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?

Fatigue and humbleness

During the last two or three weeks, as the lockdown was gradually being lifted, I started feeling more and more tired. Monday this week was the worst. I came home from work mentally exhausted. I usually enjoy spending time with my kids after dinner, but I felt I didn’t have the energy to engage in any conversation and even less any activity with anyone. I felt my brain was saturated, and every new piece of information about what needed to be done or any question where a choice needed to be made felt like an insult. This feeling continued throughout the whole week, and I was trying my best to keep up with my days, but by nine o’clock in the evening I was ready to go to bed.

This tiredness was dragging me down into a spiral of negativity with its good old broken record of everything I ‘lack’ and regret playing in the back of my head. Luckily, Thursday, as I was dragging myself through the day, a quote from Darkness by David Whyte came to my mind :”When your eyes are tired, the world is tired also”. So I asked myself : why am I so tired and why am I being so negative…again?

I believe that we have an infinite source of energy and love inside ourselves if we only learn to apply them skilfully. Ever since I have been studying yoga, I try to follow what I see as the main principles of Karma yoga which are acting with clear and pure intentions and let go of any expectation by offering my actions to something bigger than me.

This morning, as I started my sadhana, I asked for guidance. I now have enough introspect to know when I am going down in the spiral of negativity, and I was asking for some support. What came to my mind was the word “humbleness”. Be humble, was the message I heard. I have heard this word from my teacher many times before. Every time I meet him, he encourages us to be humble. I have always interpreted it as in our interactions with other people and other living beings, but today, I found another sense to it.

My mind is always taking over. I am always wondering what I should do next. I am always thinking. But, through my sadhana, I am practicing to gradually tame my mind so I can listen to a deeper voice, the voice that is connected to the bigger picture. This is where the humbleness comes in. If I keep my ego in check, my mind will calm down, and I will be able to listen to what is important. I will be guided. I don’t have to push anything, I don’t have to do anything other than slow down and allow.

I believe that when we manage to listen to this deeper voice, our actions come from a calmer and clearer place and they require less energy. We act out of love and not out of fear or anger. We act out of spontaneity, the spontaneity of the soul. So what do I need to do? I need to keep going. I need to keep doing my sadhana, and keep reminding myself that if I want to achieve real peace and contentment, I need to keep going inwards. I keep staying in the surface, wanting to find answers in the practical world when I know and have experienced over and over again that what I see out there is nothing else than the result of my own perceptions, my own state of mind. If I keep working with my inner world, I will be more skilful and useful in the outer world.

Over and over again, I am so grateful for the teachings of yoga through my guru, Prasad. Over and over, they allow me to drag myself out of the wholes I dig for myself. I can feel my Faith gradually growing. I can feel things changing inside me. Very slowly, and some days, it feels like I take some steps back, but I keep walking, I keep learning.

After my sadhana today, after reflecting over why I have been feeling so tired and finding out that the solution is in my hands, I felt so much better. I spent a lovely Saturday with my girls. I was lighter, I was freer.

About discomfort

Thursday this week, I woke up to the exact same symptoms from two weeks ago. It was frustrating and slightly frightening after feeling quite okay for almost a week. It was a holiday, so all I could do was rest…again. Friday, I woke up feeling pretty much the same, so I decided to call the doctor. To my big disappointment and frustration, I was told that he had taken the long weekend off and that I could call back on Monday if I still felt unwell. This is typically Norway, I thought. You need to be dying for health workers to take you seriously.

After a wave of self-pity, I asked myself, are you seriously ill? Do you need to go to the hospital? Or is it just that it is very unpleasant? According to what my doctor told me two weeks ago, I am most probably suffering of something called vertigo, which is not life threatening. I went online and read about it, again, and the general advice is a good dose of rest and physical activity.

So I went back to bed. While lying in bed, I began to reflect about my ‘condition’. I felt exactly like two weeks ago. It was unpleasant, very unpleasant I have to say, but it wasn’t life threatening. I hadn’t fainted, I didn’t have a fever, I hadn’t gotten worse. I asked myself, what are you afraid of? The discomfort or is it fear of something else? It was just the discomfort the dizziness and nausea that was stopping me from getting out of bed. After resting for a while, I decided to get up, roll out my yoga mat, and try some soft movements paying attention to my breath and pausing long enough to feel how my body was responding. I ended up doing about an hour of soft yoga asana and breathing exercises, and then lied down to rest.

