Sometimes life feels like a huge storm that sweeps in and throws us off center, carrying us up and spinning us around until we can’t tell north from south. This can happen when someone with whom we’re close is in pain, and we feel helpless to stop their suffering and end up suffering ourselves. It can happen when we lose someone we love and are faced with that gaping hole where a whole world used to be. It can happen when unexpected events turn our plans upside down. And it can happen when we feel pulled to make changes.
Realistically speaking, we are in control of so very little. The only thing we can truly control is the way we respond to what life puts in our paths, and even that takes enormous effort. We can make a practice out of choosing the thoughts that strengthen us, rather than the ones that weaken us. We can make a daily or, even, hourly effort to see all the gifts around us, whether it’s the fact that our heart is beating for us, or the sunlight streaming through the window, or the rain pattering on the roof. Maybe there’s a gift in the eyes of a stranger, or with someone who knows us and sees us for who we are. We can think about what we say before we say it. We can try to align ourselves with the truth in our hearts and move from that space. We can share our gifts, we can give away our love, because we’ll never run out. When we love people, we can tell them—not in a throw-away manner, but in a way that makes them understand we see them, really. These are all things we can do.
Here are things we can’t control: We’ll never control what other people do or say or want or need, nor should we try. Everyone has to do his or her own journey. Most people just want to be happy. A lot of people attach their happiness to external events, markers, or milestones. It’s not surprising; it’s what we’re taught culturally. Sometimes people feel frustrated or enraged or in despair because they just can’t seem to grab that brass ring. They can’t get that great job, or meet the right person, or look the way they want to, or get life to bend to their will, and so they lash out or shut down or numb out or run away, thinking maybe a different direction or path or person or house or job or car or diet will finally solve it. But it’s an inside thing, and you don’t need to pick up and go anywhere. You really just need to sit down and get quiet. Mostly, we have the answers. We know what we need, but we are not always ready to accept what we know.
One of the greatest and best things we can all work on, is non-reactivity. There will always be storms, after all. Things will happen that we don’t expect or want. People will surprise us, sometimes in good ways, and sometimes in ways that rip our hearts out. If you work on inner steadiness, no one can take that from you. This, to me, is one of the most powerful and amazing gifts of a consistent yoga and seated meditation practice. The ability to connect with your breathing, slow it down, and feel it happening is both simple and profound. It’s a way of reminding yourself that you are here, right now. You have that, and because you’re present, you can see how things are with you. You can scan your body for tension, and when you exhale, maybe you can soften a little. Maybe you can relieve yourself of the illusion that you’re in control and have life by the reins. Paradoxically, when you do that, you grant yourself the greatest power you’ll ever have. Fighting reality is exhausting. Creating constructs where you’re in the center of the world, and everything is happening to you and around you, is not going to bring you any peace or strength. Recognizing that you’re a part of something so much greater, that you’re connected to everyone and everything around you, is a much more expansive and accurate way to perceive reality.
Most people are not trying to hurt you or me. Most people are trying to piece together some happiness for themselves. Having a breathing practice gives you the power to pause when things or people around you get intense. When you’re on your yoga mat, and you hold a lunge pose for eight, ten, twelve long deep breaths, you train your nervous system and your mind to breathe through intense sensation. Rage creates intense sensation in the body. Loneliness does as well. So, too, do fear, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, envy, joy, excitement, and gratitude; all of these feelings create chemical reactions in the body. Most people have an easy time holding the emotions and sensations that feel good (although not everyone has an easy time receiving love, embracing joy, opening to contentment), and most people struggle with the emotions and sensations that hurt like hell, such as grief, despair, and hopelessness. The thing about feelings is that they don’t last forever. Storms come and go. People may also enter and exit our lives. It’s incredibly likely things will not go according to our plans. For so many people, an uncomfortable feeling arises and they want to flee, or to numb to out, or deny its existence.
If you can’t sit with uncomfortable and painful feelings, there’s no way to know yourself. Knowing yourself is at the heart of every spiritual practice. Otherwise how can you know which way to turn? How can you discover what scares you, what’s holding you back, what frees you? How can you recognize your unconscious drives if you numb out every painful feeling that fights its way to the surface? How can you feel good about the way you’re leading your life if you lash out whenever you feel threatened or angry or envious or unheard? You don’t want to be a storm yourself, but that’s what it’s like when we can’t stop and breathe and lean into our painful feelings. We’re just an unpredictable storm barreling through life, leaving pain in our paths. Not intentionally, but just because we don’t trust ourselves. We think if we do that, if we stop and give our rage a chance to catch up with us, it will overwhelm us, but it’s the running away or pushing it down that does that. Creating some space between your feelings and what you decide to do with them is brilliant. It’s powerful. That’s a skill you can put to good use so you can direct your energy toward ideas, people, and pursuits that will uplift you, and not toward the stuff that tears you down. You have nothing to lose but your feelings of being powerless in the face of life’s storms.
Ally Hamilton is the author of Yoga’s Healing Power: Looking Inward for Change, Growth & Peace and the cofounder of Yogis Anonymous, an innovative digital yoga studio that helps people everywhere grow in their practice. You can order her book here, or try her online yoga classes here.
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