In the last post in this series (over at Urban Monk), I talked about some yoga asanas, or poses, that can help us restore our focus and motivation as we work — without even getting up from our desks. In this article, I’ll speak more generally about how yoga helps us develop what I call Awareness and Allowing — two capacities that are key to giving us the efficiency and enjoyment we want in what we do.
1. Awareness. Almost immediately, when I started doing yoga, I became much more attuned to the sensations coming up in my body. I noticed all this tension, tingling, heat and so on that I hadn’t been conscious of before.
Another thing I began to notice was that certain sensations would come up right before I’d find myself procrastinating or putting off a project. I’d start getting this antsy, jittery feeling in my arms and legs, as if there were some danger I needed to run from, and then I’d find myself checking e-mail or pursuing some other distraction.
I eventually realized that I was putting off my work because I didn’t want to experience those antsy feelings. Because I found those sensations disturbing and uncomfortable, I’d fallen into the habit of checking e-mail, surfing the Web or doing something else to distract myself from them.
Understanding that those jittery feelings were what I was trying to escape helped put my procrastination in perspective. If discomfort in my body was really all I was running from, why was I running at all? Wasn’t moving forward in my projects more important to me than avoiding those sensations?
Of course, yoga isn’t the only way to develop Awareness — you don’t need to learn to contort your body into a pretzel shape to be aware of the sensations you’re feeling. :) A simpler approach, in my experience, is to pause whenever you find yourself about to put off a task, and just bring your awareness into your body and notice what’s coming up.
2. Allowing. If you’ve done yoga, I imagine you’ve had the experience of getting into a pose that involved a really deep stretch, and brought up intense sensations. Perhaps you stayed in the pose, despite its intensity. And when you did, you noticed the sensations becoming more comfortable and less threatening.
By Allowing, I mean just that — staying with an uncomfortable sensation that’s coming up, rather than resisting or fleeing from it. This attitude of Allowing, I think, isn’t just for the time we spend on the yoga mat or the meditation cushion — it’s also very helpful in our working lives.
Suppose, for example, you’re working on a project and you start getting bored. Most of us would react to that boredom by doing something to “take the edge off” — maybe playing a few hands of Solitaire on the computer, messing around on social media, and so on.
What if, instead, we chose to stay with that feeling — breathe, relax our bodies, and just allow the sensations to wash over us? What if we decided, instead of pushing our boredom away, to get intimate and familiar with it?
The biggest benefit of learning to Allow the discomfort that comes up as we work is that it gives us control over our own schedules. Most of us are like Pavlov’s Dogs, automatically turning away from our work whenever unpleasantness arises. Developing the ability to drop our resistance to that unpleasantness, and keep moving forward, helps put us in charge of what and how much we get done.
Recently, I told a distant relative about the career change I’d made, the book I just released, and a few other things I’ve been up to. “I would have been too scared to do all that,” she said. “You must be a pretty courageous person.”
This conversation got me thinking: am I courageous? If being courageous means not feeling afraid, I saw, the answer is clearly no. I definitely recall feeling afraid before changing my career, putting out my book, and doing lots of other stuff.
If I’m not particularly courageous, how was I able to do these things? After thinking about it a bit, I realized it was because I’ve developed the ability to choose how I’ll act when faced with intense sensations. This is one of the most valuable gifts my mindfulness practices have given me.
Learning To Let Go
For many years, when faced with that chill in my solar plexus I call fear, I didn’t really have a choice about how to react. Automatically, without thinking, I’d withdraw from what I saw as the source of the fear. If the prospect of changing my career, or something else, sounded scary, I’d instinctively avoid it. This habit was so deeply ingrained that I didn’t even know other ways of responding to fear were possible.
One important thing I learned to do in meditation was to let my thoughts and feelings pass away, without resisting them. If I felt anxious during meditation, I learned to simply allow the anxiety to flow through me and dissipate, rather than trying to distract myself from it or convince myself I shouldn’t be scared.
What I gradually recognized was that I could bring the same approach into my day-to-day life. I came to see that, when I experienced fear, I didn’t have to revert to my old habit of resisting by running away. There was another option: I could simply allow the fear to pass away on its own, and then go do what I wanted.
