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Disappearing acts

We have been living together for over 13 years, the human animal and the two balls of fur and tenderness. I would like to say we were there for each other but realize it might be a romanicized picture my mind constructs now. We were there with each other, that’s for sure. Maybe sometimes that is enough.


The older one was somewhat neurotic, jumpy and insecure.  I could never say what she had on her mind and often had a feeling she could see me for who I truly was. Looking into her eyes for a while was often like staring into the sky, provoking the effect of vertigo. She never demanded attention, but asked for it ever so gently. Truth be told in the past year or so she very seldom received it from me. Not surprising, I didn’t notice when she started the fading away business. I was not paying attention, busy getting all the things done. The younger – very verbal, outgoing and totally incapable of being moody or angry – used to miew her way into a hug.

 
It ended within a week. Worse things happen, I suppose. Every day somewhere in the world people die, hearts get broken. We had to move on. Only something doesn’t work. It is not just that we became one loving being short in the household, it is that one other being doesn’t seem to know how to exist in this world without her companion. Lisa, so quiet you hardly knew she was there, had a function in our triad, of which I was totally unaware. Her disappearing act shifted the invisible balance. The younger one I knew seems to have disappeared with the death of her companion and in the rear moments of silence at home, I catch myself thinking, “This is not the one I loved”.

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Parents and those who work with the kids (well, in fact, all of us), listen up!  Psychologist and the author of Mindset: The Psychology of Success  Carol S Dweck  spent years studying the ways children handled failure and found that those ways played a very important part in how they later in life would deal with challenges. She called those ways mindsets: the growth mindset (when children understand that failure is the only way to grow and that they can develop their abilities and intelligence) and the fixed mindset (the idea that you either have the ability or you don’t and everything you do is a test for how smart you are).  Not surprisingly, she found that children who are more likely to fall apart under  failure where the ones with the fixed mind set. 

For children it is essential to see failure as feedback, information because this is the only way they can develop the necessary skills. When toddlers make their first attempts to walk, they use failure to learn how to make the next attempt even better, to adjust the strategy. I believe we are all like this in the beginning. When we start getting conditioned by parents and the society, we change our attitude to learning and become more result-oriented, taking feedback as a sign of personal failure. Ever heard a grown up say, “I tried to do this but it was hard so I gave up”, be it about new dance moves or a relationship. I sure did! Ever heard your kid say this? If the answer is yes, you might want to rethink how you speak to her/him when you are giving your evaluation of their achievement. Some praise fosters a fixed mindset while other praise fosters a growth mindset. Praising your child’s intelligence backfires and creates a fixed mindset. The children do not want to make a mistake and avoid challenging tasks from which they can learn.

What to do? Instead praise the process, effort, strategy, persisting in the face of obstacles. Research that Carol S Dweck and her colleagues conducted showed that the way in which parents had praised their children age could predict how the same children would address challenges five years later. So next time your kid shows you the drawing she made, hold back your initial response, that might be “Oh, how talented you are!” or “What a beautiful drawing!”, but rather focus on praising the strategy, the use of colors or how the child solved a particular issue in the drawing or how she did not give up. That might help your child develop the growth mindset, teach her enjoy difficulty and keep on going when things get tough. That actually sounds like a good advice for self-evaluation as well!

I imagine it is not easy to rethink the praising and positive labeling strategy when talking to one’s child. After all we have been brain washed by self-confidence boosting strategies which teach us to praise children. However, real self-confidence is something children start cultivating on their own, when they are actually facing the challenges and figure out the ways of dealing with it.

As a parent/teacher/coach, what are your thoughts on the subjects and how have you been giving praise to your child?

This week one of the members of the online community I am a member of suggested the following questions for reflection, based on Mind Training in Seven Points by Ken McLeod:

Can you be a child of illusion?, can you see the magic in the world around you even in the most difficult times?

If you can, then how does it make you feel? If you cannot then why not? What is stopping you?

