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Two sets of ears are better than one
Many years ago, when our oldest child was first diagnosed with an incurable chronic illness, my husband and I developed the habit of having two sets of ears at significant doctor’s appointments. Even sitting in the same room, listening to the same expert, and hearing one another ask questions, we found that we would come home with two entirely different messages. Interestingly, we would often also discover that we had both left the meeting worried about completely different things.
Our post-appointment conversations, therefore, became critically important, not for making decisions, but for fleshing out what was going on. It was only after merging our “take-aways” that we felt we had a complete enough understanding to even begin to research and ponder the choices we needed to make.
Hundreds of shared appointments and post-appointment mind-melds have left me keenly aware that the human memory is only reliable to a point. I’m sure you share experiences like this. Perhaps your siblings, like mine, have incredibly different memories of childhood events? Or perhaps your kids remember something like the weekly leftover nights that I, the primary cook in the family, simply do not recall?
Adjusting to new information can be an uncomfortable process
It is not just shared experiences that we remember differently. In the wake of my brother’s death, it has been fascinating to listen to other people’s stories about his life – my nieces and nephew, my son and daughters, my parents, my sister, mutual friends. While many memories are shared, many more are not.
Hearing stories that bolster my memories feels good. The “other” stories – the ones that contradict or throw into question my own memories – are harder to hear. Listening to these stories can be a very uncomfortable – even painful – process. If I’m patient (it can take some time), “my” story eventually rearranges itself to include these new puzzle pieces. Despite the discomfort, I am eventually grateful for the fuller understanding I gain.
Yoga philosophy can explain
An element of yoga philosophy explains the reason we must work so hard when life asks us to adjust our memories. According to yoga, five mindsets cause all humans to suffer. These are the kleshas. When we are forced to question what we thought we remembered or knew, we confront two of these causes of suffering – specifically asmita (or I-am-ness) and raga (or attachment.)
When held too tightly, our self-identity and attachments cause suffering
What is I-am-ness? It is our self-identity. It is, in part, the laundry list of ways we define and describe ourselves. It is our likes and dislikes, formed by years of experience. It is a lifetime of events – small and large – that formed our habits, beliefs, and passions. It is the bank of wisdom we’ve accumulated from the simple act of living.
If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “Isn’t that good stuff? Don’t my likes, dislikes, habits, beliefs, and things that motivate me make me ME?” Yes. But, for most of us, our self-identity is fiercely resistant to change. This resistance causes us to clamp down on what we thought was true and refuse to allow our understanding – of whatever it is we are grappling with – to shift and change. It is in the throes of resistance that our self-identity becomes a cause of suffering.
Attachment is typically what causes us to resist change with all our might. Do you remember the seagulls in the movie, Finding Nemo? “Mine. Mine! MINE!” they cried. This is how we feel about our thoughts, memories, and certainties. Not to mention, the longer we have them, the more deeply we are attached. The more they feel like part of who we are.
A mindset of “not knowing” gets us unstuck and moving again
This is, in part, why it is harder for me to loosen my grip on my “story” of my brother. “I knew him his whole life!” cries the seagull in me. On the other hand, for years I have had to live with the discomfort of not knowing enough to be confident making decisions regarding my son’s medical treatment. Because I am keenly aware of all I don’t know, when the “stories” I bring home from doctor’s appointments conflict with my husband’s, it feels primarily like an opportunity to learn more. Getting to that receptive state of mind in other scenarios, including when hearing something new about my brother’s life, is often less graceful, but not impossible.
In fact, allowing new information to rearrange stories that have been mine for as long as I can remember can feel like standing up after I’ve been sitting cross legged for too long. Though it is uncomfortable (it hurts!) to move when your leg is asleep, the only way forward is to press gently and slowly through the resistance of my body. Once I’m moving again (mentally as well as physically), I feel better.
It never ceases to amaze how a yoga practice can create and support you in the midst of life’s challenges. Much of this happens “behind the scenes” of asana in the realm of yoga philosophy. If you’d like to know more about why yoga works, take a look at my Yoga Philosophy master class or my recorded class on the Yoga Sutras. And stay tuned for a new class coming this fall!