Saving our children from painful situations

A friend and I were talking the other day about our sons who are the same age and soon will have to choose what kind of studies they want to do for high school. Here in Norway, they can choose to go the ‘regular’ pathway that can lead them to university, or they can choose to learn a profession and come out being able to work. The latter is, of course, less prestigious than acquiring a university degree, but a good option to those who either have a clear idea or know well their skills, or who are tired of so much theory at school and want to do more practical work throughout the three years of high school.

My husband and I believe that, if our son chooses to choose a profession oriented pathway, we will support him. She is of the idea that her son (and our son) should choose the pathway that allows them to go to university. She has good arguments, and I don’t disagree with her, but what triggered this post was what she said at some point:

‘I want my son to make choices that will allow him to do something with his life in a way that is as painless as possible.’

Or something like that. Her argument is that, if they choose the profession pathway, and they change their minds in some years and want to go to university, it might be too late for them to study for and pass the exams required for those who don’t follow the ‘regular’ pathway. Valid arguments.

Can we really prevent our kids from experiencing pain?, and maybe most importantly, should we prevent our kids from experiencing pain?

The answer, is of course neither yes nor no. It is our instinct and to a certain degree our duty as parents to protect our children as much as we can, but lately, I keep thinking that this well-meant attitude might harm our children more than help them, and what is more, will exhaust us, because lets face it, no matter how much I try to keep pain away from my kids, pain will reach them at some point. Pain is part of life.

How can we harm our children by protecting them from pain? Well, it is through the experience of pain that we learn resilience, patience and perseverance. It is through painful situations that we often grow because we are pushed to take a self-check, to evaluate our situation, to learn and move forward. Maybe the key is not to spend most of our time and energy preventing our kids from making mistakes, but rather create a relationship of trust so when they make mistakes, when life gets tough, they know they can get through it by their own strength, and/or get our support if they need it to gain the strength to stand up on their own feet again.

Don’t misunderstand me, I do want my son to make choices that allow him to live a happy and meaningful life, and I do say my opinion whenever he is about to make a choice, but I also try very hard to remind myself to let go of the need to control him. I have to accept that he needs to make his own choices and deal with the consequences. I just hope that the day he makes a mistake or a choice that brings pain to his life, we will be able to support him in a way that helps him reflect, grow and move on.

I see it as a teacher too. I am thankful that I teach in times where we have a lot of focus on students’ social and emotional well-being, but I also feel that sometimes we feel obliged to micro-mange them to avoid emotional distress. If football games during playtime get too rough, we ban them. Parents contact us often when their child has had a conflict with another child often with the expectation that we will ‘fix it’ without the kids being involved to ‘avoid the distress’ caused by heaving to deal with the situation.

Although I understand the intentions behind this kind of expectations, I think that kids need to experience all sorts of emotions and learn how to deal with them. Both their own emotions and other people’s emotions. Maybe instead of banning the football game, we can have the necessary conversations – over and over again – to help them reflect on what went right and what went wrong, and more importantly, how they can do better next time. We help the students better by creating the space for them to talk and find common ground, and understand how they feel and how their peers feel. Maybe sometimes kids need to find their own solutions without adult involvement.

If you’ve been around for more than twenty years, you would agree that in life, we go through phases, some phases are more painful than others, but often, the most painful ones bring also a lot of growth. I teach students between 13 and 16 years old, and many changes happen during those years. Some teenagers go through tough periods trying to figure out who they are and what they want. It is painful for them, and often even more for their parents. The parents that suffer the most are those who try very hard to steer their children into a specific direction believing that that is the right direction. Or being overly worried about their child’s confusion. What I often observe from the outside is that the kids that have been raised with a set of clear values, that have parents that are present and available, manage to go through and beyond phases of confusion and pain and grow from them. It requires patience, resilience and perseverance from both themselves and their parents.

Reflecting about this, I have made myself some mental guidelines as a mum and as a teacher that I try to follow:

  • Walk the talk. Live my life as much in line as possible with what I believe in. Accept my mistakes and grow from them. Reflect with my children about them. I don’t need to pretend that I am perfect, or devoid from emotion.
  • Be mindful of how I react when my children make a mistake. Try to show understanding and be open for discussion instead of being judgemental.
  • When appropriate, share my views or opinion on something, explain why I think like I do, but make it clear that the choice is theirs (and hope for the best).
  • Remember that each one of my kids is an individual with their own path to walk. Be supportive, be present, but not controlling.
  • Help them go through difficult emotions. Explore and accept the pain to then let go and learn from it.
  • Keep learning together with my kids how to better support them in their own path. After all, parenting is all about learning by doing.

