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’.

Reflections over a recovering broken arm.

I have three teenage kids…or almost. The youngest is turning thirteen this year, but she surely behaves like a teen already. Since they were toddlers, I have tried as much as possible to explain the whys of my behavior as a mum. Why they have to brush their teeth, why it is important to have healthy eating habits, why it is important to have a sleeping routine, why we wear a hat and mittens when it’s cold outside, and so on.

I am not sure how much they’ve listened, or how clear my explanations were because the older they get, the poorer choices they seem to want to make. Especially our oldest and our youngest. The one in the middle has less liberty because she was born with a syndrome and one of the recommendations with her diagnosis is to have very clear routines, so she knows there is little room for discussion when it comes to food, sleep, and exercise. Otherwise, she is happy to follow instructions when it comes to outdoor clothing.

Our oldest is 15 years old and turning 16 this year. The last year or year and a half, I had started to let him make his own choices more. I had stopped insisting on him wearing a hat, or mittens, or a rain jacket. During weekdays, we still insist on him going to bed as soon as he gets home from his swimming practice, but they sometimes end so late that he goes to bed at midnight. We tried to keep a routine during holidays too, but this Christmas break, we gave in and let him go to bed when he wanted, trusting that it wouldn’t be ‘too late’. It was sometimes at 2am because he was gaming online with his friends.

The struggle with our 12-year-old is food. She has always been picky, but when she was younger, we had at least the authority to make her eat what we considered healthy at each meal. Now, she can refuse to eat breakfast and no matter what we say or do, she won’t listen. She can spend hours in front of her dinner plate until we give up and let her leave the table. But make a batch of brownies and guess who will eat three in no time.

So little by little, I have been giving in to some of my kids’ poor choices explaining why I disapprove of them and why I would rather see them make better choices, but I didn’t fight, I didn’t nag enough.

Until last Saturday when our oldest broke his arm and ended up at the hospital. The whole experience made me reevaluate in many ways how we are parenting our teenagers. While our son was recovering from surgery, I sat by his side feeling overwhelmed by the love I feel for him, and although his life was never in danger this time, thinking about how frail life is. How, in just a little moment, everything can change. Do I know him well? When was the last time I had a long chat with him? Not because I didn’t want to, but because he is always ‘busy’ with something else, and I don’t want to ‘push’ him. He is a lovely kid, kind, very generous with his smiles, and very reserved. When I ask him, how his day was, his answer would always be “okay” or even “I don’t know”. As he grows older, I notice that “I don’t know” has become a standard answer. You might think – as I did – ‘what is wrong with that?’ In reality, there is nothing wrong with that answer, but I feel that it often can be a way to avoid being in contact with what he really thinks or feels because it might be unpleasant, or because he doesn’t want to take a standpoint that might put him in opposition with someone.

I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable, so, throughout the years, I have avoided pushing our son to talk or to give his opinion. Sitting by his side, remembering how stressed he was right before the anesthesia kicked in, and how helpless he seemed, I told myself that I have to push him a bit more. For his own sake. He needs to learn to notice how he feels, what he thinks and be with it. Share it. Find strategies to overcome unpleasant moments. Be brave. Stand up for his thoughts, feelings, and opinions. He will need these skills in life as he grows older and becomes more independent. It is my job to make him a bit uncomfortable from time to time because he is safe with me. He can deal with his mum pushing him, and this will train him to be ready when the world pushes him harder than me, in less safe contexts.

After the operation, and when he was back in his room at the hospital, I allowed him to check his messages on his phone and answer them, but after a little while, I took the mobile away. He was anxious about not being able to sleep and wanted it back, but I stayed firm. He didn’t sleep very well that night, but I told him that it was okay. He would have the chance to rest at home. Once at home, I have been stricter with screen time – wondering at some point if this was the right time since he is after all convalescent – and pushing him to rest and go for short walks with me. Today, during one of our walks, he told me: ‘mum, I think the medicines I got at the hospital finally had an effect on me. I feel relaxed.’ I told him I don’t think it was the effect of the medicines, it’s been already over 24 hours. It’s the effect of resting while awake and sleeping enough hours. The walking must have helped too. Me making him a good breakfast. Drinking enough water…

I have a feeling that in our modern society we tend to forget that everything in the human system is interconnected. How we feel physically, mentally, and emotionally is dependent on everything we do day after day. The quality of the food we eat, the quality of the thoughts we cultivate, the quality of our sleep, how much physical activity we include in our everyday life, how much we allow our mind and body to rest, how well we are connected with our thoughts and emotions, even how much water we drink. When one aspect of our system is out of balance, we need to look into the whole of our everyday life, and often, the solution is most probably in changing more than one habit.

As a teacher, I see the number of students struggling with sleep, motivation, and even depression increase year by year, and I think it is connected with the lack of a holistic approach to their struggles.

I notice it myself, if I am deprived of sleep, I feel more vulnerable. If I eat poorly for a day or two, I feel sad without understanding why. Some people feel irritated, some lethargic.

I will, from now on, push my kids more to face their thoughts and emotions, to go for walks with me, to eat properly, to give me their phones and turn off the computer, to go to bed early even if they dread not falling asleep right away. It doesn’t matter if they get annoyed, it is partly my job to annoy them, as long as I know it is with the intention to take care of their physical and mental health. And I will continue repeating why I do it: because I love them.

Stress, self-inflicted or a result of our environment?…or both?

For the last seven years, ever since I started studying and practicing Yoga through the guidance of my teacher, Prasad Rangnekar, I have been working with myself whenever I experience stress.

I have had the belief that stress is something I experience because of my attitude to what is happening around me and the idea I have of myself, and that if I work with that, I would experience less or no stress.

I recently wrote about an email exchange that affected me emotionally. I was surprised and maybe a bit frustrated with my reaction to the emails I was receiving. I had to deal with my emotions during the whole weekend and to be honest, it was quite tiring. I kept telling myself that the person’s reaction to my first email was not my responsibility and that as long as I was at peace with the intention behind my email, I should be able to stay calm.

Through my studies in Karma Yoga, I have learned that my actions need to come from clear and pure intentions. I have learned too that what should occupy my mind is the why and the how of my actions but I do better by letting go of the results of those actions. Lastly, I have learned that my expectations towards the world around me can be the cause of my own stress and distress.

I use these ideas to try to have a more open relationship with the world. Whenever I experience an emotional reaction towards something that happens around me, I stop and find out which idea in me is causing the emotion. It has helped me calm my mind in many cases. It has helped me accept better what is happening and adapt instead of pushing.

However, during the last two weeks, something happened at work that I am struggling to deal with. I have felt stressed, frustrated, and angry. No matter how much I try to work with my mind, I have been unable to let go. What I am wondering about now is, yes, it is good that I work with my own mindset and try as much as possible to take resposibility for my emotional reactions, however, there are places and situations that generate stress, and maybe my responsibility towards myself is to know when enough is enough. As my teacher often says, taking responsibility for yourself doesn’t mean that you become a doormat. Maybe all the energy I am spending on dealing with my stress could be spent somewhere else in a more constructive way? I find it is important to recognize when accepting, adapting, and accomodating for my own mental health and the benefit of the whole is the most skillful thing to do, and knowing when to be assertive and maybe even leave the stressful situation/place altogether.

Maybe there comes a time in the spiritual development that we can deal with whatever without being affected by it, but I have to recognize that I am not there yet and that I need to stop exposing myself to what is affecting me so much.

What do you think?