Slow progress that often feels like going backwards

First, in January, I wanted to quit my job and do something else. I came to a point where I felt that I had had enough of the high tempo, the stress and the increasing demands of being a teacher. I felt that I wasn’t qualified for these demands and that I probably wasn’t skilled enough to have this job. I started seeking for a new job. I thought I could change professions. Maybe become a baker (I am not kidding), or something “more practical”.

When I calmed down, I realized I do like my job and I wondered if the problem is not the job in itself but the attitude I have towards it. Yes, it is demanding, yes I am often running against the clock, but a lot of the stress comes from my constant worry of not doing things “good enough”, my anxiety of not being “as good as”, and believing that I have to solve all these challenges and problems that my students encounter in and outside school. However, if I tone down the “I”, the job becomes lighter. If I try to see each situation as it is and not as something related to me, it makes it easier to deal with it. It also helps to have a more pragmatic approach to the job. In a day, I have the time I have to do my work, and if the tasks keep piling up all I can do is prioritize and the rest can wait. Maybe most importantly, do my job with the right attitude but avoid putting my worth in my job. Stop worrying about how I am perceived by my students and their parents and rather concentrate on why I do things as I do.

The second semester turned out to be less stressful. I want to believe it was partly because of my change of attitude.

However, shortly after that, my worries about my kids and marriage started. I must say that I have to laugh when I think about it, but I haven’t been laughing much related to that during the last few months. And the same questions kept coming just in another setting, am I doing enough? Have we done enough? We should have this and we should have that. Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we have that? Why is our relationship like this and not like that? Why am I not able to fix all these?

From the self-blame ride, I slowly but steadily move towards the ‘other-is-to-blame’ ride. This other is, of course, my husband, and as usual, when I get caught in this way of thinking the spiral goes downwards.

Luckily for me, I was invited to take part in a group to study the Upanishads through the guidance of my Yoga teacher, Prasad, and with some time, mindful silence and reflection, I managed to remember that I tend to get caught up in a big mental knot. Do you see the same pattern as with the job? I do! Self-doubt, an exagerated sense of responsibility, and what I think is pure and simple a restless mind that for some weird reason likes to invent drama.

To begin with, it annoys me that I still get into this negative spiral and don’t manage to get out of it before I make a big deal about things, but I feel at the same time that these mini-crises have their purpose. They allow me to see better my patterns of thinking and thus adjust my attitudes and actions.

I see that my husband and I dread having “difficult” conversations. I thought it was just him, but I am the same. The minute I sense some resistance from his side, I give up, or I give in. I need to gather the courage to push a bit more, to argue and listen, and maybe the answer is still not the one I want to hear but at least we have a better understanding of what we think or want.

I think we are in a transition period as a family and also as a couple. Our kids are getting older. We need to make some changes in the way we “run” the house, and in the way we see the kids and we see ourselves. We need to accept that they have to make certain choices that we don’t agree with, but we also need to be clearer about what we stand for. I tend to worry that the kids don’t feel like we care enough and maybe sometimes give in to things they ask for that go against what my husband and I believe in or sometimes even can afford. But my husband made me realise today that the most important has been to have a safe home for them to grow up in where we are present. At least we have managed that and the basics like schooling and having healthy routines, the rest, is just a bonus. And let’s face it, they are teens now so no matter what we say and do, they will be in some opposition, it is part of growing up and growing out of our home.

It is nice to know that we both want to live a simpler life. We both find meaning in slowing down, being in contact with nature, staying physically active, eating what we believe is healthy, and otherwise, trying to enjoy life. We both want to be more in contact with friends and family. Each on our side, we have noticed that we have isolated ourselves from people because we have been overwhelmed for years by the day-to-day life, but we believe that one of the points of being here must be to have close relationships that keep teaching us lessons about ourselves and others. To help each other.

So, I still get caught up in the mess of my mind, and keep forgetting to go inward when things feel heavy and overwhelming, but luckily, I do manage to change my perspective and learn from it. For that, I am thankful, and I have to say that this is thanks to the practice and study of Yoga.

Things are not and will never be perfect, everything is in constant change, and I am more and more convinced that the best way to go is towards silence beyond the noise of my 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.

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’.

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.