This encouraged me to try going for a walk later the same day. I asked two of my kids to ‘take me for a walk’ and off we went. I wonder if the people we met on our little stroll worried my kids were walking with a drunk woman because I couldn’t keep my walk very steady, but we made it. Half way through our walk, my son asked me, what happens if you stop focusing on the feeling of dizziness and rather focus on what you like so much in nature? Wise words. I tried, but it was very difficult, so I just tried to focus on our conversation and my breath.

I could go on and on on how I gradually and gently pushed myself out of bed and pretty much my comfort zone throughout the day and today, but my point here is actually how important it is to face what is unpleasant, what we don’t like. In this case, I know that what I have is not a serious illness, so it is ok to push my mind and my body to feel better. It was actually recommended to try to do some exercise.

How about other situations in life? I must confess that I try as hard as I can to stay away from unpleasant situations. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like what I see as my challenging emotions. So what do I do? I often try to avoid unpleasant situations, and push my challenging emotions away. Does it help? Well, sometimes for a short period of time, but they do come back. I need to learn to be with what is without necessarily wanting to fix it or push it away. Unpleasant situations can sometimes lead to growth, to a better understanding, or to a breakthrough. My challenging emotions are a reflection of my own perceptions and an invitation to create inner clarity. I need to ask myself if what I feel is really so important for me that need to go through the unpleasant moment to try to do something about what triggered the emotion in the first place, or if I can change my perception and let go of the emotion.

I have now learned that these episodes of severe vertigo don’t last that long, and that I can deal with them quite ok. I will go back to my doctor if they don’t disappear in some weeks, but at least they have given me the opportunity to 1) be thankful for my daily yoga asana practice that is teaching me to trust in my body and use my breath to get through unpleasant moments 2) reflect on how fast I tend to reject discomfort 3) keep adjusting the balance between activity and rest…

Reflections during my sick leave

A week ago, I woke up to start our day as ‘usual’ since the start of the lockdown. I turned in bed to get ready to get up, and to my big surprise, I became so dizzy that I just couldn’t sit up. Whenever I tried, I would feel so dizzy that I would get nauseous. What to do? Well, as with any other illness, stay in bed.

I spent two whole days in bed, unable to read, or do anything else than keep my eyes closed to avoid getting even more dizzy. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t sleeping that much, so I was awake, in bed, doing nothing. Since I practice Yoga, I thought this would be the ‘perfect’ opportunity to just be. Be with myself, with my thoughts and try to breathe through the whole thing. Some kind of forced silent retreat.

Halfway through the second day, my mind was driving me crazy, so much that I decided I couldn’t just lie down there, so I forced myself to get up, take a shower and try to ‘act normal’. My mind was driving me crazy because of two main reasons: recurrent painful thoughts and the feeling of being useless by just lying there without even having a feber.

My mind was going around and around thoughts of regret, loss, lack and worthlessness. Thoughts that I usually try to tame in my everyday life, but that I had to face when I had nothing to do. I keep noticing that I want to use yoga teachings to become someone else. Someone who doesn’t have these thoughts. Someone who doesn’t ‘need’ anything but unfortunately, given the chance, my mind keeps bringing me back to them. So, I decided to just allow, to allow my mind to go where it wants to go, to accept that this is how I really feel at times. Am I reasonable? Well, what is reasonable? Who gets to decide?

I am now able to sit up and move around, and do stuff almost as usual, but the dizziness keeps coming back so I am in a sick leave for a week. Once I just allowed these thoughts to be, they became less strong and I moved to another kind of thinking. Or is it reflecting? Life is slowly going back to normal here in Norway. Schools are reopening, some people are allowed to go back to work. This is, of course, great news, but I have some resistance to the idea of going ‘back to normal’. Although I think my life isn’t necessarily stressful, it is a busy life. The main activities that occupy my mind and my time are being a yoga student, my work as a teacher, being a mother, and trying to establish myself as a yoga teacher. I want to be good at everything I do and I keep feeling guilty about all other things I don’t do because I don’t have time/energy. For me, doing anything halfheartedly is mentally impossible, I need to put my 100% in everything I do and still, I go around with bad conscience for not doing better.

So, these days, I keep thinking about the importance of silence. Internal silence. According to many traditions, it is in silence that we finally hear our call. That we finally hear what we are here for. I find my three main activities in life very meaningful, but I keep doubting myself. I am tired of running from one thing to another and constantly feeling that I come too short.

There are certain things I feel I cannot let go of. I can’t leave my job because my salary is important for our family budget. I can’t stop being a mum, I don’t want to stop being a mum. Shall I stop teaching yoga? Am I pushing too much? Yoga for me is a personal journey and I started teaching because I want to share what I feel has helped me a lot in my life, but there are hundreds of yoga teachers out there. Does the world ‘need’ me as a yoga teacher? I don’t know.

