Frustration and the way out of it

When things don’t go the way I expect them to, I go through a series of emotions. The first one unsurprisingly is frustration. Depending on the level of attachment that I have to the situation, I can sometimes work with my mind to let go of the frustration and see the possibility in the situation. If my attachment is stronger, the turmoil of emotions doesn’t stop with frustration, and unfortunately, it often culminates in self-doubt. It is an awful feeling, self-doubt, and the problem is that I don’t always manage to see it. So the spiral of negativity takes me really low.

So, what to do? I think that although it is important to be assertive and speak up for myself when I feel unfairly treated, once I have said what I think, the best I can do is to bring my attention inwards to stop feeding into the frustration and counteract the self-doubt that only makes me feel even worse.

Throughout the years, I have been trying to create a method. This time, I have even come up with some bullet points. To begin with, I ask myself:

  • Why am I so attached to this situation? Can I let go? Can I make a compromise with my mind?
  • What is my part in this? Is there something I could have done better? Is there something I can change in my future actions, attitudes and expectations?

And I forgive myself. For the reaction, for what I think I could have done better before the situation and whilst in it.

It is not fun to realize that I could have done better when it is too late, but luckily for me, as long as I can breathe, I can learn. I don’t win anything by doubting myself and my capabilities. The bottom line is that like anyone else, I am constantly doing the best I can with my set of skills and limitations, and it is in moments like this that I am offered the opportunity to stop, reflect and realign myself.

So, stand up, brush the dust, look up, and keep walking. No idea of myself is worth my peace of mind.

Yoga and the senses

Most Yoga practitioners are familiar with Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga that, if practiced sincerely, disciplined, and with the right support, will lead us to the liberation of our conditioned mind and thus the realization of who we really are: ‘love, freedom and bliss’ (Prasad Rangnekar 2011)

One of the so-called ‘eight limbs of Yoga is pratyahara or control of the senses.

Withdrawing the senses, the mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer is pratyahara.” Yoga Sutras of Patanjali book II, sutra 54.

The goal is to get in touch with that part of ourselves that is beyond our body and mind and the means to achieve this goal is to calm down the mind. Therefore, an important part of our practice towards controlling the mind is the control of the senses.

In the Bhagavad Gita, we learn that we have five senses of perception or jñānendriya: the ears, nose, tongue, eyes and skin; and five organs of action or karmendriya: legs, arms, mouth (for speech), genitalia and anus. It is through the senses and the mind that we experience and take part in the world. We are however warned that what the senses bring to our mind is impermanent and we, therefore, have to learn to seek stability within ourselves.

“[…]the contact between the senses and the sense objects gives rise to fleeting perceptions of happiness and distress. These are non-permanent and come and go like winter and summer seasons […] one must learn to tolerate (endure) them without being disturbed.” Bhagavad Gitra Ch. 2 v.14

If we seek happiness in the outer world, we tend to get attached to the pleasures that the senses bring because these pleasures are short lasting. This kind of attachment is easy to see in our actions and in our mind. I can observe myself thinking about getting home, opening the cookie box and eating a cookie. I can observe myself daydreaming about the cookie. Maybe, the thought of eating that cookie is what helps me get through the day, and what is wrong with that? Nothing is wrong with enjoying a treat after a long day at work. The problem is when my welbeing depends on that treat or any other treat. Here are three main reasons I see why it can be a problem:

  1. The pleasure of eating a cookie lasts for just a short moment which can lead to either overindulging because I want to extend the moment or me seeking the next sensory stimulation to continue feeling ‘good’/’happy’.
  2. My happiness is dependent on something exterior to me but what if I get home and the cookie box is empty? I will then find myself with an unmet expectation. What will my reaction be? How will that make me feel?
  3. All the time and mental energy spent in thinking about the cookie distracts my mind and does not allow me to be present in the moment. It becomes nothing more than a distraction.

“While contemplating on the objects of the senses, one develops attachment to them. Attachment leads to desire and from desire arises anger.” Bhagavad Gita, Ch2 v.62

Pratyahara in the context of meditation is when we sit down with ourselves in our daily practice and start by “turning off” our senses to bring the attention inwards. We aim to let go of the need to register and identify sounds, let go of getting caught up in specific smells and for most of us it is easier to close our eyes to avoid getting distracted by our sight. But the senses don’t necessarily stop when we avoid using them. Thoughts continue to fly in our head, and if we haven’t been practicing non-attachment in our daily life, it is when we sit in silence that all these sensory attachments can become stronger. They way we live our daily life affects our practice and in return, our practice affects our daily life.

