Monday, October 11, 2010

Get Real: Who Do You Serve?

Have you ever felt frustration about the way things are going in your life? Felt yourself slide into a rut and not know how to pull out? How does this happen, anyway? Sometimes our lack of progress is due to a basic lack of honesty with ourselves.

In yoga, as in life, we make the most progress when we 1) accept where we are right now - as opposed to where we want to be, or were five years ago, and 2) make a good effort toward progressing forward, based on where we are. This is how transformation happens: by first getting honest with ourselves, then making appropriate changes in the right direction. As much as it serves our yoga practice, though, honest self-appraisal doesn't always make the transition off the mat, where it is also a necessary condition for change.

What prevents us from being honest with ourselves? Lots of things - all of which probably stem from a lack of mindfulness, or awareness.
For one thing, we unknowingly internalize expectations of others (such as parents, society) and create our own, and our desire to live up to those expectations can bias or distort our perspective. At other times we compare ourselves with others. Or we pretend we're something we're not - creating a role for ourselves to play that is more fantasy than reality. We, ahem, bullshit ourselves because, basically, the truth can be hard and this isn't compatible with wanting to feel ok all the time, which is what we humans seem wired to do.

You may have heard that the brain has what are called reward centers, areas which, when stimulated, release a cascade of neurochemicals that make you feel good. Or better than good. When behaviors stimulate these reward centers, they are said to be intrinsically reinforcing - that is, they are more likely to happen again. If we're not mindful, we can become conditioned to act in ways (however misguided) that seek only to make us feel ok (now!), over and over again. The reward centers can in essence hijack the more rational decision making part of the brain if allowed to do so.
This is why, as the commercial reminds us, you can't eat just one potato chip. Unfortunately, the brain's reward centers are not interested in self-honesty, values, ethics, or anyone else's well-being, including your own in the long-term. This primitive part of the brain is only interested in immediate gratification. Lest we become addicted, or out of control in some other way, we need to be able to resist the call of this primitive brain and be committed to a certain standard of behavior.

Living a principled life is not always the obvious choice because it's often inconvenient and the benefits are not always evident in the short-term. In the long term, though, we maximize our odds of having positive outcomes if we do the right things now.
Honesty and a commitment to certain values help us resist the call of our primitive brain. We need that commitment, because resisting the urge for immediate gratification can be difficult - especially if we're used to giving in to it.

Have you ever grabbed some fast food on the way home from work rather than make the time and effort to cook something healthy? Even if we know that eating healthy food is good for us in the long term, right now we want to EAT. So we choose convenience and short-term gratification at the expense of our health. Our reward centers celebrate while our arteries harden. How often are you actually glad that you went to Greasy Burger later on? In what other ways are you taking the easy way out?

This is where a mindfulness practice like yoga or meditation can help. These practices help increase our self-awareness - which is sometimes experienced as having an outside observer of your behavior. This gives us a different perspective, which among other things, can be a source of insight about our motivations. Simply put, it's harder to bullshit yourself after you've realized you're doing it.

Mindfulness oriented practices help us cultivate and sharpen our sense of values, too. As we become more aware of what we are doing, we become more aware of the impact our behavior has on ourselves, our future, and other people. Again, it's harder to pretend what you're doing is ok when you know what your behavior is really about and who it affects. Many people also find inspiration in studying yoga, which holds central life-affirming values such as nonharming, compassion, truth and love. Sometimes we need help in reminding ourselves of the importance of these qualities.

Mindfulness practices also quiet the mind, both reducing and making us more aware of our inner chatter. By putting a space between that thought "I'm starving" and pulling into the drive-thru you are given a choice you may have bypassed before. Take a deep breath and ask yourself, "what is the best thing for me to do right now?" Ask yourself if you are being really honest with yourself, or just acting out of a desire to feel better. Finally, yoga and meditation can help lower your overall level stress and anxiety, which makes you feel better and may make you less likely to seek relief in unhealthy ways.

So, next time you're about to turn into the drive-thru lane, ask yourself: which do you choose to serve: your reward system or your commitment?