Spring reflections

The Spring is here and with it comes the awe of nature waking up to life after a long Winter. I enjoy observing how days are getting longer and longer, feeling the warmth of the sun, the birdsongs, and seeing plants and trees growing leaves and flowers.

Spring always brings me so much joy, but the start of the season is always challenging for me. I don’t know why, but I often feel tired physically, mentally and emotionally, and it takes a lot of inner work to get myself through it without allowing this tiredness to push me into a negative space. It has taken me some years to understand this pattern and even more importantly, to accept it.

My theory is that I spend so much energy keeping up with life during the dark and cold Winter, that when the Spring comes, my body is exhausted. I tried this Winter to follow better the rhythm of the daylight and allow myself to rest more and do more indoor activities that inevitably require less energy such as sewing, knitting, reading, playing board games with my kids and watching movies. Still, the tiredness of the Spring did come along.

Spring is also a quite busy period for me. As a teacher, May is an intense month with many holidays sprinkled throughout the month, and although I do appreciate the breathing pause they bring, they also interrupt the rhythm of school life in what I see as one of the most critical periods of the school year as we should be wrapping up, doing our last assessments to start writing report cards, write the end-of-the-school-year student reports, and prepare for next school year. In addition, all clubs my kids are part of, want to mark the end of the school year with celebrations, and on top of all that we have the Norwegian national day and all the expectations around it. Fighting all this, my desire to be outdoors and enjoy the better weather.

So, even though the light and the milder weather call me to be more active, I am trying this year to work with my expectations and what my different roles require from me. Not an easy task, but I keep learning:

  1. Prioritise: I can’t have a hundred items on top of my priority list. Remind myself of what is important for me and make my list accordingly.
  2. Put some things aside both practically and mentally. I can’t do everything right now. Some things will have to wait. This is very connected to nr1.
  3. Keep my sadhana rock steady. At least twenty minutes of sitting in silence preferably preceded of some yoga asana.
  4. Say no when needed. This one is very though because I don’t want so seem rude nor disappoint anyone, but it is also very necessary.
  5. Good enough is good enough.
  6. Give myself time and space to feel tired, confused and frustrated but do not feed into the emotions. Time and space will always allows me to get some perspective and find a way to get through situations.
  7. Make choices based on what I know and the resources I have with clear intentions and trust that whatever happens will be for the best. I must confess that making choices is one of the most energy-draining activities for me, but I am learning to follow this little formula. Trust is an important ingredient to not spend too much energy on them.
  8. REST. Go to bed early, listen to my body and mind and take a break during the day when I need it. I often eat lunch with my students or in meetings, but when I can, I take a half hour break during my work day and go for a walk in the park, literally. Walking in nature always recenter me. When I get home, if my kids are at their respective activities or with their friends, I take a coffee break to rest my mind and body.
  9. Move outdoors. I have as a goal to walk at least 7km a day, some days I walk more, some days slightly less. The key is in using my legs as my means of transportation. I walk or ride my bike to and from work and to whatever errands I have during the day.

Back pain, mental pain and Yoga

I love cross country skiing, and I feel the season here i Trondheim was shorter this year. Therefore, I was very excited to see on Saturday morning that it was snowing. I booked a car (we are part of a car collective), and I agreed with my husband that I would go for a trip on my own. I wanted to be as early as possible to make sure I was in the forest before too many people had the same idea as I had.

I was so early that there were no prepared tracks yet, and it was snowing so much that it was a bit challenging to actually ski, but I didn’t mind, I love it when it snows like that, and I was outdoors, on my own.

At some point, I got a bit lost, and I wasn’t sure where I was, but I just kept going knowing that I would find a sign somewhere some time. I had been going mainly uphill, so when I saw the first downhill, I was happy and relieved thinking that I must have been going back somehow.

The snow was heavy and sticky, and my skis weren’t gliding much and at a turn, I lost balance and fell on my knees. Nothing dramatic, just a little fall. But when I stood up again, I felt it. A sharp pain on my lower back. Good old lower back pain that takes the breath out of me. It’s been a while since last time, but I recognise it very well.