As you can probably see, this way of relating to fear is different from a lot of approaches out there. It’s not about “crushing” or “killing” your fear, convincing yourself you shouldn’t feel afraid, or imitating the behaviors of confident people. All of these are forms of resistance, which in the end only holds the fear in place.
Taking Ourselves Off Auto-Pilot
Of course, dropping our resistance to fear is easier said than done. Our habitual ways of reacting to fear, and other thoughts and sensations, have often been with us a long time — so long that we’ve forgotten we can relate to our fear differently. This is why, I think, it’s important to develop a practice of watching the ways we react to the thoughts and emotions we experience.
When we watch ourselves carefully, we start to notice our habitual, automatic ways of reacting to how we feel. We may realize, for instance, that we always seem to yell at someone when we’re feeling angry. Or perhaps, like I used to do, we habitually withdraw whenever we’re starting to feel afraid.
And when we become aware of our unconscious habits, we also start to get conscious of our power to choose how we respond to the situations we face. Maybe, we start to realize, we don’t always have to blame someone else whenever anger arises. Perhaps we don’t always have to back away whenever fear comes up.
In a nutshell, I don’t see fear as something we need to overcome, but as something it’s best to allow. When we learn to do this, I think, our sense of freedom and control over our lives greatly expands.
As some of you know, in my writing on productivity, I often talk about developing a new relationship with the thoughts and feelings that come up and disrupt our focus as we’re working. Instead of using time and energy pushing those inner experiences away, I suggest that we allow them to be, just as they are, and let them pass away on their own.
When I say this, people sometimes get concerned that, if they take my advice, they’ll become stuck in a repetitive pattern of thinking or feeling. In other words, if they don’t force the thought or feeling away, it will get stronger or stay around longer.
This seems like a common concern, so I think it will be useful to look at it in this piece. I think the most important thing to remember here is the difference between ruminating about an inner experience and simply allowing it. My sense is that people tend to confuse the two — they think I’m asking them to ruminate when all I want them to do is allow.
Rumination is something we’re all painfully familiar with. We have an uncomfortable thought or feeling — worrying about what the boss will think of our work, for instance — and we find ourselves wallowing in the experience, practically savoring it. “Yeah, that’d be terrible if he didn’t like the project,” we think. “Off-the-charts terrible. Super-mega-gonzo-terrible.”
It’s a nasty habit, and it’s no wonder we’re scared of getting stuck in it. Naturally, we tend to assume the only way to stop ourselves from ruminating is to resist the experience — to attack or undermine it with our thoughts.
Maybe, for instance, we’ll try to comfort ourselves by telling ourselves the situation isn’t really so bad. After all, we’re putting a lot of effort into this project, the boss is usually pretty even-tempered, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he got mad.
Unfortunately, these efforts often backfire. Frustratingly, for every argument we come up with against our worry, another one in favor of it tends to pop into our minds. But my work probably isn’t as good this week because I’m getting over a cold, we think. The boss is angrier lately because of that situation with his kids. It’s November and that’s a tough month for everyone.
While this epic cognitive battle is raging, our work isn’t getting done, and running in mental circles can be physically tiring. In a nutshell, I’m saying that, when we resist an experience, the result is often just as painful as what happens when we ruminate.
Allowing Is Like Driving
Allowing, letting your thoughts and emotions pass away, is the opposite of resistance. Here’s an illustration that’s useful for me. Take something in your life that you interact with regularly but don’t pay much attention to. I like to use the road underneath my car while I drive as an example. I don’t usually form opinions of the road as I’m driving over it, and I don’t think about it after I’m done driving on it. I simply let it pass.
Suppose you saw your inner experience like driving down the road — that you didn’t form opinions about your thoughts and feelings, try to argue against them, run away from them, or do anything about them. That you just let them pass by, like the asphalt beneath your car.
Meditation teachers have described this practice in a number of ways. Some call it “becoming unclutched” — releasing your grip on your thoughts and feelings, as if they were balloons and you were letting them float off into the air. Others talk about “stepping out of the stream of thought” — as if you’ve been wading in a stream, and you stepped out of it and let it rush by.
Allowing our inner experience may seem difficult when we first try it, because we’re so afraid of getting stuck in rumination that resistance seems like the only way. But when we get more familiar with it, I think, we find that it’s much easier and relaxing than fighting against ourselves.