Thinking like a Tween

I am going out on a limb here, but stick with me. I often hear people say that we should be more “childlike.” The reason being that children are pure of heart. If we connect to our inner child, we too will become pure of heart. This has always irritated me. Yes, children are blissfully, wonderfully, naïve. They are pure of heart. They often speak little pearls of wisdom. When they are happy and full of wonder, it is a joy. This is true. 

Children are also needy. They need. They need adults to guide them. They need a world that protects and provides for them. They are dependent on outside forces to create the conditions for their bliss. And this is why this analogy annoys me. The work of coming into consciousness isn’t about living in a blissfully unaware state that depends upon the world to take care of us. Consciousness demands action. Consciousness demands that we become aware of ourselves in the world. It is accepting that, should we desire transcendence, we have to do the work of transcending our “self.” 

That is why, I think we should all try to be more like middle schoolers. 

Middle school is a liminal age. It is a great ball of hormonal fire hurtling towards adolescence at a snail’s pace. It is slow and awkward and often painful being a tween. They are awakening to adulthood, yet still comfortably nestled in the safety net of childhood. Tweendom is the bridge between Christmas Past and Christmas Yet to Come. They are more aware of themselves, but they are still so goofy. As they struggle to come understand life’s limitations, they are open to possibilities. They struggle with being sentient, with self-identity, and yet they are still very playful. They have amazing insight and are not afraid; but, they are also extremely self-conscious and totally afraid. 

Tweens are, in many ways, the embodiment of present mindedness. They are becoming more aware of themselves, they are interested in the possibilities of an awakened life, but they still want to be tucked in at night. They still believe in fantasy, but are also weirdly practical. Funny, goofy, stinky, emotionally all over the place; middle schoolers are basically every one of our internal lives living outside our bodies. The other day my middle schooler turned to me and said, “being alive is so hard!”

Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

And this is not to say that little kids aren’t their own emotional wrecking balls, they are. But, toddlers have little to no control over their emotional lives. They are basically the Id in small shoes, daring you to try and make them feel better. A tween’s awareness, however, is dawning. They are trying to get comfortable with their burgeoning consciousness. They struggle every day with how to accept that they are small, insignificant, different; yet, they remain confident that a fantastic journey is just around the corner.

That is why I recommend that we be more like a tween. Don’t give up the thrill of make believe, hang on to the beauty of imagination, but channel it through the angst. Our angst is our longing. Longing is our consciousness’s urge to connect to something greater than ourselves. It’s the twitchy, itchy nerve that is only satisfied when we are truly connected to the beautiful. Our separateness creates the longing for connection. Longing, when directed and focused, draws us into the experience of beauty, into Pure Consciousness, Jiva, God. This experience teaches us how to be a good friend, a good neighbor, a good, global citizen. It moves us beyond the self and into the Self. 

I know this may be way out there, but I stand by it. Tweens for the win! What about you? Do you remember what it was like to be a tween? Do you have a tween in your life now? If you had the chance to do it all again, would you? 

Your Big Toe

by Jen Whinnen

My older son recently spent a day touring his brother’s art based school to see if he liked it better that his current school. He’s never been that into the arts but his interests have changed this year so we asked him to check it out just to be sure. Throughout his day at art school he was surly, sullen and bossy. He was mean to his brother and blatantly rude to the teachers. Half way through the day he texted his dad, asking to go home. When we tried to talk to him about it his only response was that he hated it, that it wasn’t what he wanted.

We’ve moved a lot in the last six years and he’s been to several different schools. Each time he’s moved to a new school he’s approached it with gusto and optimism. He had the faith of a child; he was going to be accepted and liked because this is a well ordered universe and that’s how things work. But, he’s older now. He’s entering into the world of  “tween-dom” and the resilience of “just wait until they see how slick I am at Minecraft!” is waning. He’s becoming self consciousness. The idea of starting all over again was too stressful. It was clear that no matter how great the school may be for him, we needed to respect his wishes.