I couldn’t call myself a yoga practitioner if I didn’t use the tools I have learned for this kind of situations, so I tried to calm my mind that was going all over the place with ‘where am I?’, ‘how am I going to get to the car?’, ‘I’m completely alone here’, ‘it’s so painful’, and so on. I took some deep breaths, tried to straighten myself up, and attempted to continue and see what happens. I soon decided to take off the skis and walk down the hill. I took out my phone, found the right app, and to my great relief, I found out I wasn’t far from where I had parked my car. Somehow, I had made some sort of loop.

I was, of course, slightly disappointed with my trip and the back pain, but I was glad I was able to walk back. What is more, I know this old friend of mine, the back pain, it comes unexpectedly, it gives quite a lot of trouble, but it ends up leaving at some point.

The practice of Yoga asana has allowed me throughout the years to get to know my body better, and when an injury like this one happens, I know most of the time what I need to do for a speedy recovery. What is maybe more important is that since I know I suffer from lower back pain, my daily practice is focused on keeping my core muscles, my glutes and my legs strong and flexible.

So I drove home and did what I usually do, a combination of relaxing, going for walks and doing soft movements and some gentle stretches to release tension in the muscles that tend to contract when I hurt my back.

After a couple of days, I was much much better, and that is when I remembered that maybe two or three years ago, when I already had a quite steady yoga asana practice, I hurt my lower back just like last week, and I was devastated. I couldn’t understand how I could be in pain again when I practice asana every day and am very cautions of what I do to avoid getting hurt. The funny part, is that I have experienced the same when it comes to everyday life. I know my triggers, I know my mental and emotional weaknesses, and every time I would end up in an emotional situation, I would be so disappointed feeling that ‘I haven’t learned anything!’ To this, my yoga teacher has always said the same: develop patience.

So I have been reflecting about how, the practice of yoga as a holistic approach, does not necessarily prevents me from getting into situations where old patterns of thought and behaviour arise, where I feel bad about myself, or hurt, but I come out of such states of mind faster. Just like with my lower back pain. I am more capable of bearing the pain, observe the pain, and do what I need to do to get through it without making a bigger mess, without creating more mental and emotional distress for myself.

That is life, isn’t it? Keep walking, enjoy the highs and bear the lows with as much calmness as possible to not spend precious energy on making things worse for ourselves… I love what Yoga is bringing to my life.

Observing the seasons

We live by the Trondheim fjord, and just a few meters from our place, there is a long path of about 10 kilometers with varied natural landscape. We’ve been living close to this path for fifteen years now.

Throughout the years, I have learned to be more observant of the changes that each season brings. Spring probably being one of my favourite. I can notice the changes almost from day to day. From hearing the song of the robin and the blackbird, to the first sprouts on the trees and the ground. It first goes relatively slowly and all of a sudden, with some days of stable sunny weather, it is like an explosion of shapes, light, colour and sound.

It is with the same awe but also a pinch of sadness that I observe the end of the Summer and the start of the Fall, and the same way as Spring just explodes in front of our eyes, the wonderful warm colours of the Fall suddenly invade the landscape. Before we know it, the first snowfall comes, and the long Winter starts.

With the changes in temperature and weather come also the changes in daylight. I think this change is the one that has the most impact in the rhythm of my family’s everyday life. Every year, it takes us some weeks to adapt and find a new routine.

During the darkest months, from November to the end of January, we spend a lot of time indoors. During the weekends, we allow ourselves to sleep in, and spend our evenings watching movies or playing board games. In February, days start getting longer, and we suddenly discover that the sun is out while we are still in our pyjamas so we make the conscious change in routine of getting up earlier during the weekend and get out of the house for a skiing trip or at least a walk in the sun.

During the summer, which can be quite short here in Trondheim, as soon as we get some days of sun and hot weather, we are out the whole day, maybe even part of the night as the sun goes down only for a few hours. Its the summer holiday so we can allow ourselves and our kids to sleep less, or har slightly messier sleeping routines, just to be able to enjoy the nice weather.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this cycle, and how, the changes in the weather and daylight influence our lives, and most of the time, we just make the necessary adjustments without much resistance. When it snows, I check the online skiing map and I plan for a skiing trip. When the snow melts, we put on our hiking shoes and go for a hike in the forest or by the fjord. If it’s raining, we take our rain clothes, if it’s hot and sunny, we put on a hat… Sometimes, I go out with my winter coat to discover that it is about time to change it for the thinner one, and I just make that change next time I go out.

