and my romantic life are also part of the roles I play: the friend and the lover. So, how am I doing beyond that? Well, if I don’t attach to any of the roles I play in life, if I let go of all my expectations, I can then say that I am doing very well. I feel at peace for the moment, I feel balanced and, above everything, I feel thankful. Nothing exciting is happening right now and still, I feel good.

I was recently discussing the concept of equanimity of mind as described in the Bhagavad Gita with a fellow yogini, and she was saying that although she understands the idea, she is not sure of wanting to live a life ‘without emotion’. A life where ‘you don’t feel sad or you don’t feel happy’, where ‘everything seems the same’. I remember thinking the same when I started studying yoga, and although I am not constantly there yet, I do notice that my spectrum of emotions is not as wide as it used to be. There are no super highs and there are no super lows. There isn’t much excitement in my life, but I feel in general calm and this allows me to appreciate the moments of harmony and deal more skilfully with challenging moments. If this resembles equanimity of mind, I am all for it. I hope it also counts as doing well on the personal level.

I know this question was asked with a sincere wish to know how I am doing, and I appreciate my friend asking it. My point here is to invite to reflection. How are you doing on the personal level? What defines your well-being on the personal level? Have you ever thought about it? Is it dependent on external factors or is it something you work with internally?

Why do I like Marvel movies so much?

Since the start of January, life has been busy. I have been planning a trip to India to study meditation with my teacher, but I made a terrible mistake with the paperwork required for the trip. I have this bad habit of always taking the longest and most complicated path towards a goal. So six weeks before my trip, I was trying to get all my documents in order to be allowed to travel. In addition, my husband and middle daughter left for a planned trip three weeks before my departure.

So here I was, at home with our other two children, with work, after school activities, and the responsibility of the house on my own.

It has been some intense weeks towards this trip. After letting go of my frustration for complicating things, I just did what I felt I could do to get my papers in order, and decided to leave the rest to happen as it had to happen. Luckily, nobody’s life depended on this trip, so if it turned out I couldn’t go, I would have felt very disappointed, but at least I would have learned my lesson.

Like magic, the same week my daughter and husband left for their trip, I received a message that I could pick up my passport in Oslo. That frustration and uncertainty got solved.

Then, there was work. Lots of work. I took on an extra role this Spring semester, and this meant some late evenings in January at work. Again, slightly bad planning from my side knowing that my husband was going to be away and that I had to juggle between my main job as a teacher, my kids’ activities and my yoga classes.

Early on, I had this ‘peptalk’ with myself: what are my main priorities here? How can I organise myself? What can I let go of to make my everyday easier? What can we learn from all this?

My main priority is: stay calm, keep my inner peace. If I mange to do this in the middle of busy periods, I am more focused, I am more creative and more efficient. I am open and present at any moment with my children (who are my priority nr2), with my students (at school and in my yoga classes) and my colleagues.

So, following the teachings of Karma yoga, I tried to keep in mind at all times what my role in each situation was, I did my best, and hoped for the best. I don’t want to sound crazy, but just like magic, things kept falling into place little by little. My kids are now old enough to take some responsibility at home and help, and I think they enjoyed this responsibility. I enjoyed the time I spent with them knowing that otherwise, we were all three going from one thing to another throughout the week.

I did meet some challenges, some ups and some downs, and after a first reaction of frustration, I kept reminding myself to stay focused, stay calm, and here I am two days before my departure and it seems like everything is ready. My lessons are planned, my house is clean, there’s food in the fridge, and my kids are calm. My husband and daughter are soon on their way back home.

Just yesterday, I was watching a Marvel movie with my youngest. We l-o-v-e to watch Marvel movies! And it suddenly hit me why I like these superheroes so much. They just do what they have to do. They get beaten up, they win some battles and they loose others, but they have very clear what their goal and priorities are. They just keep going. That is the life I aspire. Clarity, empowerment, resilience. That is why I work so hard on myself, and I see that the positive results not only benefit myself but also those closer to me. No matter how busy I am, I prioritise my sadhana, at least ten minutes breathing exercises. This helps me reconnect with myself, slow down and set things in perspective. It is self-help at its best.

