Remember when you were little and dreamed of what you wanted to be when you were big? I wanted to work on a horse farm. Then I wanted to be a vet. Then I wanted to make greeting cards. Then I wanted to be a mom. That’s a lot of career vacillation before the age of 10! By the time I graduated from college, having essentially majored in “saving the world,” I was completely at sea. After I stepped away from a mildly satisfying career only to discover (the hard way) that being a stay-at-home mom wasn’t a good fit for me, I finally blundered into work that felt like it was meant to be mine.
Like it did for me, sometimes life itself provides the wake-up call that what you thought was your path may not have been spot on. Perhaps you find yourself suddenly facing a job search that you hadn’t planned on. Or perhaps that last promotion actually pulled you away from work you loved to do. Or maybe you find yourself with an empty nest and much freer days. Or perhaps your partner has changed jobs and you’ve had to relocate. Or maybe you simply feel a vague sense of unease or discontent which has you asking yourself, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
But, for most of us, it’s been years since we’ve paused to reflect on our path in life. It’s been way too long since we’ve touched base with our priorities – what really matters to us, what makes us happy, what deserves the investment of our time and talents. For the most part this isn’t because we’re not thoughtful, reflective people. It’s simply because life moves fast. To keep up, so do we. More often than not, we spend our days scurrying from item to item on our “To-Do List” with little regard for the bigger picture of our goals, our hopes and dreams or our values.
It’s easy to get off course when we’re chronically on high-speed auto-pilot. When we do drift, we may not even know we’ve gotten lost. We might just feel a general sense of discontent, or a little disinterested or depressed. We could even wake up one morning feeling slightly inauthentic, as if we’re living someone else’s life.
When we finally notice them, the cause(s) for our discontent may be unclear. What is clear, however, is that “the shine is off the (metaphorical) apple.” And when that is the case, the best thing to do is take a (metaphorical) bite to see if there’s anything inside worth eating.
The following exercise (borrowed from In Transition by Mary Lindsay Burton and Richard A. Wedemeyer) can help you take that exploratory bite.
Rank the following eighteen items from most important to least. The first six items will be your “Essentials” – things that you consider to be profoundly important and that you will hold onto at all costs. Items 7-12 will be your “Nice to Haves” – things that are important, but that you would let go if push came to shove. Your final six items will be your “Non-Essentials” – things you are willing to forego. There can be no “ties.” All items must have their own spot on your list.
As hard as that was to do (and, trust me, you’re not alone, it is hard), this next step is harder. Take another look at the list of eighteen items. Then take an honest look at the way you’re living your life right now (not tomorrow, not next week, and certainly not in some far-off idealized future). Rank the eighteen items again, this time based on the way you’re investing your time, talent and resources right now. The first items are receiving the greatest investment. The last items, the least.
Now, in the most eye-opening part of the exercise, compare your two lists. Are there differences or inconsistencies between them? It is here that you may discover that your priorities have gotten a little tangled, or where you might have drifted off course as you zipped through life.
With a spirit of curiosity and adventure, ask yourself what could change in your life to allow you to live in synch with your priorities. If you can align the activities that fill your days more closely with what you hold valuable and dear, with what inspires you, with what lights you up, you will feel more contented, more fulfilled, more satisfied and more peaceful at the end of each day.
Do not fret. You do not have to start anew. Tiny changes can make gigantic differences. Just an hour each week to worship, or practice yoga, or take a class with your partner or volunteer at your local homeless shelter (or to do whatever is calling to your heart) can be enough to change the whole tenor of your life. The key is to make these little tweaks with keen awareness of your big picture.
Go ahead. Be courageous and ask yourself: “What matters to me? What do I want to be when I grow up?”
Yoga is a practice of change and transformation. I think anyone who has sustained a regular practice for more than a few weeks will agree that this is undeniably true. Yet, despite this fact, a surprising number of students come to me frustrated by the lack of change or by the type of change they are seeing on their mats.
You see, the change that yoga creates does not necessarily follow any trajectory or schedule of change that a right-minded person would plan. In fact, yoga’s change can be quite ephemeral – showing up and then disappearing. It can be glacial – so slow as to be nearly imperceptible. It can travel a route filled with as many backward steps as forward. And this route can include detours that no one in their right mind would choose to take.
To receive yoga’s changes we must be persistent in our practice. More so, we must be profoundly patient. We must set aside any and all expectations lest we be crushed by disappointment. We must hold our successes lightly, with the knowledge that nothing is permanent and everything is subject to change (often at a moment’s notice). We must be willing to explore new territory which can at times be frightening, frustrating, and sometimes painful (mostly to the ego). We must resolve to be as content in the valleys as we are on the peaks. We must persevere as we journey across miles of deserts and wander the occasional plateau. Change like this, can be confusing to say the least.