This is an important distinction, one that is often hard as a parent to make. Parents are supposed to make decisions for their children. We are supposed to figure out what is best for them, tell them what to do. However, as they mature, we also have to take into consideration their burgeoning sense of self. We have to allow them to make their own decisions and respect that they may actually know their own minds.

As a teacher however, I do not have to toe this line. As a teacher I have to do the opposite. I must accept that my students are fully in charge of their own experience. And believe it or not, this is often hard to do. In fact, one of the most common thoughts my student teachers begin their training with is “I am going to teach the yoga that transformed me so that others will be transformed the way I have been.” On the surface this sounds like a lovely, well intentioned idea. However, it is terribly misguided. A belief rooted in the assumption that everyone wants what we want, or conversely, if they don’t want what we want they are wrong, is a recipe for conflict and disappointment. 

Like a specialized school designed to address the talents of specific children, yoga isn’t meant to convert or change others. It is meant to clear the lens to whatever degree that lens wants to be cleaned. Yoga will absolutely allow one to expand one’s consciousness beyond the mundane experience of being in a body, but yoga’s validity is not hinging upon that happening to every student of yoga. 

The teacher’s role is not to save. It is to facilitate. The teacher provides guideposts and opportunity, but the experience, whatever it is, depends entirely upon the student. Understanding, transformation, if it takes place at all, arises from one’s own effort and will. 

B.K.S. Iyengar once said “How can you know god if you don’t even know your big toe?” What a great question this is! How can we know anything about anything when we don’t even know our own minds? To presuppose that you know what someone’s motivations are, is to grant yourself an omniscience you do not have. We teach our children to share and tell them not to bite because they literally do not know any better. But when it comes to the motivations of adults, we have no real way of knowing what’s going on. Any time we step into the arena of deciding the emotionality of “why” someone is doing something, it’s a distraction. We’ve stepped out of the arena of our knowing our own big toe. 

So, how can you know god when you can’t even keep yourself focused on knowing your own big toe? How can you say what is good or right for someone else? 

You can’t.

When we sit as judge and jury on anyone, even if we are literally being called to serve on a jury of our peers, we don’t actually get to define their experience. We can cast a judgment on someone’s life, prescribe a punishment for a crime, we can look at the physical body and make suggestions based on what we see, but the internal life of that person will always be in their hands. What they choose to do with their punishment, what they do with our instructions, where they go in their mind, is up to them.

“Why would someone do that!?” Oh how I regularly find myself asking this question! And each time I do I take myself away from the work of finding right action. 

If you are called to teach, do it. You don’t need a reason to do any more than you need a justification for learning or loving.  That pendulum swings both ways – you can’t know what motivates others and they don’t get to dictate what motivates you. 

Work to understand your big toe.

That my friends, is a full time job.

The Forgiving Meal

by Jen Whinnen

One morning over winter break I found Jack with his head buried into his Dad’s chest, choking back tears. When I asked him what was wrong, he said “Jai said he wishes Z was his brother instead of me.”

Ouch.

These are harsh from any sibling, but it’s especially harsh coming from a little brother whose adoration has always been absolute. My boys have, for the most part, enjoyed a pretty close friendship. The bedrock of this friendship is Jai’s unwavering belief that Jack is the world’s greatest big brother. Jai identifies himself as “Jack’s Brother.” That’s how he introduces himself, how he knows himself. To Jai, Jack knows every good thing in the world, has shown him every good thing in the world, and always has his back. Because of this, Jai has always been happy to step back and bask in his brother’s glow. 

That is, until recently. Lately they are like two little tributaries, diverging off in different directions. Jack sometimes just wants to be left alone. Jai never wants to be alone. Jack finds himself annoyed and frustrated by his little brother. Jai is constantly being hurt by the rejection. My hope is that some day they will merge back into the same river, that they will find the same flow, but right now they bicker. They pick on each other. They yell and fight a lot.  

Over the break Jack’s best friend spent a few days visiting us. Jack didn’t want to share his friend.  He was mean, telling Jai to go away, not including him. To someone who’s always been included in every activity, who sees Jack as his best friend, this hurt. It hurt a lot. So, Jai went for the jugular. 

