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Life in the digital era has many amazing perks. Finish your book late one night when you can’t sleep? Simply hit a button and download another onto your Kindle. Lost? Type the address you’re trying to find into your phone and a lovely lady with a British accent will lead you there. Bored while waiting for your doctor? Watch a few episodes of literally whatever show you want on the Netflix app on your smart phone. So swamped at work that it’s been weeks since you’ve had time to go out with friends? You can still feel connected just by checking into your favorite social media sites.
Having the world and everyone you know at your fingertips is, indeed, pretty amazing. But it also proliferates possibilities to trigger one of humanity’s Achilles heels — competition. I’m not talking about the healthy kind of competition that takes place on tennis courts, golf courses, tracks and (at least in my family) mini-golf greens everywhere. In addition to the endorphins, laughs and good old fashioned exercise that we get when playing, competition in sports is actually really good for us. It gives us a chance to practice winning and losing gracefully and graciously, skills we need in “real” life.
I’m talking about a different kind of competition. One that is as debilitating as the other is invigorating. One that weakens us at our foundations – making us feel inferior, lesser and needy. My mom has always called this kind of competition “keeping up with the Joneses.” It was bad enough when the Joneses lived down the street and all you knew about them was what you could see from the curb. Mr. Jones’ new car. Mrs. Jones’ fancy wardrobe. The delivery truck from the expensive furniture store in town that seemed to make habitual stops at their house. The pool they put into their back yard.
In the digital age, however, we’re privy to much more. What we glimpse of the Joneses from our laptops and smart phones brings us into their home and lives. We see magazine worthy photos of the Jones children as they beam at their mother across an exquisitely set breakfast table (filled, you can’t help but notice, with a wholesome smorgasbord of homemade delectables) on the first day of school. We see pictures from their third international family vacation of the year. We see loving photos of Mr. and Mrs. Jones at seemingly every social event in town.
She posts about clubs you haven’t even heard of, let alone been asked to join. He posts sports outings that make you question the fun you had playing mini-golf last night. He posts about how much fun they had with “Suzy and Bob, Julie and Joe, Trish and …” last night, making you wonder why you weren’t asked to join them. She regularly shares articles from newspapers and magazines that you haven’t had time to read since your early 30s. They both post so much about their superstar kids that you begin to wonder about the accomplishments of the kids asleep upstairs in your own home.
And it’s no longer just the Joneses that we’re watching as we drive by each morning or take the trash out each evening. It’s everyone! You even catch glimpses like this of your friend from school who now lives 3000 miles away. The pool of competition is humongous.
We have the same choice in the digital age as my mom had when it was just the Joneses she was keeping up with. We focus on all that we have – the wonderful people who share our lives, our daily moments of joy – great and small, the blessings that we have received and those we have earned, the experiences we are fortunate to have, our periodic successes and even the challenges we must rise to meet. And this is a choice, by the way. One we may have to make every single morning as we get out of bed until it becomes so deeply ingrained in us that it is part of who we are. To keep our eyes on the beauty of our own lives. To re-set our attitudes to gratitude – over and over again. This is (and always has been) the key to the contentment that is unsettled when we are keeping up with the Joneses.
The inward nature of yoga can help solidify our foundation of gratitude. After all, most of us begin our practices in group classes surrounded by long-time students or at least watching videos of bendy, graceful folks on sticky mats. This was certainly true of me. Oddly, for me, the skills and grace of the men and women around me was so far beyond me that the very notion of competing was eliminated. Instead of trying to keep up, I was liberated. I “kept my eyes on my own mat” (a phrase that I now use as regularly as my mom used “keeping up with the Joneses”), did my thing and — wonder of wonders – not only liked it, but began to get better at it.
Like many, I suspect, I showed up to that first class with some extra baggage. I was lugging around horrifying memories of adolescent dance classes where I always seemed to be out of step and out of line, ridiculously tight hamstrings and a post-baby body that didn’t look or feel remotely familiar to me. That said, when, over the course of weeks and months of going to class, I got to know the people in the room around me, none of them ever sensed my baggage. (Well, except for the hamstrings. Those were pretty obvious.) And, I was surprised to discover, it turned out that they were each lugging around some invisible-to-me “stuff” of their own.
Even today, all these years later, when I go to a new class or walk into a training or workshop, I sometimes feel the surprising weight of competition and of my old baggage. “What if I can’t keep up?” runs through my mind as it does all of ours every once in a while as we drive down our street, walk into our job or even click around on our phone. When this happens, thanks to years and years of practice (on and off the mat), I know what to do. I gratefully take a deep breath and focus on how lucky I am to be here. And, when the woman next to me slips her leg behind her head to “warm up,” I am happy for her, too. (At least I am when I’m really on my game.)