Allow me to digress for a moment into the worlds of paleontology and philosophy to provide some insight into the specific nature of change to which yoga is exposing us.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a geologist and paleontologist. As a paleontologist, he took part in the discovery of fossils now known as Peking Man. These are the remains of a male who walked the earth nearly 800,000 years ago. Though the man who was Peking Man could never have dreamed of the scientific advancements he would be responsible for in the unimaginable future, his skeleton has revealed a huge amount of information to us about our heritage and evolution as a species.
To me, it seems that Tielhard’s work on this important paleontological find left its fingerprints on his spirituality. His philosophical writings reveal a deep sense of optimism, hope and a profound patience in God’s plan and God’s time.
Cynthia Bourgeault, a Christian writer and thinker herself, paraphrases Tielhard in Monday’s email from the Center for Action and Contemplation:
“… rather than the very small snapshots represented in our short lifetimes, evolution’s span is measured in eons, not decades. When we lose sight of the cosmic scale, the result is anguish and impatience. If we measure human progress only by our usual historical benchmarks—the span of a presidential administration, the not-yet 250 years of the American democratic experiment, or the “mere” 2,500 years of Western civilization—we are still only catching the smallest snippet of the inevitable process …”
A faith such as this in “the process” requires an understanding that as special, unique and precious as our individual existences are, we are each but a tiny piece of the magnificent, unfathomably large whole of Creation – a creation that spans thousands of generations of lifetimes. We play our part, putting our personal gifts, talents and passions to use, content in the knowledge that we may never see the end result of our actions. We trust that the intentions of our actions will ripple beyond us through time.
Contemplating Tielhard’s thoughts is freeing in a historical moment when the amount of “work to be done” can seem overwhelming and slightly paralyzing. It is a reminder that “small snippets of progress” are what make up all great change and growth. It inspires me to do my own small “right thing” with faith and trust that it matters not only now, but in the long run. On a smaller scale, contemplating Tielhard’s thoughts frees me on my yoga mat as well, which brings me back to where we began, but with a new perspective.
Yoga asks us to have faith in its long-range plans for us. Long-range in yoga is a little like “God’s time.” To the surprise (and frustration) of many new yoga students, yoga works in years and even decades rather than days or weeks. (Speaking of slow, it took me actual years to figure that out.) Because of that, we must resist relying on mental “snapshots” of our practice each day for satisfaction. Instead, yoga requires us to look at the whole scope of our practice – from our first day to today – to see how far we’ve come.
When we do this, not only do we realize that our physical practice has changed dramatically (proving that “small snippets” of progress do add up to great change), we also realize that these changes that were once so tantalizing are now almost incidental. For the “other” gifts that yoga has given us – peace of mind, contentment, and an ability to navigate the ups and downs of life with poise and equanimity – have changed the way we are experiencing our entire life. It’s at this moment that our view of our practice shifts to what Tielhard calls a “cosmic scale.”
We suddenly understand that each time we unroll our yoga mat is just a “small snippet” in a practice designed to sustain us for a lifetime. If we step back and squint a little, we may even be able to imagine the possibility that as our practice changes us, we are changing the world around us. And that, in some unforeseeable future, the world may be a different place indeed because we (and so many others) had faith in a practice designed to create transformation over the long haul.
“If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought.” – Peace Pilgrim
We’ve all done it. Walked into a party thinking “I should have stayed home, this is gonna stink,” only to find the party does indeed stink. Or headed into a tennis match, 5K race or soccer game thinking “There’s no way I can win,” only to lose by a hair. Or been introduced (at last) to a new colleague who you’ve already decided is snotty, only to discover that they’re just as aloof as you expected them to be.
Are we prescient? Or have our negative thoughts created a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Personally speaking, I have ruined an awful lot of parties that my friends have really enjoyed for my (shy, sometimes reluctant to go out) self. I’ve also lost a shocking number of tennis matches that I really ought to have won because of unforced errors and a seeming inability to just close the deal. And I have been on the receiving end of the “she just looks snotty” judgment, so I know firsthand that someone who has already decided not to like me does not seem as friendly or as engaged as someone who is excited to meet me.
My guess is that, while we might sometimes be able to see “the writing on the wall,” more often than not, our negative thoughts create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Our thoughts are remarkably powerful in shaping our experience of our lives. They are so powerful that the ten principles that yoga offers us to live richer, more satisfying, more productive lives (the yamas and the niyamas) each, in part, direct our awareness to our thoughts. No study of these ten tenets (non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, non-grasping, purity, zeal, contentment, self-study and devotion to a higher power) is complete without taking a close look at the way our thoughts affect our words, actions and beliefs. Every single time I teach these concepts I am re-amazed at the power they have to change a person.