“I wish you weren’t my brother! I wish Z was my brother instead!”  

Jack was crushed. And then, of course, he got mad back. “Jai is the worst brother in the world! I will never forgive him! Never!”

My older son is at a (highly dramatic) crossroads. He can choose to retaliate, to say something cruel, to punch his brother. He can go on excluding him, tell him he’s a terrible brother, that he never wants to see him again. All the anger options were on the table. And they all looked pretty good. Anger and Revenge always come ready to party. They bring the dishes with the best sauces and most delicious toppings. Dripping in buttery pools of contempt and sugary indignation, they are so very, very appealing. 

That is why, when I pointed out the small, steamed, unadorned plate of empathy and forgiveness, Jack gagged. Where’s the sweet satisfaction of retribution in a small plate of humble pie? I want to carbo load on gooey piles of hot, steaming anger! Where is my righteous heartburn if I put myself in someone else’s shoes? 

I tried to reason with him, “Try and understand where Jai is coming from. How would you feel if you were being excluded?” 

As Jack railed against my logic and I continued to try and reason with him I thought “oh man, I sound just like my dad!” and I groaned a little inside. My dad had this “empathy and forgiveness” lecture/sermon that he usually delivered after I’d had a fight with one of my sisters. I would sit on my bed, staring at the bedspread patterns, twirling a loose thread around my finger, and meow out while he droned on and on and on about how important it was to let go of your anger, to try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to forgive. 

Of course he wasn’t wrong. To give in to rage, passionate anger and indignation is a kind of suffering. We are the ones who have to struggle through it and if we don’t let it go, it stays with us. It compromises our peace. It wears us down. 

In my years of recovery after my dad died, I spent many a bitter thought lambasting my dad’s philosophy. I saw it as his manipulative way of not taking responsibility for his past, for forcing us into “forgiving” him and never taking responsibility. But, what I understand now is that he wasn’t telling me “just forgive me so I feel better about me,” but “forgive so you feel better.” He was trying to tell me that he couldn’t do it for me. I had to make that choice. I could hold tight to my anger forever, nurse it for as long as I wanted, or I could chose to forgive. Either choice is viable. But, either way I must choose. 

My little pep talk with Jack yielded exactly zero empathy result. (I totally get why my dad held me hostage for so long – kids are stubborn!) I let him go and an hour later all the boys were playing together just fine. Such is the memory of a child! 

However, I am still here thinking about anger. Anger is a force, a power. It’s not bad per say. There are times when it can be useful. But it is a powerful force. It can rule us or we can choose to master it. I know that I often use it to distraction. I get mad for petty reasons, I punish unnecessarily. I use it as a default in many ways for dealing with the day-to-day mundane things I don’t like. 

And that’s an abuse of power.

With the inauguration less than 24 hours away many of us feel pretty angry. Understandably so. It’s important that we remember why we’re angry and remain vigilant in our support of those working for social justice and our public health. 

It’s also important to remember how much that anger and frustration taxes us, how much it takes from us. 

So what to do? I’m not entirely sure. I do know that I need to lean into my practice more. Yoga teaches us to be comfortable in the uncomfortable. It shows us how to engage while disengaging from the ego. It helps us remain calm and practical. These practices are going to be vital in the years to come. 

Since I can not control anyone other than myself, I will offer you my own personal “treatise” for the coming administration in hopes that it might help you too:

  1. I will continue to try and engage in political discourse with those who do not share my views respectfully and with an open mind. 
  2. I will continue to resist social injustice and support those organizations that align with my morals and values. 
  3. I will continue to teach my children the importance of empathy, sympathy and compassion (whether they like it or not).
  4. I will try to do all of this with as little anger as possible. 

When I step up to the emotional table and take a look around at all of the offerings, I will try and remember to choose the healthier, lighter options. I will aim to take small portions of the gooey stuff and go easy on the gravy. Hopefully by the end of the meal I will be able to walk away from the table less bloated and a little lighter. 

I hope the same for you.