Where do I even start? 🙂  Although I would very much like to return to the magic world of the childhood, it does not strike me as a particularly informed one. Children are this way because they cannot be any other way (and how wonderful is that!) It reminds me of a judgement that can often be heard about the works of artists who choose to express their vision in a more abstract way, “But even a child could make a picture like that!” Exactly! Only this is the only way a child can make pictures, which is not the case with artists. Kids have to go through those pains of development, with the support of the parents and the tribe (some don’t go far but that is a different issue). They have to discover the world is not rotating around them (moving from the egocentric perspective to a wider, etnocentric and then to worldcentric), that parents are not perfect and that in life we inevitably encounter loss and suffering. At the same time they are being socialized and conditioned by the people they are very dependable on. This is a lot to take in! Honestly, I don’t envy children.

So when I take up questions like the ones outlined above, I have to remind myself to not idealize something and keep in mind the intention. The intention behind my practice is not to forget all the things I know about life of which loss and death are a part of, but to be aware of choices in life and make informed decisions. With this in mind, I move into exploring what it is that keeps me from experiencing the world through the eyes of a child. I supposed this is what in Zen traditions is called Zen mind. The qualities I associate with this state is gentle curiosity, openness and playfulness. Openness to whatever arises, good or bad.

What is this mystery of life we are talking about here?

“Perhaps the mystery makes itself felt as a moment of timeless presence, of being so completely here that you wonder where you’ve been all your life. The moment passes however, and a wall goes back up. You realize that you live behind that wall… You live with the isolation, but deep inside you wonder, “What is this wall?”

– Ken McLeod, “Wake up to your life”, p. 4.

What stops you from experiencing the mystery of life? What is this wall Ken writes about? When is it more likely to come up?

As I turned 40 on Friday, the questions I was asking myself  were  “Have I loved enough? Have  I given enough? Have I dared enough?”.  (The enough here is not meant as some kind of measurement constructed to compare myself with some ideal or others and bring competitiveness into the picture but rather as a reference to the potential). Not surprisingly, I came to the conclusion that I was able and willing to give, love and dare more.

Loving

It’s been quite an adventure loving others but I had to admit to myself that I had yet a lot to learn about giving myself to love wholeheartedly. The love I was offering to my partners and close friends often have been tinted with the desire for them to be a certain way or do specific things, if only for a few minutes. While this was something I honestly believed in earlier, it was a shock for me to realise this has not been how I have been living the loving.

In “Everyday Zen” Joko Beck makes a radical statement: relationships don’t work. In fact, it is the very fact that we want something to work that makes relationships unsatisfactory. “We all want something from the people we are in relationship to. None of us can say that we don’t want something from those we are in relationship to. And even if we avoid relationships that’s another way of wanting something. So relationships just don’t work.”

The only thing that works, according to her, “(if we really practice) is a desire not to have something for myself but to support all life, including individual relationships.” When someone loves/supports someone, there is no book-keeping going on when we try to balance the sheet: I gave this much and now I want something back (be it about preparing meals, doing the dishes or giving emotional support and time). So what does it mean to love/support others on the moment-to-moment basis, choosing love again and again? Loving the person because I want to be with them and not because I want them to be someone else or do something else.

Joko Beck: “To truly support somebody means that you give them everything and expect nothing. You might give them your time, your work, your money, anything. “You need it. I’ll give it to you”. Love expects nothing.”

Quite a different perspective on love from the one we often see in films, books and definately not the one shared by the cultures I have been living in, which are driven by the concern that we cannot get enough of something. We cannot get enough of good food, trendy clothes and gadgets, wise books, cool hobbies, time. Love. We actually start believing someone actually can give us love while love can only exist within ourselves, this is something we feel.

For the moment it might seem like I am doubting my own feelings, often returning to the question,  “Do I love him/her or do I want them to be someone else?” but this is the only way I know that can wake me up from the confusion. If I am not getting enough love, can it be that I am not feeling enough love, not choosing love but instead balancing the sheets too much?

One of the big names in psychology Philip G. Zimbaro was a guest on Skavlan, the popular talk show in Sweden. He talked about the Stanford Prison Experiment he was running in 1971 and what it revealed about the situations in which “good people are placed in bad circumstances. ” I had learnt about the famous prison simulation a few years ago from the German film “Das Experiment” (2001).  (It was not exactly something one learnt about growing up in the Soviet, the whole country being basically a prison cell.)

The experiment scheduled for two weeks was interrupted after six days as the situation started spiraling out of control. Watching the film today it is hard not to draw parallels with the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib by the American soldiers.