This adaptability and flexibility we need to show with the change of seasons, and the trial and failing that we also experience, are good lessons for life otherwise. Life is full of changes. The most certain one is ageing. When our kids are born, they have certain needs, and as they grow up, these needs change, and we have to adapt our parenting to better meet these needs. As they grow older, we start giving them the tools to meet their own needs instead of catering all the time for them. But, just like with the seasons, it the changes require that we sometimes stop and observe what is going on. Ask ourselves what are we doing and why are we doing it that way. Consider a change of course, or just a change of attitude.

One thing that I keep reminding myself about is not to panic when I notice that a habit or routine is not working, or when one of my kids is struggling. I’ve noticed that unconsciously, my mind goes to what I like to call the ‘that’s it’ modus. It all seems hopeless and lost, but as my grandmother used to say “everything has a solution except from death”. As long as we are alive, we are always capable of changing and adapting to create a harmonious life for ourselves and our loved ones. We can make it as easy as putting on our rain pants by avoiding mental and emotional resistance and trying to just flow with it. Sometimes we also have to accept that our kids go through tough periods and all we can do is be present, give them love, understanding and compassion, and allow them to find their way.

Although the changes we experience in our lives seem linear as opposed to the changes of season that are cyclic, we can also see our lives as cycles. Changes might sometimes bring a period of confusion, of chaos, of instability, but with work, we find a certain balance and stability until a new change comes.

Peaceful mind through uplifting attitudes

Both in the Bhagavad Gita and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali we find practical advice and techniques to cultivate a calmer state of mind. The beauty of it is that not only do we attain a more stable state of inner peace, we also contribute to a more harmonious and peaceful environment which in turn help us keep our mind calmer and clearer.

In the Gita chapter 6 we read:

6:8 “He is a supreme yogi who regards with equal-mindedness all men—patrons, friends, enemies, strangers, mediators, hateful beings, relatives, the virtuous and the ungodly.” Yogananda, Paramahansa. God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita . Self-Realization Fellowship. Kindle Edition.

When we learn to meet all sorts of behaviours with equanimity, we are able to better deal with challenging ones. If we get caught up in our opinion, our experience and our feelings around the behaviour (our ego), we most probably end up wrapped up in a more complicated situation. The practice of meditation can give us the tools to keep this equanimity such as breathing exercises and the skill to observe both a situation and our thoughts before acting (instead of impulsively reacting). It is difficult not to judge a situation or react emotionally to something we perceive as ‘wrong’ or ‘unfair’ or ‘hurtful’, but it is possible to observe the emotional reaction arising, and control it before it translates into an action. We can try to tell ourselves that the behaviour is the result of the inner state of the person and has little or nothing to do with ourselves. We just happen to be the receptor. Furthermore, we can try to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. We are all trying to find some sort of happiness, some sort of feeling of fulfilment and purpose, and we act out of what we perceive, what we have experienced and what we know. We can recognise that we too have probably acted in hurtful ways in certain situations as a result of our limited thought process at the time.

If we manage to detach from our need to judge others and react emotionally to their behaviour, our mind is calmer and thus ready for the meditation practice. The less we attach our ego to other people’s actions in the everyday life, the less they will come and buzz in our head while we sit in silence. The calmer the mind, the closer we get to that inner state of ours that is undisturbed by outer circumstances. A lasting inner state of peace. The closer we get to that state, the calmer we are off our mat too. So you can say it’s a positive spiral.

We feel better, we deal with the world better, and we don’t make other people feel bad with our reactions.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we get more detailed advice:

1: 33 “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” Satchidananda, Swami. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—Integral Yoga Pocket Edition: Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda . Integral Yoga Publications.

The way I understand it, step nr1 to start working with our limiting thoughts is to try to replace them with uplifting thoughts. Uplifting attitudes are closer to our true nature than limiting ones, and they give us energy instead of draining us. Friendliness, compassion and delight are much better for us and for those around us than envy, jealousy and judgement. If we sit to meditate with a feeling of compassion, it is much easier to calm the mind, than if we sit with thoughts of judgement.

So, work on your thoughts and attitudes to calm your mind and thus create a more harmonious environment around you so you can live a calmer and more harmonious life.

Easier said than done, you say? I totally agree, but with practice, I think it is possible.