I am also lucky enough to have supportive and understanding colleagues, some close friends that I know I can count with if things get too crazy and the support of my husband that encourages me to go on trips like this one. There isn’t many people in my life, but the ones that are in it make a big difference, just by their presence, their support and understanding.

May we all have the clarity to keep reminding ourselves to be open, stay calm and focused, and above all trust in ourselves and the process.

Have a good week everyone!

Not perfect but certainly unique

I’ve been living outside my country of birth for over twenty years now. I first moved to France when I was 19 years old, and then to Norway when I was 23. It was especially in Norway that I experienced several times being hesitant between what I felt was the natural thing to do, and what I observed the locals did (or didn’t do). During years, it became a sort of internal battle, and I must confess that my inner impulses often lost because of the fear to not fit in, to be seen as strange (who’s ‘normal’ anyway?). It is as if moving to another country suddenly confirmed all my insecurities and created new ones.

In recent conversations with some other ‘foreigners’, I have discovered that many experience the same. A yoga student was telling me the other day that she dislikes the fact that there is no culture of feedback in the company where she works or at least feedback she feels she can grow professionally from. She would appreciate constructive feedback to improve, but there might be this fear of ‘hurting’ people’s feelings by pointing at what could be better. When I asked why she didn’t bring this up, she seemed unsure. I completely understand her because I can relate to the experience. More often than not, I also choose to go with the flow, but why? In my case, I am afraid of my idea being rejected but if you think about it, if that is the worse that can happen, I might survive no?

A colleague was sharing a similar story. He volunteers as a coach at his kid’s sports club. Here in Norway, it is traditionally parents who organise and coach kids in many sports activities after school. My colleague had observed how the behaviour of the kids sometimes comes in the way for better opportunities for them to learn, and he had some ideas of how to improve this but again, he felt pretty unsure about bringing this up with the other parents. ‘This is maybe the way it is done in Norway’, he said. I think that the sports club is lucky to have him among the volunteering parents, and they would benefit from hearing his ideas, but it seems like he wasn’t completely agreeing with me. And I get it. I know it is easy for me to sit there and listen and want to push him to act when I haven’t done it myself in so many other situations. Of course, this doesn’t only happen with foreigners, it happens to many everywhere.

Coincidentally, I had been reading about svadharma while preparing a workshop about Karma Yoga this week, so I have been thinking a lot about how important it is to be courageous enough to see our uniqueness as an asset, and use it more often to encourage small changes around us…or at least try. Somehow, many of us believe that there is one right way to do things and many other wrong ways. Or, if everybody is doing it the same way, and I see another way, it must be because I am wrong.

It is well-known that the best way to help someone is to focus on his/her qualities, and use them to help him/her grow and develop. Why do we forget to do the same with ourselves? Do you know what you are good at? What comes naturally for you? What do you do that makes you feel a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning? If not, don’t panic, you have it (everybody has it), but it is for some reason hidden from you. Maybe you have been spending too much time putting your attention ‘out there’? Comparing yourself with others? Following other’s path without noticing that it is not yours? Or maybe you have been too busy criticising yourself? Focusing on your less good sides? On your ‘darker’ sides? Have you ever thought about the fact that in order to be light, we need darkness? That we need two sides for a coin to be a coin? So you too have very good and less good aspects in your personality. It is good to try to improve the less good ones, but it is not good that they take all your attention and cloud your good sides.

Here are some challenges for you (and for me). In the weeks to come, start every morning by writing down three things that you see as qualities in you. Don’t allow your mind to play you tricks like saying ‘this is silly’, or that you don’t have any unique qualities, or that yes, maybe but so and so are even better than you. Then, before you go to bed, think about situations during the day where you used these qualities for the benefit of the whole. How did that make you feel? Do you think you need to use them more? Last but not least, is there something you’ve been wanting to suggest at work, in your neighbourhood, at home, or wherever but you haven’t dared? Maybe now is the time! Try, and if your idea isn’t accepted, at least you won’t go around for the rest of your life wondering what would have happened if you had dared to try.