What astonished me in Dr Zimbaro’s account was that he acknowledged how in the matter of six days he totally identified with his role of the superintendent of the prison, stopped seeing the people and saw only “prisoners”, how the only thing he cared about was that the “guards” followed their routines, although he saw the escalation of the abuse by the “guards”. Could that be?

The site dedicated to the experiment takes us on a tour around it, “uncovering what it tells us about the human nature.”  I catch myself lingering over the Begin the Slide Show button. What am I about to see the proof of? That in difficult circumstances we forget about being human? (The roles of the prisoners and guards in the original experiment were assigned by chance, nobody actually wanted to be a “guard” from the beginning).

Another experiment comes to mind:  two groups of volunteers (novice meditators and what I would call mega meditators – those who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditators, like Matthieu Ricard) submitted their brains for scrutiny by neuroscientists when practicing compassion meditation towards all beings.  The difference between the two groups was striking, the monks showing a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves that are said to underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,” says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.”

So if we practice meditation for hours and hours, we can actually change the structure of the brain and become more compassionate? That if anything is a good reason enough to introduce meditation in schools and working places, right?

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Yogi in love

Fortunate to have a few days off at Christmas time, not charged with any social obligations, I took long walks in the snowy forest, watched BBC TV-series after Jane Austen’s masterpieces, did research for work from the comforting depth of my arm-chair, met with the few friends staying in town for holidays. Was reconnecting to my inner tortoise, one could say. Like Austen’s Emma, I had time to explore the workings of my own heart/mind.  Unlike Emma, I had my yoga practice to turn to for wise guidance on the begun journey into the love-light country. In romantic relationships, as in yoga, we have a chance to meet all sides of ourselves, the ugly and the beautiful, the stuff that makes us shine and that which holds us back.

Here come a couple of my favourite lessons off the yoga mat (but then again all life is one if we do not try to compartmentalize it, right?)

Am I ready?

One of the most profound lessons that yoga has been teaching me about myself and life is that at every moment it can become more than a stretch just as falling for another always has a potential to be a much larger journey than the initial experience of falling in love.  Both can be truly transforming experiences. And as I’ve discovered, transformation is simply not possible without resistance and the underlying fear of change.

As I watch the yoga teacher suspending herself in the air in a beautiful arm-balance, my heart jumps with excitement and I feel the subtle shifting in my own muscles. The next second I catch the Controller in me go, “No-no-no, you could not possibly pull this one off without injuring yourself or destroying the apartment. You certainly should not consider venturing into it without a thorough preparation.”

What I forget is that every pose I ever tried have been preparing me for this next balance. Now whenever I think the pose is too much for me, I remind myself that I don’t need to do it in its entirety right away but can break it down into components to gently and patiently explore each of them. Likewise, in relationships, whenever something feels overwhelming, my beloved and I can break down the larger issue into smaller parts and see what each of them asks from us, one at a time. Suddenly I feel how my own tension subsides, see the face of my beloved relaxing, the first glimpse of smile showing in his eyes.

Throwing oneself into the fire

One of the first things we discover in yoga is the disproportionate restrictions in our body, those tight spots. So the physical aspect of yoga is about cultivating openness in those restricted areas by constantly playing the edge. In his wonderful book on yoga Erich Schiffmann defines playing the edge as “sensing where your edges are and learning to hold the body there with awareness, moving with its often subtle shifts.  Your skill in yoga has little to do with your degree of flexibility or where your edges happen to be. Rather, it is a function of how sensitively you play your edges, no matter where they are.”* I am reminded that there are no such thing as the ideal posture (or perfect relationship for that matter!) but rather each posture is ever-evolving, changing from moment to moment. Sensitivity for me is in the first place about listening for both the words and beyond the words, the ability to drop the agenda (this is how I am going to do this pose or what I am going to say) when I am listening to my own body or to what my beloved says. Even in relationships we can practice listening with the body, as we do in yoga. We can colibrate ourselves to become more sensitive and receive the waves we otherwise might miss.

 

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Morning haiku

Morning – sipping coffee by the window

I smile towards the white sky.

Fresh footprints outside my door.

 

 

 

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