I also notice that I ‘use’ yoga to put pressure on myself. This sounds very stupid, but I am very honest here. I ask myself? Am I making progress in my spiritual life? Do I need to study more? Am I applying these teachings appropriately? How much do I have to do and how much do I have to let in the hands of the Universe/God/Divine providence/ or whatever you want to call it?

I feel also that I am tired of being part of a system I don’t agree with. I am more and more concerned about the natural world. I feel more and more bad conscience about the way we are destroying it. How we feel entitled to do as we please. I want to be part of a solution and not continue being part of the problem, but to be honest, I have no clue on how or what to change other than the regular small things. I am reading a book by Satish Kumar called You Are Therefor I Am, it i so inspiring. If I could choose, I would take my family and my cat to a place where we can live a simpler life. A life where the important thing is to be in pact with nature and in pact with ourselves, and not to live according to the standards the capitalist society dictates. I keep thinking how important it is to find a passion, a call, but most of our kids are busy doing what we tell them is important to do, and when they have spare time, they are mentally and emotionally numb in front of their electric devices. ‘As long as they do well at school’, we repeat to ourselves. But really? Is that what will bring them peace? Is school giving children a sense of meaningfulness?

So, I am thinking that for the months to come. I will practice more silence. I will do less. I will put my heart in my daily chores. I will be more mindful. I will flow. All this with the hope that clarity will come to me. Where to go? What to do? What to change?

More about parenting

Usually, my reflections are about my interactions with people. I think that is one of the most fascinating aspects of life. For long (and still to some degree) I have been trying to figure out what is the ‘right’ way to relate to others until I started studying yoga and learned that in order to understand why I interact with others as I do, I first need to understand how my mind operates. So, I observe myself act and react, I observe my thoughts and emotions and I try to understand why they are as they are, all this in light of what I have been studying about the human mind according to Yoga.

During the lockdown, my social sphere has been reduced to my family: my husband and my kids. I do reflect often about my role in their lives and their role in my life, but these weeks, I have had the time to observe my behaviour more closely.

One thing that I have observed is how, in situations where I disagree with my kids’ behaviour or attitudes, I automatically change my tone and start scolding them. I have stopped myself a few times lately to ask myself why do I sound so annoyed? What is my purpose right now? How are they reacting to this situation?

When it comes to our youngest daughter she gets so frustrated that she starts crying and stops listening. For our teenage son, this just means that he gives up and accepts whatever I am saying so I stop scolding him ruining the opportunity to invite him to express his own opinions and have an interesting dialogue. For our middle daughter it means that she feels criticised hurting her self-esteem tremendously.

So why do I scold? In some cases, it can be out of frustration. Maybe I have repeated the same many times: “wash your hands when you come into the house after playing outside”, or “pick up your dirty socks”, or “take your used plate into the dishwasher”. There is nothing wrong with showing emotions to our kids, but I sometimes wonder if the emotion shown is proportional to the situation, or if the tone comes out of habit. How would I react if my kids talked like that to me? Isn’t it possible to be kind and ask them to help without the ‘attitude’?

In other cases, it is because of worry or even fear. When our son doesn’t make his homework and we get a note from his teacher or when our youngest acts selfishly in relation with her sister making her feel bad. The problem is, that I think the way I talk with them can have the opposite outcome than the desired one. It must be possible to show concern and be strict without having to make my kids feel guilty. I have actually stopped a couple of times during the lockdown while talking with my son and saying out loud “Wait, why am I using this tone right now? Lets start again.” To then explain that I worry, that I try to pass on what I believe is important values and attitudes, but that I might also be wrong.

It is powerful too. The other day, I asked my youngest daughter to come sit beside me, and asked her how she thought her sister felt when she excluded her from an online meeting with their schoolmates. I wasn’t angry, I was just expressing my concern. She responded much better than when I use ‘the tone’.

My point here is not to go into a guilt trip or to point fingers for ‘using the tone’, it is more a personal reflection about the hows and the whys of parenting. I really think it is important to stop from time to time and ask myself what is the intention behind my actions and consider whether the means of my parenting are the most appropriate for my kids.

I think the lockdown has done something wonderful for us as a family. It has given us time to slow down. To listen better to each other. I notice that I sometimes start getting annoyed by some of my kids’ comments or questions but I can stop myself from reacting in a hurtful way and rather show curiosity or disagree in a respectful way. I don’t want my kids to grow up doubting themselves or feeling constantly guilty for what they think and how they behave. I want them to grow up being reflective but well grounded in themselves. It is tiring to constantly wonder whether we are ‘right ‘ or ‘wrong’ according to other people’s standards.