Growth, improvement, change, confusion & trust
What happens to our nervous system in yoga posture practice?
How can we clarify and harmonise action with intention?
An attempt to be objective about the most inherently subjective thing there is; the human nervous system.
Prepare to embrace confusion and trust your monkey mind.
by Debbie Farrar
Confusion from the Latin "confundere" - to mingle together.
A familiar yoga posture practice is so comforting. Like getting into your pyjamas and curling up on the couch to watch TV. Comfort is important. And at times when our nervous system requires soothing, a comfortable & familiar yoga posture practice is possibly the best thing we can do for ourself.
However, always residing in our comfort zone is limiting. It is not a place where growth happens. Comfort zones are great when there is a storm. Essential even. However, if we stay in that port after the storm has passed, then we are reducing our possibilities and limiting our potential for growth. Of course life does not always have to be about growth in terms of progression. But if there is no promise of growth at all, no promise of change of any sort, then the starkness sameness of our comfort zone can change from something that soothes us to something that confines us.
An unfamiliar yoga posture practice might well be confusing as there are puzzles to be solved. If we are coming to an unfamiliar yoga class with the expectation of doing something familiar, we may be disappointed, confused or even triggered when the teacher does things differently or uses slightly different language to our usual teacher. However, should we really be surprised? This is a different situation after all. Why do we expect it to be the same?
Think back to the first ever yoga class you went to. Did you know what to expect? Was it what you expected? What did you enjoy about it? Did you enjoy having a go at these new things? Did you enjoy the feeling of coming home to your body? The sense of exploration of your body? The sense of discovery? Of newness? Of learning?
Although a familiar yoga posture practice might be more comforting, it is not going to lead to change. At best, it will lead to improvement. Now that's great if your goal in life is to improve yourself. However, there is a subtle difference between improving and growing.
Improvement is a well defined path that makes us a more effective version of our current self. Growth could take us anywhere. It has no definite path, no limits, it allows us to explore different options, different strategies, different versions of ourselves, different ways of being in the world. Instead of holding onto to the defined framework of what we think we know for our sense of safety and support, we can enjoy dancing around in the gaps that are there to be found when we look away from what we think we know, into the understandably scary abyss of confusion. However, this growth can only happen when we are doing something unfamiliar. The state of confusion is the essential first step away from improving, towards learning.
It may seem scary, but it is much less pressure to put yourself under than feeling like you need to continually improve yourself. Eventually, that just ends up feeling like there is something wrong with you; which there is not. That is not to say that the current trend for ignoring the negative and focusing on the positive, is useful. Since it does not embrace open awareness or confusion; but reduces it. Nor does it make the negative things go away. Instead it reduces our ability to do anything about the negative things in our life. By closing ourselves off from confusion, we inhibit our ability to grow, so that the only change possible is to improve.
Well, if a brick layer has a bad back because of their brick laying, will improving the method that they currently use to lay bricks help them relieve their bad back? It will certainly help them lay more bricks faster. But doing more of the same is more likely to heighten any problem, rather than reduce it. The bricklayer has other options though. They could change jobs and learn a completely different skill that does not hurt their back, or they could learn a different method of laying bricks. The first option seems like the hardest one. However, if you get into a new environment, you will be more open to learning new stuff and the new people around you will not expect you to be good or fast. I suspect that the second option would actually be the more difficult. It is difficult to be in a context that you are familiar with, that has certain set behavioural expectations, and to slow things down, and take your time to figure out a new way, especially when that new way may be different to what everyone else is doing around you.
By the same logic, if you usually go to yoga, it is probably easier to go to a tai chi class to learn something new than it is to go to a different yoga class and learn something new. You will expect to be a little confused by your first foray into tai chi. You will expect to have to be more aware there.
Confusion is a state of open awareness. Our natural state, where we are inherently vulnerable and so need to be open to being aware of threats as well as joy.
Young children and wild animals pretty much continually reside in a state of confusion. This is understandable and necessary. Children inhabit a space where everything has infinite possibilities and infinite potential because there are no expectations as everything is new. They have no choice but to be open to new stuff. They have no choice but to embrace confusion as the first stage of their learning about the world and how to interact with it.