Throughout the years I have been studying Yoga, I have come to observe other ways I overindulge my senses that I wasn’t aware of like for example when I sometimes want to know certain things that are unnecessary for me to know. I have sometimes catched myself wondering if so and so has said this or done that just to stop and ask myself, why do I need to know this? Gossip is maybe the right word here. How would my life improve if I know more details about other people’s lives that do not have any direct effect in my own life? It’s just a way to ocupy my mind really. Or how about reading and listening to the news? I think that as a mum and a teacher, I should stay updated about what is happening in the world, but to what degree? How much is too much? How much is necessary and how much is just overinduging?

What I like about Yoga is that it is never dogmatic. We are encouraged to take part in life and enjoy it, but we are warned of getting attached to the external world because as mentionned above it only feeds into the limited idea we have of who we are and most importantly, everything in the exterior world is transcient so we doom ourselves to a life of Sisyphus.

“That person who gives up all material desires and lives free from a sense of greed, proprietorship (I and mine) and egoism, attains peace.” Bhagavad Gita ch2 v71

By controling our senses, we filter what we allow into our mind and by doing this we gradually regulate our reactios to the external world. It is all cyclic. Less sensory innput helps create more inner silence in the long run which allows us to access our inner peace, this in turn results in less seeking of sensory stimuli which leads to a quietter mind. It is not simple, it requires courage, perseverance and a lot of practie. The inner void before the inner peace can be quite scary.

Sacrifice in Karma Yoga

“Once, a fellow went into the jungle and became very tired. He foud a beautiful tree and sat beneath it. But the ground was thorny. He couldn’t lie down anywhere. ‘How nice it would be if I had a small cot!’ The minute he thought of it, he found himself sitting on a cot. ‘Oh boy, I have a cot!” He lay down. ‘This is very comfortable, but I’m also hungry. I could use something to eat, maybe a banana.’ Immediately a bunch of banans appeared. ‘What is this?’ He couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘It seems whatever I want I can get here. Then how about some gourmet cooking?’ Immediately, plates filled with delicacies, delicious dishes, pudding and desserts appeared. He ate sumptuously and then thought, ‘It would be nice if there were someone to massage my feet to put me to sleep.’ Even as he thought of it, there was already a beautiful angel-like person there massaging his feet. He became excited, ‘Oho! It looks ike whatever I’m thinking, I’m getting. Now I have a comfortable bed, a good, sumptuous meal, and somebody to massage my feet. But what if, while I’m getting the massage, I fall asleep and suddenly a tiger comes from the jungle. What will happen?’ Immediately he heard the roar, and a tiger appeared and devoured him.”

I read this story while studying Chapter 3 in the Bhagavad Gita with commentaries from Sri Swami Satchidananda. He shares this story when commenting on the concept of yadnya or sacrifice that is described between slokas 9 and 16.

Chapter 3 is about Karma Yoga which encourages us to live a regulated life where our actions are the means to our spiritual development. As you might know, the Bhagavad Gita is basically the conversation between the great warrior Arjuna and his friend and charioteer Krishna, who also happens to be a divinity, right before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is filled with fear and self-doubt and is considering leaving the battlefield. Krishna is teaching him the main principles of Yoga to help him make the right choice. I find it fascinating that the teachings of such an old scripture (it is said it was written sometime between 400 B.C. and 200 A.D.) are of so much relevance for us today. It is maybe not surprising though since the basic needs and inner struggles of humans haven’t really changed since then.

3. 9 The world is bondage when actions are done just for your own sake. Therefore, Arjuna, make every action a sacrifice, utterly free of personal attachment. Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (p. 36). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

I find the idea of yadnya or sacrifice very inspiring, and I believe that learning to live following this principle would spare us and others a lot of suffering.

First of all, what is yadnya? My teacher once described it as ‘the principle of interdependence’. If you look at nature, there is a cyclic system of giving and receiving. Rain falls and all living beings benefit from it. The tree gives fruit so animals can be nourished and by doing so, the seeds of the tree are spread so more trees can grow.

3.14. From food, all beings arise. From rain, food originates. Rain is the result of selfless sacrifice (yajna). And sacrifice is the result of actions (karma). Sri Swami Satchidananda. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (p. 43). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

The idea of sacrifice does not mean self-neglect or self-flagellation, it means that we choose to act with awareness and with the intention that our actions not only benefit us but also the whole we are a part of. We act with a sense of purpose, with the intention to learn and grow and to contribute to the whole.

This does not mean that we all have to give up our jobs to do volunteer work. It means that wherever we are, whatever our roles are (yes, we have many so try to identify yours), and whatever we do, we are encouraged to mind our intentions and let go of the need to be rewarded (here, the principle of vairagya or non-attachment is emphasized) because if we only act out of a need for validation or greediness, we are bound to suffer. Oftentimes we will experience that the validation does not come as we expect it to be, or once we get what we want, we will crave for more falling into indulgence which can have a negative effect on us, the environment and other sentient beings.

