Thursday, May 11, 2006

When you're a hammer, everything is a nail

If you want to have a reason why you'll never be able to do something, say, practice yoga, or master a particular posture in yoga, or drive a car, or learn a foreign language, or whatever it is you see yourself as being unable to do, then you will always be able to find it, keep it in your pocket and take it out whenever you need to use it. If you want someone to validate your reasoning, you'll always be able to find that person, someone who is always willing to tell you exactly what you need to hear in order to keep you exactly where you are right now.

But isn't it better to take a broader view of yourself? Isn't it better to continually ask yourself, "Am I defining myself too narrowly here?" Isn't it better to stop settling for any one definition of who you are, and instead, to allow your definition of yourself to evolve over time?

From the moment we are born, the ways in which we define ourselves begin piling up thanks to our well-meaning parents (remember, Mom, as you read this, I am a parent too....). We're the "first born" and behave accordingly. We're the "smart one" or the "cute one". We are really good with language, but not so good with numbers. We are really good at art, but maybe not so inclined toward science. We're sports enthusiasts. Or we're bookish.

We take comfort in the ways in which we define ourselves, even when those definitions are not so favorable. "I've never been good at getting places on time," we say to those who are waiting for us, as if our lateness is an immutable truth. "I could never run long distances because I would get bored being in my own head for so long," we say without ever having tried it. We take pride in the ways in which we define ourselves. We're athletic. We're brilliant. We're good with animals.

Of course, anyone who's been reading this blog for any length of time knows exactly where I'm going with this.


We're athletic - but we trip running from first to second base. We're brilliant, but we miss the mark on an important term paper in schol. We're healthy, but we get sick. We have a great yoga practice, but we've been having trouble focusing lately. We are talented, but we don't get the part, don't get the job, don't sell the book, the song, the ticket, the idea. And we suffer. We'd suffer anyway, I suppose when things don't go as we had hoped. But when you add to the mix the dissonance between our definitions and our reality, and when you add to that the realization that perhaps our definitions need some tweaking, well, the suffering can be paralyzing.

But I've talked about this approximately eleventy billion times on this blog already, and commented on your blogs about it, and talked to my students in class about it. At least from the perspective of not meeting our expectations, of not measuring up to our definitions of ourselves. What I have not really gotten into thus far is the notion of defining ourselves to the detriment of our growth and expansion.

I have a close friend whom I love dearly. She has always been there for me, even when I haven't been the most deserving of her generosity of spirit. She doesn't judge people harshly. For that matter, she hardly judges people at all. If you tell her something terrible has happened to you, or even that you've done something terrible, she makes you feel like it's going to be okay, not because she feeds you a bunch of cliches about "everything's going to turn out alright" but because she looks at you straight in the eyes and talks to you as if this you're the twelfth person she spoke to on this day who had the same thing happen or who did the same exact thing. If she hasn't heard it all before, you would never know it, because she accepts what you tell her with a vibe of total calm.

The only trouble is that her generosity stops when it comes to herself. My friend has a limited definition of who she is and what she can do. And she does not seem capable of expanding her definitions. I guess she believes she can be more comfortable by adhering to the gospel she has set down for herself in her own mind.

But to paraphrase Pema Chodron, the brilliant American Buddhist nun, if we spend our time trying to stay comfortable, eventually we are going to run headlong into our own discomfort. It is inevitable. A much more "juicy" and "spicy" way to live is to allow ourselves to get to know ourselves better, test our reality, ask ourselves: what is no longer true about me that used to be true? What is true about me now that used to not be true?

For several years now, I have been trying to figure out the perfect gift for my friend, to show my appreciation for everything that she did for me when I was sick in 2002. That's a long time, and it reflects the fact that it is difficult, if not impossible, to give my friend anything because she has a difficult time admitting that she needs anything. But this week, it dawned on me, finally: I would teach my friend to drive a car.

Yes, it's true. She is more than twenty-five years past the age when most of us get our learner's permits. But having grown up in New York City, my friend never learned to drive. It really isn't that unusual, although it certainly isn't the norm, and it certainly isn't advisable once you have children, especially children that leave the city to go to chess tournaments, sporting events, camps, and the like. And so, I offered to teach my friend to drive.

"You and everyone else," she laughed.

Apparently, I wasn't the first, and surely I will not be the last.

"I'm just not a driver," she said emphatically, effectively battening down the hatches.

"How can you say that if you've never tried to drive?" I asked her, "How can you KNOW that about yourself without having tried and failed and tried and failed some more?"

"Look at my mom. She can't drive. I'm like her. We don't drive." Her reasoning was so ingrained that it made perfect sense to her. In her mind, she is simply someone who cannot drive. Can. Not. Drive. It is as much a part of her identity as her name, her hair color, her eye color.