In a child's world, everything is confusing and everything is mingled together. Children are more able to see the inherent connectivity of everything. They have not got as many expectations as us. They have not yet gone down the pathways of labelling, comparing, contrasting, categorising, analysing and judging everything that they experience.
Not that there is anything wrong with doing those things. They are essential life skills. We need to be able to do them in order to interact with the world in a way that is nourishing and safe for us. These are essential protective strategies for survival when we are feeling vulnerable. And there is nothing wrong or unusual about being vulnerable. To be alive is to be vulnerable.
As adults, we often shy away from newness and prefer the comfort of familiarity as this increases our short term feelings of stability and safety. However, often it is the things that we take stability from that cause us to feel like we need refuge in their presence. An animal that has lived most of its life in a cage does not feel safe in the wild. If it was captured at a young age, it might forget that it was the act of being captured that caused it to feel unsafe in the first place. Compared to the feelings of danger it experienced when being captured, the cage might seem like a safe haven.
The phrases 'any port in a storm' and 'better the devil you know' spring to mind. Well, maybe the storm has passed and its safe to come out now? Or maybe the other option to the devil we know, is not actually a devil?
Not that habituated tendencies are bad, we do need them to some extent, to navigate life. However, if we operated on habituated pathways all the time it might lead us to a place where we feel out of control because we literally are out of control when we are operating unconsciously.
Yoga, in all its forms, is an invitation to become aware of our habituated tendencies. It is a process of deepening awareness through self enquiry.
The more aware we are, the more aware of the inherent interconnectedness of everything we are, so the more confused we feel. However, this also brings us more choices about how to be in the world. Although, with great choice comes great responsibility. Perhaps we think we have enough of that already? Its so much easier to not be open to awareness. But so limiting.
One place to start increasing our choices of expression is in the body. This is what a mindful yoga posture practice can give us. We cannot practice yoga mindfully without inviting the mind to be open to awareness and confusion; without questioning whether we are actually aware of what we are actually doing with our bodies. Are our actions congruent with our intentions or not?
If our minds are continually trying to figure things out by labelling, comparing, contrasting, categorising, analysing and judging every action we do; that is a lot of filters through which to process reality. This leads us further away from a direct experience of what is actually happening. And more confusion arises. We move further away from our intended action.
This is that survival mechanism at work again. We are busy plotting strategies where none are required. We are trying to find a way out of confusion and vulnerability, rather than embracing them.
We are often so used to needing to use the left side of our brain to do all that strategising, that it constantly works overtime trying to figure out and second guess and every action that might come up. Even when we are not in an emergency situation.
We are often so used to everything having defined concrete aims and objectives, that the left brain feels a little redundant when it is not required and its first strategy for dealing with this is to try harder; after all, those well trodden emergency neural pathways are familiar and feel safe. This is like being the brick layer with the bad back who keeps trying to improve on the same old way of laying bricks. Perhaps we need a different strategy instead? If we can allow ourselves to be curious about the possibility of finding a new strategy, then perhaps we can enjoy the puzzle of figuring it out, rather than feeling the pressure of needing to improve ourself?
Maybe we could trust a little? I don't mean trust someone else. But trust yourself. Really trust yourself. Maybe we could accept a little? I don't mean accept bad things the way they are. But accept yourself. Really accept yourself. Maybe then we can relax our need to improve ourself? To try harder? To go faster? To get more done? Maybe then we could allow the left side of the brain to relax a little and let go of its habits of labelling, comparing, contrasting, categorising, analysing and judging and needing to figure things out? Maybe then it can get over its need to be needed, improved upon or be useful? Maybe it can relax into its confusion & vulnerability? Maybe it can trust the right side of the brain? And maybe the right side of the brain can enjoy its ability to instinctively dance through the essential interconnectedness of everything to harmonise intention with action, rather than being stuck on those same old left brain pathways?
This is a transferable skill. Relevant not just to yoga posture practice, but more importantly, to everyday life. I know it takes a huge leap of faith to relax into your ability to trust yourself and enjoy the ride, but as an ex science teacher and pharmaceutical research scientist who suffered from the left brain survival state overload for the best part of 2 decades, I can vouch that its well worth taking that leap into confusion.