We humans are a mess of contradictions and perhaps enlightenment is accepting our messy selves with grace and humour as we move towards being our most beautiful and loving selves.
Before studying and practicing yoga and Buddhism, I would find myself repeating the same mistakes over and over, much like the protagonist in Portia Nelson’s piece, An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. I was perplexed, frustrated, and would often blame others for my mistakes; I was stuck in Chapter I (if you are not familiar with this piece check it out by clicking on the title above).
Slowly, I began to recognize the unhealthy patterns and take some responsibility for my life. I started to understand how my unconscious conditioning was a driving force behind many of my actions. In yoga and Buddhist philosophy this conditioning is known as our samskaras. Sometimes referred to as the grooves, patterns or scars created by our own thoughts, intentions and actions, and informed by our the actions, thoughts and intentions of our ancestors and our communities. Some grooves are deep and not well identified, like those that we have inherited from past generations, and some are relatively shallow and relatively easy to identify.
After spending some time learning about yoga and Buddhism and diving into the practices of yoga asana, and meditation, I began to recognize that there was an inner dialogue between my conscious mind and my unconscious conditioning. My conscious mind would want to pursue a course of action in line with my values and intentions, my unconscious mind would want what it wanted (intentions be damned!), and I would watch gobsmacked as my unconscious mind, more often than not, got its way. I could be in a conversation with someone, consciously decide that something I was about to say was unnecessary gossip and then watch myself say it anyway. And, to be honest, it still happens (the bowl of ice cream I had last night, knowing it would result in some digestive upset).
As I continue to move toward avoiding the hole (Chapter IV) or going down a different street (Chapter V), the two tools I am finding most valuable are creating space and letting go of judgement and self-blame.
One of the beautiful outcomes of a consistent yoga/meditation practice is the creation of space around our thoughts. It is not uncommon to hear yoga teachers talking about responding to a thought or situation, rather than reacting to it; the difference between the two is simply the space that exists between thought and action. In the words of Viktor E. Frankl:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
When I feel spacious I am more likely to recognize how my actions may be driven by my samskaras. Only then I am able to make a conscious decision to change my course, to make my way out of the old, well worn groove and start to create a new path. It doesn’t mean that I am going to make the best choice all the time and it certainly doesn’t mean that once I am out of the groove, I am out of it for good. I have found myself back in the same groove again and again, especially when I am under stress, or life feels difficult (ahem, Covid). But with practice and patience it is possible to create change and it all begins by learning to create space in the body, in the mind, around thoughts and emotions.
The other big shift for me was letting go of judgement and self-blame. When I watched myself doing things that seemed self-sabotaging or creating suffering (dukkha), I would berate myself for not having enough self-discipline or commitment. I would compare myself to others and feel like I was failing. There have even been times when I let go of my practices, because I felt I just wasn’t good enough. Thankfully, the faith I had in these teachings; in the practices of yoga and Buddhism kept me coming back. What really helped me though was finding a some amazing yoga teachers and mentors, as well as a supportive community (sangha) of yogis. This is when I learned that I was not alone and that my experiences were not unique to me. It is where I began to recognize that being human is a mess of contradictions, which we all have to navigate. I would never blame another being for doing their best with the life they have been given, so why would I blame myself?
Of course I try to avoid the streets with holes on them, but when I do find myself in a hole, I no longer blame myself or others, I simply look for the way out. You might even hear me laughing out loud as I make way way out of the same hole, yet again, because part of being human is walking down the street with the hole in it, on your way to enlightenment.
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My name is Valerie and I am a registered massage therapist and yoga teacher/student. We humans are a mess of contradictions, and I love exploring how yoga can help us cultivate the qualities that make us kinder, more joyful beings and still leave room to accept this human experience with grace and humour.