Father, teach your children
As a long-time conservationist I cannot help but notice that images and sentiments abound about Earth and its plight to be healthy.
There is a whole lot of positive about the mainstreaming of the environmental movement. It doesn't seem so long ago, that I was eight or nine years old and, after having Greenpeace knock on our door and converse with my Dad for ten minutes, I finally felt I found people like me and immediately wanted to pack my bags and run away with them. Later, it was Sea Shepherd wtih whom I wanted to disappear. In any case, back then I was a total geek. Misunderstood and typically an annoyance to people who didn't care to hear what I had to say.
Times have changed. And, while we face a whole lot of challenges in the world, there has been a tremendous amount of positive change. World consciousness is changing as a whole and important concepts and ideas are reaching critical mass to make the most impactful change ever.
But there is one small branding error that has me seriously peeved. It's an error that's made over and again in news media and by companies attempting to convice us that their products are "greener" and more favorable than others. It is a mistake made in content directed towards adults but irritates me even more so when it's geared toward children.
We don't own the place. We never have. People have no greater right to the beauty of the Earth or the fruits that it bears than the rest of the living beings we share it with. Fungi. Plants. Animals with (slightly) different DNA than ours (people). We are here by special privilege, visiting. Except that we've ransacked the place. We've pillaged. Consumed its cherished fruits. Slurped its waters from what we thought was a bottomless cup. She trusted us to watch her children, and we've put them directly in danger's way.
But we keep on tougting off her name and her beauty like it's our own -- and not as something we have a stake in protecting. We've ravaged our victim and assert our dominance over her by convincing ourselves she needs our protection.
We humans always have a charming way of making it seem like we have dominion over all the other life Earth fosters. It hurts us to call ourselves animals (although we are). And we have intellectual conversations about whether intelligent life exists in the universe when we can't simply witness the intelligent life all over this planet.
The truth is, Mother Earth doesn't need us to protect her. She'll exist with or without us. She isn't the one trying to communicate with us. We are! Humanity needs us to protect US. If our ways don't change, Earth will no longer be able to sustain US.
So our story needs to change. And fast. We've lied to ourselves for long enough. Don't our children deserve the truth so that they may be free to be the vehicles of change that humanity needs to exist here on Earth?
Of course, the dialog we have with our children should be inspiring, full of hope, and with the promise that if we all do our part, we can make positive change. Our messages cannot be full of doom and gloom, but they do need to be honest. Our children are far more resilient and creative than we give them credit. They just may surprise us with a solution or two.
Examples of typical dialog directed at children:
These messages are obviously not in and of themselves bad. Chipping in, recognizing the environment is in some way at risk, doing beneficial activities such as planting trees are all useful exercises. The issue is that while these are all well-meaning, they neglect to challenge children with the one thing that will make lasting change: taking personal responsibility because our own existence depends on it.
The trite messages that would have us planting trees and picking up garbage from fields and waterfronts only to send them to landfills where they are out of sight, out of mind, do nothing more than make another academic activity out of Earth day, when what it needs to be is a challenge to our lifestyle, no, to our entire existence. A true test in ecology: how we exist and relate to all other life around us. It must be an ongoing dialog, not one day of the year in which we turn out the lights for a half hour and pretend that the activity has as direct an impact as does a life-long commitment to simply live in moderation. It's easy to commit to Earth day like it's a holiday like Hallowe'en. But we are in dire need of more commitment than that. Ironically, faced with simple facts, children often tend to be the ones who find commitment to a cause a logical and natural progression.
So if we aren't simply teaching our children about turning out the lights and putting waste in bins, what can we do? The same thing we can do as grownups --
I'll make an example of the issue of weight loss: for students that are pre-occupied with their weight (whether that is a positive or negative thing, or whether they are actually healthy is a whole other blog post) and ask me questions like, can I lose weight with yoga practice? (Barring no other considerations for that student,) my response is typically to change the nature of their relationship with food. Make it a spiritual practice. When we offer our actions up to our highest aim, versus small, self-focused desires, the whole nature of our relationship with those actions change. The same is true of our relationship with Earth. When we offer up ourselves in service and have a genuine understanding of our place within that relationship, we become capable of amazing things.
3 Practices to Cultivate Understanding of our True Place in Relationship with Earth
(And Inspire Positive, Lasting Change)
If we come to a place of understanding of human's place in the dynamic between us and Earth (she's the one in charge; we need to honour her for her to sustain us), and understand our personal responsibility, we can then easily work with our children on developing the relationship needed with our environment in order to make lasting change, and in a way that is positive, uplifting, and hopeful for a futre of beauty and bounty. Are we committed enough to our children to be up for the challenge?
Happy Earth Life!
Got a jumping bean on your hands? I do. Literally. Unless he's outside, in nature, my 5 year old cannot be still. If he's sitting down to eat, he's got to fidget. He has to being playing with something in his hands (I mean, besides a fork). And if he's not fidgeting with something while he sits, then he is standing. And, if he is standing then he is jumping up and down on the spot. When something particularly captures his interest, he jumps up and down some more, and flips his hands back and forth like a baby bird attempting first flight.
It's one of his idiosyncracies. A lot of other children with hearing loss are also jumping beans. And, he's a little boy and he has a lot of energy. But, sometimes, he is expected to go for lengths of time sitting still, like at school. And learning to harness and direct all that energy on one-pointed focus is a powerful skill to learn young.