But the thing is - even one's name and hair color can change. Even one's eye color can change too as one ages. There is nothing about us that is ultimately and fully resistent to change. Unless our mind tells us so. Even then, we might have a hard time navigating the distance between what our mind tells us and what is actually true or what later becomes true. But sometimes, as in this case, our mind can have an incredible power over the limitations we impose upon ourselves. Perhaps more power than it can ever have over our most optimistic expectations.

I tried to explain to my friend that by defining herself as a non-driver, she was virtually assuring that she would always be a non-driver. I asked her if she might, at some later point, not while we were on the phone, consider the possibility that she could become someone who could drive? You know, allow for the possibility of changing her definition of herself?

So far, that has not come to pass. But as I read the EZ Board and see that someone has been told that perhaps their arms are too short to bind in Mari C, and as I think back to a yoga teacher that I once had who told me that my arms are too short to practice lolasana or jump my feet through my legs, I feel compelled to remind myself and anyone who cares to read this blog, that mindfulness is not just about keeping our expectations of, and demands upon, ourselves in line with where we are right now. Mindfulness is also about opening up to the possibility that what the limitations which we believe to be the walls that surround us may be nothing more than a mirage, that we might actually be able to walk right through them. If we give ourselves permission to try.



Kathy said...

Nice post Lauren.


Yogamum said...

Yes, very insightful. It was quite a revelation to me when I finally figured out that my greatest obstacle in life was simply my own mind.

Sergio said...

As I told you yesterday, this is a great post. Will we ever learn how to stop limiting ourselves?

Anonymous said...

Hi Lauren,

Although your point about artificially limiting ourselves is well taken--and at risking of sounding hypocritical given my frequent eager acceptance of rides home from Shala X in the Chickie-mobile--I will play devil's advocate and say that maybe your friend's reluctance to drive is not altogether irrational. You noted in a recent post that it seems too easy for some people to procreate, given that "You need a license to get married (and if you're gay, you can't even get that license), to drive (and if you make too many mistakes, you get your license revoked), to serve liquor in a restaurant, to dance in a bar, to give a manicure, to cut someone's hair, for pete's sake." (YC blog, 4/26/06)

I agree that having children is something many people take far too lightly. But I think car driving (especially in parts of the country other than NYC) is also taken lightly. For most people, driving is probably the only activity they do (if they do it) which entails a statistically significant chance that they will seriously harm themselves or other living beings. Might it not be in accordance with ahimsa, then, to eliminate this activity if possible? I don't know much about your friend, how much she is inconveniencing herself and others by not driving. Certainly there are cases, given the ill-conceived structure of our world, where one "needs" to drive because not doing so excessively limits one's quality of life.

Using this Earth Day website, you can calculate the approximate ecological impact of the modes of transportation you use (and other lifestyle choices):

But even putting ecology aside--since even vehicles that run on renewable energy sources can kill or injure--should we think twice before choosing to drive? Or is the "harm" to oneself in the form of inconvenience one incurs by (too obstinately?) avoiding driving itself a violation of ahimsa? Am I excessively attached to my choice to be car-free? (I have a license; I'm not afraid to drive. I just prefer not to.)

Let me take this opportunity to mention a related event: The Bicycle Film Festival is happening this weekend in NYC.
One of the films is a short about a memorial bike ride I participated in, which commemorated all the cyclists who died on their bikes in NYC in 2005. This city could definitely use more bike trails and lanes.



Anonymous said...

The best gifts are the gifts that the recipient would enjoy, not the ones that the gift giver thinks they should have. In other words, a great gift to her would be to allow her to define herself instead of you trying to help her by defining herself by what you think is valuable.

Anonymous said...

It appears Kim has totallly missed your point...
I think this was an excellent, insightful observation, one I shared with many. Particularly this: "Mindfulness is also about opening up to the possibility that what the limitations which we believe to be the walls that surround us may be nothing more than a mirage, that we might actually be able to walk right through them. If we give ourselves permission to try." Nice!

yoga chickie said...

Kim, I had no idea you were an active supporter of biking and a cars-free New York. About four years ago, right before I got diagnosed, I participated in a cars-free New York bike ride - about 85 miles through non-closed streets. It was a little scary, but there were so many of us!! Anyway, I don't think that the cars-free issue is really at the heart of my friend's non-driver mentality. I don't think she is being "responsible" either. I think she just does not want to deal with it - it's a big thing to learn how to drive, and she has lots of role models (die-hard city folk) who don't drive, so it seems an okay choice for her. And of course, to address the "gift" comment - of course it is okay for her to choose that. Which is why I didn't brow beat her in any way. It's okay to offer someone a gift and then to understand that they don't want it. It's also okay to see something in the choices people make as significant in terms of life lessons.


Anonymous said...

thanks for an inspired post. this kind of thinking comes across in the way you teach. exciting class!

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About Me

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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.


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