Going back to the poor man in the jungle, he had found a source to fulfill his needs, but his uncontrolled mind brought an abrupt end to his life. This story, my teacher tells me, is used to talk about the dangers of greediness. Nature offers us what we need to survive, but we often abuse Her generosity.

3.12. “Dear old friend, you should strike a balance in life between giving and getting. When you engage in selfless service (which is sacrifice), your desires are fulfilled, unasked by nature. Righteous people give more than they receive, indebred ones get more than they give. The one who receives without giving is stealing.” Jack Hawley. The Bhagavad Gita. A Walk Through for Westerners (p.30)

We consume more than what we need because we have forgotten to take the time to see that our inner life also needs nourishment and that this cannot come from material things. Our inner growth happens through acting with a sense of purpose, offering all our actions to the benefit of the whole, to something bigger than us, and finding a way to cultivate silence so we can access our inner source of peace and contentment.

3.17. “Arjuna, those who have found pure contentment, satisfaction and peace of Atma (the True Self Within) are fulfilled. They have nothing more in this world to accomplish, no more obligations to meet. Being in the Atma, these people are beyond karma.” Jack Hawley. The Bhagavad Gita. A Walk Through for Westerners (p.31)

There are certain actions where I can easily apply this principle, and I am guessing you can identify yourself with some of them. In the context of my family, for example, or when I choose what to eat. I am also changing my ways when it comes to what I wear, what I buy, what I dispose of and how I dispose of it. There are, however, other arenas in my life where I still struggle to effectively apply this principle. I often forget it. I expect, I seek validation, and when I do not get it, insecurity arises and the cycle of stress is fired up. So, every once in a while, I have to go back to this chapter, to be reminded, to discover new ways, to hopefully internalize.

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?

Intentions and means of action

This has been a rather intense week. Although I don’t really like this kind of week, I appreciate the opportunity to put into practice what I have been learning the last seven years to try to keep my mind calm and act instead of reacting.

I haven’t always succeeded in keeping my mind calm this week, and as I write this text, I can feel the stress in my whole body but I know, that after some minutes, it will fade away. I am not yet at the level of not allowing situations to affect me emotionally, but I am more able to search for a wider perspective, and it helps.

It helps to always try to understand the mental process behind people’s actions. It doesn’t matter if I agree with this process or not, I can then easier accept and show compassion. This week, I tried to communicate with someone via email. I spent time weighing my words, trying to ‘sound’ as calm and constructive as possible, but I failed. The response was one of [out]rage. I won’t deny that I felt unfairly attacked and frustrated because I was misunderstood. The message that I tried to communicate got lost in the belief of an intention that I didn’t have. However, I think I understand where this person comes from. I think culture has something to do with their strong reaction. Neither this person nor I have English as a mother tongue, and maybe partly because of that, they put other meaning to my words than the intended one. In addition, it is that time of the year where people are stressed, and maybe they receive many emails a day and don’t have time to carefully read them. So, instead of getting angry at them, I just let it go. I didn’t have the intention to attack when I wrote that message, and that, I think is the most important for me: my own intention behind my action. I am at peace with it. I think it is sad my message didn’t pass, but I can’t do much more about it. I don’t have the need to push everyone to believe in what I believe.

I have the values I live up to, and try to act accordingly, if people have other values and misunderstand mine, it would be crazy to spend time and energy trying to change their minds.

However, I have been reflecting on the relationship between intention and means of action/communication. It is also important to pay attention to the means of our actions. Of course, I usually do, but I have to confess that when I sent that message, it was the fastest way to deal with that situation before the weekend. If I had waited until Monday and had a chat with the person involved, I would have avoided the unpleasant response during the weekend. Maybe, I would have had to deal with an unpleasant situation in person, but it would have been easier to explain myself than by exchanging emails. I tried to do this in my answer to their first reply to my email, but their second reply was so harsh that I decided to end the communication by acknowledging that I should have rather asked for a meeting and that I will take their views into consideration in further interactions. I don’t think I need to spend more time trying to correct a misunderstanding that the other party doesn’t seem willingly to correct.

I will never communicate via email with this person again. Rather call and maybe keep my interactions with them to the strict minimum. I will also spend more time reflecting on which way is the most skillful way to act as for what I see good intentions are not always enough. Lastly, I will keep working on letting go of expecting specific outcomes from my actions. I can have good intentions and consider the action chosen as the most skilful and still have a negative reaction, but at least I will be at peace with what came from my side. The rest, is for the other person to deal with.