In general, the Vata element (Air + Ether) is out of balance in our frenetic world. We exist like sparks of electricity constantly firing off without rest. Our culture of technology and dissociation from nature keeps us plugged in to an alternate reality that exacerbates the effects of a system out of balance. (This is a whole other blog topic for another day...).
Our children need to feel something solid under their feet. Need to feel tangibly IN their bodies and intrinsically connected to this world. Without that connection, how can we expect them to forge the future; that sometime spoken expectation we have of our children?
The following are three simple practices for children and grown ups that need to find a way back to solid ground.
"How can you know God if you don't know your big toe?" --BKS Iyengar
I love the above quotation from beloved yoga guru, BKS Iyengar. We often have this crazy idea that we (or our children) can jump into subtle practices like concentration or meditation or relaxation without having had any opportunity to work with what's tangible first. Hence, how can you know or have a relationship with what you cannot see ("God") when you don't even have that awareness of what's right in front of you ("your big toe" / your own body)?
The same is true for grownups as it is for children: you take a person who is having difficulty relaxing (say they are anxious, jumpy, fidgety, wound up, whatever), if you tell that person to relax, it isn't exactly helpful because it does nothing to help change their state. The ancient wisdom of yoga sets out a good rule of thumb: work with what's tangible first, then move to more and more subtle layers until you are able to get to a place of natural ease and relaxation. What does this mean? First use the body. Before the body can relax, it must be engaged. Then leverage the breath. Then use more subtle techniques such as guided relaxations, or meditations.
You'll notice that the three practices below are set up like a progression: the first focuses on the body, the second focuses the body and mind together with the breath, and the third uses the breath to focus an intention or idea. You can use the practices in a progression as provided, or you can use them independently. The key is to be aware that they will vary in effectiveness based on when they are used (re: rule of thumb, above) and the nature of the person using them. Practice and observe the resulting effects.
Be open to the experience. Witness the effects of practice. Enjoy and use practices you find effective as techniques in a toolbox in a regular routine of mindfulness.
1. Solid, Like an Oak
A simple awareness (body sensing) exercise in which the person becomes aware of the feeling of their body as sensation, in space.
Stand (or sit) with your feet planted on a solid surface. How does it feel for your feet to press into the surface underneath them? Feel your feet as solid, grounding you down like the base of a tree. Let your roots grow out from under your feet, and feel yourself steady and well supported. Now feel your legs, sturdy and solid. Sense your bottom, tummy and back. The whole of your body sturdy and solid like the trunk of a big Oak tree. Your arms soft and heavy at your sides. Draw your attention to your neck, relaxing your throat and jaw. Sense your cheeks and nose, your lips and your ears. The place between your eyebrows. The top of your head. Sense the left side of your body and the right side of your body. Sense the front of your body and the back of your body. Your whole body together. Take a slow breath in, and a long breath out. Know that you can return to the feeling of the Oak tree whenever you like.
2. An Ocean of Undulation
A simple practice I customized for my son to focus his attention when he is about to fly away. The charm in this practice is the fact that body and mind (awareness) are focused together by the breath.
1. Inhale, gazing at one of your hands, take your arms out to the sides of your body and up over your head. Exhale, gaze at the opposite hand as you return your arms slowly to your sides. If possible, use your whole breath to carry the movements through.
2. Repeat, beginning with the opposite hand.
3. Inhale, slowly gaze up as you take your arms out to the sides of your body and up over your head. At the top of the inhale, you should be gazing at your hands, palms together, over the head. Gaze with your eyes - avoid crunching your neck all the way back. Exhale, continuing to gaze at the hands, keep the palms together lowering hands in front of your heart.
3. Smiling Practice: Set an Intention
A lovely and simple practice I learned from one of Thich Nhat Hanh's recorded talks.
There is nothing quite like smiling to change a mood. I sometimes encourage yoga students to smile when performing an asana (posture) they find challenging. The yogic practice of Pratipaksa Bhavanam teaches us that when we have challenging thoughts, we can focus on the opposite thought to change our mood or attitude; this is helpful for short term changes, and with the right effort and teacher present, for long-term change as well. I began employing the smiling practice myself when my boys were very little and I found myself getting angry or frustrated when they became challenging. It is very difficult to be angry or frustrated when you are smiling. :D Try it. I then began employing the smiling practice for my son on our morning walk to school as a way of setting an intention for his day. He continues to enjoy this practice very much.
The practice is simple:
1. Inhale - Calm body, calm mind
2. Exhale - I smile
You may continue the practice for a length of time, or alternatively, just do three rounds of breath, calming body and mind on inhalations and smiling on the exhalations.
**Disclaimer: The practices in this post are good, safe general practices for a wide range of people. However, if you or your child have any specific conditions or concerns, it is always valuable to see a certified yoga therapist in your area for individualized recommendations and considerations. Yoga therapy and mindfulness are complementary practices that are not intended to replace medical care. **
Yoga Therapist. Mom of boys. Conservationist. Accessibility advocate. Self-described bibliophile. A believer in the power of stories. Personal stories. Communal stories. The power to change lives and the world, one breath, one moment, one story at a time.
About this Blog
The intention of this blog is to offer various resources for grownups and children to practice mindfulness & share stories together.