As transformative as its philosophy is, yoga goes a step farther by giving its students a safe “laboratory” within which to practice putting its life principles into action – the yoga mat. Each time we practice yoga we must come with a clear mind. We must learn how to set aside preconceived notions of how strong or flexible we are. We must put the kibosh on assumptions about what we can and can’t do. We must accept that we are always changing – sometimes growing and learning, and sometimes regressing. We must stay open to each moment and all that it holds for us.
I have had days when a posture I’ve been able to do for years has (seemingly out of the blue) disappeared. And I have had days when a posture I’ve never even dreamed I’d be able to do has shown up (just as seemingly out of the blue). It never ceases to astound me how the stiffest day in my memory can follow on the heels of the loosest. I have had days when I feel so exhausted that I have literally dragged myself to my mat dreading a sluggish, heavy practice only to be stunned to feel light and “all in” as soon as I start to move.
Even more pertinent to my point, practicing yoga offers us an hour- (or more) long opportunity to pay attention to our inner dialogue. If we mess up a posture, the critic within us will often spit out a stream of invective. If we’re asked to do something that scares us, our inner child will often start spewing a litany of excuses and reasons why “today is not the day.” If we are feeling fatigued, our inner lazy-bones can be quite sweet about offering a hundred creative reasons that make it a good idea to cut the practice short.
Each of these is an opportunity to recalibrate our thoughts. We can take a breath and focus on what went right in the messed up posture. We can take a deep breath (or two or five or ten) to settle ourselves down so we can give the scary posture our best effort. We can take a breath and mindfully center our thoughts on the benefits and gifts that we receive from our practice – even one that is a little gentler than usual because we are tired. When we are not able to refocus, we experience viscerally the power negative thoughts have to hold us back and keep us small. When we are able to refocus, we experience tangibly the power positive thoughts have to keep us open to our experiences, no matter what they are.
These experience on our yoga mats are powerful teachers. The lessons we learn (over and over again as we practice day after day) gradually become hardwired into our beings. With practice, we begin to notice when we set ourselves up to not enjoy a party, or not perform up to par in a match, or inadvertently, “preemptively” snub a new colleague, or close ourselves off to a million other things. This noticing leads to change that makes our changing bodies (and – boy! – do they change through this practice) on our mat seem trivial by comparison.
As we change, we also notice that we are appreciating and savoring much more of our lives than ever before. This is why we practice yoga.
“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” – Frank Outlaw
What do you do when the world gets heavy? What do you do when simply turning on the news or looking at your phone in the morning leaves you nearly overwhelmed with feelings of worry and fear and sorrow? How do you bounce back and make the most of your day in the face of so much pain and suffering – whether at the hands of Mother Nature or a mad gunman?
For years, I have had one answer to questions like this.
I do my practice.
I get up early. I unroll my mat. I say a prayer. I spend an hour or more moving, breathing, sweating and trying my level best to draw my awareness away from my runaway thoughts (worries, fears and sorrows included). I lay down and hold still for a few minutes. I sit up, say a prayer, roll up my mat and head out into the day.
As clear as it is what we’re drawing our thoughts from, it’s often confusing what we’re drawing our awareness toward. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, was known for saying that yoga is looking for God. He didn’t try to put God in the box of religion. He simply asked each of his students to look for God as they understood God.
How do we do this? As we move, breathe, sweat, and try not to think, we choose (over and over again some days … days like these in particular) to focus our awareness on sensing, feeling and even seeing God around us and within us. I believe that God is light and love. I believe that, as a part of God’s Creation, I can serve (in my own small way) as a photon of that light and a tiny bit of that love to make this world a teensy bit better. An hour or more of breathing and focusing on this can be a powerful antidote for the heavy weight of fear, worry, helplessness and sorrow that I may have carried with me to my mat.
Only some days, doing my practice does not seem like enough. Some days, taking the time and mustering the energy to do my practice feels useless. On really tough days, such as this past Monday, it even feels flat-out stupid.
What do I do then?
I do my practice.
I pretend like I think it’s going to help and I unroll my mat and I breathe and I move and I sweat and I try not to think. Most importantly, while I do all this, I allow myself to feel. Yes, I feel my body as it stretches. But I also feel my heavy heart.
Sometimes I have to pause to cry. Sometimes I have to retreat to child’s pose. But I do my practice. Because even when I’m faking it, even when things look so bleak that it would be easy to convince myself that my faith is a folly, the intention to look for God is enough. While I may not roll my mat back up feeling “all better,” my heart has begun the long, slow process of healing. I feel re-centered. I feel somewhat restored. And, most importantly, I feel at least a little more ready to shine my small light into the world around me.
What can we do when the world feels heavy? We can acknowledge and honor our feelings. We can take a few minutes or more to turn inward and to “look for God.” Once we have done so, we’ll be better able to give of ourselves in ways great and small to help this